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Can the Cal offense be fixed in one off-season?

An attempt at analyzing personnel and coaching staff changes on the offensive side of the ball.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

The primary problem of the 2018 Cal offense was an inability to make downfield plays in the passing game without turning the ball over at an unacceptable rate.

There were other issues - the aforementioned lack of running game explosiveness being the most obvious - but many of Cal’s other problems stemmed from an inability to pass downfield, which had knock on effects on the rest of the offense.

OK, so now that we’ve identified what worked and what didn’t, we can move on to the next question: What will it take to fix these problems, and can the current coaching staff and roster fix them?

I’ve been waiting on the follow up because of the potential for staff and/or roster changes that would render anything written quickly irrelevant.

Well, Cal has since announced a staff shake-up, and Kanawai Noa announced his transfer. So, while there is always the possibility that there are unforeseen changes between now and September, we’re probably pretty close to the group of coaches and players that will make an impact next season.

Which means we can start trying to answer the bolded question above. Kinda sorta.

I’m hedging because, as fans without any particular special insight into what caused last year’s problems. My original article identified the on-field problems, but we can’t know for sure the off-field causes. How much are Cal’s offensive struggles talent-related (the triumphal walk-on play vs. USC is a great story that also epitomizes the raw talent issues Cal faces on offense) vs. coaching? And presuming that Cal has coaching problems, how much of that is skill development vs. coaching players to execute vs. play-calling, etc.?

All we can really do is look at what has changed since last year and speculate about how that might impact on field production. So:

Personnel Changes

The list of new players on the roster who might potentially make an impact is longer than the list below. I’m choosing to focus on non-true-freshmen, as first year players rarely make an impact in their first season unless they’re Keenan Allen/Marshawn Lynch level can’t-miss recruits. Makai Polk: prove me wrong!

In, recruited: QB Devon Modster, WR Trevon Clark, WR Jawaun Johnson, WR Kekoa Crawford, RB DeShawn Collins

In, coming off redshirt: RB Marcel Dancy, TE McCallan Castles

Out: WR Kanawai Noa, WR Vic Wharton, TE Ray Hudson, WR Moe Ways, RB Patrick Laird, OL Addison Ooms, OL Kamryn Bennett, TE Jake Ashton, TE Ian Bunting, OL Patrick Mekari, FB Malik McMorris, OL Ryan Gibson

My assumption is that the offensive line play of the departing seniors (Patrick Mekari, Addison Ooms, and Kamryn Bennett) and the retiring Ryan Gibson will be replaced with similar levels of production from Michael Saffell and Will Craig, who both saw plenty of action alongside Cal’s other returning line starters (Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan). Between those experienced player and the seeds of Cal’s recently solid offensive line recruiting hopefully bearing fruit, the offensive line should continue to be not a problem.

So: Will the coaching staff’s complete overhaul of Cal’s skill positions work?

Devon Modster is probably the favorite to win the open quarterback battle. Clark, Johnson, and Crawford will almost by default get a ton of time alongside returners Jordan Duncan, Jeremiah Hawkins, and Nikko Remigio. McCallan Castles should also get a ton of run as a highly touted tight end coming off a redshirt season. Meanwhile, Collins will compete with Chris Brown and Marcel Dancy for carries in the running back rotation.

Patrick Laird was essentially the only running back, and was probably playing with nagging injuries much of the year. Regardless, running backs tend to be pretty interchangeable, and both Brown and Dancy looked cromulent in limited duty last year. Running back production will probably be similar.

Cal’s departing tight ends collectively managed 24 catches on 44 targets, so I think it’s certainly possible Castles could match that by himself if the hype is real. This is probably a push.

That leaves QB and WR. These are the position groups that are being radically remade, and the position groups that will likely determine whether or not Cal manages an offensive turnaround.

Adding Devon Modster instantly makes Cal’s QB rotation in 2019 better than 2018. If Modster were able to produce at Cal similarly to how he produced in limited play at UCLA it would represent a massive upgrade from 2018 production.

Which brings us to the question that I suspect will define the 2019 offense. Can Cal’s remade WR crew stretch the field and get open in a way that the 2018 crew didn’t?

Clark, Johnson, and Crawford are essentially replacing Wharton, Noa, and Ways. The new trio will generally bring more height, speed, and athleticism than the departing trio. On the downside, they will have to learn the offense and gain cohesion with whichever QB ends up starting, and they won’t be around for spring football. That’s a rough turnaround.

Coaching Changes

Beau Baldwin adds QB coaching, Marques Tuiasosopo from QB coach to Tight End coach

Why this could be an improvement

Beau Baldwin was a quarterbacks coach for the first 13 years of his coaching career, and the fashion in which he excelled in that role was presumably the driver of his ascension to head coach at Eastern Washington, which consistently produced excellent quarterback play during his time in Cheney, Washington. In short, he’s done this exact thing before, successfully. Why can’t he do it again?

Why this might not make a difference

One would presume that, as offensive coordinator with a strong background in quarterbacks coaching, Baldwin already played a pretty strong role in mentoring and developing Cal’s quarterbacks. Honestly, if Baldwin wasn’t getting involved as Cal’s offense floundered, that would be concerning.

Burl Toler from RB coach to WR coach, Nick Edwards from WR coach to RB coach

Why this could be an improvement

This one feels pretty obvious. Burl was a wide receiver at Cal, and his position coach experience prior to 2018 was entirely at wide receiver. Inexperienced though he may be, this would be his wheelhouse.

Why this might not make a difference

Nick Edwards has also been a WR coach throughout his career, so pretty much either way Cal was going to have a relatively inexperienced person coaching their running backs if they wanted to maintain coaching staff continuity.

In Summary

Justin Wilcox surveyed the 2018 offense, and evidently determined that on-field personnel was the problem, and not coaching. There are plenty of fans who are not thrilled with his decision to retain the same staff, regardless of the exact nature of role shuffling.

The good news is that the personnel on the field will almost certainly be radically different. Cal could, if they wanted, roll into the first game of the season with eight credible new starters on offense. That’s an adequate test of the talent-not-coaching theory of offensive struggles.

So: does Beau Baldwin’s decade-plus run of FCS success trump two admittedly painful years at Cal? How much was a mis-allocation of coaching resources to blame for 2018? And will Wilcox be rewarded for his loyalty, or will he ultimately take the blame if Cal’s offense fails to support what should be an historically great defense?

We’ve got to wait through the entire off-season to find out.