Pac-12: Utah Utes

You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! -- opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and a leader in interceptions.

We tackled offensive trios for the North and the South on Tuesday. This morning, we looked at the defensive situation in the Pac-12 North, which looks to be a rebuilding adventure across the board. Here's a glimpse at the Pac-12 South, which looks like it may be in better shape than the North. There also seems to be some defensive parity across the board in this division, so keep that in mind when considering these rankings. There's no clear standout.

1. Utah

LB Jared Norris, DL Hunter Dimick, LB Gionni Paul

The skinny: The Utes will certainly miss Nate Orchard's beastly productivity (18.5 sacks, 21 TFL), but this strong defensive machine looks to keep on churning. Norris led last year's team with 116 tackles -- the next most productive player after Orchard accumulated only 61. Utah will turn to Dimick (10 sacks, 14.5 TFL) to pick up some pass-rush slack, while Paul's four interceptions paced the roster in 2014.

2. Arizona

LB Scooby Wright, S William Parks, CB Cam Denson

The skinny: To begin, let's establish that Scooby Wright alone delivers the statistical output of an entire three-headed monster: 163 tackles, 19 TFL, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2014. It's remarkable to realize that Parks' 81 tackles -- second most of Arizona's returners -- were less than half of Wright's total last year. The safety did also contribute two interceptions, as did Denson at cornerback. With Jared Tevis and Tra'Mayne Bondurant both gone, the secondary must pick up slack to round out the Wildcats' new three-headed monster.

3. Arizona State

S Jordan Simone, LB Salamo Fiso, CB Kweishi Brown

The skinny: The Sun Devils are coming off a topsy-turvy season on defense, but the bet here is that Todd Graham's maturing unit will show much more consistency in 2015. Simone has gone from walk-on to ASU's leading returning tackler and critical defensive glue. Fiso will likely have to improve upon his 11 tackles for loss from last season to help this unit overcome the pass rush loss of Marcus Hardison. Brown brings back three interceptions.

4. USC

LB Anthony Sarao, LB Su'a Cravens, CB Adoree' Jackson

The skinny: Though leading tacklers Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard are gone, plenty of exciting talent remains at USC. Sarao, now a senior, is the leading returning tackler on a balanced defense. Cravens is a true Swiss Army knife -- he's effective both in the secondary and at linebacker, evidenced by the fact he led the Trojans in both tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (3) last season. Jackson is still looking for his first career pick, but we're betting that comes soon, as his playmaking ability is not in question.


LB Myles Jack, LB Deon Hollins, CB Ishmael Adams

The skinny: This troika is tasked with filling the shoes of Eric Kendricks, perhaps the nation's most dependable tackling machine (145 last season). Jack is the unit's leading returner (87 stops in 2014), while Hollins led the Bruins with nine sacks as a sophomore. UCLA should benefit from the experience that Adams brings at cornerback. Remember that he housed two interceptions last year, and both returns were electrifying.

6. Colorado

LB Kenneth Olugbode, DL Derek McCartney, S Tedric Thompson

The skinny: The Buffs seem confident that they'll make major improvements to their atrocious run defense in 2015. That'll require a unit-wide effort originating from the front seven. But trio above represents an integral core of statistical production. Olugbode is Colorado's leading returning tackler, McCartney paced last year's team with 4.5 sacks, and Thompson recorded all three of the Buffs' interceptions in 2014.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25

And the capital of Nebraska is Lincoln!

You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! -- opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

We're breaking it down by division. We tackled the offensive three-headed monsters from the North earlier today. Now it's time to move on to the Pac-12 South, which features plenty of firepower and plenty of question marks.

1. Arizona

QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, WR Cayleb Jones

The skinny: Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Wildcats' surge to the top of the treacherous Pac-12 South was their youth at the skill positions. Solomon led the offense as a redshirt freshman, Wilson bowled over defenders as a true freshman, and Jones led the team in receiving as a sophomore. That entire nucleus returns in 2015, and it looks like more quality depth could be layering the receiving corps -- Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips, and DaVonte' Neal come to mind. But the main point remains: Arizona returns a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver, and a developing quarterback who handled his inaugural campaign well. That's a three-headed monster that can flex its muscles in 2015.

