This is the position group that has changed the most since we first took a look at the unit in January, following the NFL Draft declaration of Kenny Lawler, who was picked in the seventh round by the Seattle Seahawks.
Of course, since then, we've seen each of the early enrollee receivers in action, we've seen Tennessee transfer Vic Wharton finally somewhat healthy, and the Bears added a weapon who by all accounts should start right away, in five-star prospect Demetris Robertson.
No matter who's riding in on those white horses, though, there's no way around it: Losing six receivers to the NFL certainly hurts. Returning receivers accounted for a grand total of 42 catches (out of 352) and 591 yards (out of 4,892). Between Lawler, Bryce Treggs (San Francisco 49ers, UFA), Trevor Davis (fifth round, 163rd overall, Green Bay Packers), Stephen Anderson (Houston Texans, UFA), Maurice Harris (Washington Redskins, UFA) and Darius Powe (New York Giants, UFA), Cal lost its top six most productive receivers from last season. Five of them were seniors, one was a fourth-year junior. That's a ton of experience, and a lot of production to replace, but with the additions of Robertson and Melquise Stovall, the Bears have a very good base from which to start.
X Receiver (left outside): FR Demetris Robertson
SO Vic Wharton (2014 at Tennessee: 5 catches, 64 yards, 1 TD)
RSFr Brandon Singleton
SO Kanawai Noa (2015: 7 catches, 76 yards, 4 KOR, 94 yards, 4 PR, 15 yards)
RSr Patrick Worstell (2015: 3 catches, 25 yards)
Positional Assessment: Robertson is a game-changer. There's no two ways about it. Robertson's personal best in the 100m is a 10.46 (Treggs's was a 10.71), his best long jump was 23'0.25" and his best 200m was 21.34 seconds. That's a lot of athletic ability in on body, and it's the kind of body that can take the top off a defense and allow the Bears to really stretch the field, opening things up for a ground game that returns its three most productive backs. The position was already looking strong with Wharton -- who, despite maybe being at 85% this spring, was still a must-watch -- to go along with the speed of Singleton and a now-healthy Noa. Then, you add Robertson, who's explosive and electric -- a home run threat from anywhere on the field with the ball in his hands. Cal is going to be able to stretch the field with this group. Robertson came up lame in the 200m race at the USATF junior championships in June, but he should be fine by fall camp, sources say.
Positional Assessment: Veasy is almost a direct 1:1 replacement for Powe, at 6-foot-3, 220, and he can play both outside and inside, and he moved inside over the course of spring ball. He's a perfectionist with solid hands, and a very physical presence on the inside. He's not the big tight end that Hudson is, at 6-foot-3, 235, but both of them are very adept at catching the ball in traffic, and providing a safe check-down underneath coverage. Though Veasy was listed here out of spring ball, I wouldn't be surprised to see a cameo from him on the outside, over the course of the season.
Austin has good speed off the line, and had a very good spring. He is perhaps a step faster than Hudson and Veasy, but he's battled injury on and off, and has played in just 12 games in his career and no live catches. Ashton was definitely one of the sneakier surprises of spring ball. Every time you looked up, he was making another tough catch look easy. I don't know how much time he'll get behind the other three, but he's certainly a capable pass catcher.
Positional Assessment: Stovall was an absolute revelation throughout spring ball, and in particular, during the spring game. Stovall's quick-snap catch and his fast hands are a cut above. Like Robertson, Stovall is a home run threat from anywhere on the field, though I think he'll be in the slot full-time, rather than the purported five times per game we were told he'd be coming out of the backfield. We didn't see any of that this spring. Stovall is very strong with the ball, and doesn't often take his eye off of it, looking the ball all the way into his hands, particularly on tough catches behind him.
Rockett -- who was injured all of 2015 -- played 2014 at the H spot, and now flips over to the right, as the Bears go for speed at the H spot, and put the heavies at the H. He didn't practice much in the spring, but he's a pesky pass catcher who can sneak underneath coverage, or get downfield in a hurry. Bankhead greyshirted this past season, and looks the better for it, having gained about 10-15 pounds since high school. He was slight-of-build when he got to Cal, but after seeing that added size in action this spring, he certainly looks like he belongs, and he hasn't lost a step of that speed that made him such an enticing recruit out of Corona (Calif.) Centennial.
