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Cal Football: Previewing the Bear Raid Offense

Old and young Blues alike hope that the winds of change usher in a resurgence of Cal football. Early on, Coach Dykes has said all of the right things about establishing a culture of academic accountability. This is a welcome change from a program that clearly lost its way the past few seasons. But let's be honest; everyone is really excited to see if the duo of Sonny Dykes/Tony Franklin can replicate the on-field success that created last year's nationally #1 ranked offense at Lousiana Tech. Although there are certainly roots from the classic Mike Leach/Hal Mumme "Air Raid" spread attack, make no mistake that this is not the same offense.

Dykes/Franklin do like to put the ball in the air as evidenced by 2012 LaTech's #3 passing attack which was good for 44 attempts and 350.8 yards per game. However, they also had the #17 rushing attack in the nation. This included 42 carries per game, 227 yards per game, and 5.2 yards per carry.

Notice the run/pass balance? The Dread Pirate Dykes, this is not. By contrast, Mike Leach's Wazzu team threw 52 times per game to only 21 rushes.(dead last in carries nationally)

This is not entirely deliberate. In this interview with the Mercury News, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin freely admits that, "I could care less how we get there. Just so happens the numbers tend to be balanced, and not by design. Because I'll throw it 70 times if I think we have to to win. But I'll run it 90 to win, too. Usually, it balances itself out."

So what exactly are the key characteristics of our new Bear Raid?

1) No-huddle and Uptempo

Over the past three years, Tony Franklin was the 3rd-fastest play-caller in the nation with an average of 79 snaps per game. The idea here is to keep the defense constantly reeling and on their heels. With no time to gather themselves and adjust, it's harder for defenders to make the right reads when hit by similar-looking plays that attack different areas in rapid succession. It can also wear down a defense both physically and mentally when they can't substitute easily and are under constant onslaught. To make this work, your coordinator needs to be aggressive, decisive, confident, and be able to think ahead beyond the play at hand. For those fans who detested the long snap-counts, pausing to "look-at-me," and late time-outs, this change should be a breath of fresh air.

It also sets us up to be diametrically opposed in offensive philosophy to our mortal enemy:

"The more plays you run and faster the tempo, the faster the ball goes back to the other team, as well." Stanford Football Coach David Shaw

2) Fewer Plays and Formations

Jeff Tedford's playbook was infamously complex.

Besides being thicker than the LOTR trilogy put together, you apparently needed a master's degree in High Elvish to decipher the offense. Each week, there would be a new game plan and new set of formations and plays put in for the upcoming opponent. Although this was successful during the early years, the more recent attempts to mix pro-style with spread, wildcat, and zone-read concepts became more cacophony than harmony. Perhaps even more damning, quarterback play deteriorated as previously touted players appeared hesitant and unprepared to compete at the Div-I level without years of learning the playbook...and often times, not even then.

Coach Tedford's offense was similar in some ways to the West Coast offense in that the play calls involved a long string of code words which described each receiver's route. It was also similar to other pro systems which featured route trees and sight adjustments. In both cases, this required a tremendous amount of memorization by both receivers and quarterbacks.

In stark contrast, the Dykes/Franklin offense features 20-25 plays and is supposed to be completely installed in three days. Whereas the emphasis was previously on the scheme and formation chess match, it's now all about execution. Not only should this let players play faster and more instinctively, but the simpler offense should be a huge advantage in getting young players game-ready earlier in their careers.

Per Coach Franklin: "Our whole deal is we're going to practice extremely fast and get a lot of repetitions.
"We're not a huge formation team, either."
"Our deal is going to run a few plays and try to get really good at doing those little things right."

3) Adapt the offense to your personnel; ie. Enter the Grizzly (Diamond/Bone) Formation

Coach Tedford has forgotten more about offense than I'll ever learn. And to be fair, it's not like he was deliberately trying to avoid getting his best players on the field. (Cue conspiracy theory about playing the sibling who has all the balls.) However, his more recent choices of formations and plays seemed a bit square-peg/round-hole. For example, trying to run power out of two tight end sets when our second tight end is a converted wide receiver who doesn't have a chance at sealing the edge against a defensive end.

