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Opponent Offense Preview: Cal Golden Bears

Chase Garbers is BACK.

NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-California vs Illinois Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Cal was bad on offense last year, and even worse the year before. They only broke 30 points twice in 2019: 33 against a bad WSU and 35 in the bowl game against Illinois. For all the deserved frustration with Washington’s offense in 2019, they surpassed 30 points eight times. Everyone of note is back for the Golden Bears, with the exception of a couple coaching changes.

New Coaches, New Scheme?

Cal moved on from Beau Baldwin, who in three years at Cal could never get close to the same production he got as Head Coach at Eastern Washington. The Golden Bears have gone in a different direction, tapping up veteran NFL OC Bill Musgrave. It’s hard to say what exactly he’ll bring since he employed distinct offenses at his various NFL stops. But it appears Cal will be moving in the “pro-style” direction - this basically means more big bodies on offense and an inside power run game. We likely can expect, similar to Washington, a lot of two and three TE sets. Perhaps most telling, they brought in a grad-transfer fullback who was a four year player at Kentucky. He was mostly a special-teamer and played limited offensive snaps, but it’s a clear indication of the direction Cal is moving in.

Cal is also replacing longtime Oregon assistant Steve Greatwood, who was one of the better OL coaches in the Pac-12 during his career. Angus McClure will take over, coming from Nevada, but had an extensive career at UCLA, where frankly he was poor. He was kept on during a coaching change and switched to the defensive line, which is a bizarre move considering OL coaching is very specialized. I’m not sure if I’ve ever even heard of a coach switching between OL and DL, ever. In any case, the hope is that his extensive experience and recruiting chops will elevate the Bears line play.

On the Ground

While most of the Cal hype centers on Chase Garbers and his “undefeated in every game he started and finished” statistic (7-0), RB Chris Brown might be the most important player on their offense (1,080 total yards, 12 total TDs). Despite well documented offensive line struggles, Brown was an effective runner inside, consistently getting tough yards up the middle. Coaches hope that LT Will Craig, a former 4-star, can remain healthy and build upon a promising but injury plagued career so far in Berkeley. Center Michael Saffell and RT Jake Curhan return to bring a lot of experience, but again, hard to say if that’s a good thing or bad thing since they gave up sacks on 11% of snaps last year. After Brown, Marcel Dancy will receive the rest of the carries. He averaged 4.4 YPC last year but had only 2 TDs. They don’t break off many explosive runs, but Brown will break tackles, lower his shoulder, and drag defenders with him for extra yards.

Chris Brown doing his thing.

Through the Air

This is where Cal has to make improvements. They should have at the very least competent QB play with Garbers at the helm (1,772 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs), but there is not a ton of speed or playmaking ability in the receiving corps. Like the rest of the offense, they do return some experienced and productive pass catchers. Nikko Remigio is a good option in the slot (513 yards, 3 TDs) and will probably be the first read on a lot of plays. Kekoa Crawford (272 yards, 2 TDs) is a good possession receiver with reliable hands - he had the catch and run against Washington last year to set up the game winning field goal. Sophomore Makai Polk (295 yards, 2 TDs) has good size at 6-3 and was thrust into the rotation last year after some injuries. Cal fans think he is a high ceiling player who could make a name for himself this year.

You can expect to see a lot more heavy sets with two and three TEs - meaning the experienced redshirt junior trio of Collin Moore, Jake Tonges and Gavin Reinwald will see the field plenty too. They only totaled 29 catches between the three of them, and it remains to be seen if they will be targeted more in the pass game.

Unfortunately for Cal, they had limited time this summer to practice new schemes as an offensive unit due to COVID restrictions which were particularly strict in the Bay Area for a time. For many players, fall camp will be the first time since last season they’ve been together as group, which will likely have an impact on chemistry.

NCAA Football: North Texas at California
Kekoa Crawford fighting for points.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Final Thoughts

There are quite a few big “ifs” for Cal’s attack. If Chase Garbers remains upright, if the offensive line stays healthy and finds a rhythm, and if Bill Musgrave’s offense can take advantage of Cal’s strengths, they might field a middle of the pack or even top third Pac-12 offense. Assuming they continue to play strong defense, that could mean big things. Personally, betting on an offensive line being good is usually a losing bet when they haven’t been a strength in the past. They should improve if they all stay healthy, but I’m not sure they can be relied upon to shoulder the burden on offense.

There is absolutely a scenario in which Cal can field a tough and efficient offense. Get Chris Brown going to soften up defenses, and hit Nikko Remigio over the middle. Have Chase Garbers keep plays alive with his legs and scramble for the occasional first down. Cal won’t be terribly explosive but there are high hopes that the incoming freshmen, including Eastside Catholic’s DJ Rodgers, can add a spark. Cal was voted by most as #2 in the Pac-12 North pre-season poll, with much of that confidence stemming from a healthy Chase Garbers. With almost his entire offense around him coming back, we’ll see if Bill Musgrave can turn them into a reliable and potent attack.