Spring questions: UCLA

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
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Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process towards the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, returning starters need to get better and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we begin a look at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Up next: UCLA

1. Who replaces Brett Hundley? Perhaps some folks are disappointed in how Hundley's final season went, but here's a guess that he'll be remembered as a transitional figure in Bruins football history, a three-year starter who returned the program to national relevance. Ergo, he left behind some big shoes to fill. Further, it's an interesting competition. You have redshirt junior Jerry Neuheisel, a guy with a familiar last name who came off the bench last season for an injured Hundley and led the Bruins to a victory over Texas. He's a scrapper with a good football IQ, but he's not going to blow you away with his arm or athleticism. Then you have true freshman Josh Rosen, who was rated among the best prep QBs in the 2015 recruiting class. Rosen has all the physical talent in the world, but you never know how quickly he'll pick things up and become comfortable. The transition from high school to the Pac-12 isn't easy and few true freshmen start at QB, at least for an A-list program like UCLA has become. A third option is sophomore Asiantii Woulard.

2. Who replaces Eric Kendricks? UCLA has become a bit of the Linebacker U of late, so there's some nice symmetry in hiring Tom Bradley, the former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator who was a big part of that program becoming 'Linebacker U', as the new defensive coordinator. But replacing Kendricks, the Butkus Award winner, won't be simply a matter of promoting the No. 2 guy from 2014, and not just because he's the program's all-time leading tackler. Kendrick was the defense's heart-and-soul -- a term used by former coordinator Jeff Ulbrich -- and the unit's unquestioned leader along with providing a great deal of production. Kenny Young, who made six starts and recorded 35 tackles as a freshman, is the heavy favorite to Kendrick's spot on the depth chart. But it will take some other guys stepping up -- paging Myles Jack -- to replace Kendricks' leadership.

3. Will the offensive line take a step forward? The UCLA offensive line will be as experienced as any in the Pac-12 in 2015, with five guys who have started at least 19 games returning. And while the Bruins offensive line was maligned last season, it did lead the Pac-12's No. 2 rushing attack, which averaged 210 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Pass protection was an issue, as the Bruins yielded a league-worst 41 sacks. Only 15 of those sacks came after game five, indicating an improvement. Still, if the goal is to be dominant line that leads a national title contender, the Bruins need more consistency up front. It will be interesting to see how things play out. The Bruins have junior college transfer Zach Bateman already on campus, and he might push a returning starter, particularly with oft-injured Simon Goines' status far from certain. There could be some shuffling as Adrian Klemm looks for the best five guys.
The Pac-12 lost several top players after the 2014 season and with spring practice starting (or, at some places, having already started) the work in replacing some of those guys has already begun.

We took a look at six teams that have the most work to do (because, we couldn’t stick to five for this list. Sorry to our readers who expect series like this to be identical … and also to defensive coordinators across the league: You’ve got your work cut out for you this spring and next fall).

DEFENSE

Arizona: At least they’ve still got Scooby Wright, right? That’s probably what a lot of Wildcats fans are going to be saying this offseason as Arizona attempts to replace so many contributors on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats will need to replace three of their top five tacklers -- Jared Tevis, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant -- in addition to Dan Pettinato and Jonathan McKnight, who both registered at least 45 tackles last season.

Oregon State: Let’s just say that it’s far easier to note the players who actually return to the Beavers rather than their departures. So, Gary Andersen, in his first season, will welcome back 2014 starters Jaswha James and Larry Scott. That’s it. He has nine other starters to replace, including the top six tacklers from 2014. Of the 12 players to register at least 25 tackles last season, only three weren't seniors. Need we go on? Didn’t think so.

Stanford: The Cardinal are in a similar boat to the Beavers in which they lose way more than they retain while also losing guys at every level of the defense. Up front, coach David Shaw needs to find replacements for Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders. In the middle, he’ll need guys to step into the shoes of Kevin Anderson, James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley. In the secondary, they lose Alex Carter, Jordan Richards and Wayne Lyons. The Cardinal led the conference a year ago in total defense (282.4 yards per game), but with this kind of turnover hitting that mark again seems far off. But really, is anyone wishing they were a defensive coordinator at Oregon State or Stanford right now? Bueller?

Washington: A season ago, the Huskies were second in the league in rushing defense (121.9 yards per game) and now they need to replace six players from their front seven, including the entire defensive line. Can Washington really take a step forward in Year 2 under Chris Petersen without Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton aggravating every single Pac-12 quarterback and Shaq Thompson and John Timu creating big plays every other play? The good news is that the Huskies retain all four starters from the secondary so the group that was the youngest a year ago will now be the oldest. But, for anyone who watched the third-worst Pac-12 pass defense in 2014, that might not really sound like good new

USC: The Trojans lose four of their six top tacklers. Hayes Pullard, Gerald Bowman and J.R. Tavai all used up their eligibility while Leonard Williams opted to head to the NFL a bit early. Losing half of those guys would be rough for a defense that finished fifth in the league a season ago, but to lose every single one of them (they accounted for 315 tackles including 31 tackles for loss and 15 sacks) is really rough for a team that has such high expectations for the 2015 season. But Trojans fans can take Arizona’s approach: At least you still have Su'a Cravens and Anthony Sarao, right?

UCLA: The Bruins lose three of their top four tacklers from the 2014 season, including Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks. Between Kendricks, Anthony Jefferson and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA will need to make up for 282 tackles including 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. In a few games this season the Bruins defense made up for its offense when it was slow (or, not scoring at all -- hello, Virginia) and many of the reasons for this defense being so productive are no longer on the roster.

Honorable mention:

Oregon: The Ducks defense was a hard thing to diagnose last season. In certain games, it was opportunistic and aggressive and tackled extremely well. And in others, it was the exact opposite. Oregon will lose several key players off that up-and-down defense from a season ago. Arik Armstead left early for the NFL and linebackers Tony Washington and Derrick Malone are gone. Defensive back coach John Neal has his work cut out for him in a secondary that lost starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan. Due to injuries and rotations, several guys got reps for Oregon and with a core group of linebackers returning, there seems to be a bit less work to do in Eugene than some other Pac-12 cities.

Utah: The Utes will undoubtedly miss Nate Orchard and his ability to get to quarterbacks, as well as starters Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen out of the secondary. But Utah also has three of its top six tacklers returning, including its leading tackler (linebacker Jared Norris). Plus, Hunter Dimick is primed for a big season a year after recording 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
The Pac-12 lost several top players after the 2014-15 season, and with spring ball starting (or, at some places, having already started) the work in replacing some of those guys has already begun.

