1. D.J. Foster's move to slot receiver will prove to be an excellent idea.
Foster was brilliantly versatile last season for Arizona State, tacking 62 catches and nearly 700 receiving yards on top of his 1,100-yard rushing campaign. Simply put, he's a premier athlete, and that gives coach Todd Graham a multitude of options on offense. Foster's move to the slot, then, only makes logical sense given the circumstances in Tempe: Jaelen Strong is gone from the outside, and Demario Richard is ready to pick up Foster's slack in the backfield. This shift doesn't handcuff ASU, either -- Foster can continue being his versatile self in 2015 and contribute to the ground attack. In fact, the slot may actually further highlight his adaptability.
2. At least 27 instances of "Berco-ing" will happen around the state of Arizona as QB Mike Bercovici officially takes the reins.
There have already been a few identified -- official or unofficial -- Berco-ing activities that have happened so far this offseason (see below). But now, with Bercovici officially taking the reins of this team and declaring its goal a national title, there will be a few fans around the state and country who find themselves celebrating in a much different way. Hint: This is much more difficult without a helmet -- don't break your nose.
David Shaw will be asked to talk about how no one is talking about his team, leaving him with a "that's so meta" reaction.
For the first time in several years, no one is really talking about the Cardinal going into spring football. The usual powerhouse had a slow start to last season, which left its final stretch -- impressive as it might have been -- relatively unnoticed, which in turn left its team this offseason relatively unnoticed. Enter: the most meta interview in which Shaw is asked to talk about talking, or rather, talk about how no one is talking about his team.
Q: David, can you discuss how different it is for you to be at this point in the season with little to no one really talking about your team?
A: [Hint: It doesn't matter what he says here because he spurns the question by actually talking about his team.]
4. Oregon State RB Storm Woods will take a huge leap forward as Gary Andersen actually makes running an emphasis in Corvallis.
Andersen has made it very clear he intends to run the ball. Mike Riley used to say this a lot, but given Andersen's ability to turn out some top-notch running backs, we're getting the idea he's very, very serious about it. The front-runner right now is Storm Woods, who showed flashes last season, specifically against Arizona State and Oregon. In preparation for said leap, the Pac-12 Blog is now taking advanced nicknames for Storm Woods in Cor-Vegas. Tweet them to @ESPN_Pac12blog.
5. Mike Leach gon' Mike Leach at some point and say something non-football related that makes headlines.
Now's a good time to review just a smidgen of what makes Washington State's Mike Leach a fascinating treasure. Many details can be found in this piece, which chronicles his long walks through the countryside to work, among other nuggets. But Leach's sound bites may be the most entertaining gifts of all. Remember that not too long ago, he predicted human extinction. What will be next? Better question: Can anything top that? We'll just have to wait and see.
6. Quarterbacks will be the most talked about subject in Eugene, Oregon, even though the competition won't really begin until this summer.
Yes, there'll be intense focus on Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and the others taking snaps this spring in an effort to become Marcus Mariota's successor. But while that group is doing its thing on Oregon's practice field, the potential front-runner for the job will be working out at Eastern Washington's rec center, of all places. Transfer Vernon Adams won't be around for spring ball, but his arrival in Eugene later this summer will add true sizzle to the battle.
7. Tre Madden and Justin Davis will both settle in primary running back roles at USC.
Javorius Allen is gone, so the Trojans have room opening up in the backfield. Davis is USC's leading returning rusher and Madden is returning following a turf toe injury that derailed his entire 2014 campaign. Built in the 225-pound power back mold, Madden brings a significantly different style to the table than the 195-pound Davis, and this will allow the Trojans to work on developing a complementary mix-and-match between the two players.
8. Chris Petersen will practice his fall avoidance of answering Boise State questions by avoiding answering Boise State questions.
Washington at Boise State is one of the most anticipated season openers for 2015. By nature, most college football coaches don't talk about the ensuing regular season too much during the spring because they don't want it to be too much of a distraction or show any kind of non-spring ball focus. That said, the matchup with the Broncos will probably be brought up a few times. This will give Petersen ample opportunity to practice whatever tactic he intends to apply next fall when folks ask him similar questions but expect a much better answer.
9. Cal will continue to show significant strides offensively.
During their miserable 1-11 campaign two seasons ago, the Bears planted some seeds offensively. Coach Sonny Dykes debuted Jared Goff as a true freshman, and the new coach introduced his aggressive aerial attack. There were growing pains aplenty, but 2014 saw marked improvement for the Bears. They developed an effective rushing attack, and Goff morphed into an upper-tier conference quarterback (5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio). This 2015 spring will see a continuation of Cal's offensive blossoming.
10. There will be a spring football rivalry between UCLA and USC.
Bruins, watch your bear. Trojans, watch out for Tommy Trojan.
OK, so maybe this is a more far-fetched prediction, but we can dream. Spring football needs some excitement.
