Fall camp in review: Final notes as Cal football transitions into game preparation

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On Aug. 31, roughly 45,000 fans will flock to California Memorial Stadium to witness the 2019 Cal football team for the first time. There will be obvious questions asked: Is the offense any better? Is the defense still as dominant? Will Saturday’s season opener be a wire-to-wire blowout or a lot closer than expected? 

The Bears’ fall camp has come to a close, and while the more open-ended questions won’t be answered until game day, some aspects of the team are all but certain heading into week one. 

Final notes from fall camp: 

 

Chase Garbers will be the starting quarterback against UC Davis 

There’s no other way to put it — heading into the 2019 season, Cal needs more from its quarterback position in order to be a consistent force to be reckoned with. Justin Wilcox’s first two years at the helm have provided glimpses into how good his program is at its best, but demonstrations of the ability to play well on both sides of the ball simultaneously have been few and far between. Offensively, it all starts with the play of the man under center. 

After an offseason of training and 17 fall camp practices, all arrows point toward redshirt sophomore Chase Garbers retaining his starting job. Having added both strength and weight throughout the summer, Garbers already has the tools as both a pocket passer and dual threat on the ground to be Cal’s permanent starter. 

Garbers’ fall camp performance was far from perfect, but he certainly displayed progress that one would expect from a second-year starter. A year after Cal produced just eight plays that were more than 30 yards, all eyes will be on Garbers to flip the script early against Football Championship Subdivision foe UC Davis. 

Devon Modster didn’t transfer to UC Berkeley intending to be the backup, but barring any unexpected changes, expect Cal to be all-in on Garbers. 

 

Christopher Brown Jr. has separated himself from the rest of the tailbacks 

It’s no secret that Cal’s 2018 offense operated a bit differently from those of most other programs. For most of the year, Garbers and dual threat Brandon McIlwain were rotated at the quarterback position, a widely critiqued strategy considering the Bears turned the ball over more often than any team in the nation and struggled badly in the aforementioned explosive-play department. 

McIlwain was at the forefront of Cal’s turnover issues, but his ability to break out for big plays on the run was ultimately what made him such a polarizing talent. Sophomore tailback Christopher Brown Jr. is a stockier and, perhaps, less explosive runner than McIlwain, who has left the football team but remains a Cal athlete with the baseball program. 

But Brown is the closest the Bears are going to get to replicating McIlwain’s powerful running style. He towers above teammates Marcel Dancy and DeShawn Collins, offering a healthy balance of both downhill, between-the-tackles skill and pure speed. In limited action last season, he didn’t look like a three-down back, but an impressive fall camp gives him the best shot to fill Patrick Laird’s shoes. 

 

Luc Bequette and Brett Johnson will see (significant) time at nose tackle 

One is a redshirt senior. The other? A true freshman. But both defensive linemen displayed enough versatility to warrant consideration at the nose tackle position — currently vacated by Siu Fuimaono and Aaron Maldonado.

With Chris Palmer’s departure, nose tackle became a glaring hole on an otherwise robust 3-4 scheme. Fuimaono and Maldonado were expected to be the key cogs at that position in Palmer’s absence, but after both missed all of fall camp for personal reasons, it doesn’t appear that either will be with the team in the near future.

Bequette, a much-improved defensive end with big-game experience, has transitioned well into his new role. Meanwhile, his mentee Johnson may have the best shot of anybody in the freshman class to contribute right away.

Johnson opened eyes right from the get-go, bulldozing his way through Cal’s offensive line early and often in camp. This one-two punch won’t see the field together too often, but it offers optimism despite the absence of the team’s primary nose guards.

 

Cal’s defensive backs room might be even deeper than we thought 

Long story short, Cal’s secondary group got it’s fair share of attention this offseason. Ashtyn Davis has been pegged as an early-round NFL talent. Camryn Bynum isn’t far behind him and was named a team captain for the season.

Everybody knows what to expect from the starting secondary — an aggressive style of play that has defined Cal’s defensive renaissance.

What many may not realize is that the Bears aren’t just four deep. There are about seven or eight guys who can step up on short notice. Branden Smith, Chigozie Anusiem and even true freshman Craig Woodson were each provided with a lion’s share of reps during fall camp, and all received praise from both Wilcox and position coach Gerald Alexander.

Add on the fact that Traveon Beck and Josh Drayden could start on just about any other team in the conference, and it’s easy to accept that Cal is well equipped for the future, even after its current starters ride off into the sunset.

 

Who sees the most run regardless of who starts at receiver? (To be determined) 

While the Bears’ secondary is as proven as any position group on the team, the receivers group resides on the opposite end of the spectrum. Senior Jordan Duncan is the lone wideout with more than a year of starting experience with the program. He, slot receiver Jeremiah Hawkins and versatile receiver Nikko Remigio figure to get the first look offensively.

But even that starting lineup doesn’t have much of a resume. With transfers Kekoa Crawford and Trevon Clark eager to be a part of the solution, it remains to be seen whom Garbers can rely on without the services of Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton III.

Ricky Walker III, Makai Polk and Monroe Young round out a young receivers group that could see significant playing time. All bring tools that have been solid if not spectacular throughout fall camp, but nobody will truly know who has the upper hand in the receivers room until game day.

The season opener will be a telling litmus test for the Bears’ pass-catchers. If Cal can’t get its passing game going against a top-five FCS program like UC Davis, fans could be in for another long season.

 

Cam Goode and Kuony Deng will be key players to watch in week one 

There have been days during Wilcox’s tenure when it feels as though Cal’s defense could do no wrong. But fans will enter this season wondering if that defense could have been even better had all of its student-athletes been at full strength. 

In other words, what if Cameron Goode hadn’t gotten hurt in last year’s season opener? 

Both Goode and transfer Kuony Deng are freaks of nature on the football field. One is an edge rusher who has two pick-sixes in his collegiate career already. The other is a converted basketball star who offers versatility at both linebacker positions. 

Saturday’s game will bring with it many questions, but the linebacker core of Goode, Deng, Evan Weaver and Tevin Paul will truly be a sight to see. Fingers across the East Bay will be crossed, hoping for good health in 2019.

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