Positional Assessment: As the kids say, this may be a hot take: Hansen is the best receiver on the roster. Yes, Robertson and Stovall are more explosive, but when you combine size, speed, hands and route running, Hansen is the complete package. To some scouts, last year, Hansen was the best NFL prospect on the team, and those scouts told the coaching staff. Sonny Dykes is of the opinion that Hansen is the fastest on the team, perhaps save for running back (and track athlete) Khalfani Muhammad. That was before Robertson hit campus, but the point is pretty solid. If he's faster than Davis, for instance, that 6-foot-3, 190-pound body is going to go a long way.
I liked what I saw out of Jordan Duncan this spring. He was very quiet, but very productive. He's got a smooth stride, a high-and-tight ball carriage and is quicker than one would expect, though he won't take the top off a defense, at least, not at this point.
Strickland was a non-factor last year as he recovered from hip surgery, but this spring, he was at times quite dominant. Aaron got in during the bowl prep, and looked to have made a big leap, but then he came down hard on his shoulder and broke his collar bone. He came back during the spring and looked much more confident and self-assured, both in the actual pass-catching department, and the way he carried himself. He's a long strider with deceptive speed, and he's got a wide catch radius with the ability to body up bigger safeties and corners, with the bulk to take on linebackers.
Position of Greatest Strength: By virtue of the fact that the receivers at the X position have more collective career experience than any group of receivers, save for Ray Hudson, who has 18 catches for 264 yards and Hansen (19 for 249). Also, three out of the five receivers in that X group have major Division I college football experience. No other receiver position group has that proportion. Beyond that the X group has Robertson, who I've talked about ad nauseum, so, I'll let our Chad Simmons take the mic:
[Robertson] is a dynamic athlete who can do so many things well on the football field. He has a great burst when he gets the ball and he has that extra gear in the open field. Even though he played a lot of running back as a senior because his team needed to, he is a talented receiver too. He has great ball skills, he knows how to track the ball in the air, and he has the ability to chase down the deep ball. Where he needs to improve is his strength and his route running. He has not learned too many routes, so expanding his tree will be something he gets on early. He has great feet, he is an exciting player, and not only could he be a star on offense, he could be one in the secondary on defense too.
Position of Greatest Concern: I think H may be a weak spot without Anderson, who was a true hybrid TE-WR. Hudson is more of a typical tight end, and doesn't have the speed, acceleration or hands that Anderson did, but he can clear out the middle. I like Veasy more at that spot, and I think he's going to make an impact this year, but he's got to prove he can do it at this level. Beyond that, Austin has little experience, and Ashton has none.
Confidence level about depth? It's good, but it's young. The only real experience comes from Hudson and Hansen, who have a combined 37 catches for 513 yards. Strickland came into his own this spring, as did Wharton -- and he wasn't even 100 percent. The early-enrollee freshmen -- Duncan, Stovall and Veasy -- are going to be ahead of the curve, as is Bankhead, being bigger and stronger and more mature than other true freshmen. In addition to Robertson, Cal is bringing in a glut of freshmen in the fall -- freshmen with speed, length and size: 6-foot-4, 220-pound Matt Laris, 6-foot-3, 200-pound Drew Kobayashi and 6-foot-6, 190-pound Logan Gamble. Will any of them play early? I doubt it, but as far as future depth is concerned, this is going to be a very deep, very talented group.
Where does this position group rank on your team from strongest to biggest area of concern? I'm not concerned, but I'm not not concerned, if that makes any sense. This is perhaps the most talented group on the roster, but there's just not a lot of experience, and a lot of that talent is very young -- to whit, the two receivers with the highest upsides are going to be true freshmen. That's got to worry you at least a little bit.I think there's enough depth and enough ability, but that doesn't mean that it's not a developmental group. I think there's room to grow, but I don't think it will be particularly painful growth. This will be a much stronger position group in 2017.