2019 challenges could be 2020 strengths for Cal’s offensive line

Mike Saffell
Stephanie Li/File

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2019 was a trial by fire for the Bears’ offensive line. Hampered by injuries, Cal started eight different players throughout the season and gave up 46 sacks for a total of 274 lost yards.

It’s a new year, however, and the blue and gold have emerged from their snakebitten ordeal of a season with the strength, hunger and experience to take care of business in 2020. Among Cal’s incoming starters are players who proved their mettle last season and those returning from injury.

Senior Michael Saffell will be the Bears’ center. He’ll be joined by veteran right tackle Jake Curhan, who played nearly every snap last season, and McKade Mettauer at right guard. Mettauer, a true freshman in 2019, was forced into the breach and struggled early on before coming into his own as the season progressed. Those three positions are the most cemented on the offensive line. Each player is experienced, and Mettauer, in particular, has earned rave reviews for his physicality and energy.

“McKade is a physical presence on our offensive line,” said offensive line coach Angus McClure. “He brings a lot of energy to the group. At times, we’re going to lean on him for that energy.”

The left side of the offensive line is witnessing a more traditional position battle. Redshirt sophomore Will Craig, who suffered a season-ending foot injury last season, will likely start at left tackle, as redshirt senior Gentle Williams is still returning from injury. Craig’s strong performance in camp has cemented his starter status. Matthew Cindric started in every game last season, showing extraordinary versatility. The redshirt sophomore has played center as needed, but he will move back to a more familiar left guard position in 2020.

Valentino Daltoso is the primary competition at both these positions and has been focused on improving in the interior. As a redshirt senior, Daltoso has plenty of experience and will likely compete with Cindric for reps at the left guard spot. McClure is still hoping to utilize his versatility if the Bears need it, especially amid a shortened camp.

“Val is one of those guys — he could play both positions or multiple positions in a game,” McClure said. “If we lined up to play today, Will is going to be at left tackle, but Val is going to be at left guard and left tackle because we’re not ready to go out and take 85 snaps. We have to have multiple guys ready to play that left tackle position.”

The experience and versatility excite players and coaches for a variety of reasons. But one thing is certain: With a baseline set of knowledge and skills, the Bears are starting with a higher floor on the offensive line this season.

“Having so much experience on the O-line makes it so easy,” Saffell said. “We’ve played so many snaps together. Coach (Bill) Musgrave and Coach McClure do the best job in the world streamlining the offense, making it easy, making the calls fast.”

There are still wrinkles to iron out — McClure highlighted the need for communication and the implementation of new terminology — but his offensive line unit already has experience with multiple blocking schemes and has hit the ground running.

The versatility of Cal’s offensive linemen could also be crucial. Amid a pandemic and a shortened season, McClure is working his players so that they can confidently step up in more than one way when needed.

“We’re going to have to have guys ready for anything that can happen coming up this season,” McClure said. “We don’t know exactly how this thing is going to go, so I just need to have everybody ready at all times.”

The Bears have multiple players arrayed across their depth chart. A trio of redshirt freshmen is ready to step up if needed. Brian Driscoll has emerged as the backup center, while his classmate Brayden Rohme has garnered praise for his work at both left and right tackle. Ben Coleman has made the transition from defensive to offensive line and is working to be in the second group at right or left guard.

Redshirt sophomores Brandon Mello and Erick Nisich have stood out as second-string options at the left tackle and guard positions, respectively. The blue and gold have a host of improving players to note, including redshirt junior Poutasi Poutasi and freshman Everett Johnson.

Success for this offensive line unit will, as in 2019, likely depend on the ability to stay healthy. With an abbreviated camp and a shortened season, injuries are inevitable, but having athletes who can shift around the line should help soften the blow. The Bears emerge from the challenges of last season with proven ability and hardened experience. Simply put, in 2020, Cal’s offensive line should bounce back better.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].