Dykes Debate Part 1: Is Sonny The Right Man For Cal?

Can NorCalNick convince Atomsareenough to accept Sonny's high five?! - Bob Levey

Two men enter, then both leave after a mutually respectful conversation about the direction of the Cal football program. TO THE EXTREME!

Although fan consensus seems to be swinging strongly in favor of Sonny Dykes, (perhaps because what choice do we have but to be optimistic!) the initial reaction was significantly more mixed. With so many potential candidates with impressive backgrounds and resumes, everybody had their personal preferences, whether that meant a particular coach or certain criterion.

To talk our way through that divide, a proponent of Sonny Dykes (myself!) has been trading e-mails with a CGBer who wasn't nearly as inspired by the hire. Can we reach consensus? Let's find out!

NorCalNick: I'll start off with the biggest argument in favor of hiring Sonny Dykes: Cal desperately needs an overhaul on offense, and Dykes is just the guy to do it.

I don’t think I can begin to diagnose exactly what went wrong over the last few years, but the bottom line was that Cal’s offense too often failed to put points on the board. I think it’s also true that, as a general rule, recruiting on the offensive side of the ball has been weaker than on the defensive side of the ball.

The bottom line is that Cal needs an offensive coach who can take the talent currently on the roster and wring every last yard out of it. I believe that Sonny Dykes fits that description more than any coach rumored to be on Cal’s list – perhaps even more so than Chris Petersen, who wasn’t going to be coming to Cal either way.

By any objective measure Sonny Dykes created a fearsome offense that was surely the best amongst non AQ schools in 2012. He’s shown the ability to put up points and yards at lower level major conference schools like Arizona and Texas Tech. I think a fair argument can be made that, at Cal, Dykes will have access to the highest level of talent he has ever had in his coaching career – a thought that should frighten defensive coordinators in the Pac-12. First off, I'll say that while I was against the Dykes hire the moment it was announced, I don't think it's necessarily doomed to be a failure or anything, and of course I'm hoping that my instincts are wrong and that he (and by extension, the Bears) will succeed. Reading up a bit more and watching his press conference yesterday has helped me feel a little better about it as well (maybe even cautiously hopeful), and obviously he's got legit coaching credentials and seems like a capable guy. So, I'm not itching to make the case against the Dykes hire or anything, because it is what it is, the decision's been made, and all we can do is hope for the best at this point. But, that said, maybe going through the arguments will help me sort out my own feelings a little better.

Atomsareenough: You say that Cal needs an "overhaul on offense", but I don't know if I completely buy that premise. Yes, we've been bad on offense, but I think the heart of the issue is less about playcalling and scheme than it is about execution (right, Hydro and Kodiak?). I understand the argument that Dykes' scheme is simpler and easier to digest, and the fact that the players can learn it quickly will mean more reps and hopefully more fundamentally sound execution. But we have talented athletes, smart guys, and I don't think that it's necessary to have a system like this in order to succeed.

For example, Stanford and USC seem to get by just fine running more or less a pro-style offense (adapted somewhat to suit their players, of course), and Cal had success with it ourselves 6-8 years ago when our teams were more disciplined. I think having that kind of an offense was helpful for recruiting as well, as it basically turned Cal into an NFL pipeline. Are the best QBs and linemen going to want to come to Cal for a system that doesn't necessarily translate? NFL teams value production, but usually starting QBs are guys who come out of pro-style systems. Guys like Case Keenum, Graham Harrell, and Colt Brennan set records in Division I NCAA, but they're not starting NFL QBs. Did Zach Kline come to Cal for this, or was he hoping to become an heir to Aaron Rodgers? Maybe it's hard to recruit the talent to make a pro-style system work in college against star-laden teams like USC, but if Stanford can be successful with it, and if we were successful with it before, it can be done. I also think it's a lot easier to rack up wins in smaller conferences with less talent with a scheme like this, than it is in major conferences. Although, Texas A&M seems to have done fine with it this year in the SEC... but they also have SEC-type talent and a Heisman candidate at QB.