2. ASU

QB Mike Bercovici, RB Demario Richard, slot receiver D.J. Foster

The skinny: There should be plenty of offensive confidence oozing out of the desert come fall. Bercovici showed plenty of dependability last season, so Todd Graham isn't waking up in cold sweats because of Taylor Kelly's graduation. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils are confident enough in Richard's running abilities to move versatile weapon Foster to the slot. Richard racked up 478 yards on 5.7 yards per carry as a 17-year old, while Foster already caught 62 passes while also serving as the primary running back last year. With Jaelen Strong's 1,165 receiving yards gone, Foster's position shift makes sense, and ASU has gunpowder in all three of its offensive cannons.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Justin Davis/Tre Madden, WR JuJu Smith

The skinny: Kessler will be in the early Heisman Trophy discussion thanks to the gaudy numbers he posted in 2014 (39 touchdowns, five interceptions), but the Trojans do have to replace his two most influential sidekicks. Running back Javorius Allen (1,489 yards) and receiver Nelson Agholor (104 catches, 1,313 yards) are both taking lavish production with them to the NFL draft. Sure, the Trojans have been recruiting well enough to power through those losses, but doing so won't be a cakewalk. Davis and Madden are expected to share backfield duties (there are promising true freshmen coming, too), while Smith returns 54 catches. There's work to do at USC to make this troika as effective as it was last year, but the cupboard certainly isn't bare -- it's brimming with potential.


QB ?, RB Paul Perkins, WR Jordan Payton

The skinny: Brett Hundley is gone from this mix, but the Bruins can take solace in the fact they return the Pac-12's rushing champion. Perkins' 1,575 yards on 6.3 yards per carry led all conference backs last year, and there will be big weight on the junior's shoulders as a new quarterback takes over. Jerry Neuheisel or Josh Rosen must develop rapport with Payton, who emerged as Hundley's favorite target in 2014. That'll be the key in ensuring that Perkins again enjoys running room in 2015.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Christian Powell, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: This is an intriguing trio for a Colorado program that's eager to turn a bevy of heartbreaking losses into 2015 wins. A hemorrhaging run defense might have been the primary culprit in the Buffs 1-11 finish last year, but Liufau's conference-worst 15 interceptions also cannot be overlooked. If he does a better job avoiding these mistakes, Spruce and an improving run game should be ready to roll. Spruce's 106 catches led the Pac-12 in 2014, while Colorado's rushing efficiency has bettered from 3.1 yards per carry in 2012 to 4.1 last year. Powell, a 230-pound bruiser, led a committee of backs at 5.3 yards per carry.

6. Utah

QB Travis Wilson/Kendal Thompson, RB Devontae Booker, WR Kenneth Scott

The skinny: The Utes have Booker, a 1,512-yard name that'll be tossed around in early Heisman discussions, but there has to be significant worry beyond his position. For one, both prospective quarterbacks struggled throwing the ball last season, and their road doesn't look to be getting any smoother. With Kaelin Clay, Dres Anderson, and Westlee Tonga gone, the Utes are losing two of their top three receivers and their most productive tight end. Scott is the leading returning target while prized junior college transfer Deniko Carter will be counted on to produce immediately. There's potential there, but at this point, questions outweigh answers. Booker is the workhorse with a hefty load on his shoulders.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 24, 2015
Mar 24

You talkin' to me?

Colorado has finished their spring game, so we're in a slight Pac-12 practice lull while basketball is in the spotlight. But the avalanche of 11 other spring games is creeping closer. Here are some links from around the conference:

With Utah spring football starting Tuesday, the Pac-12 Blog thought it’d be a good time to catch up with former defensive end Nate Orchard, who has been pretty busy since he and the Utes took care of Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

Let’s start out basic. What have you been up to since the end of December?

