NCF Nation: NFL

Things are good for UCLA this summer. For one, in advance of preseason practices, the Bruins can recline by the pool and reflect on having defeated USC in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98. That span, by the way, is also the last time preseason expectations were this high.

As in Pac-12 and national championships high.

The reclamation project that Jim Mora has wrought, one that had Texas eyeballing him in the winter before he signed a new contract with UCLA, seems to be gathering momentum rather than peaking.

“It feels great, but at the same time, this is where I believe we are supposed to be," linebacker Eric Kendricks said of the swirling enthusiasm in Westwood. "All the hard work me and my teammates have put in, I feel like we were supposed to end up in this situation.”

Yet the 2013 season, a transformative one for UCLA, wasn't so easy for Kendricks. While the Bruins were asserting themselves, their star middle linebacker struggled through a variety of injuries -- kidney, shoulder, back and ankle. He played through most of them, but the bum ankle forced him to undergo surgery and miss the dominant Sun Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

[+] EnlargeEric Kendricks
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks has 332 career tackles, even though he was slowed by injuries in the 2013 season.
Winning eases pain, but it doesn't cure it.

“Last season was probably the hardest season I’ve ever been a part of," Kendricks said of his personal travails. "It was a learning experience for me having to play through pain. It made me mentally tougher. I was playing for my teammates. That was the main reason I was out there trying to fight my butt off.”

Even with the injuries, Kendricks -- who has started 28 games -- didn't have a bad campaign. He still ranked third in the Pac-12 with 8.8 tackles per game. He again earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Still, when folks thought of a UCLA defense that -- finally? -- was developing some grit, they tended to start with Anthony Barr and true freshman Myles Jack, Kendricks' fellow linebackers, and then perhaps move on to a defensive front speckled with young talent.

Kendricks has been a tackling machine in the past three seasons with 332 career stops -- his 150 tackles in 2012 were the most by a UCLA player since 1978 -- but it's fair to say his junior season didn't play out how he would have scripted it. If his season had followed a logical progression from his sophomore production, he would presently be sharing top billing with Jack as the Bruins' defensive stars and probably would have earned preseason All-American attention.

Yet when asked about the finding himself outside the spotlight, Kendricks gives it a rhetorical shrug.

“I could care less," he said. "As long as I do my job, I think the film and the numbers speak for themselves. As far as attention I get from NFL teams, that will take care of itself. I don’t need any of the spotlight, honestly.”

A healthy Kendricks is an NFL prospect. For one, he's got good bloodlines. His father, Marv, led UCLA in rushing in 1970-71. His older brother Mychal, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 at California, is a budding star for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both brothers are listed at 6-foot, but Eric Kendricks is a leaner version (230 pounds vs. 240).

As to who's faster, Eric said this about a 40-yard race between the two: “He might win one without pads, but I’d win one in pads.”

The brothers talk frequently, and Eric is eager to learn about the NFL game and what it takes to play on Sundays. The general gist he's picked up is that everyone is a spectacular athlete, so it's your focus and preparation that separates you from the competition.

That lesson also applies to the current Bruins as they eyeball big goals. Preseason expectations don't mean squat. They don't block and tackle and make plays. No one is ceding the South Division to the Bruins.

Of course, Kendricks and his teammates know that. That, however, shouldn't stop them from enjoying the burgeoning excitement.

Or expressing to each other on a regular basis what it means to presently own the series with USC.

"Yeah," he said laughing. "That is awesome."
It's that spring break time of year, and college seniors across the country are enjoying a "last hurrah," so to speak. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is no different.

Well, he's actually completely different.

Instead of hitting the beach with some buddies and making like Dionysus, he jetted on March 9 to San Diego to "work on my craft" with QB guru George Whitfield and several other college quarterbacks.

"I felt like it's my last hurrah, in the sense of my football senior year," Kelly said.

Also on hand in San Diego for a week of quarterback two-a-days were Baylor's Bryce Petty, North Carolina's Marquise Williams, Virginia's David Watford and Texas signee Jerrod Heard. Johnny Manziel and Logan Thomas were hanging around getting ready for their pro days and the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly is staying busy, getting ready for his senior season as Arizona State quarterback.
But wait ... there's more. Kelly drove back to Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday only to fly back to California at 7 a.m. Sunday to film a segment with Rich Neuheisel and the Pac-12 Network. He returned to ASU that evening at 6 p.m. so he could make an 8 p.m. team meeting in advance of spring practices, which begin Tuesday. He had a 5:45 a.m. workout on Monday morning, by the way.

Busy, yes. But worth it, Kelly said.

"I learned a lot," he said.

Two springs ago -- and 57 touchdowns and 6,705 passing yards ago -- it would have been difficult to imagine Kelly being in such demand. He was the consensus pick to finish third behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank in the Sun Devils QB competition to replace Brock Osweiler. Instead, he's a budding three-year starter, with Bercovici his big-armed backup. Eubank transferred to Samford after the 2013 season.

Kelly has played himself onto NFL radars and could improve his standing with a strong senior season. While few saw that coming in the spring of 2012, Kelly said his self-belief never wavered.

"With my competitive nature, I've always thought I could [play in the NFL]," he said. "I wanted to be that great quarterback, to lead a team to championships. That's who I've been my whole life. I never had any doubts in myself or my ability to be the starting quarterback three years ago."

Kelly is just the second Sun Devils quarterback to have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons in school history. He set a school record for completion percentage (67.1 percent) and moved into the top five in seven school-record lists, including passing yards, passing yards per game, completions, attempts, total offense, yards per game and points responsible for.

Of course, if he wants to be remembered in Tempe like Jake Plummer, he's got to get the Sun Devils back to the Rose Bowl. Or the College Football Playoff.

Kelly said he's focused this spring on improving his efficiency and reducing interceptions and sacks. While he's put up big numbers as a dual threat, he also only ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last year. He's thrown 21 interceptions in the past two years, including 12 in 2013. He's been sacked 79 times (ouch!). One of the surprising Pac-12 stats from 2013: The Sun Devils yielded a conference-worst 41 sacks (2.93 per game) -- five more than anyone else, though that was in 14 games -- despite having a mobile QB in Kelly and a good offensive line.

