Pac-12: Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado was probably the worst major conference football team in 2012. It went 1-11, losing by an average of nearly 31 points per game. Last year, the first under coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes went 4-8 and only lost three games by more than 31 points.

So the Buffs were clearly much improved, climbing out of the Pac-12 basement after dispatching California 41-24.

[+] EnlargeMike MacIntyre
AP Photo/Rick BowmerMike MacIntyre has seen marked improvement in his team's attitude this spring.
Still, four wins -- and just one in conference play for a second consecutive year -- isn't going to goose anyone in Boulder. With the athletic department in the midst of a critical fund-raising project for new athletics facilities and upgrades to Folsom Field, the program needs another notable uptick in 2014. By most fair measures, that would be achieving mediocrity -- as in, going 6-6 and becoming bowl eligible.

But "mediocrity" isn't the sort of alluring goal that motivates most athletes, and it won't be employed by MacIntyre, who's instead asking his players to aspire toward becoming "uncommon," as in, he said, "uncommon effort, uncommon attitude, uncommon focus."

With spring practices in the books and the Buffaloes approaching an offseason when young players can fine-tune themselves -- or take to the sofa and get soft -- MacIntyre senses his team is turning a corner both in terms of talent and attitude.

"I saw a different intensity, a different focus in meetings and in practice [this spring]," he said. "I say, 'You have to believe it before you achieve it.' I definitely think they are starting to believe that they can beat anybody they play. I think we started getting that at the end of last season."

There are reasons to be optimistic, as many of those overmatched young players forced into action over the past two seasons are starting to mature.

A good start is QB Sefo Liufau, who's rubbed away some of the rawness and rough edges from being a true freshman starter in 2013. His mechanics are much better, which has translated to more zip on the football, an improvement with intermediate throws, a quicker release and a better command of the offense.

"He made the jump I was hoping to see," MacIntyre said.

It also helps that Liufau's backup, Jordan Gehrke, turned in a strong spring.

"It's always good to have two guys who can do it," MacIntyre said.

When asked who boosted their stock this spring, MacIntyre had a long list. On the defensive line, there's defensive ends Derek McCartney, Tyler Henington and Jimmy Gilbert. In the secondary, it's a pair of corners, Chidobe Awuzie and junior college transfer Ahkello Witherspoon. He also feels good about Kenneth Olugbode replacing the departed Derek Webb at weakside linebacker.

On offense, center Alex Kelley stepped up to replace Gus Handler, while running back Phillip Lindsay impressed enough at a fairly deep position to earn touches, at the very least in the return game. While no one is expected to comfortably fill Paul Richardson's shoes at receiver, junior Nelson Spruce and redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo look like two strong options in the passing game.

But it's not just about the naturally maturing personnel, it's about how those guys are progressing.

"We definitely got tougher as a football team this spring, more physical," MacIntyre said. "We were able a little bit more than last spring because everything had been installed."

The Buffs are not going to be the fastest or most physically imposing team in the Pac-12, and the South Division is much improved since Colorado made the jump from the Big 12. While the locker room message is to believe they are capable of winning any and every game, there also is the big picture for the program.

The Rose Bowl won't happen overnight. Or in MacIntyre's second year.

"It definitely is a process," MacIntyre said. "It's not something you can shake a wand at and fix. It's also not a one-game situation. Our kids have to have the right perspective. If we go out and win a Pac-12 game early, we can't think we've arrived because you can get beat by the next eight opponents. It's just so tough. You've got to bring it week in and week out."

The good news for Colorado fans is the Buffs seem ready to bring a little bit more to their weeks next fall than the previous two years.
I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads, the nickels and dimes, yours and mine. Did you cash in all your dreams?

Q&A: Colorado DC Kent Baer

April, 10, 2014
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There is no question Colorado's defense improved in 2013 under first-year coordinator Kent Baer compared to 2012. It gave up nearly eight fewer points per game. It yielded an entire yard less per play.

Yet no one would call giving up 38 points and 468 yards per game good defense, least of all Baer.

