Cal hired Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes on Wednesday evening, Ron Kroichick of The San Francisco Chronicle first reported. An offensive guru and mastermind of the spread offense, Dykes’ return to the Pac-12 continues a trend around the conference that started in the midway through the 2000s.
Mike Bellotti’s 2005 Oregon team was good — the Ducks went 10-1 in the regular season. That one loss was a 45-13 debacle against USC, however, as the Trojans stormed their way to a fourth straight Pac-10 championship. To have been the conference’s second best team, yet there exist such a wide chasm to No. 1, prompted Bellotti to make widescale change. He tossed out the Pro Set offense, introducing a variation of the spread option.
Bellotti cited the 2004 Northwestern team, which gave Arizona State all it could handle that season. ASU enjoyed the sizable talent gap; Northwestern’s spread leveled the playing field.
Dykes was another of the early forerunners in the conference’s philosophy shift. Mike Stoops brought him on staff in 2007 to replace Mike Canales. Dykes’ version of the air raid spread turned UA into a high powered offense immediately. Willie Tuitama left the program its most productive passer ever; Nick Foles would surpass him in the next three seasons, the first of which was played under Dykes.
The spread has, well…spread around the conference since.
Arizona brought in Rich Rodriguez, who was ahead of the curve with his zone-read spread option at West Virginia in the early 2000s. Similarly, Mike Leach was an early student of the air raid spread and has brought the philosophy onto the Palouse.
Noel Mazzone introduced a spin on the spread at Arizona State. With UCLA already introducing elements of the Pistol formation under Rick Neuheisel, Mazzone’s installation of the Nzone System has been seamless, evident in the Bruins’ 35.1 point per game average.
Mazzone may be gone, but Arizona State retained a similar look under Mike Norvell. The Sun Devils put up 36.4 points per with its high octane football.
The spread influx began as a means of combating USC’s dominance. Now, it’s an arms race to keep stride with explosive Oregon. Few offenses have been as prolific as those under Chip Kelly, who Bellotti hired to perfect the spread in Eugene. One team to successful maintain a pace as torrid as Oregon’s. Louisiana Tech averaged 51.5 points per game in 2012; Oregon has scored 50.8.
Dykes fine-tuned his system in his first head coaching gig, and will return to a league where he was something of a trendsetter. Cal eschewed typical hiring practice when it tabbed an offensive mind to replace another offensive mind. However, Jeff Tedford’s units were just not explosive anymore; certainly not on par with the Fresno State and Oregon teams he coordinated, or his early Cal offenses.
The Golden Bears became stagnant in the seasons after Aaron Rodgers left. At Louisiana Tech, Dykes transformed what had been a middling, relatively vanilla program in its three seasons under Derek Dooley into the nation’s most potent offensive squad. Cal was at its best in those initial Tedford years employing a balanced approach with great quarterback play, and arguably better running attacks.
Quarterback Colby Cameron registered tremendous statistics in Dykes’ system, as one would anticipate. But a common misconception about his style of the spread was that this was not a pass-pass-pass team like a Hal Mumme team, putting the ball in the air more than on the ground at a nearly 2:1 ratio. Cameron passed 533 times, sure; but the Bulldogs rushed 521 times. Running back Kenneth Dixon led the nation in rushing touchdowns with 27.
That balance makes his particular version of the air raid defense all the more dangerous. It’s not a new twist on the spread; Arizona’s teams in 2008 and 2009 split duties similarly. Zach Kline is precisely the kind of quarterback capable of flourishing under Dykes’ tutelage, and the potentially explosive Brendan Bigelow returning at running back.
Cal could see more offenses like the Rodgers/J.J. Arrington one-two punch that brought the Golden Bears to the cusp of the Pac-10 and BCS championship — just with a different look.
And though spread offenses have became commonplace throughout the conference, Dykes’ version still has an identity its own. Leach persists with the Mumme mindset of tossing the ball all over the football without much rushing. Conversely, ASU and UCLA both went heavier with the run. The closest philosophically to Dykes this season was Rodriguez’s Arizona team, ironically enough. The Wildcats passed 491 times and rushed 508.
Such balance had Dykes’ fingerprints all over it. UA quarterback Matt Scott cut his teeth in Dykes’ system in 2008 and 2009, after all. And it worked for the Wildcats, earning a team in rebuilding mode seven wins. It helped Arizona beat teams it shouldn’t have on paper, like Oklahoma State and USC — the kind of wins with a talent disparity that are precisely the reason the spread has taken the Pac by storm.
Expect a similar metamorphosis in Berkeley under Dykes.
(h/t Carlos Sandoval, GoJoeBruin.com. A Gchat inspired the preceding. Yay technology.)