Justin Wilcox’s first freshmen arrived on campus last week, which always means a) college football is almost back and b) we need to do as all fans do, and daydream about which of those freshmen will be familiar names this fall. However, that time-honored exercise is made a little more difficult thanks to a smaller, 15-man freshman class (14 plus Fuimaono) and a depth chart full of returning starters/contributors.
Below are my and Trace’s best educated guesses and reasoning as to where each guy goes, in the interest of fueling discussion and…transparently killing time before camp starts.
Likely to Play:
Elijah Hicks – Obvious and the closest lock after Funches. Made an impression immediately on day one and has stood out even among a deep position group. In the spring game, recorded an interception and several passes defensed. He has been enough of a surprise that I have openly wondered whether he might just take the starting job opposite Allensworth or force guys out into the slot.
Ben Moos – After Ray Hudson, the backup tight end job is up for grabs, and Moos’ frame is big enough for us to project him as an immediate factor. How he handles the playbook and camp, we’ll see, but physically it stands to reason he’s a bit further along than Reinwald for that spot.
Alex Funches – Will factor into the two-deep at OLB, guaranteed. The coaches love Funches, who has acclimated himself nicely to FBS speed so far. They’ll need him to be an impact player from this position, as the attempt to 3-4 relies heavily on space athletes that we didn’t recruit well under Dykes.
Depends on Camp:
Daniel Scott – Given the Cal luck with the safety position the last decade, anything’s in play here. I assume they’ll give him a serious look, just in case.
Siulagisipai Fuimaono & Gabe Cherry – No one knows anything about Fuimaono and his tape isn’t particularly useful for projecting him because of it, while Cherry. Both guys are listed here because James Looney and the rest of the linemen need capable depth behind them, and you can figure they’ll have every opportunity to earn a spot, especially if Luc Bequette’s recovery is going slower than expected.
Kyle Harmon – This is another positional test. Harmon’s tape looks like he’d fit best where he can run clean and make plays, but I’m not sure how athletic he’ll be against FBS competition just yet. In an ideal world, he bulks up and is ready to handle the Mike, maybe, where we’re in need of some backups.
Jeremiah Hawkins – Jeremiah has legitimate gamebreaker potential written all over him, and he might manage to find his way into playing time just on that potential alone. However, because his projected starting position in the slot already has Melquise Stovall here, I can’t say with certainty either way. Wait and see.
Biaggio Ali-Walsh – Barring some sort of standout, exceptional camp, I doubt they would rush Ali-Walsh into playing. There are two entrenched starters in Watson and Enwere, plus a few guys ahead of him that have similar skill sets in McCrary and Zion Echols, if it comes to that.
Chase Garbers – No disrespect to one of the guys set to compete for the next Cal QB job, but it’s highly, highly unlikely a true freshman wins the job with only summer camp. Even Jared needed spring and fall, as did Rosen and many other freshman wunderkinds.
Poutasi Poutasi & Mike Saffell – the Bears’ need for linemen is real, and even realer after they lost Dwayne Wallace, but when given the choice to predict whether or not a lineman will play, I always opt for conservatism, since it usually takes some time for their bodies to transform properly.
Branden Smith – I found myself impressed with Smith’s foot speed on tape, but with his slight frame, the arrival of Hicks first and already deep pool of candidates at DB should push Smith lower on the “play” list.
Gavin Reinwald – Mostly needs to add weight to play tight end full time.
Taariq Johnson – His development since coming in during spring seems a bit slower than I originally projected, and it’s possible they don’t end up needing to rush him.
Likely to play:
Hicks - He's a no brainer here, as Hicks looked like a veteran from an early point in camp. One play sticks out as to why, during 1 on 1 coverage drills, Hicks was matched up with Jordan Veasy. He read the out, undercut the route and made the interception easily in a veteran move (similar to one Darius Allensworth made on an INT against Arizona State last season). The fact that he's already pushing for a starting job is unsurprising with how solid he looked during the spring.