We took a look at five teams that have the most work to do on the offensive side.

Arizona: The defending South Division champion is going to have a lot of turnover in the trenches. Rich Rodriguez needs to replace three starting linemen -- center Steven Gurrola and tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. Replacing a center is tough, replacing bookends is harder, doing both is something that no coach really wants to do. Especially considering this veteran line gave up 40 sacks last season (second-worst in the Pac-12) and now the group will be even younger. The Wildcats also lose wide receiver Austin Hill and backup running back Terris Jones-Grigsby. Hill was the team’s second-leading receiver, averaging 45.4 yards per game, while Jones-Grigsby averaged 47.2 rushing yards per game and gave Nick Wilson some necessary rest.

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici has already laid some foundation for his role as the starting quarterback next season, but that doesn’t change the fact the Sun Devils lose a veteran player and leader in QB Taylor Kelly. Plus, Bercovici will be missing half of the magic that was the Jael Mary with the departure of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who led the Sun Devils with 1,165 yards last season. Like Arizona, ASU will need to replace both tackles as it loses fifth-year seniors Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka. So, how much Berco-ing will actually happen as the Sun Devils look to replace so much of their offensive line and one of the conference’s best receivers? We’ll see.

Oregon: Even if the Ducks were losing only Marcus Mariota they would’ve been on this list. But the losses go a bit further than Mariota. On top of the Heisman-winning quarterback, Mark Helfrich must replace three members of his offensive line -- Jake Fisher, Hamani Stevens and Hroniss Grasu. The benefit (if it can be called that) for Oregon is that because of OL injuries last season, several players played several positions along the line. But that doesn’t mean finding a full-time starter at each of those three positions is going to be easy either. The Ducks get Tyler Johnstone back so he’ll likely fill back in to his left tackle role, but what about the other two? Oregon also loses Keanon Lowe, whom Helfrich often described as the most important player who wasn’t seen on the stat sheet.

USC: Cody Kessler decided to return to the Trojans, but he’ll be missing most of his key weapons from the 2014 season. At running back USC loses Buck Allen, who led the team with 114.5 rushing yards per game. At wide receiver, they’ll need to replace leading receiver Nelson Agholor (101 yards per game) as well as George Farmer, who both opted to leave early with Allen. At tight end, the Trojans need to find a replacement for Randall Telfer. With Kessler and all five line starters coming back (though, with a new coach at the helm of that group) the Trojans have a strong foundation, but it needs to find some productive skill position players pronto.

Utah: The Utes, for as much quarterback back-and-forth as they had, were extremely balanced on the receiving end of things as four players tallied 30 or more receiving yards per game. The problem is: three of those players are now gone, so can the lone player who is back in that group -- Kenneth Scott -- become more of a big-time receiver? Or will more players step up to keep things evenly distributed? Kaelin Clay led the team in total receiving yards and Dres Anderson -- who didn’t even finish the season due to injury -- was the team’s fourth-leading receiver at 355 yards. The Utes also need to find a replacement for their fourth-leading receiver -- starting tight end Westlee Tonga, who scored four touchdowns and averaged 30.1 yards per game. On top of those skill position losses, Utah also needs to find a new left tackle. Jeremiah Poutasi opted to leave early after starting for three years at Utah. Worse yet, back up Marc Pouvave’s eligibility has run out so the Utes will be looking for a brand new LT.

Honorable mention:

UCLA: The Bruins lose just one starter, but it hardly seems like you can put the word “just” in front of Brett Hundley’s name. Jim Mora is going to have to do a lot of work to replace Hundley’s production but there are still plenty of playmakers to go around. If it had been Hundley and Paul Perkins or Hundley and Jordan Payton, then UCLA probably would’ve made the list.

Colorado: The Buffs are losing several guys at several positions, which made this a tough call. They’re losing two linemen as well as a wide receiver, tight end and tailback … but it’s the third-leading receiver and second-leading rushing. As of now, it just seems like Sefo Liufau will have a bit more to build on.

Washington State: Connor Halliday’s reign is over but Luke Falk, like Bercovici, laid some major foundation for the Cougars. Falk will be without Pac-12 leading receiver Vince Mayle and second-leading receiver Isiah Myers. But Mike Leach produces 700-yard receivers like he produces quotable material (meaning, often). The Pac-12 Blog has faith that these large shoes will be filled with ease.
Spring practice has begun its roll around the Pac-12, so the table is set for a bevy of position battles that should last the course of the entire offseason. That means it's time to highlight the key fights around the conference.

The quarterback cases

A year after the Pac-12's "year of the quarterback," the conference sees its marquee position enter a state of transition this spring. Plenty of top-flight talent has departed, but an influx of emerging signal-callers has the potential to take at least some sting out of the exodus.

Oregon's saga will generate the most headlines. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is gone, while electrifying dual-threat talent Vernon Adams has transferred to Eugene, Oregon, from Eastern Washington. Coach Mark Helfrich's succession plan isn't determined yet, though: Jeff Lockie was last season's second-stringer, and he'll have a chance to get a jump on Adams -- who can't enroll until fall -- during spring practice.

Less than an hour up the road, Oregon State is tasked with replacing all-time Pac-12 passing leader Sean Mannion. The Beavers are confronted with a traffic jam of their own at the position, as seven quarterbacks currently pack the roster. Luke Del Rio was Mannion's backup last year, so he's a popular name right about now. Expect plenty of maneuvering as the entire stable adapts to Gary Andersen's new offensive system.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCan UCLA's Jerry Neuheisel earn the starting quarterback job over highly touted true freshman Josh Rosen?
Jerry Neuheisel made a memorable start in Brett Hundley's stead against Texas in 2014, but that might have been just a prelude to what's expected to be a fierce offseason quarterback battle at UCLA. Josh Rosen, one of the most highly touted prospects in the nation, has also entered the Westwood fray.

Intrigue extends further into the conference. Luke Falk will likely be Connor Halliday's successor at Washington State, but the fates of incumbents Cyler Miles (Washington) and Travis Wilson (Utah) are far from settled. K.J. Carta-Samuels looks to steal the reins in Seattle. At Utah, Kendal Thompson's challenge of Wilson for the starting job, which raged throughout most of last season, will continue following Thompson's recovery from injury.