Furthermore, does it really suit our roster? I've heard a lot of chatter about how it's a "perfect fit", but that sounds like a lot of blowing smoke to me. We have a bunch of talented young WRs, sure, but good WRs would be successful in the old system as well, if we had a quality QB throwing it to them. The kids we have were recruited for our old system, and I suspect there is going to be a potentially steep learning curve with a brand new, completely different scheme, something we wouldn't have had to do if we had an offense that just simplified, refined, and rebuilt using the existing Cal offense as a framework. Furthermore, I have the sense that unless you really have the best players running a spread attack in the most efficient manner possible, like Oregon does, other teams can figure it out, especially if they have sufficient time to prep. Does our path to success really lie in our capacity to out-Oregon the Ducks? Color me a little skeptical. This complete change of identity on offense definitely makes me nervous. But hey, at least we'll have more of an identity, which we seemed to have lost in past couple of years anyway.

The one thing that eases my worries a bit is that Coach Dykes seemed to be pretty flexible about implementing his offense, and he comes across as a smart guy willing to keep tinkering with his system to make it work better, and to best suit the players he has. Obviously Tedford tinkered with his system too (which led to that loss of identity I was just complaining about), so that didn't work out very well, but the things Dykes has said so far make me feel fairly comfortable that he has a smart philosophical approach to what he does, and won't be stubborn in trying to fit square pegs in round holes. I liked that he said we need to start by building the team's strength in the trenches, and I hope he was serious about that. As I alluded to, I can't recall too many great O-line recruits ending up with spread teams though, so how is he going to do it?

Anyway, I'm obviously feeling pretty conflicted here, so talk me down a little.


Will Cal get this kind of offense from Coach Dykes?

NorCalNick: You make compelling arguments for why a pro-style team can work at Cal, and I very much agree. But to turn that question around, is there a reason to think that Dykes' offense won't work? My stance is that Cal can have a successful offense regardless of style, and I just wanted Cal hire anybody that can put points on the board, no matter the philosophy. I think Dykes certainly qualifies. And I think Oregon is currently proving that you can recruit at an elite level into a system that is stereotyped as being incapable of producing pro talent. Now they're getting studs like DeAnthony Thomas and Colt Lyerla, and I hope Cal can do the same.

Honestly, I think the only advantage a pro-style system gives you is the vanity to say that you're preparing players for the NFL. Beyond that, they're just different philosophies, and they all succeed or fail based on the ability of the coaches and players to execute them.

Does Dykes' system suit the talent on our roster? That's hard to say. Dykes would certainly tell you that he molds his offense to the talent rather than vice-versa. My assumption has always been that Zach Kline is so talented that he can succeed in any offense that doesn't call for him to run the ball with regularity. Certainly Texas Tech found success with relatively immobile quarterbacks with strong, accurate arms. I think your Texas A&M example is instructive. It's obviously unfair and premature to compare Zach Kline to Johnny Manziel, but most observers seem to think that Zach Kline has above-average talent for a major conference quarterback. If that's the case, why shouldn't Kline be just as successful in the Air Raid as a 2 star quarterback at Louisiana Tech?

I think Dykes' offense most suits Cal's issues on the offensive line. The reason the pro-style offense under Tedford stopped working was because of weak offensive lines as much as anything else, and the Air Raid as much as any offense will hopefully help compensate if the line doesn't get much better next year. Obviously there needs to be a certain level of competence - we can't have a line like Mike Leach currently has in Pullman - but this system as much as any can hopefully overcome a less than dominant offensive line. And if the offense is simpler to learn it might mean that our highly touted underclassmen will be able to get into the line up sooner.

Man, we've gotten this far and we haven't even talked about the defense or penalties!

Atomsareenough: I think the offense will probably work, though as I said already, I suspect there may be a bit of a learning curve, especially at the beginning. I'm not necessarily expecting us to come out gangbusters against Northwestern and Ohio State next year. But I suppose that would be the case with any new coaching staff implementing a new playbook. Ultimately though, I guess I'm used to thinking about Cal as a pro-style team, and aesthetically I strongly prefer a Stanford-style hard-nosed offense and a bruising defense to a fast-paced spread attack. Yes, Oregon has proven that you can recruit to that system, but I am slightly concerned that Oregon, as Nike U, is somewhat of a special case, and that beating them at their own game will prove rather difficult.

I absolutely don't think it's "vanity" to say we're preparing players for the NFL; it's probably one of Cal's best selling points to elite recruits. Few programs in all of college football have had the success we've had in putting players in the NFL, and this change of identity may undermine one of the best things we've got working in our favor. Maybe college football really is changing though, and it's better to be on the cutting edge than to simply double down on what worked previously. I'm a little skeptical of that argument, but I am willing to at least take it under consideration. I expect Zach Kline is talented enough to be successful in any system, and I'm glad he seems to be 100% committed to staying at Cal, but how many future Zach Klines are going to want to want to come to Cal if it's not likely to lead them to the NFL? I think that's an open question. Maybe we can be successful without those types of guys, though. What I don't agree with is the notion that putting out a high-octane offense will sell tickets, so that makes it worth doing. I understand that Sandy Barbour needs to put butts in the seats at Memorial, but offensive fireworks alone are not the answer. The answer is winning football. People will come to see a winning team, regardless of style, and losing 59-57 or 53-42 is still losing.

...and that gets us to defense. It's certainly a little odd that La Tech was first in offense, last in defense this year. Looking over the stats, they were bad, but not always that bad (they were middling in 2010) on defense during the entirety of Sonny Dykes' tenure. The sense I get is that his approach is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and find a way to emphasize the team's strengths. So, when he had better defensive players and an inexperienced offense in 2010 for example, he focused more on ball control, and when it was the other way around, he tried his best to light up the scoreboard and hope they put up more points than the D allowed. Maybe that speaks to the constraints of recruiting in lower conferences, and I guess I like that he's flexible, but it does worry me that he seems to have absolutely no interest in defense. Moreover, other WAC teams didn't seem to have such a problem on defense (Utah State's was pretty good this year for example... and maybe we should be looking at their DC while we're at it). Anyway, it makes the defensive staff hires extremely critical to the overall success of the program. Maybe Dykes will find a bright defensive mind and just hand the keys over to him and let him construct a killer defense with minimal interference... but this is a huge, huge question mark as far as I'm concerned. I think I was hoping for a defensive-minded coach because I think it's easier to find people who can coach up an effective offense than it is to find a great defensive mind.

NorCalNick: Here's why I'm reasonably optimistic about the defense: Playing good defense is much more about pure talent than playing good offense.

Undertalented teams (based on recruiting rankings) frequently develop prolific offenses. It’s how coaches like Mike Leach, Chip Kelly, Rich Rodriguez and Sonny Dykes made their reputations. But it is significantly harder to ‘scheme’ your way to an elite defense, which is one of the biggest reasons I was much more in favor of highering an offensively minded coach.

And there’s evidence of this. Smart people have done studies correlating recruiting talent on offense and defense to eventual success or failure on either side of the ball. The conclusion? Talent matters on both offense and defense (duh). But talent on defense is significantly more correlated to success than talent on offense. Talent that Sonny Dykes almost certainly did not have at Louisiana Tech.

Well, guess what? Thanks to the last few years of Tosh Lupoi, Cal has talent on defense. Hell, the advanced stats said that Cal’s defense this year was actually pretty good. And Cal fans don’t need to be reminded, but the defense bore the brunt of the hell storm of injuries that hit the team in 2012. Cal’s defense next year should be above average in the Pac-12 just by getting healthy.

I think Sonny Dykes and Sandy Barbour both know that he needs a strong defensive coordinator to succeed. And I think they’ll get one. I won’t say that I’ll be jumping up and down with joy if they bring on Dewayne Walker, but he was good enough as a defensive coordinator that UCLA seriously considered making him a head coach. And I certainly won’t hold anything he did at NMSU against him, because succeeding there would be like succeeding on the moon.

End of Part 1. Will NorCalNick convince Atoms to hop on the Sonny train before it leaves the station? Will it end with NorCalNick curling in the fetal position, mumbling 'Diaco' over and over? STAY TUNED!

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