For California's new special teams coordinator and inside receivers coach Mark Tommerdahl, an inside receiver is a unique weapon.
Born from the mind of Hal Mumme, refined at Texas Tech by Mike Leach and tweaked by Tony Franklin and Sonny Dykes, this offense is not an Air Raid. It's its own creature, but the one thing that remains consistent throughout the family tree is the set of horns: the inside receiver.
"For 16 years, I coached tight ends, so that's what we're used to," Tommerdahl says. "Our tight ends that are in the program can relax, because they've probably seen that we didn't play with a tight end last year, and that was just the way our roster developed."
Of the five scholarship tight ends -- Maximo Espitia, Harrison Wilfley, Richard Rodgers, Spencer Hagan and Jacob Wark -- three have experience as receivers. Hagan came into Cal as a wide receiver, Rodgers spent his high school career as one, and Espitia played all over the field at South Salem High. Ray Hudson -- who just finished playing in the Cal State Game in Visalia, Calif. -- was asked by one of the North team coaches if he had ever played wide receiver before, because he caught the ball so well for being listed as a tight end -- and at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, who's to argue? -- and Hudson flashed a reflexive smile and laughed: He's only ever played receiver in high school for Pleasanton (Calif.) Foothill.
"I've watched our tight ends here, and we're going to put the best players on the field, and we're going to put our players in position to be successful," Tommerdahl said last week. "Right now, we've watched every receiver -- every skill guy, en masse -- and you're going to have to give us more time than just three days to start putting guys in a spot. I will say this to you: The skill level here is impressive. We have to improve the depth, just because we play so fast, and we get so many reps, that we're going to have to just continue to get more people ready to play."
After just 72 hours on the job, Tommerdahl had already done massive amounts of film study, watching -- he says -- every snap from last season, in preparation for both of his roles as special teams coordinator and inside receivers coach, and one player stuck out more than any other -- the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Rodgers – and Tommerdahl is just itching to see what he can do with the second-generation Bear.
"I really am, and I feel like I've already seen what he can do, because we've made cut-ups of all the returning skill players, and I've watched them extensively," Tommerdahl says. "The thing that is really appealing about him is that, for a guy his size, he has exceptional body control. You look at some of the match-ups, and you can be creative with a guy at 265, the way we get people out in space, and from our perspective, we are licking our chops to utilize him in this offense, and he should be thinking the same thing about playing."
The beauty of the inside receiver position, Tommerdahl says, is that it is perhaps one of the most flexible spots on the field in this offense. Anyone from smaller, speed receivers – potentially players like Cedric Dozier, Chris Harper, Joel Willis and Bryce McGovern -- to the "big bodies," as Tommerdahl calls them -- the tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks -- can occupy the two inside spots, making for some intriguing personnel groupings.
"Sonny was at Texas Tech for seven years and never used a tight end, then he goes to Arizona and used [Rob] Gronkowski, so his track record is impeccable as far as putting the best players on the field," says Tommerdahl. "We're going to play with two slot receivers. We're going to have, typically there's a graduate assistant that will assist me with inside receivers, so we can get more eyes on our players ... They're going to be an extremely integral part of our offense. That's the beauty of this offense. You'll see this to be true: There's going to be tremendous distribution of the football. There's going to be weeks where an outside receiver may catch 15 balls, and our inside receivers -- combined -- may catch three, and the next week, it can be absolutely flipped."
Another player who was an "inside receiver," in his college days is Gronkowski's New England Patriot teammate, Wes Welker. At just 5-foot-9, 180 pounds coming out of Texas Tech, Welker went undrafted. Now he's one of the most unique weapons in football.
"If you look at what we've done in the past, we have used both, and we've got a good track record of using a quicker guy and a bigger, physical body," Tommerdahl says. "They can be interchangeable. You don't always have to have a big guy at Y and a smaller guy at H -- they're interchangeable. We'll have enough flexibility in our offense to use both body types at both positions."
While initially one of the most wary commits when the new regime -- and offense -- was announced back in early December, Hudson has bought in perhaps far more than any other player, simply because he fits into this offense better than any other tight end Cal was recruiting before the coaching change. Having played four years of receiver and yet still able to adeptly block while attached to the line with his hand in the dirt, Hudson is just that type of flexible body type this offense can make into a serious threat, particularly with the speed on the outside in Bryce Treggs. While last offseason, former head coach Jeff Tedford and former offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik made a trip out to New England to see how the Patriots use their unique tight ends, this new offensive system -- particularly the use of the inside receivers -- is actually a rather large part of how the Patriots operate on offense, owing to the effectiveness of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
"The first thing that I was excited about when I watched film was the tight ends at Cal," said Franklin. "I don't know where it comes from, this idea that we don't want to have tight ends. We don't want bad tight ends. We want good tight ends. We want a guy who can run out and catch the ball, and if he does put a hand on the ground and block, we want him to be good at it. If he can't block, I don't want him on the field. If a guy can do those things, he's going to be on the field. Sonny had Rob Gronkowski at Arizona, and we had James Whalen at Kentucky that was a first-team All-American and set the NCAA record with 90 catches as a tight end. Those guys are good players, so watching the video, watching the film [last Wednesday], I saw some guys that looked like they were pretty good players who can do some stuff. I told them in the meeting, I said, ‘You know, if you're worried about playing time, all you have to do is be good. Be good, and you play.'"
Owing to Franklin's system of practicing, the inside and outside receivers -- much like the other components of the offense – work to master their tasks in isolation, and the offense is nimble and flexible enough to not only be learned in three days -- according to Franklin -- but so much so that the inside receivers and outside receivers can easily -- and quickly -- change spots without much adjustment.
"You'll see that when you come to watch spring practice," says Tommerdahl. "The offense is simple enough. A receiver doesn't have to understand the whole offense. He doesn't have to learn what everybody does, and if he does change position, the offense is simple enough so that he can learn a new position rather quickly. Because we want everyone to compete every day, if our backup outside receiver has a better day than our starting inside receiver, the next day, that backup will start."
Now, the new staff just needs to put bodies in the right positions, a task that will start with film study and shift into overdrive with the start of spring practice.
"I will say this to you: The skill level here is impressive," says Tommerdahl. "We have to improve the depth, just because we play so fast, and we get so many reps, that we're going to have to just continue to get more people ready to play ... We were showing recruiting film -- game film of Louisiana Tech -- and we were showing them our offense, and we were watching some of our games just to acclimate the recruits to our offense, and we would be on snap 80, and we wouldn't even be in the middle of the third quarter yet. When you get that volume of plays, we're going to need to improve our pool of skill talent, and that just comes with putting in a new offense."
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