Pac-12: Barry Sanders

Somewhere on a playground -- probably in Texas -- there are kids arguing about whose father was the better football player.

"My dad was better than your dad."

"No, my dad was obviously better than your dad. If Coach woulda put him in in the fourth quarter, he would've been a state champion. No doubt. No doubt in my mind."

Barry J. Sanders was never one of those kids, but if he was the argument would have ended pretty quickly: "1988."

ESPN.com readers voted this week and determined it was that year in which Sanders' father, the elder Barry Sanders, turned in the best season in college football history. There were plenty of good options to choose from -- including Vince Young's 2005 season at Texas, which was the other finalist -- but the whole time there was only one common-sense choice.

Pops isn't one to talk much publicly about that season -- it's just not his style. But with his son, who is now fighting for playing time in a crowded Stanford backfield, he's surely spoken at length about the year Dad won the Heisman Trophy, right?

“Not directly, no,” the younger Sanders said this week.

Of course, that doesn't mean he hasn't gone out and done his own research. He's watched plenty of highlight tapes and read up on it as best he could.

When asked what he knows about that season, Sanders was quick to rattle off his father's accomplishments, one after the next.

"I know that he broke or set 38 NCAA records that year," Sanders said with pride. "And he had something like 2,600 yards, not including the bowl game and almost 2,900 and 40-plus touchdowns including that bowl game.

"Incomparable year to any other running back in the history of the game."

And there was really no need to limit it to just running backs.

Sanders said the football discussions he has with his father, a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, are more about how he should have fun playing the game. They talk about competing and about what he learned from his experiences.

Coincidentally, 1988 also was the final year of a four-year stretch in which Willie Shaw, the father of Stanford coach David Shaw, was on the coaching staff for the Detroit Lions. The following year, the Lions made Sanders the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft and Shaw moved on to Stanford, where he was named the Cardinal's defensive coordinator.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

We continue the series with running backs.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: The combination of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should be as dangerous as ever. De'Anthony Thomas never really grew into the role as an every-down back, but Marshall carried 168 times for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tyner slowly picked up more carries and finished with 115 for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Folks are also excited to see what incoming freshman Royce Freeman brings to the table. This is a scary corps, even before you realize that Marcus Mariota also carried 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

USC: The emergence of Buck Allen was a pleasant surprise after he spent much time in Lane Kiffin purgatory. He boasted 5.8 yards per carry to go with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be pushed by Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan, who is back after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. This is a group that could do damage in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense. Think about what Bishop Sankey did last year.

Arizona State: Marion Grice was a touchdown machine. But D.J. Foster is no slouch after rushing for 501 yards and catching 63 passes for 653 yards in a dual-threat role. The local product is explosive and has big-play speed. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks, back from injury, provide depth since Mike Norvell won't want to pass up the opportunity to use Foster in the slot at times. The depth has ASU teetering on the Great Shape/Good Shape fence, but Foster's experience and explosiveness give ASU a perfect replacement for Grice. So we're confident saying ASU is in great shape with him at the helm.

GOOD SHAPE

UCLA: No, we're not going to list Myles Jack as a running back. Get over it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Pac-12 blog he's been looking for Jordon James to make strides as a "one-cut" runner. He believes he has. And Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will press for carries with the intriguing Craig Lee waiting in the wings. Keep in mind it was quarterback Brett Hundley who led the Bruins in carries (160), yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Maybe ... just maybe ... we'll see Jack also pick up a few carries. The Bruins are dedicated to the run (only Oregon has more carries over the last three seasons) and they have the depth to deliver.

Stanford: No Tyler Gaffney. Four of five starters on the line are gone. Surely this is the year Stanford's running game takes a step backward, right? Probably not. The line will feature five members of the heralded 2012 recruiting class and a committee approach with Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young seems likely. Only Oregon and UCLA have attempted more rushes over the last three seasons, so the Cardinal are going to continue to be dedicated to the ground game. There is a lot of untapped potential with this group and they have a coach who loves to run the football. There are a lot of unknowns, but Stanford's recent history of success running the football warrants the benefit of the doubt to put them in the "Good Shape" column.

Utah: For now, it looks like Bubba Poole will be the primary back. But Kyle Whittingham and Co. are excited about the emergence of JC transfer Davontae Booker and the complementary role Troy McCormick might play. They aren't married to the idea of a single back. In fact, Whittingham told the Pac-12 blog he'd like to have situational flexibility. This trio provides that at Utah for the first time in a while. Spreading things out is a priority for new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. But don't be surprised to see a balanced attack if these three see success.

Colorado: The Buffs are surprisingly deep in the running backs department, with seasoned players like Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II, Tony Jones and Donta Abron returning. Powell (562 yards, three touchdowns) provided the power while Adkins emerged as a fine complement with 5.2 yards per carry (103 carries, 535 yards and six touchdowns). Look for the coaching staff to keep using those two in unison as a thunder-and-lightning tandem.

Oregon State: The running game, or lack thereof, has been a sore spot for Mike Riley the last couple of seasons. However, with last year's combination of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks the personnel dictated 603 passing attempts. With Cooks gone, the staff will look to Terron Ward and Storm Woods (who combined for 240 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns) to build off of last year's showing of 94.4 yards per game -- which was 11th in the conference. This tandem has the potential to be very good. It just has to go out and show it.

Washington State: That the Cougars return their top two rushers from last season, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, bodes well -- even in an offense in which the running back serves more to keep the opposition in check than to run the football. However, it might be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow who get the majority of the carries. The coaching staff was high on Morrow in the spring and if the Cougs can do just enough to keep the safeties guessing, it might open things up more for the Air Raid's primary objective.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats have to replace Ka'Deem Carey. No easy task. And it was made worse by the recent news that Pierre Cormier's won't be returning. That leaves carries to be divided among Nick Wilson, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Jonathan Haden is still waiting to get cleared and Jared Baker missed the spring with an injury from last year's ASU game. Look for special packages with DaVonte' Neal as well. The Wildcats are silly with wide receivers, which could help open things up in the running game.

California: The Bears averaged just 122.2 rushing yards per game last year -- ninth in the league. Despite the reputation for being a pass-happy team, the coaches would actually prefer more balance, so they'll need better production out of oft-injured Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The departed Brendan Bigelow had the most carries (105) last year, but Muhammad and Lasco combined for 141 totes for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Muhammad is the burner at 175 pounds while Lasco has the bigger frame at 200 and change. Incoming freshman Tre Watson is also an intriguing prospect.

Washington: Like Arizona, the Huskies must replace a phenomenal back in Sankey. But there are options. Dwayne Washington was the No. 2 behind Sankey last year, rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries. Behind him are Jesse Callier, who was the original starter in 2012 before his injury gave rise to Sankey, and Deontae Cooper. Both have a history of knee injuries. Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman could see time. We'll see isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means, we'll see.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback
The first round of spring games in the Pac-12 kicks off Saturday with Colorado, Arizona and Stanford. All three games are free to the public. Here’s a primer on what you need to know.

Arizona

Where: Arizona Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)


What to watch: The Wildcats are in the hunt for a new quarterback to replace B.J. Denker and a new running back to replace Ka'Deem Carey. Rich Rodriguez hasn’t said much on the quarterback front, with Anu Solomon, Connor Brewer, Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall and Nick Isham. Per Rodriguez, “one through five is pretty much bunched up.” You read that right --- one through five! How those reps all get divided will be very telling if Rodriguez is leaning one way. Or you could just crush some tea leaves and check the planetary alignment. Because right now, those make as much sense as any guesswork. One note about returning wide receiver Austin Hill, a 2012 Biletnikoff Award semifinalist who missed all of last season with a knee injury: “He won’t play a whole lot,” Rodriguez said. “He played a lot in spring. We will give him a couple series. He is a proven veteran and we know what we have in him. He’s slowly getting his confidence back. He’s 100 percent, but there’s a transition period in getting your confidence back.” … There will also be a celebrity/alumni flag football game kicking off at 11:15 a.m.

