NCF Nation: Johnny Jackson

We've been talking a lot about running backs this week. There was the feature on Washington running back Bishop Sankey. Some chatter about Arizona and looking ahead to Ka'Deem Carey in 2013 and the ESPN conference-call video segment featuring a dapper Pac-12 blogger talking about the running back race at UCLA.

But with some of the league's top backs from 2012 moving on, who is going to be the rushing king of 2013?

Ted Miller: Why do I think Washington's Sankey will lead the Pac-12 in rushing in 2013? First of all, because I think Huskies quarterback Keith Price will play more like Arizona's Matt Scott in 2012 than Keith Price in 2012.

No, I don't think Price will put up spinning slot machine numbers, as Scott did. But I think the Huskies' improved passing game and more experienced offensive line will mean a more efficient Price. That will mean bigger holes for Sankey, who averaged 154.6 yards per game over the last five games of 2012, a per-game total that would have led the nation if extended over the entire season.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireArizona's Ka'Deem Carey will be trying to put up big rushing numbers with a new QB under center.
Don't buy it? Well, consider what Sankey did last year with Price in the dumps and the Huskies' offensive line shuffling injured players in and out. He rushed for 1,436 yards and 16 touchdowns, and his 110.7 yards per game ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and 21st in the nation.

The three backs in front of Sankey -- Arizona's Carey, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin -- each played for an offense that ranked in the nation's top 25. The Huskies' offense ranked 97th in the nation.

Further, Carey, the only other returning Pac-12 back with more than 1,000 yards in 2012, won't have Scott. We don't know who he will have playing quarterback, but there's been little to suggest this spring that the Wildcats will approach Scott's production at the position in the fall.

So I expect Sankey's numbers to go up and Carey's to go down. When the smoke clears, they both likely will be first-team All-Pac-12. But this go-around, Sankey will be 1A and Carey 1B.

Kevin Gemmell: Ted stole my choice! But only because as the guy going first this week, I just assumed he'd go with Carey and I'd slide right in and make all the same arguments in favor of Sankey that he just made. Sneaky, Ted. Very sneaky.

Oh well, I guess that leaves me talking about the guy who actually led all of FBS football last season -- the aforementioned Carey, who totaled 1,929 yards on the ground and a robust 6.4 yards per carry.

I don't think the offensive drop-off at Arizona is going to be as significant as Ted does. Carey certainly benefited from Scott -- but Scott also benefited from Carey. It works both ways.

Whoever wins the quarterback job at Arizona has a deep and talented wide receiver corps to throw to -- including Biletnikoff semifinalist Austin Hill and returners Johnny Jackson, Terrence Miller and Tyler Slavin, among others. This isn't an offense that is suddenly going to flatline because Scott is gone. In fact, by the very nature of the offense Arizona runs, it's likely that Sankey is going to see far more eight-man boxes than Carey. You don't sell out against the run with Hill running sluggos all day.

It's also worth noting that Sankey has to face Stanford, which had the nation's No. 5 rush defense last season, in Palo Alto. The Wildcats miss the Cardinal this season. Sankey had a big game against Stanford last season -- but when we're talking about rushing titles, one game could be the difference, and that's certainly worth considering.

Plus, Washington is hoping to have Jesse Callier back from the knee injury that initially thrust Sankey into the starting role. I'm not saying they'll be by-committee -- but a healthy Callier will certainly cut into Sankey's carries. Great for Washington. But when you're talking rushing titles, that could have a big impact.

I think the Arizona offense takes a natural step back with a new quarterback at the helm. But it's not going to be a giant leap. Carey will get his 300-plus carries again, and the Wildcats should continue to move up and down the field. And if you've got your calendars handy, the two square off Sept. 28 in Seattle. You might want to tune in for that one.

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
9:00
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Here are some keys and storylines to watch this spring in the South Division. Yesterday Ted looked at the North Division.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Start date: March 3

