Four prospects received immediate invitations to The Opening following last year’s Los Angeles Nike Football Training Camp, though several more from the event eventually found their way to the preeminent summer showcase. This year, The Opening Los Angeles Regional will again feature many of the top prospects in the West region, as several position groups will be loaded and several states will showcase their top recruits, who are looking forward to going toe-to-toe with California’s best. Here are five things to watch heading into Sunday’s event.

USC's defense was a mixed bag in 2014.

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?

[+] EnlargeJustin Wilcox
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has eight starters coming back, but he also needs some new leaders to emerge.
Justin Wilcox: This will probably answer both sides of your question. At times, we played really efficiently, good football. I think the biggest thing for us is finding consistency in performance. That to me is the big thing going forward. We had a couple of games and parts of games we played really well. It was just consistency. You’ve got to do it all the time in order to play well, whether it’s the fourth quarter, which was an issue for us in a couple of games. We can do better preparing ourselves. The kids having a better understanding, it being a year in, are going to be more comfortable not only with the schematics and the teaching but also the situational awareness. Big picture-wise, we just need to do a better job performing consistently. I think we’ve got a good bunch of guys and we are excited about the ones who are joining us. We’ll have a shot to do some good things.

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.

Spring questions: USC Trojans

March, 5, 2015
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Spring practices end the retrospective glances of last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

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.
LOS ANGELES -- Historically speaking, the University of Southern California has produced some of college football's most celebrated offensive lines, and there are few assistant coaching positions in all of college football that draws more scrutiny than the Trojans offensive line coach.

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?
The Pac-12 lost several top players after the 2014 season and with spring practice starting (or, at some places, having already started) the work in replacing some of those guys has already begun.

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).

DEFENSE

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.

Honorable mention:

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.
The first day of USC spring practice also marked the beginning of the second year under Steve Sarkisian, and the Trojans coach said he noticed the difference in the way his team practiced.

"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."

Notes

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.
The Pac-12 lost several top players after the 2014-15 season, and with spring ball starting (or, at some places, having already started) the work in replacing some of those guys has already begun.

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.

Honorable mention:

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.
Spring practice has begun its roll around the Pac-12, so the table is set for a bevy of position battles that should last the course of the entire offseason. That means it's time to highlight the key fights around the conference.

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.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCan UCLA's Jerry Neuheisel earn the starting quarterback job over highly touted true freshman Josh Rosen?
Jerry Neuheisel made a memorable start in Brett Hundley's stead against Texas in 2014, but that might have been just a prelude to what's expected to be a fierce offseason quarterback battle at UCLA. Josh Rosen, one of the most highly touted prospects in the nation, has also entered the Westwood fray.

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.

Skill-position central

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.
Things didn't quite go as planned for redshirt sophomore wide receiver Steven Mitchell in his first year-and-a-half at USC.

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."
Many of the West region’s best seven-on-seven teams were in Las Vegas over the weekend, joined by a few additional national squads for the Pylon Elite Las Vegas 7v7. When the dust settled, Ground Zero, a team made up of California’s Inland Empire prospects, took home the trophy after beating 702 Elite, which featured Las Vegas Bishop Gorman standouts.


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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.


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With more than 100 teams participating, there were plenty of USC targets on hand at the Pylon Elite 7-on-7 tournament in Las Vegas this past weekend, and one of the most impressive performers was Class of 2016 Trojans defensive end/tight end commit Isaac Garcia (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue).

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.

[+] EnlargeIsaac Garcia
Johnny Curren"I'm really solid with the Trojans," Isaac Garcia said. "It's where I've always wanted to go and I'm 100 percent committed to them."
"I'm really solid with the Trojans," Garcia said during a break in action on Saturday. "It's where I've always wanted to go and I'm 100 percent committed to them."

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."

All eyes on USC's spring practice

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
12:00
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LOS ANGELES -- Beginning Tuesday afternoon on Loker Stadium's Cromwell Field, the 2015 USC Trojans will begin 15 scheduled days of spring football practice. Spring ball will build optimism, excitement, and the foundation for what some pundits believe is a team that is a contender for the 2015 College Football Playoff.

