So now onto the crucial question that you've probably all been waiting to discuss: What will the Bears run this season on offense?
Going by our dictum of "personnel dictating scheme", let's take a look at the players we'll have from last season. Here's what you have coming back.
- You have a more assured quarterback in his second year in the system. He's proven he can handle the offense if you give him time. He works best in shotgun but is starting to feel more comfortable under center, and he can occasionally provide a running option to keep defenses honest on the outside.
- You have one of the top receiving talents in the country who shares an instant connection with his QB. While this connection has carried us to a win here and there, I'm sure Cal would like for this to be only a component of the offense rather than the absolute focal point.
- You have two very capable running backs that seemed to grow into their own once the season tilted into full gear. You have two young backs who could also enter the rotation, plus a very competent fullback returning from a year off of injury.
- You have three offensive linemen returning, including a very solid guard playing out-of-position at tackle.
Given those options above, what type of offense would you like to see the Bears run?
I make a guess after the jump.
Cal is losing several very crucial players on offense. There's Anthony Miller, a player who can block, pass-catch and pass-protect. You've got Marvin Jones, an underrated receiver who can not only make spectacular pass-catches, but can also go out and run block on the outside. There's Michael Calvin, an athletic speedy receiver who never found his spot but did a lot of little things on offense. You have Mitchell Schwartz, a solid tackle for us through the years.
Miller is supposedly being replaced by Richard Rodgers, but there are no clear replacements for Jones or Schwartz this season. Maurice Harris is going to be hard-pressed to replicate that production on his own. One or two freshman wide receivers will almost certainly have to step up to fill in the gaps Calvin and Jones are leaving out there, but it feels like Allen will have to handle a lot of the load.
So naturally, inexorably, I expect Cal to tilt more toward the run. Emphasis on tilt. I don't think we're going to be grinding teams down, but we have three capable running backs and they should clearly see the football a lot.
Cal has enjoyed their greatest success in seasons where they primarily ran the football. The 2004 season saw Cal rush nearly 15 more times than they passed per game. While I doubt we'll ever go back to that extreme unless we really have mashers inside, I think this is a good team to try it out on.
You have potentially four running backs, all who bring a little something different. You have Sofele the workhorse, someone who knows how to executes his cuts while being an absolutely devastating pass-blocker. You have the always dangerous Anderson, who has proven to be tough to bring down if you give him the space to go. You have Bigelow, a very tough player to deal with in the open field. You have the young Lasco, who might not see the field much but definitely has some upside as the next potential workhorse.
Special wrinkles: This might be the first time since 2009 where we constantly put two running backs on the field. It always felt a little weird to see Best and Vereen on the field at the same time (running backs in the slot? That's uncouth!), but looking back on that, it made sense to have our two best playmakers getting on the field to cause matchup issues for opposing defenses. Could you imagine Bigelow angling out for a wheel route while Sofele stays into pass-block, or Lasco in the slot blocking for an Anderson screen? Makes you feel a bit giddy at the possibilities available to us in the running game.
Additionally, if Stevens comes back healthy, we could run primarily under I-formation, just like the good old days, with the flexibility to go to shotgun and aces depending on the situation. If Stevens isn't 100%, it puts us in a bind at fullback and might force Hagan to come back and play H-back, since I don't know what to expect out of Krebs. Another possibility is to keep the Yarnway experiment going, although I'm not certain how good a blocker he is.
With that going, the Bears could then start using more play-action sets. Cal's best (and by best I mean methodical, not explosive) passing offense since seems to stem from play-action, since it forces defense to account for the whole field. Unfortunately, that generally means playing under center, and Maynard really struggled with his drops early on. Luckily, we started getting better at incorporating play-action from shotgun, and the offense operated better.
This is where Cal could use strong tight end play, since it figures to be a position of greater experience than wide receiver. There's been talk about utilizing more two TE sets similar to what the New England Patriots have. Whether our tight ends are ready to execute that offense remains to be seen.
If there are struggles with the run, I imagine Maynard-to-Allen and Maynard-to-Harris will become the flavors of every drive to try and force defense to account for them and ease pressure off the run game. Maynard does do things a little different from all the quarterbacks before him. He knows how to find his best receiver, but he's flexible enough to run when the opportunity presents itself and provide some option/zone-read possibilities. He's not going to burn you with big throws (he's not that type of QB), but he's capable enough to handle short fields.
Our biggest weakness will be our trouble generating big passing plays. That could cause defenses to shorten things up just a little bit and make the windows tighter for Maynard to throw through. So Cal's run game will have to be resilient enough to keep the offense flowing, or the rest of the players on offense will have to find a way generate big yards after the catch. It can be done (Oregon did just fine with Masoli, as did USC with Leinart), but other players are going to have to be creators.
Basically, I imagine Tedford envisions going into this season a ball-control offense with the capability that will generally win field position and grind the football with the running backs, with a big play here and there. Defenses then will have to guard against those runners, allowing opportunities for Maynard to exploit either with the pass or the run. And there's always the dynamite option of Allen that defenses have to account for at all times.
This isn't too different from the regular Tedford offenses (set up the run to then beat a team with the pass) because this has generally been Cal's biggest strength through his tenure: Good solid running backs every season that can produce big plays, steady runs, or occasionally eek out the little yards. Cal's ability to rely on the run has saved their offense from disaster when the pass just couldn't surface as a legitimate threat.
I honestly don't know what to expect from Cal's offense this season. We have a good wide receiver-QB connection, but our deepest position on offense is definitely RB. We potentially have a dynamo TE-FB to provide more versatility, and we might not if they're not fully developed or healed respectively. Our offensive line could finally be ready to do some damage, or they could be too damaged and undo everything else.
It could work. It could go horribly wrong. It could just be the same old so-so. It can't come soon enough.