Pac 12


#46 Washington Huskies





HEAD COACH: Chris Petersen, 8-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jonathan Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pete Kwiatkowski

Chris Petersen’s first order of business in the Pac-12 was to change the culture at Washington. Reworking a locker room’s mentality doesn’t happen over night and that led to six losses despite a glut of top flight NFL Draft picks a year ago. Petersen still has to answer questions under center and in his front seven, but his plan has worked everywhere he has been and there is no reason not to believe in the process in the Pac-12.

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Previewing Washington’s Offense for 2015

In his second season as Washington coach, Chris Petersen’s top priority is to settle on a new quarterback. Looking to improve the Huskies’ passing attack that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in 2014, Petersen will choose between redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning, a pair of promising pocket passers. Carta-Samuels would seem to have the edge simply because he’s been in the program longer and is more physically developed.

The ground game is in more established hands with Dwayne Washington. The Huskies’ leading returning rusher (697 yards, 5.3 per carry) in just a half season as the starter, he’s a big back with breakaway speed. The 6'2", 221-pound junior ripped off scoring runs of 66, 68, 51 and 60 yards late in the season.

The new quarterback won’t have any shortage of passing targets, especially if he wants to throw deep. Jaydon Mickens and Dante Pettis run well as multi-purpose threats. Mickens is the Huskies’ leading returning receiver (60 catches, 617 yards), and he scored twice as a runner scooting around the corner. Pettis, the son of former MLB player Gary Pettis, best demonstrated his explosiveness with an 87-yard score on a punt return. However, the receiving corps suffered a setback with the loss of John Ross for the year with a knee injury. Ross was elusive in a limited offensive role — he started at cornerback, too — averaging 75 yards on seven scoring plays coming as a receiver, runner and returner.

Left guard Dexter Charles is the only returning full-time starter up front, back for a fourth season in the opening-day lineup. But given the experience of some of the candidates, this position area might not be as worrisome as it appears.  

Previewing Washington's Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The line will require a complete makeover after the Huskies graduated all four starters and now move to a truer 3-4 alignment. Which prompts this pressing question: Can this Washington team stop anyone on the ground? Redshirt freshman Jaylen Johnson, sophomore Elijah Qualls and senior Taniela Tupou will get the first shot at it. None has any starting experience.

The linebacking corps also suffered a huge loss of talent with four-year starter John Timu and All-American Shaq Thompson departing. The only full-time starter returning is senior Travis Feeney, who enters his third season as a regular. He’ll be joined on the inside by sophomores Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, who played a lot in their first seasons.

What once was a glaring weakness — with as many as three freshmen starting at one time, compounded by cornerback Marcus Peters’ midseason dismissal — the secondary is now the Huskies’ defensive strength. Back for his second season, free safety Budda Baker arguably is the team’s best player and top honors candidate. As a true freshman, Baker was on the field more than any other Washington player, collecting 80 tackles and pulling steady special-teams duty. Sophomore cornerback Sidney Jones is a proven coverage guy who has established himself.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Washington's Specialists for 2015

The Huskies have full confidence in their special teams. Placekicker Cameron Van Winkle was among the nation’s best in 2014, converting on 20-of-24 field-goal attempts. Senior punter Korey Durkee averaged 42.5 yards per kick. Ross already possesses a school-record three touchdowns on kickoff returns in just two seasons and will be missed in 2015. Pettis’ punt return for a score was the first for the Huskies in 11 seasons.

Final Analysis

For Petersen’s second season, Huskies followers will lower their expectations. Just nine starters return. The defensive front seven must be almost completely rebuilt. A new quarterback needs to be broken in. Now the rebuilding really begins. Six or seven wins would be considered progress. 

The Debate

Where Does Chris Petersen Rank Among Pac-12 Coaches?

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#30 Arizona Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, 26-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Casteel

Arizona fans undoubtedly felt a sense of optimism with the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Tucson. The Wildcats hoped Rodriguez could do for them what he did for West Virginia in turning a program with pockets of success into one with staying power. Even 2014, though, had to come as a bit of surprise. In only his third season at Arizona, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game and their first 10-win season and ranked season since 1998. Could Arizona be a contender for a second consecutive year? With the backfield of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, a Lombardi Award winner in Scooby Wright and RichRod in tow, Arizona can’t be counted out.