With eight starters returning on defense, it would seem the Buffaloes are in good position to improve next fall. So we decided to check in with Baer and see how things are going as he eyeballs the spring game on Saturday.

First, let's look back to last year: What went well and what didn't with the defense?

Kent Baer: You look at the stats. Third down, red zone, we've got to get better. We've got to get better in a lot of different categories. We improved as time went on, but this is a heck of a league with a ton of challenges on both sides of the ball. We've got to get better. It's a matter of learning what we ask them to do. I think we've made a lot of progress this spring. We've concentrated on certain things. We'll continue to do that the rest of the spring and into fall camp.

[+] EnlargeKent Baer
The Denver Post via Getty ImagesColorado's defense made progress last season under coordinator Kent Baer, but by no means are the Buffaloes a finished product.
What's been the message -- the prime focus -- this spring?

Baer: I don't know if there's been one prime focus, but one of the focuses is how hard we play every snap. The effort it takes to win in this league. We've been focusing on third downs. We've been focusing on red zone. There are a lot of things we've been focusing on. Getting lined up correctly, communicating. Being more physical. There's obviously a lot of things we've got to improve on.

Who's stepped up as a leader?

Baer: It's more by example, the way we practice. Chidobe [Awuzie] has done a great job for us in the secondary. I think he's emerged as a leader. Addison Gillam, Kenneth Olugbode at linebacker, Juda Parker on the defensive line. Josh Tupou on the defensive line. They've all shared a role in that. All had some playing time last year. We'll continue to push that as we move forward.

Let's go through all three levels: First, who's been playing well on your D-line?

Baer: [DT] Josh Tupou has played really well. [DE] Derek McCartney, who we redshirted last year, is playing really well. Josh is a big guy who is hard to block.

What about linebacker?

Baer: The two linebackers I mentioned, Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode, and Brady Daigh, I think they've proved a lot this spring. They continue to improve.

The secondary?

Baer: [CB] Chidobe Awuzie in the secondary. I think Jered Bell has improved. Kenneth Crawley has improved in the secondary. All of those guys played a lot last year.

Who's going to lead your pass rush this fall?

Baer: I think it's going to be by committee. We can't count on one guy. We've got to make sure we've got the right guys in the game on pass downs. It's going to be by committee, not necessarily by scheme. Coach [Jim] Jeffcoat and Coach [Andy] LaRussa do a great job coaching those guys and teaching them. It's something we'll emphasize and get better at.

What needs to happen for you guys to take a major step forward on defense in 2014?

Baer: We've got, what, seven or eight guys coming back who started and saw a lot of football. That's going to help us, No. 1. We've got to get those things I mentioned earlier. The things you asked me what we need to improve on. All those things are going to make us better. We've got to be better on third down, we've got to get more turnovers, we've got to be better in the red zone. We've got to play harder. We do that, we'll be a lot better.
And I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" … Well, that's the one thing we've got.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
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If I owned the Twins, I wouldn't even show up here. I'd just hire a bunch of scientists to do my homework. I mean, if you're rich you don't have to be smart. That's the whole beauty of this country.

The ball is tipped and there you are. You're running for your life. You're a shooting star.
Happy Friday!
I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay updated their top-10 lists at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

Here's a look at how the Pac-12 offensive players stack up:

Quarterback

Marcus Mariota might have been taken No. 1 overall if he decided to leave Oregon, but without him the Pac-12 doesn't have any top-10 representation. Washington's Keith Price, who was not invited to the NFL combine, has a big day on Wednesday when the Huskies hold their pro day. Barring a team taking a flyer on him in the draft, Price is probably going to have to take the undrafted route to forge a NFL career.

Running back/fullback

The surprise here is how little both analysts think of Carey, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards. Sure, his 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.70) didn't do him any favors, but this feels like a situation where the film isn't speaking as loudly as it does for others.

The love for Thomas was a bit surprising as well, but it's also tough to compare him to the rest of the group because he doesn't project as a true running back in the NFL. His versatility undoubtedly scored him points, but it also should be noted that 10 other running backs clocked faster 40 times at the combine -- including Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. See the whole list here Insider.

