Hello, Memorial Stadium: Cal football returns to practice

Photo of Cal Football team huddled
Sunny Shen/File

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For seven months, Memorial Stadium has patiently waited. Tucked into the hills at the eastern end of campus, the 63,000-person venue has slept through rainy days, heat waves and a pandemic. A field that usually witnesses busy practices throughout the summer and the tension of a season opener was silent and empty.

But Memorial will wait no longer. The Bears are back in business. After receiving clearance from local health officials to practice in contingents of 75, Cal football began an unusual camp in preparation for the upcoming rescheduled season.

The blue and gold were back in practice for the first time Oct. 9, bringing new expectations, new faces and a new offense to a new season.

First practice

There is not much that can be said after one practice. It is difficult to assess players and their talent when many are getting back onto the field for the first time in months. What can be said, however, is that the Bears are excited.

“We’re happy to be back and be back on the field and be able to do it safely. Our medical staff and our strength coaches and everybody has done a great job keeping us safe,” said veteran defensive back Elijah Hicks, who is making the transition from corner to safety. “We feel safe out there playing. I’m just happy to be out there.”

From coaches to players, from veterans to newcomers, the message was loud and clear. The blue and gold are happy to be back in Memorial Stadium.

Despite the familiar setting, normalcy has not returned in full. With social distancing rules intact, players have limited and timed contact with one another and cannot use a locker room. Reduced support staff means players must get their own water, among other things.

“COVID’s still out there, and we have to follow the protocols that are set in place so that we can continue to practice and play,” said head coach Justin Wilcox.

The Bears are abiding by those rules and holding themselves responsible for their actions and one another’s safety. The necessary measures and precautions put in place pose a challenge, but the culture of accountability Wilcox has instilled in his team is paying dividends. Cal football players understand that to play is a privilege, and to earn that privilege, they must follow restrictions to keep themselves safe. From coaches to players to staff, the blue and gold are adjusting and staying flexible as they return to a semblance of normalcy.

“It is bigger than football during this time, with the political climate we’re in and the coronavirus pandemic. Those two things have to be considered because Berkeley does such an unbelievable job about making it more than football,” said senior center Michael Saffell. “We’ve set a culture here that takes accountability and responsibility for our actions.”

New offense

Cal’s 2020 offense will look quite similar to last year’s unit — and also quite different. Although all 11 starters from the Redbox Bowl victory are set to return for the Bears, a brand-new offensive scheme means that Cal’s offense will have its fair share of changes heading into 2020. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is known for utilizing a West Coast scheme and aims to maximize each player’s talents.

With the team finally able to practice, there will be some extra pressure to install a brand-new playbook on the field in just a few weeks, as this is the first time the offense has all been together since early spring.

“It felt pretty natural because Coach Musgrave and I were installing over quarantine, and we had a couple walk-throughs leading up to the start of our fall camp,” said starting quarterback Chase Garbers of the first full practices.

That type of confidence is expected from Garbers, who is predicted to take another massive step after a fantastic finish to last season. He is also loaded with new weapons, many of which are freshmen, who will be trying to get integrated as camp goes on. Still, the strength of this offense lies within the players who have been through the Pac-12 gauntlet before.

“Last year, we lacked quite a bit of experience,” said junior receiver Nikko Remigio. “Going into this year with a different level of confidence and a different level of chemistry with the quarterbacks is going to be huge.”

As camp goes on, it will be interesting to see which position groups and individual players are featured the most in Musgrave’s scheme. He has had a propensity to involve tight ends and a fullback much more than Cal has in previous seasons, meaning that the Bears could have one of the Pac-12’s most versatile offenses with regard to personnel in 2020.

Personnel changes

Cal’s star cornerback Cam Bynum opted back in to the season, giving the Bears a boost heading into this season, but he was by no means the only change on the roster.

Nine Bears have opted out of the season, and several more have made what Wilcox indicated were separate decisions for their careers.

“There were guys that opted out for COVID concerns, and we support those guys and their decisions, and everybody has to make their own and what’s best for them,” Wilcox said. “Then there were some guys who made decisions beyond COVID and just life decisions.”

Linebackers Tevin Paul and Ben Moos, safety Isaiah Humphries and wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins were the most notable opt-outs. All four could have been key contributors in 2020. Humphries transferred from Penn State and has yet to play for the Bears, but Moos, Paul and Hawkins have a combined 81 appearances among them. Players can now opt back in if they choose to, but they will face no consequences should they maintain their opt-out status.

Tight end D.J. Rogers, a highly anticipated four-star recruit, requested and was granted a release from his commitment and is not listed on the Bears’ 2020 roster.

Preseason expectations

In a preseason poll from 38 media members, the blue and gold were selected to finish second in the Pac-12 North. A runner-up position in the division is the highest Cal has been picked since 2011 when Colorado and Utah were added to the conference and the Pac-12 North was created. The division’s reigning champion, Oregon, received 35 of the poll’s first-place votes, but the Bears still received three and were the only other team picked to win the North.

Those expectations rarely play into any discussion with Wilcox, who insists that his team and his staff are taking things one practice at a time, especially in the chaos of a pandemic.

“It has to be what’s right in front of you, right now,” Wilcox said. “For us to be worried about Dec. 19, or January, we’re wasting our time at that point.”

Plenty of the Bears are unafraid to spell out their goals. When he opted back in, Bynum was joyously blunt in his aims for the season — for this to be one of the best teams in the conference. Those high-flying objectives are not without qualification, though. Players up and down the roster are excited by Cal’s experience and the energy already on display at practice, but their expectations are centered on improvements that still must be made.

“The leadership we have on this team, the experience, it speaks for itself,” Saffell said. “It could definitely be a special year, but you have to make do on that, make do on the expectations that you write for yourself.”