Post Spring-Review: Offensive Line
With spring in the books, we're taking a look at every position group from the spring and where they stand going into the 2021 season. Today, we're looking at the offensive line
The offensive line got to build depth in 2020, if only due to the suboptimal situation they were placed in. Valentino Daltoso, Will Craig, and Jake Curhan all were ruled out right before the Oregon State game due to the Covid-19 contact tracing policy, and Mike Saffell got hurt in the second quarter of that game. The Bears did have a tenured starter ready to go in place of Daltoso in Matt Cindric, but Brayden Rohme, Brandon Mello, and Brian Driscoll all had to step in for their first action.
That group performed pretty well, with Ben Coleman joining the mix over the final two games. With Rohme and Mello starting at the tackles, the Bears had their best game on the ground, coming against Stanford and producing 241 rushing yards. With Curhan departed, both Craig and Daltoso being healthy, and everyone else returning, the Bears have plenty of pieces to work with heading into the summer and fall.
Of the group, the highest rated recruit was Will Craig, who has earned his spot at left tackle back during the spring. Craig has always been a solid pass blocker, holding his own against Kayvon Thibodeaux in the Oregon game (allowing one sack, but doing enough to contain the Oregon pass-rusher). Craig is now entering his fourth year in the program, somehow with only three starts to his name. He's young in reps, and has been praised for his athleticism in the past. Former offensive line coach Steve Greatwood noted that Craig had 'all-American potential,' now is the time for him to capitalize on that, improving in his run blocking. Per Pro Football Focus, Craig graded out at a high level on his zone blocking (87.8, highest among OL), while his blocking on gap scheme plays was suboptimal (46.8, lowest among OL).
Brandon Mello played left tackle for a good portion of the spring and could end up as the backup there or at right tackle. Brayden Rohme (who missed the spring game with an injury) and Ender Aguilar (who played there and other positions during the spring game) could also backup Craig, but Mello looks to be the backup at the moment, having played the position in 2019. A theme of the spring for the Bears offensive line was 'making yourself available' to play multiple positions, and Mello could still be in the conversation at right tackle as well.
Among those who has 'made himself available' over the last few years is Valentino Daltoso. The super-senior has played four of the five offensive line positions in games and now takes over for Jake Curhan at right tackle. Daltoso noted during the spring that he's looking forward to using his athleticism at the position. His presence gives the Bears experience across the board, as he has played more snaps than any other offensive lineman.
Daltoso's experience of making himself available has been something he passed on to Ben Coleman. The third-year offensive lineman played every position aside from center in 2020, played some center during the spring, and has been regarded as the most improved offensive lineman over the past year. Coleman's swiss-army knife versatility will get him on the field more in 2021, it will be a question of where he fits moving beyond 2021, where there will be openings for a starting job. It wouldn't be surprising to even see Coleman starting by the end of 2021.
On the interior, Cal has their emotional heart, Mike Saffell staying for a final super-senior year. Over his time at Cal, the Bears have been better at running the ball when Saffell is in the lineup, which has kept him in the middle of the offensive line the past two seasons. He'll look to stay healthy for the Bears, though his backup, Brian Driscoll, has made massive leaps, per Saffell.
Flanking the senior are McKade Mettauer and Matt Cindric. Mettauer, despite being a starter as a true freshman, may be one of the more underrated players the Bears have. He had a few early struggles with penalties in 2019, but was the Bears' highest graded run blocker per PFF in 2020 and played nearly every rep over the past two seasons.
Cindric has showed positional flexibility on the interior but is set at the left guard spot. Consistency is the name of the game for Cindric, playing every rep on offense in 2019 and playing in every game in 2020.
Aside from that main group, the Bears had a focus on playing the younger or less tenured guys at multiple positions. Mello and Coleman were among them (Rohme was trying out some right tackle prior to his injury), and with the younger guys in particular, Angus McClure looked to figure whether they could play on the interior:
Everett Johnson: While Johnson was projected as a tackle coming out of high school, McClure worked Johnson out at the guard spots. Johnson's one of the longer offensive linemen at 6'7", which would normally point him toward a tackle spot, but Bill Musgrave tends to like the bigger framed linemen who can play just about anywhere.
Ender Aguilar: Aguilar came into the Cal program relatively small at 255 pounds, but has bulked up since and didn't look out of place playing left tackle and some guard during the spring game. Aguilar was projected as a guard coming into Cal, moving to the offensive line for his final season of high school football.
Ryan Lange: Possibly a tackle prospect moving forward, Lange saw time at both guard spots. It's still early for Lange, who didn't have a senior year of high school football due to Covid-19 postponing high school football until the spring in California, and he'll have time to develop this year and next spring.
Bastian Swinney: Another likely tackle, McClure had him take reps at center, due to his philosophy that you can never have too many centers. Swinney also played some guard during the spring, as the Bears like his athleticism from his basketball days.
In addition, the Bears have Gentle Williams, another super-senior, returning, and he has the ability to play both guard spots, giving the Bears another option moving forward.
If there's one thing McClure and his charges have made clear, it's the belief that the Bears will need more than the likely starting five of Craig, Cindric, Saffell, Mettauer, and Daltoso. Who steps into a bigger role is what to track moving into the summer and fall.