Zach Kline returns to Cal, coming full circle after two years in the wilderness

Just take one look at Zach Kline's entry on California's football roster -- San Ramon Valley / Cal / Butte CC / Indiana State / Cal -- and you can see he's been through a lot, but now, the former Under Armour All-American has come back home to Berkeley, and all he wants to do is be the best teammate he can be.

It's spring. In religious traditions throughout the globe, the simple, unassuming circle is the symbol of the season. In Judaism, the hard-boiled egg on the Seder plate is meant to symbolize the cyclical renewal of life. Ditto with the Easter Egg, which has its origin as a symbol of Eastra, the Saxon goddess of spring, and Eostre, a Germanic a goddess of dawn – the rising sun. Yet again, a circle. There and back again. Around and around.

This isn’t the story about a second chance. This isn’t even a story about a last chance. It’s just a chance. It’s just a moment -- one more moment in the sun. One more moment of renewal.

•••••

It’s a late-February evening in 2012. Then-Cal head coach Jeff Tedford takes the lectern in front of the Sacramento Grid Club. 

Zach Kline is not the savior,” he tells them. He’s not knocking his four-star, All-American quarterback signee. He’s cautioning them. He remembers all too well when he first got a hold of Kyle Boller. Boller he says, was labeled the savior of a moribund Bears football program, and had so many expectations heaped upon his shoulders that, Tedford says, he hated football. He was ready to quit. Until Tedford replaced Tom Holmoe, and gave Boller new life.

When Kline came to Berkeley in the spring of 2012, he and Bryce Treggs were promising Rose Bowls, giving hope to Cal fans in the face of a recruiting class blasted apart by the defection of Tosh Lupoi and five-star Shaq Thompson to Washington, and the flipping of four-star receiver Jordan Payton, and five-star defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy to UCLA. There were plenty of legends popping up around Kline, the most startling of which was that he'd broken all five of his father's fingers on one hand with a throw (a story his father has confirmed, proudly). He was, to Cal fans, like a folk hero.

When Kline came to Berkeley, he said he was thinking of taking the No. 2 jersey. He had mulled over asking for No. 8, but then decided he wanted to blaze his own trail. When he arrived, the equipment manager handed him another digit, saying, “I’ve been waiting for a while to give this to you.”

It was Aaron Rodgers’ old number, No. 8.

It’s been four years since Zach Kline’s first spring in Berkeley. He has played a grand total of three games for the Golden Bears, and he’s been to two different colleges since he transferred from Cal at the end of the 2013 season. He backed up Keenan Allen half brother, Zach Maynard, during a 3-9 2012 campaign, and then lost the 2013 quarterback competition to a guy named Jared Goff.

He was headed to Oregon State, but when that fell through, he went to Butte Community College -- Rodgers's old stomping grounds. From there, he spent a year at Football Championship Subdivision Indiana State.

Now, he's back, as a walk-on. 

•••••

He steps in front of the camera again at Memorial Stadium, a loose whip of hair swinging in front of his eyes, tied back with the same American flag bandana he’s sported for five years. It’s worn. It’s faded. But it’s not frayed. It’s his Grand Old Flag, he says.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1653562-jake-spavital-spri... His eyes twinkle, drops of rain hanging onto his dancing eyebrows.

He’s still as friendly and as excitable as your average cocker spaniel. In fact, he says, living with his sister, Aly, and her new husband in San Ramon, he’s like the family dog. Except he leaves dishes in the sink. 

“Maybe I’m worse than the dog,” he smirks.

There was a time when he dreamed of NFL stardom. There was a time when he dreamed of starting in this stadium, in front of 70,000 fans. Now, he says, he’s just happy to be here. He’s just happy to be home. At the end of a half-hour interview, almost like the back half of a thought, he mentions perhaps going into coaching. This isn’t the same Zach Kline. Zach Kline, No. 8, dreamed of the pros. Zach Kline, No. 17, doesn’t know what he wants to do with his English degree. He just wants to hold on to the game, to these moments.

