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Cal’s three-man QB competition is too close to call as season nears

Cal’s three-man QB competition is too close to call as season nears

BERKELEY — The Cal coaching staff has been waiting for one of three candidates to emerge as the No. 1 quarterback. Two weeks into fall camp, they’re still waiting.

“There’s been one point in this competition where I thought (each) one of those quarterbacks is going to be our starter,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said after practice Tuesday. “When you think it’s one guy, it flips to another.”

Early this week Sam Jackson V — who came out of spring practice as the starter — looked like the answer. “Sam’s playing at a really high level right now,” Spavital confirmed.

But Fernando Mendoza and Ben Finley will continue to share practice reps through Saturday’s scrimmage — the second of training camp — and probably into next week. Spavital hopes to make a decision by next Wednesday, although the Bears tentatively have another scrimmage penciled in for Aug. 26 — one week before the Sept. 2 opener at North Texas.

The unofficial pecking order appears to be Jackson, Mendoza, Finley, with each player owning one advantage. Mendoza, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is perhaps the best pure passer. Finley, a wiry 6-3 summer transfer from North Carolina State, has the most experience after starting two games last season.

But it’s Jackson, the 5-11, 195-pound redshirt sophomore transfer from TCU, who brings the promise of a dual-threat weapon, boasting elite speed and elusiveness along with a sufficiently strong arm.

If Jackson can demonstrate the consistency the coaching staff wants, he seems likely to win the assignment.

“His efficiency and decision-making are what we’ve been working on, because we know he’s talented,” Spavital said. “We know he can make plays when he scrambles around.”

Jackson, a native of the Chicago area, is trying to be the player the Bears need.

“I think I’ve gotten better from Day 1 of fall camp to today,” he said before being asked what he must do to win the starting job. “I think the No. 1 thing is to do the things Spav is asking me to do. Just play the play.”

In other words, just as the 49ers are insisting that Trey Lance learns how to operate in the pocket, Spavital wants Jackson to develop the patience to let a play unfold.

Cal quarterback Sam Jackson V (5) prepares to throw the ball during training camp at Memorial Stadium I Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“He’s now staying in the pocket and he’s working on it. It’s really tough when that’s how he’s had success his whole life. He can scramble around and make those ‘wow’ plays,” Spavital said. “We’ve talked about staying in the pocket and going through progressions and getting the checkdowns when you need to, and I’ve seen a drastic improvement from Practice 1 to now.”

To extract the evidence he needed, Spavital reluctantly decided to have his quarterbacks go live for a good portion of Sunday’s 105-play scrimmage.

“I’m always a little bit nervous when you do that, but with this competition the way it is, that’s the best way to see how they operate when the bullets are live,” he said. “Sit in that pocket and have to make tough decisions instead of having that yellow jersey on the entire time.”

Jackson functioned well. He dashed out of the pocket five times, rushing for 41 yards. He also completed 10-of-14 passes for 84 yards, with a touchdown and without an interception or a sack.

Mendoza also played well in the scrimmage, completing 13-of-17 attempts for 170 yards and a touchdown. He did not throw an interception but was sacked once.

A native of Miami, Mendoza has been a surprise since quietly arriving at Cal a year ago. But he recognizes his underdog status.

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“It kind of feels like I’ve always been counted out in a way,” he said. “So it feels really good to be thrust into the competition and showing what I can do and how I can help the team win. Every single day in practice I see myself improving.”

Finley, who grew up in Phoenix, left NC State after it became clear he would be the No. 3 quarterback entering fall camp. That may still be his fate here, but for now he’s getting a chance to compete for the top spot.

He was 5-for-12 for 65 yards in the scrimmage and avoided throwing a pick but was sacked twice. He also scored on an 8-yard scramble.

“I think I did well,” Finley said. “I didn’t throw as much as I would have liked to but we were running the ball. The offensive line was getting a push and our running backs were running hard.”