BERKELEY -- On Monday, after 12 practices of neck-and-neck-and-neck quarterback competition, California head coach Sonny Dykes finally set one quarterback above the rest -- if only slightly.
“I’m liking what I’ve seen from all of them, but to me, it looks a little bit like Zach Kline’s starting to get a little bit more settled in,” Dykes said. “I’ve seen him kind of make a move here over the last two practices.”
There has been noticeably more zip on Kline’s passes of late, and he’s thrown with a bit more authority over the last three practices, having his best session yet on Monday.
“His reads are happening a little bit faster, it seems like he’s a little more accurate maybe on his midrange throws than he was,” Dykes said of Kline. “I saw some of that in the scrimmage Saturday, and it carried over to practice today, and I think he’s improved, and is getting better and better. It’s good to see that.”
Kline, for his part, said that the change wasn’t so immediate as it was a process. Despite the simplicity of the offense, it’s taken him some time to shift over from his pro-style roots.
“I think it’s just time,” Kline said. “It’s just being able to consistently run the offense, just get reps with this new playbook. I feel like this is now kind of my team. I don’t just feel a part of the team; I feel that this is my team. Last year, being a freshman, you just feel like you’re a part of it, you’re on it, but now, this is my team.”
Far from bravado, Kline’s comments bear the mark of a player who has to go into every practice not thinking he’s the best, but knowing it to be so, particularly when he’s fighting two other quarterbacks for the right to be named the starter.
“Hell, I can’t tell myself or can’t listen to any of that, because all you have to listen to is coach [Tony] Franklin’s constructive criticism,” Kline said. “That’s the approach that I’ve been taking: Listen to the constructive criticism, and everything else, just go out and go play. The chips will fall where they fall, and if that puts me on the field on Saturdays, starting, then that’s what is in God’s plan for me.”
Kline has relied upon his big arm ever since he was playing for Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley just over a year ago, and his arm strength has been one of his calling cards from high school through his first year at Cal. He’s had to learn that what Trent Dilfer said at the Palo Alto Elite 11 regionals in May of 2012 -- that he can’t always rely on the fastball -- is in fact what it takes to take that next step in his development.
“I think, just timing and footwork, just getting the ball out quick, not relying on arm strength, but relying on and trusting the guys, and my footwork,” Kline said of what he’s learned over the first 12 practices. “When you’re in a competition this fierce, you have to call this your team. You have to, in your mind, think that you’re the guy, so you have the confidence when you get called out there and you haven’t had a rep in 30 minutes. You have to go out there and say, ‘These are my guys, and I have to be the leader out there.’”
The three-way race to be the starter between Kline, early-enrollee Jared Goff and redshirt junior Austin Hinder -- both of whom are more mobile than Kline -- has taught the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder some hard lessons about perseverance, and over the last three practices, he’s seemed to turn things up a notch.
“This competition has shown me that you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself, but you have to be humble,” Kline said. “You have to be the leader. It’s training me, sharpening me, to be a leader in a Division I setting. That’s something that I am learning how to do, and it’s definitely exciting. It’s different, obviously, from high school, having all your best friends on the team that have grown up with you. These guys, I’ve only known for about a year and a half. Being able to have them trust me and me trust them, it’s definitely a journey, but we’re looking pretty good, I think.”
The competition is far from over. Dykes was a long ways from outright naming Kline the starter, but it was the first time that he’s elevated one signal-caller above the rest. Offensive coordinator Franklin has said that the competition between the three will, as Kline alluded to, make whoever comes out the starter that much better.
“I think competition always makes you better,” says Franklin. “Either you get better, or you wilt. The good thing is, none of them have wilted.”