Running backs, linebackers shine brightest for Cal football in Spring Game

Daniela Cervantes/Staff

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Fans who came to Cal football’s Spring Game on Saturday were greeted by a poster highlighting not one of the key defenders who led to the Bears to a top-10 defense in football last year, but a faceless silhouette. The point was stark: On offense, the moneymaking and attention-grabbing side of the ball, Cal has only question marks. The Spring Game provided some possible options but showed the team is still a while away from definitive answers.

The quarterback competition was never going to be settled in March, but Chase Garbers and Devon Modster had the chance to provide knockout performances and put themselves at the front of the pack heading into the summer. Neither was terrible, and neither put on a show, so Garbers held on to his front-runner position, largely by default.

Garbers looked a little quicker with his decision-making but had characteristic struggles with the deep ball and slants. Modster flashed a couple throws Garbers generally can’t make, but he didn’t appear to be incredibly comfortable with the offense as a whole and was mostly relegated to dink and dunk, finishing six for seven with 27 yards.

Although there was no indication that Cal has a big-play wide receiver to fill the spots left vacant by Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton III, not everything was sour on the skill position front. When presumed starting running back Christopher Brown Jr. had to leave the game after two touches, the Bears got to show their depth at the position. It seems likely that, with Patrick Laird gone, Cal will go with the running-back-by-committee approach, not because the Bears lack anyone capable but because they have so many players ready to make serious contributions.

Marcel Dancy couldn’t be brought down once he had some open field, thanks to a combination of fancy feet and the ability to simply put his head down and bounce off tackles. He finished with rushing and receiving touchdowns, making him the only Bear with two scores. Alex Netherda looked confident in hitting any small slice of daylight the offensive line gave him, and DeShawn Collins looked confident and quick.

“They’re all pushing each other,” said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “Any time you create that competition, you’ve got guys out there pushing each other, and you have a chance to make each other better, which ultimately makes us better as a team.”

The running backs as a group looked strong, but an uneven performance by the offensive line, which was giving looks to a lot of new players, means the rushing offense may still be a work in progress.

“They were OK,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “Jake Curhan has had a really good spring; he’s gotten better from where he was a year ago. … Some of the other guys are a way aways, honestly — they’ve just got a long ways to go.”

On defense, linebacker Kuony Deng, the much-heralded junior college recruit, stole the day by perfectly reading quarterback Jack Newman’s eyes and snatching a ball out of the air before showing off some track speed that surely could have put him in the end zone in a real game. Deng is moving to inside linebacker from the outside, and he looked excellent in pass coverage even in the two snaps before his big play, so it seems he’ll be a big asset in that part of the game. He didn’t, however, get an opportunity to show what he can do against the run game, so that will be a question mark going into summer.

Redshirt sophomore safety Daniel Scott also had a highlight pick by going way up to rob Robby Rowell, but he didn’t look particularly strong as a tackler, getting trucked by tight end McCallan Castles early on. Senior outside linebacker Deon White might have been the most consistently impressive defender, blowing up run plays and providing stability to a position the Bears have had issues with recently. Cameron Goode is still working his way back after his injury, Nick Alftin showed flashes but is still a redshirt freshman, and Ben Moos, who converted to the position last year after being recruited as a tight end, still didn’t look entirely instinctive in his role.

“(Moos) has some natural ability. Pass-rushingwise, he can do some things,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “He’s still progressing, and we’ve got to get him up to speed for next fall.”

The Bears structured their spring schedule so that there are still three practices remaining, but this is the clearest picture of the team the public will have until the late summer. The tools the team will have in the uphill climb to improve on last year’s 7-6 record have become clearer, but knowing whether or not they have what it takes is still a while away.

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.