"Sometimes when I'd feel pressure, I'd release the pocket, and that's really hard on our offensive line," Kelly said.

Proving he can make plays under duress will answer a lot of NFL questions. It also would boost the Sun Devils' chances to repeat as South Division champions.

Another spring question for Arizona State is who Kelly will target. Receiver Jaelen Strong is back and likely will become an All-American candidate, but the next leading returning wideout is sophomore Cameron Smith, who caught just eight passes in 2013.

Kelly doesn't seem too worried, however. He named De'Marieya Nelson -- tight end Chris Coyle's 2013 backup -- touted juco transfer Eric Lauderdale, 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson and walk-on Fred Gammage as players who should step up this spring.

What is clear is that Kelly is the undisputed leader of the Sun Devils, a role that he's set to embrace despite a laid-back nature.

"I'm just going to be myself," he said. "If I need to speak up and say something, I feel a lot of the guys respect me enough that they are going to listen to what I say."

Arizona State is almost certain to fall behind UCLA in the Pac-12 South pecking order among preseason publications. Further, Kelly, not unlike Oregon State's Sean Mannion, falls in behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley in terms of Pac-12 and national quarterback Q-rating.

That doesn't figure to worry Kelly. He's been counted out before. It's pretty clear that he's not going to be outworked as he prepares for his last hurrah.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Richard Sherman has kept a consistent presence around the Stanford football program since being drafted in 2011, but Tuesday's visit to spring practice was a little different.

He returned a Super Bowl champion.

The All-Pro cornerback is part of a group of several NFL players -- including Andrew Luck, Zach Ertz and Jonathan Martin -- back on campus as part of a coordinated trip. More than 20 are expected back at some point to train together and take advantage of the program's new alumni locker room, which was part of a $21-million addition to the Arrillaga Family Sports Center completed in October.

"It's unbelievable, man," Sherman said. "It feels nice to have somewhere to go when you come here. You don't have to borrow or bum any of the young guys' lockers."

That Stanford has a designated area for NFL players is symbolic in the program's rise.

"It's a testament to a lot of groups of guys. It's testament to the group of guys that came before us who set the groundwork for us," Sherman said. "Jim Harbaugh did a heck of a job changing the culture and changing the mindset and also the players now."

Sherman's arrival was good timing, too. The Cardinal are still without a full-time defensive backs coach following Derek Mason's departure for Vanderbilt and are in the process of converting Kodi Whitfield from receiver to safety. Sherman made a similar change, albeit to corner, while he was at Stanford.

The Seahawks star spoke with Whitfield and other defensive backs about technique during position drills and watched from the sideline during team drills.

"He's trying not to coach from the sidelines, but he can't help himself sometimes," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Just the fact that he's here, just the fact that he's around kind of reaffirms why some of these guys are here."

Sherman said he would like to get into coaching after his NFL career is over, but said he's more interested in the high school level.

He will spend the majority of his offseason in Seattle, but, along with several others, plans on being a visitor to his old home.


After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.

As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will return to Oregon next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite.
While the Ducks probably are going to say goodbye to receiver De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who have yet to announce their intentions, Mariota's decision does make one thing clear: Oregon will be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.

While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.

Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.

Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.

Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.

The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.

That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.

Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.

The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.

Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.

But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.

Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.

Heisman voters should reconsider Mariota

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
5:30
PM ET
Marcus MariotaESPN Stats & InfoA look at Oregon QB Marcus Mariota's rushing statistics this season.

Whining is not part of Oregon football. Whining doesn't win the day. Whining is not forward-looking. Whining means you're concerned with outside influences and things beyond your control. None of that jibes with the carefully constructed culture around the Ducks program.

So you won't hear many folks inside the Oregon football offices spout off about the asininity of quarterback Marcus Mariota being counted out of the Heisman Trophy race just because the Ducks lost at Stanford.

The Pac-12 blog, however, is not above whining, though it prefers to see it as vociferously opposing clouded, absurd or biased thinking.

Mariota is the best quarterback in the country. We know this because the numbers say so. He fronts the nation's No. 5 team and an offense that averages 51 points and 580 yards per game.

He has passed for 25 touchdowns. He has yet to throw an interception. After throwing three touchdown passes against Utah, he extended his Pac-12 record streak of pass attempts without an interception to 353. The old mark was 216 by USC's Brad Otton from 1994-95, so Mariota hasn't merely broken the record, he has stomped it into oblivion.

He also has rushed for nine touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. So he has accounted for 34 touchdowns despite only being involved in 27 total fourth-quarter plays this year.

Ah, Mariota's rushing. That brings up a big reason Oregon lost to Stanford, as well as another compelling part of his Heisman résumé that is being overlooked: Mariota's toughness.

He has played the past two-and-a-half games with a sprained knee. While Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, it was obvious when Mariota donned a knee brace during the second half of the win over UCLA that something was wrong. The whole nation saw that against Stanford when the Ducks were forced to shelf one of the most productive parts of their offense: The spread option.

In the two games before UCLA -- Washington and Washington State -- Mariota rushed for 155 yards. In the past two games, he has rushed for minus-16 yards. That's a negative number because he's not actually running option plays or even really scrambling, which is why the Ducks have yielded eight sacks in the past three games after surrendering eight in the first seven.

So what has Mariota done on one leg for the past three games? He has completed 68 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, averaging 256 yards passing per game.

Toughness? In spades.

"That's never been a question around here," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "That guy is a warrior."

Of course, Mariota, authentically humble and soft-spoken, doesn't have feelings one way or the other on his Heisman status.

"I have none, to be honest," he said. "Obviously that's other people's opinions and that's something I can't control. I'm just going to continue focusing on getting better and putting this team in good situations. Whatever comes with that comes with that."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesOregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has 25 touchdown passes this season, has not thrown an interception in 353 attempts.
That said, Mariota is not oblivious to the outside world. He did watch USC upset Stanford at a Red Robin restaurant with his family after beating Utah. The Cardinal's loss means the Ducks retook first place in the Pac-12's North Division. If they win at Arizona on Saturday and finish the season with a victory over Oregon State in the Civil War, they will return to the Pac-12 title game after a one-year hiatus. That could provide him with another marquee game, perhaps even on a healthy knee, to showcase his skills.