“Shoot, I think every athlete has, once or twice, thought about going into coaching, because you love the sport that you play so much,” said one of Kline’s best and longest-tenured friends, receiver Patrick Worstell, who caught passes from Kline at San Ramon Valley. “Shoot, I could see him being a coach. I think he has a bright future, no matter what he does.”

Yes, in many ways, he hasn’t changed. He still has that ratty bandana underneath his helmet. He still has that winning smile. He still has an unfailingly positive outlook. He still has the cannon.

“I’ve been to two practices so far, and he’s looking good,” said former Cal wide receiver Treggs, who came in with Kline as a member of the 2012 recruiting class. “He still doesn’t have any touch on the ball, and he’s throwing it 100 miles an hour.”

“I think Zach’s got some zip to him, yes he does,” smiled Worstell. “There’s a whiz to the ball.”

But now, there's something different. Something more well-worn about Kline than that bandana.

•••••

That whiz, that zip, that pop, it was Kline's trademark. It's what wowed scouts and coaches alike. It's what prompted Mike Riley to extend to Kline his first scholarship offer. But, Kline has always been a Cal kid. It's the school he grew up watching. He committed to the Bears back in September of 2010, two full years before he was set to graduate from Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley. His Wolves even used Cal's uniform template. They ran the same offense as Tedford's Bears. 

His first impression on Cal fans was a 45-yard up-the-seam dart to now-graduate assistant Spencer Hagan in the Spring Experience down at Edwards Track Stadium in the spring of 2012. He had a howitzer on his shoulder, and it was tantalizing. There was a debate in the fan community: Go for broke and start Kline, take some lumps, and then come back in 2013 with an experienced and talented arm at quarterback, or eek out a six-win season with Maynard at the helm. After a 5-7 season in 2010, and a 7-6 season in 2011, with a lackluster 21-10 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas -- the same team that had kept Rodgers's Bears from a Rose Bowl in 2005 -- Tedford was slipping. A six-win season and a bowl appearance would buy time. It would allow Kline to develop without any of that Savior pressure.

Tedford went with Maynard. Cal went 3-9. Tedford lost his job.

When Tedford's replacement -- Sonny Dykes -- was hired, he brought on offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and his high-tempo spread system. Gone was the offense Kline had spent years studying. Gone were the under-center snaps. Gone was the pro-style set. In came Goff, and with him, a heated quarterback competition between Kline, Goff, Austin Hinder and Allan Bridgford.

After spring, Bridgford transferred to Southern Miss. The new offense wasn't suited to his long release and lack of mobility. Kline kept fighting, kept battling. But, he and Franklin never clicked like Franklin did with Goff, and Goff, well, he was Goff. There's a few reasons -- roughly 12,200 of them -- why he's one of the top two quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Kline had outside interests, other pursuits. He played in a band. He was the typical laid-back California kid, riding a longboard to class, and Franklin was an old Southern hand. They were two different men.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1649962-bttv-zach-kline-s-... “And I’m two different guys, [then and] now, too," Kline says. "I didn’t know, I guess, how to act, and how to practice like a pro, and how to carry yourself, on and off the field. I wasn’t a bad kid in any sense, but there are certain things.”

Goff is -- and was -- a football geek. Franklin has spoken of how when he got to his office in the morning, a light was on in the quarterbacks room. It was Goff, watching film. When Franklin left in the evenings, that light was on again. Again, it was Goff. He lived and breathed football. It was in his blood. Kline had always had such natural talent, but he didn't study like Goff did. 

"You have to learn to," Kline says. "I’d say, now, if you want to play quarterback in college, you have to, and I definitely am. That’s one thing that I learned from Jared, and I’ve learned from other quarterbacks, is that you have to, if you want to be good, you have to submerge yourself in it. Now, that’s something that I do. I really have enjoyed learning everything there is. Maybe, because I want to be a coach now, too. I didn’t make an effort to, I guess, really make that transition back then.

