End of season shootaround: rise of Garbers, hopeful future

Sunny Shen/Staff

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Talk about a student-athlete who exceeded his expectations this season. Who are you excited about most for next season?

Josh Yuen: With all due respect to Chase Garbers, Kuony Deng and Zeandae Johnson, my most improved player award goes to Christopher Brown Jr., the undisputed workhorse of the backfield. The expectation heading into the season was that he would get the first crack to fill Patrick Laird’s shoes, and boy did he excite during the front and back ends of the 2019 campaign. I was skeptical of his ability to succeed as a three-down back, he lacked an impressive resume in the receiving game and two “shiftier” tailbacks in DeShawn Collins and Marcel Dancy were waiting in the wings. CBJ will never have breakaway speed, but he sure has a nasty stiff-arm and will play a significant role in the passing game going forward. As for next season, let’s see if this Makai Polk guy shapes into an elite talent outside the hashes — he gave everyone a small taste of his ability in the second half of the year.

Emily Ohman: Having a little experience under your belt is beneficial in most endeavors, and graduate transfer Ben Hawk Schrider brought some much needed talent and know-how to the Bears as both a player and a leader this season. Schrider not only kept up with the established Cal defensive veterans the entirety of the season, but came in clutch with a crucial sack or tackle in multiple games — especially against Stanford. Coach Wilcox seemed to be onto something when he put Schrider on scholarship at the tail end of fall camp, and I would say the Berkeley-born linebacker more than earned it as the season progressed. Graduate transfers can be toss-ups considering their tenure is shorter than undergraduate student athletes, but Schrider’s dedication to Cal was evident every time he stepped on the gridiron and the Bears were much better off with Ben’s hawkish gameplay.

Shailin Singh: As a true freshman, no one really expected defensive tackle Brett Johnson to impact the team as much as he did this season. The former wrestler was a disruptive force in the trenches, using his large frame to clog up holes. Johnson impressed the coaching staff as 2019 progressed and ended up starting a handful of games to finish the year. His efforts were enough to earn him a freshman All-American third team designation by Pro Football Focus and I expect him to take another leap heading into next year. Luc Bequette returning alongside him means that the defensive line could be one of Cal’s biggest assets in 2020.

On the other side of the ball, I cannot wait to see how Nikko Remigio’s chemistry with Garbers continues to develop. The duo combined for 18 receptions over the final three games and Remigio was virtually unstoppable in the Big Game with Garbers throwing him pinpoint passes. A starting receiver group of Kekoa Crawford, Remigio and Polk next season could be a force to be reckoned with if Garbers and the offensive line stay healthy.

What do you believe Cal’s biggest weakness was this season?

JY: Home field. Historically, the program has fared well in the friendly confines of California Memorial Stadium, and the Bears struggled notably more on the road under both Sonny Dykes and in Justin Wilcox’s first year. In 2019, the team squeaked out nonconference wins over UC Davis and North Texas, only to be undone by Arizona State in front of a national audience, and punched in the face by a resurgent Oregon State program on homecoming weekend. With USC triumphantly taking care of business on Cal’s senior night, the only home game in which the Bears confidently outcompeted their opponents was an early November contest against Washington State. Meanwhile, the Bears’ road adventures included wins over Washington, Ole Miss, Stanford and UCLA. White jerseys for the win.

EO: Remember how Cal stormed out of the gates with a four-game win streak at the beginning of the season and were ranked No. 15 in the nation in week five? Yeah, I forget about it too, especially since the four losses that followed dampened things significantly — not to mention the fact that the Bears were unranked by week 6. Inconsistency plagued Cal this season in ways much more fundamental than just winning a few and losing a few. The performances the Bears put on in their underdog win against then No. 14 Washington, against an SEC school at Ole Miss and most notably on the road against historic rival Stanford to earn the Axe, seem almost unfathomable when you compare them to the flattening at Utah and perplexing losses at the hands of beatable Arizona State and Oregon State. Had Cal not been quite so fickle with this high level of play it seems capable of, it may have been able to win a few more along the way.

