When Sonny Dykes was a graduate assistant at Kentucky in the late '90s under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, he had a self-imposed gag order.
“I just tried to keep my mouth shut and learn as much as I could,” Dykes said. “They made a big impact on our profession. It was an exciting time to be a young football coach.”
Dykes went on to work closely with Leach at Texas Tech, and now -- 16 years later -- his California Golden Bears will host Leach’s Washington State Cougars in a Pac-12 North showdown that is being pitted as the Air Raid vs. the Bear Raid. When Dykes was a wide-eyed assistant at Kentucky, coaching against a Leach team -- especially with him in Berkeley and Leach in Pullman -- seemed like an unlikely prospect.
“I doubt either one of us knew what the future held,” Dykes said. “That’s what’s interesting about our profession. You never know where you are going to end up. And if you are in it long enough you are going to coach against friends and people you have worked with and worked for. Part of it is getting old. You bounce around more in this profession and you see more people. I don’t think either one of us ever envisioned us ending up where we have, but I think we’re both glad we are where we are.”
Dykes is in his first season with Cal (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) and has experienced all of the growing pains of a new coach installing a new system with young players. Playing Northwestern, Ohio State and Oregon in the first four games hasn’t helped, either. Leach, however, is in Year 2 in Pullman and is starting to make headway. The Cougars (3-2, 1-1) have already matched their win total from last season while scoring a signature win over USC in Week 2.
Leach has seen several of his assistants go on to get head coaching and coordinating gigs. Naturally, he’s always happy for them.
“I’m proud of them that they have had successful careers,” Leach said. “and I was excited for [Dykes] when he got the job. He did a good job at Louisiana Tech. I was excited for him and it’s a great opportunity. I know he’s going to do well.”
So far it’s been a rough start for the Bears, who have mostly been as advertised offensively but have seen a slew of defensive injuries coupled with learning a new system place them in an early hole.
"It’s a process," Dykes said. "It doesn’t look very good early. Then you hope it looks a little better later. And by the end of the season you hope it looks real good and next year you build on that."
This week Dykes opened up the quarterback competition after going with true freshman Jared Goff for the first weeks of the season before pulling him against Oregon. While he expects Goff to retain his starting role, it was noteworthy enough for Dykes to add an “or” between Goff and redshirt freshman Zach Kline on this week’s depth chart.
“We thought Zach came in and did some good things,” Dykes said, noting Kline’s 18 of 37 performance in a loss to Oregon where he threw for 165 yards and a touchdown with one interception. “But Jared has distinguished himself pretty well. I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal. We told them we’d let them compete this week and see how they both performed and then make a decision. I think Jared has played well ... I’d be surprised if anything else happened other than him being the starter.”
Given the pass-heavy schemes both teams run, it makes sense that both rank in the top five in the league in passing offense. Cal is No. 2, averaging 373 yards per game, while the Cougars average 327 yards per contest. WSU is second in the league with 12 touchdowns, but also have the most interceptions with 10.
While the offenses aren’t identical, Leach can see his influence on what Dykes is trying to do.
“Sonny worked with for me for close to 10 years when you count back there Kentucky, so there are definitely some similar influences," Leach said. "They’re a little different. They are more play-action quick game. They do some good things. There are some similarities. Less I guess than most people would think. Both have evolved a little bit over time.”
Dykes has certainly put his own stamp on the scheme -- noting that Cal’s run game is significantly different from Washington State’s. But he's expecting to face the traditional air raid from the Cougars on Saturday.
“A lot of the guys that have worked for Mike have changed, but Mike has kept the most pure version of it,” Dykes said. “It’s a lot of the same things he’s been doing for a long time. Mike understands offensive football as well as anybody ... his teams are always going to be very good at doing specific things. Everyone has taken it and put their spin on it and changed this or changed that, but he’s kept it the same and made some small adjustments here and there. But it’s the most pure version of the air raid.”