Kline won't speculate on whether that's where the disconnect between him and Franklin emerged. But, he did know one thing, at the time: He was frustrated.

“You know, I don’t know," he says. "I definitely was mad at the whole situation, of course. I feel like, I think that was a given. But, I was never going to do something that was detrimental to the team. I was never going to throw a fit, or be an ‘I’ guy. But, I was definitely mad. I didn’t handle it like a man.”

Kline was every bit the good soldier during the 1-11 2013 season. He came in when Goff stumbled at Oregonbut Goff re-earned his spot. He made a relief appearance against Stanford, after Goff went down with a shoulder injury. He took joy in every snap he got, because in the back of his mind, he knew he had a decision to make. Goff was The Man. 26 records later, and that's proven itself out. Kline needed to find someplace else to go. 

"Just that year, sometimes, it’s like, ‘Man, I wish I did some things differently,’ from what I know now," Kline says. "But, I couldn’t have known that without having to go through it. It’s kind of like, I needed to go through this to grow up.”

Then, Kline did what he says was the "hardest thing" -- he decided to transfer. He knew, when Goff won the job, that he would head elsewhere, but it still didn't really hit him.

“Yeah, but it’s not real. It’s not real until it actually happens," he says. "When you’re 19, too, you don’t think about stuff like that. You don’t think: I might move to a different state. I’d never been to Indiana. I’d never even been in the Midwest before. I didn’t know I was going to end up in the Midwest, and so far from Berkeley.”

•••••

Kline went to Diablo Valley College in the spring of 2014 to earn his Associates Degree, so wherever he transferred, he'd have two years to play two. He intended to head to Oregon State, and play in Riley's pro-style system, a better fir, perhaps, than Franklin's spread. Then, in May, Luke Del Rio transferred from Alabama to Oregon State. Kline would have faced another quarterback competition.

“Man, that was a while ago," Kline sighs. "At that point, I thought that was a good spot, because I didn’t know, I was committed here for so long. They were the first school to offer, and coach Riley is a great guy. I was like, ‘Man, what would be another option?’ I went there, and thought, ‘Not the best situation.’”

So, he decided to follow Rodgers's path, but in reverse. His teammate, offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee, a year older than him, provided the path. Rigsbee's father, Craig, long had an affinity for Kline. When Kline needed a place to land, Craig -- the former football coach and now Athletic Director at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif. -- found him a place.

“I just thought, keep looking, see what happens, and ultimately, I went to Butte," Kline says. "I knew Jordan Rigsbee’s father was the AD there, and he’s the man. I got to know all the QB coaches and all them. They were great. I learned a lot there. I learned a ton, specific stuff, simple audible checks and stuff like that, gap shades and different things.”

Kline had always just been able to depend on his arm talent, before. With Tedford seemingly intent on starting the more-experienced Maynard, Kline was a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency quarterback. Sources at the time said that, and Maynard been hurt in the first six games, Kline would have gotten the nod for the rest of the season. But, if he'd gotten injured after the six-game mark, it would be Hinder or Bridgford starting the rest of the season. Kline spent 2012 learning Tedford's complex offense, instead of working on the intricacies of quarterbacking necessary to managing a game.

In 2013, he was stymied at every turn, and, as he says, he didn't handle the situation well. At Butte, he could learn in a safer-to-fail environment. There weren't 65,000 people watching every throw, or millions of alumni around the world dissecting his game.

“Junior college is really good for guys, I think," Kline says. "You learn a little bit more under the surface from high school. But, it was different, because it was a whole different offense from what I was used to.”

Kline had a middling year for the Roadrunners. He completed 145 of 237 passes for 1,708 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. He rushed for 208 yards and three scores. After the 2014 season, the former Under Armour All-American accepted a scholarship offer from the Sycamores.

“The people that are closest to me – my girlfriend, my sister, my mom, my step-dad – it was hard," Kline says. "This journey has definitely been really rough. It was tough. It tested me as a man, tested me as a quarterback, tested me as an athlete, in general. But, you can’t give up. Just because there are shots at your ego, that’s the thing that I’ve […] a lot of players who get similar accolades like that, they have to learn: It’s just a title. It doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to come to work. You’ve got to produce.”

