Luke Rubenzer flips back to safety to replace Damariay Drew as Cal prepares for true spring game

BERKELEY -- Luke Rubenzer flips back to safety, narrowing the quarterback race -- for now -- and the spring game draft is set for Wednesday. Plus, we've got practice highlights, the spring game format and more.

BERKELEY -- In about two and a half weeks, California head coach Sonny Dykes said, safety Damariay Drew will go under the knife for knee surgery. Dykes would not specify what in Drew's knee is injured, but the fact that the Bears have now officially moved Luke Rubenzer back to safety certainly holds weight.

"Luke asked to be moved back to safety," Dykes said. "We moved him back. Same deal [as moving to quarterback], he just wants to help the team, and had a better chance to do that at safety, than at quarterback."

Beyond the fact that Rubenzer was falling behind in the five-man quarterback race, he was the only on-roster option to potentially replace Drew for a season, and a decision to make that move could not have been made lightly. Dykes would not venture to guess on how long Drew would be out.

"Nothing new; we won't know anything until surgery," Dykes said. "We'll have a definitive answer at that point."

Drew was the lone healthy returning safety with significant starting experience. Griffin Piatt was still in red on Monday. Last year, Rubenzer tallied 43 tackles in 13 games in the defensive backfield, with two interceptions.

Rubenzer, Dykes said, asked to be moved back after Wednesday's practice -- two days after Drew initially went down. That day, Drew was seen around the stadium wearing a full leg brace.

With Rubenzer out of the running, Zach KlineRoss BowersChase Forrest and Max Gilliam took the lion's share of the reps on Monday, with Forrest running first, followed by Bowers and then Kline.

At this point, Cal's quarterback race appears to be down to two contenders.

"We're getting Chase and Ross probably more reps right now than the other guys, but they're still all doing some good things," Dykes said. "I think if you said who's the most improved player during spring football, it may be Max Gilliam. He just keeps getting better and better, so that's encouraging to see. We've got a good competition going, and we've got to see how it plays out."

On his final two plays of the day, Gilliam turned in two highlights, rolling right and finding Bug Rivera right in front of him for a gain of 25, with Rivera juking two defenders. The next play, Gilliam escaped a collapsing pocket, rolled right and hit a fading Carlos Strickland for 35 yards.

Gilliam also hit Melquise Stovall with a deep fade for a 33-yard touchdown. Stovall has had easily the best spring not just of any of the newcomers, but of anyone on the roster. He stepped right in, and took firm grasp of the starting slot job, and with every play, he tightens the screws. He ran a perfect slant route on the first round of seven-on-sevens, hauling in a pass from Forrest.

How it may play out could depend on the whims of Davis Webb. The former Texas Tech quarterback visited Berkeley last week, and sources say very much enjoyed his visit, and is now visiting Auburn. Though sources say he's told Colorado coaches that he's still committed to the Buffaloes, he's clearly considering his options.

"We'll see how that plays out," Dykes said, in response to a question about whether they'd consider bringing in another contender, without addressing specifics. "Any time we can improve our football team, we're always going to do that, and our players know that. We owe it to them to have that perspective."

Of course, with the Spring Game on tap for Saturday, there are still two more days of football left for one of the remaining four quarterbacks to make their case.

"Hope to, hope to," Dykes said. "That's been our hope all along, is just to get enough separation to where we could name a starter, and invest the lion's share of reps in him and keep getting him better. Don't know that we're at that point now, but we've got two practices to see how that plays out."

Spring Game Format

Speaking of the spring game, a draft will be held with six captains ("We're still talking about that group, right now," Dykes said) on Wednesday -- three to a team -- to spread out the offensive and defensive players among two teams, who will play very nearly a full, actual, real football game on Saturday for the Bears' first true spring game in more than a decade.

 "We're going to let the players pick teams on Wednesday, and we're going to play a football game. We're going to do some things -- we're not going to do many special teams, but the kicking will be, we'll kick field goals live; the other stuff will be controlled," Dykes said. "We'll put the ball down and both teams will have an offense and a defense. It'll be a football team that the players select, and we'll let them play."

Over Cal's last two scrimmages, the Bears have been able to go 220 plays, live, with very few injuries, save for that to Drew. Other than the likes of Chris BorrayoKanawai NoaHamilton Anoa'i, Piatt (knee) and Jaylinn Hawkins (shoulder), it's expected that no other major contributors will miss the Spring Game. Ray Hudson, who was without pads on the day that saw the rest of the team in full pads, will play in the Spring Game, Dykes told BearTerritory.

