USC fans showed up at the Coliseum on Saturday for the annual spring game hoping to see the new up-tempo offense on full display but were instead treated to an old-fashioned showing of bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Using a modified scoring system, the Trojans ran roughly 100 plays of live tackling within a structured practice format that allowed for multiple teaching periods. The USC defense starred, not allowing the offense into the end zone.
“First of all, it was an awesome day of football,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We got to be out here in the Coliseum with our fans on a beautiful day. It was our first spring game together, and it looked that way. On offense, there were some good plays, and some not-so-good plays. I really thought our defense played well, particularly in the red zone.”
Hayes Pullard got things started for the defense on the opening drive with a tackle for loss on third-and-goal to force a 24-yard field goal from Andre Heidari. Leon McQuay III added a physical hit near the goal line to prevent a potential touchdown reception by George Katrib and Gerald Bowman added a nice pass break-up. There were also a lot of sacks, as Claude Pelon picked up two while J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Charles Burks, Greg Townsend Jr., and Nick Schlossberg notched one each.
If you are looking for more bright spots from the Trojans, look no further than Heidari. The Trojans placekicker hit on four of five field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards.
Things did not go as smoothly for the offense. The quarterbacks went a combined 15-for-37 for 223 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It’s hard to say that anybody really stood out from the group -- starting QB Cody Kessler was 5-of-10 for 86 yards -- although true freshman Jalen Greene opened more than a few eyes with flashes of his athleticism. Tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was the leading receiver with three catches for 56 yards, while walk-on James Toland led all rushers with 36 yards on eight carries.
“I hope the offense is more efficient in fall camp,” Sarkisian said. “Historically we’ve been very strong in the red zone wherever I’ve coached. To be a good team we can’t have a third of our squad on the sidelines with injuries like we had today. We didn’t have any serious injuries during the practice so that was good news. We’ve just got to make sure we’re healthy when the season rolls around, because that’s when it’s really important.”
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Jake from Spokane writes: What do you think Chris Petersen should do with Cyler Miles and Damore’ea Stringfellow? I know Miles wasn't charged and Stringfellow got off easy, but don't you think he should make an example out of them?
Ted Miller: Yes. And no.
As many of you know, I typically side with second chances. I think zero-tolerance is bad policy. Everything should be a case-by-case basis. For one, there's typically two sides to every story, with the less public, after-the-big-headlines side often being closer to the truth -- see past assault accusations against former Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and Oregon running back LaMichael James. Or Duke lacrosse, for that matter.
I know the self-righteous out there love to tell everyone about their inflexible absolutes with behavior and Puritan standards for character. My experience with people like that is they almost always are full of pooh.
And yet a line I often do draw is at bullying, which the two incidents involving Miles and Stringfellow approximate. A bigger person pushing around a smaller person just because he can is abhorrent. That, to me, does reveal a deep-seated character flaw. The fact that alcohol apparently wasn't involved actually almost makes it worse. When you can't blame the booze, what can you blame, other than a flawed moral compass?
Based on what I know typing this today, here's what I would do if I were Petersen.
First, I would meet with a crew of Huskies seniors who command respect in the locker room and ask their positions on the situation and why they feel that way. I would ask if there were details of the incidents that they knew of or had heard of from reasonably reliable sources that differed from public accounts. I wouldn't ask what they thought I should do, but I would take the measures of their feelings toward both, including whether those feelings were different between the pair.
And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third. A quarterback, in particular, is supposed to set a standard in the locker room.
Then, I'd meet with Stringfellow. He too would be conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first three games. I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with Socha.
And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third.
I'd publicly announce my decision in May or June so it wasn't a big, distracting story right before the beginning of preseason practices. I'd also have both of them meet with the media, though only after a stern session with myself and sports information director Jeff Bechthold, where we'd hammer home talking points about being humble, regretful and accountable while not reviewing too many details of the incidents. Something like, "I know I won't do this again because of how horrible I felt and still feel for hurting someone and embarrassing my family, my school and my team."
I'd also minimize the "put it behind me" talk, which always comes off as lacking regret while suggesting impatience with a justifiable inquisition. Want to win a news conference? Say, "No, I'm not going to put this behind me. I'm going to think about it every day to remind myself of what it feels like to be a bad person, which I never want to feel again."
