Just a few weeks after Tony Franklin's surprise resignation from the Cal coaching staff, the Bears found his replacement in former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Sonny Dykes said he wanted to find someone to carry on the Bear Raid tradition, and it appears he got his man. In Spavital, the Bears will add a coach with solid Air Raid bonafides and an already impressive list of star pupils.
There's are some things we don't know about Spavital, namely what his role was in Texas A&M's struggles (and, let's be clear, we're talking about the 8-5 record with two top-25 wins kind of struggles) last year. We also don't have all the information about Spavital's maybe-not-so-mutual breakup with Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies. But there's reason to believe that last year was a blip on the upward trajectory of a talented young coach and recruiter.
Spavital, who played college football at Missouri State, got his start as a quality control coach for Gus Malzahn at Tulsa in 2008. He was first exposed to the Air Raid when he served as a graduate assistant for Kevin Sumlin's Houston Cougars in 2009. Spavital then moved to Oklahoma State when Dana Holgorsen, previously Sumlin's offensive coordinator, was brought on to install the Air Raid there. As a grad assistant for the Cowboys, Spavital worked with future first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden (though he was younger than Weeden at the time).
Spavital would join his fourth team in as many years when Dana Holgorsen was hired as the OC at West Virginia. In his new role as QBs coach, Spavital guided Geno Smith to a record breaking season and a second round pick in the NFL draft. (He declined to compare Smith to Aaron Rodgers in this interview about.)
In 2013, Spavital was reunited with Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. He took on the role of co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach, working with Johnny Manziel the year after he won the Heisman Trophy. Though Manziel finished a disappointing fifth in the Heisman race that year, his passing statistics actually improved across the board under Spavital's tutelage. Sumlin promoted Spavital to full offensive coordinator before A&M's bowl game in 2013, the position he held until his departure a month ago.
So how did a guy who always seems to be moving up the ranks find himself out of a job this winter? The short answer is that his offense stopped working. After two years of fielding a top 20 offense according to S&P+, the Aggies ranked 55th in that metric last season. Their famous tempo seemed to stutter. And despite having the top quarterbacks from the last two recruiting classes (Kyle Allen in 2014 and Kyler Murray in 2015), neither signal caller seemed to get in rhythm.
It's hard to say how much of that mess was Spavital's responsibility. It's easy to pick out the non-development of Kyle Allen (as well as the regression by 2014 starter Kenny Hill that opened up the job for Allen in the first place), but Spavital was also dealing with some roster holes on offense. And the lack of rhythm from his QBs this year? That might be an indictment of Sumlin's usually steady roster management. There are also rumors that Spavital faced pressure from other coaches to adjust his strategy, which may have contributed to A&M's seemingly disjointed offensive philosophy.
Again, we don't know. With the high expectations facing Kevin Sumlin after the departure of Johnny Manziel, it was pretty clear that some change was necessary after a disappointing 2015. There was clearly dysfunction within the program, as evidenced by the departure of both Allen and Murray at the end of the season. Allen issued his support for his former OC in a tweet.
My guy for life @JakeSpavital we'll be back on top soon ✊— Kyle Allen (@KyleAllen_10) January 3, 2016
He also spoke out in defense of Spavital in a recent interview, in which he tied his transfer decision to the post-Manziel "culture" at A&M. In the interview, he called Spavital an "awesome dude." Spavital recruited Allen out of high school, as well as Kyler Murray and five-star WR Christian Kirk. His recruiting talent will be a welcome addition for Cal fans, as Tony Franklin was not known for his contributions on the trail.
According to Fox Sports, Spavital will take on playcalling responsibilities at Cal. According to Texas A&M's SB Nation site, he earned some criticism for his decisions while coaching for the Aggies. Specifically, he "is too predictable, he only throws bubble screens and short passes to the edges, [and] he never uses the middle of the field." One might defend him in light of the mitigating factors mentioned above, as well as the Aggies' 17-10 record with Spavital as playcaller.
So questions remain. We'll never know exactly what went down at the end of Spavital's tenure at Texas A&M, but we can learn some things about what to expect from Cal's new OC. He's a young coach who connects well with his players and recruits. He knows the Air Raid system, and has learned from some of it's most prolific practitioners. He tends to find his way into the company of college football's best quarterbacks. He's undefeated against the Pac-12 as an offensive coordinator.
For the rest, we'll have to wait until August. See you in Australia, Coach Spavital!