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.

Biggest shoes to fill: Stanford

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
Players come and go.

In a perfect world, the teams only have to reload, not rebuild. But following this season, there are a lot of shoes that need to be filled due to early departures and expected graduations.

That leaves the question: Will these spots be reloading or rebuilding? Your humble Pac-12 blog takes a look at some of the biggest shoes that need to be filled entering the 2015 season.

Stanford Cardinal

Biggest shoes: WR Ty Montgomery

LT Andrus Peat, DE Henry Anderson, DT David Parry and S Jordan Richards will all be missed. Strong cases can certainly be made for why their departures are the most pressing -- most notably Peat, who is expected to be a first-round pick. Peat would be the obvious choice if not for Kyle Murphy, the right tackle last season, and Casey Tucker -- the No. 5-ranked OT in the Class of 2014 -- returning. With those guys waiting as possible replacements, the Cardinal should still be in good shape. It's Montgomery's versatility -- he played receiver, running back, and returned kicks and punts -- that figures to make him so difficult to replace. The Cardinal won't necessarily replace him as much as it will evolve without him. Granted, Stanford's offense didn't miss a beat when he was sidelined due to injury in the final two games of the 2014 season -- it actually looked improved -- but saying that improvement was a function of his absence seems silly. When healthy, Montgomery was one of the most dangerous return men in the country. As a receiver, his physical ability is unparalleled on the Stanford roster.

Stepping in: Sophomore RB/RET Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey, a true freshman in 2014, saw his role grow as the season unwound. The coaching staff did a good job putting him in position to be successful, but it won't be as selective next season. It would come as a big surprise if he isn't the default kick and punt returner in the season opener and has a significantly-expanded role on offense. Like Montgomery, McCaffrey can be used as a receiver or a ball-carrier and showcased more big-play ability than anyone else on the roster. At 6-feet and about 200 pounds, he doesn't come across as player who figures to touch the ball 20 times a game, but 10 to 15 feels about right.
Jerry Neuheisel looks like his dad, former UCLA quarterback and coach Rick Neuheisel, but their most notable resemblance is when they speak. The delivery, tone of voice, mannerisms, the tendency to make sport of the moment is so similar it's uncanny.

It's amusing for those who know father and son, and it's amusing for Jerry.

"My mom will call and I can answer the phone and pretend I'm my dad and she will have no idea for the first two minutes," he said. "Then I can't take myself seriously any more and I burst out laughing. I think I spent too much time in the press conference room as a child. Now I can't get rid of it."

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJerry Neuheisel had only two appearances last season, but led the Bruins in a win over Texas.
He's like his dad, now the lead football analyst for the Pac-12 Network, in other ways. When Rick Neuheisel showed up at UCLA, he was a walk-on who became best known for holding for All-American kicker John Lee. He wasn't big or athletic and didn't have a great arm. Little was expected of him. Jerry Neuheisel isn't a walk-on but he hasn't generally been considered a legitimate candidate to start behind center for the Bruins.

Yes, he came off the bench for the injured Brett Hundley to beat Texas last year, but that smacks of an isolated moment. After all, touted recruit Josh Rosen has arrived in time for spring practices, and he looks as if he stepped out of quarterback central casting. The younger Neuheisel doesn't really have a chance, right?

"I would say Neuheisels have a lot of experience being counted out of quarterback competitions," Jerry said. "In any competition, whether there's a favorite or not, it comes down to who's the best player. I know at the end of the day it won't be about who's who but who's the best guy to lead the team. And I wouldn't want it any other way."

Rick Neuheisel, of course, won the starting job for UCLA to start the 1983 season, lost it to Steve Bono after a 0-2-1 start, but replaced the injured Bono to lead the Bruins to a win over USC and a Rose Bowl triumph over then-No. 4 Illinois, with Neuheisel winning game MVP.

So dismissing Jerry might be premature. Sure, he's the underdog, but he showed moxie against Texas in difficult circumstances, completing 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with no interceptions and two touchdowns, including a beautiful 33-yard game-winner on a double move from receiver Jordan Payton. While that's a small bit of serious work with which to evaluate Neuheisel, it resonated with larger meaning to the rising junior quarterback.

"It just showed that I could do it," Neuheisel said. "You dream about that moment. You grow up in a college coach's house and I dreamed about wearing UCLA's colors and being a college quarterback and winning a game like that. I can remember being in my back yard making that throw, only it was usually a Hail Mary and not a pump fake. It was one of those moments when your dream becomes your reality and then you know you can do it."

