Cal will be the last Pac-12 team to begin spring football practice when the Golden Bears begin spring workouts on Wednesday, and Cal might have more questions heading into spring than any other conference team.
The fact is, 14 of the 22 players who started on offense and defense for Cal in its final game of 2021 are no longer on the Bears’ roster. The quarterback is gone. Virtually all the wide receivers are gone. The top three tight ends are gone. Most of the best defensive players are gone. The leading rusher is gone. Questions abound.
Here are 10 of the leading questions Cal hopes to answer in the spring.
1. Will Jack Plummer be the answer at quarterback?
This is by far the most important question and the one that will get the most attention in the April 30 Spring game.
There will be an open competition to determine the successor to Chase Garbers, who was the starting quarterback the past four seasons. But Purdue transfer Jack Plummer is the leading candidate, and if he doesn’t win the job, the Bears’ offense is in trouble. Kai Millner, who didn’t take a snap in 2021 as a freshman, is probably Plummer’s chief competition, but graduate student Ryan Glover (who started one game last season) and sophomore Zach Johnson are also in the mix, along with Blake DeBisschop and Robby Rowell.
Plummer lost his starting job at Purdue midway through last season, so he is not arriving as a savior, and he needs to learn Bill Musgrave’s pro-style offense, which is different from what he ran at Purdue. The quarterback competition could run into the fall, but when a starter is named or becomes apparent, it’s always possible that some of the other quarterbacks may enter the transfer portal.
2. Who will emerge are viable options at wide receiver?
The three Cal wide receivers who had the most receptions last year – Trevon Clark, Kekoa Crawford and Nikko Remigio – are gone. Jeremiah Hunter, who demonstrated big-play potential in 2021, figures to slide into one starting spot, but can any of the other young wide receivers show signs of impending stardom?
Sophomore Justin Richard Baker has the look of a break-away threat, but has yet to prove it on the field, and at least one of a trio of promising freshmen (J. Michael Studivant, Tommy Christakos and Mavin Anderson) needs to make an impact, though none of the three had a reception last year.
The key is junior-college transfer Mason Starling, who had 13 touchdown catches last season at College of San Mateo. You don’t bring in a JC player unless you have an immediate need at a position, and the Bears need Starling to be a factor at wide receiver in 2022.
3. Will the three transfers slide into key roles seamlessly?
Plummer, Washington transfer inside linebacker transfer Jackson Sirmon, and Utah transfer defensive end Xavier Carlton need to make an impact during the spring.
Sirmon is expected to slide into a starting spot at the most important position in Cal’s defense. The Bears’ defense was particularly stout when standout inside linebackers Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver were racking up huge tackle numbers, and Sirmon tied for fifth in tackles in the Pac-12 last season.
Carlton started only two games in his two seasons at Utah, but Cal needs him to be a contributor next season, because both of Cal’s 2021 starting defensive ends are gone (Luc Bequette and JH Tevis, who transferred to Indiana).
4. Who will be the lead running back?
Christopher Brooks, the Bears’ leading rusher in 2019 and 2021, transferred to Utah, leaving open the starting tailback slot. Damien Moore was the starting running back in the 2021 opener, but injuries and fumble issues reduced his playing time late in the season. He figures to get the first shot at being the first-string running back, but Chris Street (5.1 yards per carry in 2021) and DeCarlos Brooks (9.6 yards per carry in 2019) will get a look after getting limited playing time last season.
The most intriguing running backs are Ashton Stedrick, a speedster who had only two carries last season as a freshman, and Jaydn Ott, who will be a freshman in 2022 but enrolled early and will participate in spring ball. Running back is a position where freshmen can sometimes contribute.
5. Will defensive lineman Brett Johnson be back to full strength?
The powerful Johnson was a starter in 2019 as a freshman and 2020 as a sophomore, and he looked like a budding star at any of the three defensive line spots. But he missed the entire 2021 with a hip injury sustained in an auto accident that required surgery. The progress reports on Johnson have been good, but it remains to be seen if and when he can return to being the player he was. His status is particularly important because the Bears have very little experience in their defensive line. If Johnson is back to near 100% effectiveness it will make a world of difference to Cal’s overall defense.
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6. Can Cal replenish its depth at tight end?
Bill Musgrave likes to use two-tight end and three-tight end sets, and that requires depth at the position. Cal had that in Jake Tonges (entering the NFL draft)Gavin Reinward (transferrred to Rice) and Collin Moore all getting meaningful playing time at the position in 2021. All three are gone.
That will leave it up to two freshmen tight ends with potential to make their marks: tall, lanky Latu Keleki and 270-pound Jermaine Terry II. Both need to show progress in the spring.
7. Will having two defensive backs coaches pay dividends?
Cal’s secondary had been outstanding in Justin Wilcox’s first four seasons at Cal, but it was less effective in 2021. Add the fact that two of Cal’s best defensive back in 2021 (Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden) are gone, and the Bears have concerns behind its front seven.
So when Wilcox had an assistant coaching vacancy following the 2021 season he filled it with Terrence Brown, who will work with defensive backs along with Tre Watson, who was hired as the Bears ’defensive backs coach prior to the 2021 season. Having two defensive backs coaches is not unique; in fact, eight of the other Pac-12 schools have two assistant coaches who focus on the secondary.
How Brown and Watson will share their coaching duties has not been revealed, but presumably one will focus on cornerbacks and nickelbacks and the other will work with safeties. Whether it helps is the question.
8. Will a big-play outside linebacker emerge?
Former Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter used to say that the two outside linebacker spots in the Cal defense are the “glamor positions.” They are in a position to make the big plays that turn a game around.
Cal’s 2021 outside linebackers Cameron Goode and Marqez Bimage accounted for 16 tackles for loss. They are both gone as is Kuony Deng, another big-play outside backer who missed virtually the entire 2021 season with an ankle injury.
Braxten Croteau is the only returning player with much experience at the position, and several redshirt freshmen will try to make an impression at outside linebacker in the spring.
9. Who will fill the holes left on the offensive line?
Tackle Valentino Daltoso and guard McKade Mettauer (transferred to Oklahoma) are both gone after arguably being the Bears’ best offensive linemen last year, and starting tackle Will Craig missed the final four games with an injury last year. Craig will presumably be back, but injuries on the offensive line have been a major issue for the Bears the past few years. They need to develop depth up front, and a number of players will be vying to join center Matthew Cindric and guard Ben Coleman in the front five.
10. Will there be any significant position changes or scheme adjustments?
Coaches are always tinkering with the offensive and defensive schemes, based on the available talent, but major changes probably won’t be revealed until games are played next fall.
The Bears finished eighth in the conference in scoring in each of Bill Musgrave’s first two years as offensive coordinator, and while that represented an improvement over the previous two seasons, it’s not good enough to challenge for a Pac-12 title. Musgrave may feel he needs to make some notable changes to his scheme.
Cal introduced a new position to its defense last season, adding the “star” position, a hybrid safety-outside linebacker spot.
Changes in scheme may lead to some position changes. Last year at this time, Kuony Deng was moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker and Trey Paster was switched from the secondary to inside linebacker. Don’t be surprised if one or two players are playing a new position in the spring that could have an impact in the fall.
Cover photo of Justin Wilcox by Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports
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