This past season, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich held himself to a personal mantra: Year 2 would be an improvement from Year 1.

“If you do something a second time,” he said last August, “you should be better, you should be more efficient and there’s no exception with me.”

Now, defensive coordinator Don Pellum has a similar task.

On the one hand, when looking at a defense that was one of the most inconsistent groups in the conference, it doesn’t seem as though it would be too hard to take a step forward, especially because most of the players will now be in their second year in the program.

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon loses quite a bit from its defense, but coordinator Don Pellum sees ways in which his group will be improved and more efficient.
On the other hand, when looking at the players that Pellum loses -- his top two tacklers, an All-American cornerback, his most athletic pass-rusher -- it’s hard to know how the Ducks will be able to take a step forward when they’re replacing so many players.

But for Pellum, the answer is simple.

“We have a bunch of weapons,” Pellum said. “This year we won’t carry as many, but we’ll be more specific. So if all of a sudden we’re playing a certain team and they’re running a certain play, last year we might’ve had two or three or four different things we could do, [this year] we’re going to dial it down to one or two and be really, really good at them.”

The process of becoming really, really good at those plans begins at the end of the month, when Oregon begins spring practices. As it gets closer and closer, Pellum is getting more excited.

For him, he sees a lot of veterans in his meeting room, even though most of the public might not see that.

“I’m excited about where we are,” Pellum said. “We lost some terrific players, but I think overall in terms of depth and experience, we’re far ahead of where we were a year ago right now.”

He said that in his first year, he hadn’t really realized how few senior starters were on the defensive side of the ball until he walked into a meeting as the defensive coordinator and began to actually count: zero on the line, two in the linebackers group (Tony Washington, Derrick Malone) and just one proven, battle-tested senior defensive back (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu).

In Year 2, Pellum rattles off a group of players at each position group that he views as veteran because they know his system and how he works.

The Ducks return defensive lineman Alex Balducci and a few experienced linebackers in Joe Walker, Rodney Hardrick and Tyson Coleman. In the secondary, cornerback Chris Seisay got some playing time near the end of the season after Ekpre-Olomu’s injury and safety Reggie Daniels finished third on the team in tackles. So, there’s certainly talent there, but the depth remains to be seen.

But, with those players and a coach willing to scale back to better fit his team, could this team take a big step forward in 2015?

Absolutely.

“[Last year] we had a big toolbox,” Pellum said. “Our toolbox will be a little smaller this year. And now, after going through the season, we know how the opposition is going to really attack or try to counter, so now it’s going to be more specific to what these defenses are for.”

Pellum will attack Year 2 with the same expectation his head coach had last year: If you do something a second time, you should be better.

“I feel real comfortable about what this group can do,” Pellum said. “I think we can carry a little less but I think we can be a lot more efficient.”
In this week's poll, ESPN.com's Pac-12 blog asked readers about Mark Schlabach's Way Too Early Top 25. Or rather, about the teams that weren't mentioned on that list but have a good chance to be on the final top 25 of the 2015-16 season.

Of the responses, Stanford and Utah got the most votes, which worked out well because David Lombardi felt pretty strongly that Stanford would make the final top 25 next season while Chantel Jennings believed that the Utes would do the same.

They debate ...

Lombardi: Immediately following Utah's double overtime win at Stanford on November 15, my answer would have been different. But it's tough to bet against Stanford after seeing the way the Cardinal rampaged through the end of the season. Prior to 2014, Stanford had posted four consecutive campaigns filled with elite-level, BCS bowl success, and that's earned them the benefit of the doubt coming off a Jekyll-and-Hyde season: History tells us to trust the good Stanford team we saw over the season's final three games more than the wildly inconsistent one that played the front nine.

Of course, the reloading challenges currently facing the Cardinal are unique to the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. For the first time, the program must replace the entirety of its starting defensive line -- long considered the bedrock of what has become a top-shelf 3-4 unit. The injury-plagued situation at Stanford practice is currently very frightening, as three relatively inexperienced defensive linemen are being forced to stick through entire sessions without any substitutes at the position.