Receiver/tight end

Cooks and Lee, a pair of Biletnikoff Award winners, will both expect to hear their name called in the first round. After that, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the pass-catchers fall into place.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOregon State wideout Brandin Cooks could be a first-round pick.
Notably absent is Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who ran a 4.40 40 at the combine and caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Buffaloes. He still figures to have a shot to go in the second-round to third-round range.

McShay lists Lyerla as the pass-catcher with the biggest risk:
Lyerla has some significant behavioral and emotional issues (leaving the Oregon program at midseason in 2013 and being arrested for cocaine possession weeks later) that just aren't worth dealing with, even for the potential reward his talent promises, were he to straighten things out.

See the whole list here Insider.

Offensive line

If they were quarterbacks, Yankey and Su'a-Filo would be forever linked. Widely regarded as two of the best offensive guards in the country, it will be interesting to see who goes off the board first. Su'a-Filo was the players' choice as the best offensive lineman in the conference in 2013, but Yankey was given the honor in 2012.

Martin is one of eight players Kiper and McShay agree is the best player at his position. See the whole list here Insider.
That was a crazy game of poker.

Pac-12's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
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Whether it's rock and roll or old soul, it don't matter.

LB Gillam, Buffs eye improvement

March, 14, 2014
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When Addison Gillam started for Colorado in its 2013 opener against Colorado State, he became just the second true freshman in program history to start at inside linebacker.

Things didn't start off great, though.

"It took a few plays to get used to it," he said. "I got my helmet knocked off and had to go off the field. That's when I was like, 'Oh, it's just football.'"

[+] EnlargeAddison Gilliam
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiLB Addison Gilliam (44) led Colorado with 107 tackles and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors as a true freshman last season.
He'd go on to record a team-high 14 tackles in his debut, with two coming for a loss and a quarterback sack. Among his tackles were two key fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter of a 41-27 victory that ended an eight-game losing streak for the program.

The victory and Gillam's performance served an important purpose: They provided hope among a beleaguered fan base for the future. After winning four games over the previous two seasons and earning the unofficial designation as "Worst Major Conference Team" in 2012, the Buffaloes looked ready to take a step forward toward respectability.

Gillam would go on to lead the Buffs with 107 tackles, including 9.5 coming for a loss. He had three sacks, an interception and six pass breakups and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. He looked like a budding star on a defense that dramatically improved from the year before, even if a 4-8 record doesn't qualify as a cause for celebration.

While the Buffaloes ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in most defensive statistics, they surrendered nearly eight fewer points and 20 fewer yards per game compared to 2012 in a conference that was better offensively in 2013. They gave up one fewer yard per play -- 6.1 yards per play compared to an eye-popping 7.1 in 2012 -- and one yard fewer per rush (4.9 vs. 5.9).

The hope among Colorado adherents, of course, is that the upward trend will continue, that promising young players like Gillam will lead the Buffs out of the morass.

With spring practices underway, Gillam sees reasons for optimism.

"We're so much further ahead than last year," he said. "Last year, we were learning a new defense. That really shows. A lot of people are showing more effort. Last year, people weren't running to the ball. This year, we're having fun out there, making plays. Everybody is cheering each other on."

Gillam signed with San Jose State and MacIntyre in 2012 and grayshirted after he had surgery on both shoulders. When MacIntyre was hired at Colorado, he followed him to Boulder, back-dooring a scholarship to a Pac-12 school when none previously had been forthcoming. Fair to say the other 11 Pac-12 schools whiffed badly on Gillam, a rangy, 6-foot-3, 225 pounder from Palo Cedro, Calif., with a knack for finding the ball.

Gillam said the attraction to MacIntyre had more to do with "the off-field stuff."

"He wants you to be more than a football player," he said.

In the spring of 2013, Gillam brought his high-motor self to a team that had been indifferently sputtering along. Some Buffs were angry about former coach Jon Embree's controversial firing after just two seasons. It's fair to say that some players weren't terribly motivated.