"It's going to depend on the injury report on Wednesday," Dykes said of who else would be held out. "Damariay, more than likely, is going to be the only one, right now, that's a guy who's played a significant amount of time, who will be out. Hamilton, some of the guys who aren't going through spring football, Kanawai, Chris, they won't go."

Given how healthy the Bears are at this point, and given how unhealthy they've been over the previous three springs, it's a minor miracle that Cal has enough players in the pink to field two teams.

"It just means we've got more depth," Dykes said. "We've got more quality players, through the roster. We've been trying to cover holes in the past, and now, we've got enough guys to roll the ball out and go play and compete, and see what happens."

Wharton Coming Along

Every practice, Vic Wharton looks to be more and more comfortable. After having hip surgery on Sept. 4 of last season, he could easily have not suited up this spring, but that isn't in his DNA.

"He’s really showed a lot of toughness this spring, because he’s got one of those injuries that he could probably hold himself out for the entire spring, but he’s had a willingness to go out and work through it every day," Dykes said. “He’s nowhere near full speed, yet, but I’ve seen enough to know that he has a chance to be a good player when he is full-speed.”

Wharton caught a shallow slant from Kline during the seven-on-seven portion of practice, and looked easily the best he has all spring.

Wharton has been in every single practice this spring, without reservation, and while he's not at full speed -- in high school, he ran a 10.7-second 100-meter -- it's been more of a marathon than a sprint for him. He's hurt, he's worn out, and he's tired, but he's never at a loss for energy, and hope.

"It feels awesome," he said. "I've been waiting, just to make it through. That's what I kept telling myself. After spring ball, I can really get healthy, and I'm just really looking forward to fall camp. That's what I can't wait for, because I know that's when I'll be 100 percent."

Practice Highlights

Kicker Matt Anderson went 5-for-5 on field goals, including a long of 45.

Giliam hit a pass in seven-on-seven that was very reminiscent of a Jared Goff fade. He hit Brandon Singleton in the left hip pocket over A.J. Greathouse. He's continued to get more and more comfortable every day of spring ball.

Defensively, Noah Westerfield had another strong day, with two pressures and a pass breakup during 11-on-11s. Malik Psalms also had a breakup. 

Defensive end DeVante Wilson turned in a sack of Bowers, with help from back side pressure by Westerfield. Cameron Saffle tallied a sack of Kline.

Several plays later, Bowers kept the play alive after the pocket completely collapsed, and found Jack Austin for a catch on the sideline. Austin made several impressive catches on the day.

Hardy Nickerson came up with an early pass breakup, and newly-minted linebacker Derron Brown then came in with a takedown of Vic Enwere on a run u the middle.

"He just makes plays. He's one of those guys, every time we've played live, which, we've played a lot of live snaps, he shows up. He just shows up all the time. Trey Turner's another one, who just shows up. Evan Rambo shows up. Those guys, when we put the ball down and start playing, they start making a bunch of plays, and that's a good thing."

Antoine Albert also showed up big, with three breakups during one-on-ones, and several tough coverages during team work. While cornerbacks John Lovett said that Albert needs to get right, consistently, "between the ears," he has all of the ability to be a contender for the starting corner spot opposite of Darius Allensworth.

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"He's one of those guys who shows up a little bit more in a team setting, and that's what you're looking for," Dykes said of Albert.

Enwere turned in the highlight of all of practice with a 55-yard touchdown run, exploding through the line and getting out ahead of a mis-fitting secondary by enough that he was able to keep distance and score. He's not fast, but he's faster than we've seen him.

"I think they ran a zero blitz, and somebody got out of a gap, and he made a nice play on the short yardage," Dykes said. "It's good to see him. I've been pleased with the way he's run, for sure. He's finished runs better than he has. His pad level, I think, has improved, so it's good to see him playing pretty well."

Enwere wasn't the only running back making noise. With Tre Watson being rested during full-tackle team portions of practice, there was a heaping helping of Billy McCrary III, who continues to impress.

McCrary burst through a tackle in an overtime period against the first-team defense, gaining about six, thanks to a great defensive back blitz pick-up by right guard Semisi Uluave. McCrary timed the run perfectly. McCrary also abused Rubenzer on another run, juking three defenders and then leaping over Rubenzer for another 10 yards on a 15-yard gain.

Elsewhere on offense, Chad Hansen, who was out for last week's scrimmage, hauled in two touchdowns, one a leaping, reaching, get-the-foot-in one-hander for 40 yards from Bowers, and a 15-yard crossing route over the back of the end zone from Bowers on a red zone drive.

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