Each year we produce a bunch of words in August previewing the next season of Cal football. And I’ve learned a few lessons over the years. A few of them?
- Optimistic chatter based on fall practice is almost always exaggerated, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
- Returning experience matters, but usually only to the extent that those returners have already proven their ability to produce.
- If I don’t go back and look at what I predicted the year before then I don’t learn any lessons.
It’s in the spirit of that 3rd item that we’re once again looking back on preseason previews to look at how well Cal answered some of the critical pre-season question marks, and determine how Cal performed relative to my own projections, tepid though they may have been. Let’s start with the offense.
How were the critical questions answered?
Is Bowers the man, and how much can he add to his game?
The great 2018 mystery, still unanswered. When was Ross Bowers injured, and was that the reason that he didn’t play after the first two drives of the season against UNC? It’s impossible to say whether or not Bowers would have outproduced the quarterbacks who did play this year, but his stats in 2017 were better than the collective stats produced by 2018 starting QBs. You’d have to think that if he were healthy he would’ve gotten another shot, but that ship had already sailed. Instead, Cal never found consistency, shuffling back and forth between Brandon McIlwain and Chase Garbers with minimal rhyme or reason.
Can Cal develop consistent downfield threats in the passing game?
The short answer is no. The long answer is maaaaaaaaybe, if Noa and Duncan had been healthy all year and Jeremiah Hawkins had better hands. But still probably not. Cal simply didn’t have the necessary speed and athleticism at wide receiver or the arm strength/accuracy at quarterback, and Cal was once again one of the least explosive offenses in the country.
How heavy of a load can Patrick Laird carry?
Well, Patrick Laird ended up with 274 total touches, 38 more than the previous season. And that’s in comparison to the 62 total touches by every other running back on the roster. If you remove carries that Chris Brown got after Laird’s bowl game injury, then Laird got 85% of all running back touches of the ball when healthy.
The reality is that Cal never developed a consistent back-up running back that the coaches seemed to trust. There have been rumors that Laird was nursing various bumps and bruises throughout the year that may have impacted his effectiveness, though it’s impossible to say to what extent that might be true. Either way, it’s a bummer that Laird’s yards/carry and yards/catch both declined by about a yard and a half this year. One can’t help but wonder how much his workload impacted his durability.
What was my projection?
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).
Alas. The Pac-12 did indeed still have plenty of mediocre offenses*, and some moderate improvements from 2017 probably would have put Cal in the middle of the pack. But as we all well know, the offense instead regressed even further, reaching lows that hadn’t been seen since the days of Tom Holmoe.
Even with 20/20 hindsight, I don’t think there’s any reason to have seen an offensive regression coming. It’s really bizarre to have basically every major contributor back on the roster and get meaningfully worse. One could argue that injuries to Kanawai Noa, Jordan Duncan, and Patrick Mekari all hurt the offense, and I certainly won’t argue. But it’s also true that some of Cal’s worst offensive performances (UNC, UCLA) came earlier in the season when most of those players were healthy.
The elephant in the room is of course the quarterback situation. If Cal had a healthy Ross Bowers this season, would they have produced at about the same level as 2017? It’s a tantalizing thought, as the 2017 offense would’ve beaten Arizona and given Cal a better shot against WSU and Stanford. On the other hand, maybe Bowers would have regressed in the same fashion that all of the other quarterbacks on the roster seemed to regress. It’s a question that ultimately gets filed into the category of unknowable.
*This isn’t really the topic of the article, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to note that Arizona State actually had one of the better offenses in the conference. Mea culpa Herm!
How were the critical questions answered?
How will the restructured defensive line perform, and will it be more disruptive?
Cal got big step-forward performances from Luc Bequette and Tevin Paul, continued solid veteran performances from Chris Palmer and Rusty Becker, and solid spot duty from Zeandae Johnson in what was an excellent all-around showing from the defensive line.