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.
The 2015 spring practice sessions begin this week for the Trojans and there will be a lot to learn about a team that has high expectations for the coming year. Here's a position-by-position look at how things stand heading into spring:

Quarterback

Plenty of talent here, led by a veteran starter in Cody Kessler who is expected to be one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country. There isn't much for Cody to prove in spring other than to continue to master the offense, work on his timing with teammates and stay healthy. Max Browne will be the primary reserve and the one-time top-ranked recruit has looked strong in off-season throwing sessions as he enters his third year in the program. Jalen Greene wants to continue showing progress and we will also see early enrollee Ricky Town added to the mix. It's a deep group with diversified skills.
Depth chart: Kessler, Browne, Greene, Town

Running back

This is a position where the departure of Buck Allen and the injury status of Tre Madden could result in Justin Davis being the only healthy scholarship tailback available for full-time duty in the spring. Davis still needs to show he is all the way back from an ankle injury suffered as a freshman, so he can use a good workload, although it would be ideal to have Madden out there as well after missing the 2014 season. Walk-on James Toland could get additional reps and we could also see fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner with the ball in their hands. Both Vainuku and Pinner played tailback in high school and have the ability to be productive options.
Depth chart: Davis, Madden, Vainuku, Pinner

Wide receiver

The receiver group had a pair of early departures with Nelson Agholor and George Farmer so numbers might be a little light in spring, but you get the sense the talent level will be just fine. JuJu Smith was one of the leaders of offseason workouts and was probably the best player on the field in those sessions. Steven Mitchell also performed very well as he inches closer to the pre-injury form that made him such a dynamic player. Mitchell will be joined in the slot by Ajene Harris, who is clearly ready to contribute. Joining Smith on the outside will be veteran Darreus Rogers, who should get the first opportunity at the starting spot, and junior college transfer Isaac Whitney, who brings a 6-foot-4 frame and good speed. Of course, there will also be a role for Adoree' Jackson to line up at multiple spots, it just remains to be seen how big that role will be.
Depth chart: Smith, Rogers, Mitchell, Harris, Whitney

Tight end

There are only two scholarship tight ends available for spring, but they are both good ones. Bryce Dixon showed a lot of potential last season as an athletic true freshman in the passing game and he should be ready to start earning a bigger role in the offense. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is back after sitting out last season due to academics. Cope-Fitzpatrick, who is now a senior, showed up for offseason workouts in tremendous shape with a focus that one would expect from a player who was forced to miss an entire year, he could bring a physical blocking option while also serving as a legit pass-catching threat.
Depth chart: Dixon, Cope-Fitzpatrick

Offensive line

This will be a very important spring for the line with the introduction of a new coach in Bob Connelly, who will have plenty of experienced talent to work with but that talent is still young and developing. The entire group that started the Holiday Bowl will return (LT Toa Lobendahn, LG Damien Mama, C Max Tuerk, RG Viane Talamaivao and RT Zach Banner) and then there is also the injured Chad Wheeler, a former starter at LT who will sit out the spring as he continues to rehab after knee surgery. Tuerk is the senior leader and should be up for national honors this year. The reserve group has some players ready to show they are capable of more, from Khaliel Rodgers, Jordan Simmons, Chris Brown, Jordan Austin and Nico Falah to the early enrollee true freshmen Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley.
Depth chart: Lobendahn, Mama, Tuerk, Talamaivao, Banner, Rodgers (G), Simmons (G), Brown (G/T), Austin (T), Falah (T), Udoga (G/T), Hemsley (T)

Defensive line

There will be a lot of attention paid to replacing Leonard Williams, which will be no easy task, but a look at the returning group shows there is a lot of experience, including a trio of seniors in the middle of the line. Antwaun Woods is a veteran presence at nose tackle who will sit out spring recovering from a chest muscle injury. Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon should man the end and tackle spots, both players showed improvement last year in their first season at USC. That's a pretty big group to put out there along the interior when healthy, and there could be some critical reserves behind them who are looking to stay healthy as well. Greg Townsend Jr., has seen his share of injury struggles in his time at USC but he put together a stretch last season which flashed the promise of what he brings to the table. And then there is the potential return of Kenny Bigelow, who was able to take part in winter conditioning sessions after suffering a knee injury last summer. Those two players could really have an impact on the rotation if they are available. Cody Temple has shown he can be a contributor, while Malik Dorton enters his second season looking to make the transition inside.
Depth chart: Woods, Simmons, Pelon, Townsend, Temple, Bigelow, Dorton

Linebacker

This spring will mark the transition to the defense featuring Su'a Cravens in a lead role, and he should be more than ready to shine in his hybrid SS/SLB spot. The other OLB/rush end spot will likely have Scott Felix getting the first look at taking over for J.R. Tavai, but it will be interesting to see how the other players in the rotation are lining up as Quinton Powell, Jabari Ruffin, Charles Burks and Don Hill are all capable of moving around and filling different roles. On the inside, Anthony Sarao returns as a veteran senior with a big hole next to him following the departure of four-year starter Hayes Pullard. Michael Hutchings has been the backup the past two years to Pullard, but other options could include Lamar Dawson, Olajuwon Tucker or early enrollee Cameron Smith. Finding someone here is one of the biggest goals of spring.
Depth chart: Cravens, Hutchings, Sarao, Felix, Powell, Ruffin, Burks, Dawson, Tucker, Smith

Defensive back

Adoree' Jackson enters spring as one of the rising stars in college football and he's just a terrific cover corner with unique athletic abilities. Kevon Seymour has developed into a nice veteran option across from him, while this spring will be important for reserves such as Chris Hawkins, Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons to show the coaches something before Iman Marshall arrives in the fall. Lockett impressed during winter workouts with his ability to make plays. The safety spots appear to be there for the taking for John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay, both players had starting experience last season but both also saw their share of ups and downs. With a lack of depth at safety, and good depth at linebacker, could Cravens be moved to the secondary in certain situations?
Depth chart: Jackson, Seymour, Plattenburg, McQuay, Hawkins, Lockett, Simmons

Special teams

The Trojans are looking for a new placekicker after the departure of four-year starter Andre Heidari, and Matt Boermeester will get the first look after coming in as a “blueshirt” scholarship recipient last fall. Alex Wood, Wyatt Schmidt and Reid Brudovich are also in the mix. Kris Albarado returns as the punter, and Zach Smith is back at long snapper. Jackson and Smith are back as return men.
Spring has sprung, which means every team can show you hope in a handful of grass -- real or artificial.

Some Pac-12 teams have already started, such as Colorado and Stanford, and others begin this week, such as Arizona, Oregon State and USC. Others start later.

But it feels like the right time to take a look at 10 burning issues in the conference. Please keep your hands clear of this post, as it is sizzling hot.

1. Life after Marcus Mariota at Oregon: You might recall Oregon's quarterback over the past three years was a pretty fair player. But Mariota is off to the NFL, where he's sure to get blinged up, buy four Bentleys and start giving everyone alternating left-right cheek air kisses. That leaves the Ducks with a vacancy behind center. While many -- including a few of my esteemed Pac-12 blog associates -- believe Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is almost certain to take over when he arrives in the fall, you all know I am an inveterate party pooper, so I'm skeptical the transition to an FCS QB, albeit a very good one, will be all rainbows and puppy dogs. So what happens this spring, pre-Adams, should have a high degree of relevance for the ensuing fall competition. That means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak or someone else has an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet and stake a strong claim to the job.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Gary Andersen is the only new head coach in the Pac-12.
2. Gary Andersen takes over at Oregon State: Mike Riley started the 2014 season as the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw went so far as to call him the Godfather, which showed Shaw was once a reader of the Pac-12 blog's "Best case-worst case" stories. Riley, however, will begin the 2015 season at Nebraska, a stunning development that is, well, still a bit stunning. Enter Andersen, who's hiring away from Big Ten power Wisconsin was almost as much of a stunner. That means the Beavers, the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches, will be installing new systems on both sides of the ball, as well as getting to know a new coaching staff. Andersen certainly will want to get past the "Hello, my name is..." phase as quickly as possible.

3. USC returns returns to national relevance? The first issue here is whether this deserved a question mark or a period, because the Trojans are fairly certain to begin the 2015 season ranked in the top 10. That means they start the season nationally relevant, period. The question mark, though, concerns whether they can sustain that elevation as they move beyond crippling NCAA sanctions with an impressive roster and improving depth. One might recall it wasn't too long ago when the program's "Unfinished Business" campaign flopped. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian will be under not inconsiderable pressure to make sure he doesn't suffer through a Lane Kiffin redo.

