2022 Cal Football returning production: The next Generation must step up
Cal football will have one of the least experienced teams in the country next year - will that inevitably mean a step backwards?
Every off-season I look forward to Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings. It’s one of our first chances to catch our breath following the coaching carousel, 2nd signing day, and the transfer portal carousel.
But this year, knowing what I knew about what Cal was losing on both sides of the ball, I was maybe less excited than prior seasons. And sure enough, the rankings are not kind to our Bears. Here’s the Pac-12, with national rank in parenthesis:
Stanford (3rd nationally)
Arizona State (32)
Oregon State (39)
Washington State (119)
The rankings aren’t kind to the Pac-12 in general. Last year, the conference brought back more talent than most of the country, perhaps in part because the 2020 Pac-12 season was so heavily impacted by COVID cancellations and Pac-12 players who received an extra year of eligibility particularly felt a sense of unfinished business. That production very much did NOT result in improved performances, as the entire Pac-12 went a miserable 16-25 in non-conference games*, so clearly returning production isn’t the end-all-be-all.
Losing production isn’t necessarily crippling if you’re replacing departing players with more talented recruits/transfers. Retaining production isn’t necessarily a good thing if that production struggled badly on the field (helloooooo Stanford). But, all things being equal, you generally want experienced returning starters.
*Which led to speculation that the more extreme disruptions to practice, conditioning, and in-game experience stunted the entire conference, which is an unprovable but plausible hypothesis.
Cal, obviously, is losing a ton of players who have defined the first five years of the Justin Wilcox era. Chase Garbers, Elijah Hicks, Nikko Remigio, Josh Drayden, Cam Goode - leaders on both sides of the ball. But it’s worth breaking down a little bit what goes into Bill C’s formula, and what it says about Cal:
Weighting of returning production on offense:
Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 37% of the overall number
Percent of returning QB passing yards: 29%
Percent of returning OL snaps: 28%
Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%
And weighting of returning production on defense:
Percent of returning tackles: 59%
Percent of returning passes defensed: 28%
Percent of returning tackles for loss: 8%
Percent of returning sacks: 5%
Cal’s offense, which is losing their QB, the entire WR core, their most frequently used tight end, one of their two main running backs, plus a couple offensive line starters, is losing nearly everything. So regardless of how you weight the numbers, Cal would be expected to rank low. The Bears are 126 out of 131 teams in returning production on offense, ahead of a handful of teams like Washington State, Nevada, and Hawaii, who have been devastated by the transfer portal and weird coaching transitions.
On defense, things look a little brighter. Cal ranks 44th, which is solidly above average in a conference replacing lots of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Cal isn’t necessarily losing a ton of players, but the guys that have departed are higher impact players like Goode, Hicks, and Drayden, so the impact is higher than the sheer volume of players departing.
In any case, the picture is clear: it’s time for the next generation of Cal players to step to the forefront. To a certain extent that’s already started on defense with the rise of players like Lu-Magia Hearns, Nate Rutchena, and Femi Oladejo. But that youth movement is going to have to continue on defense with a major vacuum at safety and outside linebacker, and there will be a whole cloth turnover on offense.
The man in the spotlight all off-season will be Bill Musgrave. For the first time, his offense will be led by a quarterback he’s chosen as a recruiter, throwing to a group of young receivers mostly recruited under him who are unproven but at least as talented as any since the Dykes era. And they’ll all be protected by an offensive line that already struggled for consistency and now has to replace two starters.
Will a group of players who have done nothing but learn and practice under Musgrave’s system be ready for a surprisingly strong campaign, or will so much production turnover doom the offense to uneven, mistake-ridden execution?
If nothing else, this will be one of the most anticipated, interesting spring practice we’ve seen since maybe Wilcox’s first season, with a clear QB battle highlighting a ton of position battles up and down the roster. We’re still a bit more than a month away from spring practice and the Spring Game on April 30th - if you’re the kind of fan inclined to wait until August or September to start paying attention, you may want to make a point to tune in this April.