You may or may not recall that I wrote a similar column last year (hey, what can I say, it’s an easy source of #content!) and I think it holds up as reasonably accurate.*
But last year was also pretty easy to predict. We knew the strengths and weaknesses of the previous coaching staff, and we had a roster with obvious strengths and weaknesses as well. But thanks to graduations/departures on the strongest side of the ball and an entirely new coaching regime, creating these rankings was harder than last year. I struggled putting these in the order seen below, and I expect more of what I have written will look dumb in a few months.
Still, as things stand now, here are Cal’s position groups, ranked by an unscientific combination of continuity, experience, talent, and depth.
*Sadly, my most accurate analysis was extreme pessimism over the departure of Hardy Nickerson and the impact it would have on Cal’s linebackers.
1) Wide Receiver
It’s no surprise that Cal’s strongest position group is the position most heavily recruited by the previous coaching staff. Demetris Robertson is generally acknowledged as the best pure talent on the team, and Melquise Stovall might be right behind him in that category. Throw in a couple of proven targets in Vic Wharton and Jordan Veasy, plus guys with solid experience and/or raw talent like Ray Hudson, Jordan Duncan, Kanawai Noa, and Brandon Singleton, and you’re set.
As has been the case of late, the biggest challenge will be getting all of them enough targets. Since Chad Hansen’s 92 catches are in the NFL, maybe that won’t be a huge problem.
2) Running Backs
Losing Khalfani Muhammad certainly hurts, but Tre Watson and Vic Enwere are two very experienced, very reliable options. Two seniors with multiple years of experience getting tons of carries (and pass pro opportunities!) in an offense that runs a ton of plays.
What the running backs may lack a bit is a home run threat that Khalfani’s track speed provided. It’s for that reason that speedy true freshman Zion Echols might be a dark horse candidate for time in the rotation. Still, this should be the Tre and Vic show all the way.
And don’t forget upperclassman Malik McMorris, all-purpose fullback extraordinaire.
3) Special Teams
Basically everybody is back—Matt Anderson (who should be pre-season favorite for all Pac-12), Dylan Klumph, and kick/punt returners like Demetris Robertson, Tre Watson, and Vic Wharton. Special teams is inherently random and the kicking/return game other than field goals wasn’t exactly a strength last year, but they should be the least of Cal fan’s concerns. Steady, mistake-free performances should be the expectation and should be the norm.
Considering what we’ve seen over the last four years, this seems rash, doesn’t it? The secondary in the top half of position group rankings?
But look at how many players Cal is returning in the secondary. Cal is returning in excess of 10 players that got significant playing time at either safety, cornerback, or nickelback.
Skepticism is justified—many of those players struggled. But many of them were also thrown into the fire earlier than anybody anticipated due to injuries. But with standout Darius Allensworth back alongside Marloshawn Franklin and a crazy number of safeties (14 listed on the spring depth chart), it seems unlikely that a solid two-deep wouldn’t emerge from those options.
And anyway, I’m of the opinion that Cal’s secondary was the least of their defensive problems anyway—particularly when Allensworth was healthy. Now can we please go for one full year with some semblance of good luck on the injury front?
5) Offensive Line
We’re only four position groups deep before things start getting iffy, which is why the 2017 Bears aren’t predicted to be making a ton of noise this year by pundits and prognosticators. Cal’s offensive line has obviously been hit hard by the graduation of four key members of the line—most prominently Chris Borrayo and Stephen Moore, who both were four year starters. The dismissal of Dwayne Wallace adds to the uncertainty.
Returning starters Addison Ooms and Patrick Mekari will be expected to anchor the line. Are the (expected) new starters Kamryn Bennett, Jake Curhan, and Semisi Uluave ready for major action?
The good news is that all of the new starters have reasonable recruiting pedigree and a solid amount of time in the program. We’re not throwing any redshirt freshmen into the fire... unless somebody gets hurt. Depth is a major concern and more than any other position group, Cal can’t afford any injuries.
If there’s a ton of variance to the 2017 season, it’s because of the uncertainty at quarterback.
That doesn’t have to be a negative, by the way. Quarterback is way down here at #6 because there isn’t an eligible quarterback with meaningful FBS experience. There’s simply no getting around that fact. And that means that it’s possible that there is nobody on the roster ready to lead Cal’s offense.
But there’s strength in numbers as well. Out of Chase Forrest, Ross Bowers, and Chase Garbers, you would expect that at least one of them will emerge to play at a Pac-12 level.
7) Defensive line
The defensive line and linebackers are the two position groups with the most question marks, and there are two reasons. The first reason is obvious enough: Cal struggled badly on the front 7 all last year—failing to develop a pass rush (107th nationally in sacks) and failing to stop the run (dead last in yards/run allowed).
But there’s also uncertainty because of the schematic switch to a 3-4 defense. There were basically two consistent contributors in the front seven last year: Cameron Saffle and James Looney. One of them switched to become a linebacker. The other will have to be the anchor of Cal’s rebuilt line.
Looney is that man. At times he was the only player on the line making any kind of push into the backfield and his performance against Utah’s interior line almost single-handedly won the Bears a game. He’ll be plenty used to the double teams he’ll continue to see this season.
Probably the biggest question is if Cal has anybody ready to play nose tackle. Chris Palmer is probably the only player on Cal’s roster with prototypical nose guard size, but Tony Mekari is likely to get the starter’s nod.
If Cal CAN get what they need at nose tackle, they shouldn’t be lacking in bodies to play at the two end positions, as basically everybody else in the defensive line rotation from 2016 should be capable at that position. In theory.
So many questions here. So many potential answers.
If there was any group that seemed poorly coached last year, it was the linebackers. And if there’s any group that seems in position to get great coaching this year, it’s the linebackers. Cal has two coaches focusing on linebackers and one of them is the defensive coordinator... and that’s not mentioning that their head coach is a former linebackers coach himself. So if there’s any area where vast improvement is possible, it’s at linebacker.
Still, this is the unit that struggled the most last year and there are still depth concerns. Some of that will hopefully be addressed by converting smaller DEs to outside linebackers, but I would expect some significant transitional costs when you’re dealing with a scheme change AND position changes.
Like last year, Cal will be relying on Ray Davison and Devante Downs. They were generally solid as pass covering linebackers, but struggled like the rest of the team in defending the run. If this coaching staff can get the entire front 7 (and safeties) to manage run fits, then it’s entirely possible for this defense to make a big stride towards becoming a solid unit.