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Cal Has Overhauled Starting Lineup Just Four Games Into Season

Bears had nine new position starters from the opener in Week 4, and it could be 10 against WSU
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You hear it all the time from teams that play better at the end of a season: “We’re a different team now than we were at the start of the season.”

In Cal’s case, though, it’s almost literally true that the Bears are a different team than they were in their opener – and we’re not even halfway through the season.

In the fourth game of the season against Arizona, Cal had different starters than it did in its opener at nine positions. And the depth chart for Saturday’s road game against Washington State suggests it might increase to different starters at 10 positions.

That’s nearly half the starting lineup. It’s a depth-chart overhaul just a few games into the season, with injuries playing only a minor part in the dramatic changes. 

This was not a panic move because Cal was 2-1 and could have won the game against Notre Dame. Freshmen are taking a more prominent role, with three true freshmen starting against Arizona, none of whom was a starter in the opener. And there might be more changes to the starting lineup before this season is over.

Let’s recap. Starting with the defense, outside linebacker Myles Jernigan, inside linebacker Ryan Puskas and true freshman defensive end Nate Burrell were starters against Arizona after being backups in the opener, and all three could be starters against WSU. If Puskas does not start, it will be Nate Rutchena at inside linebacker, and Rutchena was not a starter in the opener either.

Femi Oladejo was performing well at inside linebacker beside Jackson Sirmon in the first three games, but with Odua Isidor sidelined with an injury, Oladejo was moved to a starting outside linebacker spot, which represented a significant adjustment. And this week’s depth chart indicates Oladejo will be a starter at outside linebacker even if Isidor returns. That’s four new position starters from the opener, and all four may occupy their new starting spots on Saturday.

And it's possible Darius Long will make his first start at nose tackle on Saturday as both he or Ricky Correia are listed as possible starters at that position this week.

The multiple changes may explain why Cal struggled defensively in the first half against Arizona, then dominated things in the second half once the new group gained cohesiveness.

The big change on offense, of course, was the promotion of freshman running back Jaydn Ott to the starting lineup in the third game. Just as significant was the change to the offensive line, with four of the five positions being manned by a different starter in Game 4. True Freshman Sioape Vatikani made his first start at left guard on Saturday and is slated to start there again against the Cougars. Center Matthew Cindric was moved from starting center to starting right guard, with Brian Driscoll replacing him at center. That looks like a permanent move. T.J. Session, a transfer from Montana State, made his first start at right tackle for injured Spencer Lovell, and Session is scheduled to start again against WSU.

The vast improvement in the offensive line’s play from the Notre Dame game to the Arizona game suggests Cal may stay with this alignment up front. Offensive tackle Ben Coleman was the only player who occupied the same starting position he held in the opener, and he was named Pac-12 offensive lineman of the week for his play against Arizona, when the Bears scored 49 points.

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Three of the new starters are freshmen, and you have to wonder whether another true freshman, defensive back Jeremiah Earby, will be a starter before the season is over based on the instinctive plays he has made in the first four games.

If you count redshirt freshmen receivers Mavin Anderson and J.Michael Sturdivant as freshmen, Cal has five freshmen starting, with more possibly later in the year. True freshman Jackson Brown is listed as the backup at one offensive tackle spot.

You might also expect tight end Elijah Mojarro to get the amount of playing time a starter typically gets despite being third team on the depth chart after making three catches for 45 yards against Arizona. Keleki Latu has eight receptions this season, the most by a Cal tight end, even though he has not started any of the Bears’ four games. Jermaine Terry II has started all four games at tight end, presumably because of his blocking ability, but he has just one catch this season, so Latu or Mojarro might get a start if Cal wants to target its tight end in its passing offense early in a game.

Things are changing from week to week for Cal, which hopes to improve to 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2015.

So when Cal coaches say the Golden Bears are a different team from the one that began the season, it’s not just coach-speak.

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Cover photo of Myles Jernigan is by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports

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