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2022 Season Preview Part 3: The Offense
Massive personnel turnover means the offense will be different, but will it be better or worse?
Predict the Season: You have til August 19 to get your predictions in!
Two returning starters! In however many years I’ve been previewing Cal football seasons, I don’t think I’ve previewed a unit with so much turnover. Can a very different group of Bears put up enough points in support of a more seasoned defense?
2021 Offense, revisited
5.9 yards/play, 60th in the nation and 7th in the Pac-12
4.9 yards/run, 33rd in the nation and 6th in the Pac-12
6.9 yards/pass attempt, 94th in the nation and 8th in the Pac-12
10 turnovers lost, 6th in the nation and 1st in the Pac-12
The good news: Cal fans had been waiting for a roughly average Cal offense under Justin Wilcox, and that’s more or less what the 2021 Bears delivered, and Cal really avoided turnovers in the process.
The bad news: they did that with a high continuity, senior-heavy roster. Of the 12 players who got the most snaps last year, 10 are no longer on the roster. This is an almost complete rebuild from the ground up on one side of the ball.
Turnover prevention: Cal finished the season 6th in the nation in turnovers given up, which was probably on the fortunate side. I’m not sure to what extent not fumbling is a repeatable skill, but last year Cal only fumbled the ball seven times, and only one team fumbled less often. Of course, if that IS a repeatable skill, it’s worth noting that pretty much all of Cal’s skill position talent outside of Damien Moore . . . who had three of Cal’s seven fumbles. I woudn’t necessarily assume that Cal will hold onto the football as well as they did in 2021.
Chase Garber’s interception avoidance was probably a combo factor of his experience, and his willingness to put faith in his scrambling ability over forcing a ball into coverage. Jack Plummer has been pretty good at avoiding interceptions at Purdue . . . but he’s been much less mobile and has fumbled with concerning frequency when hit, so hopefully Cal can protect him better than Purdue did
Guys running the ball: Chase Garbers, Chris Brooks, and Damien Moore were all excellent when they ran the football, with the ability to find holes, make the right cuts, and break tackles. They didn’t always have the blocking to really romp, but Cal could count on their ball carriers to make the most out of the opportunities afforded to them.
Quarterback protection: This wasn’t a season-long issue, and Cal had games where the line delivered solid protection. Cal ended up giving up just over 2 sacks/game and finished a mediocre 52nd in sack rate allowed nationally.
The problem was twofold: First, Chase Garber’s scrambling ability helped mask some of Cal’s protection issues. Second, when Cal’s line struggled to protect in individual games, they really struggled to protect. Cal’s losses to Oregon, Washington State, UCLA, and Arizona were heavily influenced by protection issues.
Explosive plays: Justin Wilcox constantly talks about ‘explosives’ as a key measure of success on both sides of the ball. But while he’s created a defense that consistently takes away big plays, he hasn’t been able to coax out much explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball.
Some of that was a matter of personnel. Cal’s two primary running backs were rugged tackle breakers but not burners with big play speed. Cal’s primary wide receivers were more possession type receivers, the line wasn’t necessarily going to provide time to go deep over the top, and Chase Garbers was perhaps more likely to scramble than wait for a deep shot to open up.
But either way, the result was a team that didn’t create many big plays.
Note: All class designations are based on what Cal’s roster says and may have little if anything to do with how much eligibility a player has left, which is now a nightmare to track thanks to COVID.
Presumed starter: Senior Jack Plummer
Depth: Freshman Kai Millner, Sophomore Zach Johnson
After four seasons led by Chase Garbers, it’s finally time for a new quarterback. All through spring ball and continuing into fall camp, the operating assumption is that Purdue transfer Jack Plummer will be Cal’s quarterback in 2022.
That Kai Millner isn’t yet The Guy is a bit concerning, but he is entering just his 2nd season on campus so the book is far from written . . . and based on Jack Plummer’s injury history, it would be far from a surprise to see Millner on the field at some point this season.
