With a new year on the (somewhat distant) horizon, here’s part one of a handful of Hail Mary predictions for the 2019 season:
Someone not named Chris Brown Jr. is the starting tailback
For the first half of 2018, head coach Justin Wilcox rotated quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain routinely, a widely scrutinized move that concluded into one step forward and two steps back. The unorthodox strategy backfired, as both displayed flashes of brilliance but struggled with turnovers and consistency.
With Patrick Laird no longer the face of the running backs core, it makes all the sense in the world to hand the batton off to Chris Brown Jr. to share the backfield with Garbers — the incumbent starter under center. In limited action during his true freshman season, Brown netted 4.0 yards per carry and saw the field during both key conference matchups and the Cheez-It Bowl.
Despite sustaining an ankle injury during the Spring Game, Brown is widely speculated to be the primary tailback in 2019. But his body type and small sample of carries indicate that perhaps he may be better suited for short yardage or red-zone situations, and it’s too early to tell if he can handle the full workload of a starter in the Pac-12.
He’s not a pure power tailback à la Vic Enwere, who should never run anywhere but downhill, but he may be better suited as a change-of-pace back who can spell Marcel Dancy or DeShawn Collins, both of whom also deserve a fair shot at the feature back role.
Dancy’s name in and of itself fits his style of play — a shifty and somewhat undersized speedster who can make linebackers and safeties whiff in the open field. Strong auditions against Idaho State and in this year’s Spring Game confirmed that scouting report.
Collins had the benefit of starting in junior college and perhaps has the largest chip on his shoulder in the running backs room as one of the newer faces. But just as in 2018, perhaps more surprises are in store in the Cal backfield …
Brandon McIlwain becomes the starting tailback
No pun intended, this prediction comes straight out of left field. Both on the gridiron and the diamond, McIlwain’s collegiate career as a Cal Bear has been marred with a student-athlete’s kryptonite: losing an eligibility waiver to sit out a year, inconsistency on the field and a broken bone in the midst of a solid baseball season. But bounce-back efforts are the norm in sports at all levels, and it’s safe to say that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Brandon McIlwain.
The Bears very well may rotate Brown, Dancy, Collins and Alex Netherda to keep opposing defenses adjusting to new numbers. Nick Saban rode the trio of Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs to Alabama’s run all the way to the College Football Playoff last season, although he also had the benefit of Tua Tagovailoa under center, so let’s keep Cal’s strategy in perspective for a minute.
McIlwain shined as a dual threat in the second half against BYU and the first half against Arizona last season, and he is described by coaches and teammates alike as one of the most “powerful” runners they’ve ever seen. His official role as a “slash” this coming year could change dramatically should the offense sputter considerably for a second consecutive year.
As long as he doesn’t surrender possessions, McIlwain might just be Cal’s best alternative to Laird — someone who can keep the chains moving and throw in an explosive play or two on occasion.
Like I said, it’s out of left field. But stranger things have happened.
Chase Garbers will take every snap under center in 2019
This isn’t necessarily a bold take by any means, but ideally settles down the loud chorus of boosters screaming at Wilcox and Baldwin to stick with one starter under center. Garbers was far from perfect in his redshirt freshman season, but he gave the Bears’ maligned offense a few signature moments on his way to a 119.89 passer efficiency rating.
With McIlwain designated to a more obscure role, Garbers’ competition for reps has adjusted. UCLA and Palomar College transfer Devon Modster has been a nice addition to the squad and is expected to garner attention throughout fall camp. But the former four-star recruit hasn’t done nearly enough to supplant Garbers, who has a year’s worth of game experience with the current coaching staff and its system.
Jack Newman and Robby Rowell remain several lengths behind Garbers and Modster for reps with the first team and are expected to be an integral part of scout team and sideline duties. Make no mistake — it’s Garbers’ job to lose at this point.
The Bears win fewer than six games
Justin Wilcox doesn’t appear to be Sonny Dykes 2.0 (the defensive-minded version), but a 5-7 record this coming fall is the exact setback that can disrupt an entire program’s confidence in the man at the helm. Cal’s 2019 schedule is unfavorable in a number of facets, and a lot is riding on Wilcox’s shoulders to at minimum eclipse six wins in year No. 3.
The Bears’ windy path to a bowl bid is accentuated by a Sept. 7 trip to Seattle against Jacob Eason and the Dawgs (who aren’t about to let Cal get the best of them again). Then there are road contests against a recovering Ole Miss program in Oxford and an Oregon team led by a legitimate Heisman candidate in senior quarterback Justin Herbert. Just ask Cam Bynum and Josh Drayden how good No. 10 on Oregon is.
Pac-12 South champion Utah, Stanford and UCLA are also set to host Cal during the stretch run, undoubtedly giving the Bears all they can handle as they battle for their first conference title since 2006.
Assuming the offense can handle the defenses of UC Davis and North Texas during the nonconference slate, Cal still faces a daunting challenge to exceed last year’s 7-6 record. Must wins against Arizona State and Oregon State at home will likely need to be assisted by a pair of upset wins on the road, with Ole Miss and UCLA being the most favorable of the bunch.