The game film, which, yes, he's watched a few times wasn't all rainbows and rose petals, though. Neuheisel saw himself going through his progressions too fast. He was too focused on what he could ascertain from his pre-snap reads. A couple of times, he almost tossed interceptions when he made assumptions about coverages that weren't correct.

When Neuheisel talks about the game, he sounds like a coach. He rolls through his analysis, little of it self-congratulatory, ticking off things he learned from the tape and what he most needs to improve. It's no surprise that he wants to follow in his dad's footsteps and coach college football. The nuances of the sport clearly intrigue him.

"I'm sure it gets old for my brothers and my mom, but we sit around every family dinner going over different things that have happened," Neuheisel said of the father-son football banter. "We talk about strategy possibly more than any other father-son could talk about it. We've watched that Texas game at least 15 different times. We have a very special connection around the game of football."

Not surprisingly, he has a theory about the Bruins 2014 season, which started with talk of a dark horse run to the College Football Playoff, but the Bruins ended up losing the South Division title on the last weekend of the season after being upset by Stanford.

"I think last year we let the hype get to us," he said. "It had been a while since UCLA was talked about like that, being in the top-10, being in the national championship hunt. I think we let it get to us a little bit. But I think that will be valuable to us this year. We want to make sure we don't end up one game short of the Pac-12 championship next year."

Neuheisel seems pretty confident he can be a part of that quest in 2015. To him, the equation is pretty straight-forward: Prepare, compete and then see what the coaches decide.

"The quarterback competition will take care of itself," he said.
Colorado gets an early -- and chilly? -- start to spring practices Monday, leading the Pac-12 out of the gate.

Not to be caught off guard, here are five major issues confronting the South Division as spring practices begin.

1. Quarterback questions: UCLA has a wide-open quarterback competition to replace Brett Hundley, though many seem to think it's touted true freshman Josh Rosen's job to lose. While that's the only truly wide-open spring competition in the South, other teams have QB issues. With Kendal Thompson missing Utah's spring session due to injury, Travis Wilson, owner of a curious trajectory as a budding four-year starter, gets a chance to make another statement to the realigned offensive coaches. At Arizona State and Colorado, there's little doubt who the No. 1 QBs are, but Mike Bercovici and Sefo Liufau could greatly benefit from asserting themselves as unquestioned leaders. At USC and Arizona, Cody Kessler wants to look like a true Heisman Trophy candidate and Anu Solomon wants to take a positive step toward becoming an All-Conference guy, one that moves away from how he played late in the 2014 season.

2. Getting coordinated: Colorado and UCLA have -- or will have in the Bruins' case -- new defensive coordinators. The Buffaloes under Jim Leavitt will be trying to develop from terrible to decent. The Bruins, under TBD, and with perhaps the best returning talent in the conference will be trying to make the move from solid to good. Utah promoted from within on offense and brought John Pease out of retirement on defense. That means no scheme changes so the adjustment should be minimal, though re-establishing a practice rhythm will be critical for a team that is good enough to win the South but had a tumultuous athletic director-head coach soap opera after the season ended.

3. USC hype: Yes, we in the media are again buzzing about the Trojans' prospects in advance of the season. We see 15 returning starters from a 9-4 team, including Kessler behind center, as well as a recruiting class that some ranked No. 1 in the nation, and we imagine Steve Sarkisian's second year being something big. Ergo, expect a top-5 or, at worst, top-10 preseason ranking. Of course, we all remember what happened the last time USC was hyped in the preseason: The Trojans started No. 1 in 2012 -- "Unfinished business!" said Matt Barkley -- and completely flopped, finishing 7-6 after getting blown out in the Sun Bowl by Georgia Tech. As much as anything, Sarkisian's job this spring and in the preseason is to cultivate the hunger and lock down the players' focus. It was pretty clear the 2012 crew was a ghastly brew of entitled and overrated. Sarkisian's job is to make sure this crew contains neither insidious ingredient.

