Pac-12: California Golden Bears
Biggest obstacle: Defense, defense, defense. While this conference is never short on skill, weapons, quarterbacks and big-play offenses, finding playmakers on the defensive line is a whole lot tougher. It is staggering to see that from the top 40 players we've graded from the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and Nevada since 2006, there are only three defensive linemen. That is well over 3,000 players graded and just three defensive linemen. Unlike Florida, which borders several states that are loaded with prospects, California does not have this luxury surrounding it in numbers and quality. The Pac-12 has the juice and player pool to be good enough to play for the national championship with a few teams, but can they win it without being loaded up front on defense?
Biggest strength: Explosive skill, tradition, cool factor (Oregon!) and great locations. Some of the toughest places to play in America reside in the Pac-12, including Eugene, Ore., and Seattle. It can be very difficult for national recruiters to steal kids out of Pac-12 territory because in this era today's prospects identify with USC, Oregon and Stanford. However, the recent sanctions placed on USC have opened the door for programs on USC's level in terms of national perception to get their foot in the door. This has put pressure on UCLA, Stanford and Oregon to keep the prospects from Pac-12 country at home.
Overall view of the conference: USC is still USC, but it is going to get worse before it gets better in terms of on-field results, which provides the opportunity for UCLA and others to state their case to top West Coast prospects. Oregon is under new leadership and we don't yet know how this will affect the Ducks in recruiting, and others as a result. Washington is the team that has the hot hand lately. The Huskies are improving and just upgraded an already great stadium facility. It is imperative with the increase in talent we have seen the last few years from the state of Arizona that the Wildcats and Sun Devils keep those kids at home and not allow them to go further west or to Notre Dame, etc. This conference is viewed as an exciting one, but not necessarily one that is a national recruiter outside of Oregon and USC. Outside of the state of Texas, there is not much Pac-12 presence in other recruiting pools.
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Berkeley, Calif., is unlike anywhere else in the country. Pac-12 football is unlike any other brand of football in the country.
"Culture shock," Fortt said. "Definitely some culture shock. I'm used to it now."
He has acclimated himself to Berkeley. That took a while.
"Everyone is such a free spirit," he said.
And he has adjusted his game to better fit the Pac-12.
"Fast," he said. "There is so much speed. The Big Ten is not slow or anything. But this is a different type of fast. The pace of the game is faster -- almost more of a finesse game. It's a lot more running than hitting. In the Big Ten, if you're a linebacker, you are smashing into fullbacks. In this league you have to be able to play man-to-man coverage on some of these quick receivers. I like it a lot. I've got some speed too and I get to show it off.
"Even on defense. It's a faster pace. There's not as much time for hitting because everyone is flying around."
"My teammates were great and they welcomed me with open arms," he said. "Now it's time to get on the field and start helping them win some games. This summer is going to be a grind. But it's going to be essential for us to work hard. We can't wait to get the season started."
Fortt appeared in nine games for Penn State in 2010 -- one of only seven true freshmen to see action. The next year he appeared in every game, but still wasn't contributing as much as he would have liked. So even before the NCAA handed down its harsh punishments on the program, Fortt was looking to make a move.
Now with a surgically repaired knee and a thirst to get back on the field, he's in line for a starting job as one of Cal's outside linebackers.
"He showed some flashes this spring," said Dykes. "He made some impactful plays. He needs to be more consistent. There were times he was either real good or just OK. He needs to be more solid. That's what I took from him coming out of spring. He's got a good football sense and he's very physical at the point of attack. He gets off blocks well."
Fortt, who hails from Stamford, Conn., has been rooming with fellow linebacker Nick Forbes (Frederick, Md.). The two knew each other from high school all-star games, which made it easier for Fortt to settle on Cal -- one of many schools that contacted him.
"That really made it easier already knowing Nick," Fortt said. "He and I have a dry-erase board and we're always drawing up plays and formations.
"... I think [Buh] understands the athleticism he has with this defense. It's almost like a hybrid defense. There's a little bit of zone, but a lot of times I'm playing man-to-man because of the trust he has in us being an athletic group. We can keep teams guessing because we're good enough to play man or zone."
Because of his injury, Fortt never had the chance to play in the odd-front scheme of former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who is now directing the defense at USC. And while Dykes acknowledges there is some transition that goes with changing defensive philosophies, it's still football.
