BERKELEY -- Saturday’s 520-yard passing performance from Arizona’s Anu Solomon booted California to the bottom of the Pac-12 passing defense standings, with a little help from a 13-catch, 186-yard day from Cayleb Jones and an eight-catch, 127-yard night from Hail Mary recipient Austin Hill, and this week, the Bears aren’t getting much of a break with Colorado coming to town.
“Spruce and Shay Fields -- who’s actually Bryce [Treggs]’ cousin – they look good; they look solid,” said Cal cornerback Darius Allensworth. “Nelson Spruce has 37 catches and Shay’s got 27. The next-highest is 14, I believe. They look nice.”
Spruce has had three 100-yard receiving games in his past four games since taking over as the primary pass catcher, following the departure of Paul Richardson -- who burned Cal for 22 balls for 424 yards in 2011 and 2013 combined before heading to the NFL.
Spruce leads the conference (by more than 10 yards per game) in average receiving yards (129.5), receptions per game (9.2) and receiving touchdowns (7), and the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is, above all else, tough.
“He can do a lot of different things,” says Bears head coach Sonny Dykes. I think he’s a guy that has some pretty good size, a really good route runner, excellent ball skills. The thing I like about him is that he really competes hard for the football when it’s in the air. I think that’s the sign of a really good wide receiver, somebody who’s going to compete for it when it’s up in the air, and he does an excellent job of doing that. I think he obviously is one of the top receivers in the country. The numbers don’t lie, and they do a good job of finding creative ways to get him the football.”
So far this season, Cal is second in the conference in interceptions, with five. Three of those have come thanks to converted receiver Griffin Piatt, who’s made one pick in each of the Bears’ first three games.
“It’s funny, because so many DBs are DBs because they can’t catch, and he’s a guy that was going to be a receiver for us and play a lot, and we moved him to safety,” says Dykes. “He’s got really good ball skills. When the ball’s in the air, he’s like a wide receiver, so he anticipates things well. The biggest thing he does is catch it. You see so many dropped interceptions, but he’s got really good hands, and he’s been a guy that’s been a really key contributor for us. He’s still learning how to be physical, to really come up and support the run the way our safeties have to. He plays the pass really well, and particularly when the ball’s in the air.”
Last season, Spruce played second fiddle to Richardson, but that second fiddle was pretty loud, as Spruce hauled in eight balls for 140 yards in a road loss to the Buffaloes. This year, Spruce has seven catches of over 20 yards, and 17 of over 10 yards, with a 13-catch, 172-yard performance last week against Hawaii.
“I’ve been saying it all this fall and at Media Day, I think he’s an All-Pac-12 receiver,” says Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. “I still believe that, and I definitely think he is. I think where probably Nelson’s gotten a little bit better is, we’re moving him around more places, so that he has more opportunities to catch the ball. He has gotten a little bit better in his route running, but I thought his route running was great before. His speed has gotten a little bit better. He’s able to pull away from guys at times and make the big catches that he has made, and he’s always had really strong hands and catches the ball when people are on him. Nelson’s done a great job, and he’s in phenomenal shape.”
The Buffaloes, much like the Wildcats, make a point of finding Spruce, but they also engineer plays in order to get him the ball. He’s flipped from one side of the field to the other, and sometimes comes out of the slot, which will mean that, more often than not, it could likely be Allensworth guarding him.
“I’m the rover of the whole group,” smiles Allensworth who has 12 tackles and two pass breakups on the season. “I go from left to right to nickel, so we’re going to see what fits best.”
Safety help will be paramount, as the Buffaloes running game likely won’t require much run support. Colorado ranks seventh in the league in rushing (160.0 yards per game), and no Buffaloes running back averages more than 62.3 yards per game, which is the average of Christian Powell. That means that Piatt and Avery Sebastian will be called upon in coverage, and, if he’s healthy, so will Stefan McClure, who missed all of the Arizona game due to a fluke calf injury suffered in pregame warmups.
“We’ll do some things, obviously, to get some help on him, just because he’s good enough where you have to do some things,” says Dykes. “There’ll be times in a game where the corner’s just got to make plays. Our guys are going to have to do that.”
Cal can’t, however, sell out to stop just Spruce, because Fields is a weapon, as well, with 27 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
“He runs pretty good. He’s a receiver that’s productive, and you can see that on his tape this year,” says Dykes. “He understands how to run routes, he understands timing and spacing. He’s got good hands, good speed and plays hard.”
“They are probably some of the top receivers in our conference,” says defensive backs coach Greg Burns. “They’re precise route-runners, great effort, show good speed, disciplined in their routes. They’re obviously go-to guys for their offensive package.”
At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Fields is an effective counterpoint to the bigger Spruce, and the Buffaloes use him in a variety of ways.
“He’s kind of the guy they try to get the ball to on some of those speed sweeps and reverses and that type of stuff, screens,” says Dykes. “They’re kind of different guys, but both good at what they do.”
Quarterback Sefo Liufau has been sacked just six times in four games, and has had plenty of time to throw to both Fields and Spruce. Part of that issue will have to be addressed by the defensive line, but the defensive backs will have to be able to match the speed and physicality down field.
“They do what they do; they have a solid offensive scheme and a quarterback who feels very comfortable in the pocket, throws the ball well and they just run their routes,” Burns says. “They’re good, precise route-runners and technicians.”
Last season, Liufau went 23-for-36 for 364 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception, and wasn’t sacked a single time.
He also guides an offense that will be notably different than the attacks the Bears have seen thus far, in that the Buffaloes will include true tight ends in their passing game, in one-tight end/two-running back sets (12-personnel) and in two-tight end/one-running back sets (21-personnel).
“Colorado’s going to be in a lot of four-wide receiver sets, a lot of 11 personnel with a tight end,” says Dykes. “They’ll be in 12 and 21, just all the different stuff, we’ll see it, so we’ve got to prepare for everything.”