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2022 End of Season Review: The Cal Football Offense
With Cal's young skill position players ready to stick around, the off-season focus now shifts to the offensive line.
Previously: The Cal Defense
I’m ultimately not qualified to determine why a coaching hire fails. But I’m skeptical of hiring guys from the NFL to run a college football offense. The best college football offenses are models of beautiful simplicity, drilled so frequently that players can execute at a high level. NFL offenses are occasionally beautiful, but rarely simple.
Is it a coincidence that Cal’s offense looked better after Bill Musgrave was fired and the coaching staff significantly paired down the play book? Is it a coincidence that the Cal offense looked better when the plays called focused on playing to the strength of Cal’s skill position talent, and away from prior offensive concepts?
Regardless of the specifics, Cal has retained what worked from the prior regime (the recruiting and positional development of RB aoch Aristotle Thompson and WR coach Burl Toler) and brought on new coaches to hopefully fix what Cal was lacking. Let’s review 2022 before we turn the page to 2023.
In my preview of the offense, I offered up this prediction:
I think the Cal offense ends up better than a handful of teams likely to be at the bottom of the conference – Colorado, Arizona, Stanford, Washington State – but still below average within the Pac-12.
But I also offered up the following warning:
I realize that nobody wants to reckon with a worst case scenario in August, when pre-season optimism is high. But the offensive track record under Justin Wilcox is not strong, and better programs have been done in by less roster turnover. There is a real risk that this could be the worst offense in the conference.
Then, a few weeks later I offered a worst-case scenario that turned out to be closer to what ended up happening:
Meanwhile, the Cal offense collapses. Ben Coleman struggles with the transition from left guard to left tackle, and Cal never finds a solution at left guard to replace Coleman or at right tackle to replace Valentino Daltoso. The line takes a step back from last year, but now they’re protecting a QB who can’t make plays with his legs. The offense is constantly off schedule and plagued by sacks and QB fumbles. Every defense crowds the line and plays press coverage knowing that Cal hasn’t a prayer of holding up in protection and going deep.
This worst-case scenario overstated how bad things would actually get, because Cal’s skill position talent dragged the Cal offense to a level of production that you wouldn’t have expected considering the blocking they received. Still, the larger point stands: Cal’s offense struggled behind a broken offensive line.
Rate stat rankings
Yards/play: 5.6 yards/play, 76th in the nation, 10th in the Pac-12
Points/drive: 1.97, 91st in the nation, 10th in the Pac-12
Advanced stat rankings
SP+ Ratings: 91st in the nation, (narrowly) last in the Pac-12
FEI Ratings: 82nd in the nation, 10th in the Pac-12
Across the various objective rankings we have available, there’s a broad agreement that Cal’s offense was bad, but not remarkably bad in the way Cal’s offense appeared to be remarkably bad halfway through the season. It’s worth noting that Cal’s offense gets a small but meaningful bump based on the final two games of the season. After Bill Musgrave’s dismissal, Cal had a good offensive showing against a bad Stanford team, and then a legitimately excellent showing against a decent UCLA season, and those two games goosed Cal’s numbers . . . and perhaps adds reason for optimism for 2023.
You can roughly split out Pac-12 offenses into the following tiers:
1. All consuming death units: USC, Oregon, Washington, UCLA
2. Competent, dangerous: Utah, Oregon State, Arizona
3. Below average: Arizona State, Washington State
4. Fatally flawed: Cal, Stanford
5. The single worst offense at the P5 level of football: Colorado
You might be curious why SP+ is down on Cal relative to yards/play and FEI. That’s because the SP+ ratings are more tied to success rate – the down-to-down ability of a team to produce a play that helps keep the chains moving – rather than explosiveness. For the first time in a while, Cal actually had the ability to create explosive plays, thanks to Ott/Hunter/Sturdivant, which made up for the frequency with which Cal had negative plays thanks to blocking struggles.
How did Cal answer key pre-season questions?
1. How will the Cal offense fair without Chase Garbers’ scrambles?
Well, Cal suffered 25 sacks (-5.7 yards/sack) in 2021, vs. 31 (-8.1 yards/sack) in 2022, which is an increase in both number and magnitude. Cal also went from +461 QB run yards to -126, so there was a clear consequence.
Having said that, Jack Plummer was better in the pocket than I anticipated, and frankly he did very well to only get sacked 31 times. He took a bunch of hits, got some throwaways, and generally limited the damage.