While college football teams don't often resolve major competitions or issues during spring practices -- at least they tend to resist public proclamations -- that's not going to stop us from making predictions. There's just too much juicy goings-on for us to keep quiet. So here are 10 bold predictions, though you might quibble with what degree of boldness we have attained.
It ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and tied for third in yards per play. It was good against the run -- 3.8 yards per rush -- and ranked second in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. It led the conference in interceptions and third-down conversions.
So, the numbers were solid.
But there also was Boston College rushing for 452 yards in an upset win, Arizona State scoring 20 fourth-quarter points and winning on a Hail Mary pass, and there was UCLA gaining 461 yards in a win and Nebraska piling up 525 yards in a loss.
So, mixed bag.
Justin Wilcox, who has built quality defenses at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington before following Steve Sarkisian to USC, has long been a respected coordinator and is widely viewed as becoming a head-coaching candidate sooner rather than later. His defense welcomes back eight starters, but it also loses some star power, as the Trojans head into a season of high expectations.
With USC starting spring practices this week, it seemed like a good time to check in.
What were some of the things you were happy about with your defense last year?
How much was depth an issue?
Wilcox: We don’t really talk about that. I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere with a college football coach where he’s like, ‘We’ve got too much depth.’ Obviously we need to continue to develop our depth. I think where it shows is we need to substitute guys earlier in games, especially against the tempo teams. When the numbers get up high, you’d like to see the big guys, even some of the skill guys, you want to roll them a little bit so at the end of the game you’ve got more juice. But that’s always a fine line. We’re not the only school thinking that way.
I was thinking in terms of you guys still being yoked with NCAA sanctions last year. You guys weren’t going very deep with substitutions on your defense and you seemed to tire out late.
Wilcox: Yeah, it’s not really something, the sanctions and all that, we just don’t talk about it. We are excited about the guys who are here. We’ll continue to develop depth on defense at every position through recruiting. And we’ll continue to look at the best ways to substitute and roll guys. That’s critical. You want your best players out there on critical third downs.
How do you replace Leonard Williams?
Wilcox: A guy like that is pretty unique and rare, not only for the physical tools he has but also because he just loves to play the game. A guy with unique physical tools -- 6-5, 300-plus pounds, who runs and is smart and plays with good leverage and is athletic -- and you see he loves playing. Whether it was practice or a game, he was going. He had games when he played over 90 plays. To answer your question, it’s not going to be one person. It’s going to be a collection of people. It will be guys who are returning and some added bodies, freshmen who get here in the summer.
Su'a Cravens is a guy with a ton of talent. How does his role advance this year? He kind of has that hybrid thing going for you.
Wilcox: Sure. I think just adding to his toolbox. We played him as you said in kind of a hybrid outside linebacker/strong safety type role and he was very effective. He affected the game as a blitzer and as a low zone player defending balls. Getting picks, getting sacks, tackle for losses, he was impacting the game, which was awesome. The more he can develop at that spot, playing off blocks, understanding route combinations that the offense is going to use to manipulate the zones. Just playing more and getting more experience. He’s an intelligent guy. He’s got really good instincts. Just adding a few more tools to that toolbox, whether it’s coverage techniques he can expand on, maybe some run stunts we can use him. I think he’ll continue to be a guy who affects a game in different ways.
You lose the veteran leaders of your 2014 defense, Williams and LB Hayes Pullard. Who are going to be the vocal leaders next year?
Wilcox: That’s a great question. We’ve got some veteran guys coming back. The names that jump out, Anthony Sarao has played quite a bit at linebacker. Up front, nose tackle Antwaun Woods is a guy who’s played a lot. In the back end? We’ll see. A lot of young guys played a lot last year, Adoree' Jackson, John Plattenburg, those guys were playing significant roles for us, starting. I think Kevon Seymour at the other corner did some good things. But the two guys who have played the most are Anthony and Antwaun. We’ll look to them first for leadership, not only on the field but also at meetings, workouts. Between now and the start of the season, that stuff is as important as anything, just building the chemistry of the team and the accountability to one another.
Who are some young players you expect to compete for starting jobs?
Wilcox: Obviously the ones I already mentioned. John Plattenburg did a really good job at safety. Got better every game as the season went on. I thought we saw him really grow up. He got dinged late in the bowl game but in the Notre Dame game he really played well. Adoree' obviously came in as a young guy, playing corner and playing offense. I think this is a big spring for [safety] Leon McQuay. He played as a true freshman and quite a bit last year. We get [MLB] Lamar Dawson back who’s played a lot of football here but was out last season. He’s kind of a guy we’re looking for. Up front, guys like Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons, we need them really to continue to take the next step. Backup nose guard Cody Temple. Outside linebacker Scott Felix. Those are guys who are really important for us to be good. They’ve got to continue to develop. Jabari Ruffin, we are going to get him back from injury last year, as we are with nose tackle Kenny Bigelow. Those are two guys we were looking forward to helping us last year but unfortunately got injured before the season.
With the freshman class, you signed a lot of guys who seem like they might be ready to play. How many do you anticipate playing?
