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2018 preview: The Cal Offense

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With almost everybody back, how much better can the Cal offense get this year?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Future position group previews will go into more granular detail for each unit that makes up the offense. But for now, here’s a look at what the offense as a whole did last season—and what it might tell us about this season.

How much better can a unit get solely through continuity and repetition?

That is the question you must answer when you look at Cal’s offense because almost everything should be virtually the same in 2018.

Cal loses exactly ONE player who was a starter-level contributor to last year’s offense. Jordan Veasy graduated and Cal will lose his 38 catches for 491 yards and 6 touchdowns. Cal regains one player who would have started in 2017 were it not for injury with the reintroduction of tight end Ray Hudson.

It’s reductive to suggest that Ray Hudson will replace Veasy’s production since they play different positions. Still, it’s not hard to look at the offensive depth chart and say that, in terms of total talent, it looks about identical to last year’s depth chart from—say—October.

And the “how much better?” question is quite critical. By most measures, Cal was not a very successful offense last year. After a solid start against UNC back east and a Patrick Laird–led game against Weber State, Cal’s offense struggled badly in four straight games, which led to three ugly losses and one win largely earned by the defense against Ole Miss.

The offense turned things around in the second half of the season. A formula of lots of Laird mixed in with short passing and long sustained drives allowed Cal to play competitive football in five of the last six games of the year. Still, the margin of error for the offense was very thin—and everybody will be hoping that yards come easier and in larger chunks with so much personnel returning.

Cal’s 2017 offense, revisited

Metrics below taken from Cal’s Advanced Stat Profile from Football Study Hall

Strengths

Rushing success rate - Cal was generally pretty good at grabbing a consistent 4–5 yards per rush. That was particularly true in the second half of the season, when a young offensive line gelled and Patrick Laird became fully established as Cal’s feature back. Laird’s biggest strength as a running back is in making the right read, cutting decisively, and maximizing the yards available with each touch. Dude’s a regular Shane Vereen out there.

Passing down success rate - A critical feature of the Toyota Tercel offense, Cal’s offense was remarkably good at sustaining drives with a series of 3rd-down conversions, even in tougher-to-convert scenarios like 3rd and 5-to-10 yards. And they had to be, because only 10 teams in the nation faced more 3rd-down conversion attempts per game than Cal’s grind-it-out offense. Cal’s 3rd-down conversion rate of 40.4% was basically right at the national average—but for an offense that was generally below average, it was a relative strength.

Weaknesses

Explosiveness generally - Cal finished 95th, 73rd, and 117th overall respectively in total, rushing, and passing explosiveness. After beating UNC with the help of three passing plays of 40+ yards (including two touchdowns), the big play was almost entirely absent as a weapon for the Bears.

Big plays are tough to scheme for; they’re usually the product of the talent of skill position players and/or mistakes from the opposing defense. In that sense, I’d like to think that Cal will have more big plays by virtue of reversion to the mean on mistakes from opposing defenses. But with largely the same skill-position talent back, how likely is it really for Cal to produce frequent big plays?

Passing efficiency - Cal’s efficiency rankings aren’t awful—68th in completion percentage, 83rd in success rate—but those numbers must be considered in context. Whether by design or necessity, Cal was largely a short-passing team. And short-passing teams rely on efficiency to keep the ball moving down the field. As a basis of comparison, Cal and Washington State were virtually tied in yards/pass attempt (6.5 vs. 6.7), but miles apart in terms of completion percentage (58% vs. 68%). If Cal can’t add big plays to their repertoire, it will be absolutely essential for the offense to become more efficient.

Potential new contributors

Ray Hudson

“New” being relative. Hudson’s 34 career receptions in three seasons don’t exactly jump off the page, but he was consistently playing behind a stacked group of older receivers and always looked good when he got onto the field. Now, in his sixth year in the program, he will be counted on heavily to become another reliable target to stretch the field for the Bears. If you’re looking for one obvious way that a largely-unchanged unit can add a wrinkle, it’s the addition of a reliable passing target at tight end.

Whoever wins the backup running back spot

Biaggio Ali Walsh? Alex Netherda? Derrick Clark? Cal lost 131 carries to graduation/transfers— and I doubt that they want to add all of that workload just to Patrick Laird. Will anybody on the list above stand out enough that the coaching staff will feel comfortable giving Laird a series or two off each game?

Key questions

Is Bowers the man and how much can he add to his game?

Unsurprisingly, Justin Wilcox has been cagey about a quarterback competition—real or imagined. What we can confidently say is that Ross Bowers has been running with the first team offense and is likely the starter until announced otherwise.

Some of Cal’s offensive weaknesses discussed above touch on specific skills that Bowers can improve on. Accuracy, decision making, deep touch, and command of the offense are all areas that can be reasonably improved upon. Heck, you would expect a junior with a year of experience to naturally improve in some of those areas as compared to a first-year sophomore starter in a brand new offense.

Can Cal develop consistent downfield threats in the passing game?

To put the explosiveness advanced stats into standard parlance, Cal had 278 total pass completions and an impressive 125 of them went for 10+ yards. A less impressive nine went for 30+ yards. Only five programs in the nation had fewer 30+ yard completions than the Bears.

That Cal struggled to go deep isn’t necessarily some sort of shock. Their best deep threats (Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall) were injured all season. They had a surplus of possession receivers. They were breaking in a new, young quarterback in a new offense under a new coordinator.

Still, for whatever Cal might gain from continuity and understanding between players and coaches this year, the reality is that this is largely the same group of players. This team isn’t going to be bombing the ball downfield frequently. The main question is whether or not Cal can become good enough throwing downfield to at least stop teams from stacking the box and focusing on Laird and the short passing game. Honestly, it’s remarkable that Cal was as successful as they were last season without big plays

How heavy of a load can Patrick Laird carry?

236 touches last year despite minor playing time behind Tre Watson in the season opener and missing the Wazzu game due to injury. He averaged 30 touches a game during the last five games of the season, when it was clear that he was Cal’s best option at running back and a great safety net on passing plays.

Ideally, I’m sure Cal’s coaches would tell you that they would prefer a more diverse offense, both to keep defenses off balance and to keep Laird fresh and healthy for the entire season. But with a young and inexperienced group of backs behind him on the depth chart, it’s got to be pretty tempting to find every way possible to get the rock into the hands of Cal’s walk-on star.

Final outlook

As always, there are reasons to expect improvement and reasons to expect more of the same. The departures of Demetris Robertson, Melquise Stovall, and Taariq Johnson mean that Cal won’t be getting back receivers who were supposed to represent Cal’s deep threats. That means that Cal will need breakout seasons from a younger player like Jeremiah Hawkins—or the offense will be similarly limited in terms of explosiveness.

But there are very real reasons to expect that execution and command of the offense should be significantly improved. Last year, a huge percentage of the offense were first-year starters in a new offense. This year that’s obviously not the case. Every college football coach ever hammers the importance of execution; this team should be doing that on a pretty high level.

Last year Cal was basically the eleventh-best offense in the Pac-12. The same personnel isn’t going to suddenly remind you of Arizona or Washington. But it wouldn’t take a ton for Cal to rise towards the middle of the conference when so many teams either had mediocre offenses (Utah, Colorado, WSU), lost significant personnel (UCLA), or employ Herm Edwards (ASU).