New faces, new places: Cal 2021 roster update

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Cal’s 2020 season is nearly two months in the rearview mirror now, and while the on-field action (or what little of it there was) is now behind the blue and gold, the team is still busy.

The new year is here, the rains have come and the offseason has arrived, bringing with it a series of difficult questions for fans, players and coaches to answer. Put simply, Cal’s roster has changed plenty since the team last ran out onto a football field.

Three Bears are forging ahead with their futures and have declared for the NFL Draft. Star cornerback Camryn Bynum leads that charge. The talented defender and first-team All-Pac-12 selection opted out of the season and declared for the draft before returning at the announcement of a shortened fall campaign. Bynum is a near-lock to hear his name called out during the third or fourth round. He is rated as a top 150 prospect by both ESPN and CBS.

Bynum’s fellow Bears — defensive end Zeandae Johnson and right tackle Jake Curhan — do not share the same distinction. However, each has accepted an invite to a senior bowl event where they can showcase their talent. Curhan may join Bynum at the Reese’s Senior Bowl while Johnson has a bid to the Hula Bowl.

The 2021 NFL Draft may still witness plenty of Bears, but the transfer portal has already witnessed its fair share.

In a shocking move, star receiver Makai Polk turned away from Memorial Stadium and looked to the east. After finishing last season as a top-two receiving target and evolving into a more dynamic receiver, Polk called it quits on his Cal career and transferred to Mississippi State.

Hailing from Richmond, Polk leaves behind his home in the Bay Area and the potential for a critical role with the Bears over the next few years. The wideout took just two days to commit to the Bulldogs after entering the transfer portal.

Polk’s opportunities, however, will likely be more plentiful in Starkville. No Cal offensive player has been drafted during Justin Wilcox’s head coaching tenure, and under Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach’s air raid offense, Polk should have a truckload of chances to put up big numbers.

While Polk is the most recognizable Bear to depart using the transfer portal, he is not the only one to consider leaving Memorial Stadium. Running back DeShawn Collins, who ran for 199 yards in 2019 and opted out of the 2020 season, and starting fullback Drew Schlegel, who transferred to Cal just last season, could both depart the team’s backfield. Receiver Jeremiah Hawkins and guard Poutasi Poutasi, neither of whom are starting players on offense, round out the Bears’ potential personnel losses. These four players have not committed to another program and may still return to Memorial Stadium if they choose.

The transfer portal has not simply been a harbinger of exits in Berkeley. Wilcox’s coaching staff made a key addition when sophomore safety Raymond Woodie III committed to Cal, bringing two years of experience, three years of eligibility and his share of talent to a defensive backs unit already dripping in ability. As a true sophomore at Florida State, Woodie had 25 tackles, 0.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, and should have an immediate impact at safety whether or not he gets a starting nod.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps the most shocking turn of the offseason has been the news that many seniors will, in fact, return to the Bears in 2021.

Inside linebacker Kuony Deng, safety Elijah Hicks, outside linebacker Cameron Goode and cornerback Josh Drayden will all stay in the blue and gold. The group accounted for 92 tackles and directly contributed to four of Cal’s five turnovers in 2020. Their announcement came with a claim: They have yet to finish their business. This sentiment is likely shared by running back Marcel Dancy and center Michael Saffell, two key seniors for the Cal offense who will also return in 2021.

Wilcox’s incoming recruiting class will round out the Bears’ roster. A collection of highly-rated offensive prospects will help mitigate the loss of Polk when it migrates to Memorial Stadium next season. More additions can still be made to the class of 2021 — the transfer portal is clearly open and four-star running back Byron Cardwell will announce where he decides to play Jan. 25. In the meantime, Cal has added its first member to the class of 2022.

Defensive tackle Damonic Williams is one of the nation’s top players at his position, and though he will not don the blue and gold until far in the future, his commitment bodes well for the Bears’ future.

The offseason is long and, as certain fantastic characters will have you know, full of terrors, but it is not without its reasons to celebrate. The Bears still have holes to fill, but just a few months after the 2020 season has ended, preparations for 2021 are already taking shape.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected].