BERKELEY, Calif. – In the most hopeful of Pac-12 spring football games, the California Golden Bear faithful gathered around the newly named Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium Saturday morning, filled with anticipation and mixed emotions. But mostly anticipation; a reluctant trepidation stemming from last year’s disastrous, injury-riddled 1-11 season. Going winless in the Pac-12 was disappointing, especially with the new coaching regime change. But missing almost their entire defensive line was added insult to all the injury.
There were bright spots though: the four single-season records freshman quarterback Jared Goff set, including passing (3,508 yards), total offense (3,446 yards), passes completed (320) and passes attempted (531), as well as the consistency from placekicker Vincenzo D’Amato, who made 17-of-20 field goals last season and 31-of-32 PAT’s for a total of 82 points.
This year is a fresh start for California; a clean slate with several key pieces falling into place, sure to assuage the collective Golden Bear apprehension and wash away any lingering doubt that the program is on the right track.
1st Down: With more injured players than an L.A. Laker locker room (cheap Kobe shot, I know), specifically on defense, California had to rely on a number of young athletes to weather the storm last season. This spring saw the return of several key players, such as defensive end Brennan Scarlett, who only had one tackle Saturday but is expected to lead the defense in the fall. Redshirt Junior safety Avery Sebastian, who had four tackles on the day and cornerback Stefan McClure, who did not see action Saturday, will both be returning to the Bears secondary. The offensive line saw a lot of adjustments last year, but hopefully for head coach Sonny Dykes, the returning starters can use that to their advantage; the experience gained should lend confidence to their play. Cal resolves to learn from the past, but not dwell on it.
“We’re done with last year,” Goff said. “We’re done with everything that had to do with last year. We’re a brand new team now and we’re ready to go.”
2nd Down: Tony Franklin’s balancing act. With Cal generally favoring the passing game over the ground game, this year will require a more balanced effort on offense. Last year the Bears racked up 3,977 yards through the air compared to 1,466 yards in the collective hands of the running game. Cal’s biggest carriers were Khalfani Muhammad, who had 445 yards off of 74 carries and averaged 40.5 yards a game and Brendan Bigelow, who carried the ball 105 times for 421 yards, averaging 35.1 yards a game. Cal returns Muhammad as well as sophomore Daniel Lasco, who had six carries for 35 yards Saturday including one touchdown. The Bears also return sophomore Jeffrey Coprich, who had 32 yards on 11 carries the spring game to go along with a touchdown. Goff completed 14-of-23 passes for 170 yards and one touchdown, favoring sophomore wide receiver Kenny Lawler, who had four receptions for 30 yards and one score. Junior receiver Bryce Treggs had two receptions for 47 yards and Stephen Anderson grabbed two receptions as well for 38 yards. If Franklin can utilize these young, eager running backs and combine them with the deep receiving corps Cal has, the Bears should be able to do some damage on offense and steal a few wins.
3rd Down: Reverse the Curse. Of the Pac-12 kicker that is. Not that Cal had an issue with kicking last season; D’Amato was solid and reliable. But this year is another story, as four different placekickers will be competing for the starting spot. Saturday provided glimpses of that battle between Noah Beito, James Langford, Matt Anderson, and Robbie McInerny. Beito, the favorite, hit 2-of-4 attempts, nailing the 26 and 41-yarders, but missing from 36 and 54 yards. Langford did slightly better, hitting 2-of-3 kicks, putting 36-yard and 41-yard kicks between the uprights, but missing the long 51-yarder. Anderson had a great day, going 3-for-3 from 36, 39 and 41 yards out while McInerny was 1-for-2, making a 41-yarder but missing from 36. All four kickers showed range, but only Anderson was perfect. We will have to wait and see how Saturday’s performances factor into Dykes’ final decision.
4th & Goal: All jokes about Cal finally finding an opponent it could beat (itself) aside, the prognosis for the fall looks good. It is still too early to tell, but given Cal’s schedule, it would not be outside the realm of possibility to believe they can win at least three, maybe four games. It would take a healthy Goff, the steady involvement of the deep receiving core, plus an emergence of several solid running backs and a strong defensive effort. The strides Cal made to remain injury free in the offseason were noticeable; lets just hope that trend continues.
“The fact that we were able to have eight physical, tough practices and do a lot of live tackling while staying relatively healthy was incredibly encouraging,” head coach Sonny Dykes said. “It shows the progress that we’re making as a football team in strength and conditioning and the overall toughness of the kids in our program and our mentality.”
The 86 plays the Bears ran in front of around 2,500 fans Saturday definitely showed a shift, maybe not of the paradigm variety, but the Golden Bear growl grew a little bit louder. Expect Cal to continue to make noise heading into the fall.