Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: The quarterback situation is solid for the Bears. Chase Garbers made an improvement in QB rating from 120 as a freshman to almost 150 last season. As a Cal fan, what is it that excites you about Garbers? How can he be better? Who is the backup heading into Saturday night?
Nick Kranz: What I like about Chase Garbers is steady decision making. He played behind a patchwork offensive line last year with a rotating group of WRs, and yet almost always made the right decision. When a WR came open, Chase found him. When the pocket collapsed, he knew when to bail and make a positive play with his legs. He’s not going to bomb the ball down the field like Kedon Slovis or make insane plays as a runner, but he knows how to keep the offense moving while protecting the ball, and he’s increasingly confident going down the field for the kinds of 15-20 yard chunk plays that were virtually extinct in Cal’s offense as recently as two years ago.
He’s backed up by Devon Modster, who got plenty of playing time last year when Garbers got hurt. Modster was pretty clearly a step down from Garbers as both a passer and a runner, but he’s solid enough. Cal’s coaches have dismissed the likelihood of any other QB on the roster getting playing time, as all the other QBs are freshmen.
Rob Hwang: Its got to be his ability when healthy. It was known after the fact he played all of 2018 injured, and in 2019 he was stellar when he played a full game. Many fans thought the Ole Miss game was when the light turned on, and we didn’t get to see that version of him until the end of the year against Stanfurd and Illinois. So I’m cautiously optimistic that version of Chase will arrive in game 1. His repertoire with his WRs and the talent depth at WR has increased. That coupled with Musgrave’s offense has given a boost to the offense with some new found excitement for the players as well. No question the listed back up in Devon Modster is the back up. Don’t expect that to change unless the season becomes moot and we want to get our younger guys some snaps.
UWDP: Second-leading receiver Jordan Duncan is gone, but ten of the top 11 wideouts and tight ends are back. Tell us about Garbers’ returning receiving corps, and any other emerging targets we should know about.
Nick Kranz: There are really four names to know, and not coincidentally, those are the four names Cal listed on the pre-season depth chart: Nikko Remigio, Kekoa Crawford, Makai Polk, and Trevon Clark. Those four got plenty of playing time and targets last year, and behind them are a bevy of true freshmen who are talented but unlikely to contribute significantly this season.
Remigio is the lead target, but don’t overlook Crawford. The former 4 star recruit who transferred to Cal from Michigan was excellent when he was healthy last year, and Cal fans are counting on a big year from him if he can stay on the field. Polk and Clark were both in their first year in the program last year, and came on strong late in the season. After three years of really iffy WR play, Cal fans are generally pretty high on the ability of this four-man crew to threaten defenses this year.
Rob: I think this is the unit the Cal fanbase is most excited about. You know what the starters give you in Nikko Remigio, Trevon Clark, Kekoa Crawford, but its the guys behind them in Makai Polk, Monroe Young, Jeremiah Hunter, Justin Baker, Aiden Lee, Tommy Christiakos, and Mason Mangum. Outside of Polk and Young, the rest are all freshman. The ability to play them 6 games and yet preserve their redshirt and eligibility might be huge for OC Musgrave to play around with their different sizes and skill sets this season. From a physicality standpoint, Christiakos is 6-4, Hunter plays like he’s 6-6, Lee and Baker are speedsters. If you could get even some production from the freshman in limited roles, the Bears could take that next step to be explosive in the passing game.
UWDP: Christopher Brown, Jr. is a bruising back who ran for almost 1,000 yards as a sophomore last season. Are you expecting Brown to carry the bulk of the load on the ground for the Bears? Who will compliment Brown in the backfield?
Nick Kranz: Marcel Dancy is back after getting the bulk of the back-up carries last year, and Cal also brought in Wisconsin grad transfer Bradrick Shaw, who will likely be in the rotation as well. But yeah, Brown is the undisputed primary ball carrier, who will likely get somewhere around 70% of the available carries. Brown isn’t a guy that will blow you away, but he doesn’t go down easily and has taken care of the ball. Really, Cal’s running game issues are more about offensive line instability, of which more below.
Rob: Just run it run it with Chris Brown Jr. My dream scenario is Thunder and Thunder with CBJ and Bradrick Shaw, the transfer from Wisconsin and seeing them in 22 or 21 personnel. Maybe we get crazy and run 23 personnel!
UWDP: The offensive line was not great for Cal in 2019. They allowed the most sacks in the Pac-12, while the Bears ranked 11th in total offense. Any reason to expect improvement from the offensive line this season?
