Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Previewing the Cal offense and depth chart

With so many new faces on the Cal offense, and a new offensive coordinator and play caller, plus a new QB with a new style, the Cal offense is somewhat of an unknown right now. You can bet Michigan State's defensive coaches are thinking the same thing. Tedford's offense already presents a lot of problems for opposing coaches. With these new unknowns, it only makes Michigan State's game planning that much more difficult. Before breaking down the matchups, here's a preview of the offense, and who's who on the new depth chart.

Cal's offensive style

The word that best describes Tedford's offense is "elegant," as in cleverly simple. Of course it is only simple for the Cal players and coaches in terms of practicing, game planning and execution. It can be very difficult for opposing coaches to stop if it is executed properly. Without professing to be able to summarize it in the course of a few sentences, elegant as it may be, I will humbly describe the principles behind this lethal offense.

Essentially, two principles underly the Tedford offense: (1) outnumbering or gaining advantage at the point of attack, and (2) masking tendencies. In terms of winning at the point of attack, one technique Tedford uses is to call a group or "package" of plays, and then lets the QB read the defense at the line of scrimmage and call out the play that best exploits the weakness in the defense. Tedford told me at the coaches' tour this summer that if the coaches are calling the right plays and packages, and the quarterback is making the right read, the offense should always have the advantage at the point of attack. Obviously good execution, pre-snap shifts by the defense, and other variables make this easier said than done, but you can see how effective this can be.

In terms of masking tendencies, two techniques, among others, he employs are (1) he runs the same plays out of different formations, and (2) he runs different plays out of the same formation. That way, the offense's formation gives away absolutely nothing about the play call. You might be thinking, "Yeah, but every coach does that," and you would be right. But when you add the packaging which allows the offense to adjust to the defense at the line of scrimmage, Tedford separates from most coaches, making life very difficult for opposing defenses in terms of predicting this offense.

I could go on for pages about the permutations, especially when you get into "game within the game" double-thinking your opponent, different down-and-distance situations, different personnel packages, and adding new fakes to the same play each time you run it in the same game. The point is, now you know why he carries around that giant play card.


As you can see, the skill and competence the quarterback needs to have in Tedford's offense are rather impressive. When I talked to Tedford at the coaches' tour event this summer, he said Nate has this system down. He said Kevin was "getting there," and that Nate was helping out tremendously. He said it typically takes about 1.5 years to "get it." I asked him how Rodgers did with it. His answer: "Aaron picked it up like 'that,'" snapping his fingers. Makes you realize how remarkable Rodgers was to have started over a senior just 6 games into his career.

While Riley may still be perfecting the offense, there is no question that his other attributes more than compensate, and I think we will see the coaches tailor the offense to his strengths as he gets more comfortable with the playbook. These attributes are obviously his arm strength, his ability to make plays with his feet, buy time for receivers to get open, and maybe "see" some things if a play breaks down. In addition, as we saw in the AFA and OSU games, Riley's running option will give the defense one more thing to think about, especially in the red zone.

In terms of what to expect, I think we will see a reversion to the moveable pocket we saw in 2003 and 2004, both with big rollouts and slide out-and-step forward short rollouts. This will get Riley out in space, give him some time and cushion to look around, and give him some daylight if needs to run it. While I think we'll see him stay in the pocket on occasion, we are not going to see him sitting back there every pass play the way we saw with Nate.


We all know about Jahvid Best's speed. The guy looks like he's on ice skates and everyone else is in shoes. I think we'll see him used in every possible way this year - up the middle, out wide, in the slot, on reverses, and on screens. I hate to keep perpetuating the tiresome Reggie Bush comparison, but in this case, there really are a lot of similarities in terms of how Best will be used. And for what it's worth, Best's 100M time in high school was faster than Bush's (10.31 vs. 10.4).

I am actually more excited about our other new tailback, Shane Vereen. Vereen is not too many steps slower than Best, running a 10.61 100M in high school. What I like about him, based on his high school highlights, is how well he catches and runs. In this regard, he might even be more dynamic than Best. The catch-and-run is trickier than it looks, and by all accounts in camp, Vereen is a natural at it. Third, like Best, he has great vision and ability to make something out of nothing. Though he redshirted last season, it was a close call, and he could have absolutely contributed had he played. Tedford has said he typically splits carries 65%-35% between his two backs, so we'll see a lot of Vereen this season. I believe this kid will be a household name by the end the season, and Best and Vereen will be the best 1-2 punch in the conference the next three years.

To give you an idea of how well regarded Vereen was as a recruit, Pete Carroll went hard at this kid, not as a runningback, but as a corner, arguably the most athletic position on the field, telling him he thought he could be an all-conference corner some day. Here is what Carroll and Tedford saw, and a preview of what this kid can do:

Wide Receiver
This is without question the group with the least experience. But like Riley, what they lack in experience, they make up for in abilities that we really didn't have last season. The official depth chart lists four guys, though the coaches have said they will rotate 6 guys this season. The top six are as follows, with the bolded names being the top 2:

84 Michael Calvin 6-2, 202, RS Fr
1 Marvin Jones 6-3, 185, True Fr
3 Jeremy Ross 5-11, 208, Soph.

88 Sean Young 5-11, 181, Sr.
85 L. Cunningham 6-1, 205, Sr.
8 Nyan Boateng 6-2, 210, Jr.

The first thing you notice is how big these guys are. That's the biggest change from last year. While it will obviously open up more throws over the middle in third and medium to short, it also adds an element that was a staple of our dominant running game in 2004 - downfield blocking. Lyman and McArthur were excellent at this, and it allowed Arrington to rip off over 2000 yards that season. With these bigger guys blocking on the outside, I fully expect to see lots of long runs this year on runs off-tackle and lateral screens to the tailbacks.

