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Cal Football 2019 Preview: The Offense

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The defining question of the 2019 season: Can the Cal offense wring out just enough points to support their defense?

NCAA Football: Colorado at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Previously: The Years of Living Defensively ; The Defense

For the purposes of expectation and prediction, this is the heart of the 2019 season, right? Barring unforeseen calamity, we all know what the defense is going to produce. That leaves the offense, a unit with heavy turnover and I’m sure plenty of off-season soul searching. Let’s dive in.

2018 Offense, revisited

Strengths

Offensive line run blocking

Now, it must be noted that ‘strengths’ are relative. Cal wasn’t a great running team, but they were generally average nationally in stats that measured the ability of an offense to generate consistent gains on running plays. Stuff rate, opportunity rate, average yards/run, all of them indicated an offensive line that was frequently able to open up holes for running backs to hit.

Cal is bringing back enough offensive line talent that it’s reasonable to imagine that Cal should be able to maintain or even improve upon this relative strength.

Completion percentage

Again, a relative strength. You might be slightly surprised to learn that Cal’s offense sported a slightly above average completion percentage. To be fair, this is maybe more of a stylistic marker, a reflection of Cal’s uber conservative passing attack that rarely tried to go deep. But it’s also an indication that Chase Garbers was at least able to bring a solid baseline passing accuracy to the short and intermediate throws that are essential to any modern offense.

Weaknesses

Turnovers

How to you finish 6th in the country in forced turnovers, yet finish with a negative turnover margin? Simple, you have to also lead the nation in turnovers lost. There’s not much detail to get into here, other than to state the obvious: Cal’s offense has to improve their ball security to have any hope of meaningful improvement compared to 2018.

Generating big plays.

123rd in the country in plays of 20+ yards. 127th in plays of 30+ yards. 124th in plays of 40+ yards. You get the point. When you’re producing big plays at a rate lower than military academies running the triple option, you know that there’s something wrong.

This was a problem for both the passing game (125th in S&P+ marginal explosiveness) and the running game (121st). And this is the reason why Cal’s 2018 recruiting class leaned heavily on JC/transfer skill position talent. More on that below.

Finishing Drives

Cal finished 129th in the nation in points/scoring opportunities (defined as trips past the opponent’s 40 yard line). I’m of the opinion that this is more a reflection of Cal’s bad-across-the-board offense as opposed to some sort of specific situational weakness, but the fact remains that Cal struggled to convert their few long drives into points. An easy way for Cal to look superficially better without making gigantic strides is to be more efficient with limited chances to score.

Unit Summaries

Offensive Line

Starters: LT So. Will Craig, LG Jr. Valentino Daltoso, C Jr. Michael Saffell, RG Jr. Gentle Williams, RT Jr. Jake Curhan

Depth: Poutasi Poutasi, Matthew Cindric, Henry Bazakas, Jasper Friis, Brandon Mello

It’s really all about the left guard position, isn’t it?

True, losing interior linemen Kamryn Bennett and Addison Ooms hurts, but Gentle Williams and Michael Saffell got solid amounts of playing time, with Saffell in particular basically winning a starting spot through the strength of his play in the middle of the 2018 season. Most of the line is filled with experienced players.

So how ready is Will Craig to take over for Patrick Mekari? Craig is the jewel of Cal’s heralded five man OL recruiting class of 2018, and saw action in nine games last year. He’s also tasked with replacing Cal’s best lineman at the most important position on the line. If he’s ready to live up to his recruiting pedigree, Cal will be fine. If there’s a learning curve, the offense could stumble.

Another question? Other than Henry Bazakas, Cal doesn’t really have any back-ups that have seen any playing time. The other four members of that 2018 class all took a redshirt last year, and all of them might theoretically be in line should any of Cal’s starters get hurt.

Also, not really relevant for 2019, but boy is it nice to see a two deep on the line that’s virtually devoid of seniors? No 2020 rebuilding!

Running Backs

Starter: Jr. Chris Brown

Depth: Jr. Marcel Dancy, Jr. DeShawn Collins

I’m operating under the presumption that true freshman DeCarlos Brooks will redshirt, but I’d hardly take that to the bank considering the uncertainty at this position. Cal now has to replace the player who got more than 80% of touches that went to running backs last year.

Chris Brown is the most experienced back on the roster and had occasional flashes in back-up duty, so he’s probably the #1 option ahead of Marcel Dancy, who looked great against *checks notes* FCS Idaho State. This is the 2nd most wide open position group on the team.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Starters:
TE Fr. McCallan Castles
WRs So. Nikko Remigio, Jr. Kekoa Crawford, Sr. Jordan Duncan

Depth:
TE So. Gavin Reinwald, So. Collin Moore, Fr. Nick Alftin
WRs Jr. Jeremiah Hawkins, Fr. Monroe Young, Fr. Makai Polk, Jr. Trevon Clark, So. Ricky Walker III

Honestly, I don’t know why I bothered listing starters and depth when I’m not even sure if the coaching staff has a good idea which players will get the lion’s share of the playing time at these positions. I think you can pencil in Nikko Remigio and McCallan Castles with confidence, but after that it’s anybody’s guess.

