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.
I'm not one to put a lot of stock in these early season rankings, especially based on 'production lost'. One of the greatest failings of modern day sports writers is to tie future performance to past performance. While it is certainly true that programs like Bama, Clemson and The OSU (and others) continually recruit well and are at the top of the heap, you could say the same thing for them, just at a higher level. My biggest gripe about sports writers, and not you Nick or any of the WFC staff - you guys do some fun research that no one else does, is that they are lazy as shit. It's so much easier to say because we are losing production that we will be worse. Can you say the same thing about USC? Lol. I think not. What it comes down to is talent and has that talent been coached up to play successfully at the P5 level. I would argue that all across the board that we have young talent ready to step up into the vacancies left by other players. We are losing Hicks in our secondary and we will miss his experience, but I fully expect our young talent and our coaching to more than make up for his loss. We lost Cam Goode but picked up Xavier Carlton. At ILB we picked up Jackson Sirmon. And I think this year you'll see Trey Paster surprise some people. He's an athlete and he has speed. We have some BIG bodies on the inside and Brett Johnson will be back. If he regains his pre-accident form then he is an absolute beast. Rutchena has really come into his own as well. On the offensive side of the ball we finally have had a full season with Musgrave's system and will be entering year two. We have a stable of good running backs and just added 4 star Jayden Ott. I am sorry to see Chris Brooks go because I finally think he found his game this last year, and it was solid. Replacing his specific skill set is next to impossible because of his size and strength. Dancy was also a damn good player, but I fully expect our production to remain the same or get better in our running game. My one concern is turnovers. At receiver we have Hunter, Christakos and Sturdivant surrounded by some solid competition. At TE we have Keleli Latu and highly recruited beast Jermaine Terry. I actually think our o-line will be better next year than this year. While we only have 11 returning on the roster, there is more athleticism in this group than at any time since Wilcox has been here. And I am not that bummed out about Mettauer leaving. He was big and nasty, but he had poor technique and got out over his feet way too much. This led to a lot of holding penalties. I think that we have a starting 5 ready to play right now with Driscoll, Coleman, Rohme, and Craig. And, I think some of the young guys are going to compete for starting spots, perhaps even one of our freshmen. My one are of concern is at QB. Plummer has game experience but no experience in Musgrave's complex system and he has a ceiling. I think Kai Milner has a much higher ceiling but no game experience. The competition will end up with the best player on the field and don't rule out Zach Johnson; he's a baller too. I'm not going to pump sunshine and say we are going to win 10 games next year, but I'm not all doom and gloom and I don't see things the same way Bill Connelly does. I think we will have some growing pains next year but I also think the talent on the field will be the best since Wilcox has been here. My big question mark is how well will we coach them up? With the exception of traveling to Notre Dame, our preseason and early schedule is not tough and should be a little forgiving while we hopefully find our groove. Only time will tell.
Except in the cases of exceptional talent, I've never seen a case of correlation between those coming back and those leaving having an impact. It's coaching. Keenan Allen, Goff, Lynch, and so on, mattered tremendously. But Cal hasn't had too much transformational talent lately, so it's on the coaches. Overall, I would say this 2022 team will be bigger, faster and stronger than those of a few year ago. But will that translate? Judging by 2021, we will win more or less the same. Wilcox is right that we were so close, but so it goes for every team. I've renewed my season tickets, but do I expect us to break through for 10 wins? Heck no. Surprise me, Bears.