Ah, the spring ‘game,’ the saddest oasis in the already sad desert of nine months sans football.
Spring games are already dangerous for fans and pundits - an odd confection of small sample size, weird lineup combinations, and general conservatism. But this year’s spring game was perhaps the least insightful I’ve ever kinda-sorta-seen. Consider:
- Spring practice has been closed to the media, meaning fans have no real sense of which players they should be keeping an eye on, which players have been getting reps where, etc.
- The ‘game’ was even less of a game than usual, a short collection of 11 v. 11 plays in different scenarios that only occasionally resembled drives and frequently avoided full on tackling.
- And for those who could only watch on the Pac-12 networks (guilty!) you missed a bunch of plays thanks to commercials and interview cutaways.
This all sounds very complainy, which I didn’t intend. If Justin Wilcox determined that cancelling the spring game and giving fans absolutely nothing to watch until September was in Cal’s best interests I’d shrug my shoulders and admit that he probably knows best. But it’s my job to pretend to offer insight or to explain why I have none.
If you squinted you probably thought that this year’s spring game didn’t look all that much different from a Sonny Dykes spring game - you got to see a hurry up offense with a ton of wide receivers score a bunch of touchdowns against a defense with a ton of personnel turnover. But a closer will reveal that both sides of the ball will see changes.
So what exactly DID we maybe learn?
Theory: It’s a two man race for starting quarterback
Based on the evidence of the spring game, either Chase Forrest or Ross Bowers will start at quarterback in September. This is based less on anything I saw in their performance on the field and more on the fact that they got all of the reps running with Cal’s first and second string offensive players. Does Chase Garbers theoretically have a chance as a true freshman? Sure, technically. But I think we can all agree that expecting anybody to pull a Goff is unlikely.
Neither Forrest nor Bowers wowed on Saturday, but that was largely down to the format - lots of red zone practice, not a ton of downfield passing. Both players were generally accurate and kept the offensive moving. Forrest probably had the more impressive throws while Bowers had the more impressive decision making, giving Cal’s defense trouble with his movement in the open field. Yogi Roth speculated that they will perhaps split time come the fall. I have no clue if Wilcox & Baldwin are the types that hate duel quarterbacks as a matter of principle, but that strikes me as a distinct possibility.
Theory: Cal will be silly deep at wide receiver
Hardly a leap of faith considering it’s the position that Sonny Dykes and company recruited with the greatest volume and the greatest talent. Cal was missing multiple WRs who are likely starters and still had solid threats all around the field. You could see flashes of talent from all of Cal’s youngsters last year, and with a year under their belt it’s reasonable to expect those flashes to turn into more consistent production.
The question is which targets will get the most playing time. There are at least seven WRs on the roster who could challenge for significant playing time, and that’s ignoring freshmen (true or redshirt) on the roster. Jordan Duncan came up with the best play of the afternoon for me, somehow turning his entire body around to catch a ball that was thrown to his wrong shoulder and barely a few inches off the ground. He and Kanawai Noa were the stars of the day but it’s possible that neither of them will start. These are nice problems to have.
Theory: Justin Wilcox is down with Kenny Loggins
Cal runs 11 v. 11 red zone drills, and what should blare over the loud speaker, but Danger Zone. Somehow I doubt that Cal’s players made that request. You’ll never know what you can do / Until you get it up as high as you can go.
Theory: Cal’s switch to a 3-4 defense (and simply having new defensive coaches) will help improve run defense AND pass pressure
Granted, this is cheating. Cal was 107th in the country in sacks and 128th (WOO LAST!) in yards allowed per run. Having said that, there was the slightest whiff of friskiness from Cal’s front 7 that was never present last year.
If nothing else, Cal’s run fits seemed much improved (again, they could only get better) and players were more frequently getting into the backfield. Actual legit pressure on passes was still rare, but neither did Cal’s QBs have all day.
There will still be struggles. It’s not entirely clear if Cal has a true nose tackle, and some of the plays came against Cal’s iffier 2nd string offensive linemen. But defensive line depth (which basically fell off a cliff if Looney or Saffle weren’t on the field last year) looked better since Cal now only needs 3 linemen at a time.
Theory: Most of what I’ve written you already knew
Liar, you had NO idea that Justin Wilcox might be a Kenny Loggins fan.
Theory: Having an entire two hour broadcast on the Pac-12 Network devoted to unbridled optimism is great for our collective psyche.
Is every new coaching hire Cal made a home run? Is the new staff’s energy 100% infectious? Is every young player primed for a break out? Is every veteran ready to make his final season his best?
Yeah yeah yeah, this is a 5-7 team sans a QB, WR, and offensive linemen that helped make the offense tick, and that’s ignoring the defense. Get out of here with your realism. This is the time of year when every single Yogi Roth hypothetical is gonna come true.