It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2021, Athlon asked coaches in the Pac-12 to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Pac-12 Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021
"Justin Wilcox has done an incredible job the last few years. They haven’t put it all together in one package, but you can see his fingerprints all over that program."
"It’s a smart defense. They don’t do a ton, meaning they’re not going to show you a lot of exotic looks, but they know how teams attack and how to respond to that. They’re really well prepared, and they fit well against whatever you’re calling. They’ve emphasized a lot of length at linebacker which allows for them to be really versatile. They’ve developed that one position to where they can really disrupt the passing game with their backers without giving anything up. They’re a complete defense, maybe one of the best in the entire league."
"Obviously the improvement is all about the offense. They looked like they weren’t completely ready for (Bill) Musgrave’s system, which given the COVID time off, maybe that’s not a coaching issue. Reserve judgment through this season. But they have to get more talented on the outside, right now they just don’t have anyone you need to worry about in the passing game."
"They don’t need to be world-beaters with that defense, they just need more consistency and more points. They’re running that scheme to set up their defense because that’s the heart of their team. If they can score more points they can hang with anyone.”
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021
"They could make a run to the playoff if a few things break the right way."
"They’re more talented than probably any other roster, but they have questions."
"The QB coming in, the freshman [Ty Thompson], could very well be the guy from what we’ve seen. They have a deep, impressive receiving corps. Very athletic. When you watch them it’s a blend of a lot of stuff, I’m not sure how much of that is [Joe] Moorhead sometimes. You see a lot of influence from [Jim] Mastro, a lot of pistol stuff."
"They get a really high level of production from their tight end position, they do a good job of getting them free, getting creative to put them in space and take advantage of RPOs, that was a bread and butter for them. The tight end would pop big plays to get them going. They’re a very good red zone offense."
"They have a really impressive secondary, that’s the position group that stands out on their defense."
"Noah Sewell is an absolute monster. He’s gonna be ridiculous."
"They had some opt-outs that really hurt them, and changing coordinators will be a big deal. Right now they have guys who scare you, but it’s not that deep. Tim [DeRuyter] will need to address those twos very quickly. If there’s a weakness here, it’s probably that."
"Recruiting-wise, they’re dominant. Mario [Cristobal] is going to push them to a level they’ve never been at, including Chip [Kelly].”
"Jonathan Smith was the best hire they could’ve made and it’s really starting to show returns. He understands the program, and he knows how to recruit developmental talent in the PNW better than almost anyone."
"They’re really well-coached, to the point where they’re playing smart enough to overcome the talent gaps in certain situations. They’re a tougher football team now. If you take them lightly they’ll make you pay for it, and I think that’s getting out across the league after what they did against Oregon. They’re not a doormat anymore."
"The offensive scheme is what he did at Washington, it’s off that Boise tree. You see a lot of personnel groupings, a lot of formations and shift-motion, a lot of play-action, so they’re dressing up basic concepts and looking to find man advantages by moving guys around. It’s a smart approach for that program."
"Defensively is where they have to keep the overhaul going, you don’t see as much proof of concept there. They’re settling into year three, a lot of those guys were really young last year, especially at linebacker, so they’re older and more experienced. Right now that’s where the talent gap is killing them."
"Smith was smart about 2020; with the shortened season and the uncertainty, they got a lot of guys in, got reps in seven games, and now they’re taking that experience into this year."
"They’re never going to be world-beaters, but if they can get better on defense they could go bowling.”
"Probably the steadiest program in the league other than Utah. You certainly know what you’re getting, they’re not in the business of surprising teams."
"David Shaw is such a comfortable guy that his confidence radiates to those kids. They have a fantastic culture even if they’re not winning."
"They’ve built this famous reputation for how big they get in terms of personnel and how they could line up and maul you, but they’re starting to show spread pass tendencies. You can see it on film, they’re more comfortable throwing out of spread. The receiver they lost to the draft (Simi Fehoko) is going to hurt them. That’s the narrative around the team, that the skill position guys just haven’t been as elite as in years past. They’re not winning as much because they don’t have those amazing talents who force you to reckon with a vertical passing game."
"They’re still really physical on both sides, they still win games by beating on teams and reducing games to the fourth quarter, just not as frequently. You feel Stanford a week after you play them."
"The defense was bad, especially against the run, and most of those are coming back. You assume experience will help that."
"They don’t need to evolve or change their brand. They just live and die on guys they can target who end up being big-time skill-position talents. They haven’t hit on as many of those type guys in recent years, but the program is on solid ground.”
"This is a good team with a lot of questions. They barely played last year and didn’t practice much. They had something closer to an extended spring than a real season."
