Monday, August 30, 2010

Preseason Thoughts

Before getting to the UC Davis preview (let this be the last time in my life that I type that phrase), some pre-season thoughts.

1. The last of the original Tedford staff are now all gone (Gould was a Holmoe holdover). What effect will it have on this season, and longer term?

It is hard to constantly redefine your program when you don't change your primary coaches for each phase of the game, i.e. offense, defense and special teams. You can tinker with system changes, such as going with the 3-4 or elements of the spread. And you can hire different position coaches, who can help with technique and recruiting. But the only way you are going to change the paradigm, the foundations of your entire approach to the game, is to bring in someone from outside. In one fell swoop, Cal went from 3 out of 3 from the Tedford coaching tree, to 2 out of 3 from outside.

If there was ever a time to catalyze around a fresh mental approach to the game, and capitalize on it, this is it. There are now two coaches who aren't from the Tedford line, who coach the two phases that aren't Tedford's specialty, and who are eager to prove themselves (Pendergast was fired from two DC jobs prior to taking the Raiders DB coach job, and Genyk was fired as head coach of EMU). It will be interesting to see how differently this team approaches and plays the game throughout the course of the season under this re-vamped staff. With low expectations, a high percentage of underclassmen who are not steeped in all of the old guard Tedford staff principles, and the conference being as wide open as it's been since 2003, this is an opportunity to make something happen.

This brings up another point, which is the challenge of keeping a fresh edge over your conference opponents. In today's short attention span college football world, everyone - the fans, the coaches and the media - places a tremendous premium on newness: new schemes, new coaches, new recruiting tactics, new facilities, new uniforms, the list goes on. It's at once a recruiting tool, a strategic tool, a marketing tool, and a motivational tool. And the longer a head coach stays at a program, the harder it becomes to generate this edge.

I spoke with Tedford during the summer prior to the 2008 season, coming off the disappointing 2007 season, and asked him about keeping that edge, that newness, to keep his opponents on their toes. I mentioned that it seemed like teams had started to figure his offense and defense out a bit more, and he wasn't sneaking up on people as much. He acknowledged that he's always working on that issue, agreed that it was a big challenge, that he thinks about it constantly, and that it is one of the hardest things to do. In terms of what he was doing to address it back then, he talked about two main things (remember this was 2008): meeting with Dick LeBeau about the 3-4, and hiring Cignetti.

In retrospect, that comment offers some insight: If those things are what he thought would give him that "edge" back in 2008, I can only assume he is expecting a bigger pop from a new DC and ST coach, not to mention Marshall and Ludwig having a second year to put together different schemes on offense. We'll see if that is the case.

2. Unlike years past, the 2-deeps, particularly defense, are littered with players from all over the country, which should contribute to a fresher mentality.

I have long felt that a lesser discussed, but still important, byproduct of national recruiting is that you have the opportunity to build a team that has a more varied, and thus potentially stronger, mental approach. Kind of like genetics. Mixing is usually better.

Look at the defensive 2-deep. Anthony - AZ (Nnabuife - TX), Hagan - CA (Williams - TX), Hill - TX (Cattouse - IL), Conte - CA (Campbell - NV), Jordan - AZ (Guyton - PA), Payne - TX (Hill - CA), Owusu - TN (Coleman - WA). That’s eight different states among the 22 players on the 2-deep. And I suspect there will be similar variety on special teams. That's a lot of kids from a lot of different places, who were raised on a lot of different brands of football, and who all probably view life and football a little differently. I can't remember a time I've seen that kind of variety on a Cal roster, let alone 2-deep.

For being the University of California football team, long a program that mirrored its predominantly California-based student body, this is an interesting twist. But I like it. Along with new staff and new schemes, this ought to add to that edge.

3. Without a true homerun hitter for the first time in years, can the team find a rice and beans offense to move the chains?

There are no Jacksons, no Bests, no Lynches, no one who makes you hold your breath every time he touches the ball. Yes Vereen is very fast, very talented, and very capable of taking it to the house if he gets a seam. But he's not Jackson or Best. What that means is this team is going to need to manufacture offense a bit more methodically.