"I don't think it's that big of a transition as people make it out to be," Dykes said. "Sometimes the style is a little different. Sometimes an odd front is more attacking and always adjusting. A 4-3 is a little simpler to make adjustments off of. It's a different school of thought, but from a technical standpoint there's really not that big of a difference. You still have to cover the A-gap."
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.
And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.
We're going in reverse alphabetical order.
Most important game: Nov. 9 vs. USC
Why it's important: This was the most difficult call -- at least for me -- so far.
That was my initial thought.
But then there are two big road games against the top two teams in the North Division: At Oregon on Sept. 28, which also opens the Pac-12 schedule, and, of course, the Big Game on Nov. 23 at Stanford, which concludes the regular season.
Either would be huge wins. The reason I'm not tapping them is because I think the Bears' chances are remote in each. Oregon and Stanford are top-5 teams, and both are road games.
I don't think the "Most Important Game" is necessarily about beating the best team on the schedule. Or even a rivalry game. Or the opener for a new coach.
Here's why I think Cal fans should circle the USC game in red.
- The Bears haven't beaten the Trojans since their memorable triple-overtime win in Strawberry Canyon in 2003, which was a landmark win that heralded the Bears' climb to respectability and beyond under Jeff Tedford. It would be valid then to freight a Dykes victory with optimistic symbolism.
- It's the final home game of the 2013 season, which means the home fans would carry a sweet memory of cheering (and jeering) into the offseason.
- If you believe it's not how you start but how you finish, this would be a good lead-in for a strong finish.
- My impression, developed over a few years of covering the conference, is Cal fans really don't like USC, and that dislike is almost equal to their dislike of Stanford.
I also think it's a much more winnable game for the Bears than road dates at Oregon or Stanford. And, as an added bonus, a win might spell doom for Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, which could inspire hours of message board gloating. Not that Cal fans would ever, ever do that.
In terms of football stuff, beating USC would not only make up for years of frustration in the series, it would offset the horrid performance at USC last year, when Cal was outgained 488 yards to 250 in a 27-9 defeat.
Further, set the whole thing up based on the schedule, which is among the nation's toughest next fall. If the Bears' goal is to get back to a bowl game, where do you flag the necessary six wins? Hard to find.
But let's just say the Bears have four wins when USC comes to town. Beat the Trojans, and a trip to Colorado is all that stands in the way of bowl eligibility. Then the Stanford game becomes pure gravy, with a puncher's chance in a rivalry game when the Cardinal might be playing for huge stakes.
Stakes that Bears could smash to bits. Heck, Stanford might be caught napping, looking ahead to a date with Notre Dame.
But a Cal team that comes to the Big Game with a victory over USC under its belt would have a much better chance at a huge upset than one that's limping into the final weekend.
So Stanford will always be the Big Game for Cal. But USC is the Most Important Game in 2013.
The quarterbacks took center stage as California held its first spring scrimmage. The Bears worked in 90 plays over a 45-minute stretch in full pads.
Four quarterbacks got work with Jared Goff completing 13 of 23 passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns. Zach Kline completed 6 of 8 throws for 134 yards -- including a 97-yard touchdown to Joel Willis. Austin Hinder was 6-of-10 for 83 yard with a touchdown and Kyle Boehm was 0-for-3 with an interception.
“We were trying to throw every possible scenario that we could throw at them today to see if it affected their thought process or the way they played or handled things,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I didn’t think it affected any of them. I thought they all did a good job of just trying to go out there and execute plays and not try to do too much.”
The Cardinal held their second open practice of the spring session with a 77-play scrimmage.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 15 of 21 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. Evan Crower -- currently fighting to be Hogan's primary backup -- was 10-of-17 for 87 yards.
Even though the Cardinal front seven was able to get some penetration, head coach David Shaw said he was pleased with how the offensive line is coming together.
“It’s been fun to watch the guys start to gel this early,” Shaw said. “Usually we don’t gel on the offensive line until training camp so it’s been fun to watch.”
New head coach Mike MacIntyre is still evaluating what kind of players he has to work with. At this point, he's not too worried about position switches and he's certainly not going to name a quarterback this spring. Right now, it's all about attitude.