Wilcox: The feeling is when they get here we will give them every opportunity to compete to get on the field. We need them. We were talking earlier about developing our depth. Whether that means they play every special team and are situational players or they become starters, we recruited those guys because we believed they had the ability and physical tools to play. Now there are so many variables when you’re talking about football, on and off the field. We really like the class and all of those guys are going to be pressed early in their careers. In fall camp, it’s going to be a race to get them prepared to play. We’re looking for all those guys to help us.
While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we're looking at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.
Up next: USC.
1. How do you replace DE Leonard Williams? You don't replace Williams, a likely top-five pick in the NFL draft this spring. There is no one on the USC roster with the physical dimensions and skills to do so. Williams ranked second on the Trojans with 80 tackles, with 9.5 tackles for a loss and a co-team-high seven sacks, but he also caused problems for offensive simply by being there. He demanded attention in a game plan. Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons, a pair of 295 pounders, saw extensive action last year and began spring practices this week with the first unit as DE/DT. Another candidate, Greg Townsend, sat out with an injury. Redshirt freshman Malik Dorton and junior Jeff Miller offer smaller, quicker options. It's also possible that linebacker Jabari Ruffin could get at look at defensive end when he's healthy, and it's likely one or two of the touted incoming freshmen will be the rotation. Williams rarely left the field. The good news is USC figures to have a deeper and therefore fresher rotation this fall.
2. Who will be QB Cody Kessler's top targets? Three of USC's top four receivers from 2014 are gone, including top target Nelson Agholor, who caught nearly twice as many passes as any other Trojan. He also led the offense with 12 TDs. No one else had more than five. No. 2 receiver JuJu Smith had a strong showing as a true freshman and he has plenty of upside. He's likely the new No. 1. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell are second and third options, while Adoree' Jackson, a starting cornerback, will see action on both sides of the ball. No doubt there will be opportunities for incoming players to push into the rotation. Further, with the departure of tight end Randall Telfer and uncertain status of suspended sophomore Bryce Dixon, things are pretty fluid at tight end behind Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
3. What's the pecking order at running back? Justin Davis was Javorius Allen's backup last year and he rushed for 595 yards, but it will be interesting to see how Tre Madden looks when he returns -- finally? -- from a toe injury. A healthy Madden is a true threat to start. Touted incoming freshmen Ronald Jones and Aca'Cedric Ware seem unlikely to redshirt, particularly Jones who was ranked the No. 1 running back in the nation by many recruiting services, including ESPN.com. Sophomore James Toland is another option. This competition won't truly heat up until preseason camp, but Davis has the most to gain -- or lose -- this spring.
So greetings Bob Connelly, USC's fourth offensive line coach in four seasons, and welcome to the fishbowl that is the Trojans offensive line coach. All you're expected to do, Bob, is uphold a glorious tradition whose legacy has played an intricate part in 11 national championships, 33 bowl victories, and has produced such all-time Trojans greats as Ron Yary, Marvin Powell, Brad Budde, Anthony Munoz, Tony Boselli, Sam Baker and Matt Kalil.
If Connelly, whose voice is a near dead ringer for that of Hollywood superstar Matthew McConaughey, has some hidden anxiety about assuming leadership of the institution known as the Trojans offensive line, he sure doesn't let on. He comes across as highly extroverted, self-confident, intelligent and yet pleasantly respectful of his new position and those around him.
So, how did the well-traveled, 20-year offensive line coach land at the University of Southern California after being the offensive line coach at Gilbert (Ariz.) High in 2013 prior to taking the O-line coaching position last season at Oklahoma State?
"Well, I got a phone call asking if I would be interested," said Connelly, who had a USC connection that would prove to be helpful in getting a chance to interview for the open Trojans coaching position.
"I knew Johnny Nansen (Trojans running back coach) very well when he was a player at Washington State and I was Mike Price's offensive line coach," said Connelly, a former two-time all-conference offensive guard at Texas A&M-Commerce and three-time Academic All-American.
"Johnny helped me a little bit getting here, but I had coached in the league (Pac-12) at Washington State, UCLA and Arizona State and had recruited against Coach Sarkisian when he was an assistant at USC and then when he was at Washington. It wasn't the same close relationship I had with Johnny, but we knew and respected each other."
Make no mistake about it, Connelly, 44, knows he is now at one of college football's most storied programs, and he shows great reverence in his new assignment.
"This is a place I have a lot of respect for and it was too good to pass up," said Connelly, who is married and the father of two daughters.
Having their fourth offensive line coach in four seasons isn't exactly how the veteran and younger Trojan offensive linemen envisioned it when they came to campus. However, give Connelly plenty of credit in recognizing that while it's not the ideal situation, he has managed to turn a negative into a positive.
"I know this isn't what the players wanted when they came here, but I like it for me because I don't have to break too many habits and what I'll teach is new to them," said Connelly. "It's my philosophy and nobody else's."
And what is Connelly's the philosophy that he hopes will be instilled by the end of spring practice?
