Cal quarterback race looks to be tightening, Derron Brown shows up big in second spring scrimmage

BERKELEY -- We break down what we saw at Cal's first open scrimmage of the spring, an affair which saw the Bears run close to 140 plays, and some superb play by both Ross Bowers and Derron Brown.

Quarterback Race

Saturday was supposed to grant some sort of clarity, but instead, it perhaps muddied the waters, or, at the very least, made whittling down the field of five to a more-manageable field of three a bit tougher. 

California head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital were loathe to say there was any separation, particularly because the quarterback who's seemed to be the most comfortable, the most consistent and the most accurate -- Chase Forrest -- had a middling day after throwing three straight touchdowns on his first three passes in red zone work.

Forrest went 1-for-7 during one drive, and then sat through three drives before getting back in again, and going 0-for-3 before finding Patrick Worstell for 14 yards. Then, he under threw Jordan Veasy, but the JuCo transfer was able to slow up, make the grab and finish off a 29-yard play. Forrest then hit Chad Hansen over the middle for a gain of 11, leading into a three-yard touchdown run by Alex Netherda to finish the scrimmage. Tempo was an emphasis as the Bears ran at a much quicker pace than even their fastest under former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, which was particularly notable given that the Bears ran much more than we've seen them run in recent years, despite not having Tre Watson (he was shelved to save him for the rest of spring ball, and, given that he averaged over 90 yards per game over the final four games of the season, the staff doesn't really need to see more of him) and Khalfani Muhammad (still running track).

Dykes said that Billy McCrary III, given the depth at running back, could wind up playing a role in the slot game. The Bears want to have four or five running backs able to contribute.

"We had some substitution issues on both sides, but I thought, for the first time out, really playing at this pace, I thought it was pretty good," Dykes said. "I thought we did some good things. It's something we've got to continue to work on."

Redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, who's called Spavital's pace "hyperdrive," missed two practices -- one before and one after spring break -- in order to have his tonsils out, his sinuses drained and to fix a deviated septum. No word on whether he had his oil changed, too, but the now literally clear-headed Bowers showed a lot of pop early, hitting Brandon Singleton for a gain of 35, then a 15-yarder to Worstell and finally another bomb, again to Singleton, dropping a 30-yard pass over Derron Brown and right into Singleton's waiting hands. 

On the day, Bowers looked very comfortable and smooth for about two-thirds of the practice, but faded late, throwing an interception to safety Jacob Anderson and going 10-for-20 on his final two drive with no scores.

Zach Kline had just about his entire family in attendance, including his mother, sister, step father and brother-in-law, and looked perhaps the most comfortable out of all of the quarterbacks, even on the run, which isn't exactly his strength. It still isn't according to Spavital, but Kline did run for 33 yards on three runs during his first drive starting from his own 25-yard line.

"My first series in there, kind of still had that adrenaline rolling," Kline said. "Still wanted to make a play, move the chains. I could have stayed in there, for sure, and threw it to Jack Austin and stuff like that ... Definitely a lot of room for growth, for sure ... I've definitely got to get in that film room and keep getting better."

Kline said that he's "light years" more comfortable now than he was his first day back in uniform.

"I'm slowing the game down, and taking it for what it is, having fun, keep paying ball and channel that inner 12-year old out there, and just have fun," Kline said. "Play football, do what you have to do, and do what the coaches say. Don't play reckless, but have fun. That's the trope of this spring to me."

Kline found it hard to move towards the middle of practice, being sacked twice, once by DeVante Wilson and once by Marcus Manley, who spun Kline down by his foot in a congested pocket.

"I think he's done fine," Dykes said. "He's had a good spring. He's a little bit rusty, and he's got to do a better job staying in the pocket. There are times when he's got to sit in there, and find some open guys and he's had a tendency to run out of the pocket some, so it's one of the things he's working on, and needs to improve."

Kline also showed off that cannon of his, firing a ball 40 yards in the air down field, but overthrowing the speedy Singleton. 

"Yeah, I saw Singleton, and said, 'There's no way I'm going to overthrow him,' and I did," Kline said, bashfully. "I just heard coach Dykes: 'More air.' Yeah. I came back and said, 'I've got to throw with a little more touch on that one.' I'll work on it for sure over the summer."

After that play, though, Kline dialed in, and found Hansen on the outside shoulder to spin him up field for a gain of 12, and then hitting Hansen on the outside shoulder for a 24-yard touchdown, which was called back because of offensive pass interference on Hansen.

