Pac-12: Utah Utes

Several times last season, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson toed the line between excellent and erratic. He was outstanding in wins over BYU and Stanford, yet inconsistent in losses to Oregon State and UCLA. But the constant that never wavered was his confidence. He played fearless.

Even now, after staring down a head injury that forced him to miss the final three games of 2013 -- and potentially threaten his career -- Wilson is back at practice with that same mentality.

“I’m going to keep on playing how I’ve been playing,” Wilson said. “If I need to tuck and run, I’m going to tuck and run. And if I need to take a hit to get a couple of extra yards, then I’m going to do that. There’s not going to be any hesitation to run or fight for extra yards. I’m going to do whatever I can and keep on playing how I’ve been playing.”

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsTravis Wilson's fearless nature is something that can help Utah if he can stay healthy.
Wilson’s return to full-contact football isn’t guaranteed. For now, he’s taking reps in non-contact situations. He’s due for another scan in July to monitor the intracranial artery trauma that shortened his 2013.

He’s not shy talking about the injury, nor does he duck the fact that the idea of never playing football again crept into his earholes.

“There was a lot of doubt,” he said. “Hearing after our first appointment, the doctor recommended I not play. That was going through my mind the last few months. But he said if we do another scan and it looks stable, there’s a chance you could come back and play. Both scenarios were going through my mind ... I was definitely scared. I definitely felt sick to my stomach and didn’t know what to do at one point. It was hard to hear my career might be over. It was a tough time to go through.”

Right now, it seems like the optimal scenario -- a healthy Wilson -- is winning out.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham described Wilson’s first day at practice on Tuesday as “rusty”, which is fair. Wilson hasn’t done much football activity the last few months. He said he’s been working out on his own keeping his cardio up, but hasn’t done much lifting, so he’s looking forward to getting back in the weight room and adding some pounds to his 6-foot-7 frame.

“It’s been a struggle for him this offseason, not being a part of a lot of the things we were doing,” Whittingham told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “But he’s back now. He’s not cleared 100 percent. But hopefully that’s the next step.”

Potentially complicating Wilson's return is a slew of quarterbacks behind him. Adam Schulz, who started in place of Wilson when he was injured last season, is listed on the initial depth chart as the No. 2 quarterback behind Wilson. But it’s all fluid, with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson set to arrive in the fall and redshirt freshman Conner Manning making a push.

For all intents and purposes, Wilson has to be considered the frontrunner if his health holds up simply based on his experience. He'll be working with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons though, with former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen coming in to run the offense.

Still, it’s hard not to be encouraged by Wilson’s can-do attitude and the potential he showed last season when he was at his best. A hand injury suffered against Stanford was actually the beginning of Wilson’s 2013 downfall. Though he played through the pain and helped Utah gut out one of the biggest conference wins in school history, he wasn’t the same after shocking the Cardinal 27-21 at Rice-Eccles.

Through the first six games, Wilson was completing almost 62 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions -- six of which came in one game. He also rushed for 293 yards and five touchdowns.

Post-Stanford, however, those numbers free fell to a 31 percent completion percentage with just three touchdowns to six interceptions over the next three games. He was shut down following a 20-19 loss to ASU.

But now Wilson is back with his trademark confidence. He’s pretty sure he’ll be cleared for full contact. Why else would he be out there if they didn’t think he could play? Though never one to take football for granted, he holds his newest opportunity in even higher regard than he did previously.

“I was definitely blessed with another opportunity to play football,” Wilson said. “I don’t ever want to take this for granted. I just want to finish out my career at Utah strong and hopefully that will lead to better things in the future.”

Video: Mailbag on Utah quarterbacks

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell answers a reader question about Utah's quarterback situation and Travis Wilson.

Offseason spotlight: Utah

March, 3, 2014
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We're taking a look at a player from each Pac-12 team who could step into the spotlight in 2014.

[+] EnlargeWhittingham
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIJason Whittingham will be asked to lead Utah's defense.
Spotlight: LB Jason Whittingham, Jr.

2013 summary: In 10 games, Whittingham ranked second on the team with 81 tackles.

The skinny: Utah loses defensive standouts DE/OLB Trevor Reilly, DL Tenny Palepoi and CB Keith McGill, which leaves a potential leadership void on that side of the ball. After making 81 tackles as a sophomore and landing on the all-Pac-12 honorable mention list, Whittingham will likely be called on to fill it. Whittingham, who is head coach Kyle Whittingham's nephew, was originally expected to move to defensive end after starting six games as a middle linebacker in 2012. Another player to keep an eye on is receiver Dres Anderson, who is setup for a big senior year after catching 53 passes for 1,0002 yards. He'll be one of the conference's best returning receivers.

Previous spotlights
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.