"I'm looking for effort," he said after practice Friday night. "I'm looking for kids that listen and pay attention and we're trying to set the tempo of everything we want to do. It's more of an overall team thing. Of course, you are watching positions and doing all that, but we're still out here in pajamas. Real football will start Tuesday.
"They are taking notes in meetings. They are listening out there. They are taking coaching very well, which is important. To me, that's part of discipline."
His hope is that seven or eight practices into the spring session, he can start narrowing the number of quarterbacks down to about three -- maybe four -- who can carry over the competition into the fall.
Up next: Smile for the Kameron
Who and against whom: California cornerback Kameron Jackson made life miserable for UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley in a shocking 43-17 Bears victory, one of the oddest results of the 2012 Pac-12 season.
The numbers: Jackson had four tackles for the Bears. Oh, and he also had three interceptions.
A closer look: California had a rotten season, but just about everything went right -- at least after the first two possessions -- in this game. The opposite, of course, could be said for UCLA, which has lost seven consecutive games in Berkeley. Hundley surrendered four of his 11 interceptions in 2012 in this game. He threw just seven in the other 13 games. In fact, the Bruins had six total turnovers -- another was a Hundley fumble -- which certainly made things easier for Cal. One can suppose that the Bruins thought they had a big opportunity when starting Bears CB Marc Anthony got hurt -- ergo, they targeted Jackson, a promising if undersized, 5-foot-9 sophomore. They were wrong. Further, these weren't throw-away picks from Jackson by any means. The first came in the endzone -- a tiptoe effort on a broken read from the Bruins -- and ended a drive deep into Cal territory late in the second quarter. The other two came in the fourth quarter, preventing any hope for a Bruins rally. These were Jackson's only three interceptions of the season.
Bold prediction for the Pac-12: UCLA is in a position to shock the conference and perhaps the country on signing day. Already in possession of a top-12 class, the Bruins have a chance to close with a bang, as UCLA is in a good position with ESPN 150 prospects Eddie Vanderdoes, Isaac Savaiinaea and Asiantii Woulard. If all goes well in Westwood on signing day, Jim Mora could finish the day with a top-five recruiting class.
Biggest need: Linebacker. Arizona’s defense is in need of some immediate help in all three levels, but the Wildcats will add some serious depth at linebacker with five commitments at the position.
Biggest recruit: QB Jesse Scroggins. A case could be made for either quarterback commitment -- Anu Solomon is the other -- but with Scroggins’ experience at USC and his status as an early enrollee, he could have an advantage when it comes to battling for the vacated starting quarterback spot.
Biggest need: Secondary. Arizona State is set to add plenty of help at the offensive skill positions, but the Sun Devils needed to add depth on the defensive side of the ball, and they did so. Safeties James Johnson and Jayme Otomewo are strong additions, as are cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Will Earley.
Biggest recruit: DT Marcus Hardison. Getting defensive tackle Will Sutton back for another year was a big win for Arizona State’s defense. Getting the No. 5 junior college player in Hardison, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive tackle who can help Sutton inside this year, is another big win.
Biggest need: Offensive line. With head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, Cal is looking to take off offensively, but that can’t happen without a dominant front. Six offensive line commitments, including four-star tackles Aaron Cochran and Erik Bunte, are a good way to continue building up front.
Biggest recruit: OT Aaron Cochran. This is true figuratively and literally. Cochran, at 6-foot-8 and 364 pounds, is an important recruit for Cal, as the offensive tackle plays a position of need. He is the younger brother of Cal lineman Matt Cochran. Honorable mention here to Cameron Hunt, who committed to Cal last summer but opened his recruitment after the coaching change and now appears to be headed to Oregon.
Biggest need: Offensive line. The Buffaloes need help everywhere, but solidifying the offensive line is step one for the new regime. Colorado holds commitments from five offensive linemen as it looks to take a step forward in the Pac-12.
Biggest recruit: QB Sefo Liufau. While building along the lines is important, Colorado needs to add playmakers at every position, and Liufau is definitely that at quarterback. He understands and appreciates the challenge at Colorado and is the kind of player the Buffs need to bring in and build around.
Biggest need: Running back. While the Ducks have been blessed with an embarrassment of riches at tailback, it’s important that they continue to stock the cupboard in order to keep finding those gems and running the blur offense. Three tailbacks were a possibility in this class, as there will be an opportunity for playing time.
Biggest recruit: RB Thomas Tyner. This was big on two fronts as Tyner has an opportunity to contribute as a freshman, and the Ducks were able to keep Oregon’s top recruit from leaving the state. Tyner’s commitment became even more important when Dontre Wilson flipped from Oregon to Ohio State on Monday.
Biggest need: Defensive line. The Beavers looked to get bigger and better up front and did so in a big way. Six defensive linemen are headed to Corvallis, including four junior college defensive tackles capable of playing as soon as they arrive on campus.
Biggest recruit: CB Dashon Hunt. Oregon State needed to add talent in the secondary as well and Hunt -- the Beavers’ lone ESPN 300 commitment -- will help there. Hunt’s commitment also helped Oregon State continue its presence in Southern California, which it recruited extremely well with this class.
Biggest need: Wide receiver. The Cardinal needed to add receiving threats in this class, and adding wide receivers Francis Owusu and Taijuan Thomas did that. Of course, at Stanford, no position poses more of an offensive threat than tight end, and the Cardinal have commitments from three high school standouts who will suit up there.
Biggest recruit: WR Jordan Cunningham. As the Cardinal continue to hunt for pass-catchers in this class, snagging Cunningham -- an ESPN 150 wide receiver -- on signing day would nicely cap an undermanned but still impressive recruiting class. It would also carry over Stanford’s terrific signing-day success from last year.
Biggest need: Offensive line. While it might not be the most immediate need for the roster, the UCLA coaches saw a need to infuse the offensive line with young talent and they went out and did just that. There are offensive line recruits, including two ESPN 300 prospects and a third four-star lineman.
Biggest recruit: DT Eddie Vanderdoes. The country’s top defensive tackle will announce at 5 p.m. PT and the Bruins are thought to be in good position. Landing Vanderdoes -- a former USC commitment -- would be another positive sign for the Bruins in their quest to tip the rivalry in their favor.
Biggest need: Secondary. The Trojans have been shaky in the secondary for several years now and are in need of players capable of adding depth and perhaps playing as freshmen. Signing day could offer a disappointment if cornerback Jalen Ramsey goes elsewhere, but the early enrollee group of safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay and cornerback Chris Hawkins, gives the Trojans three players capable of stepping in and offering a solution to the pass defense troubles.
Biggest recruit: S Su’a Cravens. USC is set to add plenty of impact players in this recruiting class, but landing Cravens as an early enrollee was huge. A local player who plays a position of need and has the talent to make an impact as a freshman, Cravens was as close to a must-get recruit as the Trojans had in this class.
Biggest need: Running back. With John White finished at Utah, the Utes have just one player returning in 2013 who logged more than 25 carries last season. While there are several tailbacks on the roster, Utah looked to add talent at the tailback position in this class and did so with four commitments from running backs, including junior college back Devontae Booker.
Biggest recruit: DT Lowell Lotulelei. There is no guarantee that the defensive tackle will turn into his older brother, Star Lotulelei, a likely top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But getting a commitment from Lowell Lotulelei was arguably the most important piece of Utah’s recruiting puzzle. The four-star defensive tackle is Utah’s top-ranked commitment and will look to take over where his brother left off.
Biggest need: Offensive line. The Huskies hoped to find several big bodies to position as the future of the offensive line in this class and have commitments from three high school linemen, including four-star center Dane Crane. While the Huskies lost a commitment from Sean Harlow, who flipped to Oregon State, they could make up for it in a big way by grabbing ESPN 300 tackle Nico Falah away from USC on signing day.
Biggest recruit: WR Damore’ea Stringfellow. The highest-ranked player in the class, the ESPN 150 wide receiver is a playmaker capable of providing an immediate spark for Washington’s offense. He also gives the Huskies a big recruiting win in Southern California, as he was sought after by UCLA and USC.
Biggest need: Offensive line. While much of the attention with Mike Leach’s offense goes to the offensive skill players, it can’t take off without an effective offensive line. Six offensive linemen, including junior college tackle Jacob Seydel, are headed to Pullman in this class.
Biggest recruit: QB Tyler Bruggman. The Cougars won a big recruiting battle for Bruggman, as they were able to pull him away from hometown Arizona State. He was someone Washington State targeted early on as a player who could fit into and succeed in the offense.
What's the last month been like for you?
Sonny Dykes: It's been good. It's been busy, but productive. We got a lot of stuff done and I'm feeling really good about where we are. I'm really happy with the coaching staff we hired. I like how they are jelling. I like our plan in recruiting and think that will benefit us in the long term. I feel good about our players. They have bought into what we're talking to them about. We got off to a good start this semester academically and they are working hard. But we know we have a long way to go.
What is it specifically about the staff that you assembled that you like so much?
SD: The biggest thing is the dynamic for how everyone works together. Guys have to get along. Guys have to be supportive of each other and they have to be like-minded. The worst thing a coach can do is bring in an all-star staff and bring in all these guys that have different ways of wanting to do things. Your assistant coaches have to think the way coordinators think. I think that's really important. We brought our guys from Louisiana Tech so they are all on the same page. We brought in Andy Buh and he hired a good staff of guys he's worked with in the past so we're all anxious to get rolling.
SD: I think they were pretty receptive. There is always a period of feeling each other out. They were feeling us out and we wanted to see how receptive they would be to what we were preaching. It's been good. You have to build trust and that takes some time. It doesn't happen overnight. But we have to do a good job of saying what we mean and meaning what we say. But I think our players have done a good job understanding our expectations and we have to make sure we keep setting the bar higher and higher.
How much do you recognize the rivalry with Stanford and is that game something that's high on your priority list? Or is it more a matter of rebuilding the confidence of the team at this point?
SD: I think it's both. You'd be a fool to be a coach at Cal and not understand that rivalry and what The Big Game means to Cal fans and our players. They will be a good measuring stick for us. They were Pac-12 champs and won the Rose Bowl. Obviously they are a program that's been built the right way. They recruited good student-athletes and guys who are good "program" guys. It shows you can be successful by having a long-term goal and building toward it.
Being an offensive-minded coach, I'm sure you'll spend lots of time watching opponents' defensive film. It seems like defenses in the Pac-12 are getting just as diverse as the offenses. Has the complexity of defenses in the league really taken off?
SD: Absolutely. This is an incredibly diverse league offensively and defensively. You look at the SEC and they are pretty much a two-back, power-football league. You look at the Big 12 and it's pretty much a spread league. You look at the Pac-12 and they are doing everything. Stanford plays power football. Oregon does things its own way. And it's incredibly diverse defensively. Guys are in the 3-3-5, a lot of even front teams and then probably a higher number of odd front teams than any other conference anywhere. You see a lot of different things. When I was at Arizona, I was really impressed with the level of coaching in the league. There are good, technical, fundamentally-sound coaches in this league. The level of coaches in this league are as good as there is anywhere.
Is that a double-edged sword? On one hand, it has to be fun as a coach that you are going to see something new every week and you get to game plan something new every week. On the other hand, you have to see something new every week and you have to game plan something new every week.
SD: Yeah, especially when you are rebuilding. When you have a program that is set and established, making changes from week to week maybe isn't as hard. But when you're coming in and trying to build a foundation on top of that it can be hard. But it's a great league to play in and it's very challenging.
When it comes to goal-setting, are you a long-term guy or do you think in terms of baby steps?
SD: I'm kind of a short-term guy. Our goal is to get better every day. We want to be competitive in every game. That's the No. 1 thing is to make sure our guys are playing hard and we learn how to win. Cal is a program that can be successful and has been very successful in the past. We've got to get to the point where we can't hope to win. Every time we take the field we have to expect to win and that's something that takes some time.
Speaking of expectations, people might perceive that coach Mike MacIntyre at Colorado might have an easier time because people expect it to be a rebuilding project. As you said, Cal has been successful. Do you feel like you might be expected to turn things around quicker?
SD: I think probably to an extent because of the resources we have at Cal and the history of success. They've tasted success at a very high level. When you have the resources available to you that you do, people are going to have high expectations. And you want that. That's why I'm here -- to win at a high level and do it consistently. But it takes time. We expect to be a competitive football team and win football games early. We have to stay healthy and develop depth. But that's why you come to a place like Cal because I believe it's a place where you can get stuff done.