As fall camp comes to a close, a strange mix of excitement, anticipation, and irrational fear swirl together. Opening Day draws nigh. It's The Return to Memorial. Is our team ready? Are we ready? Could this year finally be our year?
With information becoming sparse due to limited media access during the final weeks of camp, we can but speculate as to the answers to our pre-camp questions. We'd also be remiss without thanking Avinash from Pacific Takes for providing excellent coverage throughout camp with his detailed and timely updates. (Links at the bottom)
Before game-planning against the Nevada Wolfpack begins in earnest, let's indulge a reader request (HT AndBears) for a unit by unit breakdown as we head into the season:
The Offense - Strengths:
1) Running back. Either Isi Sofele or CJ Anderson could start and the offense wouldn't miss a beat. It's a rare luxury to have a 1-2 punch of this caliber. With any luck, this tandem will remind us of our Lynch/Forsett days. Brendan Bigelow reportedly has his explosiveness back and offers a Jahvid Best-like home-run threat every time he touches the ball. Daniel Lasco was Scout Team Player of the Year last year and may very well be next year's starter with his slashing combination of power and speed. At fullback, the return of Eric Stevens could be significant. He's a solid lead blocker, a capable short-yardage runner, and has nice hands as a receiver.
2) The Gamebreaker. Keenan Allen is one player that the opposing defense has to account for on every snap, all game long. His size and athleticism make it difficult to play him one on one. Shading over a safety for double-coverage opens up opportunities for the rest of the offense. As much as we'll all miss him if he leaves after this next year, we're all hoping he has the type of year to vault him into an NFL 1st rounder.
3) Quarterback. Don't laugh. In most years, having an upperclassman as your quarterback, particularly one with starting experience, is the key to making a run at the conference title. When he's on, Maynard's ability to make plays with both his feet and his arm can cause serious issues for an opposing defense. His accuracy may still come and go, but better poise, footwork, and decision-making a la the Game Manager is more important than bringing back the mercurial Honey Badger.
4) Versatility. Although unproven, there are lots of young players at the skill positions that offer different sets of skills. For example, we have two tight ends and a fullback, Rodgers, Hagan and Stevens, who are capable of being split out wide as receivers in order to create mismatch issues. Conversely, they could start on the line and shift back into the backfield or go in motion like an H-back. Or, we could go with a group of larger wide receivers, Allen, Harris, Powe and use them to help set the edge on quick hitch or screen. With so many capable running backs, we might see two of them in the backfield at the same time. For someone who loves the chess match, the possibilities have got to be exciting for Coach Tedford. It's just a question of whether our execution is precise enough to make these different schemes work.
The Offense - Weaknesses:
1) Inexperience on the Oline. Tyler Rigsbee(LT) is coming off of injury and has no starting experience. Jordan Rigsbee(LG) is a redshirt frosh with no starting experience. Brian Schwenke(C) has plenty of starts...but has never played center before. Chris Adcock(RG) has no starting experience. Matthew Summers-Gavin(RT) has experience, but is still playing out of position at tackle instead of guard.
2) Lack of Oline Depth. Not to tempt juju in any way, but the cupboard is pretty thin behind our starters. Our primary back-ups to center and tackle may very well be true frosh, Matt Cochran, Steven Moore, Freddie Tagaloa. Geoffrey Gibson is slated to back-up at guard after inconsistent play led to his demotion from the ones.
3) The Youth Movement. With the exception of KA and Hagan, none of the other wide receivers and tight ends in the depth chart has any significant playing experience. Although the youngsters have accolades and talent, it usually takes time to adjust to Division I ball. The big concern here is self-inflicted errors such as penalties, drops, wrong routes, or missed blocking assignments that kill drives or lead to turnovers.
4) A Jack of All Trades, but the Master of None. A dizzying array of creative formations and motions is all quite exciting when they work. Not so when a lack of execution blows the play up. While incorporating so many different spread, pro-style, and hybrid elements is great schematically, I worry that it's a bit much to throw at an offense relying on so many young players and new starters.