"The team wasn't as cohesive," Gillam said. "There were a lot of fights, [guys] were unfriendly to each other."

He admits that his quickly pushing to the top of the depth chart by the end of his first spring surprised him. When he watches film of himself from 2013, he likes his consistent effort and fight. He thinks he needs to be quicker with his reads and improve in pass coverage. He'd also like to be around 240 pounds in fall camp.

While Gillam sees improved trust and effort on the team, things aren't yet where they need to be.

"There are still some guys, like on every team, that don't want to," he said.

The MacIntyre and the Buffs turnaround effort will progress much more quickly if more guys develop a want-to like Gillam.
On Thursday, we looked at the Pac-12 North Division. Today, we turn to the South:

ARIZONA

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  • QB competition: Coach Rich Rodriguez has used first-year starters in his first two seasons at Arizona and will make it three-for-three in 2014. For the most part, things worked with both Matt Scott and more recently B.J. Denker, which should make Wildcats fans optimistic about what should be a wide-open competition.
  • Replacing Carey: As intriguing as the quarterback competition will be, the battle to replace all-time great Ka'Deem Carey at running back could be more important. None of the returning running backs had a carry last year, which led to this comment from Rodriguez: "Now it’s a mystery. That’s going to be one of the positions, like quarterback, that will be kind of open to see if we can get guys to get better."
  • Keep Austin healthy: After tearing his ACL last spring following a breakout season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, receiver Austin Hill has been given a clean bill of health. Said Rodriguez: "He is still wearing the knee brace but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too."
ARIZONA STATE

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • OL changes: Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, a prototypical guard, could be the Sun Devils' best offensive lineman, which makes things interesting considering both starting guards -- Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo -- will be back next year. Douglas, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has worked at tackle in the past and could shift outside to replace first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
  • Getting defensive: Coach Todd Graham's college roommate, Keith Patterson, has arrived as the defensive coordinator, but Graham will remain the play-caller and Chris Ball's title will still read co-defensive coordinator. Got all that? New coaching dynamics get sorted out in the spring, too.
  • Looking for replacements: On defense, ASU needs to replace seven starters, highlighted by DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford and CBs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. If ASU is to build off its impressive 2013 season, those holes need to be filled quickly. They'll benefit from a schedule that starts with Weber State, New Mexico, Colorado and a bye, but after that the Sun Devils have UCLA, USC and Stanford in a span of four weeks.
COLORADO

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • QB development: Sefo Liufau's development will be interesting if for nothing else than because the jump from Year 1 starter to Year 2 starter is always intriguing with quarterbacks. It's tempting to assume a big statistical jump is coming, but it's not always that simple (see: Hogan, Kevin; Mannion, Sean; Hundley, Brett). Liufau will need to get on the same page with his receivers as they combine to …
  • … Replace Paul Richardson: Look for Nelson Spruce, D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch to lead what will be a much more balanced receiving corps following Richardson's early departure for the NFL. Spruce was the Buffs' second-leading receiver last year, but Goodson, going into his second season at receiver, figures to make the biggest jump.
  • Rising expectations: It took MacIntyre three years to turn San Jose State into a winner, but there was a four-win improvement in the second year. He won't match that with the Buffs, but a two-win improvement gets Colorado bowl eligible. Colorado has a chance to match last year's win total (4) in the first five games next year: vs. Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Arizona State, Hawaii, at Cal. In fact, it's probably the internal expectation.
UCLA

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Manage expectations: The Bruins are in new territory this offseason with expectations through the roof. They'll likely be a preseason top-10 team, which will drum up chatter about a potential national championship run. Likely message from coach Jim Mora: "Tune out the noise."
  • The #Hundley4Heisman campaign: It's a real thing and Mora threw his weight behind it when he tweeted the hashtag on Jan. 26 with a picture of the Heisman Trophy. Get used to reading "Heisman candidate" next to "Brett Hundley" a lot between now and September. At times, it might feel unavoidable.
  • Leading rusher? They're set at quarterback and bring a lot of talent back at both receiver and on the offensive line, but the running back situation isn't as clear. Hundley was the team's leading rusher in 2013, but someone needs to step up to take pressure off him and LB/RB Myles Jack. It's an important spring for both Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who had varying degrees of success last year.
USC

Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Under center? Cody Kessler is back, but coach Steve Sarkisian immediately made it known there would be an open competition for the quarterback job. Max Wittek is no longer around, but Kessler should get a serious challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne. With a new offense to learn, spring will essentially serve as preparation period for the real competition during fall camp.
  • Catch your breath: The most noticeable change in USC during the first game will be how much faster it's playing offensively. Sarkisian installed a high-tempo offense at Washington last year and, pleased with the results, will continue to press the tempo with the Trojans. Goodbye, huddles.
  • Change it up: As is the case when new coaching staffs arrive, there will likely be a higher percentage of position changes than usual and a more fluid depth chart. It's hard to peg exactly where that'll occur with USC, but it'll be worth monitoring throughout the spring.
UTAH

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Wilson's road back: Travis Wilson is expected to be the Utes' starting quarterback next season, but he'll be limited to non-contact drills during the spring. That's about the best news Wilson could have received following an early November discovery that he had an undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery -- a condition that threatened his career. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will not join the team until after he graduates in May, but he'll be immediately eligible to play.
  • Revolving OC door: Dave Christensen moves in, Dennis Erickson moves over and Brian Johnson moves out. Kyle Whittingham introduced the Utes' seventh offensive coordinator is seven years in early January. Christensen believes in similar philosophies to what the Utes had under Erickson/Johnson, but the terminology will change and the tempo will increase.
  • Pressure building? Utah was used to winning big before it got to the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham lost just 20 games in his six full seasons as the school's head coach while a member of the Mountain West Conference. In the three years since, Utah's dropped 19 and qualified for just one bowl. No one should doubt Whittingham's ability as a coach -- he's a good one -- but the jump in competition has been difficult.

Spring position breakdowns: OL

February, 27, 2014
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: The Wildcats welcome back four starters, losing only RG Chris Putton. This mostly starless unit led the second-best rushing attack in the Pac-12 and yielded the second fewest sacks (17) in 2013. Junior Lene Maiava, the line's top backup at OT and OG last year, is a good bet to step in for Putton. By the way, all the 2013 backups are back as well.

[+] EnlargeHroniss Grasu
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiAll-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu is back to anchor Oregon's offensive line.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils lose LT Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky, but welcome back three starters, a crew headlined by LG Jamil Douglas, an NFL prospect who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2013. Also back are RT Tyler Sulka and RG Vi Teofilo. Junior Nick Kelly will get first crack at center, while junior Evan Goodman was Finkenberg's backup last year. Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, Sil Ajawara and Stephon McCray also are in the mix inside.

California: Cal welcomes back all five guys who started the Big Game against Stanford, a crew that included three freshmen and one sophomore. Only one of those guys, sophomore Jordan Rigsbee, started the first game, and he had moved from LG to center. The truth is, these guys played OK late in the season, and you'd think they'd improve significantly after a year of seasoning. Rigsbee and LG Chris Borrayo are good players, and Chris Adcock and Matt Cochran will be back in the mix after injuries derailed their seasons. There's also juco transfer Dominic Granado and four redshirt freshmen. As with most positions after the Bears’ miserable 2013, this unit should be much-improved.

Colorado: Three starters are back from a line that often struggled in 2013 -- LG Kaiwi Crabb, RG Daniel Munyer and RT Stephane Nembot -- with LT Jack Harris and C Gus Handler departing. Crabb was the backup center last year, so he might get a look there. In the mix are junior Marc Mustoe, junior college transfer Sully Wiefels, sophomore Alex Kelley and four redshirt freshmen.

