2012 Cal Football Part 1: The Offenseby Nam Le on Jul, 27 2012
The California Golden Bears will return home to Memorial Stadium in a little over a month, kicking off the 2012 season against Nevada. What can we expect this year? Will the Rose drought finally end? Find out in the first of our 3 in-depth preview articles – today’s focus is on the offense, with defense, and then season expectations to come over the next couple weeks.
Additional notes are found at the end of this article.
Quarterback: As always, the fate of the Golden Bears depends on the man standing under center. If that sounds familiar…well, that’s because it is. Since Nate Longshore’s departure, Cal has desperately searched for stability in this position, but hasn’t found it – anyone who suffered through Kevin Riley’s often frustrating backfield tenure can attest to that. The returning starter, senior Zach Maynard, falls very much into the same vein.
At times last year, Maynard looked cool, calm, and poised – most notably, during an outstanding effort in the 2011 Big Game, where he outplayed #1 draft pick Andrew Luck. There, as well as in victories over Utah, Arizona State and Oregon State, Maynard was remarkably efficient, chewing up yardage and moving the chains with shorter passes.
The problem lies in finding that Zach Maynard consistency. In Cal’s losses, he played nothing like the one we saw that rainy night in Palo Alto. Instead, we often saw a completely different player altogether: one who turned the ball over and threw into double coverage with reckless abandon. The better opponents on our schedule were able to key in on a couple of Maynard’s idiosyncrasies. Particularly, his struggles with rolling out (or throwing accurately to) his right, and a general inability to throw a catchable deep ball. As they dared him to accomplish either, Maynard’s most common response was simply to force the ball to his top target, wide receiver Keenan Allen, a decision that often ended with mixed results. Despite Allen’s impressive stats from last season, this was not an unstoppable strategy. On a key 4th and goal at Washington, for example, the Huskies correctly predicted an end zone fade to Allen, and sold out to stop it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cal ended up losing that game. 
The Verdict: Though his up and down play last season led to calls for backup Allan Bridgford, offseason practice reports give good reason to be encouraged for 2013. Many observers, Tedford among them, have commented on how much more better Maynard looks, mechanically and mentally. With this being his second season in the program, such growth should be expected; the truth is, the Bears cannot hope to end their Rose Bowl drought without marked improvement from #15. Count on less desperate heaves to Keenan, a more even distribution of catches, and a better functioning offense overall if such reports turn out to be true .
Maynard in wins: 13 TDs, 4 INTs, 60.4% completion rate; 4 TDs, 8 INTs, 55.6% completion rate in losses
Yes, it’s that simple.
Running back: Most teams are happy to boast a thousand yard rusher…but for running back coach Ron Gould, that phenomenon has become rather commonplace; 2011 marked the 7th time in 8 seasons someone had reached that marker for the Golden Bears. The latest back in this line, incumbent starter Isi Sofele, figures to be in the picture quite prominently after an underrated season. Yet, even as he surprised many with his performance (including yours truly), one part of his game could definitely be improved upon for 2012: Sofele lacks a true breakaway gear, even though he is plenty quick . The hope is that a long offseason with strength coach Mike Blasquez will correct that issue . It would certainly go a long way toward improving the offense if his 20, 25 yard runs could become 40 or 50 yard ones instead.
The back to watch out for here may be actually fellow senior C.J. Anderson. Coming off of a stellar performance in the spring scrimmage this year, Anderson looks more explosive overall, and at 220 pounds, he adds a power to the backfield that Sofele cannot provide. Expect him to receive the lion’s (Bear’s?) share of the carries if that continues.
Also in the mix for touches will be the promising duo of sophomore Brendan Bigelow and redshirt freshman Daniel Lasco. The staff has spoken glowlingly about both players, and although their time to truly shine is likely in 2013, both could make an impact this season. Bigelow, in particular, offers some intriguing possibilities as the young speed demon from Fresno seems to have shaken off the rust from two ACL tears, and could be a huge mismatch for defenses when deployed in space. Bubble screens, stretch plays, sweeps, kickoff returns…the possibilities are only limited by Tedford’s imagination.
The Verdict: No matter which of this fearsome foursome ends up handling the rock, expect this unit to be one of the team’s strengths. There is no shortage of backs in our stable currently, meaning that our Gould-en run of success should continue.
Spring Game: Sofele – 9 carries, 36 yards; Anderson – 12 carries, 88 yards, 1 TDWide Receivers and Tight Ends: Anthony Miller. Marvin Jones. Michael Calvin. No, that’s not a list of who to keep your eye on, that’s a list of three starters lost from this group, including last year’s #2 and #3 wide receivers. Needless to say, the cupboard is rather bare – excuse the pun– right now. Much has been written about the brilliance of All Pac-12 First Teamer Keenan Allen, and there is no reason to expect that won’t continue. Most draft experts have Allen pegged as a future first round pick . Big, strong, and blessed with a sixth sense for the football, Allen will make some NFL quarterback very happy someday; perhaps even as soon as next fall.
It is the supporting cast that is cause for concern, really. Coming out of spring ball, Cal listed only two WRs on the depth chart without any backups noted: Allen, and his redshirt freshman cousin Maurice Harris. Harris should actually take over for Marvin Jones quite nicely, but the absence of names behind them indicates that the staff has not been blown away by anyone else. Luckily, Cal made sure to recruit the position hard this year, and ended up bringing in not one, not two, not three, not four, but five freshman wide receivers. The door is open for any of them to contribute immediately, but the one to watch will probably be Southern California product Bryce Treggs. Already a smooth route runner and remarkably sure-handed, look for Treggs to emerge out of the pack and slide into the #3 receiver spot that Michael Calvin occupied last year.