The defensive battles up front

Stanford, the Pac-12's best defense three years running, is currently competing to reload a unit that lost eight starters following 2014. The most painful attrition for the Cardinal has happened along the defensive line, where all three of last year's starters are graduating. Coach David Shaw actually wishes he had more competition there, since injuries have reduced Stanford to only three healthy players at the position. But Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas will be back, and the fight to replace Henry Anderson and David Parry will rage on in due time.

Washington, meanwhile, is tasked with replacing six members of a front seven that was stocked with pro talent in 2014: Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Andrew Hudson, and Evan Hudson. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, and ouch -- all of those guys are leaving. That's a tough rash of losses. Brace for a free-for-all of competition in Chris Petersen's second year. Meanwhile, a few hours to the east, two spots are open on Washington State's defensive line.

The offensive trenches

Most of Cal's rising offense returns in 2015, but there's a big battle for Chris Adcock's vacated center position between Matt Cochran and Addison Ooms. Both Arizona schools should see spirited competition among the offensive hogs, too. The Wildcats must fill three holes up front, including center. Carter Wood is the front-runner there, and Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa throws his name into the tackle ring. He is 6-foot-8, 330 pounds -- that sounds fun.

Arizona State tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka are both gone, setting up a critical reloading effort to ensure that Mike Bercovici is well protected next season. Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee seem to be the early leading options, but nothing is a lock at this point.

Colorado has lost both starting offensive guards to graduation, and there are four bodies currently competing for those two spots.

Skill-position central

The running back room always seems to be crowded at USC, and Javorius Allen's departure has set the table for a wide-ranging battle this offseason. Allen was the Trojans' leading rusher, but the next six performers on the ground-yardage list come back in 2015. Justin Davis and Tre Madden are the only two scholarship backs returning, and they'll be joined by a trio of freshmen from Steve Sarkisian's monster 2015 recruiting class -- Ronald Jones II, Dominic Davis and Aca'Cedric Ware.

Of course, the departures of Nelson Agholor and George Farmer have also opened matters up at receiver for USC. Expect plenty of explosive fireworks there: JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson are just two of the exciting names on the Trojans roster.
In February, Mark Schlabach released his "Way Too Early Top 25," which was his best guess at what the preseason top 25 will look like when released.

His list was graced by five Pac-12 teams:
SportsNation

Which of these teams has the best shot to finish the 2015-16 season in the top 25?

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    32%
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    13%
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    38%
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    17%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,229)

But that left us wondering about which team could be a surprise team this year in the Pac-12. Last February there were five teams in his 2014 version of the Way Too Early Top 25. And at the end of this season, in the College Football Playoff Ranking year-end poll there were six, but they didn't completely overlap. On Schlabach's list he had Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, USC, and Washington. At season's end Stanford and Washington were nowhere to be found, but a resurgence in the Pac-12 South led Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah to find a way onto the final top 25 of the season.

These things happen. Players have big seasons, and a team that no one was talking about could be a Cinderella in 2015. So, outside of the five teams Schlabach has listed (next week we'll get to which team on that list won't finish in the top 25), which underdog team has the best shot to finish next season in the top 25?

1. Stanford

This is a new spot for the Cardinal, which isn't accustomed to being unranked. Maybe that will create a chip on the shoulders of its players. Stanford finished last season much better than it started, and though there are some key players who need to be replaced, maybe that momentum will carry over. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. For a team that played in four-consecutive BCS bowls leading up to the first season of the College Football Playoff, there are a lot of maybes.

2. Washington

Could Year 2 be the year Chris Petersen turns his Huskies into the team so many hoped it would be in Year 1? Washington will have its work cut out for it -- replacing six members of the defensive front seven and four offensive linemen. Though turnover in the trenches is rarely a recipe for success, Washington expects to take strides in Petersen's second season. What better stride than a step into the top 25?

3. Utah

No one was talking about Utah a year ago at this time, yet, as the season came to a close the Utes found themselves in a fight for the South championship. Not too shabby, Kyle Whittingham. Can he do it again? Yes, Utah will need to find replacements for Nate Orchard (no small task), and Kaelin Clay and Westlee Tonga (the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers from a last season), but it returns talent in Devontae Booker, Travis Wilson, Kenneth Scott, and Kendal Thompson (who the Utes hope will return from injury this summer).

4. Other

It still seems like a bit of a stretch to think Colorado, Oregon State, Cal, or Wazzu could jump into that group. But, we wanted to give you guys the option of voting for them if you really, truly believe it's a possibility. Because, you know, #Pac12AfterDark.
Spring practices end the retrospective glances of last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we're looking at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Up next: Stanford.

1. Can the team address its scary defensive line situation? Stanford players warmed up with their position groups during this past Saturday’s open practice. Smatterings of about 10 players each gathered for drills in various areas of the field. One corner, though, was sparsely populated -- and noticeably so. Only three bodies warmed up with Stanford’s defensive line group.

The (sort of) good news: The Cardinal run a 3-4, so they have just enough healthy defensive linemen to practice without forcing a coach to step in as a placeholder (that would be rather dangerous). The bad news: That trench is the most physically strenuous position on the football field, and the combination of departures and injuries has decimated Stanford to the point where they have literally no depth there beyond the starting three. Harrison Phillips, Nate Lohn, and Jordan Watkins -- three relatively untested players -- must carry the load without substitute relief for the time being.


Stanford is counting on Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas to return from their injuries as quickly as possible. The Cardinal must also work for rapid development from their healthy players, because the shoes of Henry Anderson and David Parry are massive ones to fill. In that regard, this spring presents an enormous reloading challenge up front.

2. Which young defensive backs will emerge? Stanford has also had a large exodus of talent from its secondary. Jordan Richards is graduating, Wayne Lyons is transferring, and Alex Carter is leaving early for the NFL draft. Even Zach Hoffpauir may be gone by the time the 2015 season comes along, as he’s seriously considering turning pro in baseball. Ronnie Harris is the Cardinal’s most experienced returning defensive back, and he’s currently hurt, so the entire position group is one big, fat unresolved question mark at the moment.

