Cal Football: Is Ross Bowers the Man for the Job in 2018?

BERKELEY, CA - OCTOBER 13: Ross Bowers
BERKELEY, CA - OCTOBER 13: Ross Bowers /

Ross Bowers didn’t have a bad season in 2017, but could Cal football upgrade the position as they attempt to get over the hump in 2018?

2018 is going to be a big season for the Cal football team. After surpassing expectations in 2017, the team will have some more pressure on them with head coach Justin Wilcox heading into his second season. One of the bigger questions surrounding the team for next season is regarding the quarterback position. Ross Bowers was the team’s starter in 2017, but left something to be desired in his performance that brings up the question if the team could be better going elsewhere.

Bowers showed in 2017 that he has plenty of arm strength, enough to succeed as Cal’s quarterback. He can heave a ball downfield with relative ease, and he can zip fastballs on short throws toward the sidelines.

The problem, though, lies in his accuracy. Far too often, those deep balls had the distance but were too far out of bounds, or too far into the field of play, or even too far out in front of the receivers, to be considered good throws. Even when throwing short he’d too often miss high with throws, a risky proposition for a baseball pitcher or a football quarterback.

As a result, the offense became stagnant at times as they couldn’t convert first downs, let alone find the endzone. As the Bears tried to play catch-up, they found the hole getting deeper as they couldn’t throw their way out of it.

The arm strength is there, but can Bowers refine his touch enough to be the man that leads this Cal team to the next level? That’s what made Jared Goff so special, turning him into a number-one overall draft pick. He had more than enough strength behind his throws, and combined it with an innate ability to put the ball in a perfect location almost every single time.

It’s unfair, though, to compare Bowers to Goff. The Cal quarterback from 2013 to 2015 became one of the best players in the country, and guys with his level of arm talent don’t just come around every year. Making the comparison to Goff is just adding unnecessary pressure to a young quarterback.

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Davis Webb, the grad transfer who was the team’s starter in 2016, obviously wasn’t Goff, but still was an excellent leader in his lone year at Cal. He had his flaws, but still turned in a strong season in Sonny Dykes’ final season with the Bears. He threw for nearly 4,300 yards and 37 touchdowns, getting Cal close to a bowl berth despite the team’s defense being one of the worst in the country.

The good news for Bowers is that he doesn’t need to be a Goff. He probably doesn’t even need to be a Webb, either. With what figures to be a strong running game, led by 2017’s breakout star Patrick Laird and the returning Tre Watson, Cal can have that balanced offense, or even a run-heavy offense that has been missing. If Laird and Watson, plus some of the younger running backs, are shouldering the load, it eases the burden on the quarterback, whether that is Bowers or someone else. The defense, which was much-improved last season and figures to continue improving with another season under Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, would make it that much easier for Cal to transform into a run-first team.

Even if that becomes the case, there will still be times where the load will fall on the quarterback. There will be days when the run game just isn’t working, or the team falls behind early and has to throw a ton while trying to play catch-up. When that does happen, Cal will need a quarterback that can lead them down the field and try to pull them out of the deep-end. The question then becomes, can Bowers be that guy?

Bowers made his fair share of beautiful throws last season. There was his third-quarter touchdown pass to Kanawai Noa against Oregon, where he hit his receiver 35 yards downfield, in stride near the sideline, allowing Noa to run the rest of the way for a 75-yard score. There was the second-quarter touchdown, also to Noa, against Colorado. Bowers displayed excellent footwork in moving around the pocket to avoid pressure before throwing a 40-yard strike in the endzone, putting it in a place where only Noa could make the catch. And his throw in the second against Weber State, escaping the rush to his left before planting his feet and firing a bullet to Vic Wharton on the sideline for a 30-plus-yard gain.

All of that shows the kind of talent that is in Bowers. He can make these throws, but needs to do it on a more consistent basis.

Cal should feature an exciting offense in 2018, with the aforementioned running backs returning, along with Noa and Wharton as the elder statesmen in the receiving group. Receivers Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall should be back after injuries cost them a ton of time in 2017, and will help make the offense more dynamic. They could even help eliminate some of the overthrows, given the speed and ability to run past the defense that both bring to the table. The offensive line will also have another year together, making the offense nearly the same as the one that was heavily featured last year, with a few sizable upgrades.

Though nothing is set in stone, it seems at this point that Bowers will probably be the guy under center again next year. If he can continue to grow and learn from the mistakes he made last year, he will likely enjoy a strong season in Beau Baldwin’s offense during his second year with the scheme. If there’s no growth, if he doesn’t take the step forward, who else is there?

Chase Forrest is back for his redshirt senior season, but doesn’t bring a wealth of experience to the table. He spent the spring and summer of 2017 battling with Bowers for the starting job, but was second on the depth chart all year. He’s only thrown 28 passes at Cal, and his style of play is similar to Bowers as a pocket-passer. Chase Garbers is another option, but having just finished his freshman season, isn’t experienced either.

Maybe Cal would need to go in a different direction with the quarterback position. They’ve primarily used the pro-style pocket passers in recent years, but they have a player in the fold that can move them away from that philosophy. Brandon McIlwain will be eligible to play for the Bears in 2018 after sitting out the previous year because of a transfer from South Carolina.

McIlwain was a unanimous four-star recruit coming out of Council Rock North High School in Pennsylvania, where he threw for 6,480 yards and 56 touchdowns, and ran for 3,677 yards and 67 touchdowns. He committed to South Carolina to play both football and baseball, and saw some gridiron action in his true freshman season of 2016.

The numbers aren’t overly impressive. In eight games (three starts), he completed 52.5 percent of his passes, and threw for less than 10 yards per completion (600 yards on 62 completions), while throwing two scores and one interception. On the ground, he ran for 127 yards and two more scores, but averaged just two yards per carry.

But McIlwain is young and extremely athletic, and would give the offense a threat it hasn’t had in a long time. The threat of a running quarterback can change defensive gameplans entirely, adding that significant factor of breaking contain and picking up big chunks. Maybe that’s what Cal needs. He’s still raw as a passer, but that can be overcome somewhat with his legs.

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Bowers still seems like the best option from the onset, but maybe he needs to have a short leash. If that growth isn’t evident early in the season, a change might have to be made. But for now, Bowers is the man for the job heading into 2018.