These situations typically involve a complicated calculus, particularly when the players are key contributors, as both of these guys are. Petersen has a duty to his players, fans, administrators and himself to do what he was truly hired to do: Win. Yes, he should aim to build character and help young men grow into quality adults, but the reality is that comes in second place to winning. Sorry if that bursts your idealistic bubble, but there's a reason why even the greatest teachers aren't paid $3 million a year.
That said, bad apples in a locker room don't help the cause. Sometimes temporary pain -- suspensions or giving players the boot -- helps a program, helps it win over the long term.
My impression of Petersen is he's the clearest of thinkers. While most of us view this as the first big test of his administration, I suspect it feels fairly routine for him.
Ted Miller: Yes, Tim, you are the only one thinking that.
Are you saying that Bralon Addison's blowing out his knee this spring is a good thing? My answer to that: No. One thousand times no. Have you seen Addison play? Before he got hurt, I saw him as a legitimate All-Pac-12 candidate.
And, no, losing your top four receivers is never a good thing, either. Never. Well, unless they all ran 5.0 40s and were locker room cancers.
Also, I'm not sure if I've ever viewed Oregon as a "blue-collar" team. I see Oregon as a cutting edge, fancy-pants team that has the best facilities in the nation and gets to go behind the velvet rope at all the cool clubs.
I'd also like to point out that the Ducks' horribly disappointing season included 11 wins, a dominant bowl victory over Texas and a top-10 final ranking.
Now, if you're saying the Ducks might run the ball more next fall with four returning starting O-linemen, a good crew of tight ends and what should be a dynamic RB combination in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, I could get on board with that.
That said, quarterback Marcus Mariota is an A-list passer. While there are unknowns at receiver, I suspect the cupboard isn't empty. I'd be surprised if Mariota doesn't throw for at least 250 yards per game.
Ted Miller: I think you're mixing up "first-time" and "first-year."
Both Scott and Denker had started games and seen action before ascending officially to the starting job, but neither was a returning starter, which is typically defined as starting at least five games during the previous season. Nick Foles preceded Scott as the 2012 starter, and Scott preceded Denker as the 2013 starter.
And, just as Washington QB Cyler Miles, despite starting at Oregon State, was not the Huskies' starting QB in 2013. That was Keith Price.
Ted Miller: I think it's a universally acknowledged truth that Jane Austen would have been a heck of a sportswriter, full of sense and sensibility as well as persuasion. While some -- mostly those who haven't read her -- probably see her as some sort of "chick-lit," the reality is she's a wonderfully biting observer of how folks behave, not to mention underrated when it comes to humor.
As for Austen and college football, she's already commented. You may not know this, but Lady Bertram in "Mansfield Park" is the personification of the NCAA, a novel, by the way, that includes these two felicitous quotes:
- Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.
- A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.
As for the "Pride and Prejudice" request, I'm not going to wander down that road -- who wants to be Wickham or Collins or Lydia? -- but I will say Chip Kelly had plenty of "Darcy" in him.
Here is quick peek at the four games being played this weekend:
Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Arizona (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: When there are steaks on the line, like there will be in this one, you can pretty much guarantee a competitive atmosphere. Instead of an offense vs. defense scoring system, coach Todd Graham broke up the team with a good amount of starters on each side. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the maroon team and Mike Bercovici will quarterback the gold team, but the with nine starters departed off last season's defense, it's that side of the ball that will be worth paying attention to. Running back D.J. Foster, who has battled a minor toe sprain throughout the spring, will see limited action despite a clean bill of health. Former Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as the analyst on the Pac-12 Arizona broadcast.
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff: 3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: It would have been a lot more fun if coach Steve Sarkisian waited until after the spring game to announce Cody Kessler as the starting quarterback. That way everyone could have overanalyzed the competition based on one meaningless game. But really, who are we kidding? The overanalyzation will go on regardless -- and Sarkisian did leave the door open for Max Browne to work his way back into the mix. It'll be interesting to watch both Kessler and Browne operate the up-tempo offense Sarkisian brought with him from Washington and how a rebuilt offensive line stacks up against a talented defensive front. The guys from WeAreSC kick around much more to pay attention to in this roundtable discussion.
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MT
TV: Pac-12 Mountain (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: It'll be good to see quarterback Travis Wilson back under center in a game-like situation again, and even more intriguing because he'll be running new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense against the Utes' base defense. While the setting won't showcase the depths of the playbook, the Cliffs Notes version should provide enough to develop a better understanding of how things will be different next season. The clock will operate as it would in a regular game during a pair of 10-minute quarters in the first half and will use a running clock in the second half after an eight-minute halftime. If you're planning on attending, a food competition and MUSS football game will be held at 11 a.m. MT, with an alumni football game to follow at noon.
Where: Husky Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Washington (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: Is Shaq Thompson the new Myles Jack? It has been a major storyline in Seattle throughout the spring how the talented linebacker -- and former minor-league baseball player -- is working with the offense. And after watching his some of his high school highlights, it's understandable why new coach Chris Petersen is intrigued by letting him go both ways. Any time there's a brand new coaching staff, the spring game carries a little extra sizzle, but it should also be noted those games aren't necessarily always as telling due to the lack of time the players have spent with the staff. It's a lot of fundamentals, a lot of evaluation, and the scope of what is accomplished is different when compared with schools with established staffs that are familiar with their rosters. Petersen has installed about 50 percent of the playbook. With Cyler Miles still suspended, quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams top the depth chart and will make their cases to replace the departed Keith Price.
- A quick Brady Hoke comment on the Rich Rod transition at Michigan.
- A new twist in Arizona State's spring game.
- Fabiano Hale is back practicing for Cal, as is his alleged assailant.
- Former QB to be inducted into Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
- Photos of the equipment Oregon uses in practice.
- The forgotten piece of the Oregon State backup QB battle.
- Could David Yankey be the Seahawks' pick at No. 32?
- Some UCLA reaction to the unlimited meals rule change.
- A true freshman could start on USC's offensive line.
- Utah's offensive tempo is better in practice this week.
- UW is revealing uniforms today; watch the players' reaction here.
- An update on Washington State's center battle.
It wasn't a big surprise. After all, Kessler was the 2013 starter and acquitted himself fairly well, particularly over the second half of the season with Clay Helton calling plays instead of deposed coach Lane Kiffin.
Still, Sarkisian is following in the philosophical footsteps of his mentor, Pete Carroll, who believed it was best to name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practices.
As we've noted a few times, Carroll called this "anointing." He believed that by anointing a starting quarterback in the spring, that allowed the QB to carry authority into the offseason. Teammates would recognize the crown on his head, as they might not if two or more candidates officially remained on even footing.
The anointing ended intrigue. It ended media speculation players would read. It ended an offseason rivalry that might split players into bailiwicks, based on personal preferences both on and off the field.
So Sarkisian has his way of doing it.
Then there's most other coaches. They prefer keeping their cards close to their chests. They like the intrigue. They like the prolonged competition. They want to measure offseason work and mental toughness. Who gets better from April to August? Who seems to take control of the locker room or huddle on his own, without the anointing from a coach?
Of course, there's not 100 percent purity of approach here. If Kessler hadn't outplayed Browne, Sarkisian almost certainly wouldn't have made an announcement. And if Rodriguez or Petersen were sitting on an Andrew Luck-type talent right now, they probably would go ahead and pull the trigger and announce him as the No. 1 guy.
Fact is, the present consensus is neither Arizona nor Washington has any clear pecking order. The Wildcats have four guys who didn't separate themselves this spring, and the Huskies still have to see where the suspended Cyler Miles, the 2013 backup, fits into their plans.
Yet there is a clear philosophical difference here.
So what do you think? Is it better to anoint a starting QB after spring practices in order to give him a leadership role over the summer, or is it better to wait as long as possible to foster uncertainty and, therefore, continued competition?
It stars Jim Caviezel as legendary coach Bob Ladouceur, who guided the Concord, Calif., school to a famed 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2004. The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Neil Hayes, who had unrestricted access to the team in 2002 -- the senior year of future UCLA and NFL star Maurice Jones-Drew.
What jumped out quickly from the trailer was that the movie does not depict the year in which Hayes, then a Contra Costa Times sports columnist, spent with the team. Instead, it will focus heavily on the circumstances around the 2004 death of linebacker/running back Terrance Kelly, who was shot two days before he was set to leave to begin his college career -- along with De La Salle teammates Cameron Colvin, Jackie Bates and Willie Glasper -- at Oregon.
