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10 Questions Facing Cal Heading Into Preseason Football Camp

Practice begins Friday and the Golden Bears are inexperienced at a lot of key positions

Cal’s preseason football camp starts Friday (August 5, 9:30 a.m., open to the public), and the Golden Bears have a lot of issues to address with only nine returning starters, including place-kicker and punter.

The Bears were picked to finish ninth in the preseason Pac-12 media poll, so they need to be better than expected.

Here are 10 questions Cal must try to answer before its September 3 opener against UC Davis in Berkeley.

---Can Cal score more points this season?

Cal ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in points per game, which is unsatisfactory but was an improvement. In Justin Wilcox’s five seasons as head coach the Bears 10th in 2017 (27.8 points per game), 12th in 2018 (21.5), 12th in 2019 (21.2), 11th in 2020 (20.2) and eighth last year (23.8). Cal scored the most points in Wilcox’s first season, and has been struggling to score points ever since.

When Bill Musgrave was hired as offensive coordinator prior to the 2020 season, it was expected to give Cal’s offense a significant boost. It hasn’t happened yet. Will it happen in Musgrave’s third season? The Bears seem to have the talent to score more points in 2022, but it is untested talent.


---Will the untested but talented wide receivers provide big plays?

The Bears lost three wide receivers in Trevon Clark, Kekoa Crawford and Nikko Remigio who combined for 230 pass receptions during their careers in Berkeley.

The coaching staff is counting on the newest crop to overcome inexperience with size and speed. Junior Jeremiah Hunter showed great promise a year ago, averaging 18.5 yards per catch.

The key will be the potential emergence of redshirt freshmen J.Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson, both former high-profile recruits with good speed. Others who could play significant roles include JC transfer Mason Starling, a 6-foot-4 junior who caught 19 touchdown passes at College of San Mateo, Justin Richard Baker, Aidan Lee and Tommy Christakos, the latter showing promise during the spring.


---Will quarterback play be as good or better than the past few seasons?

There is a prevailing theory that the departure of Chase Garbers, Cal’s starting quarterback the past four seasons, will mean a drop in quarterback efficiency this season. Well, Garber never ranked better than seventh in the Pac-12 in passer rating in his four seasons, and that best season was 2019, when he did have enough passing attempts to qualify officially. 

Jack Plummer is expected to be the Bears’ 2022 starting quarterback after transferring from Purdue, and the fact that he was replaced as the Boilermakers’ starter midway through last season has limited expectations to some extent. But Purdue was 3-1 in his four starts in 2021, and the only defeat was a 27-13 road loss to Notre Dame, which wound up No. 5 in the final CFP rankings. Maybe Plummer, under Bill Musgrave’s guidance, can be more effective than Garbers. 

And don’t be too surprised if the Bears give second-year quarterback Kai Millner some playing time, especially early in the season.


---Do the Bears have a secret weapon at running back?

Junior Damien Moore, who rushed for 517 yards and six TDs last season, is the starter. But spring ball showed us glimpses of something special from freshman Jaydn Ott, a 6-foot, 205-pounder from Chino, California, who rushed for 2,236 yards on 8.4 yards per attempt and scored 30 touchdowns in high school.

Ott is a consensus four-star prospect, one of the highest-rated running backs Cal has landed in years, and his explosiveness could provide a nice counterpunch to Moore. The Phil Steele magazine likes him enough to give him a spot on its fourth-team pre-season All-Pac-12 team.


---Can the Bears’ front seven be as dominant as it’s been in the past?

Cal has been awfully good up front in Wilcox’s time as head coach, with the likes of linebackers Devante Downs, Jordan Kunaszyk, Evan Weaver, Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, and linemen Luc Bequette, James Looney and JH Tevis. Cal has finished ranked in the top half of the conference in rushing defense in all five of Wilcox’s seasons with the Bears, and they were fourth last year.

Uncertainties exist this year, though. The Bears should be solid at inside linebacker with Washington transfer Jackson Sirmon, a preseason all-Pac-12 pick, pairing with Oluwafemi Oladejo, Muelu Iosefa or Nate Rutchena, but there are questions at outside linebacker, and the nose guard position. 

We are assuming defensive end Brett Johnson will be 100 percent healthy after missing last season following hip surgery, and Cal hopes defensive end Ethan Saunders continues to improve. But a lot depends on Utah transfer defensive end Xavier Carlton and UCLA transfer outside linebacker Odua Isibor.


---Can Cal adequately fill the holes on the offensive line?

Cal’s teams historically have featured stout offensive lines. The Bears have shown promise at the position in recent years, but rarely saw their five big men up front coalesce into a formidable unit.

Fifth-year senior center Matthew Cindric will anchor this group, and Ben Coleman is a proven lineman who has been moved from guard to tackle. But the other spots are unproven. The Bears hope the arrival of a pair of transfers — 6-foot-6, 335-pound senior Spencer Lovell of Arizona State and 6-4, 300-pound junior T.J. Session of Montana State — will bring muscle and experience to a couple openings.

Only if the O-line can protect the quarterback and help power the run game will the Cal offense take the leap forward necessary to compete in the Pac-12’s upper division.


---Who will replace Elijah Hicks at safety?

Sixth-year senior safety Daniel Scott, a preseason all-conference pick, is one of the top players on a defense expected to be strong once more. But his opposite number at safety is uncertain after 2021 all-Pac-12 safety Elijah Hicks was taken in the NFL draft.

Craig Woodson, Miles Williams III and Ray Woodie will duel through August for the position with redshirt freshmen Fatu Iosefa and Hunter Barth hoping to gain the attention of the coaching staff.


---Who will be the big-play performers on defense now that Kuony Deng, Elijah Hicks, Marqez Bimage, JH Tevis, Luc Bequette and Cameron Goode are gone?

Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon has stressed the importance of creating negative plays for the opposing offense; it’s hard to win games without those game-changing plays. Deng played only one game last season, but the five other players mentioned in the question accounted for 27.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 of the team’s 23 sacks. 

Cal needs someone to make the big plays defensively. Maybe it will be defensive end Ethan Saunders, who made just one start last season but had 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. 

Maybe it will be UCLA outside linebacker transfer Oduo Isibor, who had 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in 2021 for the Bruins. Maybe it will be Utah transfer Xavier Carlton, who had 4.0 tackles for loss last season. Maybe it will be inside linebacker Nate Rutchena, who started just three games in 2021 as a freshman, but managed to intercept three passes and make 3.0 tackles for loss. Maybe it will be someone no one expects, but somebody has to be the big-play defender in the image of Cameron Goode, who had 36.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks in his Cal career.


---How will Bill Musgrave make use of his talent at tight end?

Musgrave loves the tight end position, and he often uses two or three tight ends at a time, sometimes to start a game. Five Cal tight ends caught passes last season, and eight tight ends are on the Bears’ roster this season. However, Cal’s leading tight end receivers in 2021 – Jake Tonges and Collin Moore – are no longer around. The focus will be on Jermaine Terry II and Keleki Latu, both of whom made an impression last year as freshmen.


---Who will be the kickoff and punt returners?

Cal’s return game has been fairly ordinary throughout the Justin Wilcox era. Now-departed Nikko Remigio provided a lift last season by averaging 29.1 yards per kickoff return — including a TD — and 7.0 yards on punt returns.

But the Bears’ returning players combined for a total of 4 yards on a pair of returns last season, so there are opportunities and questions here. Mavin Anderson (kickoffs) and Lu-Magia Hearns (punts) could step into those roles, but this is a huge unknown for Cal entering fall camp.


Cover photo of Jeremiah Hunter by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports


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