Moving our focus over to the tight ends reveals a similar problem. Certainly, the position has been underutilized in recent years, and with Miller’s departure, depth remains a bit of a problem here as well. Last season, Cal was even forced to convert Spencer Hagan over to tight end to compensate. Alongside receiver, tight end was a point of emphasis last recruiting season, and though the staff pursued 4 star prospects Christo Kourtzidis (FSU) and Taylor McNamara (OU) heavily, they ultimately were unsuccessful in reeling in either, forcing the team to make do with the talent already acquired. Because none of the current candidates has any extensive experience, it is quite difficult to predict what the Bears will get out of their tight ends. 6’4, 265 pound Richard Rodgers does intrigue with such a large frame, but he played mostly special teams last year, making him an unknown commodity at best.
It remains to be seen how this lack of depth will play out, but one way in which the team could compensate would be with the use of more 3/4 wide receiver sets, especially with the glut of players who play that position now.
The Verdict: Outside of Allen, Maynard’s pass catchers consist mostly of question marks. They’ll have to turn into answers quickly if the Bears to wish to keep pace with the likes of Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North.
4: number of catches in 2011 from returning wide receivers (not named Keenan Allen)
Offensive Line: As the saying goes, football is often won or lost in the trenches…and at different times last year, the Bears proved both ends of that maxim. Against Texas, the line was dominated by a stronger, more athletic Longhorn front, forcing Maynard to run for his life all evening and holding Sofele to a 2.2YPC. But against Oregon State, they did the dominating – Sofele and Anderson enjoyed the benefits of gaping holes on their way to a total of 286 yards.
And really, the contrast between those two games perfectly describes the offensive line’s efforts last year. It is true that Maynard must play better in 2012, but one way to ensure his improvement would be better play upfront. Last year, the line struggled with penalties and snaps, both of which hampered the offense as a whole. The former put Maynard in avoidably difficult situations; the latter threatened his ability to quarterback in general. Hard to make hot reads and diagnose blitzes if you’re not sure the ball will be in your hands.
Projecting ahead, though, it would not be a surprise to see a more stable effort from the offensive line this season, for several reasons.
This unit certainly looked much more promising before Dominic Galas’ recent pectoral injury , but even with that factored in, the Bears will still bring back Matt Summers-Gavin and Brian Schwenke, two of their more talented linemen from last season. Schwenke will take over for Galas at center, a subtle move that should improve line play overall, assuming he can get the ball to Maynard consistently. Secondly, with the opening of the new strength and conditioning complex, as well as the continued work of the aforementioned Blasquez, the odds seem good that games like the Texas one will be rarer, if not gone altogether.
But most importantly, this line is simply in good hands: Mitchell Schwartz, a recent draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, was praised for his technique and game knowledge, due in part to hard work with offensive line coach Jim Michalzik. With another year under Michalzik’s NFL-caliber tutelage, the line should continue to make gains across the board, both mentally and physically.
The Verdict: With most of the starting unit remaining intact and the continued presence of Matt Summers-Gavin to protect Maynard’s blind side, this quintet offers some hope for the coming season. No one will mistake them for Stanford or USC’s hogs, but they should do a solid job.
28: Number of sacks given up by the offensive line last year, which put them in the 35th percentile of all teams. For comparison, Oregon, USC and Stanford, gave up 14, 8, and 11, respectively.
98: Number of penalties by the team in 2011, good for an astounding 7.5 per game, and 8th in the country overall. 35 of these were holds and false starts by the offensive line .
Many of the core pieces – Maynard, Allen, Sofele, Anderson – from last year’s offense remain, and there is good reason to expect that the team will take a step forward in 2012 because of that fact alone. Throw in expected progress from the offensive line, and you have the makings of a pretty solid offense. But as always, the key is at quarterback…as Maynard goes, so do the Bears.
 – Washington was not the only instance of this occurring, either. We only have to look as far as UCLA to find a similar moment, as Tevin McDonald picked off Maynard 3 times…with 2 interceptions of those coming on passes to Allen.
2] – And if they are, I dare say that shots downfield may be more than successful than the dicey propositions they were in 2011. Even when successful, you could never shake the feeling that Maynard’s deep offerings were anything more than floating ducks that could’ve easily been picked off. One particular throw to Anthony Miller stands out [0:50]. Perfect example of what I mean here, just not enough velocity. Also supporting the fact that Maynard has limited effectiveness downfield? His YPA last year was only 7.4, tied for 52nd among the 123 FBS QBs.
 – The plays at 0:10 and 0:31 are good examples of this . The latter, specifically, has Sofele being chased down from behind by an Oregon safety that was already partially blocked. Sure, you can argue that he had to take a wider angle which had to slow him down, but his Oregonian counterparts (Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas, and LaMichael James, respectively) would’ve all scored there. Without question. Many running backs would’ve. One more clip of how Sofele thrives in space, but has no nitrous can be found here, at 7:28. Again, I do not mean to imply he is a bad player – just that I’ve noticed his lack of top-end speed.
 Blasquez was responsible for training the legendary De La Salle teams of the 90s, and Maurice Jones-Drew (a former Bruin, no less!) swears by his work, even now.
 The initial diagnosis is at 3 months, so expect him back mid-November at the earliest, and for a bowl game, if necessary. Galas’ future is up in the air, though, considering this is already his fifth year.
 There was no place that officially tracked this, but I went through every ESPN box score and counted. Might be off by a little.