Athlon previews spring storylines around the Pac-12.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has narrowed the gap in recent years. And this conference will play a key role in shaping college football’s new playoff format, as Oregon, Stanford and UCLA are considered by many to be top-10 teams in 2014.
The North Division is shaping up to be another battle between Oregon and Stanford for the No. 1 spot. The Ducks return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, the defense is a concern with the personnel losses at tackle. The Cardinal return quarterback Kevin Hogan and a solid receiving corps, but the offensive line and defense will be under the spotlight in spring practice with new faces stepping into starting roles.
In the South Division, UCLA is the early frontrunner. Quarterback Brett Hundley turned down the NFL for another season in Los Angeles, and sophomore linebacker/running back Myles Jack is one of the nation’s most intriguing players for 2014.
But UCLA will be pushed by USC and Arizona State this year, provided both teams answer a couple of key questions in offseason workouts. The Sun Devils need to reload on defense, while the Trojans need to restock on the defensive line and find a replacement for Marqise Lee at receiver.
Arizona is the wildcard team to watch in the South, especially if coach Rich Rodriguez can find a quarterback and a replacement for running back Ka’Deem Carey this spring.
|Seniors Departing||Early NFL Draft Departures||Returning Starters: Offense||Returning Starters: Defense|
North Division Spring Outlook
Art Kaufman’s chance to fix the defense
The final numbers for California’s defense last year were simply dreadful. The Golden Bears allowed 529.6 yards per game and allowed 45.9 points per contest. After the season, Sonny Dykes made staff changes, hiring former Cincinnati coordinator Art Kaufman to call the defensive signals, while Greg Burns was brought aboard to tutor defensive backs. There’s simply no way California can be any worse on defense in 2014. The changes on the staff will make a huge difference for the Golden Bears, along with the return of a couple of key players from injury. End Brennan Scarlett and tackle Mustafa Jalil are back after missing 2013 with injury, while defensive backs Stefan McClure and Alex Logan missed significant time last year. This unit does lose a few key players from last season’s group, but the depth and overall talent level should be improved. The Golden Bears are also bringing in a handful of junior college prospects, including linebacker Sam Atoe, cornerback Darius White, tackle David Davis and end Jonathan Johnson. Improvement should be noticeable for California this year. And this spring is Kaufman’s first opportunity to put his stamp on the Golden Bears’ defense in 2014.
Concerns at defensive tackle:
With quarterback Marcus Mariota and eight other starters returning on offense, the Ducks will be one of the Pac-12’s most prolific offenses once again in 2014. However, the defense – which has been underrated nationally at times – enters spring with question marks. New coordinator Don Pellum will be replacing veteran Nick Aliotti as the Ducks’ play-caller on defense, and five starters return from a unit that held opponents to 4.9 yards per play last year. This will be Pellum’s first opportunity to coordinate the defense, but he is familiar with the personnel and keeps continuity in place for Oregon. Pellum’s biggest concern is on the line, where the Ducks must replace Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Heimuli. Alex Balducci was listed as Keliikipi’s backup last season, and he should take on a major role in the line in 2014. Outside of Balducci, the Ducks need more from Sam Kamp at the position, and there could be some shuffling of bodies this spring to anchor the interior. Arik Armstead, Stetzon Bair and DeForest Buckner have the size to play tackle and should see plenty of snaps in 2014. Another name to watch is junior college recruit Tui Talia. Where will he factor into the mix? If Oregon finds the right mix up front, this team will be in the mix for a playoff spot in Helfrich’s second season in Eugene.
New faces on the defensive line:
The Beavers have to find a replacement for receiver Brandin Cooks, but the defensive line is arguably the bigger concern for coach Mike Riley. This unit loses All-Pac-12 second-team end Scott Crichton, as well as tackles John Braun and Mana Rosa. Oregon State’s defensive line wasn’t exactly a strength last year either, as the Beavers allowed 190.3 rushing yards per game and registered only nine sacks in Pac-12 games. Where will the answers come from? Riley hopes junior college recruits Luke Hollingsworth and Kyle Peko are part of the solution, while Miami transfer Jalen Grimble is expected to factor on the interior. Juniors Lavonte Barnett, Akeem Gonzales and Jaswha James will likely battle for the open end spot opposite of Dylan Wynn. Defensive line coach Joe Seumalo and coordinator Mark Banker will have their hands full this spring as they try to shuffle the line around to find the best (and most productive) combination.
