2021 Cal Football Season Review: The Offense
Experienced and healthy, Cal sported their best offense of the Wilcox era. Is that good enough?
Way back in August I had the unenviable task of attempting to preview the Cal offense following COVID-ball in 2020. Well, now the data is in - did I do a decent job projecting the season? And how do we go about grading the Bears in the first full season under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave?
My Non-Bold Prediction
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 and explosively.
Yards/play: 5.9, 59th in the country, 7th in the Pac-12
Points/drive: 1.97, 82nd in the country, 8th in the Pac-12
SP+ rankings: 78th in the country, 8th in the Pac-12.
Turnovers: 10 lost (2 fumbles, 8 interceptions), 6th in the country, 2nd in the Pac-12
Well, when you do something for a decade, you’re supposed to get decent at it, right?
So yeah, Cal had roughly the 8th best offense in the conference. Of course, it’s probably fairer to split the units up into tiers, like so:
Good offenses: UCLA, Oregon State, Utah, Oregon, Arizona State
Mediocre offenses: USC, Washington State, Cal
Broken offenses: Washington, Arizona, Stanford, Colorado
The Cal offense wasn’t an offense defined by one obvious strength or one fatal flaw. The Bears were a decent running team and a decent passing team. The Bears were OK blocking but never overwhelming. The WRs were solid but rarely spectacular. The offense was solidly average more or less all season long, mostly playing well against bad defenses and struggling against good ones.
In some ways, average is exactly what we’ve been begging for throughout the Wilcox era. Remember, Cal had finished dead last in yards/play in every prior season under Wilcox, peaking at a far-from-scintillating 5.2 back in 2017. This season was, by a not-insignificant margin, the best offense Wilcox has ever put together.
The problem, of course, is that almost everything went right this year and Cal still peaked at slightly-below-average in a very down Pac-12. The Cal offense had one of the healthiest seasons in recent memory, as 15 different players appeared in at least 11 games. Left tackle Will Craig got hurt during the Washington State game and then later missed the final four games of the season. Other than that, I’m not aware of any significant, multi-game injuries from any core contributor* except for COVID-related stuff in the Arizona game.
Additionally, Cal had great turnover luck. The Bears only turned it over 10 times, and were fortunate to recover five of their seven fumbles**. Weird bounces and bad luck weren’t hindering Cal’s opportunities to score points. Cal’s field goal kicking was solidly above average as well, so it’s not special teams that let the offense down.
In short, Cal had a 4th year quarterback throwing to three veteran WRs and three senior tight ends, handing the ball off to two above average returning running backs, behind a line full of players with prior starting experience . . . and the offense was still only so-so.
By the way, if you’re curious as to why Cal would be better in the yards/play metric than other, more holistic metrics, it’s because A) schedule strength adjustments, as the Pac-12 was down and Cal’s schedule was weak and B) Cal struggled situationally. Cal’s 4th down conversion rate and red zone conversion rate both were well below average and conspired to cost Cal points they might otherwise have scored.
*It should be noted that losing likely all-conference center Michael Saffell prior to fall camp certainly hurt.
**Cal only lost two fumbles all season long, and one of them literally lost them a game when not fumbling or recovering the fumble would have at least meant more overtime. Even when we’re lucky we’re also somehow unlucky. Sigh.
Pre-Season Defining Questions in Review
Was last year’s struggles largely down to lack of installation and COVID?
I’m ultimately comfortable saying that the answer here is ‘Yes.’ As we’ve discussed, Cal’s offense was average this year, but it was still a massive leap ahead of the broken offense that Cal trotted out for four games in the aborted 2020 season. We can (and no doubt will!) debate whether or not the Cal coaching staff maximized the talent and experience on the roster this year, but I'd bet that if they had had a normal off-season to install the offense last year, results probably would have been closer to what we saw in 2021 than 2020.
Can talented young wide receivers bring the big play back to Cal’s offense?
Ultimately, no. The Cal offense was a touch more explosive this year, and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Hunter was certainly a part of it, flashing his route running skills and elusiveness early in the season. But Hunter perplexingly disappeared from the offense after the Oregon State game (unannounced injury?), and none of Cal’s other young receivers got a chance at consistent playing time.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing - veterans Kekoa Crawford, Nikko Remigio, and Trevon Clark were all healthy and productive all season long. But the lack of snaps and catches for anybody other than Hunter with all three of those guys leaving is cause for concern next year.