Stanford is thankful that they’ve signed two straight recruiting classes that have been exceptionally strong at defensive back. It seems that those hauls may come in handy during the current pinch. Terrence Alexander appears to be the leading young candidate at cornerback, but there’s plenty of other unproven talent looking to gain position in this wild spring horse race. Taijuan Thomas played well at nickel back in Saturday’s open practice, while the likes of Brandon Simmons, Alijah Holder, Alameen Murphy, and Denzel Franklin will have opportunities to make their moves as well. Time is of the essence, because veteran offensive converts Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield look to be in good position to contribute. Touted freshman prospects Frank Buncom IV, Ben Edwards, and Quenton Meeks are slated to arrive on campus this summer, so even more fresh faces are expected to crowd Duane Akina’s room soon.

3. Can the offense develop into a unit that sustains success over the long haul? Stanford has carried over confidence from the offensive success that it saw to close 2014. Since Ty Montgomery was already hurt then, the unit has lost only two starters from that impressive stretch: left tackle Andrus Peat and fullback Lee Ward. The hope is that minimal turnover helps foster greater consistency on this side of the football. So far in spring, the offense looks well-equipped to succeed, as Christian McCaffrey has added strength to complement his explosive presence. If Kevin Hogan can continue to efficiently distribute the football to the Cardinal’s four gigantic tight ends while making some plays with his legs, Stanford’s attack can be effective next season. This spring is all about establishing stability in that regard.
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- When Gary Andersen took the head coaching job at Oregon State in December, he handed a sheet of paper to his wife, Stacey.

The sheet contained a dream list of hires that Andersen wanted to bring with him to Corvallis.

“You’re crazy, those guys aren’t going to go anywhere in the country with you,” he remembers her saying.

The names on the sheet were mostly those of men that Andersen had coached with before. The two that Stacey Andersen didn’t know were wide receiver coach Brent Brennan, whom Andersen hoped to retain from Mike Riley’s staff, and running back coach Telly Lockette, who had the same position at South Florida.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen has brought the band back together at Oregon State, as many of his assistant have worked with him at other stops.
But Stacey knew the rest well.

  • Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake had been Gary Andersen’s running back/tight end coach at Southern Utah in 2003, then was brought to Utah to coach the linebackers when Andersen was promoted to assistant head coach/defensive coordinator of the Utes.
  • Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin had been Andersen’s OC at Utah State from 2009-12.
  • Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a was Andersen’s defensive line coach at Utah State (2009-10) and then again at Wisconsin (2013-14).
  • Quarterback coach Kevin McGiven coached quarterbacks during Andersen’s first season at Utah State (2009).
  • Defensive back coach Derrick Odum coached the Utah secondary from 2000-02 while Andersen was working with the Utes' defensive tackles and special teams. Andersen then brought Odum to Utah from 2005-07 to work with the safeties.
  • Linebacker coach Ilaisa Tuiaki was Andersen’s defensive graduate assistant at Utah in 2008 and then worked with him again at Utah State from 2009-11.
  • Offensive line coach T.J. Woods worked with tight ends and special teams and then the offensive line during Andersen’s head coaching tenure at Utah State. Andersen brought him along to Wisconsin from 2013-14 to coach the OL again.
  • Strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon met Andersen during the 2006 season at Utah, when he was an assistant director of strength and conditioning. When Andersen left for Utah State in 2009 and Wisconsin in 2013, he brought Simon along to be the director of strength and conditioning both times.

It was a pretty ambitious list, and the Andersens knew that.

“She said, ‘... they’re in good spots, they’ve got great jobs.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to see,’ ” Gary Andersen remembered.

The staff looked very different from his coaching staff at Wisconsin, but it was a dream team, all the best guys hand picked from different points of Andersen's coaching life.

“I told the coaches as we kept going through it I was like, ‘We’re like an ‘80s band getting the band back together and going on tour,’ ” Andersen said. “But it has been awesome to be able to get everyone here.”

Unlike an ‘80s band, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of retuning with this group. Because Andersen had remained pretty consistent throughout his coaching career -- he has a handbook he developed early on and has used at every stop since -- most of the coaches know the way he works, the lingo they’ll use, and how everything will get done.

Each defensive assistant has spent at least four seasons with Andersen. Though Kauha’aha’a was the only defensive coach who was with Andersen at his two most recent spots, this feels like very little turnover to Andersen, which should help the fact that the Beavers have to replace nine defensive starters.

The offensive side of the ball is a little different. Lockette and Brennan need to learn the language, but it should help that Baldwin, McGiven and Woods were all on Andersen’s staff during the 2009 season.

Baldwin said that he has already felt more comfortable in the first season of this job than he has anywhere else (he has coached at 13 other schools). He said it was nice to have a Day 1 in which there really didn't need to be any introductions to other staff members.

“You're not worried 'Do you have a tie on or slacks or suit coat?" Baldwin said of his first day in Corvallis. "I came in my coaching sweats because we weren't impressing anybody, we knew each other."

So while the entire Beavers roster will spend the spring getting to know the new staff, the new staff doesn't feel too new to one another. It feels like a reunion of the school of Andersen.
Every team has players who have to step up this spring. Whether it's scout guys trying to become backups, backups trying to become starters or starters trying to become all-conference, every player should feel like he has something to prove. If they don't, someone behind them will.

That said, there are some positions/players who really have to something to prove. Chris Low is taking a national look at some players. Here are five more within the conference (in no particular order).

Evan Goodman, OT, ASU

[+] EnlargeAnu Solomon
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriSpring practices should assist Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon in finding his mojo again.
Goodman was one of the most sought-after recruits in Florida. Dennis Erickson started recruiting him and Todd Graham closed the deal. Now it's time for the former four-star to live up to the hype. He has the frame at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds. And with Jamil Douglas leaving, the Sun Devils just happen to need a left tackle. Quarterback Mike Bercovici will be only as good as his protection. Goodman must win this job convincingly.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona

We could say this about a lot of quarterbacks. So feel free to insert a “duh, Gemmell” after you read this. But what makes Solomon an interesting case is that the first-year starter actually regressed as the season went on. Consider his first nine games: 25 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Over his final five, he had just three touchdowns and two picks. The opponents, of course, have something to do with that: Washington, Utah, ASU, Oregon and Boise State weren't slouches. But the poise he showed seemed a bit shaken at the end. This spring would be a great time for him to re-establish himself as a steely team leader -- especially with changes coming across the offensive line.

Samson Kafovalu, DL, Colorado

Remember the name? He played in 17 games as a true freshman and sophomore and tallied three sacks in 2013. But academic and personal issues kept him off the team in 2014. He's back. And he has to win the trust of his coaches and his teammates before jumping into what should be a starting role. According to one Colorado staffer, he's been "tossing linemen around like rag dolls." His return could provide a much-needed boost to a defense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in rush defense last season, allowing 204.8 yards on the ground per game.