"My philosophy for our linemen is that I want players that are smart, tough, physical, and I like'em hostile, mobile and agile," Connelly said. "I like athletic, mobile guys that are big skill guys and not just big guys. I want them to be tough. I am going to teach them my way."
Connelly knows that the Trojans have upperclass veterans returning along the offensive line like senior All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk and junior left tackle Chad Wheeler, and he believes this will help him with the transition of getting through to the talented but younger players who are experiencing yet another coaching change.
"Kids will play for you when they know you have their best interests at heart," Connelly said. "You have to earn their respect by teaching them the fundamentals and techniques not only on the field but on the field and in life."
Connelly is also quick to credit his own mentors, which include current Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, Jimmy Johnson's former offensive line coach at the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys Tony Wise, and Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo. Not a bad reference group.
Connelly, who has sent numerous players into the NFL like Alabama's 2008 Outland Trophy Award recipient Andre Smith and two-time All-Pro Evan Mathis, likes what he sees thus far in his Trojans offensive line in the very early stages of spring practice.
"You have to like Max Tuerk, who has been through it all, and young players like Toa (Lobendahn) who has a bright, bright future," Connelly gushed. "This is a hungry group willing to work and I want my kids motivated on the field."
And if one thing comes across in a conversation with Bob Connelly, he, too, is highly motivated, and wouldn't you be if you were entrusted with the awesome responsibility of being the offensive line coach at the University of Southern California?
We took a look at six teams that have the most work to do (because, we couldn’t stick to five for this list. Sorry to our readers who expect series like this to be identical … and also to defensive coordinators across the league: You’ve got your work cut out for you this spring and next fall).
Arizona: At least they’ve still got Scooby Wright, right? That’s probably what a lot of Wildcats fans are going to be saying this offseason as Arizona attempts to replace so many contributors on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats will need to replace three of their top five tacklers -- Jared Tevis, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant -- in addition to Dan Pettinato and Jonathan McKnight, who both registered at least 45 tackles last season.
Oregon State: Let’s just say that it’s far easier to note the players who actually return to the Beavers rather than their departures. So, Gary Andersen, in his first season, will welcome back 2014 starters Jaswha James and Larry Scott. That’s it. He has nine other starters to replace, including the top six tacklers from 2014. Of the 12 players to register at least 25 tackles last season, only three weren't seniors. Need we go on? Didn’t think so.
Stanford: The Cardinal are in a similar boat to the Beavers in which they lose way more than they retain while also losing guys at every level of the defense. Up front, coach David Shaw needs to find replacements for Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders. In the middle, he’ll need guys to step into the shoes of Kevin Anderson, James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley. In the secondary, they lose Alex Carter, Jordan Richards and Wayne Lyons. The Cardinal led the conference a year ago in total defense (282.4 yards per game), but with this kind of turnover hitting that mark again seems far off. But really, is anyone wishing they were a defensive coordinator at Oregon State or Stanford right now? Bueller?
Washington: A season ago, the Huskies were second in the league in rushing defense (121.9 yards per game) and now they need to replace six players from their front seven, including the entire defensive line. Can Washington really take a step forward in Year 2 under Chris Petersen without Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton aggravating every single Pac-12 quarterback and Shaq Thompson and John Timu creating big plays every other play? The good news is that the Huskies retain all four starters from the secondary so the group that was the youngest a year ago will now be the oldest. But, for anyone who watched the third-worst Pac-12 pass defense in 2014, that might not really sound like good new
USC: The Trojans lose four of their six top tacklers. Hayes Pullard, Gerald Bowman and J.R. Tavai all used up their eligibility while Leonard Williams opted to head to the NFL a bit early. Losing half of those guys would be rough for a defense that finished fifth in the league a season ago, but to lose every single one of them (they accounted for 315 tackles including 31 tackles for loss and 15 sacks) is really rough for a team that has such high expectations for the 2015 season. But Trojans fans can take Arizona’s approach: At least you still have Su'a Cravens and Anthony Sarao, right?
UCLA: The Bruins lose three of their top four tacklers from the 2014 season, including Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks. Between Kendricks, Anthony Jefferson and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA will need to make up for 282 tackles including 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. In a few games this season the Bruins defense made up for its offense when it was slow (or, not scoring at all -- hello, Virginia) and many of the reasons for this defense being so productive are no longer on the roster.
Oregon: The Ducks defense was a hard thing to diagnose last season. In certain games, it was opportunistic and aggressive and tackled extremely well. And in others, it was the exact opposite. Oregon will lose several key players off that up-and-down defense from a season ago. Arik Armstead left early for the NFL and linebackers Tony Washington and Derrick Malone are gone. Defensive back coach John Neal has his work cut out for him in a secondary that lost starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan. Due to injuries and rotations, several guys got reps for Oregon and with a core group of linebackers returning, there seems to be a bit less work to do in Eugene than some other Pac-12 cities.
Utah: The Utes will undoubtedly miss Nate Orchard and his ability to get to quarterbacks, as well as starters Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen out of the secondary. But Utah also has three of its top six tacklers returning, including its leading tackler (linebacker Jared Norris). Plus, Hunter Dimick is primed for a big season a year after recording 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
"We were definitely a little bit more well-oiled to start Year 2," Sarkisian said. "There was a lot more familiarity between the coaches and the players and that will allow us to get more work done."
Two of the Trojans' major goals this spring will be to identify which players will step in for guys such as Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard, and to work on two-minute drills to help prevent late breakdowns that cost USC in multiple games last season.
"We've got to fill some pretty important spots," Sarkisian said. "Leonard, Hayes, Buck Allen, Nelson Agholor, J.R. Tavai, we're talking some really critical guys here and we need to figure out who is going to fill those roles.
"We're also going to have a challenge at the end of each spring practice to simulate the final two minutes of a game. Who can we count on in those situations? Who will be the guy to make the play? If we come through in two of those situations last year we're playing in the conference title game and it needs to be something we really work on. Today we saw the defense come out in a best-of-five setting and they made three plays in a row to get off the field."
Those three plays for the defense, which ended the day, started off with a near interception by linebacker Lamar Dawson, who received some encouraging words from Sarkisian about his overall performance in the practice, and then back-to-back sacks by Leon McQuay and Scott Felix.
There was a standout effort on offense from wide receiver Steven Mitchell, the dynamic sophomore who is looking more and more like the game-breaker he showed before a knee injury almost two years ago. Sarkisian noted that Mitchell has added close to 20 pounds and will get a look at the outside receiver spot on Thursday when Adoree' Jackson is moved from defense to get a look at slot receiver.
Sarkisian also had praise for the tone set by the work ethic of senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who returns as one of the country's high-profile players and a preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy.
"From putting this offense in a year ago to where we are today, I don't know if I could be more pleased with Cody," added Sarkisian. "He's really operating at a high level. There is a chip on his shoulder, he's really hungry and he wants to get better. It rubs off on his teammates and that's exactly what you want from a fifth-year quarterback."
For his part, Kessler said it's a matter of learning from those who have come before him.
"I've been here five years and have seen a lot of different seniors go through it so I've learned from some pretty good ones in terms of how to handle your final year," Kessler said. "I want to leave my mark this last year, and I know the team wants to do the same."
With so many expectations for this USC team, including several "way-too-early" preseason polls that project the Trojans as contenders for the College Football Playoff, Sarkisian said one of the most important things this spring is not to get caught looking ahead.
"We don't play a football game for six months," Sarkisian said. "The key for us is to focus on today. How we are getting better individually and as a team, physically, mentally and emotionally. We can't worry about the stuff that's down the road."
Tight end Bryce Dixon missed practice for what Sarkisian called a student conduct issue….Incoming cornerback Iman Marshall was in attendance at practice, as were former players Nelson Agholor and Tom Malone…..Sarkisian mentioned Jordan Austin, Nico Falah, Kenny Bigelow, Tre Madden and Jabari Ruffin as players who had encouraging practices after missing time in 2014 due to injuries…..Max Browne had a nice deep touchdown pass to JuJu Smith.
We took a look at five teams that have the most work to do on the offensive side.
Arizona: The defending South Division champion is going to have a lot of turnover in the trenches. Rich Rodriguez needs to replace three starting linemen -- center Steven Gurrola and tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. Replacing a center is tough, replacing bookends is harder, doing both is something that no coach really wants to do. Especially considering this veteran line gave up 40 sacks last season (second-worst in the Pac-12) and now the group will be even younger. The Wildcats also lose wide receiver Austin Hill and backup running back Terris Jones-Grigsby. Hill was the team’s second-leading receiver, averaging 45.4 yards per game, while Jones-Grigsby averaged 47.2 rushing yards per game and gave Nick Wilson some necessary rest.
Arizona State: Mike Bercovici has already laid some foundation for his role as the starting quarterback next season, but that doesn’t change the fact the Sun Devils lose a veteran player and leader in QB Taylor Kelly. Plus, Bercovici will be missing half of the magic that was the Jael Mary with the departure of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who led the Sun Devils with 1,165 yards last season. Like Arizona, ASU will need to replace both tackles as it loses fifth-year seniors Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka. So, how much Berco-ing will actually happen as the Sun Devils look to replace so much of their offensive line and one of the conference’s best receivers? We’ll see.
Oregon: Even if the Ducks were losing only Marcus Mariota they would’ve been on this list. But the losses go a bit further than Mariota. On top of the Heisman-winning quarterback, Mark Helfrich must replace three members of his offensive line -- Jake Fisher, Hamani Stevens and Hroniss Grasu. The benefit (if it can be called that) for Oregon is that because of OL injuries last season, several players played several positions along the line. But that doesn’t mean finding a full-time starter at each of those three positions is going to be easy either. The Ducks get Tyler Johnstone back so he’ll likely fill back in to his left tackle role, but what about the other two? Oregon also loses Keanon Lowe, whom Helfrich often described as the most important player who wasn’t seen on the stat sheet.
