Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal

The first Stanford open spring practice is in the books, and it's possible to make two broad opening observations:

  • Stanford can be very good offensively in 2015 if Kevin Hogan continues the solid quarterback play that he finished 2014 with.

  • Success on the defensive side of the ball is a massive question mark, as it appears a daunting number of dominoes must fall between now and September for the Cardinal to maintain high-level efficiency on that side of the football.

Stanford will spend the next six months grinding to make the necessary variables break in its favor. Health will be key -- the roster is lacking on that front at the moment -- and successful player development will be essential. Here's why, viewed in the context of Saturday's first public look at the squad:

Decimated defensive line

To this point, Stanford has somehow, someway overcome a rash of bad breaks along the defensive line.

Let's take a quick trip down memory lane:

[+] EnlargeAziz Shittu
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford is looking for healthy bodies this spring. DE Aziz Shittu is out due to an injury that ended his 2014 season.
 Henry Anderson, David Parry, and Ben Gardner all fought through serious injuries in 2013. Ikenna Nwafor, the projected nose tackle of the future, was forced to medically retire due to a foot injury suffered in that same year. Meanwhile, Lance Callihan and Anthony Hayes never developed into significant contributors, making it more difficult to alleviate the strain inflicted by the injuries.

The aforementioned players are all out of the program now, but a perfect storm of gut punches persists. Aziz Shittu, Stanford's most experienced player at the position, will miss all of spring ball because of the serious injury that ended his 2014 season. Luke Kaumatule appears to be a better fit at outside linebacker. To make matters even worse, hot young prospect Solomon Thomas is now in a walking boot after jamming his toe this week. He'll miss the first session of spring practice. Dependable walk-on Alex Yazdi still has a year of eligibility remaining, but he recently decided to focus on his career outside of football, so even the "Iranian Meatball" isn't around any longer to provide much-needed depth.

The end result is frightening.

It likely has coach David Shaw thankful that the season opener is six months -- and not six weeks -- away: The Cardinal had only three defensive linemen suited up Saturday. Harrison Phillips, Nate Lohn, and Jordan Watkins (all lighter and less experienced compared to the rugged veterans Stanford had featured in this trench the past several seasons) took every single snap at practice.

That's a virtual death sentence at college football's most physically strenuous position, where depth is a prerequisite for effectiveness.

"It's very, very difficult for three guys to make it through an entire practice [without backups]," Shaw said. "They didn't bat an eyelash. They didn't back off. They were battling all through practice."

The trio earned hearty applause for their perseverance from Stanford's post-practice huddle, but that did little to address grave concerns up front. Increased health, depth and strength must come for the Cardinal this offseason if the program intends to overcome troubles along the defensive line as effectively as it has the past two seasons.

It's tough to bet against the Stanford defense after witnessing it deliver sturdy reloading efforts in recent seasons. But this is shaping up to be the most unnerving offseason test yet for defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and line coach Randy Hart.

Big runs galore

Stanford's offense, in particular its ground game, is the direct spring beneficiary of the team's depleted defensive front. Coaches say Christian McCaffrey has added strength to run more frequently between the tackles, and he certainly looks the part. Along with Barry Sanders, McCaffrey ripped off a number of big runs Saturday.

The Stanford offense features an enviable combination of explosiveness (see McCaffrey and Michael Rector) and size (see receiver Devon Cajuste and four powerful tight ends). Shaw noted that the offensive line, which lost only one starter this offseason, is far ahead of where it was at this point last year.

The power Cardinal have a powerful arsenal offensively, and they're counting on Hogan to deliver consistent play to glue it all together. For the first time since Andrew Luck roamed campus, in fact, Stanford appears to have fewer spring questions on offense than they do on the defensive side.

Assorted notes

  • Quarterback coach Tavita Pritchard said that backups Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst have not yet mastered the playbook. He did note that their athleticism and size (both appear fully physically developed) has impressed the Cardinal. Shaw hinted that a leader for the second-string spot probably won't emerge until August.

  • Nick Davidson, fresh off a stint with Stanford's basketball team, earned first team snaps at right tackle. Dave Bright played right guard next to him, while Johnny Caspers manned second-team center duties with Jesse Burkett out (illness). Caspers is expected to be in the thick of the right guard competition, as is Brendon Austin, who did not participate in practice.

