Coach Jeff Tedford's offense at Cal is a complex and sophisticated system that puts great responsibility on the quarterback. Former players say it took considerable time to grasp its intricacies.
"When you first get into it, it's confusing as hell," said Kevin Riley, Cal's quarterback from 2008-10.
Enter the new Cal quarterback, Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo who is playing football for the first time since 2009, against much tougher competition than he faced in the Mid-American Conference. Maynard didn't join Cal until January and won the starting job after spring practice.
Are Maynard's recent struggles -- the Bears scored a combined 24 points in one-sided losses to Oregon and USC in their past two games -- attributable to being asked to do too much?
Those who've dealt with Tedford's offense say no, but they acknowledge that Maynard is in a challenging situation.
"There probably is a larger learning curve for him than most people just because he was kind of thrown into it," said Riley, now working in medical sales in San Francisco. "It's definitely tough, and I'm sure he's still learning every week. I think pretty soon you'll see him be more comfortable with everything."
Maynard displayed encouraging signs during his first four games, but he has regressed significantly the past two weeks.
He went just 20 for 41 for 218 yards and a touchdown during a 43-15 loss at Oregon, although it was revealed later that
His shortcomings against Oregon looked more the byproduct of faulty footwork than a failure to grasp the scheme. Against USC, he appeared to be overwhelmed at times by the speed of the Trojans' defense, although he said he was trying too hard.
"It's a lot harder than the usual offense," said Maynard, who started 11 games for Buffalo in 2009. "I'm still learning the system. There are a lot more plays, and you have to be a lot more dialed in to what's going on."
Fifth-year senior Brock Mansion, who started the final four games last season after Riley was injured, said "it takes a good two-and-a-half years before you understand what we're trying to do.
"If you can get into this school, you should be able to handle it. I've heard our offense is more complicated than a lot of NFL offenses. It's hard to imagine that, but at the same time it seems so overwhelming because there is so much responsibility on the quarterback.
"But it all becomes second nature when you get reps. Ever since I've been here, the quarterback has always grasped it."
Riley, whose Cal career was riddled by inconsistency, says the complexity of Tedford's offense is overblown.
"I think people make it a bigger deal than it really is," Riley said. "Any college system is going to be decently complex. You have to put effort into it. You have to go home and study the playbook and study film, so you know what you are doing. Once I started playing consistently, I didn't have any trouble."
The complexity of Tedford's offense is twofold. The thickness of the playbook means the Bears are installing a lot of plays each week, and every play requires the quarterback to make an extensive series of reads and checks.
ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer played quarterback at Fresno State when Tedford was the offensive coordinator there, and the two remain close. Dilfer sees similarities in the offense he ran at Fresno State, and he confirms it requires a lot from the quarterback.
"Jeff is a volume-based coach," Dilfer said. "He likes having all the answers to the tests going into the game. If you can handle the load as quarterback, it's awesome. You never feel like you don't have an answer."
Asked if Tedford is placing a reasonable burden on his quarterback, Dilfer said: "Absolutely. The more you ask athletes to do, the more they'll respond. It puts a greater burden on the player to put in the work and to own the information, but that's not a bad thing."
Former Cal quarterback and current television analyst Mike Pawlawski says opposing coaches routinely express concern about the mismatches Tedford creates with his system.
But in general terms, Pawlawski said having too much to think about can affect a quarterback's execution.
"At the quarterback position, if you have a ton on your mind, it's hard to get through your reads," Pawlawski said. "It's always easier on a quarterback to go up there and know exactly what to do and execute it.
"I'm not in their huddle. I'm not calling the plays. But the more you have to think about, the slower you're going to get to your read."
Roger Theder, who coached the Bears from 1978-81 and now provides private instruction for quarterbacks, emphasized that it takes the right type of player to run Tedford's system.
"You better be smart, if you want to play quarterback for Jeff," he said. "He puts a lot of pressure on his quarterback. Andrew Luck could handle it, but there are a lot of guys who couldn't. (Maynard) must be very intelligent, or he wouldn't be the quarterback at Cal."
Tedford acknowledges his system is sophisticated but says he closely monitors his quarterback to make sure the coach is not overburdening the QB.
"If we feel like it's too much, we back off," Tedford said. "It wouldn't be very smart to just keep force-feeding things they aren't comfortable with. I'm really pleased with the way (Maynard) has comprehended things that we are doing. I don't think he ever goes into a game fuzzy about anything."