On Saturdays in the fall, the ball can usually be seen flying through the air a lot. Cal football’s Bear Raid offense means quarterback Jared Goff is firing the pigskin from the pocket often. And for the most part last season, the Bears’ playing style has brought positive results especially for Cal’s skilled position players.
Goff broke all kinds of records, such as most passing yards in a season (3,937) and passing touchdowns in a season (35), and is an early contender to win the Heisman next year. The receiving corp has looked better with the increased opportunities in the passing game: Nearly every game last season saw a new receiver break out and have a big game. And because Cal was passing so often, running lanes opened up for Daniel Lasco to rush for a career-high 1,115 yards last season. The offense prospered, and under head coach Sonny Dykes’ system, it will likely continue prospering. But when one group benefits, another group must endure extra consequences — the secondary.
Last year, opposing teams threw for a total of 4,406 yards against Cal, which translates to 367 passing yards a game. When taking out the two bottom outliers — Cal’s FCS matchup against Sacramento State, where the Hornets had only 184 passing yards, and the Big Game against Stanford, where the Cardinal had 214 passing yards — the Bears gave up more than 400 passing yards a game.
There are two sides to running a Bear Raid offense. Yes, it will lead to lots of points, but it puts the defensive backs and safeties in a position in which they will constantly be targeted and attacked.
“As a secondary player, you got to think, anticipate and expect, ‘Yeah, they’re going to throw the ball at you,’ ” said Cal defensive backs coach Greg Burns. “We have a very high-powered offense, and for teams to be able to go against us, they’re going to have to throw the ball.”
The Bears generally don’t use a traditional run-first offense. Cal runs most offensive plays in the shotgun, and it goes for the big plays — not the slow power-running plays that eat up clock and help a team win the time-of-possession battle.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different style. But the causal effect on the Bears’ offense is less time for the defense to rest and more chances for the other team to chuck the ball up in the air in order to catch up with Mad Goff driving down Fury Road.
Cal’s secondary runs a mixture of man- and quarters- coverage. The starting defensive backs are relied on to cover the opponent’s top-two receivers, while the safeties drop back in zone coverage. When opposing offenses elect to put more receivers on the field, the safeties will be responsible for playing man coverage.
Depending on the other teams’ formations and personnel, the Bears adjust accordingly. Zone coverage is more beneficial if a team runs read option, has a scrambling quarterback or can create mismatches against the Cal corners. Zone helps avoid one-on-one coverages and also allows its secondary players to have eyes on the ball carrier in case of a scramble, rather than worrying about a receiver getting behind them. It increases the risk of having a defender lose sight of where the scrambling quarterback is.
At this point in the summer, the players at the top of the depth chart are Griffin Piatt and Stefan McClure at safety. Piatt, who switched from receiver to safety during the 2013 season, led the team in interceptions last year with three. He will be coming off a season-ending knee surgery after getting injured against Washington on Oct. 11, while McClure played only eight games last season because of a calf strain.
An interesting piece of the secondary puzzle to keep an eye on will be Luke Rubenzer’s transition from backup quarterback to safety. Rubenzer was used scarcely at quarterback and primarily used as a specialist to run the ball because of his athletic ability. Aside from the few snaps he took at quarterback to trick defenses, Rubenzer found playing time only during blowout games. Having already picked off Goff twice (although one was negated because of penalty) during spring practice, Cal will benefit greatly if Rubenzer’s speed and athleticism can transition to instincts as a safety.
“Luke is a very good athlete, instinctive athlete,” Burns said. “He’s kind of got a knack — you know, that ‘it’ factor.”
At corner will be Darius Allensworth and Darius White, while Cedric Dozier and De’Zhon Grace will also be in the mix. Other safeties include Cameron Walker, Derron Brown and A.J. Greathouse.
It’s an unavoidable reality and predicament that next year, the numbers in passing defense won’t be pretty for Cal. In order to evaluate the secondary’s performance, a look at inflated statistics won’t be helpful, because in every game the Bears will play, both teams will give up lots of passing yards.
But on the other hand, that means the secondary won’t have to completely shut down the other team. There will be times in the season when Cal and its opponents will just be trading touchdowns. But if the Bears can come up with a big play — such as a turnover — or limit the other team to a field goal, they’ll give the offense a better chance at gaining the upper hand and getting the win.
“I don’t think that our group needs to fluctuate their level of intensity — they need to keep it the same,” Burns said. “And that mentality has got to be: ‘Hey, they’re always gonna come after us. We got to be ready.’ ”
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].