"It starts with the championship game in 2003 with T.K. and those guys as seniors," said Hayes, who served as an official consultant on the movie. "Then it goes into the offseason, [Ladouceur's] heart attack, T.K.'s death -- it was crushing for the community -- and then goes into the 2004 season."
For more worthwhile reading about Kelly's lasting impact, go here, here and here. His final game was the last of De La Salle's streak.
The Spartans opened the next season with a 39-20 loss to Washington state power Bellevue at CenturyLink Field. I was a sophomore at Washington State at the time, had read Hayes' book, and so had several of my friends. For them -- some from Hawaii, some from the Seattle area -- De La Salle was some sort of mythical creature, and at their urging we made the Pullman-to-Seattle road trip to see the game.
Nearly 300 miles to see a high school football game. As college students. That's the kind of allure De La Salle had.
Seven players currently on Pac-12 rosters attended De La Salle: Cal's Michael Barton and Austin Harper (freshman year only); Oregon State's Tyler Anderson, Terron Ward and Dylan Wynn; Stanford's Austin Hooper; and USC's Michael Hutchings. Three more will join the conference for fall camp: Sumner Houston (Oregon State), Kevin Griffin (Washington State) and Dasmond Tautalatasi (Arizona State).
As with any inspired-by-real-life movie, there are some creative liberties that don't follow reality.
For example, the movie will feature a game between De La Salle and Southern California's Long Beach Poly, the supposed No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, which actually took place in 2001. Jones-Drew, then sans the Jones, had a game people still talk about, and, of course, re-live on YouTube.
"It's done for dramatic purposes and there are some new characters ... not every character comes from De La Salles," Hayes said. "But those liberties that were taken were done so with pure motives."
The football scenes were orchestrated by stunt coordinator Allan Graf, a starter on the offensive line for the 1972 USC national championship team that finished 12-0. Graf is a fixture in the industry and has been a stunt coordinator on several other football films including Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, Gridiron Gang, The Replacements, The Waterboy, Jerry Maguire and The Program.
"This was some of his best work," said Hayes, in terms of how realistic the football scenes are.
At one point during filming, Ladouceur and longtime defensive coordinator Terry Eidson, portrayed by Michael Chiklis, traveled to Louisiana, where the movie was shot.
"You have all these movie stars there, but when those guys got there, they were the celebs," Hayes said.
Ladouceur retired following the 2012 season after 34 seasons with a career record of 399-25-3, but remains on staff as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh, a UCLA graduate. Before deciding to remain on staff as an assistant, Ladouceur drew interest from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to serve in a consulting role.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian and LSU coach Les Miles have cameos in the movie, which includes some shots at Isidore Newman School, which produced Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.
LOS ANGELES -- By the time USC head coach Steve Sarkisian hit the big Four-Oh, he had earned two national championship rings as a Trojans assistant and pulled Washington football out of the ditch. Five years ago, the guy everyone calls Sark took over an 0-12 program in Seattle. The Huskies went 8-4 last season before USC called Sarkisian to come back.
Sarkisian won 34 games in Seattle. That's 15 more victories than John McKay won before he turned 40, not to mention 34 more than John Robinson and Pete Carroll won before they did.
McKay, Robinson and Carroll are the last three head coaches to lead USC to a national championship, and yes, that is the ultimate measuring stick for Trojan football. All of which is to say that if ever Sark was a boy wonder, he is no more.
If you ask Sark how he handled turning 40, which he did on March 8, he laughs long and loudly and says, "Not very good."
And then, standing in the middle of Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field after practice one day last week, Sarkisian said what everyone in USC wants to hear: "I didn't change. I haven't changed. I'm having a blast out here."
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1. Weight gains. Holy moley weight gains.
Oregon is always one of the fastest teams in the nation, and always working to get faster. But the biggest and strongest? Not as much. But after this offseason, some of its players are looking like they could be a much bigger force when it comes point of attack. The offensive line as a whole put on more than 100 pounds, and that certainly is going to help Oregon get out to a stronger start. An extra few pounds on some of those guys can convert into blocking for just a second longer, which gives Marcus Mariota or a running back an opportunity that might not have been there last season. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said that the gains (and some good losses) were accomplished by just making minor tweaks in the conditioning program. So, if we’re giving out an MVP for the offseason, the frontrunner at this point could be Oregon strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe.
