California opens its fifth season under coach Justin Wilcox with the start of 2021 spring practice on Wednesday. Like all teams in college football and especially in the Pac-12, the 2020 college football season was unusual. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Golden Bears played in only four games and finished 1-3. Considering all that transpired last fall, it’s tough to gauge where teams are in the Pac-12 going into 2021. However, it’s notable California finished 2019 at 8-5 and increased its win total in each of Wilcox’s first two years after a 5-7 debut in ‘17.
With 14 starters back, Wilcox and his staff have a good chunk of talent to build around. Offensively, quarterback Chase Garbers and most of his supporting cast are back. The other side of the ball features a couple of standouts at linebacker in Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, but Wilcox has to replace cornerback Camryn Bynum and end Zeandae Johnson. The staff also has experienced some turnover, as Tim DeRuyter and Marcel Yates left to coach at Oregon, and Keith Heyward departed Eugene to coach outside linebackers in Berkeley. Geep Chryst was hired to coach tight ends.
5 Storylines to Watch During California’s Spring Practices
1. Get QB Chase Garbers on Track
On paper, Oregon and Washington should be the favorites to win the Pac-12 North in 2021. For California to have a shot at closing the gap or pushing for the division title, the offense needs quarterback Chase Garbers to take a big step forward. As a freshman in 2018, Garbers paced the offense with 1,506 passing yards and 14 touchdowns and added 420 yards and two scores on the ground. He improved through the air as a sophomore, connecting on 60.9 percent of his throws for 1,772 yards and 14 touchdowns. While it’s tough to read too much into the four-game sample size from 2020, Garbers’ yards per attempt dropped to 5.7 after 8.2 the previous fall. He eclipsed 183 yards just once and completed only two passes of 40 yards or more in 2020. The unusual offseason likely prevented first-year coordinator Bill Musgrave from installing his offense and developing a better rapport with Garbers. With a full offseason to work out the kinks, the Musgrave-Garbers partnership has a chance to improve in 2021.
2. Find Playmakers at WR
Most of the skill talent for California’s offense is set to return in 2021, including 10 of the 12 players who caught a pass last fall. However, for the offense to take off, more big plays and overall game-changing ability need to be developed at receiver. After pacing the team with 38 catches for 513 yards in 2019, Nikko Remigio had only 10 receptions for 90 yards and two scores in ’20. Kekoa Crawford (19 catches) led the way last season and will be a key cog on the outside once again. Tight end Jake Tonges should develop into a nice weapon for Garbers. However, outside of those three, no other player returns that hit double digits in receptions.
3. Improvement Up Front
Again, we have to add this disclaimer: Be careful to read too much into limited sample sizes. However, California’s offensive line allowed 15 sacks in just four games last fall. Only one Power 5 team – Kansas – surrendered more sacks on a per-game basis in 2020. Additionally, as a team, the Golden Bears have averaged better than 4.5 yards per rush just once since 2013. Last season, rushers recorded only 3.43 yards per carry and had one run of more than 30 yards. Right tackle Jake Curhan is the only starter to depart, and this unit received a boost with Valentino Daltoso and Michael Saffell passing on the NFL for an extra senior season.
4. Filling Out the Secondary
California doesn’t have many glaring needs on defense going into 2021. Wilcox has delivered steady improvement to this group since his arrival, and the bulk of the two-deep is back to ensure this should be the team’s strength this fall. One of the few questions surrounding the defense is who will replace Camryn Bynum at cornerback. Bynum – a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020 – was targeted just 10 times over four games last season. The other side of the secondary is set with Josh Drayden back, but it’s uncertain which one of last year’s backups – Chigozie Anusiem, Collin Gamble, Tyson McWilliams, Isaiah Young – could slide into Bynum’s starting role. At safety, Elijah Hicks passed on the NFL for another season in college, and Daniel Scott returns at the other spot after tying for third on the team in tackles (20).
5. One Question Mark Up Front
Similar to the secondary, the list of concerns in the trenches is small for Wilcox. Also, the linebacker unit with Deng and Goode should be one of the better units in the Pac-12. Nose guard Brett Johnson is back after starting all four games last year, but end Zeandae Johnson is off to the next level. Adding to the concerns of replacing Johnson was a lack of proven depth along the line last fall. Aaron Maldonado missed 2020 due to injury, but his return is a boost to the depth on the interior and could allow some players to be shifted or moved to create options off the edge. California allowed 169.3 rushing yards a game in 2020, so finding a replacement for Johnson is going to be crucial to help the defense get tougher versus the run.
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