One of the biggest aspects that Cal was missing from its 2018 offense was the creation of explosive plays. A major part of this was because of the scarcity of deep passes, but a base root of the problem was the severe lack of speed at the wide receiver position. Speedy receivers obviously have the ability to beat a defender deep, but sometimes getting the ball in their hands quickly and letting them work their magic can be just as effective.
This ability is exactly what offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin seems to see in true freshman Makai Polk. With a lanky frame, Polk does not yet tout the physical ability to be a tough possession receiver able to take hard hits between the hashes. But boy, the kid can fly.
As one of the youngest players on the roster, Polk has been used sparingly, having caught just six passes on the season. But after showcasing his raw speed and agility last weekend against Washington State, Baldwin may be prompted to make more use of Polk’s dynamic playmaking ability.
As magical as Polk was once the ball was in his hands, this play would have been nothing without the exquisitely executed blocking from his teammates. It all started with the look that Baldwin saw pre-snap, in which there were only two defenders on the left side of the field: cornerback Marcus Strong, who was playing about two yards off of Polk, and safety Tyrese Ross. The play design had both of these Cougars accounted for, giving Baldwin the green light put it to the test.
Polk’s only job was to run a hitch screen, which required him to take a couple of jab steps to get Strong moving backward, then turn around and run back toward his quarterback to receive a short pass. The play design allowed quarterback Devon Modster to get rid of the ball quickly, which is why Cal was able to get away with sending multiple offensive linemen upfield. Meanwhile, Cal tight end Jake Tonges, who was lined up diagonally behind the left tackle, immediately shot over toward Strong at the snap, essentially putting himself between Polk and Strong when the ball was caught.
Because the Cougars blitzed both of their linebackers — sending a total of six players after Modster — and put the rest of their defense in one-on-one coverage, the only player between Polk and the first down line was Ross, who was originally tasked with man coverage against Tonges.
Baldwin had this accounted for, though. He sent left guard Matthew Cindric off his line upon the snap, and Cindric was able to get enough of a knock on Ross to allow Polk to get past him. Even after the blocks by Tonges and Cindric, Washington State defensive backs Skyler Thomas and Armani Marsh were in position to make the tackle, which would have limited Cal to about 10 yards. Polk, however, had other ideas.
Flashing his stunning agility, he jab-stepped left before taking a sharp right turn, allowing him to evade both defenders with a move that brought the crowd to its feet. From there, the freshman turned on the jets, winding his way upfield before putting one final juke on Strong, who had since recovered from his initial entanglement with Tonges.
The fleet-foot receiver finally found himself in the end zone being greeted by his teammates, including center Michael Saffell, who sprinted upfield with his massive frame and was just a split second behind Polk. The 52-yard touchdown was Polk’s first of his career and put the Bears up 26-14 in the fourth quarter, virtually ending the Cougars’ comeback bid. Baldwin clearly played to his players’ strengths, allowing the offense to pull off one of its most electric plays in recent memory.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at