Cal QB Ross Bowers Sure to Start, but Backups Look Strong

After providing zero indication of a legitimate “open competition” for Cal’s starting quarterback spot during training camp’s first 13 practices, backups Brandon McIlwain and Chase Garbers made strong pitches in Saturday’s camp-closing scrimmage.

There’s still little doubt that incumbent Ross Bowers, who consistently shows the best command of the offense, will be the starter. However, the next two weeks could prove a little more interesting than expected.

Bowers completed 12 of 19 passes for 94 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the situational scrimmage. His most impressive series came during a two-minute drill, when he drove the Bears 66 yards in 90 seconds and found Kanawai Noa for a 12-yard score on a fourth down.

“For him, he was OK today,” head coach Justin Wilcox said of Bowers, a perfectionist who says he hasn’t consistently played “elite” for the past week. “… We expect him to play better and better, and I think he’ll take all of this and grow from it.”

Save for a period early in camp, when Bowers was disciplining himself for an errant fade pass by running the stadium steps, the junior had taken every first-team snap until Saturday.

After starting a drive from the 43-yard line midway through the scrimmage, Bowers was replaced for a few plays by McIlwain. Bowers returned to finish the series, which was capped with a 50-yard field goal by Greg Thomas.

When asked about the unique substitution, Wilcox offered only a refrain he’s repeated from time to time since declaring the quarterback competition open prior to spring drills: “Everything is kind of on the table.”

Cal will have 11 practices in the two weeks remaining before the season-opener against North Carolina on Sept. 1. The team’s workouts will be moved from the mornings to the afternoons after classes start Wednesday.

It’s unclear how many chances McIlwain or Garbers will get as training camp shifts into regular-season practices, so they made the most of Saturday’s repetitions. McIlwain completed 3 of 8 passes for 53 yards and ran five times for 62 yards and two scores. Garbers completed 13 of 22 passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and an interception and ran four times for 70 yards and a score.

McIlwain came up hobbling after being dragged down from behind at the tail end of a 30-yard touchdown run, but he stayed in to hold the extra-point attempt and didn’t appear to be limping after practice.

“He’s tough to tackle. That’s the thing that jumps out,” Wilcox said. “He can run some of the option game and can throw the football. Being comfortable in the offense and with his decision-making, all those things need to continue to improve. But he’s a really good athlete. I think you saw the burst that he has. When he has the ball in his hands, he’s a lot like a running back.