2008 Cal Football Preview - The Offense

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2008 Cal Football Preview - The Offense
System:

It remains to be seen how noticeable the difference will be between Frank Cignetti’s offensive system and play calling style and what Jeff Tedford has traditionally done. It’s clear that for the first time during his tenure at Cal that Tedford will truly delegate responsibility for the offense to someone else. All signs point to the differences between the two being minimal. Terminology will remain much the same and both Cignetti and Tedford have gone on record saying their philosophical approaches are nearly identical. Assuming that is the case, this is an offense that will start and end with the run. Cal wants to establish the run early, trigger their pass offense once the defense is thinking run and then when the Bears have a lead go back to the run to control the clock and keep the defense fresh. Word is that Cignetti has some preference to throw the ball more the TE and the backs than what we’ve seen Cal do the past couple of seasons.

Quarterbacks:

The simplest way to describe the Cal quarterback situation is simply that this is a position of depth and strength. I don’t believe Jeff Tedford would trade his top three quarterbacks for any other group in the conference. Cal has two quarterbacks who have proven they can win big games and they have a RS freshman who has been very impressive thus far in his career in Berkeley. Unlike last year, where the Cal staff felt they had a clear cut starter and then a drop off to a talented but very green backup, this season the coaches will know that they have two options either of which they will be comfortable starting. Nate Longshore has been much maligned after his less than stellar play last season after suffering a nagging high ankle injury. Despite solid pass protection and a trio of talented receivers, Longshore struggled at times after his injury, most noticeably in providing an offense heading south with the leadership it so desperately needed. Longshore can clearly play at a high level. He’s won big games at home (Oregon and UCLA at home in 2006 and Tennessee in 2007) as well as on the road (Oregon in 2007 and Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl). Longshore has great size, a quick release and has complete mastery over the Cal offense and at times has shown off a tremendous touch, especially on the deep ball. He’s also shown himself to be an accurate passer and until last year’s injury, made few bad mistakes. His lack of mobility has resulted in fewer plays being made when his protection broke down or his receivers failed to get open and while he has a good arm, it’s not a cannon. Starting senior quarterbacks have been shown to have a high correlation to winning college football games and Longshore has tried to underline that thought by playing very well in the Spring and thus far in Summer camp. Kevin Riley enters his third year at Cal with all kinds of talent. Blessed with quick feet and a rocket arm, Riley plays the game with a swagger and has obvious command of the huddle. He has shown himself to thrive under adversity, leading an ill fated comeback against Oregon State in his first start and then a wonderful come from behind vistory against Air Force. Riley’s not been as consistent as Longshore as a practice player dating back to last season through the Spring and thus far into the Summer. However, the two times he’s had a chance to play when live bullets are flying, he has acquitted himself quite well. Brock Mansion will be the third quarterback regardless of the outcome of the competition. The future looks bright for Mansion who has similar size to Longshore yet much better mobility. He has picked up the Bears system quickly and with another year under his belt will cross the chasm to where the Cal coaches will be very comfortable that he can win games for this team. While the depth is a big bonus, it’s critical that one quarterback establish himself early in the season. I’d like to see leadership be overweighted by Tedford and Cignetti as they decide who will lead the offense. Longshore, despite his strong track record in 2006 and early 2007, has not shown himself to be a strong leader in clutch situations. His record when under adversity is far from ideal and he does not carry himself with the focus or self assuredness you want in your quarterback. That doesn’t mean Riley should get the nod. If Longshore continues to show more consistency through camp, he should start the game against MSU. If he falters, Riley will be more than ready to step in and take over. Regardless, both will almost certainly play against MSU which will do more to tell us who will best guide the offense in 2008.

Running Back:

Under Tedford, this has been a position loaded with talent and one that has not disappointed in performance. There is no reason to expect that to change this season. Cal has four talented tailbacks, three of whom will likely share the carries this year. Jahvid Best will be the starter and he replaces Desean Jackson as the Bears most dynamic playmaker. Blessed with tremendous speed and surprising toughness, Best should be an ESPN highlight staple by week four of the season. Best runs more physically than his 195lb frame would suggest and he showed last year that he is fearless (All Pac 10 special team gunner) and tough (breaking tackles on numerous occasions. Jahvid needs to become a more instinctual runner who understands how to set up his blockers and improve his vision and patience when running up the middle. His ability to catch the ball is a bonus and don’t be surprised to see Best line up on occasion as a slot receiver. Tracy Slocum will likely be Best’s primary backup. Slocum is 205+ lbs and built low to ground. He runs with his pads low and has good feet, allowing him to find or create creases where none are apparent. While he’s not explosively fast, Slocum has good quickness and gets to full speed in just a few steps. Slocum likes to run between the tackles and will likely see his fair share of short yardage opportunities. Shane Vereen will also help carry the load and he possesses many of the same skills that Best brings to the table. Vereen is even quicker in terms of his first step than Best and while he lacks Jahvid’s world class top end speed, Vereen is as fast a running back as the Bears have seen since Tarik Smith matriculated in Berkeley. Vereen is highly elusive with great hips and like Best possesses great hands. Shane needs to prove he can run physically and finish runs off but he will give Cal another big play offensive player. Covaughn Deboskie will likely redshirt. He has good size and great speed with similar receiving skills to Best and Vereen. A year to work on his body and to learn to run with a lower pad level will help him in the years to come.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