Destiny Vaeao, DL, Washington State

After losing a couple of top-notch wide receivers in Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, guys such as Dom Williams and Gabe Marks come to mind ... especially with Washington State looking for a new QB. But the Cougars also took a hit on the defensive front with Toni Pole graduating and Xavier Cooper jumping to the NFL. Vaeao has started the past two years and has shown some glimpses, tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks last season. But as the only returning starter on the line, the staff is looking for more production from him in 2015.

Travis Feeney, LB, Washington

The obvious choice here is quarterback Cyler Miles. Maybe in Year 2 at the helm, things click for him and the offense. But what he won't have in Year 2 is the benefit of a veteran front seven backing him up. That's why Feeney, the lone returner in that front seven, is in such a critical position. While guys such as Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, Joe Mathis and Elijah Qualls jockey for spots along the front seven, it will be Feeney the coaches will look at to assume the leadership role. The Huskies' defensive talent drain leaves plenty of questions. It's up to Feeney to step up, lead the front seven and answer them.
While many of the nation's best in the Class of 2016 were known commodities headed into the 2014 season, prospects still develop at different rates and appear on the national radar at different times. This spring, there are a number of ultra-talented prospects who will bring out college coaches by the dozens:

Damion Dickens, DE
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 93


A short-term memory is useful to succeed in some situations, while a longer one is more preferable in others.

Colorado receiver Nelson Spruce is juggling both ends of that spectrum right now. As a pass-gobbling machine, he’s already mastered the former. His team’s ability to effectively embrace the latter is key if Spruce is to lead the Buffaloes into the Pac-12 win column.

There’s not much room for bobbles or drops in Spruce’s gaudy numbers -- a conference-best 106 catches and 12 touchdown receptions in 2014 -- and there certainly isn’t an opportunity to dwell on their rare occurrences.

“Dropping a ball, it’s a weird feeling,” Spruce says. “I freeze out for a second. But I’ve learned to forget about it and move on so it doesn't happen again.”

[+] EnlargeNelson Spruce
AP Photo/David Zalubowski"I'm working on being vocal and doing whatever I can do to help this team win some more games," Nelson Spruce said. "We were so close so many times last year."
The opposite mental processing skills are needed for Colorado to climb out of its current pit of despair. The Buffs, 4-32 in Pac-12 play since entering the conference in 2011, endured a particularly excruciating 0-9 finish in 2014. Opponents outscored Colorado in regulation by an average of only about two points in four of those losses. Double overtime made two of those setbacks especially agonizing.

“I still remember the feeling of devastation after in the locker room,” Spruce says. “We’re trying to use those memories and turn them into motivation. We want them to fuel us this offseason.”

So those long memory skills are proving to be especially vital now, as Colorado strains through the offseason work needed to make them faster, stronger, and more focused in crunch time next fall. Any bit of extra psychological ammunition is welcome, and Spruce is intent on helping deliver it. He’ll be a fifth-year senior in 2015, and he wants to lead the breakthrough.

“I’m working on being vocal and doing whatever I can do to help this team win some more games,” he says. “We were so close so many times last year."

Up to this point, it’s been a classic case of "close, but no cigar" for the Buffs. But Spruce says that's been a major catalyst of what's been a productive offseason so far. The first two weeks of spring practice in Boulder have featured a heavy emphasis on situational drills, where the Buffs have simulated the overtime and game-winning situations that were so vexing for them last season. A focus on lower repetition counts and heavier lifts in winter conditioning led the vast majority of the roster to set personal records in the weight room.

“We feel like we’re ready to compete with the powerful Pac-12 teams,” Spruce says. “I’m squatting and benching as much as I ever have. In years past, we’ve been smaller and less athletic than the competition. Looking at our team now, I think we’re right in the mix with everyone else.”

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound receiver is preparing to assemble a 2015 campaign that challenges his brilliant 2014 statistical performance. He’s been focusing on beating press coverage in his work with Colorado wide receivers coach Troy Walters, a former Stanford All-American at the position who went on to play in the NFL -- Spruce's dream destination after next year.

“I’m also working to be quicker in and out of breaks,” Spruce says. “I want to show that I can be a little more explosive down the field.”

And the hands that often seem like they’re made of glue -- the ones Spruce developed while playing shortstop in baseball -- well, don’t plan on them leaving anytime soon.

“Baseball helped me develop my hand-eye coordination first,” he says. “Now, I’m not getting lazy with it. I’m doing a lot of distraction drills and tip drills. Everything to keep reinforcing concentration.”

For a team that sniffed victory so many times in 2014, but was unable to ever make that final push in Pac-12 play, maintaining focus may be the ticket toward ending years of frustration.

Spruce is fully aware of that as he enters his last college hurrah, and he's locked in on making the most of his final push. The ripened fruit was just inches from Colorado's grasp last year. Individually, Spruce has had little trouble snagging footballs out of midair. Now, he's intent on seeing his team seize the prize, too.

"We thought we’d hit the turning point at some point," he says. "But we didn’t. It’s a competitive league and nothing is going to be given to us.”

Except one final opportunity, one that Spruce is working to maximize at this very moment.
Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we're looking at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Up next: Oregon State.

1. How quickly can the Beavers adjust to the new regime? No matter how many questions Oregon State answer this spring and next fall, this will be the most important question and likely the one that acts as a catalyst to everything else. Mike Riley leaving was a shock to everyone and for a team (especially one that expected its coach to retire in Corvallis) to suddenly have a new coach who has new policies, new ways of running practices and new ways of attacking the game, it can be a hard adjustment. Gary Andersen already said that he knows that not everyone gives in to change so easily and he doesn’t expect all 100-plus players to just buy in immediately, but the faster Oregon State buys in to the new way of life in Corvallis, the faster it can get to the other very pressing questions.

2. How quickly can the Beavers adjust to post-Sean Mannion life? Not only are the Beavers adjusting to a new coach, they’ll also be adjusting to a new signal-caller. Life without Mannion is going to be a huge adjustment for everyone on the team. Yes, he was the foundation for the offense, but he was also a calming influence in the locker room and having that kind of turnover coincide with a coaching turnover is a lot. It’ll also be interesting to see if there’s any attrition here. Andersen’s offense is going to look quite a bit different from what Beaver fans are used to. He’s going to run a “wide open” offense and just by looking at the dual-threat QB he signed in the 2015 class, you get the idea that he’s moving in a different direction. Some of the quarterbacks on Oregon State’s roster seem to have that ability and potential, but there are others who might not be the right kind of fit for an offense that uses a mobile QB.

