Defense, quarterback competition set to own spotlight: Cal football Spring Game preview

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While Cal fans may not get a “set in stone” lineup, come Saturday, they will get to see the culmination of the Bears’ hard work this spring — a total of 15 practices — on full display for the squad’s annual Spring Game.

Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin made sure to include a big set of air quotes around “a set” starting lineup, when discussing the team’s unofficial depth chart after spring ball.

“You know I think people get too caught up in depth charts and what it is,” Baldwin said. “A depth chart is always flexible … and that’s all the way through the season too, and it keeps these guys competing.”

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between last April and now is comfortability. With a year under their belts, head coach Justin Wilcox and his staff have established more knowledge and trust with their players — and this is sure to translate into more fluent play on the field.

Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander have worked to transform a Cal defense that jumped from being the worst scoring defense in the Pac-12 in 2016 to being ranked seventh in just a year.

The defense will arguably be more enticing to watch this Saturday than the offense, but alas, the ongoing quarterback competition will remain the spotlight of Cal football. While uncertainty may loom at the position, Baldwin and company have confidence in all four candidates.

The spot is presumably redshirt junior Ross Bowers’ to lose, and his game has grown from the mental side to working extensively with quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo. All the while, Bowers has also kept a chip on his shoulder, driving him to work harder day in and day out.

“Nothing better than a five and seven slap in the face and have a million turnovers, and, you know, that’s that’s a lot of extra motivation to get better, and it’s been good for me,” Bowers said.

Gunning after Bowers are redshirt senior Chase Forrest (whom Bowers edged out last fall), redshirt sophomore transfer Brandon McIlwain and redshirt freshman Chase Garbers.

No matter who is at the helm of the offense, the team’s quarterback will have a tremendous amount of help, as Cal has a receiving staff that runs deep. Along with star redshirt sophomore Demetris Robertson, both redshirt senior Vic Wharton III and redshirt junior Kanawai Noa have established themselves as household names in bear territory.

But during the Spring Game, receivers garnering just as much attention as the aforementioned group include junior Jordan Duncan, redshirt sophomore Melquise Stovall, sophomore Jeremiah Hawkins and redshirt freshman Taariq Johnson. These wideouts have seen a significant number of extra reps, as other players are out because of injury, and they are sure to establish themselves as go-to playmakers.

Moving the ball on the ground will be a group of redshirt backs including sophomore Derrick Clark, freshman Biaggio Ali Walsh, junior Alex Netherda and last year’s starter senior Patrick Laird. All four tailbacks are likely to receive equal snaps, and though Laird has established himself as a leader, the next slot down the depth chart is fair game.

No matter who has the ball on the offense, though, every player can be sure that they have a trusty group of big men protecting them on the line. This season, the O-line will return all seven starters, including redshirt senior center Addison Ooms.

“We all have so much more confidence with each other; we have a lot more trust in each other, and it really showed in the first few days of spring ball,” Ooms said.

On the other side of the ball, Cal’s linebackers are an aggressive group that has put up a collective standout performance during spring — be on the lookout for players such as redshirt senior Jordan Kunaszyk, redshirt sophomore Cameron Goode and senior Alex Funches.

The defensive backs are also a dangerous pack that possess a solid veteran presence in safeties such as redshirt senior Quentin Tartabull as well as redshirt juniors Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis.

On the flip side, players such as safety redshirt junior Trey Turner III — who did not participate in the 2017 Spring Game — will be seeking a big breakout performance in 2018.

At cornerback, sophomore Elijah Hicks likely won’t see time on the field, but redshirt sophomore Camryn Bynum is sure to shake up some pass plays on the day.

The Bears still have a long ways to go until their first snap of the season, but they have taken steps in the right direction all spring — the road to improving upon back-to-back 5-7 seasons begins Saturday.

Christie Aguilar is an assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].