It took him awhile, but Kevin Riley has got the offense down. He's making his reads. He can make throws to most places on the field. He can step up in the pocket and deliver with confident. His footwork is more precise. His mechanics, after being erratic most of last season, are looking more solid. You see it when he delivers slant routes over the middle to Marvin Jones, or when he steps out of the pocket and delivers a throw on the run to Michael Calvin for a first down, or when he goes through his progressions and finds an open receiver when his first options are covered. His feet are up and straight, facing the receiver, and the throw is usually in the immediate vicinity for a receiver to catch.
Unfortunately, his decision-making is still a little sketchy, which is why I knock this grade down a letter. He forgets the play at times, and has to take timeout or gett called for the delay of game. He audibled into a pick-six against Nevada, a mistake even he admits to screwing up on. I was shaking my head when he threw the ball on 3rd down in Arizona rather than running for it and getting the easy first down, or that he still leads with his head when he does run. His throws go a little too high as a result, which led to crucial picks against Nevada and Arizona. But he doesn't force balls as much as he did the last two seasons. When he doesn't find anyone, he throws it away. A lot of his incompletions (so many drops, a bad offensive line), and two of his interceptions (the first one against Nevada, the game-clincher against Arizona) aren't all his fault, and seem to be just as much on his receivers as they are on him.
Nevertheless, this is the strongest I've seen Riley play. No one's going to mistake him for a great quarterback, but he can be good, which is fine enough. I suspect he'll get the things he struggled with the last two weeks down as the rest of the offense comes together, and he'll have a solid final two-thirds.
Not much I can say about Shane Vereen you don't already know. He fights for those extra yards and picks up first downs, even when the blocking in front of him fails. He protects very well. He can catch out of the backfield or line up as a receiver and catch from there. We're riding him on way too many snaps though--I'd like to see us split the carries around a little more. Vereen was completely gassed at the end of the Nevada and Arizona games. It's the common Tedford pattern of showing too much respect for the senior guy on the depth chart (okay, he's not a senior, but the most senior of our running backs...).
In terms of splitting carries though, it seems we're approaching the 2007 Justin Forsett/Jahvid Best mode; Forsett gets the bulk while Best comes on in relief. Granted, Isi Sofele is no Jahvid Best, but I'd feel more comfortable if we gave Sofele more touches, or spread the wealth with Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson and Dasarte Yarnway. Tedford mentioned this being a priority after the Arizona game. Sofele works hard and is incredibly tough in pass protection, using a really nasty cut block he uses to take out edge rush blitzers. However he might be dependent on good blocking, an issue that remains completely variable. Deboskie-Johnson looked pretty good, but he was facing the second units of Colorado and UC Davis. Yarnway is impressive-looking, but he still isn't quite trusted yet.
Reason I downgrade this from an A is because of fullback play. Eric Stevens is physical, but he still misses a lot of blocks. Improved performance by Stevens could go a long way to improving the team's running game, which still feels slow off the blocks.
Marvin Jones has been our guy, perhaps the best player on our offense. He's on pace for 72 catches and about 1100 yards, which would put him up right there with Hawk '07 and DeSean '06 in terms of memorable receiving campaigns in the Tedford era. Jones is incredibly versatile, taking slants, posts, screens, shallow routes, adjusting to off-target throws, blocking downfield, everything. He's the complete package, and could have some more big games ahead of him against Pac-10 defenders.
Keenan Allen's health is a concern. Allen wasn't at full strength the last two weeks and it might've limited our vertical passing attack--Jones and Allen are the only two guys who seem to get a lot of separation against good defensive backs. With Allen limited the past two weeks it's forced Riley to look at Jones too much, which has allowed defenses to sag in on their coverage and break things up. Basically, the threat of Allen doing something spectacular with the ball is enough to give the defense pause at playing us straight up, and could open up our offensive arsenal. One promising sign is that Michael Calvin finally seems back on track after some big catches against Arizona, playing in the slot and in the split end side and notching some big plays. If he can get back on track, Calvin is an ideal third receiver for this team.
Jeremy Ross remains a good senior option in the pass-catching game. Although he lacks the hands to be steadily relied upon, he's a good enough change-of-pace guy who can handle reverses and sweeps and catch the defense off-guard. Alex Lagemann has been called into duty the last few weeks, but due to his limited skill-set, he's probably best used as the fourth or fifth receiver in empty sets. With Coleman Edmond not getting any significant minutes up to now, I suspect we're riding the first five guys I mentioned and see how far they can take us. A pleasant surprise has been wide receiver blocking; Jones, Allen and Calvin are very good blockers and great in run support at keeping defensive backs away from the ball carrier.