  • Conrad Ukropina showed improved height on his kicks during the field-goal session.
Last week your humble Pac-12 Blog broke down the 2015 Pac-12 recruiting class and where those players came from. But those kinds of numbers always prompt more questions like: OK, this is one class, what about the last two classes? The last three? What about every class that each Pac-12 coach has signed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WASHINGTON HUSKIES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing top recruits certainly gives teams a boost on the field as evidenced by the teams above and the successes they've had under each coach. But look at Utah. Whittingham hasn't signed a single ESPN 300 player and yet his team was in the hunt for the South title last season. It's the same with Rich Rodriguez: Even though just 7 percent of his players have been ESPN 300 members, he has still had major success on the field for the Wildcats.
Stanford will have to overcome a myriad of questions if it is to prove that 2014's five-loss campaign was just a temporary tumble from college football's elite. But on the first day of 2015 spring practice, David Shaw embraced the skepticism coming his program's way.

"I love it," he said. "There's a hunger now. As much as we try not to worry about what other people say about us, it's nice when people talk about our conference and don't talk about us. Our guys get a little upset. I think that's great."

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Barry Sanders
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsQB Kevin Hogan and RB Barry Sanders return to lead the Stanford offense.
The Cardinal enjoyed an offensive resurgence to end 2014, but there are questions about their attack's ability to sustain that success for an entire season. Meanwhile, the core of Stanford's vaunted defense has been completely gutted. Shaw's club must replace all three starting defensive linemen from last season.

Winter training, which took place over the course of the past two months, was the first step in the Cardinal's reloading effort. Players say that sports performance coordinator Shannon Turley refined the program this year, and the changes helped infuse a fresh sense of accountability following disappointment in 2014.

"No one can half-ass a rep," quarterback Kevin Hogan said.

Monday's practice practice was Stanford's first chance to work out under full supervision of the coaching staff. While workout strain had been the dominant theme of January and the first half of February, the complete football package has now returned to the forefront. Shaw indicated that he was pleased with Stanford's communication on the first non-padded day of practice.

"There's a lot to compete for," he said. 'There'll be a lot of questions people have about us, and our guys are eager to answer those."

Here are some early returns:

The questions to answer

  • Stanford is dealing with a smattering of injuries and absences in spring practice, and those further complicate the challenges facing the Cardinal. Defensive lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, the two most experienced members of their respective position groups, will both miss spring practice due to injury. That sets the table for potentially wild competition in the trenches and in the secondary this spring: It'll be a free-for-all of unproven players battling for playing time at those positions. Shaw noted that Luke Kaumatule will shift between outside linebacker and defensive end (in nickel situations), movement that could be a fitting illustration of what is -- at this point -- an unsettled defense. "We have talented young defensive linemen that we're excited to see play," Shaw said. "But they've got a lot to learn."

  • Running back Remound Wright will miss the first half of spring practice because of a disciplinary issue, leaving Stanford with only two scholarship backs -- Christian McCaffrey and Barry Sanders -- at the moment. Shaw said that fullbacks Pat Skov (when he returns from injury) and Daniel Marx will receive single-back carries, which seems indicative of Stanford's hunger for a power runner.

  • Hogan is clearly Stanford's man at quarterback, but Shaw said that both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will receive first team chances as they compete for the backup job.
Stanford opens 2015 spring practice today looking to sustain strong 2014 offensive momentum while reloading a defense that is losing several key starters. The Cardinal's spring will be divided into two sessions: This first one runs until March 7, and the second kicks off March 30 and wraps up with the April 11 spring game at Stanford Stadium.

Here are five developments to keep an eye on over the next six weeks:

Competition along the defensive line

Stanford has been forced to replace significant pieces in each of David Shaw's years at the helm, but this offseason the team must rebuild the entire defensive line. This trench is considered the foundation of what has been the Pac-12's stingiest defense the past three years, and it's losing all three starters.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Phillips
Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY SportsStanford needs a big contribution from Harrison Phillips, right, as it retools its defense for 2015.
The battle to replace Henry Anderson, David Parry, and Blake Lueders is on. Veterans Aziz Shittu and Luke Kaumatule must solidify prominent spots, or logic says Stanford is in deep trouble. They are expected to fight young talents Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas, who are expected to mature into stalwarts. The development of the defensive line will be intriguing, especially since Stanford's roster no longer features a prototypical block-gobbling nose tackle. It creates a question mark that can't be ignored.

