Holding the Line as Week Two of Camp Begins
The offensive line is a focal point for Cal in fall camp, a group that's seen as one that has more depth than in years past. But for offensive line coach Angus McClure, it will need more depth than ever, considering the ongoing pandemic and relative lack of preparation the Bears have had.
"We need 8-10 guys that can play offensive line," McClure said, "especially with the situation this year."
Position by position the Bears will likely need to rely on their two-deep, even with guys in Jake Curhan, Valentino Daltoso, and Mike Saffell, who have played a ton over the past three years.
That starts at left tackle, where redshirt sophomore Will Craig has taken the position. A former Rivals250 recruit, Craig has recovered from a foot injury that took away his 2019 and the spring of 2020, and he's taken over to being a solid piece for the Bears at a position that has seen four different starters since the beginning of 2018.
"He’s really anchoring the left tackle position," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "He’s so athletic and knows what to do. Offensive line is about the who and the how, you’ve got to know who to block and then you’ve got to have the capability to know how to block them with the correct technique. He’s on top of his position and on top of his craft right now."
Craig has always been a strong pass blocker with his athleticism, but his run blocking has been the piece of the puzzle to improve. McClure believes that he can do just that.
"He always impressed me as an overall athlete," McClure said, "I think he’s got extremely good feet, he’s got good awareness, he’s got natural hip bend, which helps for pass protection. He has the ability to run, so as an overall athlete, Will is excellent. It’s my job to take him to a higher level than he’s played in the past and showcase those talents whether it’s in a vertical set or a kick set, or increasing his physicality in the run game."
The offensive line is set to be a little more mobile in the offense, something that fits Craig, as he's enjoying the versatility Musgrave has added to the group.
"I think that’s one of the advantages of the offense," Craig said, "it’s adaptable if we need to go into that four-minute (draining the clock offense) or we need to push the tempo, be active in outside zones and go side to side. This offense has it all, and I think it was tougher to initially understand the offense, but I think we’re doing a really good job in practice working together and communicating through it."
Backing Craig up will likely be either Valentino Daltoso or Brayden Rohme. Daltoso is the interesting piece, as he's someone McClure called the 'jack of all trades.' He's taken reps at every single offensive line position aside from center, but will be a part of the left side of Cal's offensive line this year.
"Right now he’s on the left side," McClure said, "we’re working him at left guard and left tackle. Val’s one of those guys that can play multiple positions in a game. He’s the type of guy who shows a lot of leadership, not only on the field but off the field, and he’s gonna help the Bears a lot this year."
By his own admission, Daltoso is competing more with Matt Cindric at the left guard position, but he's prepared to play any other position right now.
"I’ve been focusing more on the interior," Daltoso said, "but I always stay ready. Really I’ve been honing in on that left guard spot, I know how to play both tackle spots."
Cindric played every rep of 2019 on offense, and he's going to be difficult to supplant at left guard, because of that, though Daltoso has the second most returning reps of any lineman for Cal.
The Right Side
While the left side of the line has more competition, the right side is 'intact' as Musgrave put it. Sophomore McKade Mettauer and redshirt senior Jake Curhan have the guard and tackle spots lined up respectively, along with Mike Saffell at center. Mettauer in particular impressed as a freshman with his stability at the position, and his aggressiveness is something McClure covets.
"McKade is a physical presence on our offensive line," McClure noted, "he plays with a lot of aggressive attitude, which fits my style, he brings a lot of energy to the group and I think at times we’re going to lean on him for that energy when we need it. Say we’re on a 10, 12, 13 play drive and we need that energy to get into the endzone, I think a lot of that would come from McKade, a lot of that would come from Mike (Saffell) and from the other seniors, Jake and Val. He brings a lot of swag an attitude to the offensive line."
Curhan brings back the most reps on the line, and the 6'6", 330 lb. senior is someone Musgrave noted as having "bright future playing football if that’s what he wants to do." For the Larkspur native, the big adjustment is actually getting down in a three point stance and blocking, as opposed to a two point stance. His thought is that the offense will be difficult to defend going forward.
"There’s so many different types of wrinkles in our blocking scheme," Curhan said, "we can isolate people, whether it’s a fullback or a tight end, and it’s so comprehensive in terms of the amount of things we can do. We can get in the same look and do a bunch of different things out of it, which is going to present a real big challenge for people who are scouting us and people we’re going to be playing."
Rest of the Two Deep
The rest of the group becomes that much more important as the Bears look to find those 8-10 guys who will play on the offensive line. That starts with the work of guys like true freshmen Everett Johnson, who's in the running to be a player at one of the tackle spots.
"I think the more Everett plays, the more he’s impressing the staff," McClure said. "He’s fighting right now to be on the two-deep, he’s right on the verge."
Then there's the redshirt freshmen. Ben Coleman is playing at both guard spots, as senior Gentle Williams isn't back from an injury yet. Brayden Rohme played a ton with the first team in the spring, and may end up backing up Craig. Brian Driscoll has taken to learning from Mike Saffell in a big way as well.
"Ben has made a nice transition to the offensive line," McClure said, "he started as a defensive lineman and moved over, he’s got some great hip bend, knee bend, ankle flexion, those types of things. He’s really picking up the offense. Right now he’s playing on both sides of the offense and he’s fighting for that second group. Rohme has been backing up the left tackle position, I think he’s shown great improvement since the spring. I know he was training a lot over the summer in Arizona when he wasn’t here in Berkeley, and he’s an aggressive type of player, similar to McKade. I definitely see him competing, getting out there and getting out on the field for us. Driscoll’s done a nice job at center, backing up Mike is a great experience for him to learn from someone as bright as Mike, he’s doing a great job of picking up the offense. The center is making all the calls, and Driscoll’s done a great job of identifying the defensive fronts, identifying the blocking schemes and he’s been executing well. He’s got good size and good girth, so when we see these odd fronts, he’ll hold up for us."
Then there's a couple of wildcards who have played before. Brandon Mello was mentioned as someone who can play either tackle spot. McClure noted that he's going to continue Steve Greatwood's tradition of moving guys around on the line to make sure they can fit anywhere in an emergency, and there's two other guys in PJ Poutasi and Erick Nisich who could see some more time in certain situations.
"So far, he’s probably the most improved guy on the offensive line," McClure said of Poutasi. "He’s gone out with the framework that he’s going to compete at practice and he’s not just going to survive."
"He can really bend, get low and get his pad level low," Musgrave said of Nisich, "We’re really glad to have him on offense, we’ve got some ideas for Erick, both on the line and if we need a little more bulk, either at a fullback spot or a tight end spot because he is explosive and he can bend."
For now, the Bears are only a week into fall camp. They've got just over half of their offense installed at this point. Everybody's still looking to get in football shape, but there's already an idea for a two deep, which should serve the Bears well in uncertain times.