But as far as I am concerned, that might be good for this group. Frankly, and I’ve said this before, this team has been too reliant on the big play on offense recently, and has been unable to sustain itself on more steady, rhythm offense. Too often the past few years, when Best and Jackson and the big plays got shut down, what was left got exposed as unable, or perhaps unprepared, to carry the team: the base run game, the base passing game, the defense, and the special teams.

Now more than ever, this team needs a rice and beans, move-the-sticks offense. They need plays and schemes that can manufacture yardage to hold onto the ball, give the defense a rest, and get the QB into a rhythm. And if the OL isn't good enough to allow the team to do it on the ground, they need a short passing game to complement it. In his defense, Vereen may not be Best, but his steady, versatile abilities arguably make him the perfect player to build that offense around, and he's probably better in that regard than Best was.

In my opinion, this is going to be Ludwig's biggest challenge this season.

4. Players I am looking forward to watching this season.

Kendricks - I have been waiting for this kid to pull it all together. When he does, with his speed, he can be an all-conference player.
Allen - The guy who might be happiest to see Allen is Marvin Jones. Jones is great, but he's not quite a guy who can stretch defenses on his own - he needs another guy out there to keep defenses honest and free him up a bit. Allen might finally be that guy.
Payne - Tedford told me prior to the 2008 season that Payne would be a household name eventually, Mebane part II. He certainly looks the part.
Jordan - The coaches keep talking about getting him into 1-on-1 looks so he can get after the QB. If that happens, with his freakish speed, he has the chance to tear the roof off.
Coleman - An absolute monster RS Freshman at 6-6, 306. Should be a cornerstone of this 3-4 for the next couple years.
Hagan - He's either going to return to 2008 form and play his way into the NFL draft, or leave everyone wondering what could have been. With what he's been through off the field, everyone should be rooting for this guy.
Vereen - If he stays healthy, with his receiving abilities, he's got the potential to have an epic season statistically, and run up ridiculous all purpose yardage numbers. For reference, Arrington holds the single season all purpose yardage record of 2139 (2018 of which was rushing), and White holds the career all purpose yardage record of 4934. Currently, Vereen is at 2693 by my unofficial look at the stats, which means he'd need 2241 to tie the record.

Next up, the Aggies.


Richard Hourula said...

Excellent analysis. I think the key to the success will be the O-Line and I'm optimistic about this unit. I was a fan of Gregory as DC but his departure and the arrival of Pendergast and his aggressive style might be just the ticket. There's a lot of talent and depth on offense and we've finally got a good receiving corps again after two down years. With what will inevitably be a vastly improved special teams play (how could it not be?) there's every reason for the usual optimism Bear fans are so susceptible to.
I look forward to reading your comments throughout the season and Go Bears!

Anonymous said...

Excellent points all around! I eagerly await your UC Davis preview.

One question: on your Pac-10 standings, why is Oregon listed first? It looks like you've kept the final 2009 order in place...shouldn't we allow everyone a fresh start? How about a nice, alphabetized listing?

Go Bears!


oldblue said...

This is a great analysis. When you speak of "edge," I think that has as much to do with chemistry and similar intangibles as it does with strategies, tactics and alignments. I like your observation about the "mix" of players. I likewise think reports that Tedford is loosening up in his demeanor and attitude and creating some "fun" show promise that the team will play with more spirit, something that has been very inconsistent in prior seasons. For example, the level of play against Stanford last year was outstanding, but was followed by an absentee performance against Washington in the final game of the regular season.

SD said...

So true OB - Tedford seems to be doing everything he can think of to try to maintain that newness. He is nothing if not self-evaluative. I am curious to see how long he can maintain the "fun-ness" once the vise grip of weekly game planning starts to tighten. But if he's really stepping back, then his job as HC is mental state, mood and feel, more than tactics and strategies. And that means trying to keep that lightness around, and then being able to ramp the team up to peak intensity at game time, rather than burning out and fading. That's what he says - let's see if it works.

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