3. Who steps up on defense? The Beavers need to replace nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, including their top six tacklers from the 2014 season -- the defensive line returns only Jaswha James and the secondary returns only Larry Scott, while the linebackers are in complete turnover mode. Andersen said he’s looking at this as an opportunity for other guys to step up, and in reality it might be better that he and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake can come in and implement what needs to be implemented without too many guys who played much in another scheme. But no matter what way he slices this, there are a lot of shoes to be filled.
Spring has sprung, which means every team can show you hope in a handful of grass -- real or artificial.

Some Pac-12 teams have already started, such as Colorado and Stanford, and others begin this week, such as Arizona, Oregon State and USC. Others start later.

But it feels like the right time to take a look at 10 burning issues in the conference. Please keep your hands clear of this post, as it is sizzling hot.

1. Life after Marcus Mariota at Oregon: You might recall Oregon's quarterback over the past three years was a pretty fair player. But Mariota is off to the NFL, where he's sure to get blinged up, buy four Bentleys and start giving everyone alternating left-right cheek air kisses. That leaves the Ducks with a vacancy behind center. While many -- including a few of my esteemed Pac-12 blog associates -- believe Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is almost certain to take over when he arrives in the fall, you all know I am an inveterate party pooper, so I'm skeptical the transition to an FCS QB, albeit a very good one, will be all rainbows and puppy dogs. So what happens this spring, pre-Adams, should have a high degree of relevance for the ensuing fall competition. That means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak or someone else has an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet and stake a strong claim to the job.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Gary Andersen is the only new head coach in the Pac-12.
2. Gary Andersen takes over at Oregon State: Mike Riley started the 2014 season as the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw went so far as to call him the Godfather, which showed Shaw was once a reader of the Pac-12 blog's "Best case-worst case" stories. Riley, however, will begin the 2015 season at Nebraska, a stunning development that is, well, still a bit stunning. Enter Andersen, who's hiring away from Big Ten power Wisconsin was almost as much of a stunner. That means the Beavers, the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches, will be installing new systems on both sides of the ball, as well as getting to know a new coaching staff. Andersen certainly will want to get past the "Hello, my name is..." phase as quickly as possible.

3. USC returns returns to national relevance? The first issue here is whether this deserved a question mark or a period, because the Trojans are fairly certain to begin the 2015 season ranked in the top 10. That means they start the season nationally relevant, period. The question mark, though, concerns whether they can sustain that elevation as they move beyond crippling NCAA sanctions with an impressive roster and improving depth. One might recall it wasn't too long ago when the program's "Unfinished Business" campaign flopped. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian will be under not inconsiderable pressure to make sure he doesn't suffer through a Lane Kiffin redo.

4. UCLA replaces Brett Hundley: UCLA has 18 starters and a number of other contributors coming back from a team that won 10 games last season and finished ranked 10th. That makes you wonder if perhaps the wrong L.A. team is getting hyped. Ah, but the Bruins are replacing Hundley, a three-year starter who is on the short list of best QBs in program history. While it seems like more than a few folks -- NFL sorts, mostly -- are picking apart Hundley's game of late, what should stand out is how often he delivered for the Bruins, including a troika of wins over That Team From Downtown. Further, this is an interesting battle between a scrappy veteran with a familiar last name in junior Jerry Neuheisel, and a brash, touted true freshman in Josh Rosen, who entered school early with the anticipation of taking over for Hundley. It will be interesting to see if any pecking order develops this spring or if coaches drop an "or" between them on the depth chart. Oh, wait. UCLA is the only Pac-12 that doesn't publish a depth chart. Never mind.

5. Oregon State replaces Sean Mannion: Mannion and the Beavers didn't have a great 2014, but you don't say goodbye to a four-year starter with 83 career touchdown passes lightly and without some sense of transition, particularly when there's also a new coaching staff on hand. Things appear to be wide open between Luke Del Rio -- Mannion's backup -- Brent VanderVeen, Kyle Kempt, Marcus McMaryion, Nick Mitchell, etc. (There are seven QBs on the roster.) It seems reasonable to believe Andersen will want to winnow that list down to around three guys by the end of spring.

6. Washington's no-name defense{ The Huskies say goodbye to six defensive starters, including three -- linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- who were first-team All-Pac-12 and earned All-American honors. All three are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft, so the talent drain is legitimate, not just a system thing. The only returning defender who earned any type of postseason recognition is true sophomore safety Budda Baker, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and has huge upside. That's a good start, but it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to replace these mainstays' production with typical depth-chart promotions. If the Huskies' defense is going to equal or, perhaps, exceed its 2014 numbers, it's going to have to play better as a team, which will be a key test of the second-year coaching staff led by coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

7. Getting coordinated: Oregon State had the only coaching change at the top, which included new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but four other teams have changed defensive coordinators and Utah replaced both coordinators, who both bolted for other jobs. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham went the familiar face route, promoting Aaron Roderick from within on offense to replace Dave Christensen, now at Texas A&M, and bringing John Pease out of retirement to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who joined Andersen at Oregon State. Colorado pushed aside defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who left for UNLV, and hired former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, a major coup for the Buffs. UCLA replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who departed for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, with former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was at West Virginia in 2014. Washington State fired Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a defensive backs coach at Missouri last year. That's a pretty significant amount of turnover on one side of the ball, which will make life more interesting for the conference's offensive minds, particularly early in the season.

8. Stanford rebuilds defense: Speaking of defense, the conference's best unit over the past five years is replacing seven starters, including all of its D-linemen and three of four starters in the secondary. Further, a number of injuries, most notably to D-lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, will muddy the waters this spring. While it seems unlikely the bottom will fall out for the Cardinal -- there's plenty of promising youngsters on hand -- it's difficult to believe this won't be a transitional season on the mean side of the ball.

9. California dreaming? Cal has 17 starters back, second most in the conference and among the most in the nation, from a team that seemed to turn a corner in 2014 in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. That crew includes quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect who could make a star turn this fall if the Bears start to win. The offense, which averaged 38 points per game last season, should be good. The question is defense. That unit improved its points surrendered total by nearly a TD from 2013 to 2014, but that still ended up ranked last in the Pac-12 at 39.8 points per game. The Bears might be good enough to become bowl eligible with a defense that is only slightly better. But if they want to take a decisive step forward in the North Division, they need to at least find a way to be mediocre on defense.

