Pac-12: Paul Perkins

Win No. 1 of the season wasn't exactly one to celebrate for UCLA.

Yes, the Bruins' defense was brilliant, scoring three times to lead the charge over Virginia, but as Jim Mora succinctly put it afterward, "it wasn't pretty offensively."

Players marched into the locker room after the 28-20 win with little enthusiasm, a somber scene more befitting a loss.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsUCLA's offensive line left QB Brett Hundley scrambling all game long at Virginia in Week 1.
Sophomore center Scott Quessenberry, starting in place of injured Jake Brendel, even took time to thank his defense for cleaning up after his own mistakes.

This may still have been the start of a magical season, but UCLA's offense certainly did its best to temper all that early enthusiasm.

"As a team, the sky is the limit," quarterback Brett Hundley said, "but we can't shoot ourselves in the foot and make mental lapses like this. We have to come out and perform."

And that has to start with the offensive line.

In reality, the Week 1 matchup with Virginia was destined to be a struggle. The Bruins may have arrived with a gaudy No. 7 ranking, and Virginia was coming off a 10-loss season, but the Cavaliers still featured a ferocious defensive front, led by linebacker Henry Coley, and coordinator Jon Tenuta has made a career of testing the mental toughness of opposing linemen. Meanwhile, UCLA was coming off a season in which it allowed the most tackles-for-loss in the Pac-12, had questions surrounding the ground game, and was beset by injuries up front.

The early struggles, in other words, were no surprise to the coaching staff.

"I looked out there one time," Mora said, "and our right tackle's a sophomore, our right guard is a sophomore, our center is a sophomore, our left guard is a freshman and our left tackle is playing his first game for us."

It wasn't that UCLA didn't anticipate problems, it's that the offense -- particularly the line -- didn't execute the solutions.

"I know there's going to be a lot of concern about our offensive line," Mora said, "and it's warranted at this point."

It's warranted because Hundley was sacked five times, warranted because Virginia racked up 11 tackles for loss (15 percent of UCLA's total plays), warranted because seven of the Bruins' first 11 rushing attempts went for a loss or no gain before Paul Perkins jumpstarted the rushing attack in the third quarter.

The end result was a game plan that was largely abandoned as the Bruins faced one third-and-long scenario after another. They needed 8 yards or more to convert on 7 of 18 third downs in the game.

"Our whole keys to victory was stay on schedule, keep ourselves in third-and-medium or shorts," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "So I'm like, who wants to call plays around here?"

There are, of course, explanations, too. The flight across three time zones and early kickoff wasn't ideal. The injury to Brendel had ripple effects across the line. Even the defensive highlights helped keep the offense from getting into a rhythm. But when it was over, no one seemed interested in looking for excuses.

"I didn't do a very good job of coaching my guys or calling plays, and my guys didn't do a good job of executing," Mazzone said. "Were there outside influences? Who knows? Who cares? We have to overcome those things and do a better job."

That may start with getting healthy.

Mora said Brendel, who suffered an MCL injury three weeks ago, is on the mend. Simon Goines should return from an ankle injury in a few weeks. Younger players are getting reps, and Hundley has added a level of stability to the offense that should help navigate some early obstacles, just as he did Saturday against Virginia.

Perkins' strong second half offers encouragement, too. The sophomore tailback finished with 80 yards on 16 carries, and while Mora said he expects a timeshare to continue with Jordon James, there's hope that the tailbacks can limit the workload for their QB.

"[Hundley] is a very good runner, but we don't want that to be our running game," Mora said. "I'd like to see us establish a little more rhythm with our offense."

But Week 1 wasn't really about what UCLA wants to do. If anything, it was a crash course on what the Bruins hope to avoid this season, and they still managed to emerge with a win.

UCLA also knows it may not be so lucky the next time.

"There are a lot of things we have to correct," Hundley said. "We had those moments you could see it, but it was the stuff that shot us in the foot. We'd start something, and then we'd hurt ourselves. We have to cut that out, and we'll be fine."
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

UCLA spring wrap

May, 2, 2014
May 2
7:30
AM ET
Three things we learned this spring
  1. Raising the (next) Barr: All indications are that Kenny Orjioke probably has the inside track at outside linebacker to replace the departed Anthony Barr. Aaron Wallace (dealing with grade issues) and Deon Hollins are still very much in the mix. Several members of the staff said they were pleased with what they saw from Orjioke -- though it’s worth noting he didn’t play in the spring game for reasons not revealed.
  2. Welcome back, Owa: After missing last season with a hip injury, defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (aka the scourge of spellcheck), returned with a very strong spring session that included a pair of sacks in the spring game. His return bolsters a pass rush that has to replace Barr and Cassius Marsh.
  3. Back depth: The staff has been very pleased with the progress of running back Jordon James. But they feel equally solid about Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and redshirt freshman Craig Lee. Combined with the scrambling ability of quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins should build upon last year’s average of 196.6 yards per game.
Three questions for the fall
  1. Line-up: While the coaching staff feels pretty good about its offensive line, finding the right replacement for Xavier Su'a-Filo is still paramount. They think they might have it in graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche from Miami. But a couple of starting spots should still be up for grabs when the Bruins return for fall camp.
  2. Backup plan: A lot rests on the legs and arm of Hundley – a Heisman trophy candidate and presumptive top 10 pick in 2015. Whether it’s Jerry Neuheisel or Asiantii Woulard backing him up remains to be seen. Neither were particularly sharp in the spring game, with Neuheisel throwing two interceptions and Woulard completing just 4 of 13 passes.
  3. More D-to-O coming? We know about Myles Jack and the impact he made on offense for the Bruins last season. He didn’t get any carries in the spring, though Jim Mora said they’ll likely have some packages for him. Will we see others? Eddie Vanderdoes? Ishmael Adams? Not that they’ll give it away in the spring, but it will be fun to watch this fall to see how many defensive players see offensive time.
Way-too-early prediction: The Bruins will win the Pac-12 South for the third time in four years. With Hundley at the helm and an experienced defense, the Bruins not only have the fewest question marks among their Southern brethren, but they have plenty of talent to match on both sides of the ball. Staying healthy will be key, as will gaining some early momentum with critical conference games against ASU, Utah and Oregon in the first half of the season.

Spring games primer

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
12:00
PM ET
Three more Pac-12 spring games are slated for Saturday. Here’s a look at what to watch in all three.

California

Where: Memorial Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: The Bears have a new defensive coordinator … again … so watching them adjust to Art Kaufman’s 4-3 vs. Andy Buh’s 4-3 will be of note. Though a depth chart was recently released, there are still a few positions up for grabs. There are some questions about the right side of the offensive line and backup quarterbacks can usually make an impression in the spring. The depth chart lists an “or” between Austin Hinder and Kyle Boehm, so expect those two to jockey for position behind incumbent starter Jared Goff. The event is free and there will be giveaways and kids’ activities. Click here for details.

UCLA

Where: StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: As has been the case with UCLA the last couple of years, youth and injuries make for some mixing and matching on the offensive line. This spring has proven no different, so look for the right tackle spot to be highly competitive beyond Saturday’s game. The running backs are intriguing as well. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone saidJordon James has evolved into the one-cut runner that he wants him to be, but Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and touted redshirt freshman Craig Lee will push for carries. Finding a suitable backup for Brett Hundley, be it Asiantii Woulard or Jerry Neuheisel, is also a top priority, and the spring game could create some separation. Note, tickets are $5 in advance, $10 day of (free for UCLA students and children 2 and younger). Parking is $15. Players will be available for autographs between 3 and 3:45. Click here for details.

Washington State

Where: Joe Albi Stadium, Spokane, Wash.
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: This is the fourth year the Cougars will be holding their spring game in Spokane. All reports are that quarterback Connor Halliday has shown a strong command of the offense and wide receiver Vince Mayle has been outstanding. However, the big question mark still lies in the secondary, where definitely three -- maybe four -- positions are still up for grabs. The spring depth chart has Charleston White and Daquawn Brown at the corner spots and Isaac Dotson and Taylor Taliulu as the safeties. But those won't be set in stone for a while. There are other position groups of interest, naturally. But defensive coordinator Mike Breske told the Pac-12 blog, while he likes his front seven, the back end of the defense, without question, has been the biggest point of emphasis this spring.
One of the ways a football team transitions from a group of wishful maybes to a sense of near-ontological certainty is when its collection of spring practice questions becomes mostly an array of appealing potential options.

So we have UCLA as it transitions from an underachieving program (1999-2011) to a good one (2012-2013) to one that has the makings of a national contender in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty ImagesWith few questions to answer this spring, Jim Mora has the makings of a special 2014 season with UCLA.
While the Bruins have questions on their depth chart, there isn't any particular area of vexing concern. The five positions where starters need to be replaced seem likely to be filled by promising athletes with playing experience. If those more veteran players don't rise to the fore during spring practices, that mostly speaks to the program's strong recruiting under Jim Mora.

Further, it's reasonable to project that those 20 or so freshmen and sophomores who saw significant playing time last year will physically and mentally mature into their primes.

There simply aren't any worrisome voids on this team.

As in:
There are, of course, important questions.

Is defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa fully healthy? He told reporters Tuesday that he is. So then is the former A-list recruit ready to break through as a senior?

What does LB/RB Myles Jack do for an encore after one of the best true freshman seasons in recent memory?

And speaking of what's next, is it reasonable to project Hundley taking a strong step forward as a third-year starter? Of course, that's why the program has already launched a Heisman Trophy campaign.

