2015 Pac-12 spring football primer: Key questions facing each team
Last year the Pac-12 was the conference of quarterbacks. Now it’s the conference of question marks. Lots of big-time playmakers have moved to the NFL, including Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, but enough talent returns to again make this the deepest league in America. Spring is a time for teaching and fine-tuning, and solidifying spots on the depth chart. Think there’s any way we could convince at least one coach to get on board with #Pac12AfterDark for the spring game?
• Arizona: How much better will Anu Solomon look in year two?
Sometimes the Wildcats quarterback was brilliant last fall, like when he went 20 for 31 for 287 passing yards with a touchdown in an upset of Oregon on Oct. 2. Other times he played like a rookie, such as when he tossed two interceptions and took eight sacks in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Welcome to life as a freshman starter in the Power Five. This will be the first time Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez returns a starter under center, an exciting prospect for Wildcats fans this spring.
• Arizona State: How much better can D.J. Foster get?
The rising senior’s 2013 numbers (523 rushing yards, 653 receiving yards, 10 total touchdowns) were impressive. His ’14 stats (1,081 rushing yards, 688 receiving yards, 12 total touchdowns) will make your eyes pop. Foster can do a little bit of everything offensively—think running back, wide receiver, slot—and with the departure of superstar receiver Jaelen Strong, he’ll have an opportunity to do more in the passing game. He’ll need a running mate, and junior Cameron Smith (596 receiving yards with six scores last fall) should be ready to take the next step.
• Cal: Can the Bears’ atrocious defense, specifically the secondary, improve?
The good news is Cal can score on pretty much anyone. The bad news is it can stop pretty much no one. The secondary’s numbers were particularly bad: The Bears gave up 367 passing yards per game last season, worst in the league by 70 yards. It would help if the defensive line generated occasional pressure. Coach Sonny Dykes has been vocal about needing more height among his defensive backs, and juco transfer Derron Brown (6’2”, 190 pounds) should help immediately this spring. The Bears gave up a Pac-12-worst 39.8 points per game in 2014. Trim that, and they could make a run at bowl eligibility.
• Colorado: Can the Buffaloes break through, or at least build a foundation?
Things have been so close for Colorado. Agonizing, you might say. The Buffs have praised their strength and conditioning program, and coach Mike MacIntyre clearly knows what he’s doing. But none of that has translated into the win-loss column. This spring will be all about reacquainting defensive lineman Samson Kafovalu with football, as he took 2014 off for personal reasons. Kafovalu should help the Buffs up front, where they were flat-out dreadful, allowing 5.6 yards per carry.
• Oregon: Who replaces Marcus Mariota?
The better way to put this is probably: Who follows Mariota? Replicating the numbers of the best player in school history—10,796 career passing yards with 134 total touchdowns—isn’t going to happen. But the Ducks need a signal-caller, and it could take a while to find one. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams seems to be the early frontrunner for the job, but he won’t be on campus until summer. That means spring is the time for Jeff Lockie, Mariota’s backup the last two years, and true freshman Travis Waller, an early enrollee, to get ahead. Lockie is a 6’2”, 200-pound redshirt junior who has been praised for his football IQ. Waller is a 6’2”, 195-pound four-star prospect out of Anaheim, Calif.
• Oregon State: How quickly will Gary Andersen’s system take hold?
Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley shocked the college football world when he jumped to Nebraska in December. Then the Beavers one-upped him, plucking Wisconsin coach Andersen away from Madison. It was a terrific hire, but doesn’t mean it instantly became easier to win in Corvallis, where the team must replace one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in program history and almost its entire starting defense. Oregon State is looking for a go-to offensive playmaker, too. The Beavers don’t even have a depth chart this spring because of the new staff. Seven quarterbacks are on the roster, but only one, Luke Del Rio, has game experience.
• Stanford: Can the Cardinal offense get better?
For as good as the Cardinal defense was last season, arguably the best in this five-year run Stanford has had in college football's upper echelon, the offense was equally bad. (O.K., technically Stanford didn’t have the third-worst offense in the nation, but you get the idea.) Quarterback Kevin Hogan returns for his senior year, but his unit produced just 388.6 yards of offense per game last year, tied for 77th in the FBS. Watch for sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey to make big strides.
• UCLA: Who will take the place of Brett Hundley?
The 2014 campaign may not have turned out the way Hundley and the Bruins imagined, with UCLA finishing the season No. 10 in the AP Poll and Hundley failing to earn an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony. But he leaves campus as one of the best quarterbacks in program history, and will be missed. Redshirt junior Jerry Neuheisel became one of the feel-good stories of last fall after leading UCLA to a comeback win over Texas on the road, but smart money is on early enrollee Josh Rosen, from Bellflower, Calif., to win the job. The top quarterback in the '15 class, according to Rivals.com, Rosen is a 6’4”, 207-pounder whose nickname is “Chosen Rosen.” Suffice it to say the kid does not lack confidence.
• USC: Who replaces the production of Leonard Williams?
Similar to Mariota at Oregon, Williams cannot be replaced. In 2014 the standout defensive end recorded 80 tackles, including 9.5 for loss and seven sacks. More importantly, he commanded attention from opposing offenses and often required double teams. There are a few candidates to take his place, including Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons, both 295 pounds and standing at 6’4” and 6’5”, respectively. USC held teams to an average of just 133 yards on the ground last season, partially because of Williams. His presence will be missed, as will his ability to intimidate pretty much every offense on the West Coast.
• Utah: Can the Utes overcome offseason hoopla to take the next step?
As you might have heard via Twitter, Utah athletic director Chris Hill doesn’t see a problem with letting some top assistants skip off to other Pac-12 schools because he doesn’t want to pay them. As you might have also heard, Hill and coach Kyle Whittingham are not exactly best friends, and for a period in January it looked like Whittingham might jump ship. Supposedly this all got sorted out when Whittingham signed a contract extension on Jan. 16, but make no mistake: Players heard and read about all of the reported tension. Shutting out distractions this spring will be tough, but necessary, if Utah wants to be a consistent player in the Pac-12 South.
• Washington: Who can become the new defensive stars?
It’s easy to forget about the Huskies’ offensive woes in 2014, because that defense was pretty awesome. But now Washington must replace linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton, all of whom were named All-Pac-12 and All-Americas. Do not envy Chris Petersen. The Huskies lose six defensive starters in total, though they return true sophomore safety Budda Baker, an all-conference honorable mention last season. Petersen and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski have a lot of teaching to do.
• Washington State: Can the Cougars get better on special teams?
The Cougars, to be clear, had a lot of issues in 2014. After giving up back-to-back touchdowns on kickoff returns in a 60-59 loss to Cal last October that also featured a missed 19-yard field goal in the final minute, Mike Leach fired his special teams coach. Two weeks later against Arizona, the Cougars surrendered an 81-yard punt return for a score in the opening 66 seconds. Turns out it’s the players who need to get better. Washington State replaced its defensive coordinator in January, but it’s on special teams where the Cougars need immediate improvement this spring.