•••••

Kline competed during the fall of 2015 for the starting quarterback gig, again. On the final day of fall camp, he was told he wouldn't be the starter. 

“That was the decision, and it’s got to be quick," Kline says. "That’s the thing with football: It’s all about quick decisions, and making the right one. It was hard. It was really hard. But, again, having family and friends – Patrick Worstell – but they were 1,000 miles away, and it was hard for me to be that far away, so far from the people that I love so deeply. It forced me to connect with those guys, out there, and it forced me to just accept it and work. You can’t change it, so why wallow in not having something work out? That’s life. Things don’t go your way all the time, so you’ve just got to work as hard as you can.

"From when they told me that I wasn't going to be the guy, it’s a two-way street: You can either have a bad attitude and not come to work the next day, or you can be the best backup you can, for the team," he says. "That’s where I made the transition, in me as a man, really, and as a teammate, because I cared so deeply about my roommates, those guys and all the other guys on the team, that I said, ‘I’m going to be the best backup I can possibly be, and the best teammate I possibly can be,’ because if someone gets hurt, I’m going to go in, and I’m going to watch as much film as I possibly can, and be as ready as I possibly can, and I feel comfortable. I learned so much about just being ready, and how to prepare.”

Prepare he did. Even before his sister's wedding, Kline was seen watching film in the groomsmen's room.

“For me, going from Butte to Indiana State, I worked hard. I worked really hard, and I had great friends there," he says. "My roommates are coming out in May. I love ‘em, all the O-line guys. They’re my best buddies. They’re guys that I’ll be buddies with until the day I die. They’re just dudes that really helped me with that, too. I kept my mouth shut, worked hard, made a lot of buddies, and I just let the chips fall where they fell. I did what I did, that I was in control of, and whatever happened, happened."

Even as he did his homework, his eyes turned back to Berkeley. He saw Goff set record after record after record -- 26 of them -- and he didn't begrudge him his success, one bit. He laughingly admits that, looking back, Goff was the right choice. 

With every step in his journey, Kline learned more and more humility. It doesn't get more humbling than going from All-American golden boy to backup on a Division I-AA team. Kline played out his year at Indiana State, playing in just three games, going 6-of-13 for 47 yards and no touchdowns, and rushing for 24 yards on six attempts as backup to sophomore Matt Adam.

He still kept in touch with his old friends at Berkeley, including Worstell, with whom he'd played since he was six-years old.

“That was a competitive battle," Worstell remembers of the race between Kline and Goff. "It was unfortunate one guy had to win, and they picked one, and Jared did absolutely amazing. It was a close battle, until the end. Everyone would tell you that. They picked one, and it worked out."

“He’s great. He’s a great quarterback," Kline says of the future first-rounder. "Look, I still, it was a competition, but he’s still a buddy, and I still had buddies on the team, super-close buddies, guys that will be my friends forever, on that team, and that are still on this team."

Kline still talked with Worstell, Hardy Nickerson and others, as he watched from afar. 

“Guys that I came in with, and guys that I played with – Chris BorrayoJack Austin – those are guys I was still in touch with, throughout this whole journey," he says. "I still obviously rooted for them, and watching the games on TV, watching Bryce Treggs, watching Chris Harper, it was hard, but I still cheered for them.”

With the Sycamores' season over, Kline decided he needed to come home -- not just to the Bay Area, but to Berkeley.

https://twitter.com/zachklineQB/status/672111466087100417

Then, Cal went to a bowl game -- the Lockheed-Martin Armed Forces Bowl. There as no jilted-lover bitterness from Kline. Not even a whiff of "That should have been me."

“No, because I still had friends on the team," Kline says. "I’m really happy watching that whole thing play out.”

Shortly after the win over Air Force, Goff opted to leave early for the NFL DraftFranklin took the OC job at Middle Tennessee State. The wheels began to turn.

