NCF Nation: Andrei Lintz

Welcome to the State of the Pac-12 Conference. We here at the Pac-12 blog are proud to report that the state of the conference is strong. But we also know that there are those of you just joining us who haven't read every single post we've done. Shame on you, but we'll catch you up anyway. Here are a few storylines as we look toward the 2012 season:

Oregon-USC: The hype started with a failed Oregon comeback at Autzen Stadium last season. It grew when Matt Barkley declared he and his teammates had "unfinished business" -- not-so-subtly implying that snatching the Pac-12 crown away from the Ducks was a priority. It reached a high when both were projected (not surprisingly) to win their respective divisions in the Pac-12 media poll, which anointed USC as the 2012 champs. It will reach a fever pitch on Nov. 3 when Oregon travels to USC for the most anticipated regular-season matchup of the season. And that might only be Part I, as the two seemed destined to meet again in the conference championship game.

Quarterback carousel: There were five teams with to-be-named quarterbacks heading into the fall camps: Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. Washington State hasn't officially named Jeff Tuel the starter, but your Pac-12 bloggers would be shocked if at this point there is a switcharoo with Connor Halliday. Three of those jobs are still up for grabs as of 10:30 a.m ET Friday. UCLA named Brett Hundley its starting QB a few days earlier than expected, and Colorado tapped Kansas transfer Jordan Webb as its guy after only three weeks on campus. All eyes are on the other teams to see who will lead them.

Talent at tight end: This might seem like a repeat, but your bloggers can't say enough how good the tight end talent is in the Pac-12 and how much of an impact these guys are going to make throughout the season. The conference has always been at the vanguard of offensive innovation and finding new ways for players like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz, Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble, Joseph Fauria, Andrei Lintz and Colt Lyerla to get involved in the offense is going to add an even greater dimension to a conference already spilling over with talented playmakers.

Don't forget the defense: Yeah, they play defense too in the Pac-12. And when you look at four potential first-round draft picks coming out of the conference on defense: Star Lotulelei, Chase Thomas, T.J. McDonald and Shayne Skov -- and you consider the offenses these guys are playing against -- it's worth tipping a cap to the defenses around the league. Teams like Cal, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Utah all project to have very good defensive units that could all be in the top 25.

Who wins the Biletnikoff? There are six players from the Pac-12 on the watch list: Keenan Allen, Dan Buckner, DeVonte Christopher, Markus Wheaton, Marquess Wilson, Robert Woods. Oh wait, seven, somehow Marqise Lee was left off the original list. So who emerges from this group? Will it be Wilson and the gaudy numbers he's expected to produce by way of Tuel in Mike Leach's air-raid offense? Will Woods and Lee cancel each other out, or will both emerge as the top candidate? Allen is a star and might be the best NFL prospect of them all. Will he get the numbers in Cal's offense? Or does one of the dark horses have a chance to break through?

Every game on! The Pac-12 will enter the first year of its new broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox and the Pac-12 Networks launched Wednesday. The biggest news there, other than the huge per-school bump in revenue, is every football game will be on TV this fall.

Pac-12 spring breakout players

May, 17, 2012
Every spring, players break out. Here are a few that stood out in the Pac-12.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey was a hyped recruit from Tucson -- Canyon del Oro High -- and the local boy seems likely to make good this year after rushing for 425 yards as a freshman. He led a solid crew of backs this spring.

Brice Schwab, OT, Arizona State: It's been a long time coming for Schwab, who has gone from heralded junior-college transfer to bust to likely starting right tackle. Schwab's problem when he arrived was conditioning: He was huge but it wasn't good weight. And he was way too weak. He started four games in 2010 and struggled, then redshirted last season in order to get in better shape. Once a 340-pounder, he's now 6-foot-7, 295. And he's a better player.

Deandre Coleman, DE, California: Said coach Jeff Tedford of the 6-5, 311-pound junior: "He may be one of the best that we've ever had." That about sums it up. Coleman dominated this spring, looking like an all-conference candidate.

Tony Jones, RB, Colorado: Replacing the highly productive Rodney Stewart was a spring priority and Jones, a sophomore, answered the bell. Jones is built a little like the diminutive "Speedy" -- 5-7, 175 pounds -- and he has a versatile range of skills, just like Stewart. With questions at quarterback, he will be asked to do a lot. Just like Stewart.

Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon: Lyerla should be a big weapon for whomever wins the Ducks' quarterback job. The 6-5, 238 pound sophomore should step in for the departed David Paulson and could end up as one of the Ducks' leading receivers. He caught just seven passes last year, but five went for touchdowns. He's a special athlete with a year of seasoning, which often is the foundation for a breakout.

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State: Cooks has speed and quickness and will play opposite one of the best receivers in the conference in Markus Wheaton. He caught 31 passes for 391 yards and three TDs last year while being extremely raw. He's less raw now and has good upside. And it will help that defenses will obsess over Wheaton.