Of these new recievers, I am most excited about Michael Calvin and Marvin Jones. Calvin was in line to play last year, as a true freshman (which is impressive given our receiver corps last season), but he broke his wrist in fall camp. The guy is big, strong, fast, and can go up high for the ball. The staff is high on him, said he caught everything in camp, and he is probably going to be the most reliable guy out there initially. He seems like a quality kid too (and he's a Bay Area guy). Here is a link to a nice article on him by the Daily Cal.

Jones has impressed everyone in camp with his speed, moves, polish, hands, and ability to go up for the ball, all as an 18 year old right out of high school. He has taken over Jackson's #1 jersey, and by all accounts, including some now unavailable video from summer workouts, he will soon assume the role as Cal's game breaker. He also sounds like he has a great head on his shoulders. Here's a link to an article on him in the SF Comical. I expect great things from these two for the next four years.

Young and Cunningham are two veterans who have never managed to get much playing time (Young because of injuries and Cunningham because of being behind Jackson, Hawkins and Jordan). Though not as flashy as Calvin, Jones or Boateng, both guys were steady and reliable all camp, and were rewarded with being in the top 4. The coaches will lean on them early for their smart play until guys like Boateng and Jones get comfortable.

The best athlete and biggest upside among the receivers, Boateng is the one everyone is waiting on, and some were surprised he did not get a starting spot. He was highly touted out of high school, transferred from Florida after riding the bench in part due to injury, in part due to personal problems. His absence from the starting lineup seems to be due to a combination of too many dropped balls, and maybe a bit up-and-down in terms of focus. He's had to come a long way to get out of Tedford's doghouse, and he's still got some work to do. But the word from everyone who has seen him is that he makes circus highlight catches one minute, and then drops a simple out pattern the next. The coaches will want to see what he can do in a game, so keep your eye on #8 when he comes on the field.

Offensive Line
Aside from getting the #1 center in the country back, All American candidate Alex Mack (6-4 304), the biggest story on the line are the new faces. The only other returning starter is right guard senior Noris Malele (6-3 303). This unit is going to be challenged right away, and while I think they'll have some growing pains, I think it will grow into a dominant unit over the next few years.

With Mike Tepper out with an injury, Jr. Chet Teofilo (6-3 316) will start at LT, protecting Riley's blind side. Teofilo was recruited as a defensive lineman and was moved to offense because the coaches were so impressed with his footwork and athleticism, which makes him a good fit for left tackle. He started a few games last year and played quite a bit, though Tedford singled him out as an example of why he should have played young guys more during the season - he said Teofilo came in during the Stanford game and really wasn't ready to start. He was supposed to start at RT until Tepper got hurt, and his starting job at RT was never in doubt, so the coaches seem to be happy with him.

The RT job goes to giant RS Fr Mitchell Schwartz (6-7 323), a guy the staff has been high on from day 1. His older brother was a multi-year o-line starter at Oregon, and he came in very highly recruited out of high school. He's the first guy people are talking about as a successor to Ryan O'Callaghan as Cal's next dominant tackle. He has NFL written all over him, and Tedford said he "trusts" this kid, which is high praise for an underclass o-lineman.

The other new face is left guard Soph Chris Guarnero, another highly touted recruit who had been backing up Mack at center until late in camp, when the coaches decided to move him to left guard. Remarkably, he jumped ahead of two other guys who'd been competing for the position since the end of last season. The reports were that, despite his small size (6-2 275), his talent and pass blocking technique were too good to keep off the field, especially where they intend to play him the next two years. I like this move by the coaches, even though I think he's going to struggle in the run game. I think it will pay dividends down the road.

Tight End and Fullback
A big change I expect this year is the feature of these two positions in Cignetti's new offense. At FB, Cal trots out the guy that would scare me most if I had to face him on defense: Will Ta'ufo'ou. He's a 5-11 253 Sponge Bob Square Pants in cleats, who runs like a tailback. He's a vicious blocker, has never rushed for negative yardage in his career, and has my favorite highlight from last season here:

Cignetti likes to use the fullback a lot, which I think will be a welcome change.

At tight end, I think is the guy most likely to have a breakout season: Junior Cameron Morrah. He is a mismatch for linebackers because of his speed, and too big and strong for most DB's to handle one on one. I suspect the coaches will go to him a lot, especially early until the WRs get more comfortable.


HydroTech said...

Good stuff. Good thoughts.

Admin said...

Thanks hydro. Love the goldenblogs of course. It's your world and we're just living in it.

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