SS: OK, this is kind of a cheat answer, but I would say the Bears’ most significant weakness this season was health. The Pac-12 as a whole was ravaged by injury in 2019, but the drop in production without Cal’s key players was quite obvious. While it’s obviously not easily preventable, Cal’s slew of injuries — particularly on offense — made it extremely tough to get in any sort of rhythm. The offensive line played a game of mix-and-match for most of the season, and Kekoa Crawford — Cal’s season leader in receiving yards per game — was only available in six contests. Lastly, we all know how the team fared with versus without Garbers, so a healthier offense next season could mean an automatic improvement regardless of other variables.

Alright, enough of that Debbie Downer talk, what were Cal’s greatest strengths this season? 

JY: Resilience. Chase Garbers had his back to the wall in more ways than one this past season and in two of the biggest games in recent Cal memory, came through to deliver the biggest wins of the year — a 20-19 victory over Washington in the wee hours of the morning and a 24-20 triumph over Stanford in the 121st Big Game. If there’s another strength to throw out there, it’s the one-two punch of Weaver and Deng. It’s easy to take middle linebackers in a 3-4 scheme for granted, but Cal fans have been treated as well as any throughout the past two seasons with the work that inside linebackers coach Peter Sirmon has done with this group. Even with Mr. Incredible moving on to greener pastures, that position is in good hands.

EO: Cal’s defense is frequently referred to as its greatest advantage, but this season it made its importance known in the context of the offense. The Bears were second in the Pac-12 in average tackles per game with 71.7 a pop, and with the nation’s leading tackler Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng holding it down in the middle of the field, the offense had a greater margin for error as it fluctuated between quarterbacks and offensive schemes. Cal was one of four teams in the conference that allowed less than 22 points per game, flexing its strength in closing out many tight contests in the fourth quarter.

SS: One of the toughest things to do in sports is staying consistent and resilient. Yet Cal’s season featured win streaks of three games and four games interrupted by a four game losing streak. Wilcox, however, did a fantastic job of focusing on one thing: winning that week’s game. After the Utes dominated the Bears to drop them to 4-4, the team could have checked out mentally and let the season slip. Instead, they rebounded with a shocking win over Washington State, and eventually ended the season on a three-game win streak in which they combined for 87 points. The mental fortitude of this Cal squad was clearly on display in 2019 and has helped establish a culture for future teams, too.

We looked back, but now let’s look forward. What can fans expect next year? What is the ceiling for Cal football’s 2020 season?

JY: The home schedule is challenging, but exciting, in 2020, starting with TCU (big yikes) on Sept. 5. Fans can expect a more physical Brown Jr. and a more polished Garbers, who will undoubtedly benefit from Musgrave’s presence right from the get-go. I’m not a fan of labeling ceilings or floors this far in advance. Much is yet to be determined in the Pac-12, but if my life were on the line, a Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl appearance is my best bet. There’s plenty of reasons on paper to dream bigger than that, but for now, just enjoy the growth that’s been evident over the past several weeks.

EO: The Rose Bowl! Just kidding. But my expectations for the team are high considering Chase Garbers (should we just call him Chase Burrow from now on?) comes back guns blazing. This team seems well rounded and talented, and given the comparatively easier schedule on the horizon, I think the Bears have big things in store. 

SS: I wrote a bit about this in my season recap, but I think Cal’s future is brighter than it has been in a long time. The team has an easier schedule than last season and the offense is returning all of its starters from the Redbox Bowl, in addition to gaining an experienced and talented offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave. The defense is losing a handful of top-tier Pac-12 talent, but if Wilcox’s coaching staff is great at one thing, its developing defensive studs. Call me overly optimistic, but I see Cal football again improving on this season and hitting the nine or 10-win mark, including the postseason.

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