James Vaughters, LB, Stanford: The coaches have said they are going to let the leash off of this aggressive, physically imposing linebacker and see what happens. We know he'll be at middle linebacker (as opposed to just a third-down specialist last year) where he's expected to wreak havoc.

Steven Manfro, RB, UCLA: Speed and quickness. There is a difference, but Manfro has both. He excelled in the spring sessions and though he sits third on the UCLA depth chart, he might work his way into carries if he continues to show explosive breakaway ability.

Isiah Wiley, CB, USC: Wiley quietly started the final six games in 2011 and played fairly well. While he's a senior, this is only the JC transfer's second year in the program. This spring, he took a step forward and seems likely to start opposite Nickell Robey.

V.J. Fehoko, LB, Utah: With possibly the best defensive line in the conference in front of him and offenses keying in on Trevor Reilly, Fehoko could be in position to be extremely productive filling the shoes of Chaz Walker. Similar build as Walker, who tallied 118 tackles last year.

James Johnson, WR, Washington: After an injury-plagued career, Johnson is finally healthy and in the starting lineup. The physical tools are all there and the quarterback is in place for him to put up some solid numbers -- if he can stay on the field.

Andrei Lintz, WR, Washington State: This converted tight end was the talk of WSU's spring session. He has the hands and size to be effective over the middle and he showed great chemistry with Jeff Tuel during the 15 practices. The more attention Marquess Wilson draws, the more opportunities there will be for Lintz to excel.

WSU's Lintz: From Russia with hope

April, 19, 2012
Sometimes football players come from unexpected places.

Washington State's Andrei Lintz grew up frolicking outside his mom's office: The Catherine Palace, the Rococo summer residence of the tsars just outside of St. Petersburg -- yes, the Russian one, not the one in Florida.

"I remember walking around there. That was my place to hang out," Lintz said. "It was a cool backyard compared to Pullman, where you've got hills and five minutes out of town and you're in the middle of nowhere."

Lintz moved to the U.S. when he was 6. He grew up playing soccer and didn't play football until his freshman year of high school. But he did enough at Meridian High in Bellingham, Wash., to earn a scholarship to Washington State, where he was part of former coach Paul Wulff's first recruiting class.

The next four years weren't much fun. Though the Cougars steadily, if slowly, improved, Wulff was fired last winter after going 9-40 overall and 4-32 in conference play.

"It was heartbreaking from a personal standpoint -- these were the coaches who believed in you, trusted in you," Lintz said. "It is a business and that's the ultimate reality. If you don't win at the Division I level, you're going to get fired."

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Mike Leach
AP Photo/Dean HareTight ends typically don't excel in Washington State coach Mike Leach's system. That could change in 2012.
Then athletic director Bill Moos tapped former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach as Wulff's replacement, which generated plenty of positive buzz in Pullman.

Unless you played tight end, as Lintz did. His initial thought was he might disappear as a fifth-year senior in a spread offense. Heck, Leach didn't even have a tight ends coach.

"I had no idea what was in store for me," Lintz said. "I was pretty worried. I watched [Texas Tech] highlights and they very rarely had a tight end on the field. It was all four-wides and the receivers were small, quick guys."

Ah, but sometimes football players come from unexpected places. Or 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight ends become inside receivers.

Some might see the move as a gimmick. Clearly talented sophomore tight end Aaron Dunn wasn't impressed with his prospects. He quickly transferred after Leach's hire.

But Lintz was a revelation this spring, arguably the Cougs' most consistent receiver. In the final two scrimmages, he caught 12 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Leach's "Air Raid" offense neglect a guy with a tight end's body? Well, last year as the No. 1 tight end, Lintz made just seven catches for 96 yards and one touchdown -- all season.

If you are looking for a breakout player next fall, a guy who could give opposing defenses fits and make them think they are trying to cover the second-coming of former Stanford tight end -- and potential first-round NFL draft pick -- Coby Fleener, look no further than Lintz. He's not as fast as Fleener -- not nearly so -- but he's plenty athletic. And he's capable of playing a jack-of-all-trades role -- receiver, tight end and H-back.

In other words, he's another guy who can help force a defense to do what Leach wants to force it to do: account for the entire field.

But will that be enough to get the Cougs to the postseason for the first time since 2003? Lintz said what has distinguished Leach's first spring, which ends with Saturday's spring game, was a sense of urgency.

"It's almost cutthroat," he said. "It's all go, go, go, now, now, now. We can't be the welcome mat of the Pac-12 anymore."

Lintz likely meant "doormat," but his point is clear. He might hail from Russia, but he's fully aware that the Cougars head into 2012 with an eight-year bowl drought, longest in the Pac-12.