Can a revamped offensive line give the skill position time and space?
This was highly dependent on the opponent Cal was facing. When the Bears faced off against mediocre-to-bad defenses like TCU, Colorado, Oregon State, or Stanford, the Cal line dominated. Garbers had time to throw or run, Brooks and Moore had holes to hit, and the offense controlled the game.
But in other games, the line struggled. Washington State’s edge rushers dominated the contest. UCLA’s aggressive attacking scheme couldn’t be stopped. And of course Oregon and Kayvon Thibodeaux caused all kinds of havoc in the backfield.
And of course there’s the Arizona game. If Cal had everybody available, I’m confident the Bears would have paved the Wildcat defense. But Cal didn’t, and so I think it’s reasonable to ask with concern how prepared Cal’s coaches are to deal with injuries and absences on offense generally and the line specifically.
Questions to ponder as we enter the off season
Um, every position group is in major flux?
Players who have departed:
QB: Chase Garbers
RB: Christopher Brooks, Marcel Dancy
OL: Valentino Daltoso, McKade Mettauer
WR: Kekoa Crawford, Trevon Clark, Nikko Remigio
TE: Jake Tonges, Collin Moore, Gavin Reinwald
Remember those 15 players I mentioned above who appeared in 11 of Cal’s 12 games each? 11 of them are listed above. That’s . . . a lot.
Cal is probably feeling fine at running back, where Damien Moore is an established lead back. Every single other position group has major question marks.
Quarterback is obvious; Chase Garbers has been intimately involved with pretty much everything that’s gone right on offense over the last four seasons, and I’m sure Cal will have an open competition to replace him between Kai Millner, Zach Johnson, and potential Purdue transfer Jack Plummer.
Meanwhile, the only WRs who have received significant snaps or targets will be Jeremiah Hunter and Monroe Young. There’s plenty of reason to be excited about the recruiting pedigree of Justin Baker, J. Michael Sturdivant, Tommy Christakos, and Mason Mangum . . . but until they start breaking through on the field it’s all hypothetical.
We all know Cal gave a ton of snaps to tight ends last year, but 86% of those snaps went to departing seniors. Will Cal dial down on tight end usage, or will Keleki Latu, Jermaine Terry, and Elijah Mojarro be ready to take on a huge increase in responsibility?
Meanwhile, the offensive line might have been a source of stability, with four expected returners . . . until McKade Mettauer elected to transfer. Center Matthew Cindric, guard Ben Coleman, and left tackle Will Craig are established starters who will be heavily relied upon, but backup right tackle was already going to be a tough hole to fill and now there’s an additional opening at an interior line position.
Redshirt freshman Everett Johnson was the back-up at both guard positions and played against Arizona; he would presumably be the favorite to take over for Mettauer. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Brayden Rohme backed up both tackle positions, filled in when Craig was hurt, and would presumably be the favorite to take over for Daltoso. However, some position shuffling and open camp competitions would hardly be surprising. And with Will Craig’s injury history, finding multiple options at tackle would seem to be a massive priority. I can’t help but assume that Cal is shopping the transfer window at line generally and tackle specifically.
In short, Cal’s offense will have to be almost entirely rebuilt this off-season. That doesn’t have to be disastrous - Cal’s recruiting has been strong over the past few years and particularly so on the offensive side of the ball. The four consensus 4 star 2021 recruits Cal brought in? All offensive players, including Millner.
But recruiting stars don’t automatically translate into on-field success, and Justin Wilcox’s propensity to prepare young players to contribute on defense hasn’t yet translated on the offensive side of the ball.
For better or for worse, this will be Bill Musgrave’s offense, with players that he largely recruited and has spent the last two seasons coaching. If he can again coax conference-average production from a much younger, much more inexperienced group, Cal would be well positioned for 2022 and beyond. But with that much turnover, there’s plenty of downside risk as well.
It’s going to be a fascinating off-season on the offensive side of the bal.