Nate Orchard: I was in California training for the combine. Since I’ve been back from the combine, I had the Senior Bowl, then I was home. Really, it’s just managing my own schedule and being at the right place at the right time as far as the workouts and massages and things like that I have lined up. It’s time management and just doing the right things on my own.

[+] EnlargeNate Orchard
Boyd Ivey/Icon SportswireNate Orchard said he's hoping to add a few pounds to his frame before Utah's pro day.

You trained for the NFL combine in Carlsbad, California. It sounds like a lot of Pac-12 guys were in that same area training. Did you get to train with or see any former competitors?

NO: Oh, yeah. We had Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, Arik Armstead, Mickey Baucus -- quite a few guys.

So you left the Pac-12 but you really didn’t. What was that like?

NO: To be at the facility training with them and getting to know them on a personal level was great. Going forward, it’s exciting to see where everyone ends up, just the relationships we’ve built with one another. It’s going to be fun to see each other play on Sundays and still playing against one another.

Any trash talk happening during those workouts?

NO: I’m the type of guy to sit back and just listen to everyone trash talk each other. The guys mainly trash talking were Arik [Armstead] and Xavier Cooper from Washington State. You know, we had Washington State up 21 and we ended up losing to them. It’s all fun and games. But when it comes down to the workouts, everyone gets serious and does well.

Moving on to what you were actually training for -- the NFL combine. Were you happy with your performances there?

NO: I was satisfied. I didn’t run as fast as I wanted to on the 40 but other than that, position drills I did really well on and I think that’s what a lot of scouts were looking for, to see how well I do and how I move in space. Just the other drills -- the L-drill, the shuttle -- I think I did well on. I didn’t let one event affect the way I performed throughout the rest of the combine. Overall, I had a great experience.

You still ran the ninth-fastest time for defensive linemen (4.8 seconds) at the combine. Were you running faster at training?

NO: I was running way faster when I was training. My 10-yard sprint was a lot faster, but I don’t know, it must’ve just been an off day. There’s not much I can do now, but continue forward and train hard.

Are you planning to re-run the 40 at Utah’s pro day because of that?

NO: No, I won’t be running the 40 or doing any events. I think the only thing I’ll be doing is position drills and bench, because I didn’t bench at the combine.

Have you set any goals for the bench?

NO: Above 22 is my goal.

Note: Other NFL combine DL performers who did 22 reps -- Oregon State’s Obum Gwacham, Clemson’s Tavaris Barnes and Texas’ Cedric Reed.

What have you heard from teams so far regarding you as a defensive end versus outside linebacker?

NO: It has been frustrating because it’s all over the place. Some 4-3 teams want me as a strict pass-rusher -- just get off the ball, get to the quarterback. Some teams want me as an outside linebacker -- drop into coverage, rush the passer when I’m asked to. I’m all over the place right now. At the end of the day, I’m very fortunate to be in this position where both schemes still need me. It opens up my options to more teams, so whatever happens, happens. At the end of the day I’ll be happy to play wherever.

Are you trying to put on more weight though?

NO: Definitely. The more weight, the better. Going up against guys that are 300 and 350 pounds, I think the more weight I have will protect myself from injuries. I went to the combine at 250. My goal is to be 255 at my pro day.

A year ago at this time everyone was talking about how Trevor Reilly was gone at Utah and wondering who would step up and support Jacoby Hale in the pass rush. You came out. Now, everyone is talking about how you’re gone and wondering who will step up and support Hunter Dimick. Who do you see having a big year in 2015 opposite Dimick?

NO: You’ve got Pita Taumoepenu who has amazing speed off the edge and can definitely support him on that other side. You’ve got Jason Fanaika and you’ve got Kylie Fitts, the transfer from UCLA who can do some amazing things. I think at the end of the day you’ve got a great group of defensive ends who can rotate and help each other out and come away with big numbers. I think they’re going to lead the nation in sacks this next year, so I’m excited to watch my boys do work.

Kalani Sitake left Utah to become the defensive coordinator at Oregon State. Were you surprised? What are your feelings on that? Have you talked with him?