A lot of variables beyond personnel go into a special season -- a Rose Bowl-, College Football Playoff-type season. A team needs a great offseason. It needs positive chemistry and leadership. It needs to avoid injuries. It needs to stay hungry. It needs laser-like focus every week.

Returning starters do not guarantee anything. National champion Florida State only had 11 of them last year.

But on paper, UCLA appears to be the most likely candidate to break the five-year Stanford-Oregon Pac-12 hegemony atop the Pac-12. The Bruins might even be a team that catches the notice of the CFP selection committee in December.
On Thursday, we looked at the Pac-12 North Division. Today, we turn to the South:

ARIZONA

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  • QB competition: Coach Rich Rodriguez has used first-year starters in his first two seasons at Arizona and will make it three-for-three in 2014. For the most part, things worked with both Matt Scott and more recently B.J. Denker, which should make Wildcats fans optimistic about what should be a wide-open competition.
  • Replacing Carey: As intriguing as the quarterback competition will be, the battle to replace all-time great Ka'Deem Carey at running back could be more important. None of the returning running backs had a carry last year, which led to this comment from Rodriguez: "Now it’s a mystery. That’s going to be one of the positions, like quarterback, that will be kind of open to see if we can get guys to get better."
  • Keep Austin healthy: After tearing his ACL last spring following a breakout season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, receiver Austin Hill has been given a clean bill of health. Said Rodriguez: "He is still wearing the knee brace but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too."
ARIZONA STATE

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • OL changes: Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, a prototypical guard, could be the Sun Devils' best offensive lineman, which makes things interesting considering both starting guards -- Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo -- will be back next year. Douglas, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has worked at tackle in the past and could shift outside to replace first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
  • Getting defensive: Coach Todd Graham's college roommate, Keith Patterson, has arrived as the defensive coordinator, but Graham will remain the play-caller and Chris Ball's title will still read co-defensive coordinator. Got all that? New coaching dynamics get sorted out in the spring, too.
  • Looking for replacements: On defense, ASU needs to replace seven starters, highlighted by DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford and CBs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. If ASU is to build off its impressive 2013 season, those holes need to be filled quickly. They'll benefit from a schedule that starts with Weber State, New Mexico, Colorado and a bye, but after that the Sun Devils have UCLA, USC and Stanford in a span of four weeks.
COLORADO

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • QB development: Sefo Liufau's development will be interesting if for nothing else than because the jump from Year 1 starter to Year 2 starter is always intriguing with quarterbacks. It's tempting to assume a big statistical jump is coming, but it's not always that simple (see: Hogan, Kevin; Mannion, Sean; Hundley, Brett). Liufau will need to get on the same page with his receivers as they combine to …
  • … Replace Paul Richardson: Look for Nelson Spruce, D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch to lead what will be a much more balanced receiving corps following Richardson's early departure for the NFL. Spruce was the Buffs' second-leading receiver last year, but Goodson, going into his second season at receiver, figures to make the biggest jump.
  • Rising expectations: It took MacIntyre three years to turn San Jose State into a winner, but there was a four-win improvement in the second year. He won't match that with the Buffs, but a two-win improvement gets Colorado bowl eligible. Colorado has a chance to match last year's win total (4) in the first five games next year: vs. Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Arizona State, Hawaii, at Cal. In fact, it's probably the internal expectation.
UCLA

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Manage expectations: The Bruins are in new territory this offseason with expectations through the roof. They'll likely be a preseason top-10 team, which will drum up chatter about a potential national championship run. Likely message from coach Jim Mora: "Tune out the noise."
  • The #Hundley4Heisman campaign: It's a real thing and Mora threw his weight behind it when he tweeted the hashtag on Jan. 26 with a picture of the Heisman Trophy. Get used to reading "Heisman candidate" next to "Brett Hundley" a lot between now and September. At times, it might feel unavoidable.
  • Leading rusher? They're set at quarterback and bring a lot of talent back at both receiver and on the offensive line, but the running back situation isn't as clear. Hundley was the team's leading rusher in 2013, but someone needs to step up to take pressure off him and LB/RB Myles Jack. It's an important spring for both Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who had varying degrees of success last year.
USC

Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Under center? Cody Kessler is back, but coach Steve Sarkisian immediately made it known there would be an open competition for the quarterback job. Max Wittek is no longer around, but Kessler should get a serious challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne. With a new offense to learn, spring will essentially serve as preparation period for the real competition during fall camp.
  • Catch your breath: The most noticeable change in USC during the first game will be how much faster it's playing offensively. Sarkisian installed a high-tempo offense at Washington last year and, pleased with the results, will continue to press the tempo with the Trojans. Goodbye, huddles.
  • Change it up: As is the case when new coaching staffs arrive, there will likely be a higher percentage of position changes than usual and a more fluid depth chart. It's hard to peg exactly where that'll occur with USC, but it'll be worth monitoring throughout the spring.
UTAH

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Wilson's road back: Travis Wilson is expected to be the Utes' starting quarterback next season, but he'll be limited to non-contact drills during the spring. That's about the best news Wilson could have received following an early November discovery that he had an undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery -- a condition that threatened his career. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will not join the team until after he graduates in May, but he'll be immediately eligible to play.
  • Revolving OC door: Dave Christensen moves in, Dennis Erickson moves over and Brian Johnson moves out. Kyle Whittingham introduced the Utes' seventh offensive coordinator is seven years in early January. Christensen believes in similar philosophies to what the Utes had under Erickson/Johnson, but the terminology will change and the tempo will increase.
  • Pressure building? Utah was used to winning big before it got to the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham lost just 20 games in his six full seasons as the school's head coach while a member of the Mountain West Conference. In the three years since, Utah's dropped 19 and qualified for just one bowl. No one should doubt Whittingham's ability as a coach -- he's a good one -- but the jump in competition has been difficult.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
7:15
PM ET
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback
PASADENA, Calif. -- There was a good chance history was going to repeat itself. You give UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley 3 minutes and 21 seconds -- at home -- to move his team 65 yards and negate a five-point deficit and more often than not you’d probably take those odds.

Faced with a similar situation last year, the ASU defense played on its heels and watched Hundley march the Bruins 60 yards in the final 1:33 to set upKa'imi Fairbairn’s game winner as time expired, giving UCLA a 45-43 victory in Tempe.

But that’s the thing about history. That’s all it is. This time around, the Sun Devils were determined not to make the same mistakes. So when Hundley got the ball with 3:21 left and his team trailing 38-33, ASU coach Todd Graham made a declaration to his defense: We’re going to bring it.

“We had some regrets last year down the stretch in that last minute of that game,” Graham said. “We talked about it as a team. I talked to the seniors ... we had some regrets last year that we defended instead of attacked. We sent it every play that last drive. Even on the last play, because we came to win.”

The end result was two sacks on Hundley, who could move his team only 11 yards on eight plays after penalties and the losses stalled the come-from-behind effort. The 38-33 margin held, and the Sun Devils celebrated as the Pac-12 South Division champs.

[+] EnlargeRichard Smith
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsArizona State built a large first-half lead and then hung on to win the Pac-12 South.
“Everything felt different this time around,” ASU safety Alden Darby said. “We’re a different team. The mindset was different. We know we have a championship defense. There was a different vibe this year on the sideline and on the field.”

Those two sacks on the final drive were part of a nine-sack effort from the Sun Devils, who pressured Hundley and UCLA’s young offensive line. Hundley rushed for 66 yards, but when you factor in the sacks, he netted only 5.

“The main concern was tackling Hundley,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “He’s very good with the ball. He reminds me of Vince Young from when I was in the Big 12. The main thing was getting him down. We knew they were hurting on the offensive line. I knew we could get there. We just had to make sure we got him on the ground.”

Through the first 30 minutes, a game-winning drive seemed like a long shot for the Bruins. Behind an efficient and calculated performance from ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils built a 35-13 halftime lead. Kelly was elusive on the ground, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, and accurate through the air, completing 20 of 27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. Rushing scores from D.J. Foster and Michael Eubank, along with a 19-yard touchdown from Kelly to Jaelen Strong and a pick-six from Carl Bradford gave the Sun Devils a 22-point advantage at the break.

But as UCLA tends to do, it exploded in the second half, outscoring the Sun Devils 20-3 behind a pair of touchdown runs from Myles Jack and Paul Perkins and a 27-yard touchdown strike from Hundley to Shaq Evans. That set the stage for some last-minute drama that ultimately ended with the Sun Devils' defense making the plays it failed to make last season.

“We got ourselves into a hole in the first half and were not able to recover,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They fought tooth and nail for that thing, and it was just a little too much to overcome. The loss is bitterly disappointing.”

What Mora laments most was his team’s inability to control Kelly on the ground. ASU’s quarterback rushed for 84 yards in the first half alone.

“He kept plays alive, he frustrated us, we couldn’t find the ball,” Mora said. “We got caught out of position on some things. That’s what was frustrating me -- not being able to handle the quarterback defensively.”

ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said getting Kelly involved in the running game was by design. They wanted to force the Bruins into making decisions on zone reads. From there, Kelly was making all the right calls.

“We were able to present some different looks to make sure he’d get a good pull-read and he made some great reads,” Norvell said. “... When you’ve got the defending Pac-12 South champs the last two years, you’re coming into their place, you knew it was going to be a battle. I was really proud of our guys and the way they played. That really showed the character of our team.”

The Sun Devils will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford, which claimed the North by virtue of Arizona’s win over Oregon. The only question is whether it’s in Tempe or Palo Alto. If Arizona State tops rival Arizona next week, it will host the Cardinal. If the Wildcats win, the title game will be at Stanford for the second straight year.