4. Big holes: Spring is, chiefly, about filling holes in the depth chart through competition, and there are some pretty big ones in the South. USC needs to replace RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor and DE Leonard Williams, a troika of first-team All-Pac-12 performers. Arizona State is replacing its best offensive player, WR Jaelen Strong, best lineman, Jamil Douglas, and best defensive player, safety Damarious Randall. Arizona needs two new offensive tackles and has big questions in its secondary and D-line. Utah must replace highly productive defensive end Nate Orchard. Colorado simply needs to get better everywhere. And, of course, UCLA appears to have just about everything potentially answered other than QB, which always rates a big hole in the Pac-12.

5. Staying healthy: Want to know if your team had at least a moderately successful spring session? If it gets through it with no major injuries. Particularly in the South, where five teams could be ranked in the preseason, any small advantage -- or disadvantage -- could change the pecking order. So while coaches want to implement their schemes and take a measure of their players, both young and veteran, they most want to see all scholarship players get through 15 spring practices without any special attention in the training room.

Ultimate ESPN 300: 15 things to know

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16

The Ultimate ESPN 300 is RecruitingNation's ranking of the best prospects since we began evaluating high school athletes in 2006. That means there are many names on the list known to college football and recruiting fans since coming out of high school. The list can also provide glimpses of which states have been top producers since 2006 and which teams have done the best and worst jobs of evaluating prospects and producing players.

Here are 15 things to know about the Ultimate ESPN 300:

15. Some classes turn out better than others, and that is true of the 2009 class. There are 45 players from the class in the Ultimate ESPN 300, the most of any class, including 15 that became first-round NFL draft selections. That includes four who signed with Alabama: Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack.

14. Bob Stoops recruited and coached 13 players on the list. Of the 13, four were first-round NFL draft selections led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. Nine of the 13 were also members of the Sooners team that lost to Florida for the 2009 BCS National Championship.

13. The teams that played for the 2012 BCS National Championship, Alabama and LSU, were supremely talented. There are 22 players from those rosters in the Ultimate ESPN 300, including 14 for the Crimson Tide.

12. Quite possibly the most important part of the recruiting process for coaches is keeping the best at home. Well, only 137 of the Ultimate ESPN 300 stayed in state to play college football. One important aspect of this stat is that not every player on the list had the option to stay in state.

11. The teams from the 2014 BCS title game are well represented on the list. Twenty-three players from Florida State and Auburn make the list, with the Seminoles accounting for 18.

10. NCAA FBS single-game-rushing record holder Samaje Perine enters the list after a freshman season of 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Oklahoma Sooners. His 427 yards against Kansas in 2014 broke the record a week after Melvin Gordon had set a new mark.

9. The 2011 class is special. That class has 41 players in the Ultimate ESPN 300, including 12 first-round NFL draft picks with more possible, including Marcus Mariota, La'El Collins and Shane Ray. The Sunshine State led the way in the 2011 class with first-round picks: Sammy Watkins, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Shazier, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kelvin Benjamin with more possible to be added to the list.

8. As expected, the state of Florida leads the way with 52 players on the list. Texas is second with 35, and California third with 28. Georgia follows with 18. Only 23 of the 52 from the Sunshine State stayed in state for college, but 19 of those players left college with national championship rings.

7. There are 15 players who signed with USC on the list, including Jarvis Jones, who would later transfer to Georgia. That's the most from a school on the list that hasn’t won a national championship since 2006. Notre Dame is second on that list with 12.

6. There are six quarterbacks from the state of Texas in the Ultimate ESPN 300, and only one was recruited heavily and offered early by the University of Texas: Matthew Stafford. The five who weren’t offered or recruited as quarterbacks by the Longhorns: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Ryan Mallett and J.T. Barrett.

5. There are 17 players on the list recruited by Urban Meyer. The impressive list includes Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, along with Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett from 2015 national champion Ohio State.

4. St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is the high school with the most players on the list with six. That includes NFL running backs Gionvani Bernard and James White, who were members of the same backfield.

3. Nick Saban has recruited 25 players to Alabama on the prestigious list. Of those 25, 11 have been first-round NFL draft selections, with that number to hit 13 in a couple of months with Amari Cooper and Landon Collins projected to be 2015 first-rounders.

2. South Florida's Dade and Broward counties are the two most talented counties in the country that neighbor each other. To illustrate that fact, 22 members of the Ultimate ESPN 300 are from the otherworldly talented counties, including five NFL first-round draft picks, with that number expected to jump to seven or eight in April. Add in Palm Beach County, which neighbors Broward, and that number jumps to 29 of the 300, including seven first-round picks, with that number sure to hit double digits in two months. If one is a Miami (Fla.) fan, time to turn away, as only four of the 22 from Dade and Broward counties played for the Hurricanes.

