March 17, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Cal senior Kevin Riley
• Typecasting. Riley exists squarely in the middle of Generic Land on almost every level: He's got good-not-great size (6'2", 223), arrived with good-not-great hype (No. 6 incoming "pro style" QB nationally in 2006, according to Rivals) and has demonstrated good-not-great athleticism in terms of both arm strength and mobility. Somehow, he manages to seem "versatile" and "limited" at the exact same time, depending on how nice you are and which day you happen to catch him on.
Subsequently, he's had a good-not-great run as a part-time and later full-time starter over the last three years, passing for more than 4,700 yards and 37 touchdowns (to 15 interceptions) with a solid record under his belt, but has never stood out even among Pac-10 passers. He was good enough to challenge incumbent Nate Longshore and split time with the older QB for most of 2007 and 2008, but not good enough to avoid a mini-controversy before last season with up-and-comers Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney. And though Riley wound up taking almost every significant snap as a fourth-year junior in 2009, his most memorable moment remains by far the boneheaded clock gaffe in his first career start that cost the then-second-ranked Bears an undefeated record against Oregon State in 2007.
• At his best ... It's all but impossible to separate Riley's success from that of the running game (see below), but The Good Kevin Riley typically has the entire offense at his disposal -- that is, when the defense is forced to respect play-action, when he can get running backs in favorable one-on-one match-ups of the backfield and when he's able to take off on a zone read or two to keep 'em honest.
Obviously, that comes easier against mediocre defenses, and Riley has carved up his share, including relatively big games last year in wins over Maryland (298 yards, 4 TD), Minnesota (252 yards on just 16 completions), Washington State (229 yards, 3 TD) and Arizona State (351 yards, 2 TD). His pass efficiency rating against non-winning teams in '09 was 50 points higher than against winners, and his touchdown:interception ratio jumped from 1:1 against .500 defenses to 10:1. The best game of his career came off the bench in the 2007 Armed Forces Bowl, when he replaced Longhshore in the second quarter and rallied the Bears from a 21-0 hole by completing 16-of-19 for 269 yards and three touchdowns against outmanned Air Force, with another score on the ground in a 42-36 win.
• At his worst ... You might have guessed that it doesn't go so well when you raise the skill level of the opposition. Coach Jeff Tedford is a more physical, run-oriented play-caller than he gets credit for, and the offense's fate over the last five years has consistently rested on whether the ground game can open things up for the quarterback. It's a symbiotic relationship: When the entire offense is on, it's really on, in both phases. When it's off, though, it tends to be really off -- Riley can be efficient and occasionally spectacular when all cylinders are rolling, but has shown almost no propensity to lift the rest of the offense when the running game hits the skids. Last year, it was almost a 1-to-1 proposition:
With the exception of a big game against Arizona State (27 of 44, 351 yards, 2 TD) without much help from the backs, Riley's performance was almost in lockstep with the success or lack thereof on the ground. When the runnning game bottomed out against conference overlords Oregon and USC early in the year, the result was an eight-quarter touchdown drought and an emphatic end to Pac-10 title hopes before they ever got off the ground.
Riley was more reliably mediocre over the second half of the season, but the seemingly small differences at the end of the chart were big ones on the field: Efficiency ratings of 125.0 and 122.7 alongside excellent big rushing totals against Arizona and Stanford, respectively, yielded 24 and 34-point efforts in the Bears' two biggest wins of the season. But ratings of 110.5 and 103.6 accompanied by weak nights on the ground added up to a pair of tough losses at the hands of Washington and Utah to close the year. (Riley, like the entire team, was unusually lame against the Huskies, completing less than 44 percent of his passes in a 42-10 drubbing in Seattle.) The fact is that Cal is 15-1 over the last two years when it hits the century mark on the ground, and 2-8 when it doesn't. Riley isn't going to carry the team.
• (Moderately) Fun Facts. Riley is so nondescript that he says he still isn't recognized around campus after three years as one of the most high-profile members of the team. Of course, it ha beens kind of hard to stand out on the Berkeley campus the last few years.
• What to Expect in '10. Cal loses its only name-brand star, Jahvid Best, to the NFL, but Riley will be surrounded by a veteran cast of receivers and all but one starting lineman; a number of the infamous "Tedford Line" of NFL-bound passers (namely Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers) have seemed to "get it" late in their college careers.
At this point, though, Riley is a known quantity, and nothing in his track record suggests he'll be leading upsets of USC and Oregon unless the rest of the team handles the heavy lifting to keep him out of trouble. That's not to suggest a big season is out of the question -- the Bears will be favored to win eight games again, minimum, and with Shane Vereen emerging the feature back, the running game could be good enough to sustain Riley's comfort zone. But there won't be any breakthroughs until he either expands that territory, or manages to function well outside of it when the chips are down.