NCF Nation: Star Lotulelei

Utes defense needs playmaking

July, 23, 2013
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Utah's defense wasn't bad last year, particularly when you consider it was supported by an anemic offense. But there was a decided lack of big plays that transferred momentum to the team in red.

Here are two telling measures.

  • Utah forced just 22 turnovers. That ranked 10th in the conference. Six Pac-12 teams forced more than 30.
  • Opposing offenses scored touchdowns on 31 of 43 red zone trips -- 72 percent. The only conference team that was worse was woeful Colorado.

The loose correlation there? Playmaking. Who's going to make the play that stops a drive short of the end zone?

[+] EnlargeTrevor Reilly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerUtah will need defensive end Trevor Reilly to be a playmaker this fall.
"We have to make those few plays that win you games," Utes defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "That's the difference between an 8-4 year and a 5-7 year. We didn't make enough of those big-time plays."

Overall, the Utes were pretty middling on defense in 2012, even with massive defensive tackle Star Lotulelei gobbling up blockers. They ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (25.1 points per game) and fifth in total defense (363.5 yards per game). They were still strong against the run, ranking second in the conference. But the end result was lagging.

What Sitake realized is the Pac-12 had something to do with that. In their second year after making the move up from the Mountain West, the Utes saw an injury bug slow down starters and hit their depth. Banged up guys playing more plays than they should is not good anytime but particularly against up-tempo offenses.

"You can't just have just 11 starters anymore with everyone doing these uptempo offenses," Sitake said. "Your twos have to be as good as your ones because they are going to play a lot of snaps."

Utah is still catching up with the rest of the Pac-12 when it comes to top-to-bottom depth.

Further, two of Sitake's top playmakers, defensive end Trevor Reilly and linebacker Brian Blechen, didn't have the seasons they'd hoped for due to nagging injuries, not to mention Blechen's three-game suspension. Reilly hobbled around on a bum knee the entire season, though he still ended up leading the team in tackles.

The good news is both are now healthy. Blechen is back at linebacker and back to 230 pounds. Reilly will be at defensive end instead of outside linebacker.

The questions are at linebacker and cornerback, positions where fall competition should be fierce.

Replacing Star? Not possible but also not a pressing problem.

"You can't replace him," Sitake said. "But we've always had reliable, strong D-tackles. There's never been a shortage of that at Utah."

Sitake is high on JC transfer Sese Ianu, who likely will rotate at tackle with LT Tuipulotu and Tenny Palepoi.

Blechen will lead the linebackers, but the other two spots aren't filled, as LT Filiaga is listed as an "Or" behind V.J. Fehoko and Jared Norris at both middle and rover linebacker, respectively.

In the secondary, things are solid at safety, but the top three cornerbacks from 2012 need to be replaced.

Sitake is optimistic he'll find some answers this fall. But his big-picture hopes aren't focused on specific positions.

"I'd like to see our depth get better," he said. "I'd like for us to remain healthy."

And he'd like to see a few more game-changing plays.
Five Pac-12 players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.

Here's the chart:


So... what's our take?

Thanks for asking.

Kevin Gemmell: I must say, very, very interesting first round. And one that I think most Pac-12 fans can be relatively pleased with. The five players drafted Thursday night are the most since the league sent six in 2008. So that's progress.

Two things really stood out as surprising to me. First, it's not that Dion Jordan went third overall to the Miami Dolphins. It's that he went to a 4-3 defense. Perhaps Jeff Ireland is a huge fan of the Pac-12 blog and was reading our Take 2 from a few weeks ago. And if that's the case, you're welcome, Jeff.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 in the first round to select Oregon's Dion Jordan.
Jordan is pretty good at stopping the run -- but it's not the strength of his game. As every draftnik in the world noted before and after the selection, he's a beast at speed rushing off the edge, but has some work to do in other aspects of his game. They also made the apt comparison to former Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor. Fitting since both players have similar frames and skill sets. He had an OK career, so maybe it all works out.

The second thing that surprised me was that Star Lotulelei was not the first defensive tackle taken. We figured he could go pretty much anywhere in the top 15 -- most mocks had him where he landed at No 14 to the Carolina Panthers. One pick earlier, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets. I admit I don't know a ton about Richardson. I just know that Lotulelei graded out higher, had a comparable 40 time (though it was inconsistent because it was at a pro day, not the NFL scouting combine) and he had eight more reps on the bench. Maybe it's just personal preference, but I was pretty surprised he wasn't the first defensive tackle off the board.

Liked the pick of Oregon's Kyle Long by the Bears. They are getting a versatile player who could really fit in at any position across the line after he gets a little seasoning. We've seen him slowly creep up in mock drafts -- starting several months ago in the third-round range -- and that buzz was legitimized with his pick at No. 20.

And I liked that Atlanta had Desmond Trufant targeted and they traded up to get him. It was a need position and they jumped at the chance to get an NFL-ready starter. Good pick.

Datone Jones is a guy Ted and I have been talking about for a couple of years now -- how we just kept waiting for him to breakout. And then UCLA switches to the 3-4 and he blows up. He could be a real solid player for years in Green Bay's 3-4 front.

Overall, I'd call it a fair-to-good first day for the Pac-12.

Ted Miller: Of course, the big question many will ask is how did the Pac-12 compare to the other conferences.

Here are the first-round numbers. Yes, there will be SEC crowing, with some justification.

  • SEC – 12
  • ACC – 6
  • Pac-12 – 5
  • Big 12 – 3
  • Independent – 2
  • MAC – 1
  • C-USA – 1
  • Big East - 1
  • Big Ten - 1

The SEC's 12 picks ties the record set by the ACC in 2006. Don't forget the SEC now has 14 teams. Or, for that matter, the Big 12 has 10.

My first-round takeaways? Well, the above numbers are meaningful.

The SEC? Well. I'll let you guys try to explain those away. (Good luck with that.) I tweeted this story the other day, and I think it well relates how SEC dominance, once a chimerical creation from a region that often doesn't fret the truth getting in the way of a good story, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The bottom, however, is almost as telling -- see the Pac-12's Rose Bowl partner, the Big Ten with just one selection. That certainly validates the perception that conference has slipped, something we've seen on the field in recent years.

As for the five Pac-12 picks, I had a nice conversation with Jordan at the Fiesta Bowl about how his fortunes had turned. He seemed genuinely awed by it. And grateful. After the game, I was standing there when his mother worked here way through the crowd to give him a hug. Apparently it was raining inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

One of the things I always think about on draft day is how through-the-looking-glass strange it's got to feel for guys, at least the reflective ones. Sure, most top picks get fronted money by their agents, so they've been living the life for a few months. But when it becomes official, a guy in his early 20s suddenly become certifiably rich.

The third pick last year, Cleveland's Trent Richardson, got four years at $20.4 million. Just imagine yourself at 23 having a conversation about $20 million. And how it's a bit low.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMatt Barkley could be the next Pac-12 alum off the board.
As for the rest, the Panthers got a steal with Star Lotulelei at No. 14. The Panthers just put a checkmark in the box for the middle of their defensive line. And I think Jets fans will remember in a very Jets fans way that the Jets took Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson a pick before the Panthers.

Oregon O-lineman Kyle Long at No. 20 was a mild surprise, but the Bears probably swooned over his obvious upside. You can't beat his bloodlines either.

The Trufant pick clearly validates the Pac-12 blog at the expense of Washington fans. See... we told you he was good.

Wait. I may not be recalling that accurately. Two words: Kevin's fault.

And Jones, whom we've been touting pretty much since he arrived at UCLA, obviously found his rhythm over the past year.

As Kevin noted, there are a lot of good Pac-12 players left on the board, including a substantial handful who figure to get selected in the next two rounds. Things should continue to be interesting, starting with who steps up and picks USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
It didn’t take long for there to be some drama in the 2013 NFL draft. And former Oregon Duck Dion Jordan was right in the middle of it.

Jordan, the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the No. 3 pick ... much to the surprise of the ESPN draft coverage crew. And Jordan.

After offensive tackles went first and second, Jordan was the first defensive player taken in the draft when the Oakland Raiders traded the pick to the Dolphins.

Jordan’s selection was met with mostly positive, yet still mixed responses. Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden and Chris Berman praised Jordan’s athleticism and ability to rush off the edge. But they also questioned whether that’s worth the No. 3 overall pick. Obviously, the Dolphins thought it was.

Many believed that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, now the head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, was going to take Jordan with the fourth pick. Instead, the Dolphins moved one spot ahead, leaving Kelly to take Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson.

“I was surprised ... I wasn’t expecting that,” Jordan told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. “I’m very blessed. I’m going to bring tremendous athletic ability … I’m ready to get in there and work with the guys.”

Jordan, Oregon’s highest drafted player since Joey Harrington went No. 3 overall in the 2002 draft, was the first of what turned out to be five first-round picks for the Pac-12 on Thursday night. It was the most first-round picks since the league had six in 2008.

After the Jordan selection, things quieted down for the league until the 14th pick, when the Carolina Panthers selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He was the second defensive tackle taken in the draft after Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets.

“He is a space-eater,” said Kiper after the selection. “He’s a stay-at-home type defensive tackle. He won’t give you a lot of pass rush. But he’s strong. He’s quick. He’s a tough kid. I thought a very good player, but the pass rush wasn’t there.”

ESPN's Pat Yasinskas has a good breakdown of what this means for the Panthers.

The second “surprise” pick of the draft also involved a Duck – when the Chicago Bears drafted Oregon offensive guard Kyle Long.

Said Kiper: “He has the kind of skill set you want. [But] he needs a lot of coaching ... he’s a developmental prospect … [His] versatility and mean streak intrigued a lot of people.”

Just two picks later, the Atlanta Falcons traded up to get Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant at No. 22. After posting a 4.38 at the NFL scouting combine -- third fastest among the defensive backs -- his stock jumped from early second round to first-round selection.

Said Kiper: “He’s an instinctive ball hawk. A guy I think really got better as his career moved along … this is a need area and [Atlanta] went up aggressively to get him.”

UCLA defensive end Datone Jones became the league’s fifth selection when the Green Bay Packers took him at No. 26. ESPN's Jon Gruden was a fan of the pick.

“If you’re into combine workouts, you’re into Datone Jones. Because he dominated the combine,” Gruden said. “The arrow is going up on this kid. He’s my sleeper of the first round. He has NFL movement skills ... he can play on a tight end. He can play inside. And the Packers need a dominant inside defender. Good pick.”

There is still plenty of intrigue looking ahead with names like Zach Ertz, Robert Woods, Matt Barkley, Keenan Allen, Matt Scott, Brian Schwenke, Steve Williams, Markus Wheaton, Jordan Poyer, David Bakhtiari, Chase Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin and about a dozen more from the league still on the board.

Settle in for a draft-filled weekend.
Dion Jordan, Star LotuleleiIcon SMIDion Jordan and Star Lotulelei are probably both top-10 selections in the NFL draft. Who will go first?
It appears that the Pac-12 could produce two top-10 selections on Day 1 of the NFL draft on April 25. It's also a bit unusual that both play defense in a conference known for offense.

So who should be picked first: Oregon defensive end/outside linebacker Dion Jordan or Utah nose guard/defensive tackle Star Lotulelei?

Kevin Gemmell: There are two questions I get asked a lot in this business. 1) What's it like working with Ted Miller? 2) How would you build a football team from scratch?

The answer to No. 1 is: It's like being on a cruise ship that stops off weekly at the Isle of Perspicacious Wisdom.

The answer to No. 2: I would start by protecting my quarterback and getting to the other guy's quarterback. And since there are no offensive lineman from the Pac-12 this year that warrants a first-round selection, I'd go with Oregon defensive end/outside linebacker/fleet-footed/long-winged/ Dion Jordan.

At 6-foot-6, 248 pounds he fits the prototypical frame of an NFL speed rusher. And with a recorded 4.60 40 time at the NFL scouting combine, he has skyrocketed up most draft boards. Once considered "simply" a first-round pick, he's almost certain to be a top-10 selection. Probably top five. That would make him the highest drafted Duck since quarterback Joey Harrington went No. 3 in 2002.

Jordan's 2012 wasn't as notable because of a nagging shoulder injury and he missed some time, causing a decrease in his stats compared to some other comparable players in the league. Still he amassed 44 tackles with 10.5 for a loss and five sacks. He recently had surgery, which caused him to miss Oregon's Pro Day. But the once-touted tight end seems built for the NFL and draftniks don't seem to concerned with his shoulder.

He's obviously dangerous as a pass-rusher, but he also was called upon to drop into coverage and take out tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield. He has a knack for getting to the ball and he also forced three fumbles last season.

If you're looking for just a run-stopper, then Jordan probably isn't your guy. That honor falls to Lotulelei, who is probably the best pure defensive lineman in the 2013 draft class.

But Jordan's versatility is what makes him such an attractive draft prospect. He's a do-all type of player who fits well as a hybrid in any formation -- be it an odd or even front. Having a player who can sack your quarterback one play and then pick off a pass to a tight end on an intermediate drag route the next is invaluable in the NFL -- really, any level for that matter. Jordan is that kind of player.

Ted Miller: What Kevin doesn't note is this is the Ted Miller cruise ship.

Jordan and Lotulelei have been going in different directions in most mock drafts, at least until Lotulelei recently received better news about the heart issue that spooked many when it was reported at the NFL combine.

Jordan is a great story and a good prospect. He has all the tools to be a future NFL All-Pro.

But if I were an NFL general manager making this tough decision, I'd pick Lotulelei first, and probably for the opposite reason many would think: durability.

Based on the reports I've read -- and, obviously, I'm no doctor and not privy to any inside information -- Lotulelei's heart won't be an issue holding him back from having a long NFL career. With that in mind, the 6-foot-3, 325 pounder is one of those rare physical specimens who can immediately transform a defense from good to great because he requires two linemen to neutralize him -- and even then there are no guarantees.

Lotulelei is the closest thing to Haloti Ngata in this year's draft. He's slightly smaller and less powerful, but he also is quicker and could even play end in a 3-4 in certain situations.

You put him in the middle of a defense, and he'll give you 10 years and a handful of Pro Bowls.

As for durability, it's one of the most underrated qualities when evaluating players. You might average a sack a game, but if you are only healthy for eight games, you're less valuable than a guy who averages 0.5 sacks per game because of the void you leave when you're watching your backup play.

Unlike Jordan, Lotulelei hasn't missed a game over the past three seasons. Durability, in fact, is one of his notable strengths. Jordan missed action each of the last three seasons, including three games in 2011. In 2012, he often tried to play through pain and didn't last into the second half -- see USC. As Kevin noted, he just had shoulder surgery.

It's possible once NFL trainers get a hold of Jordan, he'll get healthy and stay that way. But his injury issues are a concern.

You could say that Jordan has more upside, particularly in terms of production. But, to me, Lotulelei seems like a sure-thing.
You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.
ESPN NFL draft guru Todd McShay has updated his top-32 draft list Insider, and it now features five from the Pac-12.

The big upward movers were Oregon outside linebacker Dion Jordan and Washington CB Desmond Trufant. Both improved their stock with good 40 times at the NFL combine.

Jordan moved up from 11th to seventh. Writes McShay:
Jordan posted a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which helps his stock a bit, but it's his athleticism and versatility on tape that are his biggest assets. He has fluid feet and hips and good upper-body power and lower-body explosiveness, and he can play multiple roles along the front seven. It's easy to envision him coming off the board in the top 10 overall.

As for Trufant, he made his first appearance in the list at No. 32. Writes McShay:
We always liked Trufant's game. He does just about everything well, though his ball skills could be a little more consistent. His tape didn't indicate elite speed, but he was good enough at the combine. His combination of speed and arm length is impressive. Trufant has good size, and in a league starved for good cover guys, his production could move him into the first round.

McShay did drop one player, as his former No. 1, Utah DT Star Lotulelei, after doctors discovered a heart issue that prevented him from working out. McShay didn't write off Lotulelei, but he did drop him to sixth, noting:
Lotulelei was flagged with a heart condition by doctors at the NFL combine, but his current ranking continues to reflect only what we think of him as a player. His condition is being evaluated and it hasn't been decided whether he will work out at Utah's pro day or at a later date, but we won't drop him significantly in the rankings until we have definitive answers about his long-term prognosis. As for Lotulelei on the field, he could use some polish as a pass-rusher but has a good overall skill set with strong hands, nimble feet, good range and the ability to quickly discard blockers.

As for the rest of his Pac-12 players in the top 32, McShay rated California receiver Keenan Allen 21st and Stanford TE Zach Ertz 28th.

Pac-12 scouting combine notebook

February, 25, 2013
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Some tough news coming out of the scouting combine this weekend for Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. ESPN's Chris Mortensen first reported that Lotulelei -- a projected top-five pick -- would not be allowed to work out today with the rest of the defensive lineman after an echocardiogram revealed a heart condition that requires additional testing.

From Mortensen's story:
Lotulelei was discovered to have an abnormally low Ejection Fraction, detecting that the left ventricle of his heart was pumping at only 44 percent efficiency, sources said. The normal range is between 55-70 percent efficiency.

The 6-foot-2, 311-pound Lotulelei will undergo further testing in Salt Lake City in an effort to seek more clarity with the condition, a source said. If it's a confirmed chronic condition, medical experts consider it an indication of possible heart damage.

The All-American posted 42 tackles in 2012, including 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He's expected to visit a specialist this week and plans to participate in Utah's Pro Day on March 20.

Scouts Inc. ranks Lotulelei as the No. 1 overall player in the draft.

Schwenke rising

Former Cal offensive lineman Brian Schwenke, longtime friend of the Pac-12 blog, had a strong combine performance. He was among the top performers in the 3-cone drill and 40-yard dash (see results below). Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com said Schwenke's stock is trending up.

Writes Jeremiah:
I really liked Schwenke on tape and he continued to impress with an excellent week at the Senior Bowl. On Saturday, his draft stock received another boost. Schwenke posted a great 40 time (4.99) and enjoyed a fine field workout. I could see his name being called in the early portion of the third round.
Zach Ertz versus Tyler Eifert

One was a unanimous All-American. The other won the Mackey Award for the nations' best tight end. The battle for the top tight end taken in the draft might be too close to call at this point.

Per ESPN's Todd McShay, Insider Ertz had a good day, but Eifert may have closed the gap.
Depending on who you ask, there are varying opinions on which of the two is the best tight end. If you took a poll, it would probably come out even at this point. So, of the two who are jockeying for position as the top TE in this class, Eifert won the day. It doesn't mean he'll be the first TE drafted, and if he is, it doesn't mean he's going to be the better NFL player. But for what it's worth, he had the better Saturday. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he's slightly bigger and longer. He ran an unofficial 4.6 in the 40 and had an impressive 35-inch vertical leap.
Here's John Clayton's take:
Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz were considered the top two tight ends in the draft, and it's starting to look like it will be a good battle for the top spot. Eifert may have challenged for the lead after running a 4.68 compared to Ertz's 4.76.
40 times/bench

For complete workout results, you can check out the NFL.com combine page. Here's some of the top results for the fleet-footed and pectorally gifted (per NFL.com).

Running backs
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: 4.49/18 reps
Kenjon Barner, Oregon: 4.52/20 reps
C.J. Anderson, Cal: 4.60/17 reps
Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: 4.76/17 reps

Wide receivers
Markus Wheaton, Oregon State: 4.45/20 reps
Marquess Wilson, formerly of Washington State: 4.51/7 reps
Robert Woods, USC: 4.51/14 reps

Quarterbacks
Matt Scott, Arizona: 4.69/Did not lift

Offensive line
Kyle Long, Oregon: 4.94/Did not lift
Brian Schwenke, Cal: 4.99/31 reps
Jeff Baca, UCLA: 5.03/ Did not lift
David Bakhtiari, Coloraod: 5.09/28 reps
Khaled Holmes, USC: Did not run/13 reps

Tight end
Nick Kasa, Colorado: 4.71/22 reps
Zach Ertz, Stanford: 4.76/24 reps
Levine Toilolo, Stanford: 4.86/17 reps

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
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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.

Pac-12 sees 38 invited to NFL combine

February, 8, 2013
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The official list of college players invited to the NFL combine is out and 38 from the Pac-12 made the cut. At least one player from every team in the conference was invited. A total of 333 players were invited and workouts begin Feb. 23. You can see the complete list here.

Pac-12 bold predictions for 2013

January, 15, 2013
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As all of you know, the Pac-12 blog -- Kevin and myself -- is bold. Not bold like, "Hey, this is a bold cabernet!" but bold like a guy willing to jump into a volcano to save his remote control.

There is no fear with the Pac-12 blog. None. Other than cockroaches. We don't like those. And I personally found "The Ring" pretty unsettling, but it's not as if I woke up with nightmares for a month or anything ("Don't you understand, Rachel... she never sleeps!").

The point is you folks out there know we'd storm the beaches at Normandy in Speedos to protect your freedoms.

Bold.

So, without further delay, we present BOLD PREDICTIONS for 2013.

The Pac-12 will dethrone the SEC and win the final BCS national title: The SEC's streak of seven national titles will come to an end in an appropriate place: the Rose Bowl. But who will do the honors, ruining Alabama and Nick Saban's hopes for a three-peat?

That team will be Oregon: The Ducks have a lot of nice pieces coming back in 2013 -- 15 position players -- but the key one will be Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Bruce SchwartzmanCan Marcus Mariota lead Oregon to a national championship?
Yes, that's Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota: Mariota will be in New York with USC receiver Marqise Lee and Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, but it will be the Hurling Honolulan walking away with the bronze statue this time.

No Pac-12 coach will be fired in 2013: Considering there's only one coach truly on the hot seat, what we're really saying is...

Lane Kiffin and USC will post a bounce-back season: We expect the Trojans to win 10 games -- that's with a highly favorable 13-game schedule, by the way -- and return to the national rankings. Although the Trojans won't return to dominance, they will play better all-around football in 2013, and it will be enough to quiet Kiffin's critics -- at least enough for him to return in 2014. We don't, however, expect USC to win the South Division.

Oregon will play Arizona State in Pac-12 title game: The Sun Devils will emerge from a pack that includes the Trojans and UCLA to win the South.

Stanford won't win the North, but it will play in a BCS bowl game. Again: The Cardinal will lose only to Oregon and finish ranked in the top five.

The Pac-12 will finish 2013 with six teams in the Top 25: That will be six of this seven: Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Oregon State.

The Washington renaissance will arrive: The Huskies will finish 9-3 in 2013, opening the new Husky Stadium in style.

Colorado will win four games in Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre: And Buffs fans will be reasonably encouraged.

Washington State will go 5-7 in Year 2 under Mike Leach: And Cougs fans will be reasonably encouraged, particularly when the offense starts to look Leachian.

The sledding will be rough in Sonny Dykes' first season at California: The Bears don't have great talent coming back, but the schedule is the biggest problem. By my guess, Dykes will play eight ranked teams in his first season, including a strong Big Ten duo at home the first and third weekends of the season (Northwestern and Ohio State).

Arizona's offensive numbers will make everyone realize how good Matt Scott was: Arizona averaged 37 points and 522 yards per game last year because of QB Matt Scott, who ranked seventh in the nation in total offense with 338.5 per game. He was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez's K offense. We expect the Wildcats' offense to take a step back in 2013, whether B.J. Denker or JC transfer Jesse Scroggins wins the QB job. As good as national rushing champion Ka'Deem Carey is, he will find the holes a bit smaller without Scott, even with a solid offensive line coming back.

Defenses will continue to rise: Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be first-team preseason All-Americans, and Stanford will again have one of the nation's top 10 defenses. But we also expect across-the-board improvement on defense.

But it will still be the Conference of QBs: Mariota will win the Heisman and again earn the first-team All-Pac-12 nod, but the battle for second-team will be hot between Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Washington's Keith Price, who will be the conference's Comeback Player of the Year.

Players of the Year? Mariota and Barr will win the offensive and defensive player of the year awards in the conference. Sutton and Stanford's David Yankey will repeat as Morris Trophy winners as the best linemen. Incoming Oregon running back Thomas Tyner will win offensive freshman of the year, and USC redshirt freshman linebacker Jabari Ruffin will earn defensive freshman honors.

Breakout player: Junior Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks will earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors with Marqise Lee.

Breakout player II: Dykes will figure out a way to get talented junior running back Brendan Bigelow touches. Bigelow will make Dykes glad he did.

Speaking of newcomers: Utah doesn't look as if it sets up for a great 2013, in large part thanks to issues on both lines. But things might perk up if 6-foot-4, 330-pound defensive tackle Junior Salt proves equal to expectations. And stays healthy. Salt was a JC transfer -- a former Florida recruit -- who sat out last year after breaking his foot in August. Coach Kyle Whittingham practically blushed talking about him and how he made Star Lotulelei look small.

And Oregon State's starting QB in 2013 is ...: Heck, what do you think we are... psychic?

ESPN.com All-Pac-12 team

December, 10, 2012
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It wasn't easy putting together an All-Pac-12 team for 2012. Lots of tough choices, particularly at running back, where four guys were deserving.

It was difficult to leave off UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. As a tandem, they are better than just about any other conference's first-team backs.

Oregon, the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at season's end, led the way with six players. UCLA and Stanford, which played for the Pac-12 title, had four each. Oregon State had three. California, Colorado and Washington were shut out.

Offense
QB Marcus Mariota, RFr., Oregon
RB Ka'Deem Carey, So., Arizona
RB Kenjon Barner, Sr., Oregon
WR Marqise Lee, So., USC
WR Markus Wheaton, Sr., Oregon State
TE Zach Ertz, Jr., Stanford
OL Khaled Holmes, Sr., USC
OL David Yankey, Jr., Stanford
OL Hroniss Grasu, So., Oregon
OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, So., UCLA
OL Jeff Baca, Sr., UCLA
K Andrew Furney, Jr., Washington State
KR Reggie Dunn, Sr., Utah

Defense
DE Dion Jordan, Sr., Oregon
DT Star Lotulelei, Sr., Utah
DT Will Sutton, Jr., Arizona State
DE Scott Crichton, So., Oregon State
OLB Anthony Barr, Jr., UCLA
ILB Michael Clay, Sr., Oregon
OLB Chase Thomas, Sr., Stanford
CB Jordan Poyer, Sr., Oregon State
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, So., Oregon
S Ed Reynolds, So., Stanford
S Deone Bucannon, Jr., Washington State
P Jeff Locke, Sr., UCLA

Wildcats prepping for the Star effect

November, 14, 2012
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On the heels of Ka'Deem Carey's record-setting performance last week against Colorado, the Arizona Wildcats have shifted their attention to a big problem this week when they travel to Utah. Much bigger. A 6-foot-4, 320-pound kind of problem.

No doubt, the Wildcats' offensive line will be keeping an eye out for Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the wrecking ball in the middle who eats up blockers and alters game plans with his bulky presence.

"We don’t have any players that are similar to his size, strength and speed to emulate it in practice," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. "He has been a dominant player in this league for a couple of years and he will be a first-round draft pick. They will move him around as well and he won’t be lined up on the same person each time. Our guys up front have to watch the film and play with great leverage and intensity.”

[+] EnlargeStar Lotulelei
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesStar Lotulelei presents an unprecedented challenge to Arizona and its rushing attack.
The Arizona running attack is feeling pretty good about itself after last week's showing from Carey, who rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards with five touchdowns against the Buffs.

"On Saturday, Ka’Deem was really good with his eyes," Rodriguez said. "There were times where he may have missed a cut or two but for the most part, his vision was really good with regards to how the play was unfolding. I think he can get better at that part and he’s only a sophomore.”

Despite a tough season, Utah still poses one of the toughest rush defenses in the conference, ranking third while allowing 110.7 yards per game. Lotulelei is a big part of that, because running up the middle is a challenge for most teams when he's clogging the interior gaps.

“He’s a big, physical player and an anchor of the defensive line," said Arizona offensive lineman Trace Biskin. "For us it’s just going to be a matter of handling assignments and playing physical off the ball. If we do that and allow Ka’Deem to run and open some passing lanes, we’ll be okay.”

Not only is this Utah's final home game, but it's also a do-or-die game for the Utes and their postseason hopes. Utah (4-6 overall, 2-5 Pac-12) has to win out to reach bowl eligibility. The Wildcats (6-4, 3-4) locked it up last week with their home win over the Buffs.

Arizona has been one of the most efficient running teams in the conference, trailing only Oregon and averaging 215 yards on the ground per game with 25 touchdowns. They won't alter who or what they are because of one player.

“It’s too late in the season to change what we are doing," Rodriguez said. "We really just need to play well up front. We have not gotten a lot of push at the line of scrimmage this year so I wouldn’t expect to do it against Star and their front. They are bigger and stronger than our previous opponents. The key for us is to have great leverage.”

Pac-12 superlative tracker

November, 14, 2012
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We're tracking the offensive, defensive and coach-of-the-year races in the Pac-12.

For a more thorough look at offense, re-read our Heisman Trophy update.

Offensive player of the year

1. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: Lee caught 10 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the win over Arizona State. He ranks second in the nation in both receptions (9.8) and receiving yards per game (144.7). He may play defense against UCLA.

2. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: Barner rushed 20 times for 65 yards and caught three balls for 35 yards in the win over California. He didn't score a touchdown. He ranks fourth in the nation with 136 yards rushing per game and leads the conference with 19 touchdowns.

3. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Mariota completed 27 of 34 passes for 377 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in the win over Cal. That's a 230.79 passing efficiency rating. He now ranks No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency. He is completing nearly 72 percent of his passes with 28 TDs.

4. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Colorado, averaging 14.6 yards on his 25 carries. He now ranks second in the nation with 138.1 yards rushing per game. He is second to Barner with 18 TDs.

5. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA: He rushed 19 times for 66 yards in the win over Washington State. He also caught four passes for 45 yards and a score. He ranks sixth in the nation with 127 yards rushing per game.


Keep an eye on: Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton; USC QB Matt Barkley


Defensive player of the year

1. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA: Barr recorded eight tackles, 2.5 sacks -- one of which produced a safety -- and blocked a punt in the win over Washington State. He has 11 sacks this season. He's second in the Pac-12 with 1.1 sacks per game and second with 1.7 tackles for a loss per game. He also has three forced fumbles.

2. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State: Poyer, who sat out last week with a knee injury, returned to action against Stanford and recorded five tackles, including one for a loss. He is No. 2 in the nation with 0.63 interceptions per game. For the season, he's got 27 tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack, forced fumble, five interceptions and nine pass defenses.

3. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State: Sutton had eight tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack in the loss to USC. He leads the conference in sacks (1.19 per game) and tackles for a loss (1.89 per game). He ranks fourth in the nation in sacks per game.

4. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Lotulelei had two tackles and a sack in the loss to Washignton. He's sixth on the Utes with 33 tackles and leads the team with nine tackles for a loss. He also has four sacks, three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

5. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State:Crichton had a tackle for a loss against Stanford. He is third in the Pac-12 in both sacks (1.0 per game) and tackles for a loss (1.17 per game). His sack total ranks eighth in the nation. For the season, has 34 total tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and a forced fumble.

Keep an eye on: Washington CB Desmond Trufant; Oregon LB Kiko Alonso.

Coach of the year

1. Chip Kelly, Oregon: Kelly is in position to win his fourth consecutive Pac-12 crown and play for the national title for the second time in three years.

2. Mike Riley, Oregon State: If the Beavers win out, beating Oregon along the way, it's likely that Riley wins this award.

3. Jim Mora, UCLA: If the Bruins go to the Rose Bowl in Mora's first year, how could he not win the award?

Keep an eye on: Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
On Oct. 20, things were pretty dreary for Utah and Washington. The Utes had just lost their fourth Pac-12 game in a row at Oregon State. The Huskies had just lost their third conference game in a row at Arizona. Each season was at a proverbial crossroads, and the upcoming opponent was a tough one.

Both, however, got off the canvas, wiped away the blood shed the previous weeks, and came out swinging. The Utes dumped California and Washington State over the next two weeks, and the Huskies bested Oregon State and Cal.

Now both have seen sagging bowl hopes rise. Yet they stand in each others' way on Saturday. Utah visits Washington at its home-away-from-home, CenturyLink Field, with both trying to set a positive trajectory for the final quarter of the season.

For both, the uptick should be first traced to the schedule. It's gotten easier.

But both team are playing better, particularly the Utes previously-sputtering offense. Coach Kyle Whittingham noted that things have started to click in every area, see consecutive games with 49 points.

Said Whittingham, "I think it's the evolution of our quarterback, [true freshman] Travis Wilson. I think [offensive coordinator] Brian Johnson is starting to feel more comfortable. I think the offensive line has continued to improve. You've got guys making plays. Very few mistakes. We're not dropping footballs and committing ignorant penalties. I think it's all the way around. John White is back on track."

The formula is efficient play from Wilson and 100-yard efforts from White. The Utes are 11-0 over the past two seasons when White hits the century mark, which includes the last two wins.

As for the Huskies, the offense has been consistently underwhelming, but the defense has taken a big step forward under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies are giving up 26.3 points per game, nearly 10 fewer than a year ago, an 393.4 yards per game, 60 fewer than last year. Last year, they gave up 6.4 yards per play, this year they are yielding 5.8.

The big issues here will be the play of the offensive lines, and Wilson dealing with a boisterous road crowd. Wilson's first two starts were on the road, and the Utes scored just 21 points combined at UCLA and Oregon State.

As for the lines, both have been works in progress throughout the season. And both have played better of late.

"I feel good about the progress that we have made," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think they have matured especially the last two weeks and hopefully we can continue that the next three weeks.''

The Huskies young line should have its hands full with the Utes tough front-seven, led by All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who figures to command two interior blockers.

"Star is a tremendous player," Sarkisian said. "It starts right there in the middle with 92."

For the Utes offense, it starts with establishing White and not putting pressure on Wilson to throw on the road.

If Washington wins, it will improve to 6-4 and become bowl eligible with winnable games ahead at Colorado and Washington State.

If Utah wins, it will even its record at 5-5 and only need to split its final two games with Arizona and at Colorado.

It's fair to say that the winner will be on the cusp of a successful season, while the loser might feel like it's Oct. 20 again.

Cody Vaz stays cool under pressure

October, 18, 2012
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Cody VazGeorge Frey/Getty ImagesCody Vaz threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns Saturday in his season debut.
Now that Cody Vaz is a week into his career as a starting quarterback for Oregon State, we have learned that he throws a pretty good deep ball. We've learned that he's cool under pressure and he can operate the West Coast offense with efficiency and protect the football.

But his blocking skills? Well, those leave a little something to be desired.

He was able to chip just enough on BYU's Bronson Kaufusi in the fourth quarter to spring Markus Wheaton on a 12-yard reverse for a touchdown. But it wasn't a pretty.

"It wasn't a classic," said head coach Mike Riley with a laugh. "We all had fun with that one in the aftermath."

Fun was the theme Saturday after the backup quarterback paced the Beavers to a 42-24 win at BYU in his first collegiate start.

Since replacing Sean Mannion last week, Vaz has been inundated with question after question about how the chemistry would work with receivers Wheaton, Brandin Cooks and the rest of OSU's playmakers. It's the one question, Vaz said, he was tired of answering.

No more questions about chemistry this week. Vaz opened the game by completing eight of his first 10 passes (the two incompletes were batted at the line) for 157 yards and two touchdowns. He was 6-of-6 to start the game.

"I was actually pretty steady," Vaz said. "I wasn't nervous. I was just anxious. I was actually kind of [ticked] off. I just wanted to get out and play. I was tired of just sitting around and waiting for the game to get going. I wanted to be out there. "

He finished 20 of 32 for 332 yards and three touchdowns.

"We just want to keep it going," Vaz said. "We have to build off of this last week. It was a good win, but at the same time, it's in the past. Right now, we're solely focused on Utah and we're just preparing for Saturday and trying to get ready for everything they throw at us."

Despite Utah's 2-4 record, the Utes still have one of the more formidable defensive lines in the conference, headlined by Star Lotulelei. One key matchup will be Lotulelei lining head up on true freshman center Isaac Seumalo. Still, Vaz isn't having nightmares of the 320-pound Lotulelei bearing down on him.

"I have a lot of faith in my offensive line that they'll be able to handle him," Vaz said. "Isaac Seumalo is one of the best young linemen in the country."

If there were folks inching their fingers toward the panic button when Mannion went down last week, Riley wasn't one of them. Having spent so much time with Vaz, he was pretty sure the junior wouldn't get too caught up in the moment.

"I was thinking the other day, I'm probably around the backup quarterback more than any other player on our team -- whether it's on the sidelines during games or in meetings or on the sideline in practice because he always stands with me if he's not in and he doesn't get as many turns as the starter," Riley said. "I know Cody real, real well. He's a neat guy, pretty darn cool and calm and he's always been very confident. The only thing I said to him all week, I said "whatever you do out there, just go play and do what you can do.'"

And he did. But as Vaz says, last week is in the books and a Utah team, desperate to salvage anything from this season, comes to town. The support from his teammates has been stellar. And having spent so much time in the offense, Vaz is well-versed in the scheme and feels confident he can get to any play in the playbook.

He also called last week the best situation possible for him. The fact that he knew he was going to be the starter and had a week to prepare took all of the pressure off of him.

"I'd rather have a whole week to prepare and know I'm the starter," he said. "Being a backup is a tough situation. You're always on edge the whole game wondering if you'll go in. Having a week to prepare and knowing you are going to be the starter, I'd much rather have it that way."

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