As a thrower, Plummer’s stats (in roughly half as much playing time) actually look quite similar to Chase Garbers:
Garbers: 62.4 Cmp%, 6.9 yards/attempt, 50 TDs to 24 INTs
Plummer: 64.8 Cmp%, 6.9 yards/attempt, 26 TD to 10 INTs
The main difference, as we’ll discuss below, is that Plummer is not a runner, which IS something that Millner brings to the table.
Left tackle: Junior Ben Coleman
Left Guard: Junior Everett Johnson
Center: Senior Matthew Cindric
Right Guard: Senior Spencer Lovell
Right Tackle: Junior T.J. Session
Depth: Junior Brayden Rohme, Freshman Sioape Vatikani, Junior Brian Driscoll, Freshman Bastian Swinney
Here’s where things get messy. Cal has been moving guys around the offensive line depth chart as the line gets remade following the departures of Valentino Daltoso (graduation), Will Craig (retired from football), and McKade Mettauer (transfer) from last year’s starting line.
Ben Coleman’s slide from left guard to left tackle appears set in stone, but immediately raises concerns when you’re forced to move your best offensive lineman to a new, harder position. Cal dipped into the transfer portal for depth on the right side of the line, and I’m guessing that ASU’s Spencer Lovell and Montana’s T.J. Session end up as starters, but there will be competition for both slots.
Meanwhile, the left guard spot vacated by Coleman is an open competition, with Everett Johnson and Brian Driscoll appearing to be the primary candidates.
Really, the only position on the entire line with continuity from last year is center Matthew Cindric.
If you’re inclined to be optimistic, you might argue that the line needed reshuffling - the offensive line was a clear weakness last year. But losing three starters, two unexpectedly, means that Cal is relying on transfers AND players already on the roster to step up, and it’s clear that the coaching staff has yet to determine the starting lineup or snap rotation.
Presumed Starter: Junior Damien Moore
Depth: Freshman Jaydn Ott, Junior DeCarlos Brooks, Junior Chris Street
Running back was a strength for Cal last year, and even with the departure of Chris Brooks it will almost certainly be a strength again. Damien Moore is back as the presumed starter. He’s got excellent vision and is a solid tackle breaker. If he can limit his fumbles and contribute more in the passing game he could make a push for all Pac-12 honors.
Meanwhile, DeCarlos Brooks and Chris Street looked solid in limited opportunities as 3rd/4th string backs last year, and will be pushed for playing time by Jaydn Ott, Cal’s highest rated running back recruit in quite some time.
Presume Starters: Sophomore Jermaine Terry, Sophomore Keleki Latu
Depth: Junior Elijah Mojarro, Senior Nick Alftin
While all four players listed above got spot duty, the bulk of the playing time last year went to a trio of seniors, so there’s a major changing of the guard. The assumption is Terry is too talented not to get major action, but based on the number of snaps Cal gave to tight ends last year, I’d bet that at least three and perhaps all four of these players get meaningful snaps.
And I’ll be frank: If Bill Musgrave is going to continue running two tight end sets as often as he did last year, Cal needs their tight ends to have a more consistent impact as pass catchers.
WR1: Junior Jeremiah Hunter
WR2: Junior Justin Baker
WR3: Senior Monroe Young
Depth: Freshman J. Michael Sturdivant, Sophomore Mason Mangum, Junior Tommy Christakos, Freshman Mavin Anderson
For better or for worse, last year Cal gave 1475 snaps to Nikko Remigio, Kekoa Crawford, and Trevon Clark. Meanwhile, Jeremiah Hunter and Monroe Young got 375 combined, while everybody else on the roster got just 130 combined.
I think Cal fans were hoping to see some of the younger WR talent get a chance on the field, but between the number of snaps that went to multiple tight end formations and the heavy usage Cal’s seniors received, there just wasn’t much of a chance afforded to anybody else.
Well, that’s going to have to change this year.
I’m not really sure who is going to be given the chance to step up other than Hunter, who was Cal’s best WR on a per snap basis last year. But between the wideout heavy class of 2020 and the two 4-star recruits from 2021 (Sturdivant and Anderson) the talent is clearly there.
