In Part I of our season preview of Cal’s 2021 football team we look at the team’s strengths and weaknesses heading into Saturday’s home opener against Nevada, knowing these assessments could change over the course of the season.
.Outside linebackers – You could make a pretty good argument that Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng are the two best payers on the team, and they occupy the two outside linebacker spots in Cal’s 3-4 defense.
Deng is transitioning from being an inside linebacker last year, but his body and style lend themselves better to being on the edge. Goode was simply Cal’s best player in 2021.
Both sixth-year seniors are capable of making game-changing plays. Deng forced two fumbles that enabled Cal to upset Oregon last season, and Goode has 27.5 tackles for loss, 14.0 sacks and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in his 26 college games.
Quarterback experience – Chase Garbers begins his third season as Cal’s starting quarterback, and that does not include the 10 starts he made as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
He did not have a great season in 2020, and is not listed among the top Pac-12 quarterbacks heading into the 2021 season. But Garbers has had a full year of practices in Bill Musgrave’s system, and he is comfortable in his position.
We can’t say the quarterback position itself is a strength, but experience at that spot is an advantage.
Receiver depth – Although Makai Polk’s decision to transfer to Mississippi State was a setback, the Bears have a slew of Pac-12-caliber receivers. None has established himself as a star but one or two could break out this season.
Kekoa Crawford is the best of the bunch after making 19 receptions with two TD catches in the Bears’ four games last season. He and Nikko Remigio will be the starters, but Monroe Young and Travon Clark will get playing time, and sophomores Jeremiah Hunter, Justin Richard Baker and Tommy Christakos as well as freshmen J. Michael Studivants and Mavin Anderson could have an impact this season.
Cal is well stocked at tight end with Jake Tonges and Gavin Reinwald back, while freshmen Jeremiah Terry II and Keleki Latu showing signs of having an early impact.
Secondary – Cal’s defensive backs have been among the Pac-12’s best ever since Justin Wilcox became its head coach. The Bears may not have the stars in the secondary that they had in the past, but safety Elijah Hicks is bordering on stardom, and Hicks and cornerback Josh Drayden head a strong back five that includes safety Daniel Scott and corners Chigozie Anusiem and Collin Gamble. Florida State transfer Raymond Woodie III will help too, although the loss of safety Craig Woodson for the season takes away a player capable of making game-changing plays.
Running back – This really depends on whether Christopher Brooks can stay healthy. He rushed for 914 yards in 2019 as a sophomore and has 31 career receptions, but he had only 21 carries for 65 yards last season as he dealt with injuries. He has missed a lot of playing time in his career because of injuries, but when healthy he is among the best in the Pac-12.
Pac-12 schedule -- The Bears player neither Utah nor Arizona State, both of whom are ranked in the preseason top-25, and get Colorado and Arizona as their South Division opponents along with the annual games against USC and UCLA.
Although the North Division provides problems with Oregon and Washington on the road, this is about as favorable a conference schedule that Cal can have.
Lack of a big-play player – This is by far the Bears’ biggest weakness and it has been that way ever since Justin Wilcox arrived. College football teams simply cannot win these days without a couple players who can change the complexion of a game with single play.
Wide receivers Jeremiah Hunter, Justin Richard Baker and Mavin Anderson and running back Ashton Stredick have provided hints that they might be breakaway players, but they have yet to prove it on game day.
You call them "chunk plays" or "big plays" or "explosive plays" or "game-changing plays," but by any name a team needs them to win.
Offensive production – This is tied to the lack of a big-play performer, but the bottom line is that the Bears have been among the worst offensive teams in the Pac-12 the past four seasons, ranking last in total offense each of the past three seasons.
The addition of Bill Musgrave as the offensive coordinator was expected to solve that shortcoming but the Bears were 11th in scoring and last in total defense in 2020.
The restrictions of COVID-19 limited what Musgrave could do last year, and this season will be a better indicator of what his offense can accomplish.
Lack of stars – To compete for a Pac-12 title, a team needs to have NFL-level talent at several positions. Not a single current Cal player was named to the preseason all-Pac-12 first team or second team. Every other Pac-12 team had at least one player named.
Defensive line depth – The return of Luc Bequette is a boon to the defensive line, but the loss of Brett Johnson, probably for the season, countered that.
JH Tevis is adequate as the starting defensive end opposite Bequette, but the nose guard position remains unsettled, and teams need more than three quality defensive linemen to slow Pac-12 offenses.
Inside linebackers – This is the most important position on Cal’s defense and has been manned by standout players in the recent past – Jordan Kunaszyk, Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng.
Sophomore Mo Iosefa had moments of brilliance as a freshman, and Evan Tattersall is solid as the other starting inside backer. But can they dominate like Cal needs them to do at this critical position?
Offensive line – Some might put the offensive line in the “strength” category with the amount of experience Cal has at this position. But the Bears have yet to show they can dominate the line of scrimmage, and the loss of center Michael Saffell, who had to retire because of a back problem, added some concerns.
This may be the most pivotal position group on the team. If the offensive line can be as good as some hope, the Bears may finally have a productive offense.
Nonconference schedule – None of Cal’s three nonconference foes – Nevada, Sacramento State and TCU – is ranked in the preseason AP poll. But Nevada is picked to win the Mountain West, and TCU has been a trendy pick to be the surprise team of the Big 12.
In short, the nonconference schedule is tougher than it might look.
Cover photo of Cameron Goode by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
Find Cal Sports Report on Facebook by searching: @si.calsportsreport or going to https://www.facebook.com/si.calsportsreport