"He's got a great arm," Hansen said. "He's super accurate. That's one thing that really stands out with him. I think he throws a great, accurate ball. He does throw a hard spiral. It does [hurt], honestly. When you're real close, he'll gun it in there. He's got a good feel for the game. He'll throw you to the open spots, and we trust him. We trust everybody that's playing quarterback. If he throws the ball one way, we're going with it."

Kline, Forrest, Luke Rubenzer and freshman Max Gilliam were all in white, and live to tackle, a fact which allowed Brown to be one of the biggest standouts on defense, with three tackles, two sacks and a QB hurry. Bowers was not in white, but in no-touch gold, because of his surgery last week.

"It's good for those guys to occasionally be live, just to see how they move, how they react," Dykes said. "When you haven't gotten a lot of snaps, I think it's important to get some live snaps, so that's why we wanted to do some with those guys."

Spavital wanted to get more reps for Rubenzer and Gilliam, but there wasn't enough time to do that. Gilliam had some moments, hitting Jordan Duncan for seven, and then having Duncan vault into the air to haul in another grab for an eight-yard grab. A few plays later, he was chased out of the pocket by Kennedy Emesibe and Russell Ude, but scrambled for a seven-yard gain, showing off his mobility. After some misfires, being chased out of the pocket by Zeandae Johnson, Gilliam again found Duncan for a first down on a fourth-and-four. When the rush came heavy, Gilliam looked every bit the true freshman, but while he does have a ways to go (and needs to become less robotic), there are certainly some exciting tools.

"They all did some good things, they all did some bad things," Dykes said. "It was OK," Spavital said of the quarterbacking. "It was the first time that we've really gotten to put it down and play with some tempo, and a lot of things have been scripted out for the first few practices, so I got to let them go out there and play freely and let them check a little bit more than what they normally do. It was pretty interesting to see what type of personality these guys take on, the guys who are going to throw the ball deep, or take the easy gimme's at times."

Kline certainly fell into the former camp, while Rubenzer fell into the latter category, choosing the run option on run-pass combinations.

"It was pretty even, in terms of rep numbers," Spavital said. "Luke and Max, we didn't get to get their extra sets, so we'll get them in the future scrimmages. It was good, with Ross being out for a couple practices, to let him get in it a little bit. Overall, I think their thought process is improving a lot. From a coaching standpoint, to see improvement, is always a good thing. It's really hard to rep five quarterbacks, and we went 120 snaps, around 120, 130 snaps, and they still got some quality reps, but they didn't get as many as the other three. We just didn't get to them. We'll continue on, later in spring."

"I think they're growing, every day, just like the young receivers that they have around them," Hansen said. "It's a pretty even playing field. When you're lining up, you don't look at who it is. Everybody's about equal, I would say. It's fun growing with them."

Spavital noted that the scrimmage made things a bit more difficult, in terms of whittling down the five-man quarterback competition.

"If a kid's going down there, and he's having a pretty good day, you want to just keep rolling with him," said the first-year OC. "At the end of the day, I'm trying to get these kids better, and get them as many reps as possible, so you have to tell them to sit on the sidelines, and it's tough on them, at times, too. Chase went the first set, and did probably the first four or five plays, and then didn't go until about 40 plays later. You have a voice right there, as well, so I tell them to keep mentally involved, and see how the defense is playing them, and try to stay as loose as possible."

Toughness (Bearing With It)

For the second time this spring, the Bears went full-pads, full-contact, full-go in a scrimmage, lasting about 140 plays, and head coach Sonny Dykes noted pointedly that in those 140 plays, only one player had to be helped off the field.

"It was great," Dykes said. "That was really, honestly, the first time since I've been at Cal that we've been able to go that long, just because of depth. I think it's a real credit to our players, and our strength and conditioning program, to go 140 plays and have one single player limp off the field. To be able to play, in effect, almost a game and a half, and have literally no injuries, I think, is a real credit to our strength and conditioning staff, and our players, and just shows you what kind of shape and how physical they are, because that was probably one of the most physical, if not the most physical practice we've had since I've been here. It was encouraging in a lot of different ways."

Dykes did not that Cal has to get "a lot better," especially with two turnovers -- one interception thrown by Bowers and a strip-sack of Bowers by Derron Brown, which led to a 17-yard touchdown by defensive tackle James Looney.

"A lot of little things we've got to improve on," Dykes said. "These guys are eager, and I like what I see out of the group."

The aforementioned tempo will be pushed, according to Dykes, which puts more stress on the defense. That stress, though, should pay off against teams like Oregon and UCLA when fall rolls around.

"That'll be important for us," Dykes said. "We want to play as fast as we've ever played before, and I thought we showed some signs of being there today, but we've got a long way to go."

Defensive tackle Luc Bequette was a standout in the middle, as was Looney. Bequette said he needs to speed up his hands and his feet.

