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Cal Football Season Preview Part 2: The Offense
The seven year search for an above-average Justin Wilcox Cal offense continues on.
Photo via @calfootball on twitter
Part 1: Zombie or Phoenix?
Hey, would you all like a brief respite from Pac-12 collapse doom? We do have one final season to play, after all. We’re starting with the offense this year, where every question begins and ends with the offensive line, despite the fact that Cal will have a brand new started QB and we don’t even know who it is for sure yet.
2022 Offense, revisited
5.6 Yards/play, 74th in the nation
3.6 Yards/run, 99th in the nation
6.9 Yards/pass attempt, 83rd in the nation
12 Turnovers lost, 13th in the nation
Skill position talent
I realize this is something of a catch-all, but Cal’s offense had a clear strength: Jeremiah Hunter, J. Michael Sturdivant, and Jaydn Ott, with an impressive supporting effort from the fearless Jack Plummer.
Hunter was a legit all-conference level receiver who was reliable and capable of making big plays downfield. Sturdivant was a solid, reliable #2 target. Jaydn Ott was a constant tackle breaker who made the absolute most of nearly every run. And Jack Plummer did a good job getting his skill players the ball when he was provided with even a modicum of time in the pocket, and he was willing to take massive hits to give his guys time.
(Crap, two of those guys left.)
Pick an offensive line metric
I know I don’t need to tell you this - after all, you watched everything that happened last year with your own eyes. But for the sake of attaching numbers: Cal’s offensive line ranked 98th in average line yards per play, 125th in power success rate, 110th in stuff rate, and 89th in sack rate allowed on passing downs. [Stat definitions here.]
Cal found some modicum of success going against type and designing plays around a broken offensive line. Quick hitter passes on standard downs and runs on passing downs found moderate success. But if Cal needed the line to block for a couple yards on 3rd down when the opponent was keyed on the run, or if it was a clear passing situation and the line could rush the QB with impunity, Cal had no answer all season long.
The result was an offense that could look okayish when they stayed on schedule and disastrous when they couldn’t.
Projected starter: Sophomore Sam Jackson
Depth: Freshman Fernando Mendoza, Sophomore Ben Finley, Junior Luke Bottari
See the full QB discussion below, but I’m going to assume that Sam Jackson will get the nod the way Cal has been hyping up the TCU transfer, and at a minimum you know he’s going to get major playing time because his legs demand game time.
Projected starters: Junior left tackle Brayden Royme, Junior left guard Brian Driscoll, Senior center Matthew Cindric, sophomore right guard Matthew Wykoff, Junior right tackle T.J. Session
Depth: Sophomore guard Sioape Vatikani, Senior guard Barrett Miller, Sophomore Ender Aguilar, Junior Everett Johnson
I think you can safely peg Driscoll and Cindric as starters, but after that it’s anybody’s guess and you can take mine with a grain of salt. It’s going to be a wide open camp battle, and who knows? Maybe a younger guy coming off of redshirt like Trent Ramsey, or a JC transfer like Martin Tine push their way into the lineup.
Projected starter: Sophomore Jaydn Ott
Depth: Senior Isaiah Ifanse, Freshman Justin Williams-Thomas, Junior King Doerue
We all know about Jaydn Ott and I’d fully expect him to be the lead back, but there’s plenty more RB depth this year even with Byron Cardwell’s season ending injury. Ifanse, after all, is FCS powerhouse Montana State’s all time leading rusher, Williams-Thomas has solid recruiting pedigree after leaving Tennessee, and Doerue has been a solid back-up at Purdue across four seasons. Ott will not have to carry the ball 25 times a game.
Projected starter: Freshman Jack Endries/Sophomore J.T. Byrne
Depth: Junior Asher Alberding, Sophomore Andy Alfieri
I’d expect this to be largely a two man, evenly split rotation between Endries and Byrne, as Alberding and Alfieri have primarily been blocking/special teams guys in prior seasons. Endries is likely the bigger threat as a route runner based on his recruiting profile, but based on prior production I’d be pretty surprised if the tight end as a pass catcher is a major component of Cal’s offense this year. I’m anticipating more 4 wide formations.
Projected starters: Junior Jeremiah Hunter, Sophomore Mavin Anderson, Junior Taj Davis
Depth: Senior Brian Hightower, Senior Monroe Young, Sophomore Mason Mangum, Senior Mason Starling
The real question here is how deep the rotation gets - we know that Spavital likes to have a deep WR corp, and with three returners who got lots of playing time plus two P5 starters who have transferred in, there are at least 5 proven guys, plus players like Mangum and Starling and Mississippi St. transfer Marquez Dortch who may get a chance to grab snaps.
