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Is the Cal Offensive Line Failing Due to Talent or Coaching?

Although the postgame article about our offensive line was meant in jest, some people like Cali49a took what I was saying seriously.

Let’s look across the line at what we have. LT Tepper is a good guy, but he’s not nearly as good as he’s been made out to be. LG was a RS Frosh starting who got injured and his replacements are a former walk-on in Fisher and a current walk-on in Boskovitch, who spends more time whiffing on blocks and losing his feet of any OL I’ve seen in the Tedford era. Our Center is an undersized RS-JR taking his first meaningful snaps at C but who has no business playing that position, especially against top notch DTs. The RG is a RS-So who has the size to play the position but has lapses. The RT is a RS-So who has been pretty reliable. The TEs cannot reliably block and are all young. Just looking at our starters, they are a recipe for inconsistency. As much as size of OL is important, mentally they need to know their assignments and how to adjust on the fly when blocking, which comes from repetition.

In a sense, the line is still young with 3 underclassmen starters. The interior of the OL is the biggest issue right now, and quite frankly, the reason why we absolutely stink running between the tackles.

While this post was funny to read because it pokes fun at a glaring weakness on our O, this post really does not look at the root of the problem: recruiting. There have been too many scholarship busts and/or misses on the OL front in 05-06 and we are really feeling it now. There is exactly ONE starter on the OL from those classes. Guys from those 2 classes are who should be starting right now unless there were some super sensational underclassmen who could beat them out. That is not the case.

To clarify, no, I don't think Steve Marshall should be fired. In general, with college coaches, I don't think you fire people who've been here one year unless they totally faceplant (and in any case with Marshall, given his previous track record, he'll probably leave of his own accord). However, I do feel that he and Andy Ludwig have missed some crucial elements in developing their guys, some controllable, some not. And those struggles have resulted in these offensive stinkbombs we've seen against good defenses.

How much of Cal's O-line struggles have been due to talent, and how much has been due to coaching?

After the jump, I look at both sides.

So one possibility is talent. It's been argued by many people, especially Hydro, that maybe these guys just aren't who we thought they were.

In the podcast, CBKWit makes the argument that this is one of our highest star rated offensive lines perhaps ever during the Tedford era. CBKWit made this comment in response to my remark suggesting that the OL's poor performance could be a talent issue. It seems that CBKWit might have been disagreeing with me. If that is so, CBKWit is clearly making the assumption that the higher the star rating of the player, the more talented they are. Such a notion is generally true, but not always. CBKWit seems to make it a forgone conclusion that is always true and thus this year's highly rated OL suckage cannot be due to lack of talent; hence obviously a coaching problem. I disagree. I think it's possible that there is a talent issue here, perhaps as well as a coaching issue. I have not discounted the talent issue, whereas CBKWit seems to have done so. CBKWit points to last year's OL which started Guarnero (prior to injury), Cheadle, and Boskovich (after Guarnero's injury) as evidence that this OL shouldn't be this bad due to the fact that so many of this year's starters saw playing time last year and were fairly productive. Last year, I personally thought Guarnero was doing fine at guard. However, I was not that impressed with Cheadle or Boskovich. Thus, I am not convinced that just because he have players from last year's OL, which performed decently well although not great, means that this year's OL cannot be suffering from lack of talent.

Here's been our starting depth chart the past few seasons, starting with 2006 as the first season our entire O-line was ranked by Rivals (some of these guys could be wrong from 2006, let me know). Thanks to AERose for gathering this data up.


Mike Tepper (2 stars/2 stars)--2
Erik Robertson (2 stars/1 star)-1.5
Alex Mack (2 stars/2 stars)--2
Norris Malele (3 stars/3)--3
Scott Smith (2 stars)--2

Average rating: 2.11


Mike Tepper (2 stars/2 stars)--2
MIke Gibson (4 stars/4 stars)--4
Brian De La Puente (???)
Noris Malele (3 stars/3 stars)-3
Alex Mack (2 stars/2 stars)-2

Average rating: 2.75


Mark Boskovich (???)
Noris Malele (3 stars/3 stars)-3
Alex Mack (2 stars/2 stars)-2
Chet Teofilo (2 stars/2 stars)-2
Mitchell Schwartz (3 stars/3 stars)-3
Justin Cheadle (3 stars/4 stars)-3.5

Average rating: 2.75


Mike Tepper (2 stars/2 stars)-2
Mitchell Schwartz (3 stars /3 stars)-3
Matt Summers-Gavin (4 stars/4 stars)-4
Justin Cheadle (3 stars/4 stars)-3.5
Chris Guarnero (4 stars/3 stars)-3.5
Mark Boskovich (???)