1. How do you win three national championships in six years? Jimmys and Joes are where it must begin, and Alabama has the most of any school on the list with 27. More than half of the 27 have been or will be first-round draft selections after this year's draft. Both Florida and Florida State have 18 apiece on the list.

Biggest shoes to fill: Oregon State

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
Players come and go.

In a perfect world, the teams only have to reload, not rebuild. But following this season, there are a lot of shoes that need to be filled due to early departures and expected graduations.

That leaves the question: Will these spots be reloading or rebuilding? Your humble Pac-12 blog takes a look at some of the biggest shoes that need to be filled entering the 2015 season.

Oregon State Beavers

Biggest shoes: DE/DT Dylan Wynn

In our effort to avoid the obvious in this series -- you know, always tapping QBs for teams with spring competitions ahead behind center -- we're not going with Sean Mannion here, though his shoes are obviously quite roomy. Cornerback Steven Nelson, who joined Wynn on the second-team All-Pac-12 defense, also would be a good candidate. But Wynn started 44 games, tied for seventh most in Oregon State history, so the void he leaves behind is one that stretches back four years. For the past two seasons, he's led Beavers defensive linemen in tackles. In 2014, he tied for the team lead with 12.0 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He was versatile enough to play end and tackle. Moreover, he was a tone-setter, a high-motor guy who made plays on want-to more than athletic ability. While the Beavers didn't play good defense in 2014, Wynn was a bright spot. With a new, defensive-minded head coach in Gary Andersen and a new scheme with coordinator Kalani Sitake, as well as just three returning starters on defense, it's going to be important this spring for someone to step into Wynn's spot and take the reins of the defense. As everyone knows, it starts up front.

Stepping in: Senior Lavonte Barnett

As it stands now, Barnett and Jaswha James appear to be the likely starters at defensive end for the Beavers. Barnett started four games and James seven in 2014. The reason Barnett headlines here is he was more productive, in fact tying Wynn for the team lead with 4.5 sacks, despite missing two games with an ankle injury. Barnett is a good athlete with a nice burst off the ball, and he's been hinting at big things for two years now. It's his time to step up. Or perhaps some youngsters will make their move under a new administration, such as Luke Hollingsworth or Titus Failauga.

Mailbag: Adams transfer controversy?

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
Happy Friday. This is the mailbag. Or is it?

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes!

Caruso from Stamford, Conn., writes: I'm dumbfounded by the FCS coaches response to Vernon Adams transferring. The immediate "we don't want to be a farm league for the FBS" statements, are completely unwarranted.

Ted Miller: This is a controversy that isn't even a controversy. Actually, FCS folks acting like it's controversial are the ones behaving poorly.

Rob Ash of Montana State grouses FCS programs "cannot be perceived as a farm system or Triple-A ball club." Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin whines, "It's not what the rule is intended for."

[+] EnlargeVernon Adams
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesVernon Adams is seeking brighter opportunities after obtaining his undergraduate degree from Eastern Washington? The nerve!
Yeah it is. It's EXACTLY what the rule was intended for. It's about giving student-athletes -- WHO HAVE ALREADY OBTAINED AN UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE -- a chance to pursue better opportunities.

Instead of playing it safe as a fifth-year senior at Eastern Washington, Vernon Adams is taking a chance -- betting on himself, in fact -- that he can play with the big boys. He's chasing his dream, making a high-risk, high-reward move that might just propel him into the NFL.

Dude ... can I get a cheer for 'Merica! 'Cause, this is what it's all about. The freedom to bet on yourself.

Know what Ash and Baldwin are concerned about? Their self-interest. They are, counterproductively I think, saying their FCS program should be protected from a player having the freedom -- AFTER HE HAS GRADUATED -- to make a choice for himself. They want their players to face more restrictions and regulations. Why? Because restrictions on players makes their lives easier.

Baldwin and Eastern Washington officials blew it by playing the sour grapes card. Just imagine if Baldwin had gone this route:
Reporter: Coach, what do you think about Vernon Adams transferring to Oregon?

Baldwin: How could I not be anything but happy for this young man who has done so much for this program? I'll be rooting for him like crazy. I take a lot of pride in the fact that a guy who was overlooked by the Pac-12 is now coveted by he Pac-12's best team. I think that speaks well not only of Adams but of our program, our a ability to find and develop talent. Not only that, we also helped him earn his college degree. Know what? When I go out recruiting this spring, Adams will be Exhibit A for what we've built here at Eastern Washington.

