Pac-12 football has long been synonymous with offensive innovation. In 2015, the conference’s next step in offensive evolution may very well be systems that are completely fluid.
Half of the Pac-12 ranked No. 36 or better in scoring offense for a second consecutive season. The league’s most prolific systems stay on the cutting edge by constantly changing rather than adhering to a regimented style.
California head coach Sonny Dykes oversees a system nicknamed the “Bear Raid.” As the Air Raid-derived moniker implies, it relies heavily on the pass — returning quarterback Jared Goff threw 509 times in 2014, fifth-most in college football.
But where Dykes has deviated from former colleague Mike Leach — current head coach at Washington State and one of the originators of the Air Raid — is introducing an emphasis on the run into the potent passing attack.
"We're a team that wants to run the football," Dykes said. "We've got to be good enough to run it where, if we've got the ball and four minutes left in the game... when everyone in the stadium knows we're going to run it."
Dykes sums that up as the ability to "line up and impose our will." Not exactly the language one might associate with an Air Raid offense, but a key to the Golden Bears competing in the Pac-12 North.
Cal tried various methods of attacking via the rush last season, including giving backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer frequent snaps to run zone-read plays in a new wrinkle added to the Bear Raid.
More important than new wrinkles, however, is having a running back capable of imposing his will on defenses. Cal has that in Daniel Lasco — "a great, all-purpose running back," according to Dykes.
"He catches the ball well, he can pass protect, he can obviously run the football," Dykes said. "He's playing with confidence and makes great decisions with his hands on the football."
Lasco is the second big-time playmaker Dykes has showcased in his offense in the last few years. At Louisiana Tech in 2012, Kenneth Dixon rushed for a nation-leading 27 touchdowns.
Lasco is also one five returning Pac-12 running backs who rushed for more than 1,100 yards in 2014.
Arizona has one such back in sophomore Nick Wilson, the latest breakout ball-carrying protege of head coach Rich Rodriguez. Wilson's ascent to stardom, following in the footsteps of 2013 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Ka'Deem Carey, probably doesn't come as a surprise to those familiar with Rodriguez's offensive background.
In previous stops at West Virginia and Michigan, Rodriguez's offenses ranked near the top of college football in rushing offense.
Rodriguez has flipped his script in the opposite direction of Dykes. Upon his arrival at Arizona in 2012 and inheriting talented dual-threat quarterback Matt Scott, Rodriguez adapted with more emphasis on the pass. Coincidentally, Scott was recruited to run an Air Raid-like system when Dykes was Arizona's offensive coordinator.
Even since Scott's departure, Rodriguez has not abandoned the balanced philosophy — on the contrary, as the Wildcats' 564 pass attempts in 2014 were third most in the nation.
The return of redshirt sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon and a deep, multifaceted wide receiver corps ensure the Wildcats will continue to feature plenty of gun to go with their run.
Rodriguez's in-state rival, Todd Graham, and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell made midseason adjustments in 2014 that demonstrated the flexibility of Arizona State's "high octane" system. Two-way quarterback Taylor Kelly's foot injury in September thrust into the lineup Mike Bercovici, a more pass-inclined player.
Bercovici takes over as the full-time starter in 2015, and Graham is not concerned about any changes having negative impact on the Sun Devils' 36.9-point-per-game offense.
"Mike's a heckuva quarterback," Graham said, adding that the most significant changes he's seeking from Bercovici's game are all about leadership.
"Just continue to become the offensive coordinator. That’s what I challenge him with all the time," Graham continued. "He’s a guy I think has tremendous capabilities. Gives me a lot of confidence in the abilities of our offense."
Everyone from UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone — an NFL-tenured coach — to USC’s Steve Sarkisian, overseer of a strict pro-style attack over the last decade, have adopted this same kind of adaptive style.
At UCLA, Mazzone spent the last three seasons working with quarterback Brett Hundley, a two-way star who was one of the Bruins' leading ball carriers each year he captained the offense.
One of the competitors for the Bruins’ starting job in 2015 is freshman Josh Rosen, an NFL prototype who has drawn comparisons to Andrew Luck — a mobile quarterback, sure, but certainly not in the same vein as Hundley.
Likewise, USC's quarterback depth chart features pocket-passer Max Browne, with two-way threat Jalen Greene behind him, and dual-capable freshman Sam Darnold coming into the mix this summer.
The new identity of the Pac-12 is one built around programs constantly changing theirs.
"You see everything in this league, and it makes you pretty unique," Dykes said. "There’s not another league that’s as varied and unique, whether it’s offense or defense."