The worrying thing is Anthony Miller has yet to be a significant factor in the passing game. The first time I saw him this season I was like, "Whoa, he's bulked up." Whether it's for better or for worse remains to be seen, but he hasn't been utilized as much as he was last season as Riley's safety valve, and we're past the point where we're just "saving him". He also seems to have developed a rather nasty streak, which is pretty good for blocking, but sometimes he takes it too far (like when he got called for a personal foul in Arizona long after the play was dead).
Yes, I know with the O-line struggles we need to keep him back to avoid blitz situations, but it usually means one less receiver downfield and more blanket coverage of our receiver options. I'd like to see more Miller time, because the tight end has always been an integral part of a successful Tedford offense. Spencer Ladner hasn't really done much as the second tight end catching, so Miller's involvement would be good to see.
Slow start, but they're steadily improving. Still, you have to wonder how far a unit can progress if they still don't look all that great after four games. Yes, Matt Summers-Gavin being gimpy hurts, but these guys still don't look like they're getting maximum push and opening up the right holes, in the run game.
Mitchell Schwartz is our rock at left tackle--we ride him a lot during games and seem to have the most success in the run game when he's leading. It's not the most convenient thing for your best downfield blocker to be the left tackle, but we've managed to make it work a couple of times. Justin Cheadle is playing better at right guard than he did last season, emerging as fairly competent in keeping defensive tackles from swarming into the backfield. Brian Schwenke, although young, is very physical at left guard. Chris Tompek-Guarnero is not overwhelming anyone at center, but he's showing his effort and making it hard for any defender to get past him and plug up the run.
Seniors Richard Fisher (as the primary backup guard) and Donovan Edwards (MSG's replacement at right tackle) have stepped in with yeoman efforts. Edwards (due to lack of athleticism), and Schwenke (due to lack of experience) probably makes the most errors. These guys don't seem to do anything wrong by themselves. It just has the feel of a unit that seems to always be out of place and reacting to a faster defensive unit, especially in terms of run blocking. The edge rusher always seems to get into the backfield too early.
The pass protection looks better in terms of not getting blasted like they did on several occasions last season.. Riley has only been sacked 4 times this season, and Arizona's fierce pressure didn't get to him as much as it should have. However, they're not doing enough for their stout but short quarterback--the pocket is often too small for Riley to throw out of because defenders are getting great push at the line of scrimmage. This forces Riley to improvise by rushing outside the pocket or go ahead toward the line of scrimmage to evade outraised hands by the defenders. Although the tackles have faced some stiff tests the last two weeks, they need to give their quarterback a solid pocket to throw out of rather than getting pushed back into his throwing trajectory.
People are very quick to bring out the torches on Steve Marshall (hell, I was one of them), but let's not forget that our beloved Coach M was part of the problem too. For all his ability to develop the Alex Mack's of the world, he did not recruit well enough, and left the cupboard pretty bare (neither the 2007 & 2008 offensive lines were that strong outside of maybe one or two guys).
A promising note is that the line has been executing their assignments a little better with each passing week. Will these little additions be enough to get the Cal offense rolling again?
(Take this with a grain of salt. I'm pretty good at spotting execution errors, but not too good at understanding how to develop a gameplan outside of a two minute drill on Madden.)
To my novice eye, this is really the biggest weak spot to me. Some people like him, but I'm still not sold on Andy Ludwig. Oregon and Utah fans warned us against his predictability, and I'm starting to openly wonder after that uninspiring Arizona gameplan. I know the Wildcats have a good defense, but we should have put up more than 9 points and five field goal attempts on the board. The Bears had the ball for 60% of the second half and came away with three points.
It all starts for me with not testing the ball downfield. Yes, it was a defensive game, and yes Arizona's secondary is fierce, but we should've tested them at least a LITTLE bit, just to see if they would bite. There was barely any downfield action. Our offense was limited the game to ten yards beyond the LoS. Instead of stretching the defense with deep throws or keeping the Wildcats off balance for much of the game, we tended to rely on our defense to hold the fort the entire way and didn't try to make any plays. Here was the playbook for most of the second half.
Inside run (lot of inside run)
Outside run (very little)
Not much variety. Hard to keep the ball moving for much of the game. Arizona stacked the box for most of the second half (sometimes eight or nine), and I don't think we made them pay that much. We didn't make Arizona pay for using single coverage downfield and the offense eventually stagnated. It has the feel of a Tedford offense, but lacks the flow.
Maybe it's because of the personnel issues on the line and in the receiving corps that are holding us back, but I've seen Ludwig offense put up some dud performances the past year and a third to totally discount offensive predictability. Hopefully the rest of the season proves me wrong.