Oregon: The Ducks lose undersized OG Mana Greig, who often struggled last year, but welcome back four starters, though LT Tyler Johnstone will miss spring practices after knee surgery. Center Hroniss Grasu earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors for a second time last year and is a likely preseason All-American -- he was second team for the FWAA in 2013. OG Cameron Hunt, who started five games as a true freshman, is almost certain to step into a starting guard positions opposite Hamani Stevens. Junior Andre Yruretagoyena is a guy to watch, also. It's likely position coach Steve Greatwood will do a lot of shuffling this spring, working a variety of combinations that allow him to develop depth.

Oregon State: Two starters are back -- C Isaac Seumalo and RT Sean Harlow -- and three starters are gone: LT Michael Philipp, LG Josh Andrews and RG Grant Enger. Seumalo earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors and could get All-American consideration this fall, while Harlow should be much-improved after taking his lumps as a true freshman. Sophomore Grant Bays, junior Josh Mitchell, junior Gavin Andrews and juco transfer Luke Hollingsworth are in the mix.

Stanford: While the Cardinal are replacing four starters from the Pac-12's best offensive line last season -- only LT Andrus Peat returns -- a number of the 2013 backups saw significant action. So the hope is Josh Garnett replaces David Yankey at LG, Graham Shuler steps in for Khalil Wilkes at center, Johnny Caspers replaces Kevin Danser at RG and Kyle Murphy takes over for Cameron Fleming at RT. And the best guys who don't beat them out will act as the sixth and seventh O-linemen in Stanford's now-infamous "jumbo" packages.

UCLA: While UCLA loses first-team All-Pac-12 guardXavier Su'a-Filo to the NFL, the Bruins should be strong on the offensive line after injuries force them to start three true freshmen last fall. And those freshmen, Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch and Scott Quessenberry, played pretty darn well, considering. Jake Brendel is back at center -- he and Redmond earned honorable mention all-conference honors -- and tackles Torian White and Simon Goines, starters sidelined by injuries last year, are back. Then there's Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche and Conor McDermott and Ben Wysocki, among others. Figures to be a lot of competition this spring.

USC: The Trojans lost center Marcus Martin, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2013, and RT Kevin Graf, but welcome back sophomore LT Chad Wheeler, senior LG Max Tuerk and senior RG Aundrey Walker, though Walker will be out spring after breaking his ankle against UCLA. Further, with a new coaching staff on hand, there's sure to be competition and some position changes. Junior Cyrus Hobbi and redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers figure to battle at center, and with sophomore Zach Banner sitting out with an injury, senior Nathan Guertler and redshirt freshman Nico Falah likely will man the RT spot. True freshman early enrollee Toa Lobendahn also could get into the mix, as could true freshman Damien Mama when he arrives in the fall, though he plans to take a Mormon mission in 2015.

Utah: Utah loses two starters, LG Jeremiah Tofaeono and center Vyncent Jones, but welcomes back junior LT Jeremiah Poutasi, RG Junior Salt and RT Siaosi Aiono, though Isaac Asiata started the final three games at RT. Sophomore Hiva Lutui was the backup center last year, but he'll battle Nick Nowakowski for the starting job, while junior J.J. Dielman has the inside track at LG.

Washington: Not only does Washington welcome back all five starters from 2013, it welcomes back a crew that started every game together. (Well, actually, James Atoe started the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at RG for Colin Tanigawa). And not only that, this is the Pac-12's most veteran crew, perhaps the most experience group in the nation, with four senior starters and one junior. Oh, and not a single backup from the Apple Cup depth chart graduated either, though Erik Kohler took injury retirement. LT Micah Hatchie and LG Dexter Charles both earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year. This has a chance to be a very good line.

Washington State: Offensive line is a questionable area for the Cougars this spring. They lost three starters, topped by center Elliott Bosch, the line's leader in 2013, and three top backups. Junior LT Gunnar Eklund and junior LG Joe Dahl are back. Sophomore Riley Sorenson is almost certain to win a starting job, likely at right guard, while Sam Flor and Carlos Freeman will battle at center, while Cody O'Connell, Cole Madison, Devonte McClain and Jacob Seydel are in the mix at the vacant tackle spot.

