The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
12 Pac-12 Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Arizona Offensive Line
Yes, Arizona’s defense also deserves a mention here, but the Wildcats’ best shot at winning the South once again hinges on an explosive offense. With quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and receiver Cayleb Jones returning, Arizona features one of the top offensive trios in the nation. But there’s concern up front entering fall practice. The Wildcats lost three starters, with Cayman Bundage and Jacob Alsadek back as proven options. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa is expected to anchor the left tackle position, leaving two jobs up for grabs. There is experience in place – seniors Carter Wood and Lene Maiava – to step into the vacant jobs. But how quickly can this group mesh in 2015?
Related: All-America Team for 2015
Arizona State Wide Receivers
Jaelen Strong’s physical presence and big-play ability will be missed. To help alleviate the departure of Strong, along with Cameron Smith’s knee injury in the spring, the Sun Devils plan to shift D.J. Foster from running back to receiver on a full-time basis. Foster caught 62 passes in 2014 and should be the leading receiver for quarterback Mike Bercovici. Coordinator Mike Norvell is also counting on contributions from Gary Chambers, Eric Lauderdale and Ellis Jefferson. UCLA transfer Devin Lucien was a key pickup on the recruiting trail and should push for immediate playing time this fall.
California Defensive Backs
Any unit on California’s defense is worth a mention in this space. The Golden Bears allowed 39.8 points per game in 2014 and surrendered 42 touchdown passes. Coordinator Art Kaufman returns five starters, but the overall depth and talent level is improving. Sophomore – and converted quarterback – Luke Rubenzer shifted to safety to earn playing time in 2015. Rubenzer is just part of the hope for improvement in pass defense, as junior college recruit Antoine Albert is also expected to push for snaps. Experience certainly isn’t an issue among the potential starters. Seniors Stefan McClure (safety) and Darius White (cornerback) have to elevate their performance for California to take a step forward in pass defense this year.
Colorado Defensive Line
The Buffaloes enter coach Mike MacIntyre’s third season poised to make a jump in the win column. Making a bowl won’t be easy, but Colorado could push for five victories this year. The offense averaged 28.5 points per game in 2014 and is the strength of the team once again. But for the Buffaloes to push for a postseason bid, the defense must improve. This unit allowed 39 points per game last year and is under the direction of new coordinator Jim Leavitt. There is proven depth with eight starters returning, but standout nose tackle Josh Tupou was suspended for the 2015 season. How much improvement can Leavitt get out of a defensive line that allowed 204.8 rushing yards per game last year?
Oregon Defensive Line
There’s no question quarterback play will be under the microscope with Marcus Mariota off to the NFL. But the Ducks are loaded with skill talent and may not drop too much in terms of offensive production with Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams under center. The defense is a bigger concern for coach Mark Helfrich. Oregon allowed 21 rushing plays of 20 yards or more, which tied for 10th among Pac-12 defenses. DeForest Buckner opted to return to Eugene for his senior year, but Arik Armstead left for the NFL and Sam Kamp retired at the end of 2014. Buckner and fellow seniors Alex Balducci and Tui Talia is a good core to build around. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the coaching staff reeled in top recruit Canton Kaumatule in the offseason.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Oregon State Linebackers
New coach Gary Andersen has plenty of work to do this offseason. The Beavers return just nine starters and only two of those are back on defense. With the switch to a 3-4 scheme, Andersen and coordinator Kalani Sitake need to find the right pieces for this group to fit the new gameplan. This is a big offseason for players like Rommel Mageo and Kyle Haley, along with sophomore Darrell Songy, who returns to the team after missing 2014 due to a suspension.
Stanford Defensive Line
Even though the Cardinal loses a handful of key contributors from last year’s defense, coordinator Lance Anderson could keep this unit among the best in the Pac-12. Reaching that level will require a quick rebuild up front. All three starters from a productive 2014 group are gone and depth is an issue. Senior Aziz Shittu and sophomore Harrison Phillips will be counted on for major contributions, while Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett is likely to push for a starting job at end. Redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas is also a name to remember.
UCLA Offensive Line
This unit was under attack last year, as the Bruins gave up 40 sacks in 13 contests. While the sack total was high, this unit played better in the second half of the season, and there’s optimism for 2015. With all five starters returning, the offensive line could be a strength for UCLA. Left tackle Conor McDermott stabilized this unit after he started the last eight games of 2014 and is expected to anchor the blindside for quarterback Josh Rosen. Center Jake Brendel is also one of the best in the nation. With a true freshman taking over at quarterback, UCLA needs its supporting cast to step up in a big way with key games against Arizona, Arizona State and BYU early in the year.
USC Defensive Line
With Leonard Williams off to the NFL, USC has to reload in the trenches and find a new player to disrupt opposing offenses. In Pac-12-only matchups last year, the Trojans allowed the fewest yards per game (97.4) but also faced the fewest attempts (298). Additionally, Williams and departed senior J.R. Tavai accounted for 14 of the team’s 33 sacks last season. It’s up to seniors Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods and Claude Pelon to keep this unit performing at a high level. Depth is a concern for coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Utah Wide Receivers
The quick synopsis of Utah for 2015 is very similar to the 2014 version: Great defense and rushing attack but a questionable passing game. Quarterback Travis Wilson returns after throwing for 2,170 yards and 18 scores last season, and he will have a new co-coordinator setup with Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick taking over for Dave Christensen. The Utes connected on 19 passing plays of 30 yards or more last season, which ranked No. 8 among Pac-12 teams. Adding to the uncertainty for Wilson is a receiving corps that lost Kaelin Clay, tight end Westlee Tonga and Dres Anderson. Kenneth Scott is a good No. 1 option. But the Utes need to find capable No. 2 and No. 3 targets in fall camp.
Washington Defensive Line
Chris Petersen has some major roster remodeling to do in his second year in Seattle. The Huskies return only nine starters, with quarterback play a huge question mark entering this fall. But the defense also needs attention, as five key members of last year’s front seven are gone: Linebackers Shaq Thompson and John Timu and defensive linemen Andrew Hudson, Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and Petersen will feature a young defensive line in 2015, as a handful of freshmen could be counted on for significant snaps. Sophomore Elijah Qualls is a breakout candidate after recording 13 tackles in limited action last year.
Washington State Defensive Backs
All three defensive units deserve a mention here, but new coordinator Alex Grinch plans on implementing a 4-2-5 approach, adding extra pressure to a secondary that allowed 33 passing scores last season. The Cougars finished the spring with uncertainty surrounding this group, as help is on the way in the form of junior college recruits Treshon Broughton and Shalom Luani and freshman Sean Harper. All three newcomers could play a huge role in filling out the depth chart, while the coaching staff is counting on increased contributions from sophomores Charleston White, Darius Lemora and Isaac Dotson.