“Where’s Chad Handsome?”
“He ain’t here anymore, darling.”
As the players took the field for Cal football’s spring game, this question and answer between fans in the stand summed up the strange position the Bears find themselves in. With an entirely new coaching staff in place and almost all of Cal’s known faces from the last two years now embarking on NFL careers, it’s hard to know whom to watch for when the Bears take the field.
Chad Hansen softened the literal oomph of this statement when he walked onto the field moments after this exchange to watch from the sidelines, but the metaphorical implications remained. It’s a whole new crop of Bears, and this Saturday gave us the first crack at seeing them in action, but the picture of the 2017 season didn’t get all that much clearer.
The issue that new Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has to contend with first is deciding the victor of the Bears’ current quarterback competition. Coming in as a transfer with one year left of eligibility, there was no question 2016 quarterback Davis Webb was simply a one-season stopgap for Cal, but Bear fans were probably hoping one of the other quarterbacks on the roster would distinguish themselves as the signal caller of the future. No such separation occurred, and Wilcox inherited a fierce competition between redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers and redshirt junior Chase Forrest.
That pair took almost all of the snaps on the day — redshirt freshman Max Gilliam took a few as well — with Forrest starting off the game. Forrest looked incredibly sharp on his first drive, working mostly with short and medium passes in the middle of the field. Redshirt junior Patrick Laird ended the drive with a two-yard touchdown, but Forrest was the unquestioned star of the drive. Even without star wide receiver Demetrius Robertson, who is currently busy on the track and field team, Forrest looked comfortable with each of his targets.
Bowers didn’t look as poised as Forrest through most of his first drive, but he finished it with an excellent fade to sophomore Jordan Duncan for six points. Forrest unquestionably had the better first drive, but Bowers’ strong finish propelled him to a stronger finish, and he ended with a slightly better looking line than Forrest. Bowers ended 18-30 for 168 yards and four touchdowns, while Forrest put up 15-30 for 189, a touchdown and a pick. Forrest eventually opened up the deeper part of the field, throwing a beautiful lob to Vic Wharton III. A lot of that difference in their touchdowns and turnovers can be ascribed to offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s changing play calling. Regardless of the final lines, the competition remains fierce and tight.
“Last week, they both made significant steps,” Wilcox said. “Both do certain things well and are competing hard. (Quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo) has done a great job with them. The more they play the better they’re going to get, but it was nice to see the finish of spring ball for both of those guys.”
Duncan and redshirt sophomore receiver Kanawai Noa looked dynamic throughout the day, helping to make up for Robertson’s absence. Junior Cameron Saffle, who is moving from playing defensive end to outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s 3-4 scheme, had a sack on the day but still looked a little unnatural in pass rushing from a new angle. Freshman Elijah Hicks looked like a bonafide star at cornerback, and redshirt freshman Camryn Bynum filled in nicely at the same position, playing opposite established redshirt senior Darius Allensworth.
Senior running back Tre Watson was held out for rest, and the depth behind him and senior Vic Enwere wasn’t overly impressive. Some of this comes because the defense, trying to differentiate itself from last year’s abysmal squad, was extremely aggressive and hard hitting for an intra-squad game. But Laird struggled to find his holes quickly, and freshman Zion Echols had trouble staying upright.
Even the most optimistic fans can’t hope for anything more than a .500 record from Cal in the upcoming season, so Wilcox’s personnel decisions aren’t going to make or break his first year. But his choices are going to set the tone for his program going forward, and his players’ performances this Saturday should go a long way in the decision-making process.