But the Cardinal still have six months to find their footing, and that allows time for two important developments to take root: Injured defensive linemen can heal and the team's respected defensive coaching staff can develop a slew of talented players to pick up the slack on that side of the ball. Stanford has recruited defensive backs very well the past two years, and the bet here is that Duane Akina can make that talented unit shine by fall. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson earned credibility in 2014, and recent results suggest he can ensure that Stanford's defense doesn't fall off a cliff.

That much should be adequate for the Cardinal, who return almost all of an offense that surged to finish 2014. Kevin Hogan is an experienced quarterback who overcame the passing of his father last season. He has the tools at his disposal to make Stanford's attack consistently productive, and that'll be enough to stabilize this team into Top 25 territory -- even if it does ultimately field a weaker defense.

Jennings: The Utes certainly have their work cut out for them, don't get me wrong. I don't think this is going to be a cakewalk for Kyle Whittingham & Co., but like last season I think the Utes will grind their way into the Top 25 come season's end.

Last season, six four-loss teams (including Utah) made it into the final AP poll of the season. Even one five-loss team (Auburn) made it in. What those seven teams all had in common were two things: 1. Most -- if not all -- of their losses either came on the road or were against a ranked opponent. 2. With the exception of Louisville, every team had at least one win (in some cases as many as three wins) versus ranked opponents.

Utah's doesn't exactly have the kindest schedule for an FBS team this year but they'll just look at that as opportunities to pick up signature wins. If the Utes can pick up some big W's against a few of their many top opponents, then maybe even a four- or five-loss Utah can make it into the final AP poll.

Heck, the Utes have three opportunities before October to pick up big wins in games versus Michigan, Utah State and Oregon.

Now, I don't think the Utes are just going to demolish several teams. But, I think they have a grinding work ethic that's going to help them in close games. The Utes' average margin of victory in conference games last season was 3.6 -- they know how to play (and how to win) in close games.

With running back Devontae Booker taking on an even bigger role, Kenneth Scott becoming a better receiving threat (with the help of players like Kenric Young and Deniko Carter) and Travis Wilson manning the operation (yep, I've called it) I think the offense will be in good hands … or at least more consistent hands than it was last season.

Defensively, I think Hunter Dimick is going to take on a much bigger role without Nate Orchard. With an intact linebacker corps the pass rush has a potential to be just as potent as last season. The secondary needs to shore itself up a bit, but I think they're in pretty good shape, too.

Plus, they've got Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett -- field goals and field position will be no worry for Whittingham.

Do I think Utah will be perfect? No. But, I do think a four-loss Utah team that picked up a few ranked wins along the way could sneak into the Top 25.
Kevin HoganStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKevin Hogan wants to carry the momentum of Stanford's strong finish last season into 2015.
In the summer of 2011, current Stanford center Graham Shuler, then a senior in high school, visited campus. He played some pick-up basketball with future football teammates.

The Cardinal's new crop of freshmen had just moved into their dorms, and Shuler remembers one of the newcomers -- still relatively anonymous at that point -- soar high off the court.

"He grabbed a rebound, and he just took off," the lineman said. "It seemed like it took him only two strides to cross the court, and he took off again from the free throw line to put in a finger roll over everybody. It was like -- 'Yo! Who in the world was that?'"

It was Kevin Hogan, Stanford's future starting quarterback.

At the time, Andrew Luck's senior 2011 flurry was just preparing for takeoff, so it would be over a year before the outside football world discovered Hogan. But Shuler's introduction came early, and he remembers it vividly to this day as a precursor to the wild ride that has followed.

A chance to establish consistency
Hogan, entering his fifth season on the Farm, is one of Stanford's elder statesmen now. The instinctual, gritty athleticism that Shuler first saw several years ago on the basketball court has served the quarterback well throughout his college football career. But Hogan has also struggled at times, and it's this inconsistency that has made him somewhat of an enigma.

Moving forward, Stanford wants to enjoy a full year of the excellent play that Hogan delivered over the final three games of 2014. During that stretch, the Cardinal offense found its groove. Hogan posted a 222.4 quarterback rating in Stanford's 31-10 road manhandling of UCLA.

"We found a good rhythm and I want to carry that forward," Hogan says. "We saw how good we could be."

