Pac-12 spring football primer: Burning questions for each team
The Pac-12 was often referred to last season as the second-best conference in college football. This spring, it boasts a couple of national title contenders (Oregon and UCLA) and a handful of interesting storylines. The league might not be flooded with new coaches as it was a few years ago, but two new hires (Washington's Chris Petersen and USC's Steve Sarkisian) should draw plenty of eyes toward Seattle and Los Angeles. Certain coaches in the SEC might not like the speed at which many Pac-12 teams play, but for now coaches and players on the West Coast are happy to focus on going faster -- and trying to dethrone the SEC even quicker.
• Arizona: Who replaces All-America running back Ka'Deem Carey?
When he's not mocking the proposed 10-second rule, coach Rich Rodriguez is probably trying to figure out the answer to this question. Carey, who rushed for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns on 349 carries in 2013, was one of the best running backs in the country, and Arizona doesn't have a stable of experienced backs to take over for him. Rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL at the end of last season, which means four players will battle for the spot, none of whom had a carry last fall: Redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, early enrollee Nick Wilson and true freshman Jonathan Haden, who has not yet been cleared to play.
• Arizona State: Can the Sun Devils reload on defense?
Todd Graham and his staff will have their hands full replacing a whopping nine defensive starters, headlined by two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, a monster of a defensive tackle. But Arizona State also has to find guys to step in for defensive backs Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson, as well as linebacker Chris Young, among others. The Sun Devils signed six juco transfers to help fill the gaps, and they'll have to contribute immediately. Keep an eye on defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey and cornerback Kweishi Brown.
• California: Can the Bears stay healthy?
Things could not have gone much worse for first-year coach Sonny Dykes in 2013. Cal's roster was decimated by injuries -- specifically on defense -- as the Bears limped to a 1-11 record (0-9 in Pac-12 play) that included plenty of blowouts. Dykes opted to reassign defensive coordinator Andy Buh and replaced him with Art Kaufman from Cincinnati. The Bears should benefit from the return of several injured players this spring, including defensive end Brennan Scarlett and safety Avery Sebastian (defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil and cornerback Stefan McClure are also recovering from injuries), who will give them an instant boost. They need to stay mostly healthy, or it could be another long season in Berkeley.
Mike MacIntyre knew he was signing up for a massive rebuilding project when he moved from San Jose State to Colorado before the 2013 season. Colorado struggled to a 4-8 record, but there was at least one highlight in MacIntyre's debut campaign with the Buffaloes: Richardson caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards. Richardson's production needs to be replaced, and junior Nelson Spruce should help lead the way. Spruce caught 55 passes for 650 yards and four touchdowns last year. He should also get help from senior D.D. Goodson, who is only 5-foot-6 and has been all over the field during his time in Boulder. He played defensive back and running back before moving to receiver. (Hey, versatility is trendy.) Coaches speak highly of Goodson, and he can clearly do a lot. He caught 22 passes for 306 yards last fall.
• Oregon: Can the Ducks replace three starters in the secondary?
The Ducks' offense gets the hype and attention, and rightfully so. But the stories in Eugene this spring revolve around the defense. How will Oregon replace three starters in the secondary? Will things change under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum? Nick Aliotti ran the defense for 17 seasons before retiring in December, when Pellum was promoted from linebackers coach. The secondary got a boost with the return of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (84 tackles and 2 interceptions in 2013), who had been expected to declare for the NFL draft. Backup defensive backs Erik Dargan, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis are all experienced and should be able to fill the voids left by Terrence Mitchell, Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson. Dargan, Hill and Mathis would be wise to solidify their spots this spring, though, because true freshman Arrion Springs could make a push for playing time once he arrives on campus.
The Beavers didn't have much of a running game last season, and every opponent knew that meant that quarterback Sean Mannion was going to try to connect with Cooks, a speedy, 5-10 receiver. But few could have predicted the junior's year-end numbers: 128 catches for 1,730 yards (a Pac-12 record) and 16 touchdowns, stats that earned him the 2013 Biletnikoff Award. Now Cooks is off to the NFL, which means that Oregon State is looking for an adequate replacement. The leading candidates are sophomore Victor Bolden, who got valuable experience as a freshman and mimics Cooks' speed, and junior Richard Mullaney, who needs to put on muscle in the offseason to improve on his 52 catches for 788 yards. The development of both receivers will be crucial, especially if the Beavers continue to struggle to move the ball on the ground.
