2021 College Football Season Preview: The Offense
Can a very experienced core of players finally learn the ropes of the Musgrave offense?
When Cal wrapped up the 2019 season with a strong offensive performance to defeat Illinois, they were riding high offensively. Two late drives to win the Axe, a solid performance to beat UCLA on the road, and then 35 points in the Redbox bowl.
Two years later, Cal very well may play a starting lineup that features 8 of the 11 players who started in the Redbox Bowl. Another likely starter against Nevada, Trevon Clark, played against Illinois.
In short, Cal will be rolling into the 2021 season with an offensive lineup that has as much continuity as a modern college football can reasonably dream about. And yet, still, the Cal offense is probably the biggest question mark entering the 2021 season.
2020 Offense, revisited
There’s very little you can point to about Cal’s offensive performance in 2020 that was positive.
Cal ranked last in the Pac-12 in yards/pass attempt, 11th in yards/rush, and 12th in yards/play. Whatever downfield passing game Cal developed in 2019 was lost, and the Bears struggled mightily to create any kind of big plays; out of 286 offensive snaps, only twelve plays (4%) went for 20 yards or more and only four (1%) went for 30 yard or more. Worse, Cal led the Pac-12 in most tackles for loss and sacks allowed/game.
The Bears weren’t good at going forward, frequently went backwards, and essentially had the worst offense in the conference by every reasonable metric despite playing two teams (OSU and Stanford) who had significantly below average Pac-12 defenses.
Of course, there may have been two pretty good reasons for Cal’s struggles:
Cal may or may not have had anything close to adequate practice time to install Bill Musgrave’s offense
Cal’s offensive line was missing three starters vs. Oregon State and Stanford thanks to COVID exposure issues
If Cal rides a strong offense to a strong season, then everything that happened last year will go from blurry fever dream to completely and utterly forgotten.
If Cal again has the least productive offense in the conference, 2020 will look like some sort of horrible omen that nobody took seriously enough.
(Did I intentionally delay this article until the depth chart was released, solely so I could ensure that this article doesn’t look archaic mere days later? I’ll never admit it!)
Presumed Starter: Sr. Chase Garbers
Depth: Sr. Ryan Glover, So. Zach Johnson
Obviously we start and end with Chase Garbers, who will achieve rarified air by starting a football game in four different seasons of Cal football. You don’t need me to tell you who he is and what he can do when he’s at his best. The more relevant question is whether or not the Cal coaching staff can coax the best out of him.
Ryan Glover appears to have beaten out sophomores Zach Johnson and Kai Milner for the backup spot. Glover was a dual threat QB who started for a season at Penn before losing the starting spot, and one presumes that the Cal coaching staff values his experience as a backup ahead of two younger players who haven’t taken any live snaps yet.
Presmued Starters: LT Jr. Will Craig; LG So. Ben Coleman; C Jr. Matthew Cindric; RG Jr. McKade Mettauer; RT Sr. Valentino Daltoso
Depth: So. Brayden Rohme, So. Everett Johnson, So. Brian Driscoll
So many questions here. How healthy is Will Craig, who has had a promising career derailed so many times by injury? How ready is Matthew Cindric to step into the center spot vacated by Michael Saffell’s injury retirement? How will offensive-line-swiss-army-knife Valentino Daltoso hold up at right tackle? To what extent will a line that has had to constantly shuffle over the last few years be able to gel into a cohesive unit?
Still, the issue here is not lack of experience - all five starters have gotten plenty of snaps . . . just not necessarily in the position they will play on Saturday, or with each other all together at the same time.
Presumed Starters: Sr. Trevon Clark, Sr. Kekoa Crawford; Sr. Nikko Remigio
Depth: So. Justin Baker, Jr. Monroe Young, So. Tommy Christakos, So. Jeremiah Hunter
The position group that you, me, and most every other Cal fan is most excited to see. Clark, Crawford, and Remigio are established guys who have earned plenty of trust, but right behind them are a group of sophomores from the best Cal WR class in more than a decade.
Presumed Starter: So. Damien Moore
Depth: Sr. Christopher Brooks, So. DeCarlos Brooks, Sr. Marcel Dancy
One of the bigger surprises off the depth chart was Damien Moore supplanting Christopher Brooks (If you haven’t been following closely all off-season, Christopher Brown has changed his name). But considering what Moore did in his true freshman season last year, leading the team in yards/run, maybe that’s not a huge surprise.