NO: I had no idea it was coming. But at the end of the day I’m happy for him. If he’s happy with the transition, along with my position coach [Ilaisa] Tuiaki, I wish the best for them and I’m happy for everything they’ve done for me.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19

Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin.

With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

Today, we move to the defensive side of the ball and we're starting with the defensive backs. For the sake of time and avoiding headaches, we're going to just separate this into three groups -- the defensive backs, linebackers and defensive line. For teams that have certain hybrid positions and players, we put them into which of those three categories we thought they best fit. If you don't like how we did it, feel free to complain here.

UCLA: The Bruins' secondary will miss the versatility of Anthony Jefferson (72 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 interception, 8 pass break ups), but UCLA has some good talent and depth built up, too. The Bruins return starting corners Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau, as well as both of their back ups in Priest Willis and Marcus Rios. Adams and Moreau were both top-10 tacklers for the Bruins last season, but it’d be nice to see both play a bit more consistently, specifically Moreau, who really stepped up at the end of last season. But, that’s what the spring is for -- getting back to those basics and learning to play better as a unit consistently. It gets interesting at safety for the Bruins where they have Tahaan Goodman, who stepped in for Randall Goforth last season and finished with 46 tackles, and Jaleel Wadood, who had a fantastic freshman season, finishing as the Bruins’ fifth-leading tackler. Those two could be the lead candidates for starters but don’t count out Randall Goforth, coming off surgery on both shoulders, who’s expected to be back though Jim Mora hasn’t given any official word on him yet.

USC: Let’s start with the corners, where the Trojans are in excellent shape, returning both Adoree’ Jackson (who would like to win the Thorpe and Heisman at USC) and Kevon Seymour. Both Jackson and Seymour finished last season with 49 tackles apiece, and with the starting spots basically locked down, Steve Sarkisian will probably spend the spring looking at the options behind them. Expect Chris Hawkins, Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons to get the most run here.

Both Hawkins and Lockett have taken reps at safety this spring, too, but that’s more to build depth than anything else since the Trojans return both John Plattenberg and Leon McQuay III. Earlier this month USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said that this is a big spring for McQuay and we expect the same is true for Plattenberg, as both need to prove they can play consistently at a high level. Plattenberg started six of the Trojans’ final seven games -- half at free safety and the other half at strong safety -- so he needs to keep that momentum moving forward. These two seem pretty sure bets as the two top safeties coming into the fall but they’ve got to do more than prove they’ll be the best out of spring practice. With stud safeties Marvell Tell’s and Ykili Ross’ enrollments on the horizon, Plattenberg and McQuay need to be as many steps ahead as possible in order to keep those starting spots next fall.

Utah: With as much nickel as the Utes played last season, they’ll want a lot of competition in the secondary this spring as they look to replace Davion Orphey, Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. Dominique Hatfield will enter the spring as a near lock for one of the corner spots after finishing with 38 tackles, one interception (which was a pretty important interception) and nine pass break ups last season. The other front-runner for a starting spot would be Justin Thomas at nickel. He tallied 37 tackles and one sack in 2014. Opposite Hatfield, the other cornerback spot will be fun to watch as Ahmad Christian, Tavaris Williams and Boobie Hobbs battle it out (with Thomas playing a factor as well). Cory Butler, the No. 2 juco corner in the ESPN JC 50, won’t be here this spring so other players need to try and get a leg up on a kid who looks like he could be an instant contributor.

At safety the Utes get a boost with the return of Tevin Carter, who was granted a medical hardship for last season. Competing with him at safety will be Marcus Williams, the player who filled in for him in his absence. Those two will be joined by Jason Thompson (who came over from quarterback, because that position group certainly has enough competition as is), Andre Godfrey and Austin Lee, which gives the Utes some pretty good competition at safety.

California will always be the first and last stop for Pac-12 coaches on the recruiting trail. In the 2015 class, 129 prospects from the Golden State signed with Pac-12 schools and no conference program signed fewer than five.

But for Pac-12 programs outside of California, particularly in the next three talent producing states of the West region -- Arizona, Utah and Washington -- locking up the borders can be a vital part of an eventual run at a conference, or even national, championship.