• Stanford: How will the Cardinal replace the meat of the defense?
Stanford faces an unenviable task this spring: The Cardinal must find the next Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jarek Lancaster and Ed Reynolds on defense, and they must do so without former defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who left in January to become the head coach at Vanderbilt. Stanford filled Mason's position from within, moving up outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson, and that should help bring stability to the transition. Expect to hear a lot about junior linebacker Kevin Anderson, who had 26 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception in 2013. He should step up to fill the void left by Murphy.
• UCLA: Can the Bruins continue to own L.A.?
Those were coach Jim Mora's words after the Bruins beat USC 35-14 in November. As a result, expectations are sky-high in Westwood. UCLA will likely be a preseason top-10 team, especially because it brings back quarterback Brett Hundley. How much better can the rising junior be after passing for 3,071 yards, rushing for 748 yards and accounting for 35 total touchdowns (24 passing, 11 rushing) last fall? Mora already believes that Hundley should be a Heisman candidate, and said when he took over in '11 that he wanted the Bruins to compete for a national title within five years. To make that sort of run in year three, a strong foundation must be built this spring.
• USC: Who will emerge as the Trojans' next quarterback?
Sarkisian, the former coach at Washington, emerged as one of the stars of National Signing Day when USC hauled in the Pac-12's top-ranked 2014 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. But now he needs to turn his attention to more pressing matters, like who is going to run his offense. Cody Kessler, a junior who completed 65 percent of his passes last fall for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns (with only seven interceptions), might have the slight edge over Max Browne, a redshirt freshman. But Sarkisian recruited Browne, a Sammamish, Wash., native, before Browne chose USC, so he's familiar with his skill set. Kessler is experienced, sure -- and he deserves credit for being decent in an up-and-down year for the Trojans -- but Browne was a more touted prospect coming out of high school.
• Utah: How much more can this coaching staff be reshuffled?
Things didn't go so well for Dave Christensen at Wyoming, but as the Utes' new offensive coordinator, he can still boast about what he accomplished in that role at Missouri. (The Tigers finished among the top 10 nationally in both total and scoring offense in 2007 and '08.) The problem is that Christensen is Utah's sixth play-caller in six years -- Dennis Erickson, the offensive coordinator last season, was demoted to linebackers coach in December. (Adding insult to injury, reports surfaced shortly after Christensen's hiring that Erickson had found out about the switch through reports in the media.) The good news? Quarterback Travis Wilson is back, and Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson is immediately eligible, too. Whoever adapts to Christensen's offense the quickest will likely come away as the starting signal caller.
• Washington: How will the Huskies react to Cyler Miles' suspension?
Petersen built a powerhouse at Boise State, and when he got hired as the Huskies' coach in December, he appeared to have the pieces in place to start doing the same in Seattle. But then Cyler Miles, the sophomore poised to replace Keith Price at quarterback, was suspended indefinitely (along with sophomore wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow) on Feb. 6 for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Seattle police are investigating an alleged assault near campus and trying to determine what, if any, involvement Miles and Stringfellow had in the incident. With Miles absent, Washington started practice on Tuesday with redshirt sophomore Jeff Lindquist -- who did not attempt a pass in 2013 -- and redshirt freshman Troy Williams splitting time under center. Petersen told local media on Monday that it was great for the young guys to get so many reps, but admitted, "You would probably like a little more depth as a coaching staff."
• Washington State: Can the Cougars continue their upward climb?
There were doubts and complaints after Mike Leach's first season in 2012, and Washington State athletic director Bill Moos didn't forget them. When the Cougars qualified for their first bowl game in 10 years last fall, Moos kept tickets away from all the angry fans who sent him disparaging emails. So what happens if Leach and Washington State continue their upswing? That seems like a reasonable expectation, considering quarterback Connor Halliday will return. The rising senior enters his third year in Leach's Air Raid attack and will try to improve on last season's stats; he completed 449-of-714 passes for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns.