Once again, hope springs eternal in Strawberry Canyon. But unlike the nomadic scramble of last year, our sturdy Golden Bears are finally set to return home to Memorial Stadium and the gleaming new SAHPC. Last year, the biggest news was the return of Coach Jeff Tedford as the primary architect and playcaller for the offense. Although he declared that his intent was to simplify the playbook and use more creativity, the on the field result was an interesting hybrid of pro-style and spread principles. To the coaching staff's credit, they abandoned the round-peg/square hole approach early and adapted the offense midway through the year to play to Maynard's strengths and cover for his weaknesses. When the We-Only-Roll-Left offense was firing on all cylinders, it was a nice blend of power running, downfield passing, play-action, and some zone reads. Will the coaches be able to build on this success moving forward?
Considering that Coach Tedford stuck with him despite two horrendous performances against the LA schools, one would have to presume that Zach Maynard is solidly entrenched as the starter here. Although it seems like one of the rites of spring and fall for there to be an "open competition" at quarterback, Tedford switched tendencies last year and was decisive in his selection of Maynard as The Man. Going into his senior year, will Zach make that next step to add consistent accuracy and reads to his Honey Badger routine? Or, is what we've seen what we'll get; a quarterback who will alternate between baffling overthrows and threading the needle?
For once, it appears that the biggest drama will be the distribution of snaps for the backup quarterbacks. Allen Bridgford is the presumptive favorite here, but he may be pushed by the young guns. Austin Hinder was rumored to impress with his accuracy and mobility, but needed a year to get stronger. Kyle Boehm came from a run-heavy offense in high school, but was a stellar performer and MVP in the Elite 7 on 7 passing tournament. And, of course, there's the small matter of the most touted quarterback recruit during the Tedford era who enrolled early for spring. Will Zach Kline be able to pick up the playbook quickly enough to make himself competitive in the depth chart?
Unlike last year, there should be no questions about Isi Sofele's ability to carry the load at tailback. He improved as much as any player on the Cal team as the season went on and won over many of the doubters with his heart. It'll be exciting to see if he can continue to improve and build on last year.
As CJ Anderson became comfortable with the playbook, he emerged as a capable backup. More than just the thunder to Sofele's lightning, he showed off some nifty elusiveness as well as soft hands out of the backfield. As a bigger back, he might also offers the option of playing with Sofele in a dual TB backfield.
Despite all the buzz surrounding Brendan Bigelow, it seemed like he never quite got completely comfortable last year. Although physically recovered from ACL surgery, he may not have gotten over the mental hurdle of just letting it loose and playing. He looked like just a shadow of the player who had one of the more impressive high school highlight reels in recent memory. If he can make it all the way back, could he play the game-breaker role for us the way De'Anthony Thomas was able to do for Oregon?
Also waiting in the wings is the physically imposing Daniel Lasco. He was Freshman Lifter of the Year as well as Co-Scout Team Player of the Year. Although he's more likely to make his mark on special teams, he's another talented back for Coach Gould to develop.
Darren Ervin and Mike Manuel offer shiftier options as reserves. Ervin played well last spring, but then fought the injury bug the rest of the year. Manuel is a solid player who did well in his limited opportunities.
It's unknown whether Desarte Yarnway and Trajuan Briggs will ever recover from their respective injuries to be in the mix. Yarnway has already been ruled out of spring ball.
With last year's starter, Eric Stevens, still recovering from injury, it falls to Nico Dumont and David Aknin to carry the load this spring. Dumont acquitted himself well as a true frosh last year in limited time, so I would expect improvements in both strength and technique. Although it's also an annual tradition of late to have the "why don't we move Briggs or Yarnway to fullback" and "hey, didn't Forbes play fullback in HS?" talks, don't bet on either. If Dumont can't get it done, or if Stevens doesn't recover in time, the Cal staff is high on incoming true frosh Maximo Espitia.
Although we lose our biggest tight end with the departure of Anthony Miller and missed out on a number of recruiting targets, we have a variety of options moving forward. Converted WR Spencer Hagan improved his blocking throughout the year and showed off some reliable hands to go with decent speed. Another year of Blasquez might help turn him into a more serviceable blocker.
Jacob Wark was touted as the best blocker of all our tight ends as a true frosh. Unfortunately, a broken ankle wiped out his first year, and he only played sparingly last year while working his way back into form.