At wide out, the Bears are going to be focused on talent over experience as the latter is in short order with this group combining to have thirteen career catches total. It’s tough to know how the two deeps will play out, but depth will not be a problem nor is size as the Bears have a group of receivers whose average is size is well over 6’ and 200lbs. Mike Calvin has emerged as the teams likely number one pass catcher. The redshirt freshman dominated as a scout player last year and is a smooth route runner with consistent hands and the ability to use his body and leaping ability to go up and get balls. Sophomore Jeremy Ross is a physically strong receiver with good speed and a reputation as a run after catch threat. Last year, he failed to crack the rotation and is working to improve his consistency in running routes and catching the ball. Nyan Boateng, the junior transfer from Florida has some playing experience from his true freshman year in Gainesville where he played in five games and caught four balls. Boateng starred as a basketball player in New York City alongside current NBA player Sebastian Telfair and brings the receiving corps superb quickness and body control to go along with a tremendous physical build. Boateng’s hands have been inconsistent since arriving in Berkeley and he will need to improve his mental approach if he plans to star in the Pac 10. Sean Young enters his fifth year at Cal, having never cracked the rotation but he has arguably been the Bears best receiver thus fall in Camp. Young runs excellent route, has good hands and surprising athleticism. True freshman Marvin Jones is taking the #1 jersey and while he is a dynamic talent in his own right, he brings very different things to the Bears than previous #1, DeSean Jackson. Jones is 6’2” tall and while thin, is surprisingly strong. Not a speed burner, Jones still has the ability to stretch the field. Jones is very polished for a freshman and may crack the top four in the receiver rotation. JC transfer Verran Tucker came to camp a week late and is still playing catch up in terms of learning the offense. With a reputation as a speed burner, Tucker may represent the Bears best deep threat. Finally, LaReylle Cunningham is Cal’s leading returning receiver with all of ten career catches. Cunningham is lanky and dependable but is at an athletic deficiency relative to his position mates. Cameron Morrah will inherit the starting TE positions and gives the Bears a true receiving threat who can stretch the field with his speed. The only question is his ability to block but he is improving that aspect of his game at a rapid pace. Converted DE, Tad Smith will back him up. Smith is a physical player who should make the transition easily as he was a star TE in high school. Tad wowed folks with an outstanding Spring catching the ball but look for him to work more on running plays with Morrah being the receiving threat.

Offensive Line:

This could be Cal’s strongest position group on either offense or defense. With four players returning with starting experience and a very talented group of youngsters as backups, the Bears easily go 9 deep with players OL coach Jim Michalzik will feel comfortable seeing the field. Alex Mack is the leader of this group and the preseason All American and former high school wrestling champion is freakishly flexible and moves as well as any OL in the country. Named the Pac 10’s outstanding offensive lineman a season ago by the conference’s defensive lineman, Mack is a one man wrecking crew. Multiple times last year, Mack would beat his man only to then go down field and take out at least one and many times two more defenders. The tackle position has three outstanding options. Returning RT, Mike Tepper is slated to move to the left side. Tepper proved himself to be an excellent pass blocker after a bit of a rough start last year but is still improving in the run game. He injured his chest muscle earlier this Summer and will likely miss all of camp but should be back in time to see service against Michigan State in the opener. Flanking him is junior Chet Teofilo. Teofilo was primarily a backup last year before earning the start against Air Force in the Armed Services Bowl. Teofilo played extremely well in the bowl game and showed off quick feet to go along with a natural ability to push around his man in the run game. Mitchell Schwartz, the RS freshman, has been at least up to this point, the most impressive of Cal’s stellar 2007 offensive line recruiting haul. An absolutely huge man at 6’7” and 330 lbs, Schwartz gets the kind of leverage in run blocking that reminds some of current New England Patriot starting tackle and former Bear standout, Ryan O’Callaghan. Schwartz has all kinds of natural ability but he needs to work on his pass protection technique. At guard, Noris Malele has one spot locked down after starting all of last year and most of the 2006 season. Malele is unlikely to compete for all conference honors but is solid and reliable in both pass and run blocking. The spot opposite Malele is still wide open. Two former walk-ons, Mark Boskovich and Richard Fisher impressed in the Spring and entered camp as the likely starters. Boskovich is an excellent student who possesses great size. Fisher is undersized but has superior technique and has improve his play at a rapid pace. A wild card in the competition is Chris Guarnero, the backup to Alex Mack last year after earning the Scout team award in 2006 as the co-outstanding offensive player. Guarnero could start at center for many teams but barring an injury, he isn’t going to see the field at that position until Mack graduates. While Guarnero may be undersized as a guard at 280lbs, he has superb quickness and technique.

Overall:

This is a far better unit than most pundits realize. An experienced and deep offensive line is the key. Having two quarterbacks worthy of starting adds security especially with so many new faces at RB and WR. I suspect Cal will make more than its share of mental mistakes on offense with missed blitz pickups and dropped balls but those will diminish as the season progresses and will be overshadowed by the plethora of playmakers. Leadership is the big question. Can Longshore become the leader the team needs when trailing late in games? If not, will Riley step up his practice performance in order to earn his teammates and coaches respect? Beyond the QB, Jahvid Best and at least one of the receivers will need to establish themselves as go to guys. Don’t be surprised if Cameron Morrah becomes the team’s best third down and red zone option. Jeff Tedford has said he wants to play more players this year and this offensive squad has depth and talent across the board. The second team offense is arguably more talented than the starting team Tedford inherited when he first came to Berkeley.
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