USC: Cody Kessler decided to return to the Trojans, but he’ll be missing most of his key weapons from the 2014 season. At running back USC loses Buck Allen, who led the team with 114.5 rushing yards per game. At wide receiver, they’ll need to replace leading receiver Nelson Agholor (101 yards per game) as well as George Farmer, who both opted to leave early with Allen. At tight end, the Trojans need to find a replacement for Randall Telfer. With Kessler and all five line starters coming back (though, with a new coach at the helm of that group) the Trojans have a strong foundation, but it needs to find some productive skill position players pronto.
Utah: The Utes, for as much quarterback back-and-forth as they had, were extremely balanced on the receiving end of things as four players tallied 30 or more receiving yards per game. The problem is: three of those players are now gone, so can the lone player who is back in that group -- Kenneth Scott -- become more of a big-time receiver? Or will more players step up to keep things evenly distributed? Kaelin Clay led the team in total receiving yards and Dres Anderson -- who didn’t even finish the season due to injury -- was the team’s fourth-leading receiver at 355 yards. The Utes also need to find a replacement for their fourth-leading receiver -- starting tight end Westlee Tonga, who scored four touchdowns and averaged 30.1 yards per game. On top of those skill position losses, Utah also needs to find a new left tackle. Jeremiah Poutasi opted to leave early after starting for three years at Utah. Worse yet, back up Marc Pouvave’s eligibility has run out so the Utes will be looking for a brand new LT.
UCLA: The Bruins lose just one starter, but it hardly seems like you can put the word “just” in front of Brett Hundley’s name. Jim Mora is going to have to do a lot of work to replace Hundley’s production but there are still plenty of playmakers to go around. If it had been Hundley and Paul Perkins or Hundley and Jordan Payton, then UCLA probably would’ve made the list.
Colorado: The Buffs are losing several guys at several positions, which made this a tough call. They’re losing two linemen as well as a wide receiver, tight end and tailback … but it’s the third-leading receiver and second-leading rushing. As of now, it just seems like Sefo Liufau will have a bit more to build on.
Washington State: Connor Halliday’s reign is over but Luke Falk, like Bercovici, laid some major foundation for the Cougars. Falk will be without Pac-12 leading receiver Vince Mayle and second-leading receiver Isiah Myers. But Mike Leach produces 700-yard receivers like he produces quotable material (meaning, often). The Pac-12 Blog has faith that these large shoes will be filled with ease.
The quarterback cases
A year after the Pac-12's "year of the quarterback," the conference sees its marquee position enter a state of transition this spring. Plenty of top-flight talent has departed, but an influx of emerging signal-callers has the potential to take at least some sting out of the exodus.
Oregon's saga will generate the most headlines. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is gone, while electrifying dual-threat talent Vernon Adams has transferred to Eugene, Oregon, from Eastern Washington. Coach Mark Helfrich's succession plan isn't determined yet, though: Jeff Lockie was last season's second-stringer, and he'll have a chance to get a jump on Adams -- who can't enroll until fall -- during spring practice.
Less than an hour up the road, Oregon State is tasked with replacing all-time Pac-12 passing leader Sean Mannion. The Beavers are confronted with a traffic jam of their own at the position, as seven quarterbacks currently pack the roster. Luke Del Rio was Mannion's backup last year, so he's a popular name right about now. Expect plenty of maneuvering as the entire stable adapts to Gary Andersen's new offensive system.
Intrigue extends further into the conference. Luke Falk will likely be Connor Halliday's successor at Washington State, but the fates of incumbents Cyler Miles (Washington) and Travis Wilson (Utah) are far from settled. K.J. Carta-Samuels looks to steal the reins in Seattle. At Utah, Kendal Thompson's challenge of Wilson for the starting job, which raged throughout most of last season, will continue following Thompson's recovery from injury.
The defensive battles up front
Stanford, the Pac-12's best defense three years running, is currently competing to reload a unit that lost eight starters following 2014. The most painful attrition for the Cardinal has happened along the defensive line, where all three of last year's starters are graduating. Coach David Shaw actually wishes he had more competition there, since injuries have reduced Stanford to only three healthy players at the position. But Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas will be back, and the fight to replace Henry Anderson and David Parry will rage on in due time.
Washington, meanwhile, is tasked with replacing six members of a front seven that was stocked with pro talent in 2014: Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Andrew Hudson, and Evan Hudson. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, and ouch -- all of those guys are leaving. That's a tough rash of losses. Brace for a free-for-all of competition in Chris Petersen's second year. Meanwhile, a few hours to the east, two spots are open on Washington State's defensive line.
The offensive trenches
Most of Cal's rising offense returns in 2015, but there's a big battle for Chris Adcock's vacated center position between Matt Cochran and Addison Ooms. Both Arizona schools should see spirited competition among the offensive hogs, too. The Wildcats must fill three holes up front, including center. Carter Wood is the front-runner there, and Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa throws his name into the tackle ring. He is 6-foot-8, 330 pounds -- that sounds fun.
