Although there is still a hefty chunk of time left before Cal football kicks off its regular season against UNLV, the team’s preparation for that game essentially begins now. Spring football may not seem very exciting, but position battles are always something to keep an eye on — and the Bears will have many of them, particularly on the defensive side. This will also be Cal’s first chance to implement a new scheme under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who is aiming to bring the Bears back up into the Pac-12’s elite offenses.
What will Cal’s revamped secondary look like?
With last year’s starting safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis currently prepping for the NFL draft, the Bears were expected to have two holes to fill at the position. The coaching staff decided, however, to move former starting cornerback Elijah Hicks to safety, allowing redshirt freshman Chigozie Anusiem to slide in as the other starting cornerback across from Camryn Bynum. Apart from Hicks, Wilcox is planning to give many members of the secondary looks at various positions in order to confuse opposing offenses.
“There will be some defensive backs who will be dually trained in nickel and corner,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “Cam Bynum is one of those guys. Cam’s been here awhile and played a lot of corner and we think he can give us some really good nickel reps.”
That leaves one more safety spot that is open for the taking. Redshirt junior Daniel Scott seems like the slight favorite after last season, having played in 11 games with one start in 2019. He had his best game against Stanford, where he notched a diving interception to help Cal come out on top. Scott has played sparingly, however, meaning the field is going to be competitive. Redshirt freshman Craig Woodson and redshirt sophomore Isaiah Humphries, the latter of which sat out last season after transferring from Penn State, will also have a shot to take on a starting role.
Which true freshmen will emerge as potential rotation players?
As fans saw last season in Brett Johnson and Makai Polk, the Bears’ coaches are not opposed to giving true freshman significant playing time — as long as they earn it. The Bears have a talented recruiting class coming in. Rising freshman D.J. Rogers may immediately be Cal’s most athletic tight end, but he will not be on campus until after spring, when he will need time to develop chemistry with Garbers.
“It’s good for them to be able to get these reps now,” Bynum said. “You can watch as much film as you want, but until they’re out bullets flying, that’s how they’ll get the most learning.”
Given that Wilcox likes to rotate defensive backs around, it is a possibility that cornerback Collin Gamble and safety Trey Paster see some snaps in the regular season if they have strong camps.
Who will replace Evan Weaver at inside linebacker?
While there is obviously no way to replace a player as ferocious and menacing as Weaver, Cal hasn’t had many issues coaching up productive inside linebackers in the Wilcox era. They did it with Devante Downs and Jordan Kunaszyk, then added Kuony Deng to the mix last season. Including Weaver, that’s four inside linebackers who earned at least All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors in the span of three years.
Despite being stabilized and stretched off the field with a neck injury last season, redshirt sophomore Evan Tattersall is fully healthy and in position to take over Weaver’s role. This will not be a given, however, as the race is wide open between him and guys like Blake Antzoulatos and Ryan Puskas. This is quite a young position, other than Deng, none of the nine inside linebackers projected to be on next season’s roster are more tenured than a redshirt sophomore. While Tattersall has the most game experience out of the group, there will be a legitimate battle for one of the most important spots of the defense.
How fast will Cal’s offense adapt to its new scheme?
If anyone told the Bears’ fanbase that the defense would likely have more roster movement after 2019 than the offense, few would have believed it. All of Cal’s offensive starters from the Redbox Bowl are returning, but they will be playing in a brand new system. Installing the new playbook and terminology is going to be a week-by-week process, and there is no way of knowing how much progress the offense will make by the end of spring camp. Musgrave is known to utilize both tight ends and a fullback, neither of which were very involved for Cal last season. Additionally, the offensive line is almost back to full health — guard Gentle Williams will miss all of spring camp as he recovers from a lower body injury, but tackle Will Craig is expected to return in the coming weeks. It may be a slow learning process, but the current and incoming talent on the offense are the most plentiful Cal has seen in years.