"The constant is the defense, obviously, nothing that they did last year with Jimmy [Lake] as head coach changed what he was doing as defensive coordinator under Pete [Chris Petersen]. It’s the exact same schemes and he’s bonafide, he can find and make NFL talent on that side of the ball. That’s going to be their signature on the field, although for Jimmy it’s more about an off-field team branding thing, bringing back swagger and being more aggressive in recruiting."
"Offense is what we’re watching. They’ve committed to running the ball, obviously they’ve had a string of good backs, their tight ends stand out too. It will be a really interesting quarterback battle in the offseason, I’d watch out for the freshman [Sam Huard]."
"John [Donovan] is the kind of OC who is really agnostic about a scheme, he’s going to try to fit to personnel and what’s available."
"Lake has talked a lot about what they won’t be, let’s find out what they are."
"The smartest move they can make is building a team that wins the North consistently, and to do that they’ve got to be as good as Oregon on the lines. The problem is that you can’t really do that with any consistency if you’re relying on the transfer portal, and it looks like he’s embraced that because they haven’t recruited as well as they probably should.”
Related: Pac-12 QB Rankings for 2021
"It’s hard to take a lot from four games, but you probably got an accurate picture for these guys. They’re trying to build from scratch on defense and they’re transitioning out of the (Mike) Leach Air Raid into a Run and Shoot on offense. Neither one of those things is going to happen quickly."
"Most of their offense comes back, especially the skill position production, and the OL is intact. I think they’re bringing in the transfer QB [Jarrett Guarantano from Tennessee] to compete but maybe not start the whole season. He’s there to push [Jayden de Laura] and help him get ready."
"On defense, the line needs the most work, and there’s not much depth in the secondary. They had a lot of injuries and the inconsistency of canceling games really hurt them it looks like."
"They’re changing the culture there and it’s going to take another year."
"The attitude in a Leach program is very… specific. This staff wants them to be tougher. They were in it with Oregon, in it with Utah. Closing games and playing spoiler, that’s a mentality. They fold easily if you punch them in the mouth. That has to change."
"Getting away from the Leach culture is like getting out of the triple option, it’s gonna take a while mentally, and not everyone is going to be with you at the end.”
"This is going to be a long-term project after an objectively bad hire. It’s not that Kevin [Sumlin] couldn’t coach, it’s that what he brings wasn’t ever going to fit at that place. Too much Texas focus with their recruiting, for one."
"It’s hard to say what happens now. The biggest move for them was Jedd [Fisch] bringing in Don Brown. He’s been very good throughout his career and I think he’s the kind of coordinator who you can recruit to, which is rare."
"Offensively they’re hitting the transfer market somewhat, the Northwestern (Drake Anderson) running back is a solid pick-up, but this is gonna be the tear-down. This is a Year Zero qualifier for sure."
"Recruiting has been bad for this program and Arizona State is so far ahead of them. They have to turn over the roster on both sides, which is a two-year project at least before you can really see results in this conference. The thing to watch is going to be branding and recruiting. How can they catch up with ASU? How are they different? They are the weak link in a really good division, so what are they selling that’s different?"
"Jedd is taking a lot of heat as a bad hire, but I don’t think a lot of guys were circling this job. There are budget issues and no talent. Just settle in on this one, it’s gonna be a while.”
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021
"A lot of coaches think this is the real team to beat in our league, not Oregon or USC."
"They’re the next top program in the league unless something drastic happens."
"Talent-wise, on the eye test they can hang with those two other programs (Oregon and USC). They showed how explosive they were towards the end of last season. They’re loaded on offense, a lot of guys who can get vertical and go the distance, good size and speed. It’s a great scheme too, which is why you think of Oregon — they combine good schemes and coaches with talent, it’s not a system or just bringing in guys raw. You see them on film and look complete."
"Lots of multiplicity, they run a lot of personnel group and formations and then they stack trick plays on top of that. What scares you is that they’re smart about it, because they don’t overcomplicate it for the kids but they make you work all work. That’s a really hard thing to do, where the kids can still ball out and be playmakers in a complex system."
"The defense is real. They’re dangerous. I think basically every single player who contributed is back. That allows them to install more stuff, which is that NFL mentality. And this is the year they can get scary, where they can translate that NFL message and actually start putting guys at LB and DB in the league. Add that to their recruiting and they could dominate.”
* Arizona State's scouting was compiled before NCAA investigation was opened into the program this summer.
"Give them credit for what they did in year one. I’m not sure if it’s sustainable, but it worked for them under some tough circumstances. They got wins against the not great teams, but they were supposed to be that kind game for everyone else."