Bruins' backs solid in opening win

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
9:00
AM ET
So this is what life without Johnathan Franklin looks like for UCLA: 345 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“I’ll take that,” said UCLA head coach Jim Mora.

Uh, yeah.

Granted, Nevada’s rush defense wasn’t exactly the ’85 Bears. But for a UCLA team looking to replace its all-time leading rusher in Franklin, its running backs, who accounted for 288 of those yards and three of the touchdowns, performed probably as well as could be expected in their by-committee debut.

“It was a heck of a performance,” Mora said. “The first thing they’ll tell you was the blocking was outstanding.”

As a matter of fact, they did. The backs and quarterback Brett Hundley alike (seven carries, 63 yards, two touchdowns) praised the big fellas up front for helping the Bruins roll up 647 yards of total offense in their 58-20 win over Nevada on Saturday.

Jordon James had distanced himself from the committee during fall camp, and he rewarded his coaches for their confidence with a 21-carry performance for 155 yards and a touchdown.

“He is our No. 1 back,” Mora said. “He’s our starter right now, but we would like to be able to play Steven Manfro (5-32). It was great to see Malcolm [Jones, 2-14-1] in there and Rosie [Roosevelt Davis, 2-30] … but he’s our No. 1 back. But you know how we play offense. We’re going to roll those guys through. We have to. To play the tempo we play at, we’re going to have to use multiple backs. The credit has to start with offensive line and the way they blocked and I think it has to start with the receivers and the way they got down the field and blocked.”

Paul Perkins had UCLA's fifth rushing touchdown, carrying five times for 55 yards.

With the Bruins holding a 17-13 lead at the half, the game plan was keep to pounding away. And the Bruins were consistent with 172 rushing yards in the first half and 173 in the second.

“I was happy with the way they came out in the second half,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “The running backs kept believing in the game plan, which was a shocker cause they think I throw too much anyway. It was a good effort by those kids. I was proud of them.”

Obviously, there is much to watch on the film. And the Bruins will have an extra week to clean things up before making the trip to Nebraska for a showdown with the Huskers -- a team UCLA topped last year at the Rose Bowl.

And while the staff had praise for all of the backs, Mora and Mazzone both noted that they liked how James was a more confident runner.

“I thought he was really into it,” Mazzone said. “He’s worked hard to become a one-cut runner. I want him to one-cut and then get north and south for me and he did that a few times. And I have to watch the film, but it looked to me like all of them did a nice job in pass protection.”
What we know about UCLA today versus one year ago is exponential. Consider the question marks heading into UCLA’s game at Rice in Week 1 of 2012:

  • A redshirt freshman quarterback with a new coach and a new system? How’s that gonna go?
  • A veteran NFL coach coming back to college for the first time in decades? Would his coaching style translate?
  • Switching to a 3-4 with a converted running back at outside linebacker? Really?

Most would agree all questions were answered with considerably positive results.

We know a lot more about the Bruins – but so do their opponents. Opening the season ranked No. 21, the Bruins aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this year.

[+] EnlargeUCLA's Brett Hundley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREIt's safe to say UCLA and QB Brett Hundley won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
“We’re not? Dang it,” joked offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “Just say that we look terrible then people won’t worry about us.”

Hard to look terrible with Brett Hundley returning at quarterback after an outstanding redshirt freshman campaign and Anthony Barr returning as one of the most feared defensive players in the country. And as they kick off the 2013 season this weekend with Nevada, the players are very much aware that the expectations have been raised.

“We now we have a target on our backs now,” said running back Paul Perkins, one of several backs fighting for carries in a crowded backfield. “We know we have to come into every game with the mentality that we have to punish the other team. We’re embracing the pressure. We’re embracing the spotlight. I love how the guys have responded to it.”

The Wolf Pack should provide a nice test for the Bruins in Week 1. Recall this team spoiling Cal’s season opener last year and then pushing Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl. It took a fairly miraculous final minute for the Wildcats to come from behind. And their key playmaker, quarterback Cody Fajardo is back.

How much of a thorn was he last year for the two Pac-12 teams? In those two combined games against Cal and Arizona, he completed 74 percent of his throws (47 of 63) and rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think he’s an outstanding quarterback,” Mora said of Fajardo. “The things he did last year in terms of his statistics speak for themselves. He’s a real threat both running the ball and throwing the ball.”

Of course, getting past Nevada is only step one. The Bruins then have a week off before making the trip to Nebraska in a rematch of one of last year’s more exciting nonconference games. The schedule only gets tougher as later in the year they make back-to-back trips to Stanford and Oregon. But if you’re a team that believes it can win its conference and be in the national spotlight, it’s just par for the course.

“This year, I think we’re just like every other top-notch program,” said defensive end Cassius Marsh. “We’re looking to go undefeated and win a national championship. If you’re a good team and you have that potential, that’s what your goal should be.”

