As a law of life, change is constant. All collegiate athletic programs adhere to such a sentiment as a vital part of the game — progressing through a revolving door of athletes and coaches with passing time. Even so, a lot has changed for the Cal football program this offseason.
Ensuing a period of clamor and chaos, in which the transfer portal, professional opportunity and injury all scrambled a bulk of familiarity known to Cal fans, the organization was obliged to adapt and move forward strategically. The newborn blue and gold will open the 2022 season Saturday, hosting UC Davis in Memorial Stadium, with a renovated roster and an opportunity for eager evolution.
The early afternoon battle of NorCal programs will showcase Cal’s 113-player catalog, featuring 58 players who have yet to see any action on the gridiron and 35 in their first season with the Bears. Understandably, national sportswriter Phil Steele ranked Cal at the very bottom of the Pac-12 tournament on his annual preseason experience chart. Yet, head coach Justin Wilcox redirects the lack of veteran experience on his roster as a window to develop new leaders.
“We are very optimistic about the new faces that are going to be playing,” Wilcox said. “There is not a ton of returning experience, so creating that chemistry on the field is going to be very important.”
There is indeed plenty for Cal fans to be optimistic about … at least from the outset. One of the new faces holds the potential to represent the program this season: Fifth-year Purdue transfer quarterback, Jack Plummer, the starting nod shortly after his arrival at UC Berkeley.
Plummer’s debut in a Cal jersey will be a major point of focus in Saturday’s contest, as not only his throwing mechanics and critical decision-making abilities, but also his leadership and authority will be put to trial in front of the jury that is the packed stands of Memorial Stadium.
Further, in obtaining offensive success against the notable size of the Aggies’ defensive tackles and disposition to man coverage, the Bears want to hone in on establishing sound ball security habits. As always, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is looking for his players to captivate a sense of urgency in this first matchup that they can churn into momentum as the season progresses.
On the defensive end, the sudden exit of standout defensive lineman Brett Johnson, who sustained a season-ending lower-body injury in a team practice just last week, will leave defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon with a sizable gap to amend in his defense. While dynamic forces Ricky Correia and Ethan Saunders will continue to step up in command of the defensive labor, Sirmon made his expectations clear for Saturday’s live-action adjustment to the absence of Johnson.
“The number one thing I want to see is effort and tackling,” Sirmon said. “There are a lot of things that we try to prepare for structurally, but with the way offenses go … I am looking for the effort.”
It is likely that the Bears’ defense will have quite the tall task on their hands in containing UC Davis’s accomplished senior running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr.. A prominent star of the Big Sky Conference, Gilliam enters the 2022 season just 155 yards shy of becoming the Aggies’ all-time leading rusher. His quickness, balance and toughness positions the First Team All-Big Sky Conference co-captain as the primary threat, as the Aggies’ offense will scan for opportunities to get him the football not only in the running game, but on the perimeter and in the pass game as well.
While the Bears boast a talented roster of fresh faces and should theoretically speed over their FCS opponent, the novelty and thus uncertainty surrounding the leadership and chemistry of the program are all the more reasons for the Bears to remain humble approaching this matchup.