Rotation in the secondary

Though assistant Randy Hart appears to have his hands full with the defensive line, secondary coach Duane Akina finds himself in a similar situation. Stanford has recruited notably well at this position over the past two cycles, so it appears Akina has ammunition to work with. Still, the Cardinal must replace strong safety Jordan Richards (an integral defensive captain) and both starting cornerbacks -- Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons.

Spring practice provides a first chance to assess Stanford's shifting plan at cornerback -- where will fifth-year man Ronnie Harris fit in relative to younger blue chip talents like Terrence Alexander? -- nickel back, and safety. Zach Hoffpauir will be a key piece of the puzzle at the latter two positions, but he is playing baseball for the Cardinal, so several underclassmen should have a chance to move up the pecking order in the coming weeks.

Cohesiveness of the offense

While the defense reloads, Stanford's offense returns largely intact. The Cardinal surged on this side of the ball to end the 2014 season, so spring marks a chance for quarterback Kevin Hogan and Co. to maintain the cohesiveness and efficiency they finished with. Stanford's offense has struggled mightily during spring practice ever since Andrew Luck graduated. With the defense in the midst of such a daunting reloading effort, this can be the offense's chance to finally turn the tables. Finding consistent spring confidence is important for a group that took so long to establish an effective rhythm in 2014.

Progress at tight end

After several consecutive banner seasons, Stanford's threat at tight end disappeared completely in 2013. Its return began in 2014 when the young crop of Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton, and Greg Taboada hit the field. The trio developed increasing comfort last season, and expectations have taken full flight as they enter their third year in the program. Stanford is certainly hoping to re-establish an elite size-speed threat at the position beyond those three, and spring will serve as a gauge of progress on that front -- especially since many are hopeful that sophomore Dalton Schultz can make this crew a four-headed monster.

Balance in the backfield

Kelsey Young is no longer on Stanford's roster and is expected to transfer, so a crowded Cardinal backfield has one less body competing for touches. Shaw's distribution of carries figures to be a key factor in the 2015 season, and the prolific rise of youngster Christian McCaffrey promises to make the development of the position a fascinating watch. Remound Wright exploded at the goal line to close 2014. His coexistence with McCaffrey and Barry Sanders will continue to be an important variable.
The NFL Combine kicks off on Friday.

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

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

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

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

Defensive linemen:
Linebackers: MONDAY, FEB. 23 | Defensive backs
Signing day has come and gone and with it an entirely new batch of Pac-12 players is joining the conference (269 players, to be exact).

With the Pac-12 gaining more national recognition, it’s no surprise to see the recruiting trends heading further outside of what was typically considered “Pac-12 territory.”

For example, the most heavily recruited area was -- unsurprisingly -- the West Coast and states that are the home to one or more Pac-12 programs. But right after that, the next-biggest target was the South and Southeast: SEC territory. The Pac-12 signed the same number of recruits from Texas as it did Arizona. Louisiana was a big state for the conference as well -- Pac-12 schools signed 13 players from the Bayou State.

Here’s a closer look at where exactly the conference picked up its Class of 2015 talent:
Observations:

  • One obvious note is the number of players from California -- players from the Golden State account for 48 percent of Pac-12 signees in 2015. That’s not too surprising, considering how large and talent-rich the state is. Of the top 25 players in California, 21 signed with Pac-12 schools. The other four signed with Alabama, Tennessee, Notre Dame and San Jose State.
  • Each Pac-12 program signed at least one player from California in the 2015 class (that’s the only state with which that’s true this season). On average, there are 11 signees from California in each recruiting class this season. Though it’s USC who leads the way with 17 signees from California, Washington State was right on the Trojans’ heels with 16 signees from Cali.
  • The state of Washington showed out pretty well in the conference. While there was only one player from Washington in the ESPN 300, there were 16 signees from the state who landed with Pac-12 programs.
  • The only program to not sign a player from the program’s home state was Oregon. However, there were five players from Oregon that did sign with Pac-12 programs. Those players ended up at Arizona (1), Oregon State (2), Stanford (1) and Washington (1).
  • Players staying home: Arizona and Arizona State signed seven players from Arizona; California, Stanford, UCLA and USC signed 48 players from California; Colorado signed four players from Colorado; Oregon State signed two players from Oregon; Utah signed three players from Utah; and Washington and Wazzu signed a total of nine players from Washington.
  • The most national class (meaning the team that signed the players from the most number of states) was Stanford, which signed players from 13 states. The least national class was USC, which signed players from just six states.