10. Next-step QBs: Last season, the Pac-12 featured a glittering group of returning starting quarterbacks led by Mariota, Hundley, Mannion and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. This year, seven teams welcome back established QBs, but the list is far less scintillating, while a couple other teams have decided front-runners at the position, most notably Mike Bercovici at Arizona State. USC's Cody Kessler leads the bunch, but he has to show he can win big games. Goff is a candidate for all-conference honors, and Stanford's Kevin Hogan finished strong last season after muddling through the first three-fourths of the season. Arizona's Anu Solomon and Colorado's Sefo Liufau are trying to take the proverbial next step, while Utah's Travis Wilson wants to show he should be a four-year starter this spring with Kendal Thompson out with an injury. Washington's returning starter, Cyler Miles, figures to face a tough challenge this spring to retain his job, while Washington State's Luke Falk wants to build on the mostly solid job he did after replacing Connor Halliday.
The first Stanford open spring practice is in the books, and it's possible to make two broad opening observations:

  • Stanford can be very good offensively in 2015 if Kevin Hogan continues the solid quarterback play that he finished 2014 with.

  • Success on the defensive side of the ball is a massive question mark, as it appears a daunting number of dominoes must fall between now and September for the Cardinal to maintain high-level efficiency on that side of the football.

Stanford will spend the next six months grinding to make the necessary variables break in its favor. Health will be key -- the roster is lacking on that front at the moment -- and successful player development will be essential. Here's why, viewed in the context of Saturday's first public look at the squad:

Decimated defensive line

To this point, Stanford has somehow, someway overcome a rash of bad breaks along the defensive line.

Let's take a quick trip down memory lane:

[+] EnlargeAziz Shittu
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford is looking for healthy bodies this spring. DE Aziz Shittu is out due to an injury that ended his 2014 season.
 Henry Anderson, David Parry, and Ben Gardner all fought through serious injuries in 2013. Ikenna Nwafor, the projected nose tackle of the future, was forced to medically retire due to a foot injury suffered in that same year. Meanwhile, Lance Callihan and Anthony Hayes never developed into significant contributors, making it more difficult to alleviate the strain inflicted by the injuries.

The aforementioned players are all out of the program now, but a perfect storm of gut punches persists. Aziz Shittu, Stanford's most experienced player at the position, will miss all of spring ball because of the serious injury that ended his 2014 season. Luke Kaumatule appears to be a better fit at outside linebacker. To make matters even worse, hot young prospect Solomon Thomas is now in a walking boot after jamming his toe this week. He'll miss the first session of spring practice. Dependable walk-on Alex Yazdi still has a year of eligibility remaining, but he recently decided to focus on his career outside of football, so even the "Iranian Meatball" isn't around any longer to provide much-needed depth.

The end result is frightening.

It likely has coach David Shaw thankful that the season opener is six months -- and not six weeks -- away: The Cardinal had only three defensive linemen suited up Saturday. Harrison Phillips, Nate Lohn, and Jordan Watkins (all lighter and less experienced compared to the rugged veterans Stanford had featured in this trench the past several seasons) took every single snap at practice.

That's a virtual death sentence at college football's most physically strenuous position, where depth is a prerequisite for effectiveness.

"It's very, very difficult for three guys to make it through an entire practice [without backups]," Shaw said. "They didn't bat an eyelash. They didn't back off. They were battling all through practice."

The trio earned hearty applause for their perseverance from Stanford's post-practice huddle, but that did little to address grave concerns up front. Increased health, depth and strength must come for the Cardinal this offseason if the program intends to overcome troubles along the defensive line as effectively as it has the past two seasons.

It's tough to bet against the Stanford defense after witnessing it deliver sturdy reloading efforts in recent seasons. But this is shaping up to be the most unnerving offseason test yet for defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and line coach Randy Hart.

Big runs galore

Stanford's offense, in particular its ground game, is the direct spring beneficiary of the team's depleted defensive front. Coaches say Christian McCaffrey has added strength to run more frequently between the tackles, and he certainly looks the part. Along with Barry Sanders, McCaffrey ripped off a number of big runs Saturday.

The Stanford offense features an enviable combination of explosiveness (see McCaffrey and Michael Rector) and size (see receiver Devon Cajuste and four powerful tight ends). Shaw noted that the offensive line, which lost only one starter this offseason, is far ahead of where it was at this point last year.

The power Cardinal have a powerful arsenal offensively, and they're counting on Hogan to deliver consistent play to glue it all together. For the first time since Andrew Luck roamed campus, in fact, Stanford appears to have fewer spring questions on offense than they do on the defensive side.

Assorted notes

  • Quarterback coach Tavita Pritchard said that backups Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst have not yet mastered the playbook. He did note that their athleticism and size (both appear fully physically developed) has impressed the Cardinal. Shaw hinted that a leader for the second-string spot probably won't emerge until August.

  • Nick Davidson, fresh off a stint with Stanford's basketball team, earned first team snaps at right tackle. Dave Bright played right guard next to him, while Johnny Caspers manned second-team center duties with Jesse Burkett out (illness). Caspers is expected to be in the thick of the right guard competition, as is Brendon Austin, who did not participate in practice.

  • Conrad Ukropina showed improved height on his kicks during the field-goal session.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Caruso from Stamford, Connecticut, writes: With three of the Power 5 leagues at 14 teams, I propose we bring back to the table the expansion debate! The traditionalist in me wants to bring on Utah State and Colorado State to match up with their in-state rivals already in the Pac. This has an added bonus in that they've both been pretty good the past few years. Any chance this would ever have legs? I'm guessing in addition to the financial negotiations, there are some academic benchmarks and such that have to be met before schools can join the Pac, but just imagine all the joy brought to us Pac fans with mild OCD! Thoughts?

Ted Miller: What fans often miss about conference expansion discussions -- expansion that has happened or could happen -- is that it's not about "fan" things, such as picking up natural rivals or up-and-coming programs or even a program's tradition of success. It's about TV markets and revenue bottom lines.