As for the knee, Mariota doesn't love talking about it, though he acknowledges it has been an issue.

"It is what it is," he said. "As a football player, you play through injuries. You learn to bounce back from adversity."

While he says the knee is getting better -- he might doff the knee brace in Tucson -- he does admit that it concerned his family when he first hurt it. As a likely early first-round NFL draft pick whenever he opts to leave -- this spring or next -- the redshirt sophomore does have an asset to protect.

"Obviously they do have some worry, they do have some concerns. But they support my decision no matter what," Mariota said. "They would have to pull me off the field before I wouldn't play. That's just the way I was raised. When you are part of a group, you do everything you can for that group."

That brings us to a final point about Mariota: Character. We will not waste time assailing the character of other Heisman candidates, we will only point out the utter lack of controversy surrounding Mariota. Further, he's a high-character guy without sanctimony. There is nothing efforted about him.

Helfrich, as the first-year curator of the Ducks inward looking football culture, is not going to rally around an aggressive campaign to get folks to reconsider whether the nation's most outstanding football player should win the Heisman Trophy, but he will say his piece.

"It's unfortunate how we played in the quote-unquote, marquee big game of the year, but a lot of that was not his doing," Helfrich said. "Marcus is phenomenal. All you have to do is look at the tape and watch what he has done throughout his short career. And, obviously, off the field the guy is even better."

That about sums up our effort to vociferously oppose clouded, absurd or biased thinking about who should win the Heisman.
2013 may be the season of the quarterback in college football, because a lot of good ones are coming back.

In the SEC, there's Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Louisville has Teddy Bridgewater, and Clemson offers Tajh Boyd. In the Pac-12, there's UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelley.

But the best one coming back is Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

How so? Well, for one, that was the assignment: Make a case for the best quarterback in your conference being the best in the nation.

But it's not too difficult to make Mariota's case.

As a redshirt freshman, he ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency. He completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

He threw a touchdown pass in every game and one interception in his final seven games. He was named MVP in the Fiesta Bowl after leading a blowout win over Big 12 champion Kansas State, which capped a 12-1 season and a final No. 2 ranking for the Ducks.

He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after leading an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.6 PPG) and fifth in total offense (537.4 YPG). The Ducks scored 11 points per game more than any other Pac-12 team.

The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Honolulu native is an extremely accurate passer who might be the fastest quarterback in the nation -- see his 86- and 77-yard runs last season. Against USC on the road, he completed 87 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He tied a school record with six touchdown passes against California. He rushed for 135 yards at Arizona State.

Of course, his 2012 numbers aren't mind-blowing. A lot of that isn't his fault. Oregon blew out so many opponents -- average halftime score of 31-9 -- that it didn't require many plays from behind center after the break. For the season, Mariota threw just 24 passes and rushed eight times in the fourth quarter, compared to 227 passes and 71 rushes in the first half.

Manziel, for the sake of comparison, threw 62 passes and rushed 33 times in the fourth quarter. Bridgewater threw 86 passes and rushed 13 times in the fourth.

The good news is folks are probably going to see a lot more of Mariota this season. With running back Kenjon Barner off to the NFL, the Ducks might skew more toward the passing game after being run-centric under Chip Kelly. New coach Mark Helfrich, who was the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last year, is expected to throw the ball around more because he has an experienced quarterback and a strong, experienced crew of receivers.

That means more numbers for Mariota as he leads a team in the national title hunt. The potential combination of stats and wins might be enough to get Mariota to New York in December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans and a couple of teammates enjoyed watching his fellow Bruins win the NCAA baseball national title over Mississippi State this week.

"It's always good seeing your school do something great," he said. "We watched them dominate. They basically made Mississippi State submit. That's how we teach football -- to make our opponents submit."

The Pac-12 blog will submit that life is pretty darn good these days in sunny Westwood. Not only did the school win its 109th national title -- first in baseball -- it also is cuddling up every night with the Victory Bell after beating arch-rival USC 38-28 last fall, ending a five-game losing streak in the series.

[+] EnlargeShaquelle Evans and Josh Evans
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAfter running past USC last season, Shaq Evans and the Bruins are looking to maintain their momentum.
The Bruins, who went on to win the Pac-12's South Division, are again relevant in football. Toss in a pair of strong recruiting classes under second-year coach Jim Mora, not to mention an epically disappointing season across town at Heritage Hall, and it's not difficult to see why there's plenty of optimism around the program.

That starts with the win over USC, particularly when you consider where the programs stood at the end of 2011. USC beat the Bruins 50-0 and finished 10-2. Just about everyone projected the Trojans as 2012 national title contenders. Meanwhile, the Bruins were mocked for playing in a bowl game with a losing record and a fired coach. The hiring of Mora was not immediately embraced by a skeptical fan base who were dreaming of Kevin Sumlin.

Beating the Trojans -- the telling image being linebacker Anthony Barr's monstrous fourth-quarter sack of Matt Barkley -- transformed an enduring dynamic, with the Trojans strutting and the Bruins simmering with jealousy.

"It means the world," Evans said. "After 50-0, man, I didn't know if I wanted to be here any more. But after beating them, it was a great feeling. We knew if we beat them, the floodgates open for this program. You could tell with recruiting, people leaving them to come to us. It changes our program around. And it's going to keep going forward."

Still, the Bruins have flashed potential before, only to stumble back into an inconsistent pattern.

Former coach Rick Neuheisel notched a 27-24 upset over Tennessee in 2008, his first game as the Bruins coach. They lost their next game 59-zip at BYU. A 3-0 start in 2009 yielded to a five-game losing streak. The Bruins posted a physically dominant blowout win at Texas in 2010 but lost two weeks later 35-7 to a California team that would finish 5-7, the first of three consecutive losses.

Up and down. Up and down. Which always ends up, at season's end, feeling mostly down because it invites, "What could have been?" navel gazing.

Evans, a fifth-year senior, is well-aware of this. Even last year, there were some bafflingly disappointing performances -- a 43-17 loss at Cal and the faceplant against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.

"The buzz around campus is good but we are not satisfied with what we did last year," he said. "9-5 is obviously an upgrade from 6-8, but we felt like we should have gone 12-2. This year, we're trying to go 14-0."