Much of that success will fall on Hundley, who is expected to take a much larger leadership role with the departure of players like Johnathan Franklin, Datone Jones and Damien Holmes.

“Stay grounded,” Hundley said. “During the season I stay off social media. Nobody is going to hear much from me. Right now we’re in training mode and we’re getting our minds right. This team grew up a lot last year and I think we're ready to handle whatever comes our way.”

The Bruins still have some question marks, as virtually every team in the country does before the first game of the season. How will they round out the linebacker corps? How will the young secondary hold up? How will the running back-by-committee system work with Franklin’s departure? But the big-picture questions about schemes, philosophies, coaching styles and personal doctrines are answered. People know what Mora, Hundley, Barr and the rest of the Bruins are about. And while last year’s Pac-12 South title was nice, it won’t mean much on Saturday.

“We can’t win today’s game off of yesterday’s home run,” Mazzone said. “That’s the message you have to get through to these guys. That’s what you fight against. This is a brand new team. Different guys at different spots with a different personality.

“Do we have a chance to be as good as we were last year offensively? Heck, I don’t know. But we bring a lot of guys back. The rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield. Right now, we’re looking through the windshield.”

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:00
AM ET
Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- UCLA’s running back corps is coming to terms with the fact that it is just that: a corps, a contingent, a cadre, a posse.

There’s no Doak Walker finalist to carry the ball 282 times, average 6.1 yards per carry and plow into the end zone 13 times as Johnathan Franklin did in 2012. There’s no veteran presence in the backfield to carry the load and take the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley. Franklin’s time has come and gone, and he left a slew of school records and steadfast leadership in his wake.

[+] EnlargeJordan James
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceJordon James might lead the pack of UCLA running backs for now, but the key is that this is a tight knit group of backs all pushing each other to get better.
“It’s trust,” said Hundley. “It all comes down to me trusting the guy I’m going to be handing the ball to. If I check down, I trust he's going to be in the right spot. If he’s got my blindside, I trust that he’s going to do his job. Just as they all trust me to do my job.”

The trust with Franklin was instant -- it had to be for the first-year starting quarterback. Hundley often points to his relationship with Franklin -- the veteran back's consistency, steadiness and reliability -- as a key reason why he was so successful starting as a redshirt freshman. And the trust with Jordon James, or Paul Perkins, or Malcolm Jones, or Steven Manfro, or Damien Thigpen (still recovering from a torn ACL last November) is coming along.

“We’re going to use five running backs,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. "And we feel like all five can contribute.”

You’d think that at least one of those backs will take the lead -- and right now it appears to be James sitting atop the pecking order. Whether that means five carries, 10 carries or 15 carries per game remains to be seen.

“We’re a group that prides itself on competition,” James said. “We’re pushing each other every day and it’s been a lot of fun.”

And yet, ultimately, they’re trying to steal carries from one another. Right?

“It’s not like that,” Perkins said. “We all want to get better and we want to help everyone else get better too because that’s what’s going to make us a better team. That’s the only way this will work is if we have that mindset. If J.J. gets 30 carries and I get five, I better make the most out of my five and he better make the most out of his 30.”

Last year the Bruins ranked 37th in the country and fourth in the Pac-12 with an average of 190.8 yards on the ground per game. They were third in the league with 29 rushing touchdowns. And once they reached the red zone, they were the only team in the league that was perfectly balanced with 20 touchdowns on the ground and 20 in the air. It’s that kind of consistency that the coaching staff hopes to get from this group.

“So far, I’ve been pleasantly pleased,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “They are all doing what we’ve asked of them. We’ll know more when we get them into games.”

Even that might not be completely telling. The Bruins' first three games are against three of the worst rushing defenses in the country from last season: Nevada (110th), Nebraska (90th) and New Mexico State (113th) -- though give Nebraska a little more credit since that game will be in Lincoln and will be a hostile environment.

It might be a case of each back trying to find their niche within the offense. Yet outside of Jones (6-feet, 224 pounds), all of the other backs have comparable size -- between 5-8 and 5-10 and between 185-195 pounds.

“We can all play any time, it doesn't matter,” James said. “We could all be a third-down back. We could all be a goal-line back. We could all be a primary back. We have our own different styles, but we’re that good and versatile of a group.”

And if it is James -- as many predict -- who will get the first carry of the 2013 season, he’ll have a cheering section among his fellow backs.

“We’ve embraced it,” Perkins said. “We want to see each other succeed and do well. The competition has made us better players and it has molded us into better friends. As a group, we’re better for it.”

UCLA Bruins season preview

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

UCLA

Coach: Jim Mora: (9-5)

2012 record: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12 South)

Key losses: RB Johnathan Franklin, OL Jeff Baca, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
James Snook/US PresswireCoach Jim Mora's Bruins have a brutal two-game stretch in late October.
Key returnees: QB Brett Hundley, OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Anthony Barr, WR Shaq Evans, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Jordan Zumwalt.

