Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Get the inside scoop on your favorite team:
Imagine an offense that can alternate between Northwestern's spread attack and a traditional two-back system from one play to the next.
It features an All-America candidate who feels comfortable lining up at wide receiver or running out of the backfield.
And the identity of its starting quarterback remains a mystery.
Sound confusing to you?
It's even more disconcerting to any defense that has to face California this fall, now that former Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar has accepted the same position on Golden Bears coach Jeff Tedford's staff.
Two of the game's greatest offensive gurus have teamed up to design a scheme that's hard to describe and even harder to defend.
"We're not going to be a mirror image of Northwestern," Dunbar said. "We're going to have some of the Northwestern concepts factored in, but we also have some of the traditional Cal concepts coming in.
"We're trying to find that magical mix that can create the most challenges and trouble for defenses to defend.''
Remembering Coach Walker
California offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar remembers his former boss as more than a great football coach.
He also considered Northwestern coach Randy Walker a good friend and mentor. Walker died June 29 of an apparent heart attack at the age of 52.
Dunbar arrived at Northwestern in 2001 to coach tight ends, H-backs and special teams before spending the past four years as the Wildcats' offensive coordinator. Dunbar and Walker helped Northwestern finish fourth in the nation in total offense last year.
Walker remained supportive when Dunbar was offered a job on California coach Jeff Tedford's staff. Dunbar returned to the Chicago area earlier this month to attend Walker's memorial service.
"There was a lot of hugging, a lot of crying, a lot of laughing," Dunbar said. "Coach taught us all to work through adversity, respond and carry forward. That's what we're all trying to do."
Dunbar owns an 83-24-1 record in nine years as a head coach at Central Washington and Northern Iowa. That head coaching experience probably would have made Dunbar a leading candidate to take over for Walker if he hadn't left for California.
Dunbar instead expressed his support in Northwestern's decision to hand the job to linebackers coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"With the timing of the situation, they did the right thing," Dunbar said. "They needed to stay within the staff and maintain the continuity. Coach Fitz is an outstanding young coach. I'm sure he'll do very well."
Dunbar and his new boss have proved they know how to concoct that formula on their own.
Tedford has tutored six quarterbacks who matured into first-round draft picks – Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers – during a coaching career that includes a 33-17 mark in four seasons at California.
Dunbar helped Northwestern rank fourth in the nation in total offense last year and become the second team in Big Ten history to average 500 yards per game.
The two offensive masterminds didn't know each other personally until Tedford called Dunbar after the 2005 season.
"I knew of him, but I didn't really know him," said Dunbar, who was born in Spokane, Wash., and grew up a Pac-10 fan. "He gave me a call during the winter. We started talking, and one conversation led to another, and it led to getting the offer at Cal. It kind of came out of the blue."
Now they face the challenge of blending the two offenses that made them successful.
Northwestern operates a spread attack that often features four wideouts. California has run more of a traditional offense with two backs and a tight end.
California now plans to copy some of the Northwestern techniques. The biggest change involves employing the shotgun formation that the Bears have rarely used in the past.
"We've had a lot of stuff in this offense already," sophomore quarterback Nate Longshore said. "It's just a matter of how much we've practiced it and run it. It's not a new offense. We're just diversifying it a little bit, making it more complex and less predictable."
Longshore ended spring practice as the leading contender to start the Sept. 2 season opener at Tennessee, but the quarterback position remains the biggest question facing an offense that returns seven starters.
After Longshore suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opening game of the 2005 campaign, senior Joe Ayoob started the majority of the season before senior Steve Levy led the Bears to their final two victories of the year. Levy has been suspended indefinitely following his arrest last month on assault charges in connection with an alleged bar fight.
"Nate has a slight edge going into the fall, and we'll see what happens," Dunbar said. "It's a long season. They all had to play last year. We'll be prepared for that again."
Whoever opens the season at quarterback will direct one of the nation's most talent-laden offenses.
When former Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar accepted the same position on California coach Jeff Tedford's staff, it brought together two of the nation's brightest offensive minds. Here's a look at how California and Northwestern fared the last four years with Tedford as the Golden Bears' head coach and Dunbar as the Wildcats' offensive coordinator.
Sophomore DeSean Jackson and junior Robert Jordan lead an experienced and deep receiving corps, but the Bears' most dangerous weapon is tailback Marshawn Lynch. The Rivals.com preseason All-American rushed for 1,246 yards as a sophomore last year despite missing almost three entire games with hand and finger injuries.
Lynch also had 15 receptions for 125 yards last fall. He should play a greater role in the passing game this year and occasionally will line up at wideout in Dunbar's offense.
Using Lynch at receiver would create more playing time for junior Justin Forsett[db], who gained 999 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry while filling in for Lynch last fall. Dunbar even envisions a scenario in which both Forsett and Lynch would line up as wideouts.
"It's all about the players and our need to get players in the best position to be successful," Dunbar said. "If that involves more of a two-back thing, that's what we'll do. If that means having four wideouts, that's what we'll do.
"One play we might have four wideouts. Then the next play we might have a fullback, tight end and two wideouts.''
Dunbar feels confident the combination of these two potent offenses should prove successful. He also has no worries about the way his personality will blend with Tedford's approach.
After working for Randy Walker at Northwestern and [db]Gary Pinkel at Toledo, Dunbar has shown he can cooperate with other offensive-minded coaches.
"We're going to work at it together," Dunbar said. "From the get-go, I'm going to call the plays, but we'll talk and share, and I'm sure he'll jump in there and call in (something) whenever he wants to.
"Gary Pinkel was an offensive guy. We did it together. Coach Walker was an offensive guy. We did it together. Coach Tedford is an offensive guy, and I know we can do it together."
They already have worked countless hours together as they try to narrow down their combined playbooks.
"It's been fun," Dunbar said. "We've spent a ton of time talking football, philosophies and concepts, and trying to take those various backgrounds of his and mine and putting it into what we're going to be.
"From a philosophical perspective, we've got the 10,000 plays. Now we've got to narrow it down to the 100 or so we can run."
That should lead to quite a few late-night sessions in the California football offices – and even more sleepless nights in the offices of defensive coordinators across the Pac-10.