Cal Football 2020 Preview: The Offense
What happens when you bring everybody back but the offensive coordinator? Time to find out!
It had been two and a half long years in the wilderness for the Cal offense. Following an it-wasn’t-even-as-close-as-the-final-score-indicated loss to Utah, the Bears had lost four straight games while averaging 10 points a game in that stretch. Few Cal fans likely thought at that point that they would enter the 2020 season full of optimism and excitement about the prospects of a high scoring offense.
But then the Bears trounced a bad Wazzu defense, Chase Garbers got healthy, and Cal ended the season on a 4-1 streak and averaged 25 points/game. That may not sound like an offensive explosion, but when you play at the pace Cal plays, that’s a pretty robust offense.
With nearly every player responsible for that upswing back, the responsibility falls to a new group of offensive coaches to wring the maximum out of a pretty exciting group of players. Let’s dive in:
2019 Offense, revisited
A healthy Chase Garbers, post-North Texas
This is a point that has been made before by multiple people, but is worth reiterating, because dividing lines this clear don’t usually exist. Chase Garbers was thrust into the quarterback position as a redshirt freshman and largely struggled for the entirety of the 2018 season, even getting pulled midway through the Cheez-It Bowl. He began the 2019 season with a pedestrian game against UC Davis, a mediocre game against UW (late game heroics aside) and an awful game against North Texas. With 14 games under his belt as a collegiate, there was precious little evidence that Chase Garbers could become an above average Pac-12 quarterback. And then the rest of the season happened:
Higher completion percentage, higher yards/attempt, and he halved his interception rate. And importantly: Those last 6 games stats aren’t good just compared to Garbers’ first 14 games. They’re good compared to college football at large. Justin Herbert (currently looking pretty darn good for the LA Chargers) put up 8.1 yards/attempt with a 67% completion rate last year.
Is there potential for doubt due to the quality of the defenses Garbers faced over the home stretch of the season? Sure. The best defense Garbers faced over that stretch was probably Arizona State, and while he looked good in that game he only played 1.5 quarters before getting hurt. But it’s also true that teams like Ole Miss and Illinois had solid, average defenses that Garbers made look quite bad. Only Joe Burrows and Tua Tagovailoa threw for more yards/play against Ole Miss than Chase Garbers did. Illinois gave up their highest QB rating of the entire season to Chase Garbers.
There’s not a ton to say here. Cal only lost 4 fumbles (6th in the country) and 9 interceptions (47th), which placed them 14th overall with just 13 turnovers. It’s worth noting that Cal didn’t have notable fumble recovery luck - it’s just that the Bears only coughed the ball up 7 times all season. That might be a fluke, but it also might just be the case that they happened to have a group that’s good at holding onto the ball, and since everybody is back it’s not unreasonable to expect another season of ball security.
And as noted above, Chase Garbers has (Cheez-It Bowl anomaly aside) never been a big interception risk and has improved over his career. You would expect Cal to again field an offense that doesn’t turn it over often.
How much do we blame offensive line struggles on injuries?
By any objective measurement, the Cal offensive line struggled badly in 2019. Only five teams in the country gave up more sacks than the Bears, and Cal allowed a sack on a frightening 11% of QB drop backs. The line was better at run blocking, though 113th in the country in yards/run isn’t exactly reason for excitement either.
This all comes with a massive, important caveat. Both because of his position and the depth behind him, LT Will Craig was probably Cal’s single most important lineman, and he missed all but the first game of the season. This was after Gentle Williams, the incumbent starter at left guard, suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Meanwhile, Valentino Daltoso and Michael Saffell each missed two games with injury.
As a result, Cal ended up starting a redshirt freshman (Matthew Cindric), a true freshman (McKae Mettauer) and a walk-on (Henry Bazakas) at various points in the season, while shifting everybody around the line in a desperate attempt to maintain a functioning unit. I have no doubt that various players were likely playing through injuries. This is not a recipe for success, and the results were as you would expect.
It’s worth noting that the line rotation stabilized later in the season, and that probably contributed to Cal’s 4-1 close to the season. How much Cal can build on that improvement may well tell the tale in 2020.