"I don't know if I'll ever be as quick as Looney," he laughed, "but I'll try to get a little bit better at that."

Going quicker gets tougher the longer the game (or, in this case, scrimmage) lasts, and Bequette was gassed after getting quite a bit of run behind Looney.

"I really was, and it's kind of hard, because we're kind of thin at D-line, and we're getting a lot of reps," Bequette said. "They're trying to cut down on reps for the one's, and stuff, so after a little bit, Looney came out, so the whole time, I think it was, we usually try to go four or five plays at a time, and then we sub. I was literally going in, every other substitution. I would go in, come off, go back in, come off, go back in."

The second unit was going 8-10 plays every three turns, instead of 4-5 in a three-rotation series.

"That was kind of brutal, but you've got to," he said. "I think this is even worse, though, because if you get a stop, or something like that, you come off, and the offense goes out. We're not doing that. You just keep going, one after the other. It'll help get me prepared, and conditioned."

The task in the middle was made tougher by a hammering Vic Enwere, who rushed for 68 yards on 11 carries, with one touchdown and two tackles for loss, adding a reception for five yards, and one highlight play where he vaulted over Evan Rambo for a gain of 26.

Dykes was disappointed in the penalties towards the end of the session (four in the latter third of practice), because the Bears tired out, but, other than the two turnovers, Cal did take care of the ball well, offensively.

Who Needs a Third Linebacker?

Brown came out like a house on fire after making the switch to linebacker, but he still brings a lot of elements to his game from being a defensive back. Frankly, on Saturday, he was everywhere.

"He just keeps showing up," Dykes said. "I can't say enough about Derron, Evan Rambo, Trey TurnerDamariay Drew, all those athletic safety-type guys. They really showed up today. They made a bunch of plays in the backfield, they're good athletes. You can see their athleticism in the way they run around, so I was really pleased with the play I saw from those guys."

Brown showed tremendous burst off the edge, and a nose for the ball and the quarterback. He's a shade over 200 pounds right now, but his speed is what really puts a lot of thump behind his hits. He was able to hang with the speedy Hansen and push him out of bounds on a pass from Bowers, and got in the way of a fade to the end zone, again from Bowers.

Drew, for his part, laid several big hits in the run game, and he looks every bit like a potential all-conference safety. He was on the verge last year, and I think this year, he'll make that jump.

Rambo came in for a strip against Kline, ending a merry chase in the backfield. His long arms are going to really clog up passing lanes, and he's shown more aggressiveness this spring in full pads. 

"Got to get yards when they're there, and protect the ball," Kline said. "That's definitely something I've got to keep working on, high and tight."

Turner turned in two corner blitzes, dropping McCrary for a five-yard loss, but did give up a 10-yard fade touchdown from Kline to Jack Austin in red zone work.

"I think they're coming along pretty well," said Hansen of Cal's secondary. "Our corners are pretty young. They're sort of like the receivers; they're growing every day. I think the safeties, with Stef (Stefan McClure) leaving, there's a void, but I think they've stepped up. They're making plays all over the field. It's tough to complete balls over the middle against those guys, for sure."

Receiving Corps is Young, but There's A Lot of Talent

Hansen was the leading receiver on the day, unofficially hauling in seven passes for 66 yards. Between Hansen and Singleton, there's a lot of speed on the outside, and though Melquise Stovall was on the shelf, there were still plenty of playmakers. "They wanted me to step up as a leader," Hansen said. "That's sort of what I've been trying to do. I think all the young guys, we're going to be really good. I think everybody's stepping up, doing their thing. They just wanted me to watch over them, help them out, but I think they're really coming into their own."

Redshirt junior Ray Hudson caught two balls for 27 yards, but did have two drops. There was one play where Hudson caught a ball in the red zone and bullied Quentin Tartabull for the last yard, and into the end zone for a touchdown. Singleton, for his part, unofficially hauled in three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown, pulling in a fade from Forrest in the back left corner of the end zone during red zone work. Tennessee transfer Vic Wharton also got into the mix, hauling in a 30-yard delivery from Bowers on the final drive. 

Freshman Austin Aaron grabbed two passes for 25 yards, but was defended well all day by Malik Psalms and Tartabull. He's deceptively fast, and is a long-strider who's not afraid to get physical, but he still needs to add some weight after being on the shelf with a collar bone injury for the first half of spring.

Patrick Worstell, wearing red, caught two balls for 28 yards, with one drop, and he survived being upended by Antoine Albert, who also had a very good day in the secondary, with two massive hits.

Freshman Greyson Bankhead also flashed, with a front-corner 10-yard touchdown from Forrest on the first drive of the day.

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