Jordan Duncan and Jeremiah Hawkins have the advantage of meaningful playing time. But that might not mean a bunch, because all of the new players were brought in specifically to give Cal something that the 2018 offense lacked. Still, Duncan had his 2018 interrupted by mid-season surgery and Hawkins hasn’t been a go-to guy until late in his true sophomore season last year, so it’s certainly possible that both players might improve.

After the returning trio of Remigio, Duncan, and Hawkins you can add on newcomers Kekoa Crawford (Michigan transfer) and Trevon Clark (JC), plus freshmen Makai Polk and Monroe Young. Sophomore Ricky Walker has also received fall camp reps, so who knows? It’s a wide-open battle for playing time that will probably persist into the season as the coaches reward players who produce with more game reps.

Quarterback

Starter: So. Chase Garbers

Depth: Jr. Devon Modster

I suppose it would be dumb of me to not mention JC transfer Jack Newman or true freshman Spencer Brasch since Cal played four different quarterbacks last year. But after last year’s disastrous QB merry-go-round, my guess is that injuries are the only thing that might lead to more than two quarterbacks seeing the field this season.

We’re going to take Justin Wilcox on his word that Chase Garbers is the starter if the season started now and ignore our memory of what happened in the first game last year. And who knows how much, if at all, Devon Modster’s NCAA clearinghouse issue plays into the competition?

Fall camp reports have generally had positive things to say about Garbers’ growth from his redshirt freshman year to his sophomore year. Whoever wins the battle is going to have the challenge of developing chemistry with a largely new group of targets, but Garbers does have the advantage of two years under Beau Baldwin plus the giant’s share of a season of playing time.

Defining questions

Can Cal complete passes 20+ yards downfield?

As noted above, Cal’s running game was equally as unexplosive as Cal’s passing game. But I would argue that Cal’s inability to find space in the running game is at least partly due to Cal’s inability to stretch the field passing the ball. It’s much easier for linebackers and safeties to flow to the running back when they’re not afraid of being beaten over the top.

Of course, there are a bunch of things that Cal needs to do better to be able to stretch the field. The offensive line was a solid run blocking unit, but they were comparatively less successful pass blocking, despite blocking for two mobile quarterbacks. Cal’s receivers were unable to get open down field, and they struggled to make plays on contested balls when Cal threw into coverage anyway. Cal’s quarterbacks struggled with both downfield accuracy and decision making.

Obviously there’s been a ton of change at the TE/WR position, which means that improvement is on the table but hardly guaranteed. Cal’s line will probably improve marginally as a pass blocking unit, although the transition at left guard will be an obvious area to watch on that front.

That leaves the all important quarterback position. It’s absolutely possible for a younger player to make a developmental leap in his 2nd year as a starter. You could look across the bay to K.J. Costello for an example of a passer to made a huge leap in his 2nd season of action.

You could also look at players like Jake Browning or Steven Montez for examples of players who either played similarly each season or actually regressed. Progress is not linear, and not guaranteed.

Can Cal do the above without an unacceptable rate of turnovers?

If you believe the below, the answer is yes:

An obvious caveat: Garbers didn’t play a full season of snaps like Huntley, DTR, and Costello. Still, this fits with the larger narrative of the season: Garbers was largely a safe, conservative quarterback who didn’t get much luck in that pretty much every mistake he made was maximally punished. ‘Only’ 10 of Cal’s 31 turnovers were Garbers interceptions.

But it’s also true that downfield throws were the Garbers throws that tended to get picked off. So we can enter 2019 confident that Garbers will largely capably make throws up to 15 yards downfield. This offense needs more than that.

Final Outlook

If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, I can give you one good reason: Last year, nearly everything went wrong.

All our deep threat WRs left the program. Our incumbent QB and presumed starter got hurt. Patrick Laird wasn’t ever fully healthy all year. Our best lineman (Mekari) had various knocks before missing the last two games of the year. Jordan Duncan and Kanawai Noa were both hurt at various points. The coaches struggled mightily with the quarterback situation after Bowers got hurt. The list goes on.

This is probably the biggest reason why Justin Wilcox elected to stick with the same offensive coaches - because one could argue that Cal’s offense suffered through a lot of bad luck last year.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad luck. There are very real questions about how the quarterback position was handled, both in terms of the rotation of players as well as in-season regression. There are very real questions about Cal’s ability to develop wide receivers and running backs. If the offense continues to sputter, everything that went wrong last year will start to look less like bad luck and more like bad process.

The Cal offense is practically guaranteed to get better, because it’s not an exaggeration to say that they plumbed the depths of how bad a power conference offense can get. To find weaker offenses, you typically find programs that are moribund or going through some sort of awful coaching transition, or both. Programs like Kansas and Rutgers. For as much as Cal has struggled over the last decade, they are better than those programs, and miles more stable in year three under Justin Wilcox. Some level of bounce back seems almost inevitable.

But there is certainly a ceiling on how much bounce back is possible. This is still a team that essentially has an entirely new set of skill position players, few of whom enter the program with much recruiting hype. And Cal could make a massive leap in terms of national rankings, rise from the ~120th best offense in the country they were last year to, say, 75th best, and still have the worst offense in the Pac-12.

Still, that might be enough. A Colorado-level offense combined with Cal’s defense plus some close game luck might just be enough to get a special season. It doesn’t feel like we’re asking for much, does it?