Newcomer to watch: Now that the NCAA has signed off on his Irish exodus, five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes might be able to jump in immediately and help restore some depth to UCLA’s defensive front, which has suffered some attrition through injury and graduation.

Biggest games in 2013: There are plenty of them, as the Bruins' schedule figures to be tougher than last season. At Nebraska (Sept. 14) highlights the nonconference slate and the back-to-back games at Stanford (Oct. 19) and at Oregon (Oct. 26) is a vicious two-week stretch. They close with ASU (Nov. 23) and at USC (Nov. 30) in a span that will likely decide the South Division.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are more than most fans would prefer to see -- like a youthful secondary that’s without Tevin McDonald (dismissed from team) and Dietrich Riley (medical retirement) and gaps across the defensive front. But replacing Franklin -- or at least replicating most of his production through a committee -- has to be a top priority. The Doak Walker finalist departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher and was a comforting and stabilizing presence for Hundley in his first season as a starter. Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Craig Lee, Malcolm Jones and Steven Manfro make up the crowded committee – which will get even more crowded when Damien Thigpen returns from injury sometime in October.

Forecast: Picked by the media to take the Pac-12 South for the third straight year, the Bruins aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this season. Mora had a fantastic first season as a collegiate head coach and Hundley proved to be as advertised -- if not better. But he loses his favorite red zone target in Fauria, the aforementioned Franklin, and there are still holes on the offensive line that need to be sorted out.

The defense, as noted above, also has holes, but there are some exciting young players in the secondary eager to make a name for themselves. And, of course, Anthony Barr returns as one of the nation’s premier defensive players and a probable first-round draft pick -- possibly even top 10.

The schedule ramps up significantly in 2013. The Bruins go to Stanford for a rematch of the 2012 Pac-12 title game and also face Oregon for the first time in the Mora era. Almost all of their toughest games are on the road, including Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC. With some of the previously mentioned offensive stars gone, Hundley will be asked to do more with the offense than he did last year -- which includes better decision-making and command of the offense.

Yet despite all of their success in 2012, the blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl lingers. As does the fact that the Bruins were the most-penalized team in the country last year and they gave up an unhealthy amount of sacks. Mora is making sure his players know they haven’t arrived yet.

The Bruins are a fascinating balancing act of proven playmakers and untested youth. If their youth matures quickly, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them in the title game for the third straight year.
While the Pac-12 lost a lot of star power at running back from 2012 -- Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin, Stepfan Taylor and John White -- it also welcomes back a strong core of ball carriers.

Four RBs are back who gained at least 900 yards, and that includes the nation's leading rusher in Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.

Still, there is uncertainty at the position for a number of schools.

Evaluations aren't easy here. A number of teams have an A-list leading rusher back but uncertain depth. Others have plenty of experience returning but no proven A-lister. So stars and depth matter here.

So how does it stack up?

GREAT SHAPE

Arizona: Carey rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last year and could eclipse that mark this fall. He also scored 23 TDs and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. The depth behind him is solid.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireArizona's Ka'Deem Carey led the nation with 1,929 rushing yards last season.
Arizona State: Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, as noted by the Arizona State sports information office, produced 2,130 combined yards in 2012 (1,172 rushing, 958 receiving) and 25 touchdowns. Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry, Foster 4.8. Both are good receivers. They are one of the best combos in the nation, if not the best.

Washington: Bishop Sankey ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in 2012 with 110.7 yards rushing per game. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored 16 TDs. There's good depth behind him, particularly if Jesse Callier is back to form after a knee injury.

Oregon: While running back is one of the Ducks questions, that question is more about how they will do things rather than whether or not they will be good. If De'Anthony Thomas is the No. 1 running back and gets 15 to 20 carries a game (and, knock on wood, stays healthy), he'll be a money guy. Byron Marshall is capable and incoming freshman Thomas Tyner is highly touted.

USC: Silas Redd is back after rushing for 905 yards, but he'll have to fight off some youngsters who want the ball, namely freshman Justin Davis, who was impressive in spring practices. There's also D.J. Morgan, and don't forget about Tre Madden, who offers a power option after sitting out last year with a knee injury.

Oregon State: Storm Woods and Terron Ward combined for 1,747 yards (1,355 rushing, 392 receiving) and 19 touchdowns in 2012. Woods rushed for 940 yards and 13 TDs, despite being banged up much of the year. Ward averaged 6.1 yards per carry. These guys won't wow you but they are a strong pair.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: The Cardinal is replacing Taylor's conference-high 322 carries, so even if the prospects are strong, there's some question of if it will be one or two guys or a committee. The return of Tyler Gaffney from pro baseball is big. He had 449 yards and seven TDs in 2011 before taking a year off. There's also Anthony Wilkerson, the most likely starter, Ricky Seale, Remound Wright and Barry Sanders. The Cardinal does get a boost from the return of fullback Ryan Hewitt.

