"The first spring is always the ugliest," Arizona's Rich Rodriguez said in a news conference last week. And if he's right, we should expect some unsightly, unattractive stuff during spring practices in the Pac-12. RichRod is one of four new coaches in the league, part of a serious makeover that might reflect the first effects of Larry Scott's huge TV deal. Their first spring practices will be used to install new systems, evaluate talent and implement different cultures with the goal of building an instant winner.
While it's a difficult proposition, the new guys can be encouraged: The other two-thirds of the Pac-12 have spring issues, too. One example: More than half of the Pac-12, including North powers Oregon and Stanford, enter spring practice with questions at the all-important quarterback position. All of that is in part why USC, with Matt Barkley back for his senior season, is the early favorite to reclaim Pac-12 supremacy. But the Trojans have issues, too.
Then again, it's springtime. Who doesn't?
Arizona: How quickly can the Wildcats become strong?
Rodriguez pronounced his team "weak" the other day -- though to be fair, that was before he'd seen the Wildcats practice -- and said he's got "a lot more questions than ... answers." But the Wildcats have an important asset in senior quarterback Matt Scott, who sat out last season while redshirting. No one is going to compare Scott to Denard Robinson, but he is mobile and might fit the spread option pretty well. Arizona returns its offensive line starters, but running back and receiver are areas of concern. Defensively the front seven is suspect, and the scheme is changing to a 3-3-5. Like many new coaches, Rodriguez says no position is set, that there's plenty of work ahead. Already, though, Rodriguez seems a much better fit at Arizona than at Michigan (name another coach who would wear a sombrero for interviews, as Rodriguez did shortly after his arrival). It might be a bit ugly this spring, but the Wildcats have potential to be pretty attractive next fall.
Arizona State: Can Todd Graham reverse the negative spin?
Since his arrival in Tempe, Graham has been very visible -- interviews, speaking engagements, etc. -- and that's not going to change anytime soon. Arizona State president Michael Crow told the Arizona Republicit's a job requirement. It's sound strategy, considering the negative vibes after Graham's difficult exit from Pittsburgh (and Rice, and Tulsa). But the PR blitz is also important for the program's reputation, which needs burnishing. On the field, the Sun Devils must replace quarterback Brock Osweiler, three of the top four receivers, much of the offensive line, all three linebackers and both starting safeties. But reversing the malaise that seemed to overtake an underachieving program in the latter stages of Dennis Erickson's tenure might be as big a task.
California: Will a rebuilding project be ready for the new building?
Spring couldn't come fast enough for Jeff Tedford and the Golden Bears. They seemed primed to reel in a stellar recruiting class until the defection of assistant Tosh Lupoi to Washington. When Lupoi left, several recruits changed their minds about Cal. Never mind that the class ended up pretty solid; very high expectations crashed hard. After that, getting back to actual football has to be nice. Of course, that means getting back to the imperative: Cal must get better in a hurry. Never mind that Cal was better in 2011 than 2010. The Bears need to win in 2012. Otherwise, even as they finally inhabit a renovated Memorial Stadium, their coach's job security will become an issue. It might ride on the arm of Zach. Returning starter Zach Maynard was inconsistent last season -- a recent tradition for Cal quarterbacks, and a confounding trend for Tedford, who developed guys like Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Boller. Maynard might be challenged by incoming freshman Zach Kline, a highly touted recruit who has enrolled and will participate in spring practice.
Colorado: Can the Buffs become competitive?
Jon Embree took over a very difficult situation a year ago, and the Buffs' first trip through the Pac-12 reflected as much. It might not get much easier in 2012. The roster currently has only 10 seniors; many of the players who'll see significant action next fall aren't on campus yet. They signed letters of intent last month. Colorado needs a quarterback, running back, receivers -- and we're just getting started. Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, won't be handed the starting quarterback position; Embree wants open competition. Fellow redshirt sophomore Nick Hirschman is the only quarterback with previous experience at Colorado and the guy most likely to challenge for the job, but his status for spring practice is uncertain after foot surgery. If Wood is as good as the Buffs hope -- or if a healthy Hirschman wins the job -- it's a nice starting point. Still, turning the program around requires patience; it is going to take a while.
Oregon: Who's next at quarterback and running back?
Either Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota will win the quarterback spot formerly held by Darron Thomas. While his decision to jump early for the draft was iffy, there's no questioning the void Thomas left behind. Both Bennett and Mariota are more athletic than Thomas, but his poise and confidence were important keys to Oregon's success the last two seasons. LaMichael James is gone, too, leaving a huge hole -- but the Ducks have veteran talent at running back. De'Anthony Thomas' Rose Bowl performance -- two carries, 155 yards, two touchdowns -- suggests an emerging star. Kenjon Barner can scoot, too, though the news that backup Tra Carson intends to transfer thins the Ducks' depth at the position. Ultimately, the biggest question was answered in late January. Yes, it turns out, Chip Kelly decided to return after ever so briefly agreeing to become Tampa Bay's coach. With Kelly's track record, the spring will be a nice time to see how the Ducks plug-and-play the next generation of stars.