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New battery: The Wildcats are looking to replace a top-notch quarterback-center combo in Matt Scott and Kyle Quinn. The rock-solid duo helped produce one of the top offenses in the league. Jesse Scroggins and B.J. Denker are among those in the mix to run the offense and several returning offensive linemen are versatile enough to move around. Chris Putton and redshirt freshman Beau Boyster could be in the mix at center.
  2. Many happy return(er)s: Arizona returns a big chunk of its offensive production -- including running back Ka'Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill. Both should be on all sorts of preseason teams and awards watch lists. But behind the big names, there's also David Richards, Johnny Jackson, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton back in the mix.
  3. No learning curve: Last spring, the talk was about Rich Rodriguez calling out his team for its lack of physical conditioning. The fact that the majority of the team understands what is expected -- and they don't need to spend the whole spring learning new systems, should be a huge help. Consider that the Wildcats return their entire defense from a group that was, at times, shaky, but will certainly benefit from another full season of playing in the 3-3-5 scheme.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Plugging the middle: One of the few losses to ASU's roster is middle linebacker Brandon Magee -- a leader on and off the field and an all-around heck of a player. Carlos Mendoza looks to be a good fit -- though he's likely to miss spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered against Illinois. Folks might remember his two interceptions before going down for the year.
  2. Catching on: Unlike last spring, the Sun Devils have their quarterback. And he's a good one. Now, they need to find folks he can throw to. JC transfers De'Marieya Nelson (H-back, 6-3, 230) and Jaelen Strong (WR, 6-4, 205) are both big bodies who could step in and contribute immediately.
  3. Wait and see: The kicker here is a lot of these players who are expected to compete won't arrive until the fall. So in the meantime, a lot of the younger players and redshirts will get a ton of reps in the system. And speaking of kicker, don't underestimate how much of an impact Josh Hubner made at punter. Iowan Matt Haack, who arrives in the fall, is a rugby-style kicker who can kick with either foot. That's just cool.
COLORADO BUFFALOES

Start date: March 7

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Meet your QB: Whomever it will be. There are five on the roster and a sixth coming in. Safe to say, quarterback play was extremely inconsistent last season for the Buffs. With an entirely new coaching staff coming in and installing the pistol, this could be one of the more interesting and wide-open position battles in the league.
  2. Curious defense: One needs only to review Colorado's national rankings last year to realize they struggled. As one Buffs insider mentioned to me, they were ranked No. 1 in a lot of categories. Unfortunately, that "1" was followed by two more numbers. Only three defensive ends have playing experience. However a secondary that lacked experience in 2012 has a lot more looking into 2013.
  3. Receiver options: The Buffs welcome back Paul Richardson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Colorado's premier offensive playmaker will be a nice veteran presence to whomever wins the quarterback job. Grayshirt Jeff Thomas also is back. An improved passing attack should help give the quarterback some confidence and open up the running game.
UCLA BRUINS

Start date: April 2

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Life after Franklin: The Bruins say goodbye to the best statistical back in school history -- leaving a huge void in the backfield. Johnathan Franklin was a great presence for young quarterback Brett Hundley, but now someone has to step up to fill that role, either solo or along with a committee. Look for Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen to all get looks.
  2. New No. 1: The Y-receiver, aka hybrid tight end, was filled wonderfully by Joseph Fauria -- Hundley's favorite red zone target. Darius Bell and Ian Taubler both had looks last year, but Fauria too will be tough to replace. Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien round out a pretty good receiving corps.
  3. Secondary solutions: The Bruins must replace two corners and a safety -- Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester, Andrew Abbott -- and there isn't a ton of starting experience. Randall Goforth has five starts, but veterans such as Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson have more special-teams experience than actual secondary play. Keep an eye on the secondary too when the Bruins start fall camp to see if any freshmen jump into the mix immediately.
USC TROJANS

Start date: TBD

Spring game: April 13
  1. New defensive scheme: The Trojans will move to a 5-2 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast, and the spring drills will be the first opportunity to see the defense in action. The Trojans will have an experienced front seven, but four new starters are expected in the secondary.
  2. Replacing Barkley: Max Wittek got the first extended audition in the battle to take over for Matt Barkley, but he didn’t do enough in two late-season starts to claim the job. Cody Kessler and freshman spring enrollee Max Browne also will be looking to take the reins at one of the glamour positions in college football.
  3. Lane Kiffin on the hot seat: The Trojans are coming off a disappointing season, and the fans are howling in protest, but so far his boss Pat Haden has maintained full support for his coach. Now is the time for Kiffin to show why that support is warranted. -- Garry Paskwietz, WeAreSC
UTAH UTES

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Erickson impact: The biggest question was what sort of role Dennis Erickson would play in the offense once he arrived. We'll know sooner than later. He already has talked about putting an identity on the Utah offense. That starts in spring when routines are established and expectations are set. And with Erickson on board to give the offense a push, the expectations will be much higher.
  2. Wilson maturing: That leads us to the presumptive starting quarterback -- Travis Wilson -- who jumped in midseason after Jordan Wynn got hurt and Jon Hays struggled to produce. Wilson went from OK to pretty good in just a few weeks. A nice jump considering his experience level. With an entire offseason knowing he'll be the starter -- and with Erickson and Brian Johnson molding him -- it will be interesting to see what progress he makes this spring.
  3. D-line makeover: The Utes lose some talent on the defensive line -- specifically All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Look for DE/LB Trevor Reilly to spend more time with his hand down. Tenny Palepoi, LT Tuipulotu and JC transfer Sese Ianu could all see time in the mix at defensive tackle.

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