The best laid plans...
The Cal coaching staff spent the summer incorporating the H-back position into the Bear offense with the special talents of Marcus Fields in mind. Fields played the new position well in the season opener, making three catches for 24 yards and carrying the ball once. Unfortunately, he also suffered a fractured shoulder and will miss four to six weeks of action.
So the task of mastering the H-back will fall to senior fullback Keana Kealaaina, who had no catches or carries while playing in nine of 11 games last year.
Kealaaina, who transferred from College of San Mateo before last season, can also play tight end, but has never been asked to catch the ball much before. In fact, he spent the first year of his college career at San Jose State playing linebacker. He took four years off to take his mission recruiting converts for the Mormon Church, after which he enrolled at College of San Mateo. He played running back for a year there, gaining over 1,000 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns.
Kealaaina was born in Hawaii, where Joe Igber starred in high school. If they start the Illinois game, it would give the Bears the only all-Hawaii backfield in Division 1A college football.
The H-back lines up wide of the tailback, rarely runs the ball and often flares out to the flat for passes. There is no question Kealaaina can handle the blocking duties: his 6-3, 260-pound frame makes him a natural at plowing over linebackers and defensive backs. But he is less of a threat in the passing game than Fields, lacking the speed to break for big gains.
Head coach Tom Holmoe said the offense won’t change with Keala at H-back.
“We wouldn’t have installed the H-back into our offense if the position only went one man deep,” Holmoe said. “We know Keala can do the job.”
Kealaaina played much of the latter stages of Saturday’s game against Utah, and performed well, catching a pass and breaking a tackle for a 14-yard gain. He may also see time at tight end, where starter Brian Surgener is battling several minor injuries. In fact, Kealaaina was listed as the starter at both positions earlier in the week, which surely is physically impossible. If Surgener, who was hit hard in the kidneys against Utah, can’t play, look for sophomore tight end Tom Swoboda to see quite a bit of action. Swoboda earned a scholarship this year after walking onto the team last year.
Sophomore fullback Ryan Stanger will back up Kealaaina at H-back. Stanger is also known mainly for his blocking, although he showed improvement in catching passes out of the backfield during spring practice. Senior Roy Jackson may also see some action at fullback.
NOTES: Center Reed Diehl has added a strained left knee to his laundry list of injuries this season, which includes a strained right knee and an injured right hand. He is questionable for Saturday’s game. If he is unable to play, sophomore Nolan Bluntzer will see the lion’s share of time at center. Bluntzer played well after replacing Diehl against Utah.
“That’s my job as a backup, to be ready whenever the team needs me,” Bluntzer said following the Utah game. “I’ve had two years under (offensive line) coach (Ed) White, so I’m confident I can do the job.”
Holmoe said the offense wouldn’t change with Bluntzer at center.
“We didn’t back off of anything with Bluntzer in there,” he said. “We can’t dictate the offense by who’s in the game.”
Earlier this year, Holmoe said James Smith might be the odd man out among the wideouts on road trips. But that has changed with his performance against Utah
“Hey, the guy caught a touchdown pass, and he’s the best blocker among our receivers. He’s definitely earned a spot on the trip.” Holmoe said.
Guard Scott Tercero will see his first action of the season against Illinois after struggling to rehab an injured knee which required surgery this summer. He has been taking about half of the snaps in practice this week.