Left tackle, junior Will Craig/senior Valentino Daltoso
Left Guard, sophomore Matthew Cindric/senior Gentle Williams
Center, senior Michael Saffell
Right Guard, senior Valentino Daltoso/sophomore McKade Mettauer
Right Tackle, senior Jake Curhan
Redshirt freshman Brayden Rohme, redshirt freshman Brian Driscoll, sophomore Brandon Mello
If I were writing this preview further into pre-season camp, there would probably be some news about how the playing time battles on the line were going. Will Craig and Gentle Williams were both supposed to start last year, but both are recovering from serious injuries while Matthew Cindric and McKade Mettauer got a year of experience. The good news is that offensive line coach Angus McClure should have at least 7 guys he’s comfortable putting on the field. The question is the configuration.
Jake Curhan and Michael Saffell will surely start at right tackle and center respectively. Jack-of-all-trades Valentino Daltoso will be out there somewhere, whether at left tackle or at one of the guard spots. Thus, it’s likely a battle between Craig, Cindric, Mettauer, and Williams for the last two spots on the line. My guess is that Will Craig is too talented to not win the left tackle spot, allowing Daltoso to slide back to the guard spots he started his Cal career playing, but everything is up in the air as fall practice starts up.
Presumed starter: junior Chris Brown
Depth: senior Marcel Dancy, senior Bradrick Shaw
Chris Brown took about 2/3rds of the carries at running back last year, with Marcel Dancy getting the bulk of the rest, and that formula is unlikely to change in 2020. But thanks to the departure of 3rd string running back DeShawn Collins, there are depth concerns. Maybe this just means an increased workload for both established backs, but finding a running back capable of stepping in if either Brown or Dancy get injured will be a priority.
Grad transfer Bradrick Shaw is maybe the most likely option, as his 202 carries for 938 yards at Wisconsin is certainly more experience than anybody else on the roster. Cal did bring in two freshmen running backs in their 2020 class (Chris Street and Damien Moore) so if either make a splash they may force their way into the rotation.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Presumed starters, wide receiver: junior Nikko Remigio, senior Kekoa Crawford, sophomore Makai Polk, senior Trevon Clark
Presumed starter, tight end: junior Jake Tonges
Depth: junior Gavin Reinwald, a ton of true freshmen?
In a desperate bid for instant offense, Cal dipped into the JC and transfer pool to bring in Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford, and threw true freshman Makai Polk into the deep end with immediate playing time in all 13 games . . . and it worked out pretty darn well, all things considered. Crawford’s midseason injury was a big bummer and Polk and Clark probably would’ve benefitted from more time to integrate into the offense, but by the end of the season Cal had themselves a well-rounded core of receivers with the three new-comers working well with Nikko Remigio.
You’ll notice that I perhaps cheated up above and just listed four starters. That’s because while only three of the four WRs listed above may start any given game (depending on Cal’s opening formation) I would guess that all four will all receive a similar number of snaps.
The big question: who else, if anybody, gets into the pass catching rotation? Jordan Duncan has graduated and Jeremiah Hawkins has opted out of the season. True freshmen Justin Baker, Jeremiah Hunter, Mason Mangum, Tommy Christakos and Aidan Lee represent Justin Wilcox’s most heralded wide receiver recruiting class by a wide margin, but wide out is a notoriously difficult position to make an instant impact. With a shortened training camp, a shortened season, and four experienced starters, I’d anticipate waiting until 2021 for this exciting group to make an impact.
At tight end, I’d expect the experienced duo of Jake Tonges and Gavin Reinwald to again get the majority of the snaps, though Elijah Mojarro is coming off his redshirt season and may be ready to contribute.
Presumed starter: junior Chase Garbers
Depth: senior Devon Modster, redshirt freshman Spencer Brasch
There’s not much to say here that wasn’t discussed above. Cal’s hopes in 2020 likely rest on the arm and the health of Chase Garbers. While Devon Modster is a solid back-up, his numbers just don’t stack up to what Garbers put up. Per early practice reports he’s still the presumed back-up. We know what we’re getting at the QB position with two experienced players firmly ensconced at 1 and 2.
How valuable exactly is it to have everybody back?