Pac-12's lunch links

February, 26, 2014
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Yeah, but when was the last time 80,000 people showed up to watch a kid do a damn chemistry experiment?

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback

Video: Mailbag on Utah QB Wilson

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
5:30
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video
While the full return of QB Travis Wilson to Utah is still not a certainty, it's undeniably good news for the Utes that he will be able to practice on a limited basis this spring.

Video: Pac-12 QB competitions

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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video
Will any of the Pac-12 quarterback competitions produce surprising results? Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller examines several quarterback battles heading into spring practices.

Video: Pac-12 mailbag

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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video
Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell talks about the departure of Utah's Brian Johnson and what it means for the Utes offense.

Top 2013 performances: Trevor Reilly

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Reilly's hard-luck run

Who and against whom: Utah outside linebacker/defensive end Trevor Reilly had one of the best four-game runs -- Arizona, USC, Arizona State and Oregon -- of any Pac-12 defensive player from Oct. 19 to Nov. 16.

The numbers: In four consecutive games, Reilly piled up 39 tackles and seven sacks.

A closer look: The original intention here was to take note of Reilly's game-high 14 tackles and two sacks in a losing effort at Arizona. It's not often that a guy who mostly plays on the edge gets that many stops, while still dominating as a pass rusher. But then we couldn't help but notice his stat lines over the next three games: a team-high 11 tackles with two sacks at USC, nine tackles and 1.5 sacks against Arizona State and five tackles and 1.5 sacks at Oregon. That's four big-time performances -- three on the road -- against teams that combined for 39 victories. Of course, one of the reasons you didn't hear more about Reilly in general, or specifically these performances, is that the Utes lost all four games. There's a reason Reilly won first-team All-Pac-12 honors and was ranked 20th on our survey of the conference's top-25 players: He was a really good and highly productive player.

Johnson's move good for him, Utah

February, 11, 2014
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Quickly promoted and then just as quickly twice demoted at Utah, Brian Johnson will once again be viewed as a smart, up-and-coming coach next year at Mississippi State. In fact, he would still be a smart, up-and-coming offensive coordinator at Utah if his quarterback these past two seasons had been Dak Prescott, the dual-threat talent he's inheriting with the Bulldogs.

Heck, reporters would probably be wondering when he'd become the nation's youngest head coach after previously being its youngest offensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeBrian Johnson
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIBrian Johnson has an opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career after leaving Utah for Mississippi State.
Yes, there are good coaches and bad coaches. We get that. Some coaches fail to do their job well. But it's more than a coincidence that those considered good coaches typically have the best players, often because of dumb luck. Maybe Phil Jackson is an NBA coaching genius, a Zen master enlightening players with daily haikus and self-help books, but his best skill was winding up leading teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaq.

The biggest reason the Utes' offense has mostly floundered the past three seasons as a Pac-12 member has been poor and middling play at quarterback, Johnson's responsibility. The biggest reason for poor to middling play at quarterback, however, is the designated preseason starter at the position couldn't stay healthy. Point a finger at a lack of a capable backup at the position if you want. That's fair, though that falls more on recruiting than coaching.

But do you think Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah history, would be in Starkville right now if Jordan Wynn and/or Travis Wilson never missed a snap?

This is not to say Johnson is merely a victim of circumstances. In big-time coaching you are either moving forward or you are failing, and Johnson going from Utah's offensive coordinator in 2012 at age 25, to co-offensive coordinator with Dennis Erickson at age 26, to only QBs coach under new coordinator Dave Christensen at age 27 sure seems like a career tumble. There is no doubt that head coach Kyle Whittingham earnestly wanted Johnson to be successful, both on a personal (he won a Sugar Bowl over Alabama with Johnson as his QB) and professional level.

But Whittingham is feeling a bit of heat in Salt Lake City, whether that is reasonable or not. As members of the Mountain West Conference, his Utes were a Top 25 team, potent on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, they have yet to post a winning conference record and their offense has ranked ninth, eighth and eighth in the conference in scoring over the past three seasons.

Whittingham's relentless tinkering with his offensive leadership -- six different play-callers in six years -- might seem impatient, counterproductive or even desperate, but it emerges from his desire to win. His detail-oriented mind sees things he doesn't like -- play calls, overall scheme, practice conduct, leadership style -- and he isn't afraid of making aggressive moves to change things.

What that also does is put the pressure entirely on him. The traffic in and out of the offensive meeting room has been too transient for there to be another scapegoat. Whittingham has been the constant.

Johnson's departure does un-complicate things, if just a bit. Christensen took over an offensive staff featuring three men who'd once sat in and were subsequently removed from his office. Now there's just two: Erickson and receivers coach Aaron Roderick.