That didn’t lead to a ton more disruption, per se. Sacks and tackles for loss from the line went up, but not dramatically. But I think it’s fair to say that the line was stronger at the point of attack this year. Even if they weren’t always knifing into the backfield or bull rushing a lineman into oblivion, they were standing up to a block and occupying linemen so that Weaver and Kunaszyk could make plays. In short – they did their job and clearly made their teammates better. That’s a big win.
How big of a second year leap will Cal get in the secondary?
A huge leap. Cal went from allowing 7.7 yards/attempt to 5.9, a difference between below average to nationally elite. Throw in an increase in interceptions (22, 2nd most in the nation) and you can credibly argue that Cal was in the conversation for best passing defense and best secondary in the entire nation. Which is insane. And: They’re. All. Coming. Back. Next. Year.
Will the defense transition to a more aggressive play style? Should they?
This is a tricky question to answer, because aggression can be hard to define. Tackles for loss? Blitzes? Turnovers forced? Passes defended? Cal was virtually identical in the first two categories, but took a big step forward in the latter two categories, which is probably representative of a slight shift in how Cal played defense.
Cal wasn’t any more aggressive this year about blitzing or trying to make disruptive plays in the opponent’s backfield. But Cal WAS more aggressive about playing up towards the line of scrimmage, trusting their linebackers not to miss run fits and their secondary not to get burned over the top. And as a consequence the defense took away the short plays. 5 yard runs turned into 2 yard runs. A 7 yard completion turned into an incomplete pass. It was a controlled, confident aggression that sucked the offensive life out of most teams.
What was my projection?
But there is a football truism that you build from the lines out and that means that the size of that step forward will very much depend on the play Cal gets from their defensive line. Simply matching last year’s production would probably lead to a slight improvement. But you’ll recall that Cal started the season with serious depth questions before younger guys like Luc Bequette and Tevin Paul started to emerge as the year went on.
And if line play improves? If Cal’s line starts stoning inside run plays and pressuring passing plays from three-man rushes? Look out, because Cal’s defense will be the best since Mychal Kendricks, Cameron Jordan, and Mike Mohamed all roamed the field at the same time.
Everybody on defense got better. Everybody. The line got stouter. The linebackers got more decisive. The secondary more disruptive and aggressive. It’s like something from the early Tedford days, how night and day the difference is.
I thought the key to unlocking a step forward on defense was improved line play, and to a certain extent that proved accurate and important. But while I was optimistic about improvement at linebacker and in the secondary, the magnitude of that improvement still surpassed my expectations.
What was my projection?
If Cal can find themselves a reliable field goal kicker or two, expect more of the same in terms of low risk, low reward special teams. But also steel yourself for the possibility that placekicking will be an adventure for the entire season . . . without any obviously standout specialists added to the mix, it’s hard to project any obvious areas for improvement unless each unit improves as a whole. If nothing else, kickoffs should be mostly stress free and we know we have a reliably safe punt returner.
Cal’s punting ending up being the surprise strength of Cal’s special teams. Steven Coutts stepped in and matched Dylan Klumph’s punt distance, and either got better hangtime or simply had a stronger coverage team around him, because Cal was better about allowing punt returns.
Meanwhile, kickoffs and kick returns were generally solid if unspectacular. Astyn Davis looked really close to breaking a kick return on multiple occasions, but only actually broke free against Idaho State.
Cal’s biggest weakness was punt returns, where ball security issues led to some shuffling. Both Nikko Remigio and Vic Wharton managed long returns against (you guessed it) Idaho State, but Cal only averaged 4.5 yards/return against FBS opposition.
Finally, field goal kicking. Junior Greg Thomas ended up winning the pre-season open competition and ended the season a respectable 8-10 on kicks inside 40 yards. He was, unsurprisingly, more hit and miss from distance, going 4-7 between 40 and 50 yards with a long of 46. He never missed a kick in comically bad fashion, so there’s reason to think that he might be a bit more reliable next year.
All-in-all, another year of mostly low impact special teams, which I will never, ever complain about.