But what about the concentration of top talent in the 2015 class?

Again, unsurprisingly, California leads the way. The Golden State makes up half of the four-star and five-star players in the 2015 Pac-12 class. USC snagged five-star cornerback Iman Marshall, who hails from Long Beach, California, and 33 of the 66 four-stars in the 2015 class are also from California.

But this is where there’s a bit of a changeup. Of the 14 players from Texas that signed in the 2015 class, five (36 percent) are four-star players who landed at Pac-12 programs. After that -- with the exception of three four-star players from Georgia -- the majority of the top talent, again, hails from the traditional Pac-12 region.

[+] EnlargeChris Clark
Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesIt's not often that the Pac-12 pulls top prospects from Connecticut, such as UCLA-bound tight end Chris Clark.
Five-stars:

  • Hawaii: 1
  • California: 1
Four-stars:

  • California: 33
  • Texas: 5
  • Washington: 4
  • Arizona: 3
  • Georgia: 3
  • Utah: 3
  • Two four-star signees: Louisiana, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma
  • One four-star signee: South Carolina, Colorado, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Connecticut, Hawaii

More notes:

  • Notably, the conference signed a four-star and five-star player from Hawaii. There were only four players in the state that were four- or five-star players. The two players who didn’t sign with a Pac-12 team went to Texas Tech and BYU. Both had Pac-12 offers.
  • The conference also cleaned up -- in regard to snagging the limited top talent out of state -- in Nevada. There were only three four-star players in Nevada and two ended up in the Pac-12 (UCLA and USC). The other player signed with Notre Dame.
  • More impressively, the conference was able to sign one of two four-star players out of Connecticut (TE Chris Clark, UCLA). When considering the distance between Nevada and the Pac-12 and Connecticut and the Pac-12, this is quite a recruiting feat.

As these players get more into the programs and possibly become big Pac-12 contributors, it will only open up these national pipelines more, making the conference’s footprint even bigger.
Stanford defensive lineman Henry Anderson had a decorated career for the Cardinal and since the college football season ended he has been very busy preparing for the NFL scouting combine. The Pac-12 Blog caught up with Anderson, who signed with CAA and has been training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

How has post-Stanford life been for you?

[+] EnlargeHenry Anderson
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsFormer Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson says training for the combine has been very different than going through college practices.
Anderson: Usually we get a couple of weeks to just rest and recover from the season before we get started with offseason workouts and all of that. This year I took a couple days, spent New Year's up in Lake Tahoe and then I came straight to IMG and got going. It has been pretty crazy, they've packed a bunch of stuff into each day, trying to get us ready for all of the things we're going to be doing at the combine. They're trying to mentally prepare us and get us in the mindset of being an NFL player, so it has been a busy past couple months, but definitely very useful experience.

You knew that because the combine fell in February that your schedule would be more tightly packed, but were you/your body prepared for that grind?

Anderson: It still came so quick. It did kind of hit me that you're jumping right back into training. You're pretty much trying to be a track athlete right when the season is over. It's a little weird just because that season is such a long grind and you kind of want some time to just relax and take a little time off, but you've got to get right back into it, training for the combine. The first couple weeks of training took a little getting used to but the experience has been great.

What has training looked like for you?

Anderson: They obviously train us for the 40-yard dash, the shuttles, the jumps and all that stuff -- the physical testing. But they've also done a really good job preparing us for the interviews, just getting mentally prepared for all that type of stuff and have us dominate that portion of the combine as well. And nutrition, we meet each week about nutrition as well. We've got nutritionists with us all the time. It's definitely a lot different from what I did at Stanford just because we're basically training to be sprinters rather than be football players. And Stanford was all about trying to be the best football player we could be. The weightlifting program was a little different.

