Replacing the injured Nate Longshore out with an ankle injury suffered in the previous weeks thrilling victory over Oregon, Kevin Riley was on the biggest stage of his life with a chance to shine and make a name for himself as a redshirt freshman. In his first game as CAL’s starting quarterback against Oregon State in 2007, Riley seemed to be doing just that- playing with poise and completing 20 of 34 passes for 294 yards and two TD’s. Finding Lavelle Hawkins for his second TD of the day on a long 64 yard pass with 2:31 left, Riley gave the Bears just enough time to get the ball back and drive down the field to put themselves in scoring position down 28-31. Ranked #2 nationally going into the game, earlier in the day #1 LSU had fallen in triple overtime to Kentucky, leaving the #1 spot for the taking if Riley and the Bears could pull of the come from behind victory. In field goal range with the ball at the 12-yard line, CAL looked like it would send the game into overtime and take advantage of the momentum and their home field to secure the win and with it the prestigious #1 ranking.
What would follow would be a play that would forever taint Riley’s legacy and leave loyal CAL fans shocked and disappointed once again. Suddenly, the poised and talented young QB we had watched for the entirety of the game came up short when it was all on the line. Failing to throw the ball away and settle for the chip-shot field goal, he tried to scramble for the endzone and was sacked. As the field goal unit tried to hurry onto the field to get the kick up in time, we could only watch as the seconds slowly ticked off the clock and Coach Tedford angrily slammed his headset to the ground in frustration. Although immediately painful, the aftermath of it all would prove to be exponentially devastating. With the loss, CAL would begin a slide that would result in 6 losses out of their final 7 regular season games, including losing the coveted Axe to Stanfurd after holding it for 5 years.
Although only those inside the huddle on that day can know exactly what was said before that play, I put the blame on Tedford for not preparing the young quarterback for what would ensue. As the head coach and supposed “quarterback guru” it is your job to manage the game and make it clear that if the throw was not there Riley needed to throw the ball away immediately. Whether this was mentioned or not I do not know, but the result on the field displays the lack of preparation and communication that was needed in such a critical time. From the very beginning, Kevin Riley was doomed for failure. Beginning his career with that play haunting him, I don’t think that Riley was ever able to escape the nightmares and dig himself out of the hole he found himself in following the painful loss. Whether it was his own mental block, a strained relationship with Coach Tedford, a lack of playmaking receivers around him, or just a plain lack of playmaking ability himself is unclear. However, what is clear is that the “Riley Era” will forever be remembered as a painful time for CAL Football. Capped with last years embarrassing season and the failure to make it even to one of the many lackluster bowl games they put on these days, the “Riley Era” is a time that CAL fans would like to put behind them this season and begin anew.
With Tedford naming newcomer Zach Maynard as the starting quarterback this Spring (much earlier than he has in the past), CAL fans have the opportunity to rally behind a new face at the helm after these past few years of frustration. But will Maynard provide the playmaking ability and leadership that Riley was unable to do in order to lead the Bears into prominence in the newly formed Pac 12? We will have to wait to see just exactly what he can do this season, but there is reason to believe that this could be the answer we have all been waiting for. No, Maynard will not throw the ball with the authority that former CAL greats Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Boller did, or even look the part of the tall, built quarterback like current backup Brock Mansion (maybe that’s a good thing), but he brings assets like experience, mobility, and leadership to the table that the other quarterbacks lack.
A transfer from Buffalo where he was the starter in just his sophomore year, Maynard has Division 1 experience, which is something that his backup Alan Bridgford lacks and third string veteran Brock Mansion can only half-heartedly claim. In his time as a starter there in 2009, he completed 57.5% of his passes for 2,694 yards with 18 TD’s and 15 interceptions. Although the number of interceptions is a bit high, look for Maynard to settle down in Tedford’s offensive scheme and learn to be more careful with the football. In a lot of ways, it is up to Tedford to mold the young quarterback and improve his mental game. If you still believe in Coach T, this will be a good barometer to test just how effective he is as an offensive mind and quarterback specialist. Over the Spring and into fall camp, Maynard has gotten a lot of reps with his brother Keenan Allen and standout Marvin Jones, the starting receivers for this year. They have developed a lot of chemistry and gotten to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, so look for both Allen and Jones to have strong seasons as Maynard’s favorite targets.
Probably Maynard’s most valuable asset is his mobility. At Buffalo, Maynard was the team’s third leading rusher with 300 yards. With Isi Sofele taking over for current New England Patriot, Shane Vereen, Maynard’s mobility could be a perfect complement to the running game. While Sofele has proven that he can take the hits and run the football effectively, a lack of depth behind him could mean that Maynard might need to assume more responsibility in the running game. I still have faith in Running Backs coach Ron Gould to develop a tough, disciplined, and fundamental group of runners, but reaching the 1,000 yard mark for Sofele could be difficult. If anybody can do it, however, Coach Gould is the man for the job. Although it pained me to watch Riley run down the line for the option play, I wouldn’t mind watching the combined athleticism of Maynard and Sofele running the option in tandem to pick up big chunks of yardage. A big test for Maynard will be to see how he balances his role as both a passer and a rusher. If CAL will be successful, he will have to learn when it is opportune to run and when he must be patient and allow his routes to develop. Everyone wants to get their Mike Vick on, but there is a time and place for it within Tedford’s offense.
The third asset that Maynard brings to the table is his leadership. In just a short time working with the team during the Spring, he was able to make himself at home and be vocal with his teammates. He possesses an intensity and focus on excellence that seemed to be lacking at the position over the past few years. Throughout Fall Camp, he has built upon his leadership and has asserted himself as the leader of the offense. For an offensive unit that has been lacking in consistent play, often times looking confused and offbeat, a strong leader will be key to organizing the unit and demanding that they be accountable for learning and buying into Tedford’s offensive scheme. There were far too many times last year when receivers would line up incorrectly, or would even run the wrong route on a given play. Hopefully, with fresh, young leadership on the offensive side of the ball, the Bears will be able to get the kinks out that have handcuffed the offenses in the past and revive the scoring machine that once thrived years ago. Look for Passing Game Coordinator and Receivers Coach, Eric Kiseau, to get back to the basics of route running and fundamentals to reinvigorate the passing game as well.
Overall, there is a lot to be excited about. With the end of the “Riley Era” comes a new beginning and a chance to write a new chapter in the legacy that is CAL Football. With Zack Maynard, CAL adds a quarterback with experience, mobility, and leadership as it makes a run at redemption after a poor showing last season. With Maynard behind the helm and a refocus on fundamental football from the coaching staff, look for a new and improved CAL offense to surprise the PAC 12 and make CAL fans forget the past few years of pain and disappointment.