With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

We're making our way through the offensive position groups and today we get to wide receivers. Let's begin with the South ...

Arizona: The Wildcats could have one of the most electric passing attacks in the Pac-12 next season with Anu Solomon and his crop of returning receivers. Arizona has five of its top seven receivers returning with the only Cats out being Austin Hill, who graduated, and DaVonte' Neal, who's still on the roster but moved over to defense. But between Cayleb Jones, Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and David Richards, there's going to be a lot of competition for catches this spring. Also, according to this report, there are a few 2014 scout team players who've impressed wide receivers coach Tony Dews so far this spring -- Tony Ellison, Kaelin DeBoskie, Jocquez Kalili and Darius Aguirre.

Arizona State: D.J. Foster will have his first full WR spring this year after being the second-leading receiver for the Sun Devils last year. Past Foster, the only other player who had significant receiving experience last season was Cameron Smith, who caught 41 passes for ASU. Look for these two to solidify their roles as starters, but they'll also have competition from Gary Chambers, Frederick Gammage, Ellis Jefferson and former JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale.

Colorado: Nelson Spruce deciding to come back for his final year of eligibility might be one of the biggest returns -- from a team's own stock perspective -- in the league this year. This spring, expect him and Sefo Liufau to keep building that chemistry, especially considering Mike MacIntyre told reporters that he could see Spruce having another 100-reception season, which would make him the first Pac-10/Pac-12 player in history to have two 100-reception seasons. Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo will duel it out for the opportunity to get those non-Spruce balls as the Buffaloes attempt to replace the production of Tyler McCulloch and D.D. Goodson.

UCLA: The Bruins return their top six receivers from last year so since Jim Mora has plenty of experience returning, expect this spring to be a lot of experimentation with different formations for those top guys, while also building depth with lesser-known players. Is there a chance that Mora could go crazy and pull a Mike Leach and throw four (maybe five?) receivers out there on a single down? He certainly has the talent and depth to do so. Jordan Payton will be the Bruins' go-to, but past him Devin Fuller, Thomas Duarte, Eldridge Massington, Mossi Johnson, Devin Lucien and Kenneth Walker are more than capable. Better yet for the Bruins, all of those receivers except Walker, are at least 6-foot, giving UCLA serious opportunities for mismatches downfield. But Walker, even though he might be vertically challenged compared to his receiver teammates, is known as one of the fastest (if not the fastest) on the team, so he creates mismatches of his own. Long story short: The Bruins are going to have a strong spring full of veteran players who will be impact players come fall.

USC: The Trojans lost a lot when both Nelson Agholor and George Farmer decided to leave early for the NFL. Add to that 41-catch RB Buck Allen and USC has a lot of shoes to fill. But fear not, they seem to have the numbers to do it. JuJu Smith returns and he'll become Cody Kessler's go-to receiving weapon. This spring will be spent building trust and chemistry between those two as Kessler adapts to the post-Agholor era. Past Smith, Adoree' Jackson, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell will have a lot to prove after showing flashes last fall. On top of those four familiar faces, the Trojans welcome early enrollee JUCO transfer Isaac Whitney, who could boost the USC wide receiver corps. At 6-foot-4 Whitney towers over most other wide receivers and though spring will be his first reps with the Trojans (meaning he might be slower to start because of the new-ness of everything) he could be a guy that makes monstrous gains this spring and summer.

Utah: Last year the Utes finished last in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game. Heading into this spring the Utes lost three of their four top receiving threats, so to say that players need to step up is a bit of an understatement. One of the problems last fall was the quarterback rotation, so it was hard to build chemistry when a new face popped up every game behind the offensive line. This spring, that problem will still exist since Kendal Thompson is out, so the Utah receivers need to do the best they can to just build depth with a question mark still at the QB spot. Utah can't afford to be a singular attack (read: Devontae Booker) come fall. Kenneth Scott will look to step up as the go-to receiver while Tim Patrick and Delshawn McClellon spend the spring battling for those No. 2 and No. 3 receiving spots before junior college transfer Deniko Carter (No. 8 WR in the 2015 JUCO class) gets to campus this summer and tries to climb the ladder himself.
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