You underwent a huge physical transformation from your freshman to redshirt senior seasons at Stanford. What has the transformation for a football player to a sprinter looked like for you?

Anderson: I have gotten leaner, dropped body fat, but I've stayed the same weight. It's weird because we'll probably never train like this again. You're never training to run a 40-yard dash. At Stanford, it was kind of an unorthodox strength and conditioning program we had there. It wasn't about how much you could bench, how much you could squat, how fast you could run. Everything was centered around just being a good football player. We weren't about benching heavy and all that kind of stuff. A lot of our work there dealt with just functional strength and being a good athlete. So, coming here and transitioning into benching as many reps at 225 as you can and trying to sprint as fast as you can, it has been a lot different.

What about the off-the-field training and life? Has anything funny happened with that?

Anderson: During interview training they've had some funny questions. They've told us some questions that some previous players had gotten in interviews. They said sometimes a scout or someone will walk up to you with some random object and list as many things as possible that you can do with that random object. We were all laughing about that because we didn't have any idea what that had to do with anything.

We went bowling one time and there were some guys who weren't too good at bowling, so that was pretty funny.

OK, name some names...

Anderson: First, Jon Feliciano [U of Miami offensive lineman] was a stud at bowling, I think he had his own ball and his own towel to polish the ball and everything. He was really good. And then, Patrick Miller [Auburn offensive lineman] was a pretty bad bowler. Watching Xzavier Dickson [Alabama linebacker] bowl was pretty funny as well.

You leave for the combine on Thursday morning and will work out on Sunday, what are your feelings on finally getting to Indianapolis?

Anderson: It's pretty cool. As a kid I never even dreamt of being able to play in the NFL so having an opportunity like this is something I truly cherish. Hopefully I go in there and make a good impression on all the teams and all the coaches that are there.
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The Ultimate ESPN 300 is loaded with 14 Pac-12 prospects who didn’t make their respective ESPN 150 or ESPN 300 rankings, so trimming that list to the top five who outperformed their initial rankings and became surprise stars at the college level wasn’t easy. The state of Oregon led the way on this list, but Arizona State and Stanford were also home to a few college stars who didn’t receive the same level of recruiting attention as others.

Pac-12 2015 recruiting in review 

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
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The Pac-12 landed six top-30 recruiting classes and 47 ESPN 300 prospects as every program brought in potential immediate, impact players capable of making an impression on the 2015 season. Here, we take a look back at the recruiting cycle and signing day, and hand out some superlatives for the 2015 recruiting class.


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Top performances: Kevin Hogan

February, 11, 2015
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We continue our series looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2014. If you feel a little nostalgic, you can check out the top performances from 2013.

Up next: Hogan's a hero

Who and against whom: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan saved his best for last in a 31-10 victory against No. 8 UCLA, an upset in the season's final weekend that knocked the Bruins out first place in the South Division.

The numbers: Hogan completed 16 of 19 passes for 234 yards -- 12.3 yards per attempt -- with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 46 yards on seven carries (6.6 yards per rush).

A closer look: How good was this performance? According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the 10th best of the season nationally, and best in the Pac-12 based on QBR, so it was just about perfect. Hogan completed his first 12 passes and was 14 of 15 in the first half with both TDs, and then the Cardinal coasted home. The biggest connection, which featured a nifty move in the pocket to avoid a sack, was a 37-yard touchdown to Devon Cajuste 41 seconds before the half, capping a 92-yard drive. Adding to the impressiveness, Hogan and the Cardinal played like this without top receiver Ty Montgomery, who sat out with a shoulder injury. The victory also meant the Stanford seniors would finish their careers without losing to UCLA. Said Hogan, "We knew that this meant a lot to [UCLA], but we wanted to come out and get a win for our seniors, for our team. We haven't lost to them since we've been here, and we wanted to keep that streak going." It seemed to go under the radar how well Hogan played in Stanford's final three games -- all wins -- including the bowl victory against Maryland. His QBR was over 90 in all three, giving Hogan a strong finish to a mostly disappointing season in which he was dealing with the illness and then death of his father. One suspects his strong finish to 2014 might hint at his potential for a big 2015.
The smoldering aftermath of national signing day sparks plentiful chatter.