The Defense - Strengths:
1) The D Line. This is a deep and talented rotation. The mix of size, strength, and speed allows Coach Pendergast to mix and match personnel groupings with abandon. Kendrick Payne is the steady veteran at nose tackle. Aaron Tipoti has a knack for penetrating the backfield and can play both nose and end. Deandre Coleman is a massive end who could slide inside as needed and is poised for a break-out year. Vei Moala is the Mountain Who Walks and will push both starters for minutes at tackle. Mustafa Jalil was talented enough to play as a true frosh. Todd Barr might have the fastest first step on the line and Puka Lopa is a tough, instinctive player. (Disclaimer: Let's just assume that they're all going to be healthy and politely ignore reports of all those nagging camp injuries as minor.)
2) Experience in the Secondary. Steve Williams and Marc Anthony are both returning starters. Josh Hill has played at corner, safety, and nickelback since his true freshman year and looks to fill one safety spot. All of them are steady veterans who should be very comfortable with Coach Pendergast's defense.
3) Speed on the Outside. Chris "Gadget" McCain really came into his own last year and showed both an ability to rush the passer as well as the range to drop into coverage. Brennan Scarlett has a freakish blend of DE size to go with OLB speed. Reserve Cecil Whiteside might have the best natural pass-rushing skills in the linebacking corps.
The Defense: Weaknesses
1) Inexperience at ILB. When you replace both starters at inside linebacker, the defense usually takes a step back. JP Hurrell and Robert Mullins are seniors, but haven't played extensively. Former US Army All-Americans Nick Forbes and Dave Wilkerson are strong, fast, and talented. However, they've both struggled to stay on the field because of injuries. PSU transfer Khairi Fortt will miss at least three games with injury and may redshirt. Former Cal great Mike Mohamed mentioned at the spring game that it took him a whole year before he could play instinctively and fast. On the plus side, Cal's proud tradition of covering the tight end down the middle of the field should be in great shape.
2) Depth at Corner. With super reserve Stefan McClure recovering slower than expected from his knee injury, that leaves Kam Jackson, Joel Willis, and Adrian Lee as our reserve corners. Both Williams and Anthony have shown a tendency to get nicked up in previous seasons. With so many teams using 3-5 WR sets, we could find ourselves dangerously thin on experienced cornerbacks.
3) Safety. Josh Hill is moving over from nickelback to safety. He's a smart player, but it's unknown whether his instincts will let him play fast enough to have the same range and impact as a Chris Conte type of player. The other safety will be a new starter with no game experience, either Alex Logan or Avery Sebastian. Of our top reserves, neither Michael Lowe (Coley) or Tyre Ellison have any significant game experience.
Special Teams - Strengths
1) KA and Bigelow are special athletes who offer big-play threats as returners.
2) New punter Cole Leininger has a big leg and hasn't been with the program very long. It's likely he'll still be kicking with the same technique in HS that allowed him to boom it.
3) Because the uniforms stay so clean, they're more slippery and are marginally harder for opposing players to grab.
4) This unit has lowered the bar of expectations over the past decade that Cal fans are likely to golf clap for plays that only end in minor disaster.
Special Teams - Weaknesses
1) It is strategically impractical to go for it on all fourth downs and to go for two points after each score.
2) Consistency. Whether it's snapping, blocking, fielding, coverage, or kicking, this unit has been the master of the unforced error. We have a new kicker and a new punter. Neither are proven under pressure situations.
3) Position Coaching and Schemes. First, we set a record for having extra points blocked. Then, we marginalized the best punter in America with rugby-style kicks. Why couldn't UW have offered a dinghy filled with Tostitos during the off-season? The unanswered question: Does this unit not get the players, not get the requisite attention during practice, not get top-notch coaching, or all of the above?
The Quick Overview:
- We have great running backs, a senior QB, and Keenan Allen is one of the best receivers in the country.
- Our offense will depend on how well the inexperienced Oline comes together
- We're relying on a lot of youth to step up at TE and WR.
- Our Dline should be the strength of the defense. Corners are solid, and our outside linebackers are fast.
- The middle of the defense, both at safety and at linebacker is an area of concern due to the lack of experience.
- Hide your eyes when the special teams are on the field.
And we're out, Cal fans. If you haven't already, check out AndyHogan's photos of the stadium upgrades to further whet your appetite. The Return to Memorial is just days away. Go Bears!