Nick Kranz: Will Craig is the guy to watch. He’s a 4 star recruit who was supposed to anchor Cal’s line at left tackle, before suffering a season-ending injury early in the year. Presumed starting guard Gentle Williams also suffered an early season ending injury as well, adding to the disaster. As a consequence, Cal spent most of 2019 shuffling the line around in a desperate attempt to cobble together an offense. That meant significant playing time for two freshmen and a walk-on, and the results went as you would expect considering the circumstances.
If Will Craig plays like a veteran 4 star left tackle, the Cal line could be transformed. That’s up for debate as he’s seen minimal field time, but the Cal coaching staff have certainly sung his praises. The rest of the line is full of guys who got plenty of playing time last year, and so for a change Cal has the luxury of sitting guys who started most of the season last year. Don’t get me wrong, the line is still a big question mark . . . but there’s enough different about this year that a significant uptick in performance wouldn’t be some kind of shock.
UWDP: Cal ranked 4th in the Pac-12 in both yards and points allowed last season. The Bears lose Evan Weaver (awwww, darn) and a number of other key defenders. Justin Wilcox has recruited well on defense, so are you confident that the defense will remain solid? Who are some key players to watch?
Nick Kranz: There are players at every level of the defense that Cal fans are really excited to see, but there are also question marks, particularly when it comes to depth. On the bright side, proven difference makers like Brett Johnson (DE), Cam Goode (OLB), Kuony Deng (ILB) and Cam Bynum (CB) are back, and Cal used a savvy redshirt to get another year of eligibility for CB Josh Drayden. Generally speaking, Cal’s starters are trusted players who were starting or part of last year’s rotation.
But there are significant depth concerns. Pretty much the entire 2nd team is made up of freshmen, both true and redshirt, and if Cal suffers any injuries (or COVID positives . . . ) things could get rough. And obviously there’s the big question of replacing Evan Weaver, who played basically every snap last year. Evan Tattersall is the man given the unenviable assignment. Justin Wilcox and his defensive braintrust seem to have a speciality of getting good play out of their ILBs, but I can’t say I’m expecting Weaver’s replacements to produce at that level. Cal will need other players at other positions to step up.
Rob: Brett Johnson being listed as the starter at DE has the avid fans jumping for joy. Seeing him in 1-on-1 matchups on the edge will probably terrify most Pac-12 offensive coordinators. My dark horse choice of an immediate impact defensive player is... DL/NG Stanley McKenzie. STANLEYYYYY.
UWDP: Justin Wilcox has revitalized the Cal defense since taking over. How is the fanbase feeling about Wilcox as we head into year four?
Nick Kranz: Very content. The end-of-season records aren’t mind blowing or anything, but wins over USC and Stanford are so monumentally important for the psyche of the fan base after a decade of absolute misery against the two programs Cal fans hate more than any other. Beyond that, Wilcox turned the program away from a style of play that many Cal fans grew to hate under Sonny Dykes, and has slowly but steadily upgraded Cal’s recruiting to the point that Cal’s 2021 class is right up there with Washington. Cal fans are as optimistic as they have been since, like, 2009.
Rob: Some might say he’s on the hot seat, but that’s only if you expect immediate results. He’s taken the Bears back-to-back to bowl games, and was 1 win away in 2017, something Sonny Dykes was unable to do. The next step is competing for the north and it’s trending in the right direction for Wilcox to be able to do that. We knew this was a rebuild and it took time. And so far the time invested is paying off for the program.
UWDP: If we DID have a game, what would be your prediction for Saturday?
Nick Kranz: Sadly, at this point it’s just as relevant to try to predict whether or not a game will happen, let alone who will win. But setting aside COVID, this game is an interesting test case of returning production vs. recruiting talent. Cal has more returning starters/production, but Washington has more recruited talent up and down the roster. Will Cal’s increased experience trump Washington’s talent advantage? That wouldn’t surprise me. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Washington gets enough big plays from their 4 star WRs and 4 star secondary to take the win. A wavering point spread that has generally favored UW by a few points seems about right to me. More than who wins, I’d feel confident predicting a low-scoring, close game. If pressed, I’d guess UW 20, Cal 17.
Rob: I said a game like 17-12, 17-14 on your guys’ podcast. That was probably the rational me. I’ll be absolutely irrational with this one and I will accept the heat and the @FreezingColdTakes. Bears win 45-24.
UWDP: Thanks, guys. Sadly, we will never know how this very bold prediction by Rob would have held up.