Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.
The Pac-12 South Division was viewed by some as the best in college football a year ago. At this stage of the year, it's not unreasonable to predict five of the six teams to be ranked in the preseason. A legit case could be made for any of the top four — USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona — to win the division. Buckle up, it's going to be a fun year out West.
Pac-12 South Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)
1. Arizona State
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Sun Devils' Spring Priorities
1. Replace both tackles
Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka started all 13 games at both left and right tackle respectively last year. Both have moved on and will need to be replaced this spring. The rest of the offensive line is in excellent shape but filling voids on the edge will be critical for Todd Graham and company. There are no concerns about Mike Bercovici under center so keeping him upright is imperative.
2. Find a true No. 1 receiver
Jaelen Strong was a beast for the Sun Devils on the outside and his size and production will need to be replaced somehow. Expect D.J. Foster to play more of hybrid role again with names like Cameron Smith, Eric Lauderdale, Frederick Gammage, Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers looking to step into more prominent roles on the offense. The emergence of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage should help push Foster into open space.
3. Fill specific gaps on defense
A year removed from replacing nine All-Pac-12 defensive players in one offseason, Graham now has the luxury of returning most of his defense. With the exception of first-team, all-league safety Damarious Randall and honorable mention, all-league end Marcus Hardison, this unit is intact. If Graham is able to fill those two gaps this could be one of the best defenses in the league.
2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense - 7, Defense - 7
Bob Connelly (OL)
Trojans' Spring Priorities
1. Rebuild the front seven
The Trojans lose three All-Pac-12 players from their front seven in Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai. Like always with USC, the returning depth chart is impressively talented but is lacking in developed star power. Can Anthony Sarao or Delvon Simmons develop into All-Americans? Steve Sarkisian should consider this part of his roster a top priority — especially, for a team still lacking in overall depth.
2. Develop the playmakers on offense
The talent in the receiving corps is painfully obvious but will still be young. And the backfield is now missing Buck Allen. Coach Sark needs to continue to develop Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith on the outside while Justin Davis, Tre Madden and James Toland IV battle for carries. USC also is replacing All-Pac-12 tight end Randall Telfer. This offense needs to identify a go-to playmaker.
3. Keep Cody Kessler healthy
Keeping your star quarterback upright is always important but in this case it cannot be overstated. In fact, Kessler, possibly the most underrated player in the nation, represents a bigger issue for the Trojans. This unit is still not operating with full scholarship capacity, so keeping Kessler (and every other possible contributing member) healthy is critical for the Men of Troy. Maybe, take it easy this spring, Coach Sark?
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Tom Bradley (DC)
Bruins' Spring Priorities
1. Settle on a quarterback
Brett Hundley is gone leaving a gaping void under center on an offense severely lacking in star power. Jerry Neuheisel is the incumbent who played well against Texas and has been around campus for years. He will have to hold off the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation in true freshman Josh Rosen. Rosen is already enrolled and will battle Neuheisel for the starting gig all spring.
2. Reconstruct the front seven
Eric Kendricks is gone from the linebacking corps but Myles Jack is back. Owa Odighizuwa and Ellis McCarthy are gone from the D-line but Eddie Vanderdoes is back. Those two are potential superstars but the rest of the front seven is lacking in experience. Jim Mora needs guys like Kenny Clark and Deon Hollins to take the next step forward up front on defense.
3. Continue to cultivate offensive playmakers
One of UCLA’s biggest issues during Hundley’s tenure under center was the lack of supporting star power on offense. Paul Perkins and Jordan Payton took a big step last year, showing signs of becoming stars on offense. With either a freshman or career backup taking the reins at QB this year, Mora really needs someone else to step up and emerge. Is Perkins and/or Payton up to the task?
2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Wildcats' Spring Priorities
1. Find two tackles and a pivot
Center Steven Gurrola started 13 games last year. Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele both started all 14 games at left and right tackle respectively. All three are gone and Rich Rodriguez is charged with rebuilding his offensive line. Not one player returns to the line that started all 14 games last year up front. Cayman Bundrage started 12 games at left guard and Jacob Alsadek started 11 times on the right side.
2. Plug holes in the secondary
Arizona uses a lot of defensive backs in its 3-3-5 alignment. But this group must replace a trio of safeties who totaled 284 tackles last year as well as the top cornerback. There are plenty of bodies coming back to Tucson but someone needs to step into a leadership role. William Parks could be that guy, as he is the most experienced returning defensive back.
3. Keep the young stars on offense focused
It was almost too easy for Arizona’s offense last year. Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson and Cayleb Jones formed an incredible trio of young offensive stars. But this group struggled to reach the finish line and was handled easily in the Pac-12 title game. Repeating as division champs won’t be nearly as easy, especially behind a rebuilt O-line. This group must stay focused and hungry or it could fall three or four spots in the standings.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Aaron Roderick/Jim Harding (OC), John Pease (DC), Justin Ena (LB)
Utes' Spring Priorities
1. Find out what you have under center
Quarterback Travis Wilson is the incumbent but he’s dealt with major injuries for much of his career. Kendal Thompson battled Wilson throughout much of the ’14 campaign, only relinquishing control of the starting job after a season-ending injury. They have similar skill sets but are totally different players and Kyle Whittingham needs to know what he has in each this spring.
2. Plug holes at safety and end
This one is pretty straightforward, as both Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe are gone after honorable mention All-Pac-12 seasons last year. Marcus Williams returns after posting 59 tackles last year along with Tevin Carter, Andre Godfrey and others. Nate Orchard is the bigger loss at end but a deep and talented collection of D-linemen return to Salt Lake City. Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei are poised for breakout seasons.
3. Replace the best to pass-catchers
Devontae Booker and a loaded offensive line return to Utah so the running game should be one of the best in the league. However, with the two biggest playmakers gone in Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay, the staff needs to find some receivers to help out the QB situation. Kenneth Scott will get every shot to make plays but this group as a whole needs to step up this spring.
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 9
Jim Leavitt (Defensive Coordinator)
Buffaloes’ Spring Priorities
1. Continue to build depth on defense
For bad teams, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific area of concern on defense. With most of the two-deep returning for Colorado, improving overall is the key. This team was terrible at pressuring the quarterback, didn’t force turnovers (125th nationally) and was mediocre on third downs. Star power needs to develop on every level because linebacker Addison Gillam can’t do everything.
2. Replace both guards
Left guard Kaiwi Crabb started 11 times last year and right guard Daniel Munyer started all 12 games. Both have moved on and need to be replaced on the interior of the offensive line. The good news is both tackles and the center are back for Mike MacIntyre.
3. Make an effort to run the ball
The Buffs finished last in the division in rushing offense, ninth in the Pac-12 and 77th nationally. With a developing star at QB and Nelson Spruce back to catch passes, the passing game isn’t a concern in Boulder. But either Christian Powell or Michael Adkins II need to step into a more prominent role in the backfield to help the quarterback. Some balance in this unit would help quarterback Sefo Liufau continue to progress.