Can the offensive line get fixed in just one off-season? And are there any tackles on the roster
It was a miracle of skill position talent and desperation scheming around bad blocking that Cal even managed to finish as high as 74th in the nation in yards/play last year. Clearly, any improvement is predicated on a vast improvement along the line.
Enter Mike Bloesch, who had impressive success up and down his resume as an offensive line coach at North Texas and Tulsa, and is now tasked with a challenging rebuild.
The good news is that Cal has added solid players to the roster. Barrett Miller was a decent interior lineman at Stanford. Matthew Wycoff flashed major promise as a freshman interior lineman at Texas A&M. But you may notice something important here - interior offensive line.
Beggars can’t be choosers, but Cal’s offensive line problems were more so on both edges. Meaning either you have to hope that the guys who were on the roster last year but struggled can be coached up by Bloesch, or hope that somebody is ready to make the challenging transition from guard to tackle.
Is there a Pac-12 level QB on the roster?
The assumption entering fall camp is that Sam Jackson and Fernando Mendoza will compete for the starting nod. Mendoza was a lightly recruiting 2/3 star guy who took a redshirt season last year and is the only QB on the team who was with Cal last year. Sam Jackson, meanwhile, saw limited action as a change-of-pace back-up at TCU, with more rushing attempts (15) than passing attempts (6).
This makes one wonder if Cal might consider a two QB system with different playbooks designed to emphasize the different skillsets brought by Mendoza and Jackson. But there’s also a temptation to assume that Cal might want to go with the more mobile QB since the offensive line may well be a work in progress again.
Ben Finley (275 attempts across two seasons at NC State) and Luke Bottari (25 games of JUCO action) will add, at a minimum, competent depth. But the question is whether anybody can provide anything close to the type of production you’ll see across the conference in what is otherwise a STACKED year at QB.
Can Jake Spavital rediscover his mojo as an offensive coordinator?
As an offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital has helped build excellent offenses and Texas A&M, Cal and West Virginia. And for four years as a head coach at Texas State, Spavital’s offenses were largely a disaster.
That doesn’t have to mean anything - Texas State hasn’t seen any real success since making the transition up from the FCS level, and based on what I’ve read Spavital’s struggles were more related to recruiting than scheme. Still, when a coach is four years removed from his last successful unit, there are reasons to be concerned.
Cal brought in two coaches with prior OC experience in Bloesch and TE coach Tim Plough, so there won’t be a lack of scheme ideas in the coaching room.
I desperately want to be wrong.
I think Spavital was a solid hire. I think Mike Bloesch was an excellent hire. I think for the most part the coaching staff did a good job making additions to the roster.
I don’t think there are Pac-12 level tackles on the roster. And if that is the case, there is a very hard ceiling to how much this offense can improve from last year.
Even if lots of other things go right - If Jackson and/or Mendoza make a splash as first time starters, if Jadyn Ott takes another step forward to lead a deeper RB unit, if Hightower and Davis combine for better production that what Cal would’ve gotten from Sturdivant . . . even if all of those things happen, it can’t make up for an inability to block on either edge.
As of right now, my read of the situation is that Cal is relying on returning players to play left and right tackle. I haven’t heard anything about a potential position switch from an interior lineman. Which means we must all desperately hope that one or both of the following statements are true:
Cal had capable tackle talent, but Angus McClure was providing AWFUL developmental coaching.
Mike Bloesch is an elite offensive line coach.
Both of those statements are plausible, but resting the entire season on the chance that a two different players somewhere on the offensive line roster both take developmental leaps forward doesn’t fill me with optimism. And that’s before we get into the uncertainty of an unproven QB room.
The other challenge: Pac-12 offenses this year are stacked. Cal could find positive answers to all of the questions above and still top out at maybe the 8th best offense in the conference because there is so much returning talent up and down the west coast.
Prediction: The Cal offense is more erratic and boom/bust than any prior Wilcox-era offense, as Spavital and company overcome various personnel issues to cobble together the 9th best offense in the Pac-12. The Bears are comfortably ahead of Stanford, ASU, and Colorado, a small step behind Wazzu, and a big step behind the powerhouse offenses with proven QBs that everybody else in the conference sports heading into 2023.