Funches - Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter noted that Funches was a guy they would've recruited if they had been here earlier, and he fits that 3-4 OLB archetype extremely well. He looks more comfortable at the spot than he did on film, and turned a lot of heads during the spring because of it. He should be platooning with Cameron Goode at the OLB spot opposite Cam Saffle
Moos - The reasoning for this is simple. Moos is a big tight end who can go from a 3-point stance, split out, H-back, and already has the size to play immediately. Plus, he should see use on special teams, which needs more big bodies who can move.
Harmon - While it's far from a perfect comparison, Harmon is a bit like former Cal LB Mike Mohamed, both being two-star LBs with impressive instincts right off the bat. That was what impressed me about Harmon's tape, not necessarily the speed, but a knack for being in the right place at the right time. That's about 90% of playing defense, the other 10% is finishing the play, and Harmon is an excellent tackler. Like Mohamed, he should play as a true freshman, but he has plenty of physical aspects to work at as well.
Cherry - Before the Utah game last season, I happened to be on the field and saw Cherry standing over by where the defensive linemen were warming up. Even without pads, Cherry looked about as big as any of them, and at a position that doesn't have too many experienced contributors off the bat, Cherry looks as good as anyone to step up. Wilcox likes to create competition at spots, something he's mentioned on multiple occasions, and Cherry looked solid enough during the spring to justify an opportunity.
Depends on camp:
Ali-Walsh - While there are players ahead of Ali-Walsh in terms of skillset as Nam mentioned, Ali-Walsh has big play ability written all over him, as he was a key piece of probably the most talented high school football team in the country in Bishop Gorman. That kind of pedigree is hard to ignore, and his skill-set does work as a return man. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him sit.
Poutasi - With the offensive line depth being relatively lacking as is, Poutasi could be a candidate to come in and play early, much like Chris Borrayo was in 2013. It's going to depend on how depth shakes out with the addition of Valentino Daltoso, and the recovering Gentle Williams and Daniel Juarez
T. Johnson - Even with the WR depth here, and there is plenty, I could see Johnson getting early playing time due to his experience in the spring, as he had flashes of everything coming together in learning a more-complicated offense at multiple positions. It also doesn't hurt to have another big receiver, which Johnson is.
Fuimaono - Again, depth is the main reason for this. One thing that has been stressed on the defensive line in recruiting is to get guys with size who can move, and sorting the rest out later. Fuimaono, even with his experience being solely playing football in Japan, can move, with the ability to play both nose guard and defensive end in the 3-4. The learning curve will be what stops him, but he has the potential to overcome that.
Likely to Redshirt:
Garbers - The last three QBs Beau Baldwin had at Eastern (Vernon Adams, Jordan West, Gage Gubrud) were all backups for at least a year before ascending to the starting job, and while Garbers is accurate, mobile, and with a good arm, he'll need more time to soak in the offense.
Saffell - While offensive line coach Steve Greatwood is going to love Saffell's attention to detail in blocking technique, center is the one position on the offensive line where the Bears are relatively stable at the moment. Saffell could play guard as well, which could vault him into playing as a freshman, but at the current juncture, it's unclear.
B. Smith - He's certainly got the speed to play, but the corner position is loaded at the moment, and it's hard to see where he could force his way in at the moment.
D. Scott - In the same vein as Smith. Scott has the size at a listed 6'2" and 200 lbs, but a number of options at safety presented themselves during the spring, like Derron Brown and Quentin Tartabull, while Evan Rambo and Trey Turner will be healed up for the fall, along with returning players in Luke Rubenzer, Jaylinn Hawkins, and Malik Psalms. It's hard to find much playing time for Scott as well.
Reinwald - While he is a potential pass catching option for an H-back spot, Reinwald seems more like someone who could use time at the training table to bulk up to a size where he can be a versatile tight end, lining up on the line regularly.
Je. Hawkins - Hawkins comes in at a position that's already crowded like Nam noted, with Stovall already there and Greyson Bankhead waiting in the wings. It all depends on if Hawkins can force his way in, which he could, but taking into account the number of guys already somewhat entrenched, it's a long way up this year, unless he shows some skills in the return game, where Wilcox has said he might be used.