Yesterday we began with the quarterbacks. Today, we move onto running backs. Starting in the South…

Arizona: Rich Rodriguez said that even though running back Nick Wilson is fully recovered he won’t be going through any full-contact drills this spring since there’s no need for him to prove he can get hit and still be effective. He already did that this past fall when he led Pac-12 freshmen and was the conference’s fourth-leading rusher. But with Terris Jones-Grigsby gone, there are a few players who do need to get hit and prove that they can make up for some of the lost yardage. Two names to watch: Jared Baker and Jonathan Haden. And with Wilson out of contact drills, expect some younger players’ names to crop up as Rodriguez gives carries to guys who’ll be more involved on scout team come fall.

Arizona State: With D.J. Foster’s move to receiver, alleviating some of the post-Jaelen Strong era pains, there will be plenty more carries with the Sun Devils. In February, quarterback Mike Bercovici predicted that Demario Richard would probably come out as ASU’s starting running back next season. Richard comes in a similar mold to Foster (Richard is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds while Foster is 5-foot-11, 205 pounds). Richard caught 13 passes and had 84 carries last season, so he can be counted on as a passing-catch running back. But, don’t expect Kalen Ballage to take Richard’s promotion (through Bercovici’s eyes) sitting down. Todd Graham spoke very highly of Ballage last season and Ballage’s 96-yard kick return in the Hyundai Sun Bowl is what set up Richard’s game-winning TD. This battling duo will be fun to watch this spring.

Colorado: The Buffs had four running backs with 75-plus carries last season and quarterback Sefo Liufau toted the ball 69 times, too, but past those five players there really was no one else on the running back radar for Mike MacIntyre. Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II and Phillip Lindsay are all back for Colorado, but only Powell is full go for the spring. McIntyre told reporters in February that Lindsay is day-to-day and Adkins could be out until the middle of spring, leaving Powell with the brunt of carries and the rest going to whoever doesn’t have a turf-toe or knee injury. George Frazier, Jordan Murphy and Kyle Evans are all names we could hear this spring but mostly because of said personnel problems.

UCLA: Paul Perkins, ladies and gents. There’s not a whole lot else Bruin fans need to (or want to) think about when it comes to running backs. After leading the Pac-12 in rushing in 2014, he’s back and ready to make even bigger strides. With Brett Hundley and Jordon James gone, there will be some serious yardage that needs to be made up in 2015. Perkins can take a lot of it, but it’d be nice if Nate Starks had a big spring for the Bruins so he could be counted on next fall to take the load of Perkins’ shoulders every so often. And, stop me if you’ve heard this once before: it should be interesting to see what Jim Mora does with Myles Jack. He carried the ball 28 times for UCLA last fall but will all the back-up eggs be put in Starks’ basket? Or will Jack remain an occasional running-backer -- giving the Bruins a few more options in short-yardage situations? And does that change how the spring looks for the Bruins or Jack?

USC: Tre Madden might still be nursing a turf toe injury, but if he is 100 percent, it’ll be a fun spring season for USC run game coordinator Bob Connelly as he watches Madden and Justin Davis square off to be the top running back. The winner will have the upper hand this fall when USC sees an influx of young talent. If Madden is healthy, you’ve got a player whose career has been plagued by injuries vs. the 2014 back up -- chip on the shoulder vs. chip on the shoulder. This could get spicy. And, if Madden isn’t full go, then it’ll mostly just be a lot of reporting on guys who’ll probably be next year’s third- or fourth-string running backs. Yay spring ball.

Utah: Like Arizona and UCLA, the Utes have their No. 1 guy locked up in Devontae Booker, who took the 2014 season by storm and finished as the conference’s second-leading rusher. After a full winter of strength and conditioning, how much more polished will he look? Utah also returns back up Bubba Poole and third-stringer Troy McCormick, who will probably retain those same roles this spring. The Utes are sitting pretty at running back.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 10, 2015
Mar 10
I can sing, but I'm also good at modern dance, olden dance, and mermaid dancing, which is a little different.