To be fair, Brooks was hurt for the entirety of the 2020 season, and I think it’s fair to say that snaps and carries will probably be split pretty evenly between Cal’s two lead backs
Presumed Starter: Sr. Jake Tonges
Depth: Sr. Collin Moore, Sr. Gavin Reinwald, Fr. Jermaine Terry
The tight end position is less about depth chart pecking order and more about roles within the offense. Jake Tonges is the most established pass catching target, with 25 catches over the last two years. Moore and Reinwald are more involved for blocking purposes. Meanwhile, true freshman Jermaine Terry is the highest rated tight end recruit to come to Cal since at least Cameron Morrah back in the early Tedford era, and the perception coming out of fall camp is that he’s too good not to see the field in some capacity.
Was last year’s struggles largely down to lack of installation and COVID?
Plenty of offseason and fall camp chatter has been about trying to re-learn the Bill Musgrave offense. When Nikko Remigio was asked about year two under Musgrave, this was his response:
It’s night and day. We took a really conservative approach to the offense last year. We did not even have in there half of what was in the playbook, and this year we dove headfirst in . . . Today even, we were able to do a lot of the conversions and different audibles that we weren’t able to do last year.
In short, I don’t think anybody thinks last year is representative of what Bill Musgrave’s offense can do when run properly. That isn’t to say that Cal is guaranteed to score in bunches this year - it’s just that we don’t have good evidence one was or another that Musgrave’s offense will or won’t work in Berkeley. We’re going to start finding out on Saturday.
Can talented young wide receivers bring the big play back to Cal’s offense?
Big play creation and offensive explosiveness have been a major weakness for the entire Justin Wilcox era, with the exception of 2019, when Chase Garbers was healthy. That’s not to say that the Bears were marauding up and down the field, but Garbers was able to go downfield often enough that it was more than enough to support a good defense.
In theory, Cal seems well poised to regain that big play ability, because everybody who helped create big plays in 2019 is back, and Cal is adding a bunch of exciting younger WRs to the rotation.
Musgrave certainly isn’t averse to big plays, as his time coaching players like Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Adrian Peterson show. But then again, those are elite NFL athletes. So the question is if Musgrave can adapt to the talent he has on the roster.
But if Cal rediscovers the big play, this will probably be the reason:
Can a revamped offensive line give the skill position time and space?
Since Justin Wilcox took over in 2017, Cal has ranked 65, 85, 123, and 116 in sack rate allowed. In short, Cal’s QBs have been under near constant duress. Heck, I might speculate that the early years Cal ranked better than expected in part because the offense was intentionally conservative to avoid situations that would lead to sacks.
We talked above about all the reasons that the line has struggled. Constant injuries, constant rotation, a new coordinator, COVID exposures, etc. I think most of the excuses are pretty legit. But at some point if Cal is ever going to turn the corner under Wilcox, the line is going to have to step up and provide a level of protection that Chase Garbers hasn’t ever had.
I . . . I really don’t know. I see two things.
I see a collection of players who really performed well for stretches in 2019, except now they’re two years older, two years better, and with younger players ready to push them and to augment what the offense can do.
I also see a team that hasn’t fielded an above average Pac-12 offense in four years, and really only came close to average once, in 2019, when Chase was healthy.
As a result, there’s really a huge range of possibilities. If all of this experience combines with an understanding of a solid offensive plan and the Bears improve on the best they played in 2019, that would be a legitimately solid offense. Maybe an offense that might rank something like 4th in the conference behind the legitimately explosive offenses that you’ll expect from teams like Oregon, USC, and Arizona State.
On the other hand, Cal might run into the same problems that have stymied prior Wilcox offenses. Michael Saffell’s medical retirement means that the line can’t really afford any injuries, and Will Craig missed much of fall camp with injury concerns.
Meanwhile, even if you give Cal a mulligan for the 2020 season, there’s still an open question about whether or not Musgrave will mesh well with the talent he inherited. There’s no guarantee that everything works out smoothly once the offense hits the field.
If you forced me into a prediction, I’d say that Cal ends up with something like the 8th best offense in the conference. Better than the offenses that truly struggle, but not quite into the category of offenses that you trust to move the ball consistently an explosively. Still, that would be enough of an improvement to make the team much more watchable and win some games assuming a typically solid Wilcox defense.
In other words, probably more than enough for a bowl, but not quite enough to challenge in the Pac-12 North. But my words are worth very little, and it’s almost time to find out on the field.