Average rating: 3.2

Of course the star rating only tells so much, but as you can see on average Cal's recruiting star ratings are better than the last few years, and there seems to be no correlation with star rating and rushing success (hell, you could say the relation's nearly INVERSE; the lower the star rating, the better Cal's O-line has done.) This could probably lead you to think that recruiting stars are bunk.

So while I agree with Cali49a, that yes, the offensive line has had depth problems and too many walk-ons coming in to fill crucial roles, I also feel that the Bears talent is still comparable to those of previous seasons. Although a lot of the guys we recruited haven't been up to snuff, they still shouldn't be struggling this much, especially with almost all of them except Summers-Gavin seeing action last season. This should be a line that dropped off a little, not a lot, even with Mack and Malele gone.

So let's assume these guys aren't terrible o-linemen. That leads us to coaching. If the problem isn't talent, What are the problems that could be going on here?

1) The offensive coordinator turnover. Hydro mentioned in the podcast how O-linemen were having difficulty adapting to Cignetti's new pass blocking schemes (explaining the struggles in protecting Longshore and Riley). You can only imagine how difficult the Bears O-linemen are doing with all the different looks they've run in the run blocking game with Ludwig's offense installed. Perhaps we'll see drastic improvement next season when these guys have had time to run through the system, but right now it just isn't there.

2) Fullback and tight end blocking dropoff. This is where I do agree with Cali49a. In terms of tight ends, the Bears really haven't had great tight end blocking since Craig Stevens was lining up. But Brian Holley? Nice enough guy, but big big downgrade from Ta'ufo'ou in terms of blocking awareness. Who exactly Cal's fullback will be next year (Kapp?) will need to show better than Holley has this year. And Anthony Miller will hopefully become as good a blocker as he is a receiver.

3) The complexity of the offense. This might be the biggest issue for me. We've talked over and over how the Bears offense has gotten more sophisticated as time has gone by (and that in turn has led to the quarterback struggles). While that might give us all sorts of delight as fans to watch, the fact is the players aren't getting older with them. So the learning curve has grown steeper for new players, like a sadistic professor who decides to add three hundred more pages of reading each year for the same class, with an occasional extra midterm thrown in there. You can only imagine how difficult it is for offensive linemen to struggle to do so much.

4) Failure to adapt. The fact is these players are not going to grow old with us. They're going to leave for other places and that means Cal's coaching staff have to adapt to the situation. We have to recognize that our offensive linemen might not be as experienced or as gifted as previous guys like Mack and Ta'ufo'ou. So instead of throwing so many different looks in our playcalling perhaps we should return to the more stodgy but effective type of play that defined early Tedford football, especially in the run game.

One of the beautiful things about Coach M's style of line coaching is that we ran the same two plays almost every time in the run game, and defenses were lost trying to stop them. As Hydro described it, "Defenses knew what was coming, and they could almost never stop it from going." (Now on the flip side, defenses WERE catching up to Cal's offense as the years went by (the Bears running game dipped in production every year since 2004), so there might be the need to evolve as time goes by. But hey, sometimes it's best not to fix things that aren't broken.)

5) Coaching development. This is where I attribute blame to the coaches directly. I don't think we need to bring Coach M back to recognize those issues, nor even make Marshall the scapegoat for our failings. But it's clear that Alex Mack, Mike Tepper and many others from our more successful squads were not highly sought-after talents, yet they evolved into O-line forces of nature in their collegiate primes. Although Michalziak might not have been the greatest recruiter, he did a great job making these guys execute on Saturdays. How much of this had to do with the simplicity of the offense might be difficult to say, but I've always found simple works best with young offensive lines. Just look at how Oregon has recovered from the Boise fiasco, when their line couldn't block stationary objects. Simple effective blocking techniques set loose their offensive players.

6) Recognizing the big picture. As the guy now overseeing the program, Tedford should try and recognize that players, based on their individual experience level and their collective experience as a unit, need to be treated differently on a year-by-year basis. He, like many fans, incorrectly assessed the losses of our top three blockers and assumed we'd get by with the experience the returning starters had managed. That's clearly not been the case. Now that he's no longer playcalling, his job in the games is to manage and see what's going on beyond the Xs and Os. I'd say he hasn't done a very good job of that this season, especially with regards to the offensive line (and of course there are other issues, but that's for another day). Running the same set of plays and schemes (inside zone run) over and over again seems like a peculiar type of madness.

Whatever's going on, coaching or talentwise, with only three games left, it's probably too late to fix these deficiencies until the bowl game, and we've got to ride the ship the end and hope somehow we can pull some wins out before we reach port. And then hope everything gets back together for next year's cruise.