Spring questions: Utah

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
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, returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

Though 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 must address this spring.

Up next: Utah

1. Which wide receivers will step up? The question of a starting quarterback is one that existed through most of last season and will probably reach into next fall with Kendal Thompson out this spring. So, it’s not going to be a true battle for the quarterback spot until all competing members are available. But one question that can be answered without a quarterback is ... to whom exactly will the quarterback be throwing the ball? With Kaelin Clay, Dres Anderson, and Westlee Tonga departed, there is a lot of production that needs to be replaced. Kenneth Scott is back and will probably take a larger role within the offense, but it can’t just be Scott. Some names to consider: Kenric Young, Delshawn McClellon, and junior college transfer Deniko Carter.

2. How much more of a beast will Devontae Booker be? At this time last year, no one was talking about Booker, the juco transfer from American River College. But after finishing his 2014 campaign as the Pac-12’s second-leading rusher, there is plenty of talk -- as there should be. People saw how one spring and fall camp turned a little-known transfer into a star. So with another spring camp, a greater understanding of the offense, and more confidence in himself as Utah’s go-to back, how much better is he going to look come summer?

3. Who is going to support Hunter Dimick in rushing the passer? The Utes will undoubtedly miss Nate Orchard. But this is the exact discussion we were having a year ago. The talk then was: With defensive linemen Trevor Reilly and Tenny Palepoi gone, who is going to get after opposing quarterbacks with Jacoby Hale? And guess what -- Orchard stepped up big time. Now with Orchard gone, who is going to get after opposing quarterbacks with Dimick? Last season, he finished second on the team in sacks and tackles for a loss. Dimick has shown he can get into the backfield, but now he will have to do more. Jared Norris will be able to provide plenty of assistance -- in 2014 he led the team in tackles and finished with 13 tackles for a loss, including four sacks. But outside of those two, who will step up -- Jason Fanaika? Pita Taumoepenu? Lowell Lotulelei?
In this week's poll,'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.
Last week your humble Pac-12 Blog broke down the 2015 Pac-12 recruiting class and where those players came from. But those kinds of numbers always prompt more questions like: OK, this is one class, what about the last two classes? The last three? What about every class that each Pac-12 coach has signed?

Well, your humble Pac-12 Blog is back. And it's back with those answers (with signees by state).

Rich Rodriguez, four classes -- 98 signees, 11 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 41
  • Arizona: 16
  • Texas: 9
  • Florida: 7
  • Louisiana: 5
  • Colorado: 3
  • Two signees: Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia
  • One signee: Canada, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington
Todd Graham, four classes -- 100 signees, seven ESPN 300 members
  • California: 46
  • Arizona: 17
  • Florida: 7
  • Louisiana: 6
  • Three signees: Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas
  • Two signees: Nevada, Washington, Washington D.C.
  • One signee: Canada, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, New York, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah

Sonny Dykes, three classes -- 71 signees, four ESPN 300 members
  • California: 49
  • Texas: 6
  • Three signees: Arizona, Washington
  • Two signees: Hawaii, Mississippi, Oregon
  • One signee: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana

Mike MacIntyre, three classes -- 66 signees, no ESPN 300 members
  • California: 33
  • Colorado: 14
  • Texas: 8
  • Arizona: 3
  • Two signees: Hawaii, Utah
  • One signee: Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Washington

Mark Helfrich, three classes -- 63 signees, 17 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 26
  • Oregon: 5
  • Four signees: Arizona, Texas, Washington
  • Three signees: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii
  • Two signees: Louisiana, Nevada
  • One signee: Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee

Gary Andersen, one class -- 22 signees, no ESPN 300 members
  • Utah: 6
  • Four signees: California, Florida
  • Two signees: Oregon, Texas
  • One signee: American Samoa, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana

David Shaw, five classes -- 95 signees, 26 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 25
  • Georgia: 7
  • Six signees: Arizona, Florida, Texas
  • Five signees: Utah, Washington
  • Four signees: Louisiana
  • Three signees: North Carolina
  • Two signees: Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia
  • One signee: Hawaii, Indiana, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington D.C.