Adams is practically an advertisement for Eastern Washington football, folks.

The idea this resembles free agency is silly. FCS teams becoming minor leagues? How many FCS players: 1. Are good enough to be offered an FBS scholarship for one year of service; 2. AND have earned an undergraduate degree with a year of eligibility remaining?

And, if FCS programs start producing those sorts of players on a regular basis, then they are fulfilling their mission as a university, creating true student-athletes who go off into the world to seek out better opportunities.

Nate from Salt Lake City writes: Utah is coming off of what was by far their best season since joining the Pac-12, with key playmakers such as Booker, Wilson, Thompson, Scott, and Dimick coming back. Should fans expect a step forward, a step back, or a fifth place finish in the South Division for a fourth straight season?

Ted Miller: When you look at what Utah has coming back -- 16 starters and the nation's best combo of specialists -- from a team that went 9-4 and was in the thick of the South Division race in 2014, it's not difficult to project a step forward, no matter that the South should again be brutally deep.

Yet the behind-the-scenes soap opera with coach Kyle Whittingham and AD Chris Hill is troubling, as it seemed to be a contributing factor to considerable staff turnover -- the loss of defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake being a particularly tough blow -- which was addressed mostly by internal promotions that seemed like temporary moves.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Ralph Freso/Getty ImagesBehind-the-scenes drama between Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill could undermine a promising returning lineup.
The Utes could be headed for fifth place in the South again, particularly if they don't -- broken record alert -- get better production at QB. Of course, fifth place could again mean nine wins and a final national ranking. They also could win the division. Or slip a bit if the coach-AD conflict and/or coaching turnover prove a distraction.

The good news? Utah is probably going to be an interesting team, no matter how things go.

Bryce from San Francisco writes: I know you guys will agree with me on this, but can you please attempt to explain why every NFL team is apparently terrified to pick a talented, accurate QB with character and leadership like Marcus Mariota? Instead, they want to go with the guy with accuracy issues and character issues, because ...? I mean, I kind of understand their thought process since last season the character guy with accuracy in college (Bridgewater) got outplayed by players with less accuracy and more controversy (Bortles & Manziel), so NFL scouts clearly know what they're doing. I'm obviously cool with Mariota going to the Eagles, but the teams ahead of them in the draft have to be insane to let that happen, right?!

Ted Miller: Thing with the NFL draft is you really don't know what everyone is thinking, and the folks who are talking are often ill-informed or interested in misdirection. Keep in mind there is little benefit for a scout or GM to show his cards to the media or otherwise. So when you here "whispers" about Mariota being a system QB, it may just be a predictable regurgitating of an obvious potential criticism.

[+] EnlargeMariota
AP Photo/Brandon WadeIf Marcus Mariota takes care of business at his pro day, the "whispers" from so-called experts about him being a system quarterback will die down.
Know what? If Mariota turns in an impeccable pro day, making all the throws, showcase a strong and accurate arm, some of this "system" talk will simmer down.

Now, to be honest, if a fortune teller could promise me that Florida State's Jameis Winston will never again get into any type of off-field trouble, I'm not sure I wouldn't pick him over Mariota. Winston is a great talent, a guy who's repeatedly demonstrated grace under pressure (in a game), and seems to have no holes in his resume on the football talent side of things.

But I don't have that fortune teller, so I'd take Mariota.

My guess is more than a few GMs agree with me.

Raj from Bear Territory writes: What are your thoughts on Ulbrich leaving UCLA, (especially the timing)? Seems pretty shady to wait until LOI's are faxed in to depart. If anything, this just points out another flaw in how few restrictions are put on coaches going between programs while players have a multitude of restrictions. Feels only fair that players should be released from LOI/can transfer if coaches leave.

Robert from New York writes: With the Roquan Smith/Jeff Ulbrich situation, I'm curious to hear your take on the ethics of recruits signing binding NLIs, and coaches recruiting players and then taking other jobs. I can't blame Ulbrich for taking another job. He never seemed comfortable as a DC and probably wanted to get back to the NFL. Also, recruits shouldn't be so naive as to think that coaching changes couldn't happen. What's the balance that needs to be found, and do you think anyone did anything wrong here?