Arizona State tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka are both gone, setting up a critical reloading effort to ensure that Mike Bercovici is well protected next season. Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee seem to be the early leading options, but nothing is a lock at this point.
Colorado has lost both starting offensive guards to graduation, and there are four bodies currently competing for those two spots.
The running back room always seems to be crowded at USC, and Javorius Allen's departure has set the table for a wide-ranging battle this offseason. Allen was the Trojans' leading rusher, but the next six performers on the ground-yardage list come back in 2015. Justin Davis and Tre Madden are the only two scholarship backs returning, and they'll be joined by a trio of freshmen from Steve Sarkisian's monster 2015 recruiting class -- Ronald Jones II, Dominic Davis and Aca'Cedric Ware.
Of course, the departures of Nelson Agholor and George Farmer have also opened matters up at receiver for USC. Expect plenty of explosive fireworks there: JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson are just two of the exciting names on the Trojans roster.
Arriving on campus as a highly touted prospect out of Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany in the summer of 2013, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee that forced him to miss his entire freshman campaign. Then, while still in the recovery phase, he also had to deal with a groin injury last offseason that further threw a wrench in his development.
Showing steady signs of progress this past fall, however, Mitchell caught seven passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans, but he still appeared to lack the explosiveness that helped make him such a prized commodity coming out of high school.
But through it all, he always kept his head up.
"It was hard," Mitchell said, "but I knew that God had a plan for me."
And now, with spring practice set to start up on Tuesday afternoon, there's reason to believe that after a long wait, everything is finally coming together for Mitchell.
Finally 100 percent healthy and in the best shape of his Trojans' career, he was one of the stars of the team's volunteer throwing sessions this past January and February, regularly showcasing the burst in his step that had been missing.
"I can say that this is the best that I've felt since I've been here," Mitchell said late last week. "All of the coaches have been pushing us, and that's exactly what I needed."
In particular, Mitchell is quick to credit Trojans strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis and his staff.
"The conditioning workouts have been really helpful to me and to all of the guys over the past two months," said Mitchell, who currently weighs in at 190 pounds, after arriving at USC in the 178-pound range. "My breathing, my legs and my body are all feeling good."
With the departure of last season's leading receiver, Nelson Agholor, as well as George Farmer, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and Co. will be looking for wideouts such as Mitchell to take on a greater role this spring. If the past two months are any indication, he's certainly up to the challenge.
"I'm definitely looking to make a statement," Mitchell said. "I'm going to come out hungry with a whole new attitude. I'm ready."
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It's hard to dive head-first into this whole idea of spring when a lot of us are still digging out from under the snow. But, alas, spring football practice is here.
That means the countdown to the 2015 college football season has officially begun.
New stars will emerge. Coaches will land on the hot seat, and somebody's going to swear they're getting the cold shoulder from the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Which players have the most to prove this spring and heading into the 2015 season? Some might be coming off injuries. Others weren't as productive or consistent last season, and a few are taking on even bigger roles or getting fresh starts. The players are listed alphabetically:
WR Bralon Addison, Oregon
Oregon was without its three best receivers in the title game loss to Ohio State last season. Of course, one of those had been out all season. Addison tore his ACL last spring, and just like that, the Ducks' leading returning receiver from the 2013 team was gone. But he's back and eager to re-establish himself in a receiving corps that should be as dangerous as ever. There was some talk before the title game in January that he might play, and he even suited up during warm-ups. The Ducks, though, weren't going to use an entire year of eligibility for just one game. Addison is electric in the open field, whether he's catching passes, taking off on jet sweeps or returning punts. If everybody is healthy, Oregon should have the fastest group of receivers in the country. Addison gets to prove he's as good as new.
Garcia pledged to the Trojans last September and immediately declared USC his "dream school" at the time. It's safe to say that those sentiments haven't changed one bit.
Possessing the ability to line up on either side of the ball on the next level, Garcia played exclusively at tight end for his team on both days of the event. Standing 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he was quick on his feet and showcased outstanding athleticism.
But also known for his physicality on defense, Garcia said that the USC coaches -- whom he's held a strong relationship with since their time at Washington -- currently envision him starting out on that side of the ball
"They're mostly talking to me about playing at rush end, where J.R. Tavai played," said Garcia, who noted that he remains in steady contact with USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive line coach Chris Wilson among others. "It's a great position. To go after the quarterback, and then sometimes drop back in coverage, I really like the idea of that. But if they need me to play tight end, I'd play it. I'll play anywhere."
In addition to the coaching staff, Garcia said that another crucial factor in his decision to commit to USC was his Southern California roots. He lived in Fontana, California, as a child and grew up rooting for Pete Carroll's Trojans teams.
"I moved away when I was 12, but I go back because my grandparents are still there," Garcia said. "The fact that I used to live there played a huge role, because when I was little I would always watch USC play and I knew that's where I wanted to go, so it really is a dream come true."
Garcia will next be in the Los Angeles area in April, and he has plans to take an unofficial visit to USC while in town to see the Trojans in action.