Evans will be a key piece if the Bruins are going to approach such high aspirations. He quietly posted a strong season last year, catching 60 passes for 877 yards with a stout 14.6 yards per catch. But in a conference laden with so much talent at receiver, that only ranked 11th (62.6 yards per game).

Further, Evans knows exactly where he fell short statistically, "Touchdowns!" he said before the question was finished.

Evans caught just three, in large part because tight end Joseph Fauria was the go-to guy in the red zone.

"I understood last year that if you've got a guy who is 6-foot-8 and you're in the red zone, he's going to be your primary target," Evans said.

Evans knows this is the year -- his final year before the NFL draft -- in which he needs to show his stuff. And with the departure of Fauria and running back Johnathan Franklin, as well as the expected maturation of quarterback Brett Hundley, Evans should be in position to become a 1,000-yard receiver.

And that likely would include more opportunities to peacock in the end zone (within the parameters of NCAA no-fun rules, of course).

For both Hundley and Evans, that's about refining their respective games. Evans mentions blocking and route running for himself, and accuracy, decision-making and command of the offense for Hundley.

After all, it's an obsessive focus and daily attention to details that will prevent the program from being inconsistent.

"I really believe we are past that," Evans said.

The test of that will be who ends up atop the South Division at season's end. And who owns the Victory Bell.
Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy has considered the college football hype machine. He mostly has thought it frivolous and worthless. But not without just a trace of longing.

Such is the plight of an underrated player who has performed better than his Q-rating suggests.

"There was a little period of time when I thought that it could affect your draft stock, that it might mean a lot -- media hype and television hype," he said. "But I've gone back to my foundation, which is it really doesn't matter. If I'm doing my job between the whistles, if I'm beating guys, that's what matters. If I'm recognized for that or not, I don't think it means a whole lot as long as my team's winning games and the coaches who really know what's going on see the film. That's your resume. It speaks louder than preseason watch lists."

[+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Trent Murphy bears the responsibility of leading the Cardinal into the 2013 season as national-title contenders.
Ah, but Murphy might be ready for his closeup. Long considered Stanford's "other" outside linebacker opposite Chase Thomas, Murphy is finally getting his due, including being named a second-team preseason All-American by Phil Steele.

More important: Murphy, an athletic 6-foot-6, 261 pounder, is solidly on the NFL radar. The question in 2013 is whether he plays himself into the first round of the 2014 draft. As a junior, first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2012, he had 56 total tackles and led Stanford in both tackles for a loss (18) and sacks (10). He also had an interception, forced fumble and five pass defenses.

But first things first: the 2013 season.

Stanford is a Pac-12 favorite and national title contender -- along with Oregon -- in large part because of a defense led by Murphy which might be the nation's best. The Cardinal is deep and talented at all three levels, and that defense will now be supported by an offense led by an experienced quarterback in Kevin Hogan.

The pieces are in place, and the hype machine has noticed. More than a few pundits believe the Cardinal might be capable of ending the SEC's seven-year reign atop college football.

But that could be a trap. Preseason plaudits often act as a lullaby. Just ask USC.

"That's the biggest concern around here: Entitlement and complacency," Murphy said. "Those are things that all good teams fight. It's kind of the difference between being a good team and being a great team."

That's why, for example, strength coach Shannon Turley might decide that a stray Gatorade bottle during an off-season workout offends the very core of his being and transforms him into a tornado of outrage over entitlement and complacency among his novitiates.

That's the rub with Stanford. Its rise to prominence on the college football landscape has been a battle against type. Stanford students are the proverbial cream of the crop, future tech innovators and venture capitalists camping out on an idyllic campus just down the road from Silicon Valley. While there's a quasi-ironic embrace of #nerdnation on Twitter among the school's student athletes, there's also a constant battle against 94305 disease. And every Stanford person knows exactly what that is.

Yet be forewarned. Stanford football players have an odd way of dealing with praise.

"We just kick them in the shin and keep moving forward," Murphy said. "Any time anyone compliments you, kick them in the shin and keep moving."

(Note to myself).

Stanford and Murphy both have plenty of motivation heading into 2013. For the Cardinal, it was losing a pair of tight road games it shouldn't have against Washington and Notre Dame. If Stanford wants to play for a national title, it can't do that.

Meanwhile, Murphy sees his own missed opportunities. It's notable that he also led Stanford with six quarterback hurries, which he rates as "blown sacks."

"To be honest, I probably missed more sacks than I made," he said. "That's about finishing."

If you play defense for Stanford, missing a sack means you missed the party. The unit's unofficial motto -- we've been unable to figure out if it was invented by Thomas or linebacker Shayne Skov -- is "Party in the Backfield."

Is there a new motto for 2013?

Said Murphy, "'Party in the backfield' will be hard to get rid of. People love that."

Murphy said a video might be forthcoming.

But this isn't just flippant or self-indulgent. There's hype and there are meaningful words. Stanford's more academically minded players value the latter. It's part of the team culture.

"Right now the seniors are working on a team covenant," Murphy said. "Which is kind of the senior class wanting to put their personality into team goals, a team mission. What our mentality is going to be. Our motto will likely come out of that meeting. I'll keep you posted."

We'll be checking the scoreboard.

Pac-12 as NFL coaching pipeline

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:00
AM ET
ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel looks at which conferences send head coaches to the NFL and makes a conclusion: "The shortest road for any FBS head coach to the NFL is through the Pac-12. In fact, no other conference even comes close."

He points out that Chip Kelly (Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles) was the 15th Pac-12 coach to jump to the NFL since "Tommy Prothro moved crosstown from UCLA in 1971 to coach the Los Angeles Rams."

And during that span the SEC has sent three to the NFL. The Big Ten one.

Figuring out exactly why this is true is more of a challenge, particularly because folks in other regions will get mad hearing the real reason: Brains and sophistication.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Matt Rourke/AP PhotoChip Kelly's offensive creativity helped him become the latest Pac-12 head coach to land an NFL head coaching gig.
Hey... take it easy. Just saying. And you Pac-12 folks need to behave.

Just look at the list: Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh, John McKay, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly. Those are some of the most innovative minds in football history, particularly offensive football.

Schematically, the Pac-12 -- historically and I think still at present -- is the nation's most sophisticated league. There's just more ... stuff. Playbooks are thicker. That, by the way, includes both sides of the football. The QBs are asked to do more. And that forces defenses to do more, too.