2. Addison, out.
3. Lubick’s laboratory.
Even before Addison went down it seemed pretty likely that the passing game coordinator Matt Lubick would be airing it out a bit more this season to players other than wide receivers. Tight end John Mundt led the tight ends in receptions last season, and Pharaoh Brown was also in the top 10 in receptions. There’s no reason to think those two and fellow tight end Evan Baylis couldn’t be targeted in Lubick’s plans a bit more. Even if they all just pick up one extra pass a game, that would make up for what the Ducks lost from last season. And running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have good hands and should be able to contribute as well. And getting those two more involved in the pass game would also help the run game, because defenses would have to play a bit more honest if the backs provided a receiving threat.
4. Defense playing with a new attitude.
New coordinator, new attitude. Several defensive players have said that they’ve enjoyed their spring practices and how new defensive coordinator Don Pellum breaks down why they’re doing a specific drill. It gives the team more purpose in what they’re doing and because of that, they’re already moving faster. It certainly helps that Pellum is coming from the linebackers (he still coaches the inside linebackers) and they’re the deepest and most experienced position group on the field. That experience gives him more freedom and time to work with the defense as a whole.
5. Good competition in the secondary.
Speaking of the defense, Oregon needs to find some guys in the secondary so it can maintain its terrific pass defense. Last season the Ducks allowed just 5.5 yards per pass attempt (No. 3 nationally), and the Ducks led the nation by only allowing completions on 34.3 percent of passing attempts of 10-plus yards. But, three defensive back starters are gone after accounting for 210 tackles, eight interceptions and 16 pass break-ups in 2013. Those statistics are going to have to come from someone else this season, but the good thing is that several names have come up this spring as likely candidates to pick up that slack. Mariota said that safety Erick Dargan has been almost as difficult to throw against as Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. And names such as Dior Mathis, Tyree Robinson, Chris Seisay, Troy Hill, Issac Dixon and Reggie Daniels are all popping up from time to time. With that many names, the competition is fierce. If things go the way they did in the past, then the cream will rise to the top and the Oregon defensive backs should be in good shape.
6. Food, glorious food.
One of the biggest advancements from an off-field side of football this spring was the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ decision to allow unlimited meals and snacks for student-athletes. It's a major change for the athletes, who now will be able to worry less about where their meals are coming from. This new rule also covers food for non-scholarship walk-on athletes, which is a big advancement, considering if they previously wanted to join in on training table with their scholarship teammates, they'd have to pay $8.72 per meal.
LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.
USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.
Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.
"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.
"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."
Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.
Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.
With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.
"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."
Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.
"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."
The Utes entered spring needing to replace some key guys, most notably outside linebacker Trevor Reilly, who was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2013, DT Tenny Palepoi, who earned second-team honors, and cornerback Keith McGill, who is expected to be picked in the NFL draft in May. It also didn't help the cause when playmaker Jacoby Hale blew out his knee in March.
Still, the Utes have some intrigue talent returning on defense, as well as some notable newcomers.
So, with the Utes' spring game scheduled for Saturday, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sitake, a guy who has generated some buzz as a future head coaching candidate.
First let's look back: What was good about the 2013 defense, and what were you unhappy about?
Kalani Sitake: The good part is we had some good play out of our defensive front. We've been solid in run defense for years now. I think the passing game was a little bit spotty at times, not the best. But the thing that was most negative was the lack of turnovers, specifically interceptions. We had three interceptions. In 2011, we led the Pac-12 in interceptions [with 19]. All of the sudden it dwindled to where we were last last year. Not that we didn't have opportunities, we just need to capitalize on opportunities. Three interceptions can't do it. So there's been a huge emphasis this spring on finishing plays and capitalizing on our opportunities. That was a huge, glaring negative for us last season.
With the spring game on Saturday, give me an overall assessment of where your defense is right now.
Kalani Sitake: We have some guys who are banged up, specifically at D-tackle, who haven't been participating. We also are counting on a few guys who have done some good things this spring. I think Eric Rowe and Reggie Porter, our cornerbacks, our defensive backfield of Davion Orphey and Justin Thomas -- I'm naming those guys as corners -- they have really improved. We seen really good things from them. I feel more comfortable with that position now than I did earlier. I think our safeties, with Brian Blechen playing there and as soon as Tevin Carter gets healthy, I think we'll see our safeties start to come along. We're going to be a lot deeper when we get some of these newcomers, Tevin Carter specifically, coming in. I think our defense as a whole got better. I think we are a lot more set. Going through some of the issues we had last year, a lot of guys are more experienced. It wasn't the best defense statistically for us, but the experience a lot of these young guys went through is going to pay off huge for us this fall. Going through the grind of the Pac-12 conference has been good for these guys.
Who replaces OLB Trevor Reilly's production?
Kalani Sitake: We did some things with Nate Orchard and we think he's going to be that guy. Probably not as much at inside linebacker as Trevor played. You'll see Nate doing a lot of what Trevor did last year. He's in his senior year. He's had a great spring, though we held him out of a lot of the scrimmage stuff. He's our big-play guy up front. I see him now as our leader. He's really starting to come into his own, which is perfect timing for us, especially with us replacing Trevor Reilly. Nate Orchard is the next guy in and I think he'll do a great job at it.
What does it mean to have S/LB Brian Blechen back and how will you guys use him this fall?
Kalani Sitake: It's huge because he has more interceptions than any of the defensive backs who are returning. He won games for us as a true freshman with interceptions. The main thing for us is he is a big-play guy. Having a big play guy at safety is valuable for us, specifically when we need turnovers, interceptions. Whether he causes a fumble, makes a big hit or gets an interception, just to have the impact he has. We'd like to keep him at safety but with his versatility and him knowing football so well and knowing our defense, he can play any of the spots on our defense. Having a guy that gives you those options is a huge benefit and huge asset for us defensively.
Let's go through all three levels. First, your defensive line: Who's had a good spring up front?
Kalani Sitake: Up front, I saw some good things out of Hunter Dimick and Jason Fanaika, playing D-end. Jason can also play inside at D-tackle. Same with Hunter. Viliseni Fauonuku has had a great spring. He was banged up a little bit but came back. He's the explosive defensive lineman we need at D-tackle. Pita Taumoepenu has proven that he's a good pass rusher. We're going to need him. As a true freshman last year, he wasn't ready to be an every-down guy. This next little bit in fall camp, I'd like to see him develop into an every-down type of D-end. A little bit undersized [6-foot-1, 230 pounds], but we've had guys we've had to add weight on before. Nate Orchard used to be that guy his freshman, sophomore year. We have some guys up front who are doing some really good things. I'll be excited to get some of our D-tackles back healthy -- Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Sese Ianu -- and we're getting Star Lotulelei's little brother, Lowell, in the fall. And then there's Sam Tevi. So there's four D-tackles who haven't participated in spring. And Filipo Mokofisi will be huge for us up front, too. We also have a [junior college] transfer from Snow College, Pasoni Tasini, who will be huge for us. Defensive tackle-wise, I'm excited about those guys. I think the front is going to be a strength for us.
“And at linebacker?
I think our defense as a whole got better. I think we are a lot more set. Going through some of the issues we had last year, a lot of guys are more experienced. It wasn't the best defense statistically for us, but the experience a lot of these young guys went through is going to pay off huge for us this fall.” Utah coordinator Kalani Sitake on the state of his defense going into the 2014 season.
Kalani Sitake: We had those unfortunate injuries with Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul, but Gionni Paul will be back for us for fall camp and for the season. With Hale, it's as soon as we can get him back from his ACL, we'll take him. That's part of football. The great part of it is we've got some depth. We'll get Jason Whittingham back in the fall. Jared Norris has emerged as dynamic at linebacker for us. He can do anything. He can play inside or outside. He's got what it takes. I see, as far as last year to this year, he's made a huge improvement, his speed and agility. I'm excited to see what he can do this fall. Uaea Masina will be a solid linebacker for us this fall. We moved Marcus Sanders-Williams from running back to linebacker after those two injuries, and for a guy who's only been a linebacker for a week ... his second day of being a linebacker was our scrimmage, and he graded out higher than I've had a newcomer grade out. He understands defense and made a ton of big plays. For a guy who's got a lot of speed, I'm excited about him at linebacker. Those guys have done some really good things who we will be relying on this fall.
And in the secondary?
Kalani Sitake: Overall, Eric Rowe, we can play him at free safety, but we feel like Tevin Carter can be a guy, so we've got Tevin Carter and Brian Blechen at safety. We feel good with those guys. I also feel good with Charles Henderson backing up the safety position. A couple of these freshmen coming in should be able to help us out. We also moved Hipolito Corporan from corner to safety. Those guys will give us a solid group at free safety and strong safety. Eric Rowe can be a swing guy from corner to safety, but we feel really comfortable with him replacing Keith McGill and being a big corner for us. Reggie Porter will join him at a corner spot with Justin Thomas as our nickel corner. You also have Davion Orphey who started for us last year at corner. We feel really solid about those four corners right there. And Wykie Freeman is a guy that also gives us a corner we feel good about. We'll see how the young guys come along. We feel really good about our five corners, and Eric Rowe has been dynamic for us.
I know you coach defense, but folks are curious about QB Travis Wilson and his health. How has he looked this spring?
Kalani Sitake: He's a lot lighter now and he's actually caused problems for us scrambling around. He's going against the first-team defense every day and he's looking a lot quicker. He's more comfortable the more he plays. I've been really impressed with some of the things he's done. I think he's back to himself. He's taking on leadership roles with the team. It will be really exciting to see what he can do this fall. Losing the weight, he's a lot more elusive for a 6-foot-7 guy -- I think that's working for him. He can make guys miss and run around and beat guys to the edge. I see him doing some really good things. He's older and feels more comfortable, even though it's a new offensive system.
Bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire.
- Some additional thoughts on Arizona's spring game.
- Todd Graham has turned out to be one of the better hires from a couple of years ago.
- Checking in with Cal recruiting.
- The Buffs have a starting center, for now.
- Johnathan Loyd is trying to make his mark as a receiver.
- A transfer is looking to make an impact on the OSU line.
- Some more observations from Stanford's spring game.
- Thomas Duarte looks for a bigger role in 2014.
- Steve Sarkisian made the right call at QB.
- After tragedy, Utah lineman finds peace in football.
- Projecting Washington's offensive depth chart.
- Some more thoughts on Sebastian LaRue's possible switch to defense.
- Athlon looks at potential Pac-12 sleepers.
Except at receiver.
There has been some minor tweaking going on during the first two-thirds of spring practice, but it's clear that the coaching staff is confident in the receivers -- perhaps more than any other group on the team.
It starts with the duo of Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, who combined for 147 catches for 1,603 yards a year ago, but Kenny Lawler also was productive (37 catches, 347 yards, 5 TD) -- especially late in the season -- and several others are fighting for playing time.
Assistant head coach Rob Likens, who is responsible for the outside receivers, doesn't hesitate to call the receivers the team's strongest unit -- and that he tells them that every day.
"They have to put it on their shoulders," Likens said of the group's importance to the team. "Experience breeds confidence, and that’s the thing we were lacking last year.
"Obviously, when you’re running a new offense, that first year they don’t know what to expect in a game, how its all going to work out. So we’ve gone through that process already, so they know coming into the spring how [the rest of the conference] is going to play."
The most notable change has been Treggs' move from outside to inside receiver. The move was done as part of an effort to get him the ball more often and engineer more matchups against safeties and linebackers. Making the same position change is 6-foot-6 Drake Whitehurst, who provides the closest look to what the Bears had from Richard Rodgers a year ago.
On the right side, Stephen Anderson and Darius Powe are battling at the inside spot, but Likens said both struggled with too many drops last fall. With Treggs inside, the left outside receiver spot is a competition between Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis and junior Maurice Harris. They are splitting time with the first team.
With such a talented group of receivers and a promising young quarterback in Jared Goff, Cal certainly has the potential to evolve into a dangerous Pac-12 offense, but other deficiencies need to get cleaned up. Namely the running game.
"And we know that. We stressed that this spring," Likens said. "[Last year,] we got into games and we realized that everybody realized that we couldn’t run the ball, so it is a lot of pressure on some very young skill guys."
Likens said Cal will "rely heavily on" a pair of incoming freshman running backs, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere.
Cal will plays its spring game on April 26, at which point the coaching staff will turn the responsibility over to the players to get better. Most, if not all, are expected to be around for a majority of the summer.
"In this offense, that’s crucial," Likens said. "If you don’t do that, you don’t have a chance."
It's an expectation Lawler said the players have bought into, and only partially because of the 1-11 season.
Lawler doesn't believe the lack of success had anything to do with last offseason's effort -- "We actually worked out really hard," he said -- but admitted he's willing to work harder and give more things up this time around.