Coaches who've just signed highly ranked recruiting classes point to their numbers as a telltale sign of future success. Those lower on the pecking order argue that star ratings aren't really all that they're made out to be. Many writers espouse the vital importance of recruiting rankings when it comes to predicting future success, but examples of programs that outperform their signing day numbers inevitably persist.

Since the beginning of its turnaround in 2007 -- and outside of last season's dip to 8-5 -- Stanford has been one of these programs.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Phillips
Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY SportsHarrison Phillips said he appreciates how Stanford evaluates prospects. "No one cares how much you bench. ... It's basically who can strap up when the pads are on," he said.
The rankings suggest that the Cardinal have recruited decently well -- but only rarely on an absolutely elite level. Player development is the force that has ultimately driven Stanford up the post-signing day food chain.

The Cardinal initially surged into national prominence behind recruiting classes that Rivals ranked 50th and 51st in the nation -- Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Coby Fleener and Doug Baldwin were just four of the future NFL parts of those 2007 and 2008 hauls. After that, Stanford didn't break into the top 20 of Rivals' team rankings until it finished fifth in 2012. That was the high-water mark, but it certainly didn't represent the norm: Although Stanford is currently sitting on consecutive top-20 hauls, the program's average recruiting class ranking in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era is a not-so-gaudy No. 30.

"We don't pay much attention to the star rankings," defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. "In fact, I'd have a hard time telling you how many stars each guy has, because we really don't look at them at all."

College football programs perform their own player evaluations independent of the recruiting services -- there's no surprise there. Stanford, though, has taken the distinct challenge of the university's strict admissions standards and turned them into a productive selling point, one that has fostered effective player development. As a result, this era on the Farm has already featured four consecutive trips to BCS bowl games and prolific player entry into the professional ranks: the NFL saw 41 Stanford players in 2014, good for 14th nationally and 16 spots above that average recruiting ranking of the past nine years.

Recruiting and development: Working in tandem

When it comes to development, the program's beating heart is a synergistic health and strength focus orchestrated by sports performance director Shannon Turley and the Cardinal's medical staff. But it's important to understand that the process begins long before that -- in the recruiting phase, when the staff must equip the cannon with the appropriate ammunition. In that regard, it can be argued that the university's strict admissions standards have harmonized with the football system.

"I love the kind of kids we have at Stanford," Anderson says. "I love coaching those guys. Aside from wanting to be really good and wanting to work really hard, they want to understand the whys and the hows. It's fun explaining things to them, because they're really smart kids, and they can handle a lot."

It's easy to see how a brainy approach to the game can mesh well with a strength and conditioning guru like Turley, who's a significant departure from the stereotypical, barrel-chested football strength coach. Turley is known as a "technician" and a "scientist" around the program, and his meticulous attention to detail has resonated well with Stanford's roster.

"I'm not concerned with how much our guys can bench press, back squat, power clean, or any of the numbers that really have nothing to do with playing football," Turley said in 2013.

Instead, he's focused on Stanford's functional strength -- "if it won't block, tackle or score touchdowns for us, we're not really concerned with it" -- a cornerstone evident whenever one sees a Cardinal workout staple: players pushing John Deere carts around campus, complete with yelling coaches on the bed (Stanford prides itself on its ability to move the opposition).

The 87 percent reduction in Stanford's injury rate from 2006-12 was staggering, and the team's strength advantages on the field have been apparent during this winning run. The system's biggest beneficiaries have morphed into superstars: Most of the Cardinal's NFL alumni, including Luck and Richard Sherman, return to train with Turley over the offseason. Luck's physical jumps were impressive (from 5.1 to 4.6 in the 40-yard dash even while adding 24 pounds), but the most eye-popping development under Turley's tutelage might have come on the defensive side of the ball. That's where two-star recruit Ben Gardner blossomed into an NFL draftee, and where Stanford has identified the gangly teenagers capable of transforming into athletic 6-foot-6, 285-pound specimens.

