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.
Pac-12 players to watch in 2015
Cody Kessler, USC QB
Kessler is tasked with continuing the legacy of great USC quarterbacks, and he seemed more than ready for the job last season. Kessler threw for 39 touchdowns with only five interceptions, completing about 70 percent of his passes. He has the kind of arm that could return the Trojans to national contender status and possibly inject himself in the Heisman conversation in the process.
Royce Freeman, Oregon RB
Freeman was a five-star recruit who saw playing time as a true freshman for the Pac-12 champion Ducks in 2014. He brings a power-running element to Oregon's backfield, and he bowled over linebackers last season on his way to over 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Scooby Wright III, Arizona LB
Wright was one of the most dominant players on either side of the ball in college football last season. He amassed an incredible 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles for the Wildcats. Pac-12 quarterbacks are already looking forward to when Wright leaves for the NFL.
D.J. Foster, Arizona State RB/WR
Foster was given his most responsibility in three seasons for the Sun Devils in 2014, and he responded by becoming one of the conference's most explosive rushing and receiving weapons. He ran the ball for more than five yards per carry on his way to 1,081 yards and also caught 62 passes for three touchdowns. With the emergence of Demario Richard in the backfield, Foster should spend more time in the slot in '15.
Su'a Cravens, USC S
Cravens is the latest in a line of uber-athletic USC defenders. The hybrid safety-linebacker is a menace all over the field, recording five sacks and three interceptions last season. With star defensive end Leonard Williams off to the NFL, Cravens is the clear leader of the Trojans defense.
Nick Wilson, Arizona RB
Wilson made his own case for the best running back in the state of Arizona, rushing for 1,375 yards in 2014 despite missing a game. The 5'10" rising sophomore weighs less than 200 pounds, but he proved he's capable of being a workhorse back for the Wildcats.
Myles Jack, UCLA LB
Jack is a tackle machine for the Bruins, and also spends some time evading tacklers on the other side of the ball. The former four-star recruit played both linebacker and running back in his first two seasons in Los Angeles, and he continues to be a true dual threat. With All-America linebacker Eric Kendricks gone, Jack's defensive responsibilities only increase.
Devontae Booker, Utah RB
Booker is another one of the conference's dual threats coming out of the backfield. The American River College transfer ran for over 1,500 yards and caught 43 passes in his first season at Utah.
DeForest Buckner, Oregon DE
Buckner is back for his senior season as he tries to help Oregon return to the national championship game. He's a leader along the Ducks' defensive line, racking up tackles and pressuring the passer to the tune of four sacks in 2014. Fellow defensive end Arik Armstead's decision to leave early for the draft means the Ducks will need a monster season from Buckner.
Paul Perkins, UCLA RB
Perkins is—you guessed it—a running back who can also threaten defenses with his ability as a receiver. The rising junior averaged over six yards per carry and over seven yards per catch in 2014. His 1,575 yards on the ground last season were good for the second-highest single-season mark in UCLA history.