Attrition is beginning to test the Cal football team again, at least at linebacker.
Junior Nathan Broussard, felled by an ACL tear in his left knee this week, has moved to the shelf alongside fellow linebackers Maximo Espitia (season-long suspension) and Jason Gibson (medical retirement). All three are done for the season.
“We’ve got some options,” coach Sonny Dykes said Wednesday after announcing the news about Broussard.
Maybe, but not quite as many as they once had.
A year after being ravaged roster-wide by health issues, the Bears will find out if the improved depth they believe they have at linebacker will hold up.
Broussard was running with the starting unit at middle linebacker and Espitia came out of spring ball listed as No. 1 at one of the outside spots. The coaching staff hoped Gibson might provide depth.
Now, barely two weeks before their Aug. 30 opener at Northwestern, the Bears are shuffling bodies.
Linebackers coach Garret Chachere enlisted the cliché, “Next man up,” then noted the difference from a year ago. “There is a next man to go up now. We have more depth, more guys who are ready to play,” he said.
The Bears are hoping sophomore Hardy Nickerson is one of those players. Nickerson played all last season with a left foot injury then underwent surgery Nov. 15 for a separate fracture to his mid-foot. He’s been folded into the action gradually these first two weeks, but said his foot is fully healed.
“Being injured is not fun,” Nickerson said. “I’m just looking forward to game day. I feel like I’ll be ready.”
Fellow sophomore Edward Tandy also is getting work at the position and Michael Barton, moved from the “mike” to the outside because Broussard appeared ready at middle linebacker, could always be pulled back inside.
Another option is freshman Devante Downs, who enrolled in time for spring ball but was held out of contact drills while rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in the fall as a high school senior in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
Even before Broussard’s injury, Dykes said the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder had shown the coaching staff enough that he would definitely play this fall rather than red-shirt. “For a young freshman, he’s starting to be more and more consistent,” Dykes said.
Asked if he can see himself on the field Aug. 30, Downs said, “Of course I’m ready. I’m excited.”
Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman said Downs has come a long way since the spring, when he was learning the defense and operating at three-quarter speed.
“Now he’s full go and he looks like a much better athlete as far as being able to move around,” Kaufman said. “When he knows what he’s doing, he really is going to be a good player.”
Luke Rubenzer is creeping ahead of fellow freshman Chase Forrest in the duel for the No. 2 quarterback spot.
“Luke’s getting a majority of the reps and is doing a lot of good things,” Dykes said this week. “We’ll continue to let it play out, but he’s making a move.”
No decision has been made on whether to red-shirt Rubenzer if starter Jared Goff stays healthy or give him opportunities to play. The X-factor is Rubenzer’s ability to run. “He gives us a little different element,” Dykes said.
As a high school senior in Scottsdale, Arizona, Rubenzer passed for 4,201 yards with 61 touchdowns and just three interceptions, and rushed for more than 1,200 yards.