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Previewing Arizona’s Offense in 2015

Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon is the first holdover QB starter at Arizona since Nick Foles in 2010-11. He is not a fast runner, nor notably elusive, and he doesn’t have NFL-type arm strength. But as he was as a Las Vegas prep quarterback — 57–3 with four state championships — he has proved to be a winner at Arizona. 

Solomon’s numbers — 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes — broke school freshman records. Redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins struggled with passing accuracy in spring practice. Fifth-year senior Jerrard Randall, once an LSU quarterback, is a running threat with explosiveness, but his decision-making and accuracy have kept him on the bench. 

Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson required little break-in time, gaining 1,375 yards as a freshman. He is a power runner with what coach Rich Rodriguez calls “good eyes,” adept at hitting openings and making something out of nothing. Fifth-year senior Jared Baker is the clear No. 2. 

Cayleb Jones is among the nation’s best receivers. In his first year as a starter, he caught 73 balls for 1,019 yards and was a go-to receiver in clutch situations. He heads a deep and experienced group, which is the strength of Arizona’s offense. Samajie Grant became a big-play receiver with 45 receptions, six for touchdowns. 

Losing three-year starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele hasn’t been a setback. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa will start at left tackle and is expected to play at an all-conference level. Guards Jacob Alsadek and Cayman Bundage are returning starters, and the new right tackle, Lene Maiava, has started at two positions up front. The uncertainty is at center; two former walk-ons, Carter Wood and David Catalano, are frontrunners.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Arizona’s Defense in 2015

Senior end Reggie Gilbert was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA, which was one of the triumphs of spring practice for Arizona. He is the rock of Arizona’s three-man front. Junior Sani Fuimaono and sophomore Parker Zellers will likely split the nose guard job; both played extensively, although Zellers, listed at 247 pounds, gets by on instincts rather than strength.

If linebacker Scooby Wright can match his sophomore numbers — 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks — the Wildcats will be hard to beat. The Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year has considerable experience beside him: Juniors Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews and Derrick Turituri all started at least six games.  

Arizona didn’t pause long to replace three starters in its secondary. Senior safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones combined for 47 tackles last season and are physical players. Sophomore cornerback Jarvis McCall Jr., who started 12 games, might have difficulty reclaiming his job. Junior DaVonte’ Neal, who was a receiver/returner last year, moved to corner in spring ball and appeared to win the job. The Notre Dame transfer likely will be joined at the other corner by sophomore Cam Denson, also a former receiver/returner but now strictly a defensive player. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Arizona’s Specialists in 2015

Senior kicker Casey Skowron and senior punter Drew Riggleman were so good last season that Rodriguez awarded both with full scholarships midway through the season. Skowron made 20-of-28 field-goal attempts, including a game-winner against Washington. Riggleman was second in the Pac-12 in punting average, at 46.1.

Final Analysis

Arizona has won 26 games in Rodriguez’s first three seasons, the most of any three-year period in school history. “I’m not saying we’re ahead of expectations,” says Rodriguez, “because we need to get deeper and tougher.” This is Rodriguez’s top group at Arizona, but it must play 12 weeks in succession without a bye.

The Debate

Is Rich Rodriguez the Best Coach in the Pac-12?

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#31 Utah Utes





HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 85-43 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Aaron Roderick, Jim Harding | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Pease

Utah should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as Pac-12 member, winning nine games for the first time since 2010 and finishing with a winning conference record for the first time since moving over from the Mountain West. Yet Utah has reason for concern as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left in arguably lateral moves. The defense is the question for the short term, but the long term question is if Utah will be able to continue the momentum that began in 2014.

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Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015 

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson’s career was in question after the 2013 season due to an intracranial condition, but he was cleared to play and earned the starting job in 2014. Wilson’s up-and-down performance led to Kendal Thompson replacing him as the starter twice during the season, before Thompson’s knee injury enabled Wilson to regain the position through the Utes’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State. 

Wilson succeeded in cutting down his interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to five as a junior, but he never seemed comfortable with former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who’s now Texas A&M’s offensive line coach. Aaron Roderick, promoted as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, wants Wilson to complete a higher percentage of passes. “We’re not trying to reinvent what we were doing. We just want to get better at it,” Roderick says.

Running back Devontae Booker was a big discovery for the Utes in 2014 as a junior college transfer. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the Pac-12, averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner with explosive speed, and his 1,512-yard total fell just short of the school’s single-season record. 

Utah will rely heavily on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns, including a game-winning reception in overtime at Stanford. 

The Utes took a hit when tackle Jeremiah Poutasi entered the NFL Draft as a junior, but they return the bulk of a line that improved in position coach Jim Harding’s first season and paved the way for Booker’s big year. Left guard Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono are returning starters who played consistently.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2015

Utah must replace end Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. John Pease, the Utes’ new defensive coordinator, hopes that end Hunter Dimick will at least match his 10 sacks from last year, even though he will receive more attention now. 

Utah’s linebackers were hit with injuries last season, but the coaches pieced things together well enough for the Utes to rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game.  Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. Norris made a team-high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss. 

The cornerback position is a concern for Pease after Dominique Hatfield was dismissed in July. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2015

Utah wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, but punting and kicking field goals are the team’s biggest strengths. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Andy Phillips missed a field goal in an overtime loss at Arizona State, but he was otherwise dependable, finishing 23-of-28 for the season, including 12-of-15 from 40 yards or longer.

Final Analysis 

Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of Pac-12 membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent.  Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”

In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.

The Debate

Is Devontae Booker the Pac-12's Best Running Back?

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#6 USC Trojans





HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

High expectations are back at USC, as the Trojans return 14 starters from last year’s 9-4 team. Quarterback Cody Kessler headlines an offense that averaged 35.8 points per game in 2014. Kessler is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. Scoring points won’t be an issue for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the defense must replace standout end Leonard Williams and needs to show improvement after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2014.

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Previewing USC’s Offense for 2015 

This could be one of the more explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns from one of the better under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. All he did as a junior was complete 69.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With the gifted Nelson Agholor gone, Kessler’s new go-to receiver will be JuJu Smith, who was a Freshman All-American a year ago. Then there is Steven Mitchell, the shifty new slot receiver who might have been the MVP of spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American who might be the most exciting two-way player in America. A full-time starter at cornerback, Jackson also will be utilized more as a pass catcher, especially after his breakout game against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans will miss Javorius “Buck” Allen and his 1,489 yards rushing at tailback, but they hope to feature Justin Davis, a slashing, breakaway type, and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles, as a new complementary pair. Highly regarded freshman Ronald Jones should also work into the mix, along with Soma Vainuku, an intimidating 270-pound fullback who could be the short yardage answer.

The offensive line might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. Max Tuerk is an All-Pac-12 center. He will be flanked by a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Guard Damien Mama and tackle Zach Banner, a couple of beefy, 350-plus pounders, round out a group that is as active as it is physical.

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

You can’t lose the best defensive end in the country and a captain and spiritual leader at linebacker and not feel it. All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard will be difficult to replace, especially for a team that often struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not without their share of talent on defense. The new all-star candidate is Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions (three) and tackles for a loss (17.0) last year as an All-Pac-12 hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

Up front, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle. Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix, more of an OLB/end hybrid, round out a solid, if unspectacular, group.

The linebackers joining Cravens will be Lamar Dawson, probably USC’s most improved player this spring, and the always aggressive Anthony Sarao.

The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s finest cover cornerbacks. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner. The starting safeties are likely to be the improving John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III, although true freshman Iman Marshall should quickly work his way into the rotation.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128 

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2015

Solid senior Kris Albarado is in his third year as USC’s punter. But there is a vacancy at placekicker, where newcomers Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood will battle for the job in fall practice. Boermeester will enter with a small advantage.

Final Analysis 

Coming off a 9–4 season that left most Trojans boosters feeling mildly disappointed, coach Steve Sarkisian will face the pressure of huge expectations this fall. The offense should score plenty of points. But it is the defense — which was mauled by the likes of Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA a year ago — that must show significant improvement, and that won’t be easy without the departed Williams and Pullard. With Kessler, Smith, Jackson and Co., spectacular plays should be plentiful. But in the end, this team will go only as far as the defense takes it.

The Debate

Is Cody Kessler the Best Quarterback in the Pac-12?

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