On the other hand, Coach Franklin has a different perspective on tight ends. In fact, they've been re-classified on the roster as wide receivers.

"My whole deal with tight ends, I'd love to have a good tight end. But the key word is 'good.' I don't need a body just to be on the field to occupy the space. They need to be able to run. If I'm going to put somebody in the box to bring another defender in the box, they need to be able to block. If they can't block, why did I bring them into the box to bring another defender to have the guy get his butt whipped."

The other reason is I try to get people on the field if they're good players -- it builds camaraderie. Our offensive line at LaTech was real good -- we had about seven good O-linemen.What I would do is create formations to get those guys on the field. We played a senior who had played maybe five snaps his entire career. We put him at one of the running back slots with a 99 number and had him go hit people in the mouth.And we had other formations we had a tackle who was almost as good as the starters, so we created a formation to get him on the field."

Against Texas A&M, LaTech had a lot of success using a diamond formation featuring one deep back, one extra lineman on the right (aka The Grizzly, HT Nam Le), and a TE/H-back on the left. At LaTech, this was referred to as their Bone Formation.

Plays run out of this formation:
1) Grizzly-side power run.
2) Backside run pulling Grizzly to the left.
3) Play-action run, fade pattern.
4) Play-action run, skinny post pattern.
5) Play-action grizzly-side power run, naked QB bootleg left.
6) Max protect, two vertical patterns.

Berkelium97 has an excellent two-part write-up with pictures of the Grizzly formation in action: Part 1. Part 2.

4) Offense line technique and play-calling

Unlike the classic Air Raid spread formation which features wide splits between linemen, the Bear Raid will have normal gaps. However, they do position themselves much deeper off the line of scrimmage using a technique known as Vertical Set Pass Blocking.

We'll go into more detailed coverage of this new technique in Part Two of the Bear Raid Preview.

The other big change of note is that it'll be the center calling the plays and protections instead of the quarterback. Coach Franklin originally thought of the idea as a way to build on a silent cadence for hostile road environments. By taking this extra responsibility away from the quarterback, it allows him to focus on reading specific defenders and their responses to the play.

Since both our center and quarterback will be new starters, there may very well be some growing pains ahead.

5) Packaged Combination Plays

This is one of the newer offensive trends that's showing up in both college and pro football.

It's very similar in concept to the zone-read which Cal has so capably defended the past few seasons. With the zone-read, the quarterback reads the defensive end who is left unblocked. If the end stays outside, the QB hands off to his back up the middle. If the end crashes down on the running back as if he had no idea that anything else could possibly happen, the QB keeps the ball outside and runs forever.

In previous years, the Cal QB was responsible for reading the entire defense and then had the option of audibling into a run or pass based on what he saw. More recently, the Cal offense used a "look-at-me" pre-snap check at the line of scrimmage to consult the coaches on the sidelines for which play to run.

With a combination play, the quarterback's read is simplified to focus on a key defender or area. Depending on how the defense lines up, or how a key defender reacts after the snap, the quarterback has a choice between two packaged plays. This could be a run versus pass, or even two different passing plays.

Theoretically, good execution makes it nearly impossible for the defense to be in two places at once.

A local HS football coach(Coach Dudley) had this observation from Cal's spring practice:

The highlight of [Cal's] practice for me was during the team periods I was standing about 5 yards away from Tony Franklin. I was right next to him so I could hear each play call. What was slightly shocking to me was how often they attach quick game concepts on the backside of runs. Nearly every single run play there is a quick game or screen component tied on to the backside, and sometimes routes are tagged frontside as well. They call quick concept backside so often that they actually have to call/signal for the backside to BLOCK when they just want a designed run play. The hot new thing is combo [a.k.a "packaged"] plays ... 2 in 1 or even 3 in 1 plays... EVERY PLAY is a 2 in 1."

We'll take a closer look with pictures and film study in the Bear Raid Preview Part Three.

Fired up, Cal fans? Fall camp is just around the corner and the still-glistening walls of Memorial Stadium provide the perfect backdrop for a whisper through Strawberry Canyon, "Maybe this year could be our year..."