For the first time this spring, Cal will have an open practice on Friday, before taking a week and a half long hiatus for spring break. This is the first chance to observe the shift to the 3-4 defense Tim DeRuyter is in the process of installing. This will be the first chance to what kind of offense Beau Baldwin has put together with the pieces he's been given. Most importantly, it'll be the first practice to see Justin Wilcox is his element as Cal's head coach.
This'll be Cal's 5th practice of the spring, and there's something to look for at every position group.
Who pulls away from the group?
At the beginning of camp, Wilcox noted that all four quarterbacks would see equal reps for the spring, and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo noted that "whoever can grasp this offense and take a hold of the group and play well when they have to, that's the guy that will win this job." The question is which guy can do that. There isn't a clear favorite at this point, partially due to a lack of in-game experience, and partially due to learning the terminology of a new system, and it'll be the first time to publicly see how that process is going.
What's changed with the running backs?
The running back rotation is a little more set in stone, with returning starters Tre Watson and Vic Enwere healthy and ready to go in the spring. Here's what Watson had to say about changes in the running back position:
"The running back position is a pretty easy position to play once you pick it up. I mean it's just more mental now, we have to know different things, the playcalling's different. Other than that, I feel like we're going to get the ball more."
From an observable point of view, not much should be different, but as Watson said, the volume at which the offense runs should change, whether through the designed runs or read option plays. The running backs should benefit from that increased use, along with the newfound use of the quarterback run.
Which guys get the most run?
The receiver group probably has the most talent out of any position group on the field, even with Brandon Singleton and Melquise Stovall out for the spring. The biggest change with the wide receivers is that there isn't a designation for inside or outside receiver. The receivers are learning the routes from all of the positions, so it's not constrained to the same extent last year. This could be a benefit to guys who have played on both the outside and in the slot, like Jordan Duncan, Kanawai Noa, and Vic Wharton. With Noa and Greyson Bankhead coming off of injury, along with early enrollee Taariq Johnson in the mix, there's plenty of players who can compete for the spot.
How will these guys be incorporated into the offense?
After a five year gap between really using the position, the tight end is back in vogue in Berkeley. There isn't too much experience at the spot in this category, though Ray Hudson came out of high school as a tight end. Matt Laris has been converted to the spot, and Malik McMorris has been working with the tight ends as well. Walk-ons Justin Norbeck, Kyle Wells, and Jake Ashton are also with the group. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has utilized tight ends in a few different ways in the past, either using them as extra blockers in pass protection, as H-backs who can be lead blockers, or as guys who can go out into routes, and a combination of these ways is obviously expected, but which tendency the look toward more is the focus.
What combination will be out there on the line?
Something interesting came out of a conversation with Patrick Mekari last Friday. Mekari, who looked to be plugged in at the left tackle spot after the transfer of Aaron Cochran, has been playing left guard. Who they put at the tackle spots, most likely Kamryn Bennett and Jake Curhan (the other two, non-injured, scholarship tackles on the roster) will be worth looking at, especially with the line being more mobile under OL coach Steve Greatwood.
Who will they put around Tony Mekari?
Tim DeRuyter noted Monday that Tony Mekari was seeing time as the nose in the 3-4, something that wasn't entirely unexpected, but notable nonetheless. Which pieces that surround Mekari will be worth noting, since there currently isn't a designation of defensive ends and tackles, just defensive linemen. With James Looney out for the spring, Mekari and whoever they put around him will need to show what they can do to control and clog gaps for the linebackers to make plays against the run. Chinedu Udeogu is another name they're trying at the nose as well.
How have the coverted DEs progressed at OLB?
Five players were converted from DE to OLB, in Cameron Saffle, Evan Weaver, Alex Funches, Trevor Howard, and Russell Ude, and they're adjusting to playing standing up. Sometimes they'll drop into coverage, Saffle estimated 20-25% of the time, but a lot of the time they'll be rushing the passer off the end or playing up in run support, containing the run. It's a different set of responsibilities, along with the new alignments, new terminology, and much like the quarterbacks, who adjusts to this the quickest is worth noting.
Who plays on the other side of Darius Allensworth?
Darius Allensworth, who looks to be healthy after an injury last season, is entrenched at one corner spot. Who takes the other corner spot is the question. With Josh Drayden out for the spring (he made rapid strides over the final three games of the season), there's a number of names that could take it. Marloshawn Franklin has the most experience, but there's a number of guys with potential who either redshirted, moved back from safety, or haven't played as much. Names like Nygel Edmonds (redshirted), AJ Greathouse (redshirted), Chibuzo Nwokoche, Malik Psalms (moved back from safety), Traveon Beck (was a nickel corner), Camryn Bynum (redshirted), Ashtyn Davis, Bryce Turner (transfer from Long Beach CC), and Elijah Hicks (early enrollee freshman) should have an opportunity to get reps with the first team.
With some moved back to safety, who sees the most playing time, considering the injuries during the spring?
There's a couple notable injuries here, in Evan Rambo and Trey Turner. There's also a couple guys moved back to safety, in Derron Brown and Quentin Tartabull. Brown had a pass breakup to end practice successfully for the defense on Monday, so he's getting time with the first team. Luke Rubenzer and Jaylinn Hawkins also appear to be healthy, and played big roles on the defense a year ago. Some combination of these guys are going to make up the first team in the early going.
Who gets the first go?
The returning game has been a point of contention for a while, as Cal has not returned a punt for a touchdown since Keenan Allen took one back against Southern Utah in 2012. Ever since, the punt return game has been lackluster at best. Elijah Hicks comes into the program with some solid punt return skills, and Demetris Robertson has the gamebreaking speed for returning kicks. Ashtyn Davis, who came in first in the 60 meter hurdles at the MPSF Indoor Championships earlier this month, could have the potential to make strides in either position as well.
Cal's open practice Friday is set to start at 3:30 PM, with the earlier Pro Day starting at 9:30 AM.