Colorado

Where: Folsom Field
Kickoff: Noon MST
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: Obviously, there is going to be a lot of attention at wide receiver to see who steps in for the departed Paul Richardson. The Buffs are eyeballing a rotation/committee of D.D. Goodson, Devin Ross, Bryce Bobo and Elijah Dunston. There is no Richardson out there. So, as Colorado wide receivers coach Troy Walters recently said: “We’re going to have to do it collectively … if we get two or three guys to do with P-Rich did, then we’ll be in good shape.” Richardson caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. On the other side of the ball, guarding those receivers has been an interesting power struggle. The Buffs look set at their two starting cornerback spots with Greg Henderson and Kenneth Crawley. But developing depth has sparked a pretty good competition with Chidobe Awuzie and juco transfer Ahkello Witherspoon. (Colorado is quickly making a push to contend for the Pac-12 blog’s all-scrabble team.) … After the game, Colorado will host a Healthy Kids Day. Children can go through fitness stations with athletes from all of Colorado’s sports programs and get a free T-shirt.

Stanford

Where: Stanford Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PST (fan activities begin at 12:15)
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: How will the running back carries be divided? With Remound Wright suspended for the second half of spring practice, that opens the door for Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale to get some extra work. The Cardinal are trying to replace Tyler Gaffney, who carried 330 times for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Recall a year earlier, they were trying to replace Stepfan Taylor and his 322 carries, 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Cardinal have used bell cows the last couple of seasons, though head coach David Shaw told the Pac-12 blog he’d prefer to have multiple guys working in a committee – similar to the stable of the 2011 group. Keep an eye on the offensive line as well. All five projected starters are from the much-heralded 2012 recruiting class. … All players will be available after the game to sign autographs.
All indications are that Stanford is going to be a running-back-by-committee team in 2014.

You’ve heard this one before, right? Wasn’t that the word out of spring this time last year?

Then Tyler Gaffney galloped in, fresh off a minor league baseball career, and the Cardinal rode him to the tune of 330 carries, 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders is one of several Stanford running backs battling for carries this fall.
Now the Cardinal are once again looking for a “starting” running back. This time, however, there will be no Gaffney; no baseball transfers (does Mark Appel have any eligibility left?); no veteran back with tons of experience to carry the load for Stanford’s ground game.

With Stanford into its second session of spring ball, its running back competition is one of the most intriguing and hotly contested position battles in the Pac-12. Because recent history suggests that whichever of the four potential backs emerges as the No. 1 option, he’s likely to have a stellar season. Stanford has produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2008. But picking that No. 1 could take some time.

“I don’t know how you pick a starter today, because they all have something they do better than the other,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren.

When you think of Stanford’s rushing attack of late, it evokes images of bell cows and dust and a trio of yards. And the last couple of seasons, that’s exactly what it’s been. In 2013 Gaffney accounted for 56 percent of his team’s carries and 59 percent of its rushing yards. The year before that, Stepfan Taylor carried 322 times and accounted for 58 percent of the rushes and 62 percent of the yards on the ground.

But that’s not necessarily the identity that Stanford head coach David Shaw is most comfortable with. Sure, if he has a back who can haul it more than 300 times in a season, he’s already shown that’s what he’s going to do. But backs who can carry that kind of workload don’t grow on trees.

“When you hit the middle of the season, you’d like to have three or four guys who are still fresh,” Shaw said. “It’s just kind of how it happened the last couple of years. The 300-plus carries are gasping. But doggone it, Tyler Gaffney was 220 pounds and in great shape and he can carry it. That’s not normal. Toby Gerhart wasn’t normal. Fortunately we were OK with Tyler holding up. But I’d prefer not do that to anybody again if we don’t have to.”

This year’s quartet of potential backs -- Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders -- smacks more of Stanford’s 2011 stable. That year, Taylor carried 242 times. But other backs had their roles and niches. Gaffney (pre-baseball) and Anthony Wilkerson played supporting roles to Taylor. Jeremy Stewart was a short-yardage monster. Even the fullbacks combined for 22 carries. And of Stanford’s 518 rushing attempts that year, Taylor accounted for only 46 percent. That kind of distribution is more preferable to Shaw.

The 2014 Cardinal running game might have a similar look. And that’s not a bad thing. Unlike a quarterback competition, where a potential starter could be sitting on the bench because the guy in front of him is simply that much better, running backs have various roles they can fill. One guy might be better in short yardage. Another might be stronger in the screen game. Yet another can hit the edge better than the guy who goes up the middle. The ability to be multiple is more on par with what the Cardinal want to do.

“We have a lot of versatility at that position,” Shaw said. “But we also feel like any one of those guys in any given game could come in and carry it 20-plus times and potentially get over 100 yards. All of them have that ability. But we also feel good about the different combinations we can create with those guys.”

According to Bloomgren, Wright seems to be the “steadiest” of the four carrying the ball and in pass protection. Seale has improved his pass protection and has displayed good cutting and vision. Bloomgren described Young as “lightning in a bottle.” Recall he was used as more of a scat back before moving over to running back full time. And finally there’s Sanders.

“It’s hard to talk about Barry last, but when you talk about those other guys age-wise, that’s where he falls,” Bloomgren said. “He’s done some things that are unbelievable. He’s had a couple of those moments in scrimmages where he dead-legs people and leaves them in his wake … we just need him to be a better pass protector.”

So once again, the Stanford staff is preaching running back by committee. And this year, it looks like they really mean it.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division.

We looked at the South Division offensive three-headed monsters on Monday. On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the North Division offense.

Only Cal and Washington State return their three-headed leaders from last season. The other four teams have all had a change of some kind. And there are some big question marks surrounding a couple of schools -- especially the one in Seattle.

Let’s take a look:

1. Oregon

QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall, WR, Bralon Addison

The skinny: Heisman candidate + rising star + explosive playmaker = nasty. Though losing Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, the Oregon offense should be explosive once again. Mariota led the nation in adjusted QBR last season to go with 31 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. Marshall is a returning 1,000-yard rusher with 14 touchdowns last season, and Addison hauled in nine scores.

2. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB ?, WR Ty Montgomery

The skinny: The Cardinal get the No. 2 spot here based on experience at quarterback and the fact Montgomery is returning after a second-team all-league year. And whoever the “regular” running back is, be it Kelsey Young (the leading returner in yards), Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders or Remound Wright, he will be running behind a stellar offensive line. Worth noting that Hogan and Montgomery had more rushing yards last year than any of the listed running backs. But Stanford's success running the football leads the Pac-12 blog to give it the benefit of the doubt.

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, WR Richard Mullaney

The skinny: Though the Beavers lose Brandin Cooks, Mannion has the potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country after throwing 37 touchdowns last year. Storm Woods had more carries and touchdowns, but Ward had more yards, so they’ll likely work in unison, again. Mullaney had 52 catches last season.

4. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, WR Gabe Marks

The skinny: WSU gets the edge in the rankings over Washington (for now) because there are still a lot of question marks around the Huskies. Halliday tossed 34 touchdowns last year and threw for nearly 4,600 yards. Marks has blossomed into a bona fide playmaker and should be in the mix for all-conference honors. The Cougars don’t do much in the way of running the football. But when they did last year, Mason totaled 429 yards on 87 carries.

5. Washington

QB?, RB Jesse Callier, WR, Jaydon Mickens

The skinny: Washington is one of those programs that could end up in one of the top two spots by the end of the season. But for now, there is too much unknown. The status of QB Cyler Miles is still up in the air. Callier has the most returning attempts (one more than Dwayne Washington and five more than Deontae Cooper) and the Huskies expect Kasen Williams back by the fall at receiver. Mickens caught 65 balls and five touchdowns last year and the aforementioned RB trio combined for 10 touchdowns.

6. California

QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs

The skinny: There is a lot of potential in this group. The Bears just need that potential to translate into points on the field. Goff threw for 3,508 yards in his debut season, and Treggs caught 77 of his passes. Though just one for a touchdown (Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler each caught five). Though the departed Brendan Bigelow had more carries, Muhammad outperformed him with more yards and touchdowns.
There are plenty of issues Pac-12 teams will be addressing this spring. Here are some that are front and center for your Pac-12 insiders.

Ted Miller: Spring practice is the official transition from taking stock of the 2013 season, including recruiting, to looking ahead to next fall. The 2013 season was all about top-to-bottom depth for the Pac-12 -- and the lack of an elite national-title contender. That might be the case again in 2014, but if the conference is going to be nationally relevant in Year 1 of the four-team College Football Playoff, I think it will be because of the depth and quality of the quarterbacks.

If Travis Wilson is cleared to play at Utah, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back their 2013 starters, and many of these guys are All-American candidates, most notably Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHaving Brett Hundley back makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
The big question for these guys is if they can be better this season than last. If that happens -- for the above four and the six other returning starters -- then it should be a high-flying season with lots of offense. And perhaps a team emerges as a candidate for the playoff.

What most interests you this spring with the Pac-12?

Kyle Bonagura: As a result of the continuity at quarterback, offenses should be in line for a collective step forward. How far could be determined by how quickly the conference's seven new defensive coordinators acclimate to -- and perform at -- their new jobs.

We won't get a great read on how that process is going during the spring, but it'll be interesting to see in what ways defenses evolve moving forward.

For Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, the change will be minimal. Todd Graham will remain heavily involved in how ASU plays defense, and the other three promoted staff members will use the framework and schemes already in place. USC might have a new staff, but considering coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were in the conference last season, it should be an easy transition.

I'm more interested to see how things play out at California and Washington.

Washington is set up for success with the much-anticipated arrival of longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who brought his defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Pete Kwiatkowski. They have a talented front seven to work with and a favorable early schedule that will allow the staff to iron out any kinks: at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State.

Art Kaufman's job taking over the Cal defense won't be as easy. The Golden Bears should be in better shape than last season from a health and experience standpoint -- the latter partially a result of 2013's injury woes -- but there's a lot of ground to cover between where they were and being competitive.

Ted Miller: One team that had coaching continuity at both coordinator spots is Arizona, and I think the Wildcats are setting up to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South, though I do see UCLA as a strong favorite at this point. The intrigue with Arizona, though, is at quarterback. It seems like the most wide-open competition in the conference.

If Cyler Miles gets back in Petersen's good graces, he's got a significant lead for the Washington QB vacancy. At USC, I think that Cody Kessler is likely to retain his starting job over touted redshirt freshman Max Browne. Kessler steadily improved as a difficult season went on, and he still has his 2013 offensive coordinator/position coach in Clay Helton. At Utah, a healthy Wilson starts for the Utes.

But Arizona has four guys with a legitimate shot at winning the starting QB job this fall: Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer and junior Jerrard Randall. Solomon was one of the jewels of the 2013 recruiting class, while the other three are transfers from A-list programs -- Scroggins from USC, Brewer from Texas and Randall from LSU.

The first big question will be whether Rich Rodriguez narrows the field at the end of spring practices. How much does he want to establish a clear pecking order? You'd think at least one of these guys is going to be relegated to fourth place because there are only so many practice reps to go around.

The good news is the guy who wins the job is going to have an outstanding crew of receivers. He won't have running back Ka'Deem Carey lining up as a security blanket behind him, but Rodriguez's offenses almost always run the ball well. The Wildcats will average more than 200 yards rushing again next season, I feel confident saying that.

The million-dollar question -- the difference between competing for the South title and winning eight games again -- is how efficient the guy behind center is.

Any position battles particularly intrigue you this spring?

Kyle Bonagura: Like you, I'm really intrigued to see how the quarterback competition at Arizona progresses. That's a lot of pressure for the three guys who already transferred from big-time programs. All of them clearly want to play, and it makes you wonder if one of them will end up at an FCS school before the season starts.

The most high-profile battle outside of quarterback has to be at Stanford, where four guys are competing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back. I was out at the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring last week -- and will be out there again on Saturday -- and what stood out immediately was how balanced the reps were. If Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young didn't have equal reps with the first team, it was close.

However it plays out, it's unlikely Stanford will feature one back like it has the past six years with Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart.

Wright probably holds a slight edge in terms of the overall package -- largely because of his capabilities in pass protection -- but there are more similarities than differences in comparing each guy. A lot of people ask about Sanders because of his famous father (my favorite football player as a kid), but the reality with him is that expectations were probably too high when he arrived. His name and recruiting profile are to blame, and the coaching staff isn't going to force his development.

Young, who switched back to running back from receiver, might be the most dangerous with the ball in his hands and Seale, a fifth-year senior, might have the best grasp of the offense.

Mailbag: Saban's evil plot

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:30
PM ET
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: What are your thoughts on the proposed new 10-second defensive substitution window rules, or what I'm calling "The Oregon Rule." Please explain to me how teams with smaller, faster players can ever expect to beat teams with bigger, stronger players if speed is not a viable weapon. I feel like I'm watching Nick Saban tell Chip Kelly to get off of his lawn in slow motion. Please make it stop. Football needs FEWER esoteric rules instead of more.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban would not win any popularity contests on the West Coast.
0006shy from Los Angeles writes: I just saw the proposed rule change to punish hurry-up offenses. What a joke! What an absolute joke! If the NCAA truly cares about player safety then they should ban games against FCS teams (USC, UCLA and Notre Dame have NEVER played an FCS team.) Nick Saban's five-star athletes pounding Chattanooga players for 60 minutes creates far more serious injuries than a no-huddle offense ever will.

John from Eugene, Ore., writes: Please, reassure us Pac-12 fans that this ridiculous rule change intended to slow down uptempo offenses is not going to pass. Please tell me that just because the rest of the football world seems to worship the ground Nick Saban walks on, that doesn't mean that the NCAA will pass rules that give him exactly what he's whining for? I can't imagine I'm the only person writing in on this. There's no way this proposed change is actually made, is there?

Ted Miller: Don't forget Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. He's as much behind this as Saban.

Further, yes, it is notable that the sudden concern for player safety comes from coaches who don't run uptempo attacks and have been gashed by them over the past few seasons. Hmm.

And, yes, their motives are, at best, 97.6 percent disingenuous. Bielema and Saban, a fantastic football coach who reportedly once ignored and stepped over a convulsing player, and others who support this proposed rule change, are doing so to gain a strategic advantage. Pure and simple.

The diversity of schemes in college football is one of the biggest reasons the sport is so popular. I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever that the sport would not be as popular -- probably not nearly so -- if everyone ran Alabama's or, yes, Stanford's offense.

A fast-paced game not only is fan-friendly, it -- as Haggmeez notes -- gives teams that rely on smaller, faster players a better chance to compete with teams with a gaggle of five-star recruits with NFL measurables.

As uptempo coaches such as Arizona's Rich Rodriguez have noted, if you really are concerned about player safety, make blitzing illegal. That would reduce the number of blow-up shots during game by 30 percent, a number that was arrived at with just as much science as went into this effort to thwart uptempo offenses.

Do I think it will pass? No.

But the NCAA is involved. It's presence tends to inspire stupid and/or disingenuous things to happen.


Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: Very happy to see that my top 25 list ran this past week (for the second year in a row, might I add). Obviously, since I kept all the same players on my list as the official Pac-12 Top 25, I didn't have any major problems with it. My question is in regard to the logic behind the order of some of the choices. In your response to my list, you mentioned that most people would probably pick Marcus Mariota first if holding a conference draft, and I tend to agree with that. But in that same scenario, someone like Marqise Lee would certainly be among the top 10 picks too, and I don't think he belongs in the top 25 for this past season. Later, you continue to assert that Will Sutton belongs ahead of Leonard Williams, even though (I assume) you and Kevin were responsible for Williams being named an ESPN first-team All-American. I guess my question is, when does production/accolades overshadow potential/other intangibles (like positional value), and when is it the other way around?

Ted Miller: Don't expect perfect logic. There are a variety of considerations -- many subjective -- that go into our weekly power rankings of teams, as well as our top-25 ranking of players.

It's a blend of factors such as postseason accolades, statistics, NFL prospects, positional value and a player's pure value to his team. Kevin doesn't consider NFL prospects as much as I do, though I think of that consideration as more of my mental draft picking -- as in, who would I pick first? -- when making a tough distinction.

That was my thinking for Mariota over Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey. You could argue that Carey was more accomplished in 2013, but I'd still say that Mariota's numbers plus his overall value, which is augmented by his playing the most important position, give him the edge.

You noted Marqise Lee. Good question. Lee, in terms of talent and potential, certainly is among the top 25 players in the Pac-12. Probably top 10. But you have to take into account what he actually did this season. His numbers, in large part due to poor QB play and injuries, were not very good. So his down numbers get prioritized over his talent, knocking him off this list.

In some ways, my "draft" idea also overlaps with production -- what a guy actually did that past season. And poor production mutes pure talent factors. See also, Thomas, De'Anthony.

Similar reasoning, by the way, also cost Stanford DE Ben Gardner. The coaches still gave him a first-team All-Pac-12 nod, despite his missing the season's final six games because of injury, but we pretty much ruled him out because of that. Not his fault, but that still seems reasonable to me.

As for Sutton and Williams, most would project Williams having a higher NFL upside. He also had slightly better numbers than Sutton this year, though Williams was a defensive end and Sutton a tackle. Yet what kicked Sutton up a notch was the simple fact he -- again -- was named the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches. That was slightly surprising, but it also was something that validated the idea that Sutton's numbers were down from 2012 because of blocking schemes that were obsessed with him, an invaluable benefit for a defense.

Are we always 100 percent consistent? No. But we do try.


Jonathan from New York writes: With respect to your concerns about Stanford being able to replace Tyler Gaffney's productivity at the running back position, I wonder if you had any insight into whether Barry Sanders has the potential to have a 1,500-yard season. It's true that Coach Shaw didn't give him enough carries this year to come to any conclusions, and even on the punt return unit he mostly had fair catches. But I don't know whether Sanders had such little playing time because Gaffney was just so dependable and successful, or whether it was because Sanders was not showing much potential in practice. Perhaps you don't know any more than I do, but I'd be curious for your take if you have any thoughts.

Ted Miller: My guess is Stanford won't have a back gain 1,500 yards next year. My guess is it will be more of a committee effort. I also think the Cardinal still will run the ball well, just not in the Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney one-workhorse way.

Of course, in advance of the 2014 season, I expected it to be 60-40 between Gaffney and backup Anthony Wilkerson. Gaffney just played too well to take him out.

As for Sanders, I really have no feeling for how things will play out for him next fall. While it's fun to imagine him being a clone of his father, perhaps the most thrilling ball-carrier in NFL history, it's probably unfair to expect him also to have once-in-a-generation talent.

Sanders will be competing with Remound Wright and Ricky Seale for carries, and I've heard little that suggests one is leaps and bounds superior to the other. They seem to have complementary skill sets, so that suggests they each get touches. As the season progresses, one would expect a more clear pecking order to develop.

This, by the way, is a good review of where the Cardinal stands at running back heading into spring practices.


Mitty from Saint Joe, Calif., writes: Which Pac-12 fan base do you most like to target with passive-aggressive shots? I've only noticed one. Kevin will get the same question because he targets the same fan base.

Ted Miller: Passive-aggressive? Moi?

I've always thought of myself as aggressive-aggressive, though my fuse, thankfully, has grown longer in my fourth decade.

Kevin and I, on occasion, discuss tweaks, insults and rants directed at us in the comment sections or elsewhere, but it takes up less of our time than you might think. We don't hold grudges. We really do try our best to remain as objective and fair as possible with all 12 teams. I've never heard anything from an official representative of a school -- coach, AD, sports information director, etc. -- suggesting we were being unfair or favoring or disfavoring a program. That's a fact we take a lot of pride in.

What I have noticed is that fans of teams that aren't doing well tend to think we are unfair to their team, whether that's about win-loss record or recruiting. The inescapable fact is teams that are winning get more coverage, just as teams that sign highly ranked recruits get more attention on national signing day.

Of course, more coverage for a team probably means more of their fans are showing up on the blog, and fans come in all forms. There clearly has been an "Oregon Effect" since the blog started in 2008. Ducks fans, by my unscientific estimates, seem to be the most active here, expressing both love and hate for your gentle bloggers.

But mostly love. Because it's impossible not to, in the end, love the Pac-12 blog.


GoCougs from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Kevin forgot about one Pac-12 alum's participation in the Super Bowl. Please pass on the love for Steve Gleason.

Ted Miller: Great stuff.

Gleason is an inspiration. An all-time great.
Though the season ended on a sour note, with a 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl presented by VIZIO, 2013 was another tremendously successful season for the Cardinal. Stanford posted an 11-win season and defended its Pac-12 crown. Heading toward signing day, it's doubtful this loss will damage any of the momentum the Cardinal have built on the recruiting trail. On the heels of a small recruiting class in 2013 -- Stanford signed just a dozen prospects -- Shaw and his assistants will be able to go after more recruits in the 2014 class, though this group still likely won't approach the maximum allowable limit of 25. At this point, Stanford's 2014 class ranks No. 28 in the nation and No. 4 in the Pac-12.

Stanford Cardinal season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
10:30
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We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season in reverse alphabetical order with the Stanford Cardinal.

Stanford

Coach: David Shaw (23-4)

2012 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12 North)

Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OLB Chase Thomas

Key returnees: QB Kevin Hogan, OT David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds

Newcomer to watch: Stanford loves to rotate its linebacking corps, and outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi is impressive. He was a five- or four-star recruit, depending on which service you follow, and was one of the highest-rated OLBs in the country. He has a strong chance to play his way into the rotation.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford coach David Shaw has smiled a lot since Kevin Hogan became the starting QB late in the 2012 season.
Biggest games in 2013: The eyes of a college football nation will be tuned in on Thursday, Nov. 7, to see Oregon’s trip to Palo Alto. But there are plenty of big games before and after that -- including Arizona State (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 5), UCLA (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 16) and the finale against Notre Dame (Nov. 30). If the Cardinal repeat as conference champs, they will have earned it.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It might have been the running back situation and the fact they have to replace Taylor. But Tyler Gaffney’s return from professional baseball adds experience and depth and bolsters a committee that should be able to mimic Taylor’s production. Receiving production, however, is still up in the air. Five of the top six receiving options from last year are gone -- including tight end Zach Ertz, Taylor and Drew Terrell. Ty Montgomery was sensational in 2011 and if he returns to form, could be a bona fide stretch-the-field threat. Behind him are a host of talented, but mostly unproven players. Look for Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield and freshman Francis Owusu (yes, that name should ring a bell), to work into the rotation.

Forecast: Expectations have never been higher for the Cardinal as they enter the year a preseason top-5 team. This is a veteran-heavy team that’s built to win tight games and grind opponents down in the fourth quarter.

The offensive focal point will be the progress of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who took over last season and went 5-0 as a starter -- including a 4-0 mark against Top 25 teams. He’s got one of the top offensive lines in the country -- headlined by All-American David Yankey -- protecting him, and a stellar defense has his back. Often forgotten is fullback Ryan Hewitt, who returns as one of the best in the country.

The running back group will be interesting to watch. Coach David Shaw strayed from his preferred by-committee method last season as Taylor carried 322 times -- most of anyone in the Pac-12. But he was that reliable. Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Barry Sanders et al should all contribute and carve out their niche in the offense.

Aside from the aforementioned receiving position, many are eager to see what tight end Luke Kaumatule can do stepping in as a full-time player. The Cardinal were spoiled the past few years with Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener. Now it’s Kaumatule’s turn to carry the torch for what has been the nation’s most productive tight end-driven offense the past couple of years.

There are no real weak spots on Stanford’s defense. Five of the front seven are back from last year -- including DE Ben Gardner, ILB Shayne Skov and OLB Trent Murphy. The defensive backfield features, arguably, the nation’s top safety tandem in Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards and Usua Amanam doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves as an outstanding nickel.

As noted above, the Cardinal play a very difficult schedule -- including four straight rivalry games to close out the season. This may seem daunting, and it is. But the Cardinal could have as many as 18 juniors or seniors in the starting 22, so chances are there isn’t a situation they haven’t seen or played through before. That experience will be invaluable as the Cardinal look to defend their conference title and try to make a run to another Rose Bowl -- or beyond.

Q&A: Stanford's Mike Bloomgren

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
11:00
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When Stanford coach David Shaw went looking for an offensive coordinator, he didn't look far, promoting Mike Bloomgren a couple of weeks after Pep Hamilton left for that role with the Indianapolis Colts. No other candidates were interviewed. Bloomgren, who was previously the Cardinal's offensive-line coach and run-game coordinator, took some time this week to chat with the Pac-12 blog about his expectations for this season (realistic or otherwise), the competition at running back and how his time in the NFL translates to the college game.

What would you like to see out of the offense in your first year as coordinator?

Mike Bloomgren: Well, probably average between eight or nine yards per carry, have zero incompletions and win every game we play.

Well played. What would you realistically like to see?

MB: I just want to see us keep getting better as a football team. I love the steps we've taken. I'm so proud of the way our guys work and how they fight and fight and fight. I want to keep seeing that mentality and hopefully they keep seeing that in the way we play. From an efficiency standpoint, protect the football and do all the things we talk about being the core of this offense.

What goes into game planning at Stanford? I know there were times when coach Shaw would call the plays and Pep would call plays and you'd call the plays. How much collaboration really goes into it?

MB: A lot. It was as segmented of a deal as I've ever been a part of when I first got here. And from what I understand, it was worse before I got here. Last year, it was segmented, but it worked out so freaking good. So much better than I thought possible. The reasons are very simple. We're experts in our field. There wasn't much that surprised me run-game-wise from the fronts and the defensive structure. I felt like I had a good beat on teams. I thought Pep and David and (running-backs coach) Mike Sanford had a good understanding for what the defense was going to do. David was all in on third down. He's so great at calling that. Pep in the red zone has been lights-out the last few years. It's great. It's a different system. The way I understand is it stems from coach Shaw working with Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan and how they did things when they came over to Oakland from Philly together. Jon was involved in calling the plays, but when he wanted to run, he asked coach Callahan. Hopefully I was able to be that for Dave the last few years.

There's so much NFL influence on this coaching staff -- you included from your time with the Jets. How much of the NFL game translates to what you guys want to do?

[+] EnlargeMike Bloomgren
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsMike Bloomgren will have a diverse group of running backs at his disposal in his first season as Stanford's offensive coordinator.
MB: It's unbelievable how much translates, in terms of the volume of the system and that it's done in a West Coast terminology. Bill Walsh called plays in this system -- so much of it stems from what he came up with. And it's probably the same system that's used in more than half of the teams in the NFL. That's why our free agents do so well. They are plug-and-play guys. They show up to camp and already know the terminology. The NFL influence is real. It's real on who we are and the mark that's left on this system.

Having already served as the run-game coordinator, how much does that help as you transition into the offensive coordinator job?

MB: Hopefully a lot. I'll be frank with you. I'll still be really involved in the run game and I was an offensive coordinator before at Delta State. Obviously, a smaller level of football, but it's still played on a field that's 100 yards long and the football still had air in it. And then my time in New York with Bill Callahan and Brian Schottenheimer was incredible in helping me understand what goes into make a game plan and calling a game on game day. Plus coach Shaw isn't going anywhere, so we'll continue to have that great communication.

Coach Shaw -- unfairly, as I've written many times -- gets a lot of criticism for being too conservative of a playcaller. What do you bring as a playcaller?

MB: I'm not going to be great at talking about that because I don't think he's conservative at all. He's so well thought-out. People think he's emotionless on the sidelines. But he's not! I think back at some of the calls we had over the last few years. I remember my time with Jimmy Raye in New York, he used to talk about "Diet Coke calls." I asked him one day, "Jimmy, what in the heck are Diet Coke calls?" He said, "You call it, you grab your Diet Coke and take a sip. Sometimes you watch what happens. Sometimes you don't. And you can tell by the crowd whether it's good or bad." We had a bunch of those. The halfback flip against USC to basically end the game. Critical calls on fourth-and-1. The wildcat calls we do. Reverses. I don't see the conservative approach. I don't get it.

What about you?

MB: I hope I bring something that is well thought-out and gives our kids answers. So no matter what we call from the sideline, we'll have programmed the quarterback and the offensive linemen with ways to solve whatever problems they have. We have a solid system. It's more than just being a playcaller on game day. We want our kids to have answers to whatever the defense gives them.

Now that you've been through spring, what's your take on the running backs?

MB: It's an exciting group. We were just watching some of Stepfan (Taylor's) highlights and we were like, "Dang, that guy was good." We won't have a guy that carried the load like Stepfan did the last few years -- especially last season. We've got six guys who could probably start at most schools in America and they are going to share the load. They probably could be every-down backs. But they have specialties. You look at how big Gaff (Tyler Gaffney) is right now, and oh my goodness. The way (Anthony) Wilkerson ran downhill in the Rose Bowl. The zone-running gurus are Ricky Seale and Barry (Sanders) and how they run outside and read things. You see that instinctive cut. The truth is those guys have such a good feel. Remound Wright and Jackson Cummings. If Jackson went to an Ivy League school, he'd probably be the league's all-time leading rusher by now. And he had a great spring. Those guys run the gap schemes, the who-we-are-Stanford-football plays, so well. It's going to be interesting to see where they put themselves after training camp. Who has a defined role? Who is going to snatch a job and say "Hey, I'm the third-down back. I'm going to catch it out of the backfield. I'm going to hit linebackers in their face when they try to pressure our quarterback." Who is going to win that role? Who is going to be the first- and second-down back that gets the most carries that game? And will it change from game to game?

Obviously the passing game has been catered to tight ends the last few years. How much do you need the wide receivers to be more involved?

MB: An absolute ton. Because they can handle it. You watch what Ty Montgomery did this spring and he was absolutely dominant. It's what we hoped to see last year because he was great his freshman year. We need him to not try to be any more than he is. He doesn't have to press. He doesn't have to feel any pressure. Because he is big-time good. He just needs to play his game. If he does that, we could see something that we haven't seen here in a while -- at least as long as I've been here. Then there are other guys with world-class speed. Michael Rector had a great spring. Kelsey Young is dynamic. We don't know what position he plays yet. We just call him a football player.

Finally, coach Shaw didn't interview anyone else for the offensive coordinator job. Humbling and flattering, I'm sure. But is there some pressure that goes with that?

MB: I don't know. I don't feel the pressure, to be honest. But it is remarkably humbling. When things are in the works you get calls from friends wondering if you'll get the interview. For David to say what he said within the press release was absolutely humbling. I love working for him and continuing to learn this game from him. We're all just trying to get better and be as good as we can be.
Unlike last year, there is no quarterback competition at Stanford. But the recently released post-spring depth chart does reveal some potentially interesting developments to eye-ball heading into fall.

Starting on offense -- there are only two running backs listed -- Anthony Wilkerson "or" Tyler Gaffney as the starter. Both are trying to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, though it's widely believed the Cardinal will take more of a committee approach than they did last year, when Taylor led the Pac-12 with 322 carries. There is plenty of depth, albeit mostly inexperienced, behind Gaffney and Wilkerson.

Also of note offensively is the addition of Kevin Danser on the depth chart at center. He's slated to start at right guard, though there is also an "or" separating Khalil Wilkes, Conor McFadden and Danser at center. It will be interesting to watch in the fall if Danser continues to get work at center. And if he wins the job, it would allow the Cardinal to insert Josh Garnett into the starting rotation at guard. That would give the Cardinal a starting front of Andrus Peat (LT), David Yankey (LG), Danser (C), Garnett (RG) and Cam Fleming (RT).

With the news of Josh Nunes' retirement yesterday, Evan Crower is locked in as the backup to Kevin Hogan and, for now, Devon Cajuste looks like he'll start opposite Ty Montgomery at receiver.

Fullback Geoff Meinken also announced he'll retire after struggling to return from a knee injury that kept him out of 2012.

At tight end -- Stanford's go-to receiving position the last couple of years -- Luke Kaumatule and Davis Dudchock are separated by an "or." However both will probably get a ton of work in Stanford's two-tight-end sets.

Defensively, there are only two "ors" on the depth chart. Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro have a good competition going at defensive and Blake Lueders and James Vaughters are undecided at the outside linebacker spot to release Chase Thomas. Though the Cardinal rotate backers and defensive linemen so frequently that "starter" is more of an honorary title.

Worth noting also that Devon Carrington, who has spent his career at safety, is also listed as a backup with Usua Amanam at right cornerback behind Wayne Lyons. Amanam is Stanford's go-to nickelback and Carrington is also backing up Ed Reynolds.

Looking at the specialists, up for grabs is the punter, which could go to either Ben Rhyne or Conrad Ukropina. Montgomery looks set at kick return while it's a four-way race between him, Kodi Whitfield, Keanu Nelson and Barry Sanders to return punts.

You can see the complete depth chart here and interpret it as you see fit.
After vigorous debate and consulting all stakeholders, we've officially come up with a name for the Pac-12 blog mailbag. From here on out, it will be known as the Pac-12 blog mailbag. Simple, sophisticated. We considered two divisions for when Ted and I do them -- he'd be the "Turf" Division and I'd be the "Surf" Division. But that was voted down by an executive counsel of former coaches and administrators.

So, enjoy the Pac-12 blog mailbag. And, as always, follow the blog on Twitter.

David in Billings, Mont., writes: Kevin, In your top 25 PAC-12 players for 2012-2013, you chose no players from Washington. Please explain how you were unable to recognize Desmond Trufant as worthy when he was selected # 22 in the NFL draft. He may not have had the stats you were looking for because nobody wanted to throw at him. Do you actually watch the games? Did you not recognize him because you hate Washington or is it because you don't know what you are talking about? I wonder why I bother reading your blog.

Kevin Gemmell: I've got a little secret. Whenever you see me write a story with the dateline "Seattle," I'm actually at El Gaucho enjoying the $74 Bone-In New York cut. It beats actually going to the game. They are just so crowded. And that stadium got sooooo loud last year. Why bother?

I'm not going to rehash our entire thought process again about the top 25. But you're welcome to read an extensive blogger debate Ted and I did back in February that digs into how we collaborated on the list. You'll see Ted and I both struggled over Trufant and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. I invite you to read it -- though since you are convinced I hate Washington (by the way, I had a great chat with Sark yesterday for a Q&A on Monday -- and I was sure to tell him how much I hate his team) -- it's not going to change any opinions. But for what it's worth, we did write on Wednesday that we believed Trufant would be picked in the first round. But the top-25 list wasn't just about a draft -- a lot of factors, stats, team success, number of players at certain positions etc. etc.

All I can say is I don't hate Washington and thanks for being a reader. Have a fantastic weekend and I hope you enjoy the Sark Q&A on Monday.




Rob in Santa Clara writes: What was your USC column about: USC or, your favorite team, UCLA? You are so fulla ... (NOTE: I wasn't familiar with the "sh" word Rob used at the end of his letter. After years of going to catholic school and a Jesuit college, I just assume he meant I'm fulla great insight and well-crafted arguments).

Kevin Gemmell: I don't hate Washington -- but man do I love me some UCLA! So much! My personalized Jim Mora alarm gently buzzed me awake this morning to the sweet sounds of "Is that a question or statement? Is that a question or a statement? Is that a question or a statement? Is that a ques (click)."

I pulled off my Bruins comforter, did one good long stretch on my Bruins sheets and then rolled out of bed and glided into my Bruins slippers. I put in my contacts, slipped on my Bruins beanie, looked deeply into the mirror and then did an eight-clap to get me ready for the day.

Big, big UCLA fan here.

And yet despite my unquenchable lust for all things UCLA, was I wrong?

Per the attached poll, I'm not. I suppose if I wrote Stanford was USC's most important game -- considering USC's recent struggles against the Cardinal -- you would have called Stanford my favorite team. (By the way, my David Shaw alarm clock is on its way. It's not as exciting as the Mora clock. It just says "power right" 50 times in a row).

USC's most important game is UCLA. And the fact that the Bruins pushed the Trojans around last year isn't opinion or misconstrued homerism -- it's fact.




Darryl in Oakland writes: Hey Kevin, Did Cody Kessler play in any games for SC last year? The reason that I ask is in the Athlon rankings blog article you said that you wouldn't rank Zack Kline ahead of other QBs in the 9 to 11 spots but you appear to be fine with Kessler, who unless I missed something, is just as unproven as Zack Kline is. For what it's worth, I've seen both of their High School tape and Kline is far superior than Kessler.

Kevin Gemmell: How dare you use my own logic against me! Grrrr.

You are 100 percent correct. However, the reason I would rank Kessler higher than the other inexperienced quarterbacks is 1) Kessler has the No. 1 wide receiver in the country in Marqise Lee and one of the brightest up-and-coming receivers in the league -- possibly the nation -- as his No. 2 in Nelson Agholor. Even with the loss of George Farmer, there is still an extremely deep receiving corps with Victor Blackwell, De'Von Flournoy and very good tight ends in Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. 2) He's been in the offense for a couple of years backing up Matt Barkley. He's not learning a new scheme from scratch and he has more continuity than the other inexperienced guys.

Pointing out the inconsistency in my logic is very reasonable -- and perhaps I should have specified that more in the original post. But given the weapons Kessler (or Max-squared) will have at their disposal, I don't think it's unreasonable to give him/them a slight bump over some of the other guys who are transitioning to new coaches and have talented, but mostly unproven receivers around them.

There are exceptions to every rule. Just like in their running backs rankings -- I'm OK with Thomas Tyner and Barry Sanders being on the list because Sanders has a great offensive line and Oregon's offense is a proven commodity for running backs.




Kevin in Los Angeles writes: I just noticed that USC plays 13 games compared to 12 for the other pac 12 teams. Any reason why?

Kevin Gemmell: NCAA rule 17.9.5.2. Off the top of your head? Anyone? Anyone know NCAA rule 17.9.5.2?

And here I thought I was the only one who had memorized this easy-to-read leaflet laying out a couple of tiny ground rules in a clear and non-enigmatic manner.

Teams that play a game in Hawaii are granted an extra game, usually at home, to help offset travel costs. They can also choose to have an extra bye week if they want, but in this case the Trojans opted for an additional nonconference game. Their extra game this year is Utah State. By the way, the start time for the Hawaii game was announced this morning. 8 p.m. PT.




Rob in Portland writes: Can you let me know your thoughts on players stock rising and falling in the few weeks before the draft. I understand their stock can change dramatically based on combines, interviews, senior bowl, etc, but how does it change 1 week before the draft, when they haven't done anything? 2 weeks ago someone might have been projected a first rounder, but suddenly he is a 2nd-3rd rounder after sitting at home ? How does "momentum" swing that fast in the absence of any new news?

Kevin Gemmell: Gonna let you in on a little secret. It doesn't.

From my time covering the NFL, I can tell you this -- most draft boards are locked in a couple of weeks before the draft. Obviously, as things shift and adjust throughout the course of the draft, there are changes that have to be made. But a lot of the pecking orders and hierarchies are already in the place a few weeks before. This, of course, is barring any sort of news that could impact a player's stock -- an injury, a legal issue etc. etc.

All that changes is public perception. For starters, a local publication will post their own mock drafts or player rankings -- but it's in relation to their home team. For example, a recent story ranked San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar above Stanford's Zach Ertz. This might be because Escobar is a better fit for the Chargers offense -- and there was probably a little home cooking. I covered Escobar in my life before ESPN and he's an outstanding player. But only one was a unanimous All-American. But others will read that and it could influence their mock drafts ... and so on and so on. Suddenly there is "buzz" and "momentum" changes. The truth is -- take what you read pre-draft with a grain of salt. There is no other happening in sports that creates more pre-event hype and speculation than the NFL Draft. But to the guys in the war rooms, the gameplan -- right or wrong -- is already in place.

Atlanta and Trufant is a perfect example of this. I'm guessing that weeks ago, the Falcons said if Trufant was there at No. 22, they were going to trade up to get him. They targeted a position and they went after it. That didn't happen on the fly or because momentum was swinging toward Trufant. He crushed it at the Senior Bowl. He crushed it at the NFL scouting combine. They wanted him. They got him.




Larry Scott, Pasadena: So Kevin, how well do you think I did in the playoff negotiations? Would you have done anything differently? What could improve the system (other than making it a real playoff where every team has a fair chance of winning)?

Kevin Gemmell: I think the eight-team model is the way to go. If you're No. 5 -- you still might have a legitimate gripe for not getting in. But if you are No. 9 -- you probably don't have a leg to stand on. But this is what we have for now and it's going to take baby steps to get there.

We don't know what the system is going to be yet -- so I can only speculate as to what I think would be.

For starters -- I think every team has to be on the same page when it comes to scheduling. I don't care if that's an eight-game or nine-game conference schedule. Also, in the Pac-12, they aren't allowed to take late-season byes or schedule FCS opponents later in the year. It's a huge advantage for some conferences to separate their rivalry games late in the year with weaker teams. (Oregon State was the exception last year because of the hurricane).

Also, strength of schedule must, must, must be a point of major consideration. This can't be another BCS by any other name. I'm also curious when they will release the rankings for the top four teams. Will it be in October like the BCS? November? I'd be in favor of a week-by-week standing after the first month so teams know where they stand.

But above all -- there has to be complete transparency in the selection process. Every week we have to know how and why the teams are ranked where they are. That's the only way people will understand and accept the process.
The offseason is the season of lists. And here's another.

Athlon Sports ranked the Pac-12 running backs, 1-20, and offered a breakdown of each player for your reading pleasure.

It's a pretty solid list, with maybe one or two position flips. But overall, it's a good assessment of the running back talent in the league and an example of just how deep the conference is at the position. As a reminder, the league produced six 1,000-yard rushers last season, the national rushing leader and two of the three Doak Walker finalists. Only two of those six are back -- and, yes, they are highly ranked.

Here's Athlon's take:
  1. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
  2. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
  3. Bishop Sankey, Washington
  4. Silas Redd, USC
  5. Marion Grice, ASU
  6. Storm Woods, Oregon State
  7. Brendan Bigelow, California
  8. Byron Marshall, Oregon
  9. D.J. Foster, ASU
  10. Anthony Wilkerson, Stanford
  11. Christian Powell, Colorado
  12. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford
  13. Thomas Tyner, Oregon
  14. Barry Sanders, Stanford
  15. Kelvin York, Utah
  16. Paul Perkins, UCLA
  17. Jordon James, UCLA
  18. Justin Davis, USC
  19. Terron Ward, Oregon State
  20. Teondray Caldwell, Washington State

Some thoughts:
  • The top three make sense -- and the order of those three could really fall into personal preference because all three could be No. 1. If you're looking for a "traditional" running back, then you could probably put Sankey over Thomas. But DAT does so much more than just run the football and is so explosive that I could see him at Nos. 1, 2, or 3. Carey's credentials certainly warrant the top spot and the Pac-12 blog is very high on Sankey, as you can see from here and here. Expect to see more from him in the receiving game as well in 2013.
  • Personally, I'd put Grice ahead of Redd. As Ted pointed out earlier in the week, the Pac-12 is home to the hybrid back and Grice is a super dynamic. And the way ASU uses its backs in the passing game, it will equate to huge total yardage numbers for Grice and Foster. I do think we'll see more ground game from the Trojans this year, which could also mean bigger numbers from Redd. A few guys behind him though who could steal some carries.
  • The Pac-12 blog is a big fan of Woods and we're expecting an even bigger year in 2013. The Beavers were 53-47 in the pass to run ratio, which is good balance. But the passing game was more productive than the ground attack, which ranked 10th in the league last year. As Woods develops (and Ward is a solid change-of-pace back), we're expecting to see those numbers even out.
  • Between Bigelow, Marshall and Foster, Foster was more productive last year (1,026 total yards, six combined touchdowns) compared to Marshall (461, 4) and Bigelow (523, 4) -- but Bigelow and Marshall certainly have explosive potential. Foster should also see increased productivity with Byron's brother, Cameron, gone at ASU. You could easily interchange all three at all three spots and make a solid case for their placement.
  • Stanford and Oregon are the only schools with three backs on the list. Gaffney's return certainly bolsters the Cardinal running back corps -- but neither he nor Wilkerson have had to carry the load the way Stepfan Taylor, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, did the previous seasons. That continues to be one of the most intriguing position battles of the offseason.
  • Very excited to see what 6-0, 240-pound bruiser Christian Powell can do in the pistol.
  • As I've mentioned on previous Athlon lists, I'm not a huge fan of ranking players who haven't taken snaps yet -- but in the case of Sanders and Tyner, I can buy that. Sanders has arguably the best offensive line in the country ahead of him and Tyner fits an offense that makes great running backs better.
  • York showed some potential last year when he started sharing some carries with two-time 1,000-yard rusher John White, but he missed three games with an ankle injury late in the season. It will be interesting to see what he does over the course of the season and how the running game plays into Utah's new offensive philosophy in the Dennis Erickson-Brian Johnson brain trust.
  • Big hole at UCLA. Anyone have a five-sided coin?
  • Washington State averaged 29.1 rushing yards per game last year. And unless Mike Leach is secretly switching to the triple option, any mention of a WSU running back doesn't feel particularly applicable.

Weekend practice wrap

March, 4, 2013
3/04/13
12:00
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Catching you up on the weekend practices. Arizona, Cal and Stanford are the only three teams that have kicked off spring ball. Cal had the weekend off and resumes practice today.

The Wildcats opened the spring session on Saturday with a helmets-and-shorts workout that lasted about two hours.

"I think it was a pretty good start," said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. "I like the enthusiasm. We had great weather and our guys were anxious to get out there. There was pretty good retention from what we ended the season with so I thought it was a pretty good day ...

“I think we are always coaching effort and certainly, fundamentals. We’re really so simple in the spring we shouldn’t have a lot of mental mistakes. Fundamentally, I want to see them doing the right things and effort, are they doing it on every snap”

The Wildcats will have one of the higher-profile quarterback competitions in the offseason with several players looking to replace the departed Matt Scott. B.J. Denker is one of those guys.

“Like all of our returning players, we’re expecting B.J. to have a better understanding of what we are doing. We want him to be sharp mentally and physically, have a sense of urgency. I think he had a pretty good day. I thought Nick Isham had a good day and Javelle Allen is learning. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on those guys, as much as you can in the spring, and try to simulate the pressure you face in the game.”

Stanford highlights

The defending Pac-12/Rose Bowl champs had an open practice on Saturday that was highlighted by big plays on both sides of the ball. Linebacker James Vaughters, who is moving from inside to outside linebacker this spring to replace Chase Thomas, tallied two sacks in a five-play stretch. Paired with Trent Murphy on the opposite side, the Cardinal should again have the top OLB duo in the league.

“I thought the star of the day was unquestionably [James] Vaughters and his explosiveness … his ability to get in the backfield,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw.

On the offensive side, running back Barry Sanders is trying to stake his claim for the top running back spot. The Cardinal are looking to replace Stepfan Taylor, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, and there are plenty of options. Tyler Gaffney will get added to the mix when he joins the team on April 1. But for now, Sanders showed off his skills with 20-yard touchdown run.

“Barry Sanders’ run for a touchdown was phenomenal -- he made three guys miss and got to the end zone,” said Shaw. “I’m also excited about the progression of our wide receivers. Ty [Montgomery] and Michael Rector both had really good days and Devon Cajuste showed some really good signs also.”
While quarterback competitions are typically front-and-center during Pac-12 spring practices, there are always other interesting spring storylines.

Here are two.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Harry How/Getty ImagesUSC coach Lane Kiffin enters the spring with several new assistants, a new defensive scheme, and uncertainty at quarterback.
Ted Miller: It was a horrible, no-good, rotten, very bad 2012 season for USC coach Lane Kiffin. And the 2012-13 offseason has been no picnic either. Some Trojans fans wanted Kiffin fired. Just about all were frustrated. Justifiably so, by the way.

Lane: Welcome to spring, the season for rebirth! Time to turn the page. Or, perhaps, pick up an entirely new book.

At the very least, the situation at USC is interesting. One of the nation's premier programs is front-and-center for many of the wrong reasons, but there is enough talent on hand for Kiffin to turn things around and shut up his critics.

Interesting plot lines? Kiffin will be breaking in four new assistant coaches, including a pair of new coordinators, his defense will be transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4, and he's looking for a new quarterback for the first time in his tenure.

There's a lot going on. Lots of questions. Lots of doubt, too. Yet negative momentum isn't irreversible.

What if the Trojans have an exceptional spring?

What if Clancy Pendergast shakes things up and, suddenly, the defensive guys are playing hard and fast in a sound scheme they understand? And what if the offense, nonetheless, makes plenty of plays because the quarterbacks are sharp and the line is manning up? What if the fitness level of the Trojans improves? What if offensive tackle Aundrey Walker breaks through, realizing his future NFL contract will be based on performance, not measurables? What if Devon Kennard proves a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, as we believe he is? What if guys like Marqise Lee, Hayes Pullard, Silas Redd, Dion Bailey and Kevin Graf step up as leaders? What if receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell decide they don't want to be left in the dust behind Lee and Nelson Agholor? What if running back Tre Madden says, "Hey, remember me?"

What if Kiffin simultaneously refocuses and relaxes? What if he uses his capable brain to be smart, not a smart aleck, to be creative, not sneaky? What if he realizes the media is not an enemy, but just a bunch of folks trying to do their job whom he should humor with vague though sometimes amusing answers?

There are a lot of "What ifs?" with USC and Kiffin. It's not difficult, by the way, to talk yourself into believing a bounce-back is entirely possible.

That's what is interesting. Kiffin 2.0 was 2010 and 2011, when he seemed to find his rhythm as a coach after controversial stints with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers. Kiffin 3.0, was 2012, a complete face-plant.

This spring presents us with Kiffin 4.0. It could prove to be the most important transition of his career as a head coach.

And that is interesting.

Kevin Gemmell: Besides quarterback battles -- which I think are always the most exciting position battles there are -- I'm most curious to see how the running back battle is going to play out at Stanford.

When you look at a Stanford squad that is very heavy on upperclassmen -- on both sides of the ball -- you have to wonder if all of the pieces are in place for Stanford to make a legitimate run at the national championship.

I wasn't sure before, but with the addition of Tyler Gaffney to the running back corps, I'm warming up to the idea that the Cardinal could challenge any team in the country for a BCS championship -- if they can get out of their own conference (or division for that matter) -- which anyone will tell you is no easy task.

It's no surprise that Stanford's primary offensive weapon is the quarterback. Not because of what he does with his arm -- but because of what he does when he goes under center -- checking out of bad plays and putting the offense in the best possible play against the defense shown. This allows running backs to flourish. Andrew Luck was phenomenal at it. Kevin Hogan should get better.

So, when Hogan turns to handoff on power right or power left, who is going to be the primary ball carrier? Anthony Wilkerson has shown bursts and outstanding top-end speed. But injuries have slowed him, and playing behind Stepfan Taylor the past few years didn't allow him to really break out following his strong true freshman season. Gaffney is a rock and hard to bring down. He's the kind of guy who could carry the ball 10 times for 4.5 yards a pop.

Barry Sanders is an interesting X-factor. He obviously was a high-profile recruit because of his name -- but beyond that, he's supposedly a pretty darn good back. Maybe he ends up winning the job and can be a 15-carry type of guy.

Then you have Ricky Seale, a shifty runner with great vision who has been trapped at the bottom of the depth chart, but continues to receive praise from David Shaw. Remound Wright and hybrid Kelsey Young are also in the mix.

Whoever is Shaw's go-to back, he'll have the benefit of running behind an outstanding offensive line that is only going to get better with David Yankey -- an All-American and last year's Morris Trophy winner -- moving back to his natural position at guard. And Shaw has said he plans to keep Ryan Hewitt at fullback -- giving the running backs a cadre of blockers that rivals any other in the country.

By season's end, this could be your national championship team. The question is, which back will carry it there?

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