Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

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:

Pac-12 morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19

Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin.

The returning, second-team All-Pac-12 running back with the most career rushing yards and touchdowns in the conference isn't playing running back next season, which might seem odd but switching positions is the main reason why D.J. Foster is even back at Arizona State for his senior season.

Foster believes his NFL future will be at slot receiver, where he can showcase his ability to catch and run the ball. His versatility might allow him, in fact, to escape a devalued position in the NFL, not to mention escape the wear-and-tear of playing a position that almost always ends a career before a guy reaches his 30th birthday.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenThe Sun Devils figure to have more of a downfield passing game next fall, and D.J. Foster is hoping to cash in on some of those throws as a slot receiver.

"A lot of the advice I got was stay for my senior year and move to receiver, to the slot position," he said. "That's what they see me more on the next level as. After I thought about it, I agree."

So Foster and his 2,075 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns piled up over three years, including 1,122 yards last season, will permanently move into the slot for the Sun Devils. For one, this isn't a cold call. Foster has played a lot of receiver and caught a lot of passes as a running back -- 113 for 1,834 yards to be exact, with 11 TDs. Further, the Sun Devils are stacked at running back with Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage and touted redshirt freshman De'Chavon Hayes, a player whose playmaking potential inspires gushing from coach Todd Graham.

Finally, the season-ending knee injury to receiver Cameron Smith, the team's budding No. 1 receiver, means ASU suddenly has some troubling questions at wideout and truly needs Foster on the outside.

Another benefit of the position change: Foster gets more quality time with his good buddy and roommate Mike Bercovici, the Sun Devils' new starting quarterback.

Bercovici is not the runner his predecessor, Taylor Kelly, was but he makes up for it with a bigger arm. Bercovici, a fifth-year senior, saw extensive action last year when Kelly got hurt and he and Foster already seem pretty in-sync in the passing game. In the four games Bercovici started or in which he saw significant action, Foster caught 24 of his 62 passes for 293 of his 688 yards.

As Bercovici can make all the throws, the Sun Devils figure to have more of a downfield passing game next fall. Of course, there's still an adjustment to a new starting QB, even if he's familiar.

"It's two different types of quarterbacks, night and day," Foster said. "TK had beautiful balls with touch on them. With Berco, you've got to get your eyes around quick because that ball is coming in hot."

Bercovici also is more demonstrative than the mellow Kelly. That's been noticeable even as the Sun Devils are just into their first days of spring practices.

"Seeing him out there, being that vocal leader we haven't had," Foster said. "TK was a different style of leader. He led more by example. Mike is definitely more vocal. Seeing that the first few days of spring ball is a great thing."

When Foster talks about how the Sun Devils' offense might be different, he first points to the depth at running back, noting those guys "do so many different things well." He might as well be talking about himself, as he's the accomplished running back who's too good of receiver not to change positions.

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.

Arizona: Cornerback Jonathan McKnight is out, leaving the Wildcats down a corner. The good news is that Jarvis McCall Jr. is back after finishing last season as Arizona’s ninth-leading tackler. Three players will try to battle it out to start opposite McCall: Cam Denson, Devin Holiday and DaVonte’ Neal. Denson is the most experienced, having started at CB against UCLA and Colorado and finishing the year with 21 tackles and two picks. Holliday played in just six games and finished with two tackles and one interception, while Neal has come over from the offensive side of the ball to help out with depth at the corner spot. All three are in similar physical molds to McKnight but this is going to come down to who can make the most plays. Whoever comes out on top this spring has a fast track to the starting job next fall so these reps are crucial.

However, the Wildcats aren’t as fortunate in the rest of the secondary, where they lost Jourdon Grandon, Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis. Will Parks should fill Bondurant’s spot at spur pretty well, but he needs to bring the leadership of Bondurant and Tevis combined. Jamar Allah, Tellas Jones and Anthony Lopez will fight for minutes this spring alongside juco transfer Paul Magloire Jr., who has already received some praise from Rich Rodriguez. The quarterback turned running back turned safety enrolled early and with so many open reps and so few more opportunities left in his college career, look for him to make the most of this.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils return most of their secondary, but lose boundary safety Damarious Randall, who led ASU in tackles last season and tallied three interceptions. Replacing him will be no small task but Todd Graham has options in James Johnson, Chad Adams and Dasmond Tautalatasi. Whoever earns that starting spot will have the opportunity to work and grow alongside field safety Jordan Simone, who had a breakout year in 2014 after going from walk -on to scholarship player and he’ll look to build on that momentum. And at corner, the Sun Devils return both starters in Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown as well as nickel Armand Perry. So, don’t be too worried if those three don’t get a ton of reps this spring because their spots are secure and now Graham is just looking to build some depth. Perry should get a few more reps as will Solomon Means and Ronald Lewis, as they try to break into the cornerback rotation.

Colorado: The Buffs are in a slightly different position here considering they concluded spring practices yesterday. But here's a run down based off the notes from the spring game that were released as well as some thoughts that led to the event. The depth chart has Ken Crawley (who’s up to 180 pounds) and Chidobe Awuzie listed as the two top cornerbacks. Behind them are John Walker -- who won the team’s award as the most improved defensive back -- and Ahkello Witherspoon in the two deep. Awuzie was kind of a surprise to see atop the list considering how much praise we’ve heard about the rangy Witherspoon but considering that Awuzie is also listed as the starting nickel, we’re still expecting to see a lot of Witherspoon at corner. At safety, Evan White and Tedric Thompson took the starting jobs while Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda fill out the two deep.

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.
Last week we took a look at what team that wasn’t listed on Mark Schlabach’s Way Too Early Top 25 might find its way onto the final AP poll of next season.

Well, since we’re so balanced here at the Pac-12 Blog, we couldn’t possibly look at what team will elevate itself without looking at what ranked team could plummet in the rankings.


Which Pac-12 team will make the biggest drop (or not make the top 25) at the end of the 2015 season?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,420)

So, let’s flip that question around: Which of the five Pac-12 teams on Schlabach’s Way Too Early Top 25 will make the biggest drop (or not even make the top 25) at the end of the 2015 season?

1. USC | Schlabach’s rank: No. 3

Schlabach’s reasoning for putting the Trojans so high is understandable: They’ve got great depth and finally signed a full recruiting class (which was full of blue-chip talent). That’s a good recipe for success -- a returning QB, depth, some good juco transfers. But a lot of that talent is untested. Can USC really replace the production of Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor in one offseason, or will the Trojans fall like Troy? (terrible pun No. 1 of 2)

2. Oregon | Schlabach’s rank: 6

The Ducks return one of the deepest running back corps in the country and some pretty talented receivers, but with a question mark at quarterback and plenty of spots to fill on the defensive side of the ball, could Oregon be a team that is plagued by inconsistency and drops in the rankings? It’s certainly possible. Oregon joins Alabama, Baylor, Georgia and UCLA as Way Too Early top-10 teams that need to find a new QB. Could that one position be enough to sink the Ducks? (terrible pun No. 2 of 2)

3. UCLA | Schlabach’s rank: 9

Like Oregon, UCLA needs to find a QB and find it fast. The Bruins, like Oregon, also need to find a new pass rusher and some talented linebackers. Could the problems that malign Oregon also lay claim to the Bruins? But between UO and UCLA, which would be more susceptible to those problems?

4. Arizona | Schlabach’s rank: 13

The bridesmaid of the Pac-12 has done a good job of showing up, just not always finishing. Arizona wasn’t even mentioned in last season’s Way Too Early Top 25 (the February edition) but finished the season ranked No. 19. Will the Wildcats continue this upward trend, or will they pull a Stanford/Washington, which were both ranked in the Way Too Early Top 25 but finished the season with no one talking about them?

5. Arizona State | Schlabach’s rank: 18

Like the Ducks and Bruins, the Sun Devils need a new QB, but unlike Oregon and UCLA, the heir is already on the throne. And not only is Mike Bercovici on the throne, he’s already stating the goals of the program -- a national title. Could Bercovici’s words become fact? Or will they fall flat as ASU struggles to adjust to life in the spotlight?

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.
The Pac-12 Blog offers 10 predictions for this spring season.

1. D.J. Foster's move to slot receiver will prove to be an excellent idea.

Foster was brilliantly versatile last season for Arizona State, tacking 62 catches and nearly 700 receiving yards on top of his 1,100-yard rushing campaign. Simply put, he's a premier athlete, and that gives coach Todd Graham a multitude of options on offense. Foster's move to the slot, then, only makes logical sense given the circumstances in Tempe: Jaelen Strong is gone from the outside, and Demario Richard is ready to pick up Foster's slack in the backfield. This shift doesn't handcuff ASU, either -- Foster can continue being his versatile self in 2015 and contribute to the ground attack. In fact, the slot may actually further highlight his adaptability.

2. At least 27 instances of "Berco-ing" will happen around the state of Arizona as QB Mike Bercovici officially takes the reins.

There have already been a few identified -- official or unofficial -- Berco-ing activities that have happened so far this offseason (see below). But now, with Bercovici officially taking the reins of this team and declaring its goal a national title, there will be a few fans around the state and country who find themselves celebrating in a much different way. Hint: This is much more difficult without a helmet -- don't break your nose.

3. Stanford coach David Shaw will be asked to talk about how no one is talking about his team, leaving him with a "that's so meta" reaction.

For the first time in several years, no one is really talking about the Cardinal going into spring football. The usual powerhouse had a slow start to last season, which left its final stretch -- impressive as it might have been -- relatively unnoticed, which in turn left its team this offseason relatively unnoticed. Enter: the most meta interview in which Shaw is asked to talk about talking, or rather, talk about how no one is talking about his team.


Q: David, can you discuss how different it is for you to be at this point in the season with little to no one really talking about your team?

A: [Hint: It doesn't matter what he says here because he spurns the question by actually talking about his team.]

4. Oregon State RB Storm Woods will take a huge leap forward as Gary Andersen actually makes running an emphasis in Corvallis.

Andersen has made it very clear he intends to run the ball. Mike Riley used to say this a lot, but given Andersen's ability to turn out some top-notch running backs, we're getting the idea he's very, very serious about it. The front-runner right now is Storm Woods, who showed flashes last season, specifically against Arizona State and Oregon. In preparation for said leap, the Pac-12 Blog is now taking advanced nicknames for Storm Woods in Cor-Vegas. Tweet them to @ESPN_Pac12blog.

5. Mike Leach gon' Mike Leach at some point and say something non-football related that makes headlines.

Now's a good time to review just a smidgen of what makes Washington State's Mike Leach a fascinating treasure. Many details can be found in this piece, which chronicles his long walks through the countryside to work, among other nuggets. But Leach's sound bites may be the most entertaining gifts of all. Remember that not too long ago, he predicted human extinction. What will be next? Better question: Can anything top that? We'll just have to wait and see.

6. Quarterbacks will be the most talked about subject in Eugene, Oregon, even though the competition won't really begin until this summer.

Yes, there'll be intense focus on Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and the others taking snaps this spring in an effort to become Marcus Mariota's successor. But while that group is doing its thing on Oregon's practice field, the potential front-runner for the job will be working out at Eastern Washington's rec center, of all places. Transfer Vernon Adams won't be around for spring ball, but his arrival in Eugene later this summer will add true sizzle to the battle.

7. Tre Madden and Justin Davis will both settle in primary running back roles at USC.

Javorius Allen is gone, so the Trojans have room opening up in the backfield. Davis is USC's leading returning rusher and Madden is returning following a turf toe injury that derailed his entire 2014 campaign. Built in the 225-pound power back mold, Madden brings a significantly different style to the table than the 195-pound Davis, and this will allow the Trojans to work on developing a complementary mix-and-match between the two players.

8. Chris Petersen will practice his fall avoidance of answering Boise State questions by avoiding answering Boise State questions.

Washington at Boise State is one of the most anticipated season openers for 2015. By nature, most college football coaches don't talk about the ensuing regular season too much during the spring because they don't want it to be too much of a distraction or show any kind of non-spring ball focus. That said, the matchup with the Broncos will probably be brought up a few times. This will give Petersen ample opportunity to practice whatever tactic he intends to apply next fall when folks ask him similar questions but expect a much better answer.

9. Cal will continue to show significant strides offensively.

During their miserable 1-11 campaign two seasons ago, the Bears planted some seeds offensively. Coach Sonny Dykes debuted Jared Goff as a true freshman, and the new coach introduced his aggressive aerial attack. There were growing pains aplenty, but 2014 saw marked improvement for the Bears. They developed an effective rushing attack, and Goff morphed into an upper-tier conference quarterback (5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio). This 2015 spring will see a continuation of Cal's offensive blossoming.

10. There will be a spring football rivalry between UCLA and USC.

Bruins, watch your bear. Trojans, watch out for Tommy Trojan.

OK, so maybe this is a more far-fetched prediction, but we can dream. Spring football needs some excitement.
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.
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.