"We look at a way a kid is built, his frame and his background," Anderson says. "We look into his history: How many different sports has he played? How much has he been in the weight room already? We try to project what he can grow into -- if he can possibly develop like a Trent Murphy (three-star recruit, second-round NFL draftee) or a Henry Anderson (three-star recruit, projected NFL draftee)."

The right mentality: A prerequisite for development

Readiness for Stanford's system goes beyond the physical projections, and Anderson says it's tough to judge football instincts and attributes such as toughness on film. The Cardinal, then, put a high priority on encouraging prospects to attend their camps. That's where a number of current players first proved their mettle: The staff viewed Peter Kalambayi, for example, as an excellent athlete (worthy of four recruiting stars) before his visit, but he didn't turn into a primary recruiting target until after the staff saw his intangibles fit well in Stanford's scheme.

"We're looking to see that guys are tough," Anderson says. "And we're looking to see that they're coachable."

Defensive lineman Harrison Phillips (three stars) proved to be both, and that earned him an offer after he dominated a one-on-one strength drill at the Cardinal's camp, which he said differed greatly from other stops on his recruiting circuit.

"Out of all the camps I've gone to, this one was the most blue-collar camp," Phillips said after the 2013 camp. "No one cares what you weigh, no one cares how much you bench, no one cares how fast you can touch a cone and run back. It's basically who can strap up when the pads are on, when the mouthpieces are in. Who can get it? That's how the game should be played."

Phillips may have put his finger on Stanford's precise source of developmental success. Up to this point, the program has been able to stockpile recruits with a palpable hunger for improvement and the game of football, and that hasn't always overlapped with the flashiest prospects coming out of high school. Make no mistake, the Cardinal also nets highly ranked recruits, but there's a common denominator among the entire roster that has led to success. A player's ability to jive with the program's precise, scientific drive forward holds more value than any star ranking.

"We aren't always right [in our evaluations]," Anderson says. "But there have been some cases where it's worked out really well."

Given the significant annual roster turnover in college football, Stanford's success moving forward is reliant on the continuation of good development news -- especially since a bevy of young players will take over key roles on defense in 2015.
How resilient was your defense in 2014?

Last Thursday, we looked at the teams in the Pac-12 and how well they produced points after turnovers. This was the South Division, and here was the North. Now, we look at the flip side.

It can be frustrating when, after a big defensive stand, the offense coughs it up and gives the ball right back. Time for the defense to take the field again, be it inside their own red zone, the 50 or the opponent’s 1-yard line. (Or if you’re Shaq Thompson, just run it back 100 yards.)

Just like offensive points off of turnovers, there are exceptions. Sometimes a team gets a turnover at the end of the half or a game, so the defense doesn’t have to make a stand. So these numbers aren’t completely cut-and-dried. But rather it’s a measuring stick.

We looked at the South earlier today, and now we turn our attention to the North. If you’re curious how your team did last year, here are the numbers for the South and the numbers for the North.

California

Turnovers committed: 20
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 10-20 (50 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 69
Games without committing at least one turnover: 2
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 3

Oregon

Turnovers committed: 11
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 3-11 (27 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 13
Games without committing at least one turnover: 7
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 5

Oregon State

Turnovers committed: 14
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 9-14 (64 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 43
Games without committing at least one turnover: 3
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 3

Stanford

Turnovers committed: 21
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 6-21 (28 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 38
Games without committing at least one turnover: 1
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 7

Washington

Turnovers committed: 17
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 10-17 (58 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 53
Games without committing at least one turnover: 5
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 2

Washington State

Turnovers committed: 25
Opponent scores vs. opportunities: 18-25 (72 percent)
Total points allowed after turnovers: 114
Games without committing at least one turnover: 2
Games without allowing points after turnovers: 1

2016 recruits to watch in the Pac-12 

February, 6, 2015
Feb 6
9:00
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video
Signing day for the Class of 2015 just wrapped up, but coaches have been hard at work on the 2016 class for months. Oregon and USC each already have three ESPN Junior 300 prospects committed, and UCLA holds a commitment from the No. 53 overall prospect, tight end Breland Brandt.

Here are five uncommitted 2016 prospects to watch in the West region who will be of particular interest to Pac-12 programs.


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Pac-12 morning links

February, 6, 2015
Feb 6
9:00
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You're gonna need a bigger boat.

Happy Friday.