4. UCLA replaces Brett Hundley: UCLA has 18 starters and a number of other contributors coming back from a team that won 10 games last season and finished ranked 10th. That makes you wonder if perhaps the wrong L.A. team is getting hyped. Ah, but the Bruins are replacing Hundley, a three-year starter who is on the short list of best QBs in program history. While it seems like more than a few folks -- NFL sorts, mostly -- are picking apart Hundley's game of late, what should stand out is how often he delivered for the Bruins, including a troika of wins over That Team From Downtown. Further, this is an interesting battle between a scrappy veteran with a familiar last name in junior Jerry Neuheisel, and a brash, touted true freshman in Josh Rosen, who entered school early with the anticipation of taking over for Hundley. It will be interesting to see if any pecking order develops this spring or if coaches drop an "or" between them on the depth chart. Oh, wait. UCLA is the only Pac-12 that doesn't publish a depth chart. Never mind.

5. Oregon State replaces Sean Mannion: Mannion and the Beavers didn't have a great 2014, but you don't say goodbye to a four-year starter with 83 career touchdown passes lightly and without some sense of transition, particularly when there's also a new coaching staff on hand. Things appear to be wide open between Luke Del Rio -- Mannion's backup -- Brent VanderVeen, Kyle Kempt, Marcus McMaryion, Nick Mitchell, etc. (There are seven QBs on the roster.) It seems reasonable to believe Andersen will want to winnow that list down to around three guys by the end of spring.

6. Washington's no-name defense{ The Huskies say goodbye to six defensive starters, including three -- linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- who were first-team All-Pac-12 and earned All-American honors. All three are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft, so the talent drain is legitimate, not just a system thing. The only returning defender who earned any type of postseason recognition is true sophomore safety Budda Baker, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and has huge upside. That's a good start, but it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to replace these mainstays' production with typical depth-chart promotions. If the Huskies' defense is going to equal or, perhaps, exceed its 2014 numbers, it's going to have to play better as a team, which will be a key test of the second-year coaching staff led by coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

7. Getting coordinated: Oregon State had the only coaching change at the top, which included new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but four other teams have changed defensive coordinators and Utah replaced both coordinators, who both bolted for other jobs. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham went the familiar face route, promoting Aaron Roderick from within on offense to replace Dave Christensen, now at Texas A&M, and bringing John Pease out of retirement to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who joined Andersen at Oregon State. Colorado pushed aside defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who left for UNLV, and hired former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, a major coup for the Buffs. UCLA replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who departed for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, with former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was at West Virginia in 2014. Washington State fired Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a defensive backs coach at Missouri last year. That's a pretty significant amount of turnover on one side of the ball, which will make life more interesting for the conference's offensive minds, particularly early in the season.

8. Stanford rebuilds defense: Speaking of defense, the conference's best unit over the past five years is replacing seven starters, including all of its D-linemen and three of four starters in the secondary. Further, a number of injuries, most notably to D-lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, will muddy the waters this spring. While it seems unlikely the bottom will fall out for the Cardinal -- there's plenty of promising youngsters on hand -- it's difficult to believe this won't be a transitional season on the mean side of the ball.

9. California dreaming? Cal has 17 starters back, second most in the conference and among the most in the nation, from a team that seemed to turn a corner in 2014 in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. That crew includes quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect who could make a star turn this fall if the Bears start to win. The offense, which averaged 38 points per game last season, should be good. The question is defense. That unit improved its points surrendered total by nearly a TD from 2013 to 2014, but that still ended up ranked last in the Pac-12 at 39.8 points per game. The Bears might be good enough to become bowl eligible with a defense that is only slightly better. But if they want to take a decisive step forward in the North Division, they need to at least find a way to be mediocre on defense.

10. Next-step QBs: Last season, the Pac-12 featured a glittering group of returning starting quarterbacks led by Mariota, Hundley, Mannion and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. This year, seven teams welcome back established QBs, but the list is far less scintillating, while a couple other teams have decided front-runners at the position, most notably Mike Bercovici at Arizona State. USC's Cody Kessler leads the bunch, but he has to show he can win big games. Goff is a candidate for all-conference honors, and Stanford's Kevin Hogan finished strong last season after muddling through the first three-fourths of the season. Arizona's Anu Solomon and Colorado's Sefo Liufau are trying to take the proverbial next step, while Utah's Travis Wilson wants to show he should be a four-year starter this spring with Kendal Thompson out with an injury. Washington's returning starter, Cyler Miles, figures to face a tough challenge this spring to retain his job, while Washington State's Luke Falk wants to build on the mostly solid job he did after replacing Connor Halliday.

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