This, by the way, fits in with those who -- wrongly -- view the Pac-12 as a finesse league: A conference that is physically inferior has to use its wits to succeed.

But sophistication is about more than scheme. It's about psychology and managing people. There's more diversity on the West Coast. That complicates the job, so doing it well is meaningful. John McKay probably would have been successful coaching in Tuscaloosa. Not as sure the same could be said of Bear Bryant in Los Angeles.

Part of that is this: There's not as much "Yes, sir," "No, sir" on the West Coast as there is in other regions, particularly the Southeast and Texas, though that as a historical trend is likely narrowing. Going old school on an 18-to-23-year old from L.A. or Seattle probably won't work as well as it would on a kid from small town Alabama. The way a successful Pac-12 coach talks to and motivates his team is, in general, different. And, historically, it's probably closer to the NFL model, where the players are paid professionals and less willing to respond positively to a ranting coach.

Understand, there are plenty of exceptions to that. Frank Kush at Arizona State and Don James at Washington were as old school intimidating to their players as any of their contemporaries. Probably part of the reason neither made the NFL jump, either.

There's another level to that sophistication: Big cities. The NFL is a big-city league. So is the Pac-12. Maisel thinks this matters:
It could be that universities that share a market with NFL teams lose more coaches to the league. A school such as Boston College, clamoring for attention in a crowded market, might be more liable to hire a prominent NFL assistant coach such as Tom Coughlin, who left the Eagles for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1994. That best explains why, even without counting Johnson or Erickson, the 22-year-old Big East has lost five head coaches to the NFL.

But there are other potential reasons:

  • Out of the box hires create fast-rising stars: Kelly, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll each arrived in the Pac-12 in creative ways. Mike Bellotti made the inspired decision to hire Kelly away from New Hampshire. Harbaugh mostly generated head scratches when Stanford hired him away from San Diego. And Carroll was USC's 174th choice after a bumbling search. Heck, even Bill Walsh was a frustrated NFL assistant when he arrived at Stanford.
  • Previous NFL experience: Carroll had previous NFL coaching experience. So did Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh and Dennis Erickson. Harbaugh was a longtime NFL QB. Several other guys on the list at least had a cup of coffee as an NFL assistant before taking over a Pac-8/10/12 team. You could conjecture that many of them viewed returning to the NFL as their ultimate ambition, unlike a college coaching lifer.
  • Recruiting rules in SEC: The most important skill for a head coach in the SEC is without question: Recruiting. The competition for recruits nationwide is brutal, but it's a blood sport in the Southeast. And that is not really a skill that translates in the NFL.
  • Money: Some conferences' pay scales are competitive with the NFL. The Pac-12's is not.

The Pac-12's 2,500-yard passers

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
5:30
PM ET
Brett HundleyScott Halleran/Getty ImagesOdds are good that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will throw for at least 2,500 yards in 2013.
Last year, we looked at returning 3,000-yard passers, so the headline here shows how the Pac-12 has become more run-based, defensive minded of late.

And, of course, the conference's top two passers, Arizona's Matt Scott and USC's Matt Barkley, are both off to the NFL.

The returning members of the 2.5 K Club are:

  • UCLA's Brett Hundley (3,740 yards, 29 TDs, 11 Ints, No. 4 in passing efficiency)
  • Arizona State's Taylor Kelly (3,039 yards, 29 TDs, 9 Ints, No. 2 in passing efficiency)
  • Washington's Keith Price (2,728 yards, 19 TDs, 13 Ints, No. 8 in passing efficiency)
  • Oregon's Marcus Mariota (2,677 yards, 32 TDs, 6 Ints, No. 1 in passing efficiency)


There's a reason why Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State are highly thought of heading into 2013: Proven production returning behind center. And if Washington can get Price back to top form, the Huskies become a top-25 team.

So how does everyone else stack up? Which teams seem likely to get 2,500 yards passing next fall?

Well, there's lots of "To be determined" intrigue.

TBD, Arizona: B.J. Denker will enter fall camp atop the depth chart, but this one is far from over. If USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who owns by far the biggest arms on the roster, wins the job, the Wildcats are almost sure to pass for 2,500 yards. Coach Rich Rodriguez, though widely viewed as a spread-option coach, showed last year he's comfortable throwing, so Denker or incoming freshman Anu Solomon also could put up solid passing numbers.

TBD, California: New coach Sonny Dykes likes to throw the rock around. Louisiana Tech averaged 351 yards passing per game last year. So whoever wins the QB job -- we're betting on Zach Kline -- will almost certainly hit the 2,500-yard mark.

TBD, Colorado: The Buffaloes struggled to the throw the ball last year, but new coach Mike MacIntyre might solve that, seeing his San Jose State Spartans passed for 332 yards a game last fall. Connor Wood, the frontrunner to win the job, has the arm to throw the ball around, but it's a matter of putting it all together.

TBD, Oregon State: Sean Mannion nearly made the above list, passing for 2,446 yards and 15 TDs with 13 interceptions last year, ranking fifth in the conference in passing efficiency and fourth in passing yards per game with 244.6. But he's still knotted with Cody Vaz in the competition for the starting job. If one guy starts the entire season, he will put up strong passing numbers because Mike Riley teams always do.

Kevin Hogan, Stanford: The Cardinal ranked 10th in the conference in passing last year with just 200 yards per game, but part of that was a scheme that played to a rugged defense and Hogan not winning the job until after midseason. Hogan is plenty capable, and his supporting cast is solid. Expect Hogan to at least hit the 2,500-yard mark.

TBD, USC: Whether it's Cody Kessler or Max Wittek, the USC QB will throw for at least 2,500 yards if he maintains his hold on the job. While Lane Kiffin likes balance, there are too many passing game weapons not to attack downfield, starting with All-American receiver Marqise Lee.

Travis Wilson, Utah: The Utes were last in the Pac-12 and 97th in the nation in passing in 2012, but Dennis Erickson is now their co-offensive coordinator. One of the original architects of the spread passing attack, it's highly likely Utah will substantially boost the 190.7 yards passing a game it produced last fall. Wilson is fully capable of throwing for 2,500 yards, and the Utes are solid at the receiver position.

Connor Halliday, Washington State: Halliday still isn't free-and-clear of redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, but he's a solid frontrunner in the competition. Whoever wins the job, he will put up big numbers in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" system. The Cougars couldn't stick with a QB last year, going back and forth with Halliday and Jeff Tuel, but they still led the Pac-12 with 330.4 yards passing per game. If Halliday starts 12 games, he'll throw for 4,000 yards.
The 2013 NFL draft was terrible for the Pac-12. It was worse than any draft since 2000.

Well, other than 2012, when the draft looked a lot like the one last weekend, with 28 players also picked. The conference had 28 players picked in 2010, but that was a 10-team conference.

In short, last two years haven't been good for the conference in terms of NFL love, and that matters in terms of national perception of how good the conference really is. Perception matters, both with our subjective systems for measuring college football teams against each other and for how recruits perceive conferences and teams.

Meanwhile, there's the SEC, which over the weekend probably posted the greatest numbers for a college conference in NFL draft history, with 63 selections, including 32 in the first three rounds. Even when you do the math and break it down by per team numbers, the SEC's 4.5 picks per team far outstrips the Pac-12's 2.33 players per team.

This is not old news, folks. The SEC hasn't long dominated the NFL draft, as some might try to convince you. The Pac-10, in fact, had decisively better per team numbers in 2008 (3.4 vs. 2.92) and was also better in 2009 (3.2 vs. 3.1).

Even last year, the SEC wasn't that far ahead of the rest of the FBS conferences. Remember the woeful Big Ten, much maligned for its terrible 2013 draft numbers? It had 41 players drafted in 2012, just one fewer than the SEC.

The SEC did have a huge 2010 draft with 49 players selected (4.1 per team), so the present momentum isn't entirely new. It's just the "Wow" factor this go-around seems more substantial.

Yet this long lead-in, which might have glazed over some eyeballs, isn't about looking back. It's about looking ahead, with both hope and concern for the Pac-12 and, really, the rest of college football.

You might have heard this: The SEC has won seven consecutive BCS national titles. That makes it reasonable to view the conference as a favorite to make it eight in a row before we jump into a four-team playoff in 2014. And many believe the SEC will then dominate that playoff.

I feel I'm being optimistic for the other AQ conferences when I respond, "Maybe."

So I asked myself a question while being agog over the SEC draft numbers: That should come with a big talent drain, correct? I know SEC recruiting also rates highly, but losing 4.5 NFL draftable players per team, with much of that coming from the perennial powers, has to have an impact.

Right?

Well, in terms of 2013 returning starters, the Pac-12 stacks up well with the SEC. While returning starters numbers are a bit fluid (and often overrated), my review has the SEC averaging 14.6 returning starters compared to 16.3 for the Pac-12.

But that's not the Pac-12's entry point.

It's this:
  • The SEC's top-six teams (Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina) average 12.3 returning starters.
  • The Pac-12's top-six teams (Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State and Washington) average 16.5 returning starters.

So the Pac-12, generally regarded as the No. 2 AQ conference during the rise of the SEC, stacks up nicely.

Further, the Pac-12 looks like it will do far better in the 2014 NFL draft, though schools aren't eager to consider the potential early departures of players such as Oregon QB Marcus Mariota or Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

While SEC commissioner Mike Slive and SEC fans surely wouldn't agree, it would be good for college football for another conference to win the national title in 2013. It would send us into the College Football Playoff not fretting that the sport was becoming a handful of minor leagues surrounding the SEC.

At least not as much.

But just imagine if the SEC wins another title and then produces another draft of 60-plus players. Yikes.

A few years ago, there were cracks in the "SEC rules!" argument. There were grounds for debate and ready-made ripostes. Now? Not so much.

As already noted more than a few times, the Pac-12 stacks up nicely for 2013. While "now or never" sounds a bit dramatic, it's not unreasonable to fear that if it's not now, it could feel closer to never as we begin the College Football Playoff.
When something seemingly loud happens, we can't help but stare. The momentum of attention, which of course can be monetized by the media, creates a hungry void that is filled with endless analysis. The end-result is a suffusion of broad statements of "This proves this!"

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kirby Lee/US PresswireThe Eagles drafted USC QB Matt Barkley with the 98th pick in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
So we have USC quarterback Matt Barkley. It seems now we all should have seen Barkley's precipitous slide in the NFL draft coming. He would have been a top-10 pick in the 2012 draft, not the 98th overall selection he ended up being on Saturday, if he'd only been smart enough not to return to USC for his senior season.

I get it. Hindsight rocks. We'd all be rich, infinitely happy people if we could do a rewind and relive the past, knowing what we know after going through it once before.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's fair to say now that Barkley made a huge mistake. How huge? This is from Sports Illustrated's Peter King:
P.S.: Wondering what that extra year of school cost Barkley? He went 98th overall. Let's say he'd have been the eighth pick a year ago -- that's where Ryan Tannehill went. It's all speculation, of course. But the consensus was he'd have been a top 10 pick. Tannehill's deal: four years, $12.7 million. The 98th pick last year, Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, signed for four years and $2.58 million. Turns out it was a $10.1 million year of school for Matt Barkley.

Ouch.

You business school guys can pencil that out for us over a lifetime. Forget Barkley's second contract. You can't make up a $10.1 million hit.

So, yeah, bad call. Barkley undoubtedly will become a cautionary tale for future players who are debating whether to stay in school or enter the draft early. More than a few folks will insist that if there's a consensus first-round grade for a third-year player, returning merely to make a run at being the first overall pick or a top-10 pick is not a good idea.

Support for that notion comes from the evaluative distance between the end of the regular season and the actual draft. So much happens between December and April that a player, particularly one with great athletic measurables, can dramatically influence the affections of NFL scouts and GMs.

Still, let's look at the Barkley who stood in front of a Christmas tree in December 2011 and smoothly announced his return to USC.

  • There was seemingly no question at that point he would be, at best, the third QB chosen behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Further, you'd think that some of his supposed red flags -- arm strength and foot quickness -- would have revealed themselves at the NFL combine and during workouts, so it's even questionable that he would have won out over Tannehill.
  • Go back to your December 2011 self. Who was the best college QB in the nation? There was Barkley and then a whole bunch of "Who?" and "Neh." Phil Steele's ranking of QBs after Barkley in advance of the season: 2.Tyler Wilson, Arkansas; 3. Landry Jones, Oklahoma; 4. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech; 5. Tyler Bray, Tennessee.
  • Ergo, his rating as the top overall QB entering 2012, based on three years as a starter, seemed absolutely secure.
  • Then there were the Trojans around him: 18 starters back from a team that went 10-2 and won at Oregon. That included four starters on the offensive line to protect him and the best tandem of college receivers in recent memory: Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

There were only two potential red flags at the time: 1. Injury; 2. The unknown. Both ended up contributing to Barkley's slip.

"The unknown" includes that old scouting adage that a guy can have "too much film." If a guy duplicates his great play from a previous season, scouts will wonder why he didn't dramatically improve. And woe unto him whose numbers drop.

But the now-marginalized reasons for Barkley's return also were sound:

  • Win the Heisman Trophy.
  • Win the national title.
  • Enjoy another year of college as USC's QB, which is a nice thing to carry around the idyllic campus, before taking on real world stresses of playing a game for a living.
  • Become the first QB taken in the 2013 draft, which is typically in the higher reaches of the top-10.

At the time Barkley made his decision to stick around, there were few naysayers about his and his team's prospects. That everything went so completely rear-end-over-tea-kettle still boggles the mind if you aren't one of those people who pretends you saw it all coming a year ago.


All this said, with a few exceptions, my long-held belief on this is a player should enter the draft as soon as possible. "Stay in school!" sounds nice, but a guy can always go back to school.

That position, however, is not all about merely jumping into the draft when your stock is seemingly high. It's also about age. It's better to start earning a (substantial) paycheck at, say, 21 than 22, if it is available to you. The career clock doesn't tick very long in the NFL, and an extra couple of million can help later in life.

Consider two Pac-12 players who had less fanfare this draft cycle but are probably nearly as disappointed as Barkley: Oregon RB Kenjon Barner and Stanford OLB Chase Thomas.

Both opted to return for their senior seasons in order to improve their NFL draft prospects. It appears neither did, with Barner going in the sixth round and Thomas going undrafted. My hunch is they would have done better last spring.

Both now have an additional year of wear-and-tear on the bodies without getting paid, which is particularly an issue for Barner because running backs see their productivity drop substantially at 30. Barner just turned 24.

Ultimately, a disappointing draft doesn't make or break an NFL career. Ask Tom Brady. I think just about every conversation I had with former Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck circled back to his annoyance at being picked in the sixth round, watching QBs he felt were inferior to him get picked before him.

Barkley, who has seemingly led a charmed life at quarterback, might get a boost from having a chip on his shoulder (a Chip Kelly one, at that). Maybe "Angry Matt" will turn out better than "Breezy Matt."

The NFL draft is often confounding. It is laden with risk and reward on both sides of the process. Barkley took on a defensible risk and things didn't go as he hoped. That's notable, but it's also an annual occurrence.

As for Barkley, you'd think that at some point in his life he will encounter a greater adversity than being picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

Pac-12 owns the dual-threat back

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
5:30
PM ET
Typically, offensive coordinators hand the ball to their running backs and pass the ball to their receivers. When they switch roles, it's just for a change of pace, such as a screen pass or a reverse.

That is how it is in most college football conferences. But not the Pac-12.

Only five returning FBS players ran the ball and caught passes for at least 400 yards last season. Only three played in AQ conferences. And all three of those came from the Pac-12.

Heck, two came from Arizona State -- Marion Grice and D.J. Foster -- which is why this information comes from the Sun Devils sports information department.

The third, as you might have guessed, is Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas.

Thomas rushed for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He caught 45 passes for 445 yards and five scores. He also returned a punt and kickoff for a TD, the latter, notably, taking place on the first play of the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State.

Grice, while not amassing fancy-pants plays on special teams, was essentially Thomas' statistical match. He rushed for 679 yards and also scored 11 TDs and hauled in 41 passes for 425 yards and eight scores.

As for Foster, he rushed for 493 yards and two TDs and caught 38 passes for 533 yards and four TDs. His 14.0 yards per reception registering as very receiver-esque.


So why this concentration in the Pac-12? We could just say "general awesomeness," but that's not very insightful.

Well, for one, both Oregon and Arizona State use run-first spread schemes, which tend to help multiple running backs put up rushing numbers. Thomas was All-American Kenjon Barner's understudy. Barner, by the way, caught 20 passes for 256 yards and two scores while rushing for 1,767 yards and 21 TDs.

Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked third in the nation in rushing with 315.2 yards per game. Arizona State ranked third in the Pac-12 and 25th in the nation with 205.4 yards per game.

Further, neither Oregon nor Arizona State were loaded at receiver last year. That being the case, it's natural to look for alternative pass-catchers when throwing the ball, just as Stanford has been leaning on its tight ends the past couple of years.

Receiver is perhaps Arizona State's biggest question heading into 2013. Oregon looks much better at the position this spring compared to last, which is good because Thomas is presently slated to replace Barner as the Ducks' primary rusher, though the Pac-12 blog is of the mind he will continue to be as much a "slash" player as anything.

Thomas will be interesting to watch next fall. His 2012 numbers were good but not spectacular. At least they fell short of stratospheric expectations that were inspired by an often breathtaking true freshman season. If, however, he proves durable enough to provide 20 carries per game while still getting plenty of use as a receiver next fall, he could become a top Heisman Trophy candidate. His golden numbers there probably start at 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20-plus TDs.

As for Grice and Foster, they are the lead dogs in a deep backfield. They likely will share the ball and continue to be used in diverse ways, with their numbers becoming impressive as a combination rather than as individuals.

And don't be surprised a couple of other Pac-12 backs push toward these numbers in 2013. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing with 1,929 yards and also caught 36 passes for 303 yards last year, while Washington's Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,439 yards and caught 33 passes for 249 yards. Oregon State's Storm Woods rushed for 941 yards and caught 38 passes for 313 yards.

By the way, a diversity of skills is always a nice thing when the NFL comes calling.
Say what you want about the flagging reputations of former USC quarterbacks, but at least they keep things interesting.

One of the big questions for the 2013 NFL draft this week is the fate of Matt Barkley. Will he still get picked in the first round or will his stock continue to tumble?