Restocking the trenches:
The Cardinal expect quarterback Kevin Hogan to take another step in his development this spring, and coach David Shaw and coordinator Mike Bloomgren want to rely on their ground game to set the tone once again. But there’s a glaring issue on the offense. The line was hit hard by personnel losses, with guards David Yankey and Kevin Danser, tackle Cameron Fleming and center Khalil Wilkes all departing. That’s the bad news. The good news? Talent isn’t an issue. Left tackle Andrus Peat is a future All-American, and Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy are highly-touted prospects waiting for their chance to start. Graham Shuler is the frontrunner to replace Khalil Wilkes at center, while Johnny Caspers is likely to replace Danser at right guard. There’s no question Stanford has talent here. But how quickly can this line jell? Additionally, can this unit develop depth this spring?
Filling voids at quarterback and running back:
Chris Petersen’s first spring as Washington’s head coach is already clouded with some mystery. Cyler Miles was expected to be the Huskies’ starting quarterback in 2014, but he was suspended after an off-the-field incident. It’s uncertain when Miles might return to the team, leaving sophomore Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman Troy Williams and incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels as the three candidates vying for time this offseason. Carta-Samuels won’t arrive until the summer, so it’s Lindquist and Williams for the top two spots – for now. Bishop Sankey will be missed at running back, but there’s a handful of options ready to take the top spot on the depth chart. Dwayne Washington was impressive in limited time last season, and Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper have battled back from knee injuries to play a key role in the backfield. Will Washington emerge as the No. 1 back? Or will the Huskies use a committee approach? Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith will start to answer those questions when practice opens on March 4.
Replacing three starters on the offensive line:
The Cougars ended 2013 on a down note by losing in the New Mexico Bowl, but there was clear progress for this team in Mike Leach’s second year. As spring practice opens for Washington State in 2014, this team is poised for another step forward. But in order for Leach’s high-powered offense to work, the line will need some new faces to emerge. Center Elliott Bosch, tackle John Fullington and guard Matt Goetz all depart. The left side of the line appears to be set with tackle Gunnar Eklund and guard Joe Dahl returning after starting all 13 games last season. But will the Cougars find answers to the other three spots in the spring? Riley Sorenson was listed as Goetz’s backup at right guard last season, so he could have an inside track on that position. But at center and tackle, both backups also depart. Will the Cougars turn to a junior college recruit from last year’s class (Jacob Seydel) for one of the spots? With three spots up for grabs, this unit will be one to watch this spring in Pullman.
South Division Spring Outlook
New starters at quarterback and running back:
Considering Rich Rodriguez’s track record of developing quarterbacks and finding standouts at running back, there’s not too much concern in Tucson over the new faces stepping in on offense. Quarterback B.J. Denker departs after recording 3,465 total yards last season, while running back Ka’Deem Carey left early for the NFL after another standout year. There’s no clear answer at either position as spring practice opens on March 3 for the Wildcats. At quarterback, Texas transfer Connor Brewer, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon and junior college transfers Jesse Scroggins and Jerrard Randall are considered the frontrunners to replace Denker. The picture remains muddy at running back, as Jared Baker (127 yards) is the top statistical returner, but redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier, Zach Green, Myles Smith and true freshmen Jonathan Haden and Nick Wilson will all have a chance to compete for carries. Baker is recovering from a torn ACL and is not expected to participate in spring practice. Cormier is a slight favorite to handle the bulk of the carries in 2014, but the Wildcats could use a committee approach. Can Rodriguez and his staff narrow the competition or find a starter at both positions this spring?
Rebuilding the defense:
It’s a good thing the Sun Devils return seven starters on offense this year. With only two starters returning on defense, Arizona State will be involved in plenty of shootouts in 2014. Of course, that’s easier to do when you return a quarterback like Taylor Kelly, as well as skill players in the form of running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong. But coach Todd Graham and new co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will have their hands full rebuilding a defense that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) in points allowed (26.9 ppg). The list of departures is heavy, starting with defensive linemen Davon Coleman, Gannon Conway and Will Sutton, continuing into the linebacking corps with Carl Bradford and Chris Young, while the secondary loses cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor, and safety Alden Darby must be replaced. Each level of the defense needs to be retooled, and Graham dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help. Linemen Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey should factor into the mix right away, and linebacker Darrius Caldwell and cornerback Kweishi Brown will be expected to do the same. Expect the Sun Devils to find the right answers as the season progresses, but this defense will receive some extra attention from Graham and Patterson this spring with a ton of fresh faces stepping into new roles.
