The eruption of rambunctious calls of “Yee-yee! Chooooow! Woohoo!” from a sea of blue, white and four spots of gold could be heard from the stands of California Memorial Stadium last Saturday morning. From down on the field, the Bears let their fans in the stands know that they were ready to roar during their eighth practice of spring ball.
For Cal football, spring practice is the signifier to the start of a long-awaited road to September.
The day consisted of positional drills, individual work and fastball drills — the closest thing to a live scrimmage that you can get early in the year.
“Obviously, every guy on the team is thinking about the depth chart because they want to perform well, but we really try and concentrate on — or getting them to concentrate on — less about the other guy and just more about what they’re doing,” said head coach Justin Wilcox.
Cal enters the spring with yet another race at the quarterback position. The four quarterbacks stood out from the pack, each donning a gold practice jersey.
Last year’s starter, redshirt junior Ross Bowers, leads the group, with redshirt senior Chase Forrest, redshirt freshman Chase Garbers and redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain not far behind.
A few solid passes came here and there in live drills, with Garbers and McIlwain each getting off a touchdown pass, but no clear front-runner will be established for some time.
All four gunslingers saw equal snaps at the helm of the offense during live action, but most of the time, they were handing the ball off to one of their trusty running backs.
The run game has been pivotal to the Bears’ offense the past few seasons, in which Cal has had a notorious one-two punch in a quick, shifty back paired with a bigger-bodied, powerful back.
With the departure of former Bear Vic Enwere — who stood at 6’0’’ and 245 pounds his senior year — in addition to the transfers of Tre Watson and Zion Echols, Cal’s run game has had to adapt. A pivotal part of this adaptation is new running backs coach Burl Toler III.
“I knew those other backs before … but without me being here last year, I can’t really miss that,” Toler said.
Now, Cal’s backfield is welcomed by the redshirt group of senior Patrick Laird, sophomore Derrick Clark, freshman Biaggio Ali Walsh and junior Alex Netherda.
With his veteran presence exemplified in every carry, Laird is the unquestionable leader on the field, but the newer backs aren’t too shabby, either. Clark and Walsh, both listed at 5’10” and 190 pounds, are smaller guys who are quick and shifty, whereas Netherda is one of the bigger bodies at the position.
“The four guys I’m actually really pleased with right now because they add different things,” Toler said. “I know on paper it’s not the small quick guy and the big strong guy, but they all add different dimensions to the game.”
Cal’s defense is no stranger to scrutiny, but with the implementation of a 3-4 defense, headed by defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach Tim DeRuyter, who is now in his second season with the Bears, the Bears have shaped up a bit.
In addition to DeRuyter, Peter Sirmon — the new associate head coach defense and inside linebackers coach — has been well-received by his players.
The Bears undoubtedly took a big hit with the graduation of inside linebacker Devante Downs and outside linebacker Raymond Davison III. But redshirt senior ILB Jordan Kunaszyk and redshirt sophomore OLB Cameron Goode have to potential to fill their shoes without even untying the laces.
“I think we did some things well, but there are things that we need to clean up defensively,” Kunaszyk said. “There are things that I need to clean up.”
Last season, Kunaszyk was second on the depth chart at the middle linebacker position, behind only Davison, and he totaled 74 tackles over nine games. Goode racked up 46 total tackles before being sidelined with an injury with three games remaining in 2017.
“Cam Goode’s a stud, man,” Kunaszyk said. “We’re very fortunate to have him on the field with us. He brings a lot to the table — how he rushes the quarterback, how he plays in space and what he can do in the passing game.
Redshirt junior Steven Coutts had the spotlight for a short time during practice, sending punts to receivers redshirt sophomore Melquise Stovall and sophomore Jeremiah Hawkins.
Place-kickers redshirt sophomore Gabe Siemieniec and redshirt freshman Chris Landgrebe saw action at the end of practice when the entire team gathered around the kickers as they each attempted three kicks into the uprights.
First round — both good. Second round — both good. Third round — both, not good.
Cal’s road to its first game against North Carolina is a long one, and a winning-record team will not be born overnight, but the Bears have proven that they are willing to give it their all on the field, day in and day out.
“It’s the smallest details that make the biggest difference, and that’s a lifestyle decision that we’ve got to make that every single day,” Wilcox said.