If the good times do indeed roll on, Hogan's athleticism may prove to be the key to unlocking his comfort zone. That approach was effective when the quarterback did considerable damage with his legs over the final three games of the season en route to efficient passing performances. (Hogan averaged over 6.5 yards per rush in all three of those contests after surpassing 5 yards per rush only once in Stanford's first 10 games.)

"It's just like anyone: A receiver would like to catch a hitch before a 50-yard go route," Hogan explained in December. "You want to get into a rhythm with your bread and butter plays.... I'm the same way. If I can roll out or do a QB run, I'd like to get that first hit and first play out of the way. You feel like you're in the game. I appreciate those plays when they're called early, and I try to lobby for them."

One can almost sense an affinity for contact in Hogan's words, and recognizing his nose for the gritty side of the game may be the ticket to consistently unleashing his strengths. It's no coincidence that a smile creeps across receiver Devon Cajuste's face when he's asked about Hogan's demeanor in the huddle.

"Even though I can't see what's happening when I'm running a route, I always know when something happened in the backfield," Cajuste says. "Because Hogan's super excited in the huddle after he gets hit."

Cajuste points to another aspect of Hogan's skill set that differentiates him from many quarterbacks, one that led directly to a touchdown run against Oregon State in 2014.

"He actually reads blocks [when he's scrambling], and we appreciate that as wide receivers, " Cajuste grins. "Because he never goes left when the block is set up for the right."

Highs, lows, and the future

Hogan's mercurial Stanford career has taken him through both tragedy and triumph. The high came early on: After replacing Josh Nunes as the Cardinal's starting quarterback in 2012, Hogan was the quarterback of Stanford's first Rose Bowl championship team since 1972.

But if the 2012 rip through Autzen Stadium and Pasadena represented Hogan's peak, 2014 marked the valley. This was the aforementioned 2014 season of erratic play, the one during which his father, Jerry, succumbed to cancer.

"I can't imagine going through something like that," Shuler says. "But Kevin's a rock, and one thing that amazes is how well he carries the legacy of his dad."

Just three weeks after Jerry's passing, Hogan earned MVP honors in Stanford's 45-21 victory over Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. He acknowledged his father after that performance. The success provided the Cardinal staff with firm reassurance that Hogan would be able maintain a consistently high level of play moving forward into 2015.

"Those last three games [of 2014], that's probably the best football that he's ever played," Stanford coach David Shaw says. "Kevin's in a good place now. He's smooth, confident, relaxed, and accurate."

When he reflects on the progress he's made as a quarterback since his freshman year, Hogan feels that he's on solid ground, too.

"My decision-making is a lot sharper and quicker," he says. "I can get through my reads more quickly. I understand defensive structure and scheme, which allows me to play faster while staying comfortable at the same time."

Quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard says that Hogan "has used [his late 2014 success] as some ground to stand on when he's talking to the offense," and Shuler senses this, too.

"Kevin will be one of the first people to tell you that he is more reserved, but this year, when practice is having trouble getting going, the voice you hear is his," Shuler says. "And that's really cool, because in years past, Kevin would say a couple things, but not this much. I think he feels a sense of ownership for this group of guys, more so than in the past."

As a starting quarterback during a golden era in Stanford football history, Hogan's name won't soon be forgotten around the program. But his final 2015 hurrah represents an opportunity to tack on an exclamation point of great significance -- one that can boost NFL dreams and an already-storied college legacy.

"Our goal is to pick up the script where we left off last year," Hogan says.

And to finish the larger script, the one that started on that basketball court back in 2011, in fitting style.
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Junior days are underway, and the spring evaluation period is quickly approaching. While a number of programs are off to a fast start and in need of keeping impressive commitments in the fold, there also are programs in need of creating momentum and battling archrivals on the trail this spring and headed into the summer.

Here is a look at 10 programs that need a big spring, for various reasons (listed alphabetically):

Florida
The Gators saved the 2015 class in the days leading up to national signing day creating some momentum heading into the spring and summer. The time to capitalize is now for Jim McElwain and staff, and Florida simply must continue to gain steam with archrival Florida State swinging a big recruiting stick in state, and Miami on a run headed into the spring evaluation period. Florida currently has three verbals, all outside the ESPN Junior 300.

Spring questions: UCLA

March, 4, 2015
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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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    31%
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    13%
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    39%
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    17%

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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



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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.

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