"Karl’s [Dorrell] going to take some steps to make it more of his program, he had to keep a lot of staffers from Tucker. I think that’s why he made the change at defensive coordinator, well, that and the scoring. Statistically, they performed pretty well in a lot of categories but he got rid of [Tyson] Summers because they got blown out against Texas after calming it down a bit."
"The schedule is a lot harder on them in conference and they’re also playing (Texas) A&M and Minnesota, so expect some of that good luck to fade."
"The running back is their guy right now. He’s incredibly talented and they want to use him until the QB gets up to speed. He [Brendon Lewis] did some good things. I think it’s clear they want to bring him along slowly. Right now that offense is built around spreading you out enough to work the run in, so a little bit of pass to run, you could say. They want to create easy wins in the passing game and open up light boxes run out of."
"This is the real test coming up. Tucker left because he didn’t think you could win consistently there and he didn’t want to get stuck. If they do it again this year and kind of find some kind of consistency with recruiting, it would be huge for that program.”
"We think it’s coming along, but slowly. You can see a steadying of the ship, every game they lost they were in.
"They took a lot of heat early on but Chip [Kelly] just kept his head down. I think that’s why he picked UCLA, because he could ignore that stuff and they’d support him."
"They’re heading on the right track with development, it’s just slow. At some point you have to break the cycle and get that higher caliber of recruit interested, even if it’s not there on the field."
"There’s a misconception about the offense; we see signs of Chip’s NFL time in the play-calling, and maybe that could be personnel driven, but it’s not just the Oregon track meet stuff. He either doesn’t want to run that or he can’t. You can go fast if you’re bad. It’s possible he has a different plan on how to win there, because he was on the front end of no-huddle and now everyone has a package for that."
"The defensive tackle (Osa Odighizuwa) was huge for them this past season, he caused a ton of disruption."
"The tight end (Greg Dulcich) and receiver (Kyle Philips) are legit, they’re going to be big threats."
"They’re not operating with any signs of ‘win now.’ You don’t see any desperation. He has a good relationship with the school. If he can improve [Dorian] Thompson-Robinson they’re going to have a winning record this season, and could have a breakout year.”
"The talent is there, the potential for Clay Helton to turn it around back to a national title contender is there, but that’s always been the case for that staff."
"Defensively, they’re really adopting Todd Orlando’s identity. They run a really aggressive scheme, and when he smells blood in the water he dials up some exotic stuff. I think if they turn the corner under Helton it will be because of this defense."
"There’s a different mindset now than with the previous defensive coordinators. The advanced analytics don’t show it yet, but as a coach you know they’re going to attack you more this season. They want to put the talent out there, let them loose, and get big stops."
"Linebacker is incredibly deep."
"They don’t seem to have as many flaws as in recent years, obviously they have a great QB recruiting class."
"They’re not running anything unique on offense but they know how to do it now with Graham [Harrell]. Tons of weapons on the outside, especially at slot."
"If you’re looking for weaknesses you’d like to see better play at the OL for them. It’s not up to standard, maybe that’s because they don’t run it like they used to? I don’t think consistency is their problem; I think it’s identity."
"They don’t have that juice anymore, even during (Lane) Kiffin into Sark (Steve Sarkisian). That’s because the culture turned on them so bad. The problem now is that they’re not the showtime brand they used to be.”
Related: Pac-12 QB Rankings for 2021
"In a lot of ways they’ve emulated Stanford to the point where they are the new Stanford, and right now they’re more talented."
"This team is a brand. It’s a toughness and defense. They’re the most physical team in the conference every single year now, and they’re one of the meanest in the game. This is all Whit [Kyle Whittingham]; it’s his mindset, it’s his attitude. ‘Mental toughness” is a cliche but Whit has those guys ready. They’re even, never too high or low."
"They’re not schematically unique, they’re not wizards, they’re just technically sound, fast, well-trained and violent."
"[Andy] Ludwig is coming along with the offensive side, they’re starting to build their own brand there, too. You see consistency in the calls. Again, you know what they are when you go in: they’re built by their running game, with the backs and with QB run and moving the pocket. That works because they’re usually good up front, and when they can run steady they’re going to work you as much as they can with play action. It’s one of the best matches to a defense of any offense in the Power 5."
"If you’ve seen Charlie Brewer’s tape from Baylor you should be scared playing these guys. It’s never a guarantee that a grad transfer locks in right away, but these pieces fit, man. If Brewer plays like he did when [Matt] Rhule was still at Baylor, this team can win the conference.”
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