After the end of a tumultuous season in 2022, Cal fans turned their eyes to redshirt senior Jack Plummer, anticipating the decision about his future in the blue and gold. Anticipation soon turned to anguish as the signal caller announced his intention to transfer to the University of Louisville. Coupled with the departure of sophomore Kai Millner, the Bears now lacked a quarterback with collegiate experience.
Under the helm of new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, fans have witnessed a riveting battle for the starting quarterback spot during spring and fall camp. Over the course of the last few months, three players have emerged as the frontrunners to lead the Bears’ new system:
Sam Jackson V, a redshirt sophomore, transferred from TCU as one of the first acquisitions for Cal via the transfer portal this past offseason. Jackson was widely considered to be the successor to Plummer following his transfer to Louisville. With his athleticism and ability to scramble out of a collapsing pocket, Jackson brings something that the Cal faithful have not seen since the days of Chase Garbers.
Fernando Mendoza, a redshirt freshman, is one of two quarterbacks who remain from last season’s roster. Mendoza has greatly benefited from the lack of a star quarterback and the implementation of Spavital’s system. During this year’s spring showcase, Mendoza demonstrated his improvement and has certainly shown the coaching staff that he is worthy of competing for the number one spot.
Ben Finley, redshirt sophomore and younger brother of NFL veteran Ryan Finley, transferred from North Carolina State as the latest acquisition at quarterback for the Bears. Like Mendoza, it is apparent that he is most comfortable working in the pocket. While Finley joined the battle late, given that his acquisition took place after the spring showcase, his experience at the collegiate level is what has kept him in contention.
Each contender brings their own unique experiences and talents to the table — all of which will significantly impact how Cal develops their offensive strategies this season.
Jackson, as previously mentioned, brings raw athleticism to Strawberry Canyon. Fans were treated to flashes of this during the spring showcase as Jackson almost effortlessly sprinted past the defense.
A favorite for the starting job since his arrival, he also illustrated his arm strength during spring and fall camps. Right out of the gates at the spring showcase, Jackson let loose a 37-yard pass to wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter on a drive that ended in a rushing touchdown from the new Bear.
Mendoza is the only player in contention that has not yet played a snap at the collegiate level. However, he was able to adapt his skillset to the new offensive system that Spavital has implemented — a system that in itself can be designed for each player’s unique traits.
Mendoza’s strengths lie in his passes; he completes quick and short passes that work to exhaust defenses, and slingshots the ball deep past defenders for big plays. Furthermore, Mendoza displays glimpses of high-level scrambling, something that could be decisive as the competition nears its end.
Finley’s future with Spavital’s offense lies largely in the unknown given his late arrival, but limited tape from his time at NC State may offer insightful clues. Finley plays safe football and thrives when he has command of the pocket, but looks for quick options to get rid of the ball instead of opting to scramble if his pocket crumbles.
The Bears played their first scrimmage of the camp this past Sunday, giving all three quarterbacks an opportunity to experience the live situations of college football. This is especially important for Mendoza and Jackson due to their limited experience on the field. The Bears’ coaching staff, however, has yet to trim the competition.
“They all had their moments and really it’s going to come down to the details and decision-making, and ultimately taking the team down the field and putting the ball in the endzone,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
Each quarterback possesses the ability and talent to play at the highest level and the system is designed for them to best lead the team. It now falls on the shoulders of these contenders to separate themselves from the pack and secure the starting job.