Jake Spavital, Cal offensive coordinator, take two
Hopeful trepidation surrounds the return of Cal's past and future signal-caller.
After Sonny Dykes was fired at Cal (wonder what happened to him!), two coaches emerged as the potential successor—Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and then Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Some internally favored Wilcox for his presence in more successful Cal football environments. Some favored Spavital for being the best part of the final ill-fated Dykes campaign in 2016, where the Bears had another solid offense, upset Texas, Utah and Oregon, and still went 5-7 and 3-6 in the Pac-12.
Wilcox was eventually picked, but he definitely made an effort to keep Spavital on as the signal-caller. Spavital chose to move on to another offensive coordinator position at West Virginia, Wilcox picked Beau Baldwin, and it seemed both coaches would move on.
Six years later, Wilcox and Spavital finally reunite at Cal, under much more harrowing circumstances for both coaches.
Both coaches have had their stars significantly diminish. Wilcox is coming off his fourth losing season in six years (third in five full seasons) at Cal, and now probably sits on the warmest seat in the Pac-12. Spavital struggled through one of the most difficult head coaching positions in Texas State, going 13-35 before being fired after four straight seasons near the bottom of the Sun Belt.
Spavital’s one year stint at Cal was very solid. The Bears finished in the top-25 in most major offensive categories, which is certainly higher than any offense Wilcox has overseen with the Bears. Behind Davis Webb, Chad Hansen and a host of offensive talent, Cal finished 22nd in S/P+ and 22nd in points per game (37.1).
Spavital also enjoyed plenty of success as an offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and West Virginia. Andy wrote about his Texas A&M before at California Golden Blogs, after Spavital accepted his first Cal offensive coordinator stint under Dykes.
In 2013, Spavital was reunited with Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. He took on the role of co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach, working with Johnny Manziel the year after he won the Heisman Trophy. Though Manziel finished a disappointing fifth in the Heisman race that year, his passing statistics actually improved across the board under Spavital's tutelage. Sumlin promoted Spavital to full offensive coordinator before A&M's bowl game in 2013, the position he held until his departure a month ago.
So how did a guy who always seems to be moving up the ranks find himself out of a job this winter? The short answer is that his offense stopped working. After two years of fielding a top 20 offense according to S&P+, the Aggies ranked 55th in that metric last season. Their famous tempo seemed to stutter. And despite having the top quarterbacks from the last two recruiting classes (Kyle Allen in 2014 and Kyler Murray in 2015), neither signal caller seemed to get in rhythm.
At West Virginia with Dana Holgorsen, Spavital saw similar excellent success, as both teams finished with winning years behind quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills, which included a magical win against Texas.
"Dana called and asked me to be his OC, and I said, 'Is Will going to be there?' He said, 'Yeah,' and I said: 'Heck yeah. I'm in,'" Spavital said. "I had other coaching options that were legit and paid more, but I couldn't pass up coaching a talent like Will."
And coach him he has. With 16 seconds to play last weekend at Texas, it was Spavital who called the daring deep ball into quarters coverage—where only a perfect throw would beat it. And it was Spavital who decided to employ the same two-point conversion run-pass option on the second attempt and put the game in Grier's hands.
2018: 9th in SP+
As for recent success, as a head coach, Spavital’s offenses at Texas State were not good.
2022: 108th in SP+
To be clear, as a young program still finding its footing, Texas State is one of the hardest places in college football to coach, with Texas talent getting bombarded by all the other major Texas programs and external forces from east, west and north. Spavital relied heavily on transfers as time went by and the ceiling appeared to have been hit on his tenure. The Bobcats have managed only one winning season since joining FBS in 2012.
The major concern down the road is despite being part of very successful offenses at West Virginia, Texas A&M and Cal, Spavital’s offense produced results remained about where Wilcox has found normalcy—a .500ish team that occasionally showcases a good team every now and then.
But this will be the first time Spavital has paired himself with a defensive-oriented boss in Wilcox. And this could be some of the best talent Spavital has gotten the chance to work with this coming season behind Jaydn Ott, Jeremiah Hunter, J.Michael Sturdivant, Mavin Anderson, Jermaine Terry and Keleki Latu. If Jack Plummer returns, the Bears could be cooking with fish grease.
So considering how far the Bears fell the last two years under Bill Musgrave, getting the Bears back to even average footing on offense could give Cal a very different result.
And there is the cold hard reality that Spavital is not on the cutting edge anymore. The Pac-12 is littered with effective head coaches who are elite offensive minds. Spavital will have some work to do to get Cal up to that level.
First things first though. Time to get out of the basement.
Oh what could have been if they had been able to make it work years ago.
Cal fans, your thoughts on the hire?