"I'll be coming out there during spring break in early April," Garcia said. "and I'll definitely check out spring practice."
With many of the spring practice sessions open to the public and a healthy dose of conversation, speculation, and interpretation, you can be guaranteed of the following:
" All eyes will be focused on the fans reception and attendance of the 3:30 p.m. weekday practices, many of which will begin in mild to warm sunny Southern California sunlight and end in a dark, fall-like chill.
" All eyes will be focused on Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian to see how he transitions his football team from a perceived not so “bully-on-the-block” team to a traditional USC football team, which imposes its will on opponents.
" All eyes will be focused on Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to see if he even gives a hint of being more aggressive with blitzes and stunts.
" All eyes will be focused on sophomore wide receiver Steven Mitchell to see whether he has regained his full explosiveness shown during his senior season at Bishop Alemany High.
" All eyes will be focused on the accuracy and arm strength of true freshman quarterback Ricky Town. Let the comparisons begin between Town and crosstown rival true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen of UCLA.
" All eyes will be focused on senior linebacker Anthony Sarao to see if he picks up the leadership baton vacated by former linebacking teammate Hayes Pullard.
" All eyes will be focused on jersey numbers 8, 35, 63, and 70. Those will be the numbers of the four early enrollee freshmen, which includes in order quarterback Ricky Town, linebacker Cameron Smith , and offensive linemen Roy Hemsley and Chuma Edoga, respectively.
" All eyes will be focused on a group of veteran fans, who argue whether this USC team is truly capable of reaching the College Football Playoff or winning the Pac-12 South for that matter.
" All eyes will be focused on -- based on last season -- whether we've seen the last gasp of a USC fullback running the ball as we know it, so help me Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner.
" All eyes will be focused on sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith, who many fans will question how a sophomore can have so much poise, maturity, and leadership skills at such a young age.
" All eyes will be focused on 6-foot-4, 205-pound JC transfer wide receiver Isaac Whitney, who is being counted upon as being the big wide receiver that Steve Sarkisian has been wanting.
" All eyes will be focused on the defensive line competition to replace All-America Leonard Williams, who could be the NFL's No.1 overall draft selection come late April.
" All eyes will be focused on second-year defensive line coach Chris Wilson and his ability to mold a formidable unit without the services of Williams, a disciple of and last major high school defensive line recruit of former D-line coach Ed Orgeron, who is now at LSU.
" All eyes will be focused on senior defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. to see whether he can remotely do what Leonard Williams was able to do.
" All eyes will be focused on the weekday afternoon practices, which will be praised by the fans and media and quietly praised by the players, who generally practice during the cold, early mornings during the regular season.
" All eyes will be focused on who will emerge as the center backup to senior All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk.
" All eyes will be focused on new offensive line coach Bob Connelly and his interaction and coaching transition with his new offensive linemen, which present the first-year coach with a wealth of experienced, young talent.
" All eyes will be focused on fans that claims they have heard a rumor that the Trojans will break out a new uniform design for the spring game, which will be telecast nationally on the Pac-12 Networks.
" All eyes will be focused on true freshman and Parade All-America offensive tackle Chuma Edoga from Atlanta, Georgia, and his pursuit of finding his niche along the O-line.
" Restricted to sitting in the bleachers of Loker Stadium, the fan with the binoculars will become everybody's best buddy.
" All eyes will be focused on senior quarterback and Heisman candidate Cody Kessler to see if he can manage to find a favorite target to replace Nelson Agholor.
" All eyes will be focused on true freshman linebacker Cameron Smith to see if he can be a true challenger to start at middle linebacker in place of Hayes Pullard.
" All eyes will be focused on sophomore placekicker Matt Boermeester to see if he is the replacement for Andre Heidari.
" All eyes will be focused on junior tailback Justin Davis but conversations will quickly change to incoming freshman tailback Ronald Jones II, the electrifying to-the-house running back from McKinney, Texas.
" All eyes will be focused on recognizing any of the incoming Fall true freshmen from the recruiting class of 2015 and class of 2016 commits.
" All eyes will be focused on junior All-Pac-12 linebacker Su'a Cravens and remark that this is probably their last chance to see Cravens in a Trojans spring practice season.
" All eyes will be focused on starting junior offensive right tackle Zack Banner, all 6-foot-9, 350 pounds of him, and fans will swear he has grown bigger and taller.
" All eyes will be focused on sophomore WR/DB Adoree' Jackson and debates will break out whether Adoree' should play more on offense while still maintaining his starting cornerback position.
" All eyes will be focused on junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who could be a major plus to the Trojans passing game and sophomore Bryce Dixon, who will recall memories of Trojans Hall of Fame tight end Charles “Tree” Young.
" All eyes will be focused on a fan that laments loudly that he forgot about the season ticket deadline at the end of February and has lost his treasured Coliseum seat location that he has had for the past 35 years.
TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Portland State Washington State TBD Grambling State California TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Virginia UCLA TBD Arkansas State USC TBD Colorado Hawaii TBD Eastern Washington Oregon