Barkley seemed to -- finally? -- reveal some frustrations this week in a series of interviews in which he questioned coach Lane Kiffin's play-calling in 2012.

See here. And here.

But he wasn't the only former Trojan making news.

Mark Sanchez spoke up about the New York Jets acquiring Tim Tebow last year, and the media circus that the organization seemed to embrace. That, of course, created a new, if more modulated, media circus.

That wasn't the oddest bit of "news."

Former USC quarterback Mitch Mustain, who backed up Sanchez and Barkley after transferring from Arkansas, is the subject of a new documentary. It's narrated by former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, which adds to a slightly strange texture in itself.

What's it about? Well, it's called "The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain," which strikes me as a bit melodramatic. Mustain, who had an undeniably live arm, had one problem: His ability to select football programs.

When Mustain decided to leave Arkansas, where he was mismatched with head coach Houston Nutt, he could have become the starter for about 100 or so teams. But he chose USC, which simply had better quarterbacks on hand. End of story, at least on the USC end.

The Arkansas stuff, however, is fairly rich.

Meanwhile, Matt Leinart is a free agent, Carson Palmer signed with Arizona -- perhaps to be closer to the Pac-12 blog -- Matt Cassel is with the Minnesota Vikings, Aaron Corp is on the Buffalo Bills roster and John David Booty is out of the league.

Not many schools can list so many NFL QBs, but that operates as a negative when the success rate is so low.

The cumulative affect of all this mediocrity and odd drama -- fair or unfair -- is freight for Barkley.

His draft stock is not just about a disappointing season and over-heated questions about his arm strength, which is certainly NFL-adequate. It's guilt by association: USC QBs and their recent history in the NFL is pretty lousy.

USC's QB past shouldn't mean that much. Barkley should be evaluated, positively or negatively, on what he has done, who he is and his potential. But that dubious lineage will make more than a few NFL GMs skittish.

But all it takes is for Barkley to end up back in the first round. We shall see.
When you ask Washington's second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to describe his base scheme, his answer comes down to "somewhere in between a 4-3 and a 3-4," which means it's got a little bit of everything.

"This day and age, I think all defenses are multiple," he explained.

Wilcox turned in one of nation's best coaching jobs last fall. He took a defense that was among college football's worst in 2011 and made it more than respectable.

Improvement? The Huskies surrendered nearly 100 fewer yards and 12 fewer points per game than they did the previous season under Nick Holt. A unit that had been ranked 106th in the nation in total defense, ranked 31st. A unit that had been ranked 108th in the nation in scoring defense, ranked 39th.

And you could make a case that the Huskies talent was not appreciably better in 2012 than in 2011.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Washington defense saw marked improvement under Justin Wilcox last season.
That said, it was far from perfect. The Huskies got pushed around by more physical teams (LSU, 41-3) and were worn out and outrun by up-tempo, spread teams (Oregon, 52-21, and Arizona, 52-17). And they turned in an execrable fourth quarter against Washington State, surrendering 18 points in a shocking overtime defeat.

In the other nine games, they yielded an average of 15.3 points per game.

So when you ask Wilcox what didn't please him, he goes general: "Consistency," he said.

Just like his defensive scheme, that encompasses a lot. For one, the Huskies still need to get bigger and faster and deeper. They have solid talent on defense but they won't yet be mistaken for Alabama or Stanford. To be consistent on defense, starters need to win one-on-one battles and there can't be a significant drop-off when the first-team guy is getting a necessary breather.

The Huskies also seemed to get overwhelmed at times, mentally as well as physically, particularly on the road. Washington played timidly in the first half at LSU, and both Oregon and Arizona had 21-point quarters at home to put those games away in the first half.

With eight starters back and improving depth, as well as a year of seasoning under Wilcox's coaching and schemes, Washington should take another step forward in 2013. It has two big questions: 1. Improving the pass rush, one of the few numbers that was statistically worse in 2012 compared to the previous fall; 2. Replacing cornerback Desmond Trufant, the most significant of two voids in the secondary and the defense as a whole.

The latter won't likely get done. While Trufant's play fell off a bit over the final third of the season due to his playing hurt -- "Dinged," Wilcox called it -- he's still a likely first-round NFL draft pick next week.

"I don't know if we have a guy on our roster who can replace what Desmond Trufant did," Wilcox said. "You try to get guys -- it might be one guy, it might be three guys -- to try and gain the productivity at the position he gave us."

Wilcox did say that cornerback Marcus Peters, who struggled at times opposite Trufant as a redshirt freshman starter, "has flashed." Senior Sean Parker is established at one safety spot, but the competitions at the other two secondary voids remain wide open as the Huskies prepare for their spring game on Saturday, Wilcox said.

As for the pass rush, that starts with junior rush end Josh Shirley, who Wilcox believes played better than was commonly thought among the Huskies fan base.

"He did a good job rushing the passer last year," Wilcox said. "He had six and a half sacks last year but he had the opportunity to have 12 or 13 if he would have finished better."

Shirley also forced six fumbles, tied for first in the conference.

It would be a huge boost if defensive end Hau'oli Jamora is able to come back in the fall after knee injuries killed his past two seasons, but that's not something Wilcox can count on. Jamora looked like a budding star as a true freshman starter in 2010.

"I love the guy. He works and is studying," Wilcox said. "He's doing everything humanly possible to get back ... that would be huge."

The idea, of course, is to "effect the quarterback with a four-man rush." Over-reliance on blitzing and rushing five or six guys is where a defense gets into trouble -- see the 2011 Huskies. It's also not just about sacks. It's about making a quarterback move and adjust and feel uncomfortable.

The challenge of every Pac-12 coordinator is the variety of Pac-12 offenses. There are a wide variety of up-tempo spreads that don't particularly resemble each other -- the Huskies are even going mostly no-huddle this spring -- and then there are pro style offenses such as Oregon State, Stanford and USC. A defensive coordinator in the conference can't scheme -- or recruit -- only one way.

So even with a year under his belt at Washington, expect to see some tweaks from Wilcox next fall.

What's his scheme?

Said Wilcox, "It's identifying what we think we can be good at and catering the scheme as best we can to fit the players were have."

SPONSORED HEADLINES