The last time Cal football took part in a live game, quarterback Chase Garbers and tailback Christopher Brown Jr. struggled. As Garbers was pulled at halftime during the team’s 2018 Cheez-It Bowl loss, Brown filled in for the injured Patrick Laird, getting stuffed against a loaded TCU front seven who came out on the winning end of a sluggish evening for offense.
Nearly eight months later, redshirt sophomore Garbers and true sophomore Brown have been spearheading the Bears’ offensive growth throughout the program’s fall camp practices. With the arrival of several new faces in the receivers room and Laird now a member of the Miami Dolphins, both players have embraced higher expectations and a chance to change the narrative swirling around the program.
As kickoff weekend against UC Davis looms on the horizon, it’s become more and more evident that Garbers and Brown are prepared to be offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s go-to players, at least initially.
“If we were playing (UC Davis) tomorrow, Chase Garbers would be our starter,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “It’s his third year in our system but his second year with these players, and he just continues to get better, which is really encouraging.”
On day 14 of fall camp, Garbers and the rest of the quarterbacks group were on point right from the get-go. In both “fastball” and red-zone drills, receivers Ricky Walker III and Jeremiah Hawkins continued what’s been a strong camp for both wideouts, complementing incumbent starter Nikko Remigio in challenging what analysts are calling one of the best secondary groups in the nation.
But when Garbers really began to open eyes was at the end of practice, when he ran through a progression of third down simulations against most members of the team’s projected starting defense. In five attempts, Garbers orchestrated four first downs, avoiding pressure on all but one play and even calling his own number on a well-designed quarterback draw.
It may not be under the bright lights of a packed stadium, but it’s certainly a testament to the offseason work that Cal’s offense committed itself to.
“He pushes himself whether it’s on the field or in the weight room, meeting room,” Wilcox said of Garbers. “He’s a team guy — he’s got the respect of his teammates, and I think he’s doing a nice job.”
Like Garbers, Brown has work to do to prove that he can handle the role of being a starter for a full season. Standing next to more agile backs like Marcel Dancy and DeCarlos Brooks, Brown looms above the rest, 6’1” and 230 pounds in stature.
The word “physical” is perhaps the easiest and most obvious way to describe Brown’s running style. But he’s expected to be more than just a power back in Wilcox’s plans for the offense.
“I think for Chris, the more and more he plays, he’s showing the capability to (be a three-down back),” Wilcox said. “Now, to go through the season with one tailback, it’s hard to do in this day and age. But I’m really pleased with how Chris has grown into that role.”
Brown’s physicality came full force into members of Cal’s front seven on Saturday. On a pair of occasions, the pounding and physicality in between the hashes resulted in mini-skirmishes between offense and defense, the biggest of which resulted in both sides running sideline to sideline to atone for their “friendly fire.”
A few friendly shoves here and there are bound to happen when an experienced offensive front faces off with a defense that has been been highlighted in nearly every Pac-12 North preview out there.
While the battle for left guard appears to be ongoing, it’s all but certain that Will Craig, Michael Saffell, Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan will be starters in front of the team’s backfield come Aug. 31. Saturday’s assortment of activities featured “Blitz Package” and “Rush Skelly” drills, which saw mixed results for both sides of the line.
“We’ve definitely started coming together in the run game more,” Daltoso said of the offense’s growth. “Just being physical at the point of attack, when we really get our run game going, you see our offense open up a lot more.”
The ones challenging Cal’s run game — linebackers Evan Weaver, Kuony Deng and Evan Tattersall, among others — are anxious to begin wrapping up other names after spending two weeks chasing their teammates.
“I don’t want to talk for everybody, but I’m excited,” Weaver said. “I’m ready to tear some heads off this year again, but we’ve got two more weeks getting ready to prepare, and just one more week of fall camp before we really dive deep into UC Davis.”
“When we get there, it’s going to be a good game and a good start to the season,” Weaver said.