He'll need to step up his game if he'll hold off touted youngster and Cal legacy Richard Rodgers. After playing more as a wide receiver in high school, Rodgers spent last year playing special teams. If Coach Blasquez and Coach Michalczik can make him ready to block at a Div-I level, he already has unbelievably soft hands for a big man.
The oft-injured Spencer Ladner is also reportedly set to rejoin the team. A decent blocker when healthy, he has yet to display the potential that made him a 4* recruit out of high school. A Calvin-like emergence for his senior year would be found money.
It'll be interesting how the Cal coaches adapt the offense to their personnel. When our backup TE struggled setting the edge last year, we went away from double TE formations and instead split them out wide to create mismatches. It might be more of the same this year. And, of course, how often we're able to use the TE as a downfield receiver depends again on the development of our Oline.
It's hard to imagine that Keenan Allen could bring much more to the table. But, I'm excited about what tricks new position coach and former NFL All-Pro Wes Chandler might be able to teach him. With decent pass protection and some accurate passes thrown his way (too much to ask?), it could be special year for KA21.
Of course, we'll also need a number of young receivers to step up and hold the rope or it could also be a season where KA sees double and triple teams all year long. Since KA is sitting out spring ball to recover from ankle surgery, there should be plenty of opportunities for the youngsters.
The favorite to start alongside Allen is his cousin, Maurice Harris. His strong fall camp had positioned him in the playing rotation last year as a true frosh before an injury forced him to blueshirt. He reportedly has a great blend of size, speed, and athleticism as well as some of the best hands on the team.
For spring ball, the rest of the rotation is made up of Ross Bostock, Jackson Bouza, Stephen Anderson, and Bryce McGovern. Although it's easy to overlook walk-ons in favor of the touted frosh coming in the fall(Treggs, Powe, Dozier, Harper, Lawler), these are all tough, smart, hard-working guys who can ball. Don't be surprised if several of them work their way into the depth chart and refuse to be beaten out.
And here we come to the thousand-pound elephant in the room. Coming off of an inconsistent year plagued by penalties and woeful snaps, we also get to replace our best lineman now that four-year starter Mitchell Schwartz is moving on. It's a given that we'll have at least one new tackle. The big question is whether any of the young players or reserves will distinguish themselves enough for us to also move MSG back to his natural position at guard. Although he's been a dominant player as an interior lineman in the past, he continues to struggle against speed rushers off the edge. Will another year with Coach M do the trick?
Bill Tyndall and Tyler Rigsbee were the backups that received a lot of snaps in the spring last year. Touted JC transfer Matt Williams spent last year blueshirting to get stronger and work on technique. Walk-on Brian Farley is raw, but has the frame of a prototypical tackle. And highly regarded frosh Christian Okafor was an early enrollee who has the size to compete immediately.
At guard, Brian Schwenke returns after a solid year. With three years of experience under his belt, he should be one of our stronger performers. Geoffrey Gibson, Mark Brazinski, Chris Adcock, and Jordan Rigsbee were all bluechip recruits as high schoolers. Assuming that MSG stays at tackle and Galas stays at center, the right guard position vacated by Justin Cheadle is wide open.
Normally, having a center with two years of starting experience would be considered a strength. But last year's snaps were so tragically bad that it's impossible to consider Dominic Galas' job to be secure. It doesn't help matters that Galas has been ruled out of spring ball in order to rehab his shoulder. Although backup Mark Brazinski switched to guard last year, Chris Adcock made the opposite switch from guard to act as Galas' backup. One of the two will have to shoulder the load this spring. Looking ahead, if Galas isn't able to master one of the seemingly simplest fundamentals of playing center, he might be switched to guard when big Matt Cochran joins the team in the fall.
Biggest Questions for the Offense:
1) How will the depth chart for the Oline shake out? Who will play tackle? Will the snapping improve?
2) Which young TE will step up? Will we finally get consistent production out of the TE position? Will personnel make this spot more of a receiving threat instead of extra blocking?
3) Will Zach Maynard remain the starting quarterback? Which backups will earn the majority of the remaining snaps?
4) Now that passing game coordinator and offensive booth coach Eric Kiesau has taken his talents to the mercenary hounds up north, how will the play-calling, game-planning, and booth responsibilities be allocated?