There is no question who's in charge of the offense. No co-coordiantor titles to speculate about. Whittingham is all in with Christensen, an offensive line specialist who will call plays. Whittingham hopes Christensen can recreate the magic he had running a potent Missouri offense from 2001 to 2008.

Yet Christensen, even if he's the Garry Kasparov of Xs and Os, won't be successful without a good quarterback. Three years with Chase Daniel starting at Missouri cemented Christensen's reputation. If Travis Wilson's career is indeed over due to preexisting medical condition discovered late in the 2013 season, then the Utes prospects for 2014 are deeply uncertain.

Meanwhile, Johnson reunites with Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited and coached him as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator. Further, Johnson also will be familiar with Mississippi State's co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, who also were on Meyer's staff at Utah.

While being an offensive coach in the SEC West isn't the easiest job, particularly in Starkville, Johnson is getting a good opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career.

Utah moves on with Christensen, one voice speaking for the Utah offense.

And that voice is likely echoing inside his head as you read this, "Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback."

Top 2013 performances: Sean Mannion

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
9:00
AM ET
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Mannion mans up

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsOregon State quarterback Sean Mannion had one of the best games of the year throwing for 443 yards and five TDs against Utah.
Who and against whom: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion put up huge numbers and turned in a clutch performance in the Beavers 51-48 overtime win at Utah.

The numbers: Mannion completed 27 of 45 passes for 443 yards and five touchdowns.

A closer look: This is on the short list of most entertaining Pac-12 games in 2013, though the Pac-12 blog seems to remember trying to perform amateur counseling on Twitter for Utah fans who appeared to be ready to defenestrate themselves afterwards. It also is a toss-up between Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks as to who was the biggest star. Cooks caught nine passes for 210 yards and three of those five Mannion TD tosses. But it was Mannion, who threw no interceptions on 45 passes, who made the biggest clutch plays down the stretch of this back-and-forth barnburner, including converting on two crucial fourth down passes in the fourth quarter and a 6-yard TD pass in overtime for the win. Mannion was brilliant -- at least in the second half -- on the road and without any help from his running game. Moreover, he and the Beavers won despite a scary injury to RB Storm Woods, who remained down on the field with an apparent neck injury for too long for anyone to feel comfortable. The first fourth-down conversion came from the Beavers 45-yard line. Needing just a yard, Mike Riley dialed up a trick play -- Mannion pitched the ball to RB Terron Ward, who threw it back across the field to Mannion, who in turn launched it 48 yards to Cooks -- for the first down. Then, with Utah up 38-37 with about four minutes left, the Beavers faced a fourth-and-9 on their own 22. The game probably ends without a conversion, but Mannion completed a 13-yard pass to Richard Mullaney. He then capped the drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Cooks and a two-point conversion toss to Connor Hamlett. It's worth noting that without this victory, Oregon State wouldn't have ended up bowl eligible.
Pac-12 recruiting following the 2013 season was much like the season itself: Lots of quality depth, but no elite results.

Despite still being yoked by the final year of NCAA recruiting sanctions, USC was the unanimous choice for the Pac-12's top class, though the Trojans ranked no better than 10th with any of the major recruiting services. Still, with just 19 commitments, the Trojans surged with the smallest class in the ESPN.com top-15.

It was a matter of quality for USC, as well as notching four big commitments on national signing day.

Stanford finished second in the conference behind USC and 15th in the nation. The Cardinal again was very strong on the lines.

After those two, there was some fluidity.

Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona were the next four in the class rankings, though their positions varied, both nationally and in the Pac-12. All four, generally, were ranked within or near the top-25.

After those six, Washington was a consensus pick for the No. 7 class in the conference, with first-year coach Chris Petersen rallying for a few late commitments, and California was a consensus No. 8.

Washington State, Oregon State and Utah fell in thereafter, with Colorado ranking last among three of the four major recruiting services.

Here are how things stacked up.

ESPN.com (Click the team to see the class)
14. USC
15. Stanford
21. Arizona State
23. Arizona
26. UCLA
27. Oregon
45. Washington
46. California
61. Washington State
64. Utah
67. Oregon State
71. Colorado

Scout.com
10. USC
16. Arizona State
18. Stanford
20. UCLA
22. Oregon
30. Arizona
36. Washington
43. California
48. Oregon State
59. Washington State
68. Utah
71. Colorado

Rivals.com
10. USC
14. Stanford
18. UCLA
22. Arizona State
26. Oregon
28. Arizona
36. Washington
45. California
49. Oregon State
64. Colorado
68. Utah
71. Washington State

247sports.com
11. USC
13. Stanford
19. UCLA
21. Oregon
23. Arizona State
31. Arizona
37. Washington
48. California
61. Oregon State
63. Utah
65. Washington State
77. Colorado

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