“I said ‘Go for it, man. Come back here, get a degree. I totally understand. See where football takes you after that.’ I was all for it," Worstell says. "I support whatever he does. When he told me about the football deal, I was, ‘Sure, go for it!’”

•••••

Kline spent his first month and a half on campus almost as a ghost. Something just didn't feel right. He was working out at The Range with his former quarterbacks coach, Will Hewlett, the same coach who worked with him in high school. Even when contacted by BearTerritory, which has followed him now for six years, he said he was just in Berkeley to finish his degree. But as the warm welcomes poured in, and as he reconnected with friends and former teammates, an idea took root.

"I was at school, and I’d see my buddies, see everyone, and I just missed being a part of the team," Kline says.   

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1632198-dykes-franklin-han... He and Worstell -- who spent a season at safety before moving back to the offensive side of the ball -- have known one another since kindergarten. Worstell was one of Kline's most consistent sounding boards throughout his journey abroad.

“It was tough," Worstell says. "You never want to see someone have to change schools, especially colleges, especially one that he loved, but I think he knew that it was something he had to do. I think he was confident in his decision. I think he was disappointed, but that’s how it goes. That’s part of the game. He handled it extremely well. Really mature about it. There’s no issues with complaining or anything. He was extremely mature about the whole process, so I respect him for that. That’s a tough deal. Coming into an awesome school, an athletic program like this, and having to leave, that’s a tough thing to go through.”

“Not that I saw. Zach, he’s been the same dude for as long as I’ve known him," Worstell said. "I didn’t see any ego go up, ego go down, he’s always been the same guy.”

Never in the past three years did Worstell hear Kline complain. But, there was turmoil as he wrestled with a decision: How could he go back to Dykes, and ask to come back to the team? That wasn't part of the plan. Until it was. So, about a month before the start of spring ball, he screwed up his courage, and walked up the hill to Memorial Stadium.

"I just kind of had to build the courage up, mainly because I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be," Kline says. "Being able to talk to coach Dykes, he’s the most personable guy I know, so that’s definitely something that made it really easy to be able to talk to him. I was able to talk to him, man to man.

"Knowing everything in the past years, all these thoughts go through your head, and, bare bones, I just want to be on the team, and help, and be a teammate, be a team player. That’s all. When I kept thinking on that, knowing that’s what this is, then I guess that’s where the courage came from.”

It also came from his girlfriend, who gave him the final push he needed. He was present when she spoke at her commencement at Berkeley this past spring.

"Zach handled the first time here really with a lot of maturity, and it didn't go the way he wanted, and I was really proud of the way he handled it," Dykes said. "That's hard to do, sometimes, when you're a young guy. He wants to come back, be a part of this team, graduate with the guys he came in with. It was important to him. We sat down and talked about it, and I said I was happy that he decided to come back."

Dykes told Kline to talk to strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, who, Dykes says, has a pulse of the team. Kline did. Harrington reported back to Dykes that it was a go.

“The deal was, you’ve got to come ready to work," Kline says. "Talking with coach Damon, that’s all I want to be. I just want to be a great teammate. I want to come ready to work every day, I want to give my all, and whatever happens, happens. I’m just happy to be a part of the team.”

He repeats it like a prayer: I just want to be a good teammate. He has no illusions, no ego to bruise. It's the Bull Durham cliche -- he's just happy to be here, and the good Lord willing, things will work out -- but it's not a rote memorization. It's earnest sentiment, with Kline.

“When I first walked out here, with all the guys, it was like freshman year again, like, ‘Woah, this is really cool!’" Kline says with his trademark excitement. "I’ve had this newfound appreciation for really everything – going to lift, going to practice, going to meetings, just really being able to step in the locker room, really, and be with these guys. You take so much of that for granted, when you go into your day-to-day routine, but for me, I cherish it a lot more. It’s something that I really want to think about and dwell in, not in a bad sense, but I want to cherish it. That’s what I’ve learned. I’m up at five or so, getting ready to lift, and I’m excited, because this could not have been. There was always that possibility that coach [Dykes] could have said ‘No.’ I’m just so happy that I’m able to be a part of that, and be able to be a guy on the team.”

