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Cal 2009 Position Previews: Quarterback

This is Kevin Riley's position to lose.

Seriously. He'd have to do a lot wrong to lose his grip on the starter position. The quarterbacks behind him have barely any experience, unless you think Brock Mansion running into a pile of high schoolers from Washington State counts for experience. Although there are many kinks he'll have to settle from last season's unevenness, our starting quarterback won't be looking over his shoulder much this season.

Biggest strength of Riley: He doesn't throw interceptions. Okay, he does throw picks, but at a far less rate than his predecessors:

Quarterback (season) INT %
Aaron Rodgers (2004) 2.532
Joe Ayoob (2005) 5.518
Nate Longshore (2006) 3.448
Nate Longshore (2007) 3.385
Kevin Riley (2008) 2.715
Nate Longshore (2008) 2.439

As you can see, Riley doesn't throw many interceptions. His sample size is of course smaller (only threw about 2/3rds as many attempts as most of the others). But you can see the percentage of interceptions he throws harkens back to the Aaron Rodgers days in terms of its low percentage, and we can only hope that given a full season he can replicate those numbers (and let's be fair to Longshore, he brought his INT numbers well down too).

Biggest weakness of Riley: Unfortunately, there might be a big reason as to why Riley never threw picks: He didn't throw many completions, period, to either our team or the opponent. As pointed out in an earlier post of what concerns you about Cal football, these passing stats creeped up, and a great majority of these numbers were put up with #13 under center.

National rank in yards per attempt from 2004 to 2008: 10th, 47th, 21st, 39th, 86th
National rank in passing efficiency from 2004 to 2008: 5th, 65th, 32nd, 52nd, 72nd

National rank in completion percentage from 2004 to 2008: 7th, 101st, 52nd, 40th, 104th

It's not entirely Riley's fault; Cal was on its third quarterback coach in three seasons, its receiver corps outside of Cameron Morrah were entirely green in experience, the offensive line fell off from its stellar 2007 performance, Tedford jerked back and forth between him and Longshore, which no doubt put added pressure on the sophomore. Nevertheless, there isn't much doubt that Kevin struggled with his mechanics, struggled to release the ball early (partly due to receivers not being where he expected them to be, but also partly because he missed them).

Less pass, more run the key to success? Perhaps that's why I found what The Bear Will Not Quit said at the end of last season very intriguing.

I could see Tedford and Cignetti moving more toward the Big 10 model with Riley, game managing, limiting turnovers, and getting the ball to playmakers, but focusing heavily on the run. Riley is never going to be a 250+, 3 TD per game guy. He might have days like that, but it is clear he is not ever going to sit back there and pick defenses apart with laser beams as part of the game plan.

Interestingly enough, we have done it before. Focusing heavily on the run was the model for our 2004 success.

Now, Aaron Rodgers is one of the greatest quarterbacks in California history, and at this point its sacrelige to compare him to someone who barely completes half of his passes. But as great as Rodgers was, he would never have been successful without Arrington and Marshawn shredding huge yards on every play. Pac-10 defenses, having to deal with both a dominant run attack and a superb pocket quarterback, were eviscerated all season long. As you see below, for every two Rodgers passing plays, the Bears ran the ball three times in 2004, flourishing in BOTH running and passing production, and the ratio of yards practically balanced up (the largest number for each category is in bold, the smallest number is in italics).

Year Rush Att Pass Att R:P Ratio Rush Yds Pass Yds R:P Ratio Rush YPA Pass YPA R:P Ratio
2004 509 331 1.538 3081 2828 1.089 6.05 8.54 0.708
2005 483 321 1.505 2823 2312 1.221 5.84 7.20 0.811
2006 427 413 1.034 2111 3292 0.641 4.94 7.97 0.620
2007 441 443 0.995 2168 3129 0.693 4.92 7.06 0.696
2008 435 397 1.096 2421 2467 0.981 5.57 6.21 0.896

California Rushing/Passing Comparison, 2004-2008

You can probably tell from these tables that Cal focused more on the passing game from 2006-2008, with Dunbar, Tedford, and Cignetti all trying to use variations of spread and pro-style schemes to make the quarterback the focus of the offense. This was probably too much for Longshore to handle, as he was required to throw around an average of a hundred passes more than Rodgers had to.

If there's any parallel to the 2008 season, it's 2005, where dominant running was undone by inconsistent passing. Pac-10 defenses loaded up on the box and dared Cal to beat them with the pass. They couldn't.

Let's see if Tedford is hoping 2009 parallels 2004, where a dominant running game can leave Pac-10 defenses reeling, putting Riley at ease in the pocket to flow into the offense...and we can revive that offensive magic once again.

This all falls apart (not the season, but my preview)...if Tedford names Mansion or Sweeney the starter. I have no info on Mansion or Sweeney, so I'll turn to some of Hydro's analysis of them from Spring Practice (this is only snippets of his analysis, click on the link for the rest).

Brock Mansion: Despite the Cal fan consensus that Mansion is a QB who will take off and run the ball (this idea spawned from Mansion's highschool highlights), I can't remember Mansion taking off once. I could have sworn I read a quote from Tedford a few weeks ago where he described Mansion as a more traditional dropback passer (Note: I can't find that quote. I could be mis-remembering things and be wrong. Does anyone else remember one of the media outlets quoting Tedford saying something like that?), and right now, I'd have to agree that Mansion seems to more of a dropback pocket QB.

Beau Sweeney: First off, let me say that I thought Sweeney looked like the best QB today. Note that I am saying the "best." I'm not saying he did "great" today, but merely that he was the best out of Riley, Mansion and him. Overall, I would describe his performance as "good." He was decisive. He got the ball out on-time and was rarely, if ever, caught looking too long down the field. He seemed to have that "internal timer" of aware QBs who know when to run when the pocket is breaking down and/or nobody is open. Sweeney consistently eluded defenders, escaped collapsing pockets, and even scrambled for (positive) yards.

In Part 2, I'll sit down with two of the top Cal football analysts to discuss the development of Kevin Riley, and a more indepth look at the mechanics of the quarterback position.