When I say everybody, I pretty much mean everybody. No slight to Jordan Duncan and his 25 catches or DeShawn Collins and his 38 carries, but Cal is 1st in the country in returning production on offense for a reason.
To a certain extent I’m getting a feeling of deja vu. Way back in 2018 I previewed a Cal offense that was also returning everybody from the previous year, and I got some criticism for not thinking that Cal had a higher ceiling than perhaps a mid-conference offense. As it turned out, Cal’s returning production wasn’t very valuable that year, and the offense was arguably a bit worse.
There’s one big reason to think that this year should be different: Chase Garbers and the Cal offense showed off a ceiling last year that previous iterations under Justin Wilcox and Beau Baldwin never showed. So while it’s true that Cal finished 2019 last in the Pac-12 in yards/play, it’s also true that Cal was hampered by injuries in many games. That ghastly 1.9 ypp performance against Utah or 3.71 ypp vs. Oregon State isn’t remotely representative of the talent that was on the field in November of 2018, or the talent that will take the field come November 2020.
When Cal had a healthy Garbers, a health, settled line, and a healthy group of skill position players, they did indeed produce results like a top half Pac-12 offense. Maybe the big question we should ask is whether or not Cal can keep that group ambulatory and on the field.
Will a (presumably) healthy, deep offensive line pay dividends in 2020?
But we also need to be clear: While Cal’s offense was good when everybody got healthy late in the year, the offense wasn’t yet great. Six teams averaged more yards/play vs. UCLA than Cal did. Four teams averaged more yards/play vs. Stanford than Cal did. And while the Cal offensive line stabilized and improved later in the season, the line was still allowing too much pressure (example: 4 sacks allowed in the Big Game) and running lanes were limited.
So if you’re looking for where the improvement needs to come for Cal to take the next step forward on offense, you have to look squarely at the offensive line. With seven players with meaningful experience, depth and experience shouldn’t be the issue.
Remember that 11% sack rate allowed from up above? That number needs to at least be halved just to get to above average nationally, and that’s also about where Cal needs to get to if the offense is going to approach its ceiling.
Will Bill Musgrave’s offense work? Does he even have time to install it?
And now for the hard-if-not-impossible question for 2020. Though Beau Baldwin’s offense finally picked up late in the year, it was probably best for everybody involved that he move to Cal Poly after three seasons of mostly below average offensive production in Berkeley.
Of course, just because you make the right decision doesn’t mean everything’s going to work out. As it turns out, this might be the worst off-season in which to install a new scheme. With spring practice mostly cancelled and fall practice shortened, will the Cal offense be at a competitive disadvantage? At least Musgrave will be teaching to a group made up almost entirely of upperclassmen with plenty of on-field experience.
Would you like an entirely not-bold prediction? The 2020 Bears will have the best offense Justin Wilcox has yet put onto the field. OK, that’s clearly damning with faint praise, as Cal has finished 12th in the Pac-12 in yards/play in every season since Justin Wilcox was hired.
It’s unlikely that Cal will immediately transform into a high flying attack like USC or an efficiency monster like Utah, but there’s no reason to think that Cal doesn’t have the talent and the experience that they might comfortably settle into the tier of offenses just below the best in the conference. Hell, with Wazzu (121), Oregon St. (123), Oregon (124), and Washington (127) all near the bottom of the nation in returning production on offense, it wouldn’t be insane to suggest that Cal might actually sport the best offense in the Pac-12 North, which is after all what matters thanks to the shortened season schedule.
Still, it’s worth noting that while our rivals are all rebuilding on offense, the rest of the Pac-12 north is returning lots of defensive production. That might not mean much when the returning players weren’t very good already (Wazzu), but Washington and Oregon will be stacked. The degree of difficulty will be high, and I would expect the condensed battle for the Pac-12 north title to buck the trend of high scoring, all-offense/limited-defense we have seen around the rest of the country so far this season.
The bottom line? If Cal can find a starting combination/rotation that works on the offensive line, I expect the offense to put up enough points that the Bears should win games.
I use should very intentionally, because for the first time in a couple years there are more question marks on the defensive side of the ball. Stayed tuned, because we’re previewing that side of the ball next Monday.