Previous positions

Quarterback

Running back

Receiver
Two years ago, the Pac-12 had an Oregon problem. The Ducks had won three consecutive conference titles and were among the favored to make it four. They didn't. Now the Ducks, and the rest of the Pac-12, have a Stanford problem, as the Cardinal have won two titles in a row.

[+] EnlargeDevon Kell, Marcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsA fully healthy Marcus Mariota should again be one of the Pac-12's top Heisman candidates.
Further, considering that USC won six consecutive conference crowns from 2003 to 2008, it's fair to say the Pac-12 has a diversity problem. It didn't used to be like that. From 1995 to 2002, seven teams won conference titles. The only repeat winner? Washington State.

Is 2014 the season for a new color scheme at the top? Will the South (Division) rise again? (We're eyeballing you, UCLA.) While we're at it, will the conference, which last won a national title in 2004, break through this fall, finishing atop the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff?

These are the big-picture questions that start to get answered as Pac-12 teams begin spring practice. Stanford got rolling Monday. Arizona, Washington and Colorado hit the field next week. Oregon and UCLA won't get cracking until April 1, and the Ducks and Oregon State won't finish until May 3, officially sending us into the long, hot days of the summer offseason.

As is the case most years, there's a little old and a little new in the Pac-12 this spring.

Start with the head coaches. USC and Washington will hit the field for the first time with new guys in charge, making Oregon State and Utah the only two conference teams headed by the same guy since the 2010 season. Neither coach is much of a stranger. USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from the Huskies, and Washington turned around and lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State.

The bigger area of turnover was coordinators. Just three teams didn't make any changes on the top of their offensive and defensive units: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

There will be more stability at quarterback. Ten teams welcome back their 2013 starters, if we can be optimistic enough to include Utah's Travis Wilson, who will practice this spring with no contact but still has not been fully cleared to continue his career due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Arizona and Washington will stage full-on competitions to replace B.J. Denker and Keith Price, respectively. Wilson's uncertain status makes the Utes' QB situation complicated, while at USC, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne is expected to provide a strong challenge to incumbent starter Cody Kessler.

Meanwhile, the returning QB talent is strong. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley will be near the top of every preseason Heisman Trophy watch list. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion aren't too far behind.

The situation at running back and receiver is not as strong. The top four rushers from 2013 are gone: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Arizona State's Marion Grice. The top three receivers -- as well as USC's Marqise Lee -- also are off to the NFL: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/University of Southern California/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian has switched divisions but takes over a USC team that finished third in the Pac-12 South.
There are a lot of voids across the conference on defense as well. Just two first-team All-Pac-12 performer are back -- Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and USC DE Leonard Williams -- and just four on the second team. The six players who led the conference in tackles for a loss are gone: Stanford's Trent Murphy, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Utah's Trevor Reilly and Arizona State's Chris Young.

While Stanford and Oregon -- it used to be Oregon and Stanford -- will remain the favorites among many, both have big questions on defense. The Ducks will be projected ahead of the Cardinal, however, because of Mariota's return and Stanford having to replace Gaffney and four starting O-linemen.

Yet this go-around, Stanford has the winning streak in the series and consecutive crowns and Oregon has the chip on its shoulder.

"It's not that we should [have a chip on our shoulder]. It's that we need to," Oregon running back Byron Marshall said. "Like you said, Stanford has kind of had our number the past couple of years. … As one of the leaders on this team, it's my job to remind everyone that [Stanford] beat us the last two years. It hasn't really been a close game. It might be close by score, but they've dominated us in both performances. We need to have a chip on our shoulder in order to get where we want to this year."

That last line pretty much applies to every Pac-12 team this spring.

The conference was as deep as it's ever been in 2013 and a record six teams ended up ranked in the final Associated Press poll, but the conference produced just one BCS bowl team and no team finished in the final top eight.

Will a Pac-12 team advance from good to elite in 2014? Spring practice provides an important step toward that possibility.

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