Leading off

February 4 is long gone, but don't think that the drama of national signing day has vanished with the date. UCLA is still at the center of some national attention because linebacker Roquan Smith, one of their touted Wednesday commits, hasn't faxed his national letter of intent to Westwood. Smith is reportedly concerned that Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has been in talks with the Atlanta Falcons, news that leaked shortly after Smith's commitment to UCLA but before his pledge to the Bruins became binding.

Smith may feel fortunate that he's not in the same boat as Ohio State recruit Mike Weber, who found Buckeyes running backs coach Stan Drayton was leaving to the NFL after he was locked into Urban Meyer's program.

In the case of Smith, UCLA, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas A&M are still technically alive in the battle for his services, and the saga will likely stretch into next week.

"[The recruiting period] isn't over until the end of April," Smith's coach said. "So there's no rush."

So in case any Pac-12 recruiting fans thought signing day would present a cut and dry finish to the 2015 cycle, think again. We're going to overtime, and it'll be a while longer before the drama fully subsides and the pre-spring ball vacation is here.

News/notes/team reports
  • Arizona's DaVonte' Neal is changing positions to help a thinned-out Wildcats defense. Read about the switch here.
  • .One of Arizona State's biggest victories this recruiting season came through the signing of defensive tackle prospect Joseph Wicker.
  • Is Cal football trying to mimic how Stanford recruits?
  • Colorado's series with an in-state rival is likely to end after 2020.
  • More signing day aftermath: This piece examines Oregon's slow-and-steady recruiting style.
  • A developing Oregon State trend: Polynesian players. The Beavers just signed eight of them.
  • Offensive lineman Kevin Reihner has exercised a graduate transfer to Penn State, and David Shaw indicated that he's not the only Stanford player who's been mulling his future options.
  • Chronicling UCLA's Jeff Ulbrich/Roquan Smith saga.
  • When it comes to recruiting, Steve Sarkisian has finished strong at USC.
  • Grading Utah's coaches for their 2014 performance while looking ahead to 2015.
  • Chris Petersen believes he has something special at Washington in Jake Browning.
  • Washington State has lost wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons to Oklahoma.
Just for fun

Here's another "my, how times have changed" glimpse at college football, featuring a former USC Heisman Trophy winner.

The turnover battle is the consummate game within the game. You want them. Coaches love them. They can be momentum-swinging game-changers.

However, they can also be wasted drives. Sure, a turnover is nice because you take the ball out of the hands of the opposing offense. But if you can’t turn those turnovers into points, you’re just using clock. And with so many up-tempo offenses in the Pac-12, that’s not always that big of a deal.

Obviously, points off of turnovers aren’t the end-all-be all. Sometimes a turnover can end a game, such was the case with Scooby Wright stripping Marcus Mariota or J.R. Tavai’s strip-sack of Kevin Hogan. No points were scored, yet it decided the outcome. Washington State was one of the best teams in the conference at converting turnovers into points (75 percent). Problem is, the Cougars only forced eight all year.

So don’t take the following stats as cannon. Rather, they are a decent indicator of how your team did in 2014 at turning turnovers into points. Earlier today we looked at the Pac-12 South. Now we look at the North. And tomorrow, we’ll flip the script and look at points allowed following a turnover.

If you’re curious, here are last year’s totals so you can see if your team improved or regressed.

California

Turnovers created: 17
Scores vs. opportunities: 9-17 (52 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 65
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 2
Games without points after turnovers: 4

Oregon

Turnovers created: 34
Scores vs. opportunities: 25-34 (73 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 164
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 1
Games without points after turnovers: 2

Oregon State

Turnovers created: 18
Scores vs. opportunities: 11-18 (61 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 60
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 3
Games without points after turnovers: 1

Stanford

Turnovers created: 16
Scores vs. opportunities: 8-16 (50 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 44
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 5
Games without points after turnovers: 1

Washington

Turnovers created: 29
Scores vs. opportunities: 18-29 (62 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 109
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 3
Games without points after turnovers: 1

Washington State

Turnovers created: 8
Scores vs. opportunities: 6-8 (75 percent)
Total points after turnovers: 34
Games without forcing at least one turnover: 5
Games without points after turnovers: 2

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