And while Cal missed Garbers’ scrambling/improvisation abilities, Cal gained a lot of that back with an ability to go deeper downfield with a higher frequency of success. Some of that comes down to improved skill position player performance, and some of that comes down to Plummer’s downfield passing ability, but this ended up being closer to a wash than I anticipated.
2. Can new faces create explosive plays?
Yes! Oh my, yes!
Jaydn Ott, J. Michael Sturdivant, and Mavin Anderson entered the starting lineup, augmenting what Cal already had with Jeremiah Hunter (who I and many others thought should’ve gotten way more burn last year) and Monroe Young. In Pac-12 play only, Cal actually finished tied for 3rd in passing plays of 30+ yards, behind USC and Arizona but tied with/ahead of offensive flamethrowers like Washington, Oregon, and UCLA. And while blocking was rarely sufficient to give him space, we all saw what Jadyn Ott could do when he got a block or two.
3. Will the revamped line provide skill position players with time and space?
No! Oh my, no!
I mean, as noted above Cal was able to find guys down field often enough to learn that the skill position guys are 100% legit. But on a down-to-down basis, Cal could not block for their skill talent. Jaydn Ott had too many runs where he broke two tackles just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Jack Plummer had too many passing plays blown up before he could move to a 2nd read. Cal’s scheme under Bill Musgrave was far from optimal, but the level of line play Cal got was not something anybody could scheme around.
Off-season status and goals
Announced Departures: TE Keleki Latu (transfer), RB Damien Moore (transfer) RB Chris Street (transfer), RB DeCarlos Brooks (transfer), OL Ben Coleman (transfer), OL Matthew Cindric (graduation)
If there are no further departures, Cal appears solidly set at the skill positions. Four established WRs with plenty of talent in reserve, the best returning running back in the conference (with apologies to OSU’s Damien Martinez), and a solid QB who developed good chemistry with his returning pass catching targets. I’d have to do a full review of every roster in the conference, but I’d wager that Cal might arguably enter next season with the 3rd or 4th best collection of skill position talent in the conference, pending the usual round of portal madness? Which, if true, would probably represent the first time Cal has had a top half collection of Pac-12 skill position talent since the Sonny Dykes days.
Which brings us to the offensive line, which will have to be completely rebuilt.
Ben Coleman and Matthew Cindric were arguably the only two players on the line who were (when healthy) able to consistently play at a Pac-12 level last year. They are now both gone. Cal will enter the off-season with basically no established starters on the line, with an open competition for every single starting spot.
I delayed this post so that I could write it knowing who Cal would bring in to fill their offensive coaching vacancies. It is now the primary job of Jake Spavital and Mike Bloesch to fix Cal’s offensive line. That leads to what I think is the defining question of the off-season:
Were Cal’s offensive line woes primarily personnel-related, or coaching/development related?
If Cal’s problems were the former, then Cal needs to hit the transfer portal hard for offensive linemen. If Cal’s problems were the latter, then hiring the right offensive line coach is half the battle. When I ponder about this question, I think back to when Cal hired Justin Wilcox and we assumed that it would take him a couple of years to rebuild the Cal defense; as it turned out, there was talent on the roster that had been woefully mismanaged by the prior regime.
Mike Bloesch has been an offensive line coach at Tulsa, then at North Texas - two really tough places to win football games. But I think it’s worth noting that in Bloesch’s three years at North Texas, the Mean Green have finished 2nd, 2nd, and 2nd in Conference USA in yards/run average, and 1st, 1st and 4th in sacks allowed/game. As Piotr notes:
Considering Cal’s budget and attractiveness of the job, Cal probably made as good an offensive line hire as possible. Paired with a solid offensive coordinator, I’m feeling about as optimistic as I could feel about the 10th worst offense in the Pac-12 last year under a 6th year head coach who has never actually presided over an above-average offense.
That isn’t to say that the line can be salvaged in one off-season. But if it’s possible, Spavital and Bloesch are probably the best guys for the job that Cal could realistically bring in.
There are other things that would be nice to address. Improving WR blocking. Getting more production out of the tight end position (or, alternatively, running more 4 WR/1 RB sets). Figuring out who’s going to get back-up carries behind Ott at RB. But those are all small potatoes compared to the single most important task:
Fix the offensive line.