When the discussion turns to expansion, the name of the school doesn't matter that much. It's the demographics and what those mean for the current members of the conference that's considering adding members. If Larry Scott had an expansion idea for the Pac-12 to become the Pac-14, the school presidents wouldn't particularly care about the name of the school or how it could upgrade the quality on the field. It's almost entirely about money.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsIt's very unlikely that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is pursuing expansion these days.
I say almost entirely because academics do matter in the Pac-12, as do values. Any potential new member must be like-minded when it comes to institutional policies.

What would get the Pac-12 to raise an eyebrow anew to expanding is market share: Would adding Teams A and B add significant eyeballs in front of TVs, thereby making the conference significantly more valuable when the next TV contract comes up? And by "significantly," we mean that a share of revenue split 14 ways would significantly exceed that revenue split 12 ways.

That wouldn't happen with the addition of Utah State and Colorado State, nor would it happen with Fresno State, San Diego State nor Boise State.

It would with Texas. That was the big prize back during the expansion feeding-frenzy five years ago and it continues to be, but that flirtation seems at an end, at least in the near term.

In fact, without Texas, I don't see any Pac-12 expansion on the horizon, at least in our current conference/postseason model. While you never say never, there seems to be zero momentum behind the idea from Pac-12 decision-makers.


Scott from La Jolla, California, writes: I am wondering about your take on the ranking of the coaching jobs from worst to best? I thought it was a very interesting piece, and by and large very well done. A few quibbles, which likely reflect a (long) lifetime of being an interested watcher of West Coast football (at an increasingly late hour of the day, unfortunately): 1. I notice the "panel" of experts who had input have no direct experience out West; 2. Utah behind Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland, Pittsburgh and (less so) Iowa? How many BCS, etc., games have those schools been to in the last 20 years? 3. Arizona behind North Carolina? 4. Oregon tied with Texas A&M, and not even in the top 10. I read where Oregon is the winningest program in the country over the last 20 years. In that same time frame, they have six outright conference titles and one shared (with Washington and Oregon State). How many consecutive decades do you have to be good to have "tradition?"

Ted Miller: Obviously, these rankings are subjective and would vary year-to-year -- and widely so every five years.

Further, if you asked me to make a top-25 on Jan. 10 and then asked me to do one today -- and I couldn't look at my Jan. 10 list for reference -- the one I did today would be different. They subjectively would even strike at the pollsters on mercurial whims that have little to do with developments with the programs.

With Utah, it was ranked a high of 39 and a low of 58 among the five pollsters and finished 47th. I understand your quibble with that. Below Kentucky? Really?

Only Kentucky will pay Mark Stoops $3.25 million this season, and, despite his success, Kyle Whittingham "only" will get $2.6 million. Not to be mercenary, but...

Keep in mind this isn't a ranking of the programs. It's a ranking of the coaching jobs.

Further, of all those teams you note, only Pittsburgh played in front of fewer fans last year than Utah, while Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland and Pittsburgh certainly are in more fertile recruiting territory.

My rankings would have had Utah higher, and I believe Utah would have been higher if the Utes didn't have that bit of soap opera after the season between Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill, which included a loss a both coordinators.

Yet I also think these rankings were pretty darn well done.


Ryan from Salt Lake City writes: How big of an impact do you see Kylie Fitts having for the Utes next season? He was a big recruit for UCLA a couple years ago and adds to an already dominant D-line for Utah.

Ted Miller: How big? I have no idea. We haven't seen enough of Fitts -- he had one tackle as a true freshman at UCLA in 2013 -- to know what he can do against Pac-12 competition.

We know he was a fairly highly rated recruit, good enough to be offered by both USC and UCLA, though his recruiting story was a bit tangled, as he flipped from the Trojans to the Bruins when USC belatedly told him they didn't have enough space for him to enroll early. We also know that he said -- tweeted -- that he left UCLA for personal and not football reasons.

My guess is he's going to have an impact next year, though he's got a fight on his hands to earn a starting slot. As you noted, the Utes look pretty strong -- as usual -- on the defensive line.

My general thought on first-year players -- freshmen and transfers -- is to take the Missouri approach: You've got to show me.


Gavin from Portland writes: Has there ever been an offseason when the Pac-10 blog has not named [Washington] a rising program, on the cusp of a breakout season, contender to challenge for North title?

Ted Miller: Yes.

And it's the Pac-12 blog.

Spring questions: Oregon Ducks

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
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Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we're looking at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Up next: Oregon.

1. What will this quarterback competition look like? By now, everyone knows that Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is a talented, dual-threat quarterback who basically fits the mold for the Oregon offense (except for the fact he's a smidge short at 5-foot-10). But, unfortunately for Adams, he won’t be able to come to campus until he finishes at EWU, and worse yet, he won’t be working out with the Eagles on campus since they're Oregon’s season opener. Could that put him a beat (or several) behind when it comes to the Ducks? Absolutely. Because while he’s working out on his own, there is going to be a slew of other quarterbacks in Eugene throwing with the Oregon wide receivers, working with the running backs, getting acclimated to the offense line, building relationships with Scott Frost. Which of these guys on campus can emerge as the front-runner? Or at least the front-runner to battle Adams once he arrives on campus? It has been a while since there was a quarterback battle (for the starting job) in Eugene but now, we’ve got one. Jeff Lockie? Morgan Mahalak? Those seem to be the front-runners, but for how long?

2. Who’s going to emerge in the secondary? Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has his work cut out for him. Not only does he need to replace All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Neal also needs to replace Erick Dargan, who led the Pac-12 in interceptions, and Troy Hill, who played some really strong football for the Ducks last year. Chris Seisay made some strides in making Neal’s job a little less tough last season when he stepped in for Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason, but the right cornerback and free safety positions are still in question. People need to step up and step up soon because the Ducks weren’t in the top pack of Pac-12 pass defenses, and with several good QBs on the Ducks’ schedule in 2015 taking a step back isn’t an option.

3. Is anyone going to challenge Royce Freeman for carries? Freeman beating out Byron Marshall for the running back spot last fall might’ve been the best thing that ever happened in Marshall’s career. Without it, he’s just a good running back. With it, he’s one of the best threats in the Pac-12 when it comes to defensive coordinators trying to know what he’s going to do. Plus, he gets out of this battle for carries that’s now happening between Freeman and Thomas Tyner, who had a great postseason for the Ducks. Add to that incoming freshman Taj Griffin, the nation’s No. 4 running back, and we have, yet again, some serious questions to answer when it comes to the Ducks’ running backs. Griffin might not be able to compete 100 percent yet this spring as he’s still recovering from a knee injury, but expect him to still be a factor in the discussions.

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