Ted Miller: What we really need are more rules. And outrage! Yes, I am outraged! The deception! The horror!

My thoughts, to begin, are good for Jeff Ulbrich. If he thinks his new job is better than his old job then how can you begrudge him?

As has been said many times before, a young man should commit to a school, not a position coach. He needs to be a big boy and understand this is a business and everyone is climbing. Or trying to.

Was UCLA trying to hide Ulbrich's imminent departure? Did Smith feel deceived? Maybe to the first and apparently to the second. None of that bothers me because I've covered college football a long time and I'd go insane if I took too much issue with every case of conniving and angle-working that goes on. That is how it goes. If Georgia fans -- or other Pac-12 fans for that matter -- are seeking some high ethical ground here ... well ... come on. Your coach would trip his mother from behind to score a top recruit.

Not saying it's right. But on the list of recruiting stories that make me want to take a long, hot shower, a simple hand wash will do here.

And, just as I'm not fan of acting like big-time recruits are a bunch of wan, innocent of the wide-world, Oliver Twist types being manipulated by dastardly coaches, I also think Smith's ultimate decision to sign scholarship papers instead of a letter of intent is smart.

If you are a big-time prospect, that's the way to go. It leaves your options open and doesn't tie you down -- read Mitch Sherman here for more. That option isn't available for a more middle-of-the-road guy who's thrilled when he gets his first Pac-12 or SEC or whatever offer. The NLI protects that sort of young man, just as it makes life easier for the football program.
Who needs Hallmark when we have Kaelin Clay?

The former Utah receiver, who is currently preparing for the NFL combine, took to Twitter with a hilarious Valentine's Day card suggestion, poking fun at his costly gaffe against Oregon during the 2014 season in which he celebrated just a little bit too early.

Your move, Longfellow Deeds.

In case you just moved back from a remote destination without contact to the outside world, here's the full replay of the now infamous play.


Biggest shoes to fill: Oregon

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
Players come and go.

In a perfect world, the teams only have to reload, not rebuild. But following this season, there are a lot of shoes that need to be filled due to early departures and expected graduations.

That leaves the question: Will these spots be reloading or rebuilding? Your humble Pac-12 Blog takes a look at some of the biggest shoes that need to be filled entering the 2015 season.

Oregon Ducks

Biggest shoes: OK, did you really want to read another post about who is going to take over the quarterback job and whether it will be Vernon Adams/Jeff Lockie/Morgan Mahalak? Didn't think so. So, in lieu of another Marcus Mariota story, we bring you an amended version of the biggest shoes to fill -- the second-biggest shoes to fill.

That only made us realize that the second-biggest shoes to fill were cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's. With him being out during the postseason, those shoes were already starting to be filled by Chris Seiasy, which brings us to ...

Third-biggest shoes: S Erick Dargan

Dargan was one of the best surprises on this year's Oregon roster. Though he had no serious starting experience coming into the 2014-15 season, he commanded the Ducks secondary like a seasoned veteran. He led the Pac-12 in interceptions with seven (for comparison, the next-best in the conference was three) and led the Ducks in tackles with 95.

Stepping in: Tyree Robinson

Replacing Dargan is going to be no small task, especially since it's not just the tackles and interceptions that need to be made up for. One of Dargan's biggest responsibilities this season was getting the play call from coaches and dispersing it to the defensive backs, so whoever steps into Dargan's shoes will need to be an automatic leader. Robinson was Dargan's primary backup this season, finishing the year with 36 tackles (12th-best on the team) but he has experience at strong safety as well, which will come in handy as he leads this young secondary in 2015. One of the best attributes about Robinson at free safety is his size. At 6-foot-4, he's much taller than most of the recent free safeties in Oregon's defense -- Dargan was 5-foot-11; Avery Patterson was 5-foot-10; John Boyett was 5-foot-10.
It's become almost automatic at signing-day news conferences: "I'll be spending the next four years at (fill in a school)."

The kids who are confidently eyeing an early entrance to the NFL might say "three years" and some say "five," but it's basically part of the script in some fashion. In reality, the amount of players who actually spend a full four seasons at whatever school they commit to -- assuming they don't switch before signing -- can be quite low.

Of the 236 high school seniors who signed with a Pac-12 school in 2011, only 137 (58.1 percent)* appeared on that school's roster in 2014.