He'll have to get into graduate school at Cal, after taking his degree in May, in order to remain with the team in the fall, as a graduate transfer. It's something he firmly intends to do.

“I wanted to graduate with that degree, and graduate with Patrick Worstell, my buddy from when we were about five or six, and all my other buddies from the years I spent here. I’ve been really blessed to be able to have an opportunity," Kline says. “You’re a student, and then an athlete. That’s something that the coaches stress, and the guys are definitely on it. At a school like this, you have to be on it. You have to take it seriously. It’s a hard school, a hard school. They don’t lie about that. It’s tough, but you’ve got to work hard.”

He wants to finish where he started. He wants to wear the blue and gold again, even if it's on the sidelines. He's no longer the golden boy. He's not even a scholarship player. He's just No. 17, QB.

"This is the team I want to be a part of, and the team that I want to help out, in any way possible," he says. "I just want to be one of the guys. I’ll give my best and play football. This is my last year. I want to relish it, and have a great time, and whatever happens, happens.”

Dykes was quick to make sure all parties knew what they were getting into.

"I said, 'I want to make sure we manage expectations,' for him and for everybody," Dykes said. "Zach's a great kid, a very hard-working kid, a popular kid. I met with him, I asked him to meet with Damon Harrington, because he has a good sense for what's going on with the team, and he met with Damon and then Damon gave me the OK. At that point, I said, 'Yeah, we'd love to have you back.' He'll go through spring ball, and we'll see what happens."

There are four other quarterbacks in the mix to replace Goff -- Luke Rubenzer, the favorite Chase Forrest, and freshmen Max Gilliam and Ross Bowers. Kline is just another yellow jersey.

His expectations are simple: “Just to have fun, be a good teammate, get to know each guy, and try as hard as I can," he says. "I just want to be a servant to everyone on this team, if that’s a player, a coach, equipment staff, whatever that is. I just want to be a guy that’s remembered as a dude that worked hard, and never gave up.”

Maybe, like Hagan, he'll come back as a graduate assistant at some point. He doesn't know. He just wants to be here.

“I’d love to be a coach one day. I’d love to be able to help out and give back and do all that, because I feel like I’m easy to talk to.”

No disagreement here.

“But, yeah, no, I’d love to be able to give back in that aspect, mainly because I just love the relationship with the players, and that’s the biggest thing, I think.”

•••••

Instead of the weighty No. 8, Kline now wears No. 17. It's a reversal from his fellow quarterback competitor, Rubenzer, who wore No. 8 in 2014 as a quarterback then switched to No. 17 as a safety, and returned to The Ocho this spring. While Kline No. 8 looks the same as Kline No. 17, and even Worstell says the ball makes the same sound when it hits his hands, there are differences.

The gravity of expectations is gone. The past is the past. Now, all Kline can do is move forward.

“Zach Kline, No. 8, I was young. I was just different. It was a different set of priorities," Kline says. "Now, I just want to work hard. I just want to be a great teammate. That’s really all that any player, regardless of year or wherever, should do. That’s the biggest thing, is just be a guy that works his tail off, and be a great teammate, and for me, I think that’s the best outlook you could possibly have.

“That’s the outlook that slows everything down. It calms you down. Then, the pressures are gone. I really think they do fall off. Then, it’s just, play, have fun. If you worked hard and you studied, then you should be OK. All you need to do then, is study, work hard and execute. That’s it. It’s a simple formula.”

As simple as a circle.

“I think anyone could say they’ve had uncertain moments about life or about football. But, he’s been strong as heck, with this whole process," Worstell says. “It’s tough, what he’s been through, bouncing around, and I’ve never seen him collapse. He’s handled it like a man. He’s been strong through this whole deal. I think he’s truly happy to do a complete circle and come back where he started.”


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