How will the Cal offense fair without Chase Garbers’ scrambles?
Last year, Chase Garbers ran the ball (removing sacks) 79 times for 604 yards. That amounted to 13% of Cal's offense, and at 7.6 yards/carry, nearly two yards better than the 5.9 yards/play the Cal offense averaged in total. Jack Plummer is very much not a scrambler. I'm having trouble removing sacks from his numbers, but he averages .7 yards/run across his career and runs much less often.
The problem is twofold. Obviously, Cal is losing an offensive weapon that was a consistently above average option. But Chase's mobility was also necessary as a safety valve to deal with the pressure that Cal's line often allowed in prior seasons. For Jack Plummer to be roughly as valuable of a player as Chase Garbers, knowing that Plummer isn't going to provide value as a runner, he will have to be significantly better than Chase as a passer of the ball.
This doesn't HAVE to be a downgrade.
Can new faces create explosive plays?
The size and height of Jermaine Terry, Keleki Latu, and J. Michael Sturdivant. The speed of Justin Baker and Jaydn Ott. The ability to create separation of Jeremiah Hunter. In theory, Cal's younger skill position talent should have the physical ability to create big plays. But other than occasional flashes from Hunter in (too limited) playing time, none of these players have proven it on the field. For pretty much the entire Wilcox era, Cal's skill position talent has been defined by possession wide receivers and bruising but slower running backs. For the first time, there are expectations of more dynamic players in space . . . if Cal can get them the ball in space.
Will the revamped line provide skill position players with time and space?
I think it's entirely reasonable for Cal fans to enter 2022 optimistic about the talent available at RB, WR, and TE. Sure, there's lots of turnover, but the talent coming up represents some of Cal's biggest recruiting successes. There should be no lack of speed, size, and elusiveness relative to what Cal had last year at the same positions.
But none of that will matter if the offensive line doesn't give that talent time to make things happen, and as I can't say too many times, Cal is only returning one player at the same position they played on the line in 2022. Even if the line is individually talented, there's reason to have concerns about cohesion and chemistry for a group that may shuffle around well into the season. And depth is still a major concern - there just aren't many players on the roster who have taken meaningful game snaps.
If under Justin Wilcox Cal had a track record of strong offensive line play, of being able to weather offensive line injuries, then maybe I'd be more optimistic. But that track record just isn't there.
You can imagine the best case scenario. With an upgrade in skill position athletic talent, the loss of Chase Garber's legs is more than offset by more dynamic play around the quarterback. Jack Plummer doesn't run the ball, but Cal doesn't NEED him to run the ball because he's consistently provided open targets to throw the ball to. Meanwhile, Cal's transfer portal additions on the right side of the line seamlessly integrate into the starting lineup, Ben Coleman makes the transition to left tackle look easy, and the Cal line gives Plummer the time he needs. Cal's offense roughly maintains the Pac-12 average production seen in 2022, even though nearly the entire starting lineup turned over.
But the worst case scenario is concerningly plausible as well. The offensive line is rebuilt and depth is unknown. Cal spends all of fall camp and warm up games against UCD and UNLV looking for the right rotation without ever really finding a solution. Any injuries up front are potentially devastating. And the result is a line that never finds any kind of cohesion. Meanwhile, the line is attempting to protect an immobile quarterback who is learning a new offense for an offensive coordinator who hasn't yet convinced Cal fans in two seasons, throwing to a bunch of players who are talented but green and likely to make the kind of mistakes you expect from younger guys. Cal's offense moves backwards as often as it moves forwards.
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.
I ultimately don't think that's the most likely scenario. Jack Plummer is competent, experienced P5 quarterback and I do think that this is the most talented skill position group of the Wilcox era, and that matters. Which means it all comes down to the offensive line. If they can keep Plummer upright, and provide Moore and company with some running lanes, this offense should be decent.
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. If Cal exceeds those expectations, it will truly be an impressive job both of emergency recruitment and quick development along the offensive line and at quarterback.