Jim Mora, four classes -- 92 signees, 31 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 55
  • Texas: 10
  • Arizona: 5
  • Three signees: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii
  • Two signees: Delaware
  • One signee: Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Washington

Steve Sarkisian, two classes -- 43 signees, 25 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 32
  • Texas: 3
  • Two signees: Florida, Utah
  • One signee: Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma

Kyle Whittingham, five classes* -- 108 signees, 0 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 40
  • Utah: 29
  • Texas: 15
  • Florida: 8
  • Louisiana: 6
  • Nevada: 3
  • Two signees: Arizona, Hawaii
  • One signee: Maryland, New Jersey, New York

*This is only counting Whittingham's classes that he recruited into the Pac-12 conference (so, starting with the 2011 signing class since the Utes made it official on June 22, 2010).


Chris Petersen, two classes -- 49 signees, 4 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 28
  • Washington: 14
  • Idaho: 2
  • One signee: Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Wyoming

Mike Leach, four classes -- 102 signees, one ESPN 300 members
  • California: 57
  • Washington: 14
  • American Samoa: 7
  • Three signees: Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Texas
  • Two signees: Alabama, Georgia
  • One signee: Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah

There are 20 states from which no current Pac-12 South coach has ever signed a player, and 18 from which no current North coaches have never signed a player. Of those states, 11 are overlapping, meaning that no player from the following states has been signed to a current Pac-12 coach during his tenure as head coach -- Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

It's not surprising that no players has been signed from Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska or North Dakota because those are the four least-populated states in the U.S. What is surprising is that only three players have been signed from the state of Alabama -- two to Mike Leach and one to Sonny Dykes.

Long story short: If you're a high school prospect and you want to play in the Pac-12, it doesn't hurt to live in California, Florida or Texas (if you live outside of "Pac-12 territory"). If you're a high school prospect and you live in Wisconsin or West Virginia -- even though some of these coaches have been head coaches in those states, your chances don't look good at all.

Eleven of the 12 programs have signed the most players from the state of California during current coaches' tenures. The only coach who hasn't is Oregon State coach Gary Andersen, but California is tied for second-most on his list.

North coaches have signed -- on average -- three classes per coach while the South coaches have signed -- on average -- four per. While it's really only a difference of one class, it is a difference of 20-30 student athletes per coach, so really the possibility of 120-180 different home states.

In the South the most recruited states outside of California and home states -- as a whole -- are Florida and Texas. Again, this might not be surprising considering how talent-rich both of those states are, but the only Pac-12 South coach who has ever coached in one of those states is Todd Graham (Rice).

In the North, it's a bit more of a mash-up. The states of Arizona and Washington are big for Cal and Oregon. Florida is big for Oregon State and Stanford. Chris Petersen really hasn't had to reach out of California or Washington, much like his in-state foe, Mike Leach. However, Leach also likes to go to American Samoa, where he has signed seven players.

USC has had the most success with the top recruits. Fifty-eight percent of Sarkisian's recruits are ESPN 300 members. After him, the next most "successful" recruiting coaches are Mora (33.7 percent), Shaw (31.6 percent) and Helfrich (27 percent).

Signing top recruits certainly gives teams a boost on the field as evidenced by the teams above and the successes they've had under each coach. But look at Utah. Whittingham hasn't signed a single ESPN 300 player and yet his team was in the hunt for the South title last season. It's the same with Rich Rodriguez: Even though just 7 percent of his players have been ESPN 300 members, he has still had major success on the field for the Wildcats.
The NFL Combine kicks off on Friday.

Here’s a breakdown of which Pac-12 players will be appearing on which days.

FRIDAY, FEB. 20 | Specialists, offensive linemen, tight ends

Offensive linemen:
Tight ends: SATURDAY, FEB. 21 | Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers

Running backs:
Wide receivers: SUNDAY, FEB. 22 | Defensive linemen, linebackers

Defensive linemen:
Linebackers: MONDAY, FEB. 23 | Defensive backs