1. Taking the Next Step?
Trying to fairly evaluate Zach Maynard's season as starting quarterback for California is hard enough when the last impression is of that disastrous outing against Texas, where he committed two turnovers and was sacked six times by endless waves of pressure.
It is more difficult when my only other in-person look came during that Thursday meltdown against USC, as the redshirt junior threw three interceptions and lost a fumble to negate a terrific defensive effort by the Bears.
Did I see Cal on television? You bet. Of course, it was the first-half debacle at Oregon, when Maynard couldn't hit the broad side of anything, and fourth-quarter disaster at UCLA, when he gave the game away.
Needless to say, I may not be the best judge of the former Buffalo signal-caller.
Set aside those four games and Maynard threw 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions, the kind of game management perfect to compliment a solid ground game and sound defense. Cal was 7-2 with that Maynard at quarterback, nearly taking Washington to overtime in one of those defeats.
But in those losses, you would be hard pressed to find a less productive player. Sure, the offensive line was bowled over in those games and 1,300-yard running back Isi Sofele was often bottled up, but sometimes a quarterback has to lift his team above such struggles.
Sofele and wide receiver Keenan Allen return, along with several starting offensive linemen, so the foundation will be in place for Maynard to have success. Head coach Jeff Tedford also settled in on a system that plays to Maynard's strengths as the year went along, using his mobility more on bootlegs and rollouts to create easier reads and capitalizing on play action.
However, in a quarterback-driven league like the Pac-12, he must elevate his play for Cal to return to form as an upper-tier team capable of winning more than eight games.
2. The Savior Arrives?
Zach Kline looks the part.
Having seen him in person at the Elite 11 last summer in Malibu, he can make all the necessary throws. George Whitfield, the renowned private quarterback guru, was a counselor that week and raved about the Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley standout's physical tools and mental makeup.
Kline should provide the exceptional quarterback play Cal has been lacking since Aaron Rodgers left Berkeley at the end of the 2004 season. The question will be now or later, as Tedford said Kline would have every opportunity to compete for early playing time starting with spring practice in two weeks.
Everyone should remember that outside of Matt Barkley at USC and Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State, who benefited from tremendous supporting casts, true freshmen have usually not produced successful seasons when thrust into the starting lineup. Even those two went through major growing pains.
Still, the sheer excitement Kline's presence will generate will be the must-follow storyline from the first practice all the way through the spring game.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of having Kline in the fold will be providing a true challenge to Maynard, who attempted all but 34 passes last season. Having Kline as a viable option might be the necessary ingredient that pushes the incumbent over the top.
3. More Than A Two-Man Race?
If everything plays out as expected, reps in spring practice will belong almost exclusively to Maynard and Kline. The onus will be on Allan Bridgford, Austin Hinder and Kyle Boehm to break through.
None of the above was apparently capable of displacing Maynard, even at his worst, last season. Bridgford attempted 19 passes during the final few drives at Oregon, but never saw meaningful live action.
Whoever cannot get in the mix may have to consider transferring elsewhere. Quarterback is unlike anything in football. Save a change of pace option like Tim Tebow as a freshman at Florida, there is only one that sees the field on a regular basis.
The other 21 spots on offense and defense coaches can rotate or find other ways to get multiple players game action, but not with the man under center.
Especially if the true freshman Kline ends up as one of the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, a change of venue might provide the only chance to play.