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The top 10 returning players to Cal in 2020

Shuffling in the secondary means good things for Cal, bad for opposing QBs.

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, California Golden Blogs community.

My name is Cam Mellor and some of you may know me from my time spent in my most recent previous role at Pro Football Focus (PFF) writing about college football across the country. If you didn’t know me but followed PFF on social media for the past four seasons up to last December, you at least knew my voice as I ran all the company’s social media channels from 2016-19 as well.

That being said, I wanted to introduce myself as a Community Editor for CGB. I couldn’t be more delighted to join CGB and the excellent community it has become.

My thanks to my predecessors ahead of me, I’m excited to be here! Say hello in the comments as I’m eager to meet everyone!

And in my attempt to win you over on my first post, I must remind everyone, Cal has the Axe.

Spring football practice kicked off on Wednesday and that brought with it everyone’s first look at the new coaching staff members, life without some NFLers on defense and perhaps a hint at what offensive scheme changes may take place this year for Cal. The Golden Bears will culminate their spring practice with the Spring Game on April 11.

As the practice field was humming with the first football action of 2020, there is no better time than now to take a look at the top returning players for Cal this season. It is important to note that with any cross-positional rankings, the value of the player’s impact at his position is also weighed heavily as is his documented plus-play, ability to avoid negative play and other factors.

The top 10 returning players to the Cal Golden Bears in 2020:

1. Camryn Bynum, CB/S

Arguably one of the better returning defensive backs not only in the Pac-12 but in the entire country, rumor has it that Bynum will be spending time at safety this offseason in an attempt to replace future NFLers in Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis. Bynum may have taken a step back last season but that’s only because his first two years on campus set such a high bar. He can man up against any type of receiver and has an incredible set of ball skills that he’s put on display multiple times over his career with more than 30 PBUs to date. He doesn’t miss a lot of tackles and doesn’t get called for a lot of penalties, a testament to his knowledge of the fundamentals and his athleticism on the field. Corner or safety, wherever he plays, Bynum is a stud.

2. Elijah Hicks, CB/S

Also another returning star at the cornerback position who will spend time at safety, Hicks has all the ability to roam the back end of the Golden Bears secondary with reckless abandon. Like Bynum, he’s made a ton of plays on the ball and forced several incompletions without getting credit for a pass breakup in the stat sheet. He’s every bit of a talented free-roaming defensive back with a long range for his size and should put that on display at safety in 2020. While he’s transitioning, Hicks can rely on his ability to tackle in the open field as well as his run defense, each of which has improved in all three years in Blue and Gold.

3. Chase Garbers, QB

Look, I don’t have to tell CGB fans that this team was a much different and better unit with Garbers at the helm but it is nice to remind the national media that Cal was undefeated in games Garbers started and finished and 7-2 in games in which he played. The new system, like everyone else on offense, should test him but with a full offseason program ahead, the ‘next step’ is on the horizon. We saw many quarterbacks in 2019 make ‘the leap’ with an extremely talented and experienced offensive line in front of them and that’s just what Garbers has.

4. Zeandae Johnson, DI

A bit slight for his frame on the interior, Johnson proved too fast for slower interior offensive linemen to catch up to him in 2019, recording a handful of sacks and a bunch of other pressures. He routinely shoved off linemen to make plays in the run game and even had a sack against Oregon’s top offensive line a season ago. Johnson needs to work on his tackling as he missed a few too many last season, but if that gets taken care of, he’ll be in consideration for All-Conference honors at year’s end.

5. Michael Saffell, C

Saffell is every bit of another All-Conference player at his position but expectations need to be tempered a bit as the team adjusts to life more under center in offensive coordinator Bill Musgraves’ new system. As athletic as he is, Saffell will have to adjust his range of movement and speed off the snap with the quarterback under him but if his proven track record is any indication, he’ll adjust nicely and be a solid centerpiece to the Golden Bears’ offensive line in 2020.

6. Cameron Goode, Edge

A speed rusher off the edge, Goode caused a ton of havoc a season ago from his defensive end position, recoding multiple sacks in two games and five sacks over his final three outings in 2019. He was rarely bottled up from getting to the quarterback in one way or another and that should only continue this fall. He’ll have to improve his tackling in space and his ability in coverage if he continues to drop back as much as he did this past season but his pass-rushing skills are more than enough to warrant a spot here.

7. Kuony Deng, LB

Look, replacing Evan Weaver is a massive task in and of itself. While Evan Tattersall plans to take Weaver’s spot, he played in just two games a season ago and looked good while doing so, it’s the most experienced of the group of linebackers, Deng, who should have the biggest impact in 2020. Deng, the much-traveled linebacker is a massive man at 6’6, 240 pounds and if he can mitigate his missed tackles this fall, he could warrant All-Conference even All-American honors as the loss of Weaver’s 100+ tackles the past two seasons are up for grabs. Expect Deng’s name to be called early and often and if the Golden Bears want to win more than eight games this season, hope his name is called for good reasons and not the latter.

8. Christopher Brown Jr., RB

Brown was just a few yards away from that 1,000-yard plateau all the box-score pundits look for but he was every bit the team’s second-best offensive skill player in 2019. He caught fire at times a season ago and ended the year with an impressive two-game stretch that should carry him this season. Brown is no stranger to making people miss whether he runs by them, through them or jukes them out of their shoes.

9. Jake Curhan, OT

Curhan is as big as he is talented in pass protection and should anchor the right side of the offensive line once again in 2020. He was stout in pass protection and very rarely was beaten quick enough to allow pressure in the face of either quarterback a season ago. He’ll be tested in the new system but his ability in the run game should bode well just as his skills and hand usage in pass protection should ease the transition.

10. Nikko Remigio, WR

The wide receiver corps is such an interesting group for the Golden Bears entering 2020 as Remigio returns as the leader in yards, receptions and targets, even if he secured just 513 yards and three scores through the air. His presence in the slot should be a great asset for Garbers and Co. as he’ll be counted on to get open quickly in the new offensive system, utilizing his route-running skills on short-area throws that hopefully get him in the open field and allow him to generate more yards after the catch than last year. His experience and ability on the inside not only is vital to the offense this season but also extremely important to free up Kekoa Crawford, Makai Polk and the rest of the wide receivers on the outside.

Honorable mention: Kekoa Crawford, WR; Brett Johnson, DI; Valentino Daltoso, OT; Chigozie Anusiem, CB; Makai Polk, WR; Evan Tattersall, LB

How’d I do? Who are your top 10 returning players this fall?