Oregon State: Will the Beavers become overachieving winners again?
If not, Mike Riley's seat will get pretty warm. His accomplishments at a traditional sad-sack are impressive. But two straight losing seasons -- no bowl game, no happy holidays -- can make for a tense spring. That's before considering what's happened just down the road at arch-rival Oregon (and Beaver fans are considering). When the season ended, Riley promised a "total evaluation." Oregon State returns 17 starters including Sean Mannion, who endured a difficult trial after taking over at quarterback early last season (16 touchdowns, 18 interceptions). Mannion has solid potential, though, and should be an asset. But high among the spring priorities will be redeveloping a once stout running game and rush defense. Oregon State struggled in both departments last season, averaging only 87 rushing yards while allowing almost 200.
Stanford: How do you follow Andrew Luck?
In his first year as a head coach, David Shaw did OK (10 wins and Pac-12 coach of the year honors isn't too shabby). Year 2 could be more difficult. Shortly after the Cardinal plays its annual spring game, Andrew Luck will become the No. 1 pick in the draft. Shaw has to pick Luck's successor from among several candidates (quick primer: Brett Nottingham, a redshirt sophomore, might have the early lead; juniors Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo and freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan will compete in what could be a wide-open competition). But Stanford also must replace offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro -- like Luck, they're likely to go in the draft's first round. The Stanford program has undergone a culture change, and the new status has been reflected in recruiting. But it's still uncertain whether the impressive rise has staying power.
UCLA: Can the new coach make a difference?
We're thinking, of course, of Noel Mazzone. What, you thought we meant Jim Mora Jr.? The new head coach seemed an unlikely hire, but reviews have been good so far -- starting with the staff he hired. As offensive coordinator, Mazzone brings his considerable reputation to a program that sorely needs a little swagger -- or at least a passing game. It's no secret that UCLA's offense sputtered for much of Rick Neuheisel's tenure. Enter Mazzone, who is credited with helping Arizona State revamp its offense. His first task is to find and develop a quarterback; it's still amazing that during Rick Neuheisel's tenure, the Bruins struggled to get effective performances from the position. The contenders are veterans Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley, who redshirted last season as a freshman.
USC: Are the Trojans really ready to return to college football's upper crust?
As spring practice begins, USC fans -- and heck, coaches and players, too -- are probably still glowing about Dec. 22. That's the day Barkley stood in front of a giant Christmas tree at Heritage Hall and delivered a fantastic present: I'm staying, he told everyone, because of "unfinished business." Suddenly, the possibilities for 2012 seemed boundless. But the business begins this spring. Although 17 starters return, including stud receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, the Trojans must fill holes on the defensive line and especially at left tackle, where Matt Kalil no longer protects Barkley's blind side. They also accomplished much of their surge last season under the radar. Now the spotlight is back, and so is the pressure. The window of opportunity appears narrow, too. Barkley is back only for 2012, and scholarship reductions from the NCAA penalties will begin to take effect in 2013.
Utah: The new offensive coordinator is how old?
Eyebrows were raised around college football when Kyle Whittingham announced the replacement for Norm Chow, who finally got a head-coaching gig (at Hawaii). Thirty-nine months ago (sounds better than three years ago, right?), Brian Johnson quarterbacked the Utes to a huge Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. This spring, he'll attempt to control the offense using a headset. He turned 25 last month. "I've been young for everything in my life," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's nothing new to me." Johnson can build around running back John White IV, and he has also promised more passing. That might be dependent upon the health and wellbeing of quarterback Jordan Wynn, who has recovered from a shoulder injury. Last season Utah ranked 74th nationally in scoring and 109th in total offense. Johnson must also replace both offensive tackles.
Washington: Can two former Ducks revamp the Huskies' ailing defense?
Last time we saw Washington, Robert Griffin III and Baylor were piling up yards and points. After a 67-56 loss in the Alamo Bowl (RGIII and the Bears totaled 777 yards, a record by a Washington opponent), Steve Sarkisian fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other defensive assistants. He hired Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator away from the same position at Tennessee. Peter Sirmon, the Vols' linebackers coach, moved to Seattle with Wilcox. Both guys played for rival Oregon in the 1990s, where they were roommates. Now, they're tasked with building something from the Huskies' defensive wreckage. The scheme will eventually change from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but for now, the biggest change is in the coaching staff: Every defensive position group will have a new coach.
Washington State: Will Mike Leach duplicate the success he had at Texas Tech?
Short answer: Yes, and the only question is whether he'll park a pirate ship at Lake Coeur d'Alene. Longer answer: It won't be as easy, because Pullman isn't Lubbock, Texas. Both are outposts, but Lubbock is in Texas -- home, you might be aware, to some serious high school football talent. That said, Leach's spread passing attack will immediately make the Cougars more competitive than they've been in recent years. Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, both injured last season, are healthy and ready to compete for the job of piling up passing yards and touchdowns. Given Leach's history, the winner could set school records. After installing everything this spring, look for the Cougars to be immediately dangerous next fall.