To get a sense for how the attrition manifests, I categorized the varying reasons into five groups: dismissals/transfers; injury/health; entered NFL draft; other/stopped playing football; non-qualifiers/never appeared on roster.

Here is the breakdown:
  • Played in 2014: 137 (58.1 percent)
  • Dismissals/transfers: 50 (21.2)
  • Injury/health retirements: 17 (7.2)
  • Entered NFL draft after three seasons: 11 (4.7)
  • Other/stopped playing football: 11 (4.7)
  • Non-qualifiers/never appeared on roster: 10 (4.2)

Of the players who signed, 92.7 percent were on rosters as true freshmen, with the remainder made up of a combination of grayshirts and players who did not qualify or never enrolled. That percentage dipped to 83.9 in 2012 and 70.8 in 2013 before sinking to 58.3 this past season.

Stanford was the obvious outlier. All 19 players who signed as part of David Shaw's first class in 2011 were on the team in 2014 -- and all 19 are expected to walk at the school's spring commencement ceremony.

On the other side of the spectrum is Washington State, which retained seven of the 21 high school players who signed with former coach Paul Wulff through at least a portion of the 2014 season. That class, which was ranked No. 10 in the Pac-12 by and also included six junior college players, was hurt significantly by those who never enrolled (four) and transfers/dismissals (six). Three of those 10 -- Rahmel Dockery (Oregon State), David Davis (Cal), and Demetrius Cherry (Arizona State) -- eventually landed at a different Pac-12 school.

Though the Cougars had the worst retainment percentage in the conference (33.3), Arizona State was left with the fewest players from its class -- the last under former coach Dennis Erickson -- with just six of 14 (42.9). Six transferred to play college football elsewhere (two are currently at the FBS level), one didn't qualify, and Israel Marshall took a medical retirement.

I found it interesting to sift through the data, but it's tough to draw any meaningful conclusions from just one year's data because of the variables in play -- particularly coaching changes.

Cal (16-33 in that span) and Colorado (10-39) are good examples.

In theory, it makes sense to assume a high retention rate is more desirable. Except Cal (70 percent) and Colorado (60.9 percent) ranked second and fourth in the conference, respectively. And unlike Colorado (coached then by Jon Embree), Cal's class (under former coach Jeff Tedford) was highly rated, coming in at No. 18 in the country. I still maintain retention is a good thing, but primarily if it's part of a larger theme of continuity.

The Bears lost one player to medical retirement and one transferred, but four entered the NFL draft after three years in Berkeley -- defensive lineman Viliami Moala, running back Brendan Bigelow, tight end Richard Rodgers, and cornerback Kameron Jackson. Rodgers, in Green Bay, was the only one to stick on an NFL roster.

The conference's other seven players to leave after three years include: running back Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona), running back De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon), receiver Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), receiver Marqise Lee (USC), center Marcus Martin (USC), running back Bishop Sankey (Washington), and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. All seven were drafted.

Oregon, which boasted Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and offensive tackle Jake Fisher in its 2011 haul, is an example of how a talented roster can lead to departures. Of the five players who transferred, four -- Devon Blackmon (BYU), Tacoi Sumler (Appalachian State), Anthony Wallace (North Texas), and Tra Carson (Texas A&M) -- were at FBS schools in 2014. The Ducks also saw two players retire because of injury, and tight end Colt Lyerla leave (along with Thomas) for the NFL.

By no means should kids stop aspiring to "spend their next four years at (school)," but let's just hope they understand the track record of those who have come before them.


Roquan SmithTom Hauck for Student SportsElite players like Roquan Smith may opt to sign financial aid agreements instead of letters of intent.
Roquan Smith has made a decision, and he's sticking with it.

Or so he says.

Smith, a heralded linebacker prospect who announced his plans to attend UCLA as part of the "ESPNU National Signing Day Special" last week, announced his new choice to play at Georgia on Friday.

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Top performances: Nick Wilson

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
We conclude 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: Frosh shows up in Nick of time

Who and against whom: Arizona true freshman running back Nick Wilson slices and dices a typically stout Utah defense in a 42-10 road victory.

The numbers: Wilson rushed for a career-high 218 yards on 20 carries -- 10.9 yards per rush -- with three touchdowns.

A closer look: If you recall this game, you know that final score is deceiving. Yes, Arizona entered the fourth quarter leading 21-10, but the Wildcats lost starting quarterback Anu Solomon to injury at halftime, and Utah was driving to start the fourth quarter. But the Utes botched a snap at the Wildcats 28 and opted to punt instead of trying a long field goal in the rainy conditions, and Wilson took over. He went 75 yards for a touchdown on a third-and-2 play. He then went 19 yards for another touchdown after the Wildcats picked off Utes quarterback Travis Wilson. In a three minute span in the fourth quarter, Wilson rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns on six carries, almost single-handedly taking over the game. It was the most rushing yards ever for a Wildcats freshman, and it keyed a critical victory in their run to the Pac-12's South Division crown. It was Wilson’s third-straight 100-yard game and it made him the first Arizona freshman to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season.

Biggest shoes to fill: Colorado

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
Players come and go.

In a perfect world, the teams only have to reload, not rebuild. But following this season, there are a lot of shoes that need to be filled due to early departures and expected graduations.

That leaves the question: Will these spots be reloading or rebuilding? Your humble Pac-12 Blog takes a look at some of the biggest shoes that need to be filled entering the 2015 season.


Biggest shoes: CB Greg Henderson

The school's all-time leader in defensive snaps played, Henderson has been one of the most reliable players in the Pac-12 over the past four years. He arrived on campus as a two-star recruit in 2011, but was a fixture atop the depth chart from day one. With 36 passes broken up in his career, Henderson landed at No. 3 on the school's all-time list. He was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection and while not invited to the NFL combine, Henderson is considered a potential late-round pick and figures to be in a NFL training camp regardless of whether or not he gets drafted.

Stepping in: TBD

This is a situation that could go into the season before we see a clear emergence. Ken Crawley, who started opposite Henderson, figures to retain his job leaving several players to compete for the role vacated by Henderson’s departure. Chidobe Awuzie saw the most significant playing time last year (608 snaps), while John Walker (438 snaps) and Ahkello Witherspoon (144 snaps) will also factor in. Colorado brought in three-star Nick Fisher in the recent recruiting class, along with junior-college transfer Afolabi Laguda, who coach Mike MacIntyre called a corner/safety.

Signing day has come and gone. The combine list is (basically) set. The coaching carousel is slowing down. All of which adds up to one thing ... we've reached mock draft season.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released his second mock draft of 2015 Insider, and after reviewing all-star game film his top 10 has a strong Pac-12 flavor to it. Led by USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams at No. 2, Kiper projects five Pac-12 players to be tabbed among the draft's first 10 selections.

Here is the Pac-12 representation in Kiper's mock draft:

No. 2 Tennessee Titans -- Leonard Williams, DE, USC
No. 6 New York Jets -- Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 7 Chicago Bears -- Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
No. 8 Atlanta Falcons -- Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon
No. 10 St. Louis Rams -- Andrus Peat, LT, Stanford
No. 20 Philadelphia Eagles -- Marcus Peters, CB, Washington

A year ago, only three Pac-12 players were drafted in the first round (UCLA's Anthony Barr, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and WSU's Deone Bucannon), and if six were to go this year, it would equal the conference's most since 2008, when USC accounted for four of them (Sedrick Ellis, Keith Rivers, Sam Baker and Lawrence Jackson).
Some coaches put on a hard hat to inspire their players to work hard.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham puts on a hard hat and helps to tear down Sun Devil Stadium.

"I'm a football coach, a defensive guy, so I like tearing stuff up," Graham said. "It's an exciting time, an unprecedented time in our program."

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Courtesy of Arizona State athleticsTodd Graham provided a helping hand in Sun Devil Stadium's projected $265 million renovation.
The stadium's public fundraising began last September as the Sun Devils work toward what is projected to be a $265 million renovation. The first phase -- which is where Graham's hard hat came in -- is expanding the Sun Devils' student section by bringing it to field level in the south end zone. It will also include much-needed infrastructure upgrades.

Over the past two seasons the Sun Devils -- which boast the largest student section in the Pac-12 -- are 12-1 at home. Graham said that the students are a big part of that, which is why he's looking forward to having more of them at field level.

"We've had so much success," Graham said. "And a reason why we've had so much success is because our student section is absolutely the best I've ever been around. They're loud and it's a very, very adverse and difficult place to play because of our students."

Though Graham looked a little out of place in a tractor, it wasn't his first time operating machinery like that.

"I grew up being a construction helper," Graham said. "I've poured concrete, roofed houses, did a lot of stuff growing up."