Cal football’s receiving corps seeks newfound life in 2019

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Throughout the past few seasons, wideout Vic Wharton III and slot receiver Kanawai Noa were staples within the Cal offense.

Although the Bears have favored more run-pass options and shifted away from an aerial attack under third-year head coach Justin Wilcox, the services of Wharton and Noa were invaluable assets to an offense that sputtered to the finish line last fall.

In particular, Cal’s 186.2 passing yards per contest ranked dead last in the Pac-12, almost 40 yards less than the second-lowest program.

With Wharton — Cal’s leading receiver over the past two seasons — and Noa — the team’s primary third-down and red-zone target — departing from the program, incumbent quarterback Chase Garbers is left short-handed when it comes to returning offensive production.

Senior Jordan Duncan is the lone receiver with more than a year of experience receiving reps with the first team. That’s not a cause for optimism heading into a statement year for both Wilcox and embattled offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.

The downward spiral for the Cal receiving corps initially began with the transfer of former five-star recruit Demetris Robertson last summer. The absence of Robertson and injuries to both Noa and Duncan in 2018 accentuated the offense’s uphill battle to move the chains consistently — all the while, the team’s defensive side of the ball was experiencing its highest peak in more than a decade.

Pressing questions remain surrounding the potential replacements of Wharton, Noa and also tight ends Ian Bunting and Ray Hudson, who factored into Cal’s offensive scheme in 2018.

Duncan, a true senior from Mississippi, faces perhaps the most pressure to step up in the coming months. With 31 appearances and eight starts across three years, Duncan has showcased both solid route running and arguably the best set of returning hands in the receivers room.

That, of course, has happened when he’s been healthy. Duncan was expected to contribute in a big way last fall, but his 2018 campaign was hindered by an upper body injury that limited him to just six starts and 20 receptions.

Still, his 37 receptions, 418 receiving yards and six touchdowns during his collegiate tenure lead all active receivers by a wide margin, all but ensuring Duncan both a starting spot outside the hashes and a critical role in next year’s production.

At the slot position, Noa’s starting replacement is a near lock as well — sophomore Nikko Remigio from Mater Dei High School. What Remigio lacks in size, he makes up for with a healthy balance of both speed and physicality getting off the line of scrimmage against bigger defensive backs. That combination of quickness and power was also showcased in Remigio’s responsibility of returning punts in the latter half of 2018.

When Noa sat with his share of injuries, Wilcox turned to Remigio and Jeremiah Hawkins to fill a big pair of shoes. While Hawkins has showcased speed and agility similar to those of the tailbacks on Cal’s roster, his struggles catching the rock opened up an opportunity for Remigio to salvage two starts as a true freshman.

With just 27 combined receptions between Remigio and Hawkins in 2018, the Bears will seek a noticeable jump in production from at least one of their top options in the slot, if not both.

The rest of Garbers’ primary targets for 2019 remain ambiguous — truly an open competition. At tight end, redshirt sophomore Gavin Reinwald reestablished himself as a potential starting option in spring ball after redshirting last season.

As a true freshman in 2017, Reinwald saw the field in all 12 games, compiling 104 receiving yards. But his reps will be challenged by redshirt freshman McCallan Castles, who was thrust into action late last year after spending most of the fall as a top scout team player.

At 6’5”, Castles is a huge weapon whom Garbers targeted both in the Spring Game and the Cheez-It Bowl. While Bunting and Hudson were utilized as curl or drop-off targets throughout 2018, Reinwald and Castles figure to make a much bigger impact in the passing game — in much the same way that Stanford has used Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson as top red-zone targets for quarterback K.J. Costello.

Rounding out the wide receivers room are 2019 recruits and names with relatively blank resumes — redshirt sophomores Ricky Walker III (one start against USC) and Evan King, and redshirt freshmen Ben Skinner, Monroe Young and Ryan Regan.

El Cerrito High School product Makai Polk, a defensive back who transitioned late to receiver, enrolled at Cal this spring and displayed a skill set throughout spring practices that the Bears raved about early and often.

El Camino College transfer Trevon Clark and former Michigan four-star receiver Kekoa Crawford — both deep ball threats — are poised to compete for starting consideration upon arrival this fall. Quarterback-turned-“athlete” Brandon McIlwain figures to also receive a look or two as a route-runner.

As Wilcox and Baldwin evaluate the top options to replace big names, they aren’t just hoping to break even with last year’s results. With arguably the top secondary in the Pac-12 on the opposite sideline during scrimmages, the Cal offense is anxious to find its own consistency and big-play explosiveness.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.