Find a replacement for Paul Richardson:
Even though receiver Paul Richardson was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last year, he didn’t get enough credit nationally for his 2013 season. Richardson caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns and averaged a healthy 16.2 yards per reception. Nelson Spruce and D.D. Goodson were solid complement options, but it’s clear Richardson will be missed. Just how important was Richardson to the passing attack? He caught 10 of Colorado’s 21 touchdown passes and 83 of the Buffaloes’ 235 receptions. With Richardson departing, Spruce and Goodson need to take on a bigger role in the passing attack, while Tyler McCulloch is due for an increased presence after catching 14 passes in 2013. Devin Ross was a three-star recruit in 2013 and caught six passes for 24 yards in limited action. Expect Ross to be more involved, and the coaching staff is eager to get a look at incoming freshmen Shay Fields and Lee Walker. Colorado may not have a receiver equal Richardson’s numbers. However, there’s enough returning talent to give quarterback Sefo Liufau options in 2014.
Who replaces guard Xavier Su’a-Filo?:
Sacks allowed aren’t necessarily the best indicator of offensive line success or failure, but UCLA gave up 29 in nine Pac-12 contests last year. The Bruins also managed only 3.9 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. Needless to say, there is room for this unit to improve. That task is complicated by the departure of guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL Draft. Jim Mora has recruited plenty of talent to Los Angeles over the last few seasons, and some of that youth got involved in the trenches last year, as Alex Redmond started all 13 games at guard, while Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch combined for 15 starts as true freshmen. With Redmond, Quessenberry and Benenoch having another offseason to work with the coaching staff and weight room, this trio should be even better in 2014. UCLA’s line will be bolstered by the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche and four-star recruit Kolton Miller in this year’s signing class. Replacing Su’a-Filo is no easy assignment, and he was one of the top guards in the nation last year. Kenny Lacy was listed as the backup at guard last season, but the coaching staff could shuffle some players around this spring. Keeping quarterback Brett Hundley healthy is priority No. 1 for UCLA in 2014. Finding a replacement for Su’a-Filo and the right mix on the line will go a long way to keeping Hundley in the mix to win the Heisman.
New faces set to emerge on the offensive line:
New coach Steve Sarkisian is stepping into a good situation for his first spring in Los Angeles. The Trojans won six out of their final seven games and return 14 starters in 2014. Even though receiver Marqise Lee and a couple of defenders will be tough to replace, most of Sarkisian’s focus this spring should be on the line. The Trojans lost center Marcus Martin, tackle Kevin Graf and guard John Martinez, leaving three starters back for 2014. Left tackle Chad Wheeler, guard/tackle Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker return, giving Sarkisian and line coach Tim Drevno a solid foundation to build around. But due to scholarship sanctions, depth remains a concern. Can Cyrus Hobbi claim the center spot vacated by Martin? Or will Drevno have to look for other solutions? Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn enrolled early to compete this spring, and touted freshmen Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao arrive in the fall. Will any of the recruits crack the lineup? If USC settles the line, it should have an explosive offense with the return of quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor.
Improvement on offense:
The Utes finished 2013 by averaging just 4.9 yards per play and ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in yards per game (364.9). To help jumpstart the offense, Kyle Whittingham hired former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen to call the plays. Jim Harding also comes to Salt Lake City via Laramie to coach the offensive line, while former coordinator Dennis Erickson will shift to tutor the running backs. Christensen was a solid pickup as the team’s coordinator, but Utah has a lot of work to do on this side of the ball. The top priority is at quarterback, where Travis Wilson will participate in non-contact drills this spring after his football future was in doubt in November. Wilson’s status for the 2014 season is still in question, but it’s a good sign he is able to work with the team this spring. Assuming Wilson does return to the field in 2014, the Utes need more consistency out of their starting quarterback, but it will help to have Dres Anderson back at receiver, while three starters are back on the line. Christensen needs to develop a few more options for Wilson at receiver, along with securing the line and developing a pecking order at running back. This unit has plenty of room to improve after the 2013 season. With Christensen calling the plays, and Wilson back on the field, the Utes have a chance to take a step forward this spring.