California has, for each of the past two seasons, benefitted from a veteran quarterback leading an offense in which each was well versed -- No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff in his third year of running the Tony Franklin offense, and New York Giants third-round pick Davis Webb, the graduate transfer, ran the same offense under Jake Spavital as he did for four years at Texas Tech.
This year, with a brand new coaching staff and a brand new offense under former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, the Bears will have to depend on a quarterback who's never started a Division I game.
The staff did bring in South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain, though his status is nebulous. A direct, non-graduate transfer, the Northern California-born McIlwain will likely not be eligible, but head coach Justin Wilcox implied, in a post-spring sit-down, that the situation wasn't, at that point, entirely settled.
"We'll have an announcement on that when we know," Wilcox said. "I can't answer it yet. I can't answer it yet, but we'll have an announcement when we get the final ruling."
Another addition is true freshman Chase Garbers, who the last staff recruited, but who did not enroll early. That means Garbers, for all his impressive statistics -- 9,260 yards of total offense, 589-of-854 passing (69.0%) for 7,970 yards, 1,290 career rushing yards -- is at a disadvantage when it comes to the quarterback competition. Early in spring practice, that competition was pared down to two -- Ross Bowers and Chase Forrest.
Since the end of spring, the two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster -- Max Gilliam and Victor Viramontes, both freshmen -- elected to transfer. Both will play at junior colleges next season.
Of the quarterbacks left, only Forrest has attempted a pass in a game, completing 10 of 18 passes in 2015 for 162 yards and one touchdown, with one interception. He did not play at all last season. Bowers saw game action in the 2016 season finale, rushing for two yards on one rushing attempt.
Wilcox mused that he'd have liked to have seen a quarterback emerge in March. The initial paring down process went about as expected -- Bowers and Forrest have both played, and Viramontes and Gilliam were recruited to play in the previous system. Several sources around the program even admitted that the previous staff wasn't very thrilled about the quarterback situation moving forward.
"At some point, we'll make a decision, but right now, it's just too close, and Chase and Ross both had their moments, and [we're] excited about the progress, especially the last four to five days [of spring]," Wilcox said. "We get a brand new offense, and you haven't had a ton of experience playing quarterback, there were some rocky times there, earlier in spring ball, but I thought the spring game, I thought they played the best they've played all spring, and that's encouraging. The wideouts helped them."
As for those wideouts, freshmen Logan Gamble and Drew Kobayashi have both left the program. Neither saw time last season. There will be a relatively veteran group of receivers, though, for the new quarterbacks to use, and we'll get into them more in-depth in a later Countdown to Kickoff piece.
Asked whether he'd go into the season with two quarterbacks -- i.e. playing a two-quarterback system -- Wilcox wouldn't rule anything out.
"I wish I could give you a more definitive answer," he said. "I know you probably want one, but I can't, in good conscience, tell you anything other than, 'It'll work itself out when it works itself out.' We had 15 practices, and we're going to have another 29 before the first game, so it's really a third of the total work before the first game."
Over the last 15 years, a two-quarterback system has meant that one would be more of a runner, the other more of a passer -- perfectly exemplified by Florida's use of a young Tim Tebow and Chris Leak during the 2005 season. There's not enough distinction in Bowers's and Forrest's games to allow for that. Bowers is more athletic, while Forrest has better pocket footwork, but neither would be considered a true runner, or even a true dual-threat quarterback.
"They've both flashed and done well," said quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo. "But, they've also shown times where they need to learn. I'm excited with where they're at."
Bowers has the more explosive arm, but it's mixed with a bit of a gunslinger attitude. He takes more risks. Forrest's arm isn't as strong, but he's a more careful quarterback who doesn't gamble.
"At times, you could say that about both of them," Tuiasosopo said of one being more of a risk-taker, and the other being more conservative. "The next week, tehy flip, and I think that's all a part of learning a new system, and for them, really, getting a lot of reps for the first time in their career, where they've watched guys like Goff and Davis Webb take the majority of the reps. Now. they're in those guys' shoes, so they get to feel it on an every day basis."
Bowers's and Forrest's stat lines from the spring game feel like they should be reversed, based on observation -- Bowers went 18-of-29 for 168 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Forrest went 15-of-29, for 189 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions -- but, as Tuiasosopo said, both are still learning, so tendencies seen in one practice or a week of practices can and have flip-flopped.
"They're as much different as they are similar, in a way, so it's kind of funny," Tuiasosopo said. "Ross's ball jumps off, but Chase has a quick release, and his ability to escape has helped him."
"Both of them do different things well," Wilcox said. "A lot of really massive growth, early to late in spring ball, but it's just, one day, one period, it was really close, between those two. They each have different strengths ... It'll be 1A, 1B [going into fall camp]."
Baldwin said that the biggest tool in evaluating quarterbacks is progression -- where they are practices one through four, versus where they are practices five through eight.
"There were definitely some strides," Baldwin said. "We were able to play with more tempo than we were, because you're not thinking about the process. You're getting the call and reacting."
Spring game film: Ross Bowers
One of Bowers's greatest strengths is his confidence. Ever since high school, he's not lacked in the swagger department. So far, in practice, that swagger has translated to the field. There are two questions going forward: Will it translate to the field, and how does it translate to running a new offense, where maybe he doesn't have all the answers?
"I have to learn the hard way, a couple of times," Bowers said. "There's some times where I'll get myself in trouble with mental mistakes, or late on throws or wrong reads, so it's stuff that isn't fun at the time, but when you go back and correct it on tape, it's something that you don't forget. A lot of the mistakes I've made, I haven't made similar mistakes, at least big ones."
Competition, Bowers said, is what makes the job fun.
"It elevates my game," he said. "Or, I fall. The cream rises to the top. Battling with Chase, and having coach Tui riding us hard, it's been really good for me, having to be forced to step up at times, and really put in the work that it takes to become a good quarterback. [I'm n]owhere near that yet, but I'm striving to be there."
For the third straight year, Bowers has had a different quarterbacks coach, all preaching different footwork.
"It's been kind of hard to adjust, but that's no excuse," Bowers said. "It's nice to get back to the way things have been coached at camps, or the way I had grown up being taught."
Spring Game Film: Chase Forrest
"Without a doubt," Forrest said, there's been a sea change in the quarterbacks -- and the offense, in general -- since the first day of spring practice.
Much of that change, as far as Forrest is concerned, has been due to his study habits, which he learned from both Goff and Webb.
"I'd find Jared in here watching film at midnight," Forrest said. "He told me once he couldn't sleep, so he came in here at 11 and watched film. More than that, it was instilled in me during high school. My coaches really harped on us learning the playbook. Coming in here, that's just how I'm driven, how I was brought up. Also Davis was phenomenal, always watching film, so that's how I try to be."
"As I approach their progress individually ... I just want to see consistency," Tuiasosopo said. "When you play the game of football, you're going to have some chances to throw the deep ball for a touchdown, and you're going to have a chance to check down, or throw your first progression to an intermediate pass, or get us out of a bad run and into a good run. I just want to see consistency. That's what it's all about."
Forrest's comfort level, he said, is "night and day" compared to when the group first got the offense.
Tuiasosopo asks the group constantly if they love football -- it's what Tuiasosopo's former coach, Jon Gruden, used to ask of Tuiasosopo and his former teammates for the Oakland Raiders.
"He brings everything he's learned from Norv Turner and Jon Gruden, and you've just got to absorb all of that," Forrest said. "Coach Tui has a wealth of knowledge from all these different coaches, and he's a competitor, so it rubs off on us."