California: The Bears might have an outstanding combination here with Brendan Bigelow and Daniel Lasco. Both have flashed potential, particularly Bigelow, who rushed for 431 yards and averaged 9.8 yards per carry -- yeah, 9.8 yards -- in 2012. But they are not a sure-thing. Bigelow has trouble staying healthy, and Lasco had just six carries last year, though one went for 77 yards.

Colorado: Everybody of note is back, led by 235-pound sophomore Christian Powell, who rushed for 691 yards and seven TDs, averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry. There's also Tony Jones and Donta Abron to compliment Powell's power with some breakaway ability. Of the Buffs worries, running back is way down the list.

WE'LL SEE

UCLA: Replacing Franklin won't be easy, and it's likely this one will be by-committee, because no single player looks like a go-to guy. Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen, who is coming back from a knee injury, are in the mix. James was the top backup last year, while Perkins is the intriguing redshirt freshman. Thigpen, if healthy, is a slash type guy who isn't a pure running back.

Utah: White, the first Ute to rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, is gone. Kelvin York, White's backup, now gets his shot after rushing for 273 yards last year. He, however, has some injury worries. Behind him, there's Lucky Radley, James Poole and 243-pound Karl Williams. It's also possible JC transfer Devontae Booker will get into the mix. The Utes should be OK here but the pecking order isn't yet clear.

Washington State: Does this position even apply for the Cougars? Last year, they ranked last in the nation in rushing with 29 yards per game and 1.38 yards per carry. Teondray Caldwell is the leading returning rusher with 269 yards. There's also Leon Brooks and Marcus Mason. The issue here isn't the running backs. It's the run blocking, which was pitiful last year.

UCLA Bruins spring wrap

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
8:00
AM ET
UCLA Bruins

2012 record: 9-5
2012 conference record: 6-3 (First in South Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; Defense: 6; Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners: QB Brett Hundley, OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Anthony Barr, WR Shaq Evans, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Jordan Zumwalt.

Key losses: RB Johnathan Franklin, OL Jeff Baca, TE Joseph Fauira, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes.

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Johnathan Fraklin (1,734)
Passing: Brett Hundley* (3,745)
Receiving: Shaq Evans* (877)
Tackles: Eric Kendricks* (149)
Sacks: Anthony Barr* (13.5)
Interceptions: Andrew Abbott, Sheldon Price (4)

Spring answers
  1. When in doubt, form a committee: There is no replacing Johnathan Franklin, UCLA’s all-time leading rusher and a finalist for the Doak Walker award last season. But the hope is that a group of backs can combine to replicate his production. Jordon James looks like he might have a leg up as the leader of the committee, though Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones had solid springs. Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen shouldn't be counted out, either, heading into fall since the coaches have said they are fine with using five backs in a game.
  2. The corps stepping up: The coaches were extremely pleased with the production of the wide receiver corps this spring. Devin Fuller might have had the strongest spring of the group -- though returning leader Shaq Evans (60 catches, 877 yards, three touchdowns) still figures to be the primary target. Jordan Payton, Kenneth Walker, Eldridge Massington and Devin Lucien round out what should be a solid group.
  3. LB depth: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt make up a fantastic linebacking unit. Barr and Kendricks were among the national leaders in production last year. But this spring the Bruins saw the emergence of players like Aaron Wallace, Kenny Orijoke and Taylor Lagace and Aaron Porter. Defensive depth was a big concern for the Bruins last year. And for now, at least, it looks like they have solidified the two-deep at all the linebacking spots.
Fall questions
  1. Speaking of depth: The Bruins return the bulk of their offensive line -- but as we learned in the Baylor game when two linemen went down -- you can never have enough depth on the line. Finding backups will be key. And while players like Ben Wysocki stepped up this spring -- showing he can fill in at tackle or guard -- there will be plenty of competition with some good offensive linemen joining the team this fall. The starting five might be close to set -- but nothing is solidified.
  2. Secondary issues: As in issues in the secondary, not secondary concerns. Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson looked solid at cornerback and Brandon Sermons and Randall Goforth stepped up at safety. Though it’s likely that several, if not all four spots, will still be up for grabs come August. A highly-rated group of recruits join the secondary in the fall and playing time in the secondary is expected to be highly contested.
  3. Looking for leaders: Franklin, gone. Jeff Baca, gone. Datone Jones, gone. Damien Holmes, gone. These were leaders who rallied the troops when times were tough and, in their own ways, pulled their respective units together. Head coach Jim Mora talked about the importance of leadership and said it can’t be forced. Rather, it has to happen organically. He said he started to see some guys develop this spring, but the next few months before they meet for fall camp will be very telling in regards to who takes this team on their shoulders.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD