Pac-12: Tyler Gaffney

By all accounts, the group of running backs at Stanford is a close-knit group, which is why the next few weeks will an interesting social experiment of sorts on The Farm.

[+] EnlargeKelsey Young
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsKelsey Young's performance this spring makes him Stanford's de facto starter at running back, but the best pass protector will likely get more minutes.
Four players -- Kelsey Young, Barry J. Sanders, Remound Wright and Ricky Seale -- are all seeking the same thing: to replace Tyler Gaffney, who is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns last year.

"We're all great friends. We love each other," Sanders said. "We're all hard on each other to hold each other accountable. It's fun to come out and compete against your best friends."

But, yes, it is a competition.

"Just by [human nature] you want to be that guy that is headlining everything, so that pushes you to focus and work even harder so that you can potentially be that role," Young said. "That mindset really helps."

Realistically, as much as they all may want to be the guy, the Cardinal seems destined to employ a running-back-by-committee this year. Yes, that was storyline a year ago at this time, but none of the four guys involved now have the physical stature of Gaffney or Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart before him. All four stand around 5-foot-9 and hover near 200 pounds.

"It just makes you cautious of even thinking you can put 350, 375 carries on a 195-pound running back," coach David Shaw said. "Tyler Gaffney was of the size [6-foot, 220 pounds] that he could handle the pounding every week and come back ready the next. It's hard to say you ask a guy without the same size to go through that."

According to offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, Young enters camp as the de facto starter based on his production in the spring, but there's not much separation. Young's role has changed significantly from a year ago when he also played receiver and was used primarily on jet sweeps. On 28 carries over the past two seasons, he's rushed for 270 yards (9.6 ypc) and three touchdowns.

The biggest obstacle to a bulk of playing time for Young, probably the fastest among the group, is developing as a pass protector -- a key skill in Stanford's scheme. He said he's spent a lot of time watching film of Gaffney and Gerhart to help with that and was noticeably more defined physically on Stanford's first day of camp this week.

"The gauntlet is out there because whoever is our best pass-blocker is going to get more playing time," Shaw said.

After the first session of spring practice, that guy was Wright, but he was suspended for the second session for an undisclosed disciplinary reason and that punishment has carried into fall camp. Shaw said he expects Wright to re-join the team in a little over a week10774202
and seemingly implied he had a lot of ground to make up after being away.

Sanders showed glimpses of the type of player he can be in minimal opportunities last year, but -- along with Young -- seems destined for a much more significant role. As a prep star at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma, he was the No. 9-ranked high school running back in the country and has waited patiently for an opportunity for playing time he likely would have received immediately at other places in the country.


"You come in and basically see what's going on a respond accordingly," Sanders said. "[Taylor] had that phonomenal year my freshman year and then Gaff came back [from playing minor league baseball] and that changed some things."

Seale is the only senior of the group, and based on how he's been used compared to the other three in the past -- he has just 30 carries over the past three years -- it's hard to see him surpassing any of the others. They'll likely have plays or packages in which Seale is featured more prominently, but because there's little incentive to develop him for the future he'll have to really breakout in camp or early in the year.
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
This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We polled defense Thursday, and now it's time for offense.

Here's the North Division offensive breakdown. And here's the South.

Here's the North Division graphic.


And here's the South.


There is one problem.

Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye to Stanford, which played pretty good offense last fall and is replacing four O-line starters as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. Our expectation -- and we're forcing it down your throats! -- is the Cardinal might score a few more points per game in 2014 because of an improved passing attack, but Stanford isn't a team that obsesses about scoring more than, say, 35 because it pretty much plays to its defense in the fourth quarter.

SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 offense is most likely to improve in 2014?

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    14%
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    17%
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    44%
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    18%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,612)

So who might improved the most?

California welcomes back pretty much its entire unit, and it should benefit from true sophomore QB Jared Goff and company having a full year in Sonny Dykes' system.

Washington State scored 31 points per game last season, and with a bevy of talent back to run Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, this could be the Cougars' breakthrough year. After his first season at Texas Tech, Leach's offenses averaged more than 35 points per game in eight of the next nine seasons, three times eclipsing the 40-point threshold.

While USC is adopting a new, up-tempo attack under new coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have plenty of talent and could pile up points. The only question is the O-line.

Just like USC, Utah and Colorado welcome back their starting quarterbacks -- assuming that Utes QB Travis Wilson gets a clean bill of health. The Buffaloes have to figure out how to replace wide receiver Paul Richardson's production, while the Utes should greatly benefit from the return of wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.

So, which team do you think shows the most improvement on offense in 2014?
It has been 296 days since the Stanford football team opened fall camp to begin preparations for the 2013 season. If that day marks the official start to an athlete’s season then Zach Hoffpauir has been in season for 296 days.

For Hoffpauir, the conclusion of the Rose Bowl meant the beginning of baseball season. One of four Pac-12 athletes to play both sports, he immediately shifted gears and begun preparations for what turned out to be a very successful sophomore season for the safety turned outfielder.

[+] EnlargeHoffpauir
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerStanford OF Zach Hoffpauir, who will battle for a starting safety spot this fall, is a big reason why the Cardinal advanced to the Super Regional.
And thanks to a walk-off home run from freshman Tommy Edman on Monday against Indiana, the Cardinal, who were the No. 3 seed in the four-team Indiana regional, advanced to this weekend’s Super Regional at Vanderbilt. Hoffpauir was 5-for-19 in the series including a 3-for-5 performance with a home run and a triple in a 10-7 win against Indiana on Sunday.

Balancing the academic workload at Stanford with both sports is a challenge, but he’s in a unique position in that both head coaches -- David Shaw (football) and Mark Marquess (baseball) -- were multi-sport athletes as students at Stanford. Shaw made brief cameos with the track and basketball teams in addition to his role as a wide receiver in football, while Marquess also pulled off the football-baseball double.

“When your coaches are supportive of [playing both], it relieves a lot of pressure,” said Hoffpauir, who ranks second on the Cardinal with a .332 batting average and seven home runs. “It’s nice to have both coaches that have done it too, so they know where I’m coming from.”

When Hoffpauir went through the recruiting process, he sought out a place that would not only allow him to play both sports but provide an environment conducive to being successful in both. Stanford stood out immediately. John Elway in the 1980s, Toby Gerhart a few years back and, most recently, Tyler Gaffney are a few notable examples of how it has worked in the past.

“Stanford was really only program [recruiting me] that had repeated success of two-sports athletes,” Hoffpauir said. “Was I just being told I could do both or is there evidence that it had worked in the past? It was a big part of why I chose Stanford.”

All three of those players had professional baseball opportunities -- Elway and Gaffney both played minor-league baseball before returning to football -- and if things play out the way Hoffpauir hopes, he will too. He’ll be draft eligible after next baseball season, and if the price is right, he said he’d be open to going the Gaffney route and leaving for the minor leagues.

Like Gaffney, Hoffpauir didn’t redshirt during his true freshman football season, which would allow him to step away from football for a season -- essentially redshirting his senior year -- then return to the football team the following year if he’s not sold baseball is the correct permanent fit.

“Things worked out pretty well for Gaffney,” Hoffpauir said.

Gaffney was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft after rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns upon his return.

Projecting how Hoffpauir’s chances at a career in professional football factor into that equation are difficult. Through two seasons, he’s been a special-teams mainstay, but has sat behind Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards on the depth chart at safety. With Reynolds off to the NFL, Hoffpauir is one of four players who will compete to start alongside Richards next season.

The Cardinal moved receiver Kodi Whitfield and quarterback Dallas Lloyd to safety before spring practice to bolster the competition that also includes Kyle Olugbode. Hoffpauir knows he missed out on important reps that could theoretically play a role in who starts, but he isn’t overly concerned by it.

“Yeah, you want to be out there, but I came here and wanted to play both,” he said. “You really earn your spot in fall camp. Once you get to fall camp, whoever is going to make the plays is going to play the position.”

When he had time, Hoffpauir would still sit in on meetings with the football team during the spring and has a specific workout regimen designed to allow him to bulk up but remain flexible.

When Hoffpauir officially returns to football, there will be a new position coach to waiting for him. Duane Akina was hired to replace Derek Mason, who coincidently left for the Vanderbilt job, as the secondary coach following Stanford's first session of spring practice.

Pac-12's lunch links

May, 6, 2014
May 6
2:30
PM ET
Just remember, football is 80 percent mental and 40 percent physical.
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.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay updated their top-10 lists at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

Here's a look at how the Pac-12 offensive players stack up:

Quarterback

Marcus Mariota might have been taken No. 1 overall if he decided to leave Oregon, but without him the Pac-12 doesn't have any top-10 representation. Washington's Keith Price, who was not invited to the NFL combine, has a big day on Wednesday when the Huskies hold their pro day. Barring a team taking a flyer on him in the draft, Price is probably going to have to take the undrafted route to forge a NFL career.

Running back/fullback

The surprise here is how little both analysts think of Carey, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards. Sure, his 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.70) didn't do him any favors, but this feels like a situation where the film isn't speaking as loudly as it does for others.

The love for Thomas was a bit surprising as well, but it's also tough to compare him to the rest of the group because he doesn't project as a true running back in the NFL. His versatility undoubtedly scored him points, but it also should be noted that 10 other running backs clocked faster 40 times at the combine -- including Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. See the whole list here Insider.

Receiver/tight end

Cooks and Lee, a pair of Biletnikoff Award winners, will both expect to hear their name called in the first round. After that, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the pass-catchers fall into place.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOregon State wideout Brandin Cooks could be a first-round pick.
Notably absent is Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who ran a 4.40 40 at the combine and caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Buffaloes. He still figures to have a shot to go in the second-round to third-round range.

McShay lists Lyerla as the pass-catcher with the biggest risk:
Lyerla has some significant behavioral and emotional issues (leaving the Oregon program at midseason in 2013 and being arrested for cocaine possession weeks later) that just aren't worth dealing with, even for the potential reward his talent promises, were he to straighten things out.

See the whole list here Insider.

Offensive line

If they were quarterbacks, Yankey and Su'a-Filo would be forever linked. Widely regarded as two of the best offensive guards in the country, it will be interesting to see who goes off the board first. Su'a-Filo was the players' choice as the best offensive lineman in the conference in 2013, but Yankey was given the honor in 2012.

Martin is one of eight players Kiper and McShay agree is the best player at his position. See the whole list here Insider.
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.

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

Pac-12 results from the NFL combine

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
11:00
AM ET
Raise your hand if you thought Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney would run a faster 40-yard dash than Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas at the NFL combine.

Put your hand down, liar.

Granted, it was still only by a hundredth of a second -- Gaffney ran 4.49 and Thomas 4.50 -- but, still, Thomas built his reputation on speed, while Gaffney's was more on toughness and vision. It ranked as one of the surprise performances among Pac-12 players over the weekend at the NFL combine.

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
AP Photo/Michael ConroyWashington running back Bishop Sankey made a move up draft boards with his performance at the NFL combine.
Sunday proved to be a great day for Washington running back Bishop Sankey, who might have jumped Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey on some draft boards, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

From Clayton's story:
There may not be a running back who could entice a team to use a first-round pick, but the backs who ran Sunday looked great. Bishop Sankey of Washington may have entered the combine as the No. 3 halfback, but his stock probably rose with a 4.49 40 time along with a good show of lifting strength. Tre Mason of Auburn displayed second-round numbers with his 4.5. Both backs might have jumped ahead of Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona, who had a 4.70.

Sankey ranked No. 2 among running backs with 26 reps on the bench press and his 40-time was tied for No. 9.

Another one of the weekend's big winners was Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, who turned in the fastest 40 among receivers. His time of 4.33 was second to only to Kent State running back Dri Archer, who ran a 4.26.

Cooks, who set Pac-12 single-season records with 128 catches and 1,730 receiving yards this year, also turned in the fastest time registered in the 60-yard shuttle (10.72) at the combine since at least 2006. During that same time period, he's tied for the fastest time in the 20-yard shuttle (3.81) with Tennessee cornerback Jason Allen from 2006.

Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the John Mackey Award winner, has a stress fracture in his foot that is expected to need six to eight weeks to recover, according to a report from the Tacoma News Tribune. Due to the injury, Seferian-Jenkins was able to participate only in the bench press. He put up 20 reps, which ranked tied for No. 10 among the 15 tight ends who participated.

See the complete list of Pac-12 invitees.

Here are the Saturday and Sunday results from the Pac-12 players in the 40 and bench press:

Running back

Gaffney, Stanford: 4.49/did not lift
Sankey, Washington: 4.49/26 reps
Thomas, Oregon: 4.50/8 reps
Carey, Arizona: 4.70/19 reps
Silas Redd, USC: 4.70/18 reps
Ryan Hewitt, Stanford (fullback): 4.87/did not lift
Marion Grice, Arizona State: Did not participate
Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (transferred from Oregon): 4.51/15 reps

Wide receiver

Cooks, Oregon State: 4.33/16 reps
Paul Richardson, Colorado: 4.40/did not lift
Shaquelle Evans, UCLA: 4.51/13 reps
Josh Huff, Oregon: 4.51/14 reps
Marqise Lee, USC: 4.52/did not lift

Offensive line

Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA: 5.04/25 reps
Cameron Fleming, OT, Stanford: 5.28/26 reps
David Yankey, OG, Stanford: 5.48/22 reps
Marcus Martin, C, USC: did not run/23 reps

Tight end

Colt Lyerla, formerly of Oregon: 4.61/16 reps
Anthony Denham, Utah: 4.77/did not lift
Jake Murphy, Utah: 4.79/24 reps
Richard Rodgers, TE, California: 4.87/16 reps
Seferian-Jenkins, Washington: did not run/20 reps
Xavier Grimble, USC: did not run or lift

Quarterback

No Pac-12 quarterbacks are at the combine, which is a rarity. The conference has sent at least one every year since at least 1999, which was as far back as we could go to find combine rosters.

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.

Gardner eyes Stanford pro day

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
6:00
PM ET
Stanford led the Pac-12 with eight invitations to the NFL Scouting Combine, but the omission of defensive end Ben Gardner has raised some eyebrows.

Gardner, who was named first-team All-Pac-12 despite playing in just the first eight games of the season, wouldn't have been able to perform at the event later this month but still expected to be invited. As he continues to rehab from an injury to his left pectoral muscle that ended his season in late October, Gardner thought he would have the opportunity to meet with teams and their medical personnel in Indianapolis.

He said no one from the combine or NFL reached out to him or his agent to see if he would be physically ready to participate.

"Who knows if injury had something to do with it," Gardner said. "It's a little disappointing, but the thing for me is that it's just another hurdle."

As a senior at Homestead High in Mequon, Wisc., Gardner received no FBS scholarship offers until Jack Harbaugh recommended to his son, former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, that he change that. The elder Harbaugh lives in Mequon and on his recommendation, the Cardinal took a look and extended Gardner its final scholarship in 2009.

It paid off, as Gardner went on to become a second-team All-Pac-12 selection after the 2011 and 2012 seasons and the Pac-12 Blog named him the conference's No. 25 player overall heading into this past season.

With the combine not in the picture, Gardner said he expects to be ready for Stanford's Pro Day on March 28. He was initially told the injury would keep him out until late April, but thanks to a stringent rehab program at Stanford that timetable has moved up.

He spends his mornings training at California Strength in San Ramon with Stanford teammates Tyler Gaffney, Shayne Skov, Josh Mauro, Ryan Hewitt and USC defensive end Morgan Breslin, who also didn't receive a combine invitation. When he's done there, Gardner drives back to Stanford for more rehab.

"Motivation has never been a problem for me," Gardner said.

Stanford's group of combine invitees includes David Yankey, Cam Fleming, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, Gaffney, Skov, Mauro and Hewitt.

Mailbag: USC can't again dominate?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
5:30
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag, the best gateway to Friday happy hour.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. We keep typing that because it's for your own good.

To the notes.

Ben from Los Angeles writes: Ted, I agree that parity has changed the Pac-12. The differences are negligible among the top recruiting schools. I think it's unlikely that the differences will account for the conference champion. When Pete Carroll coached at USC, it had a big talent advantage almost every week. No more, and I'm not sure it will return. USC couldn't fill 19 slots with top-150 players, so how will six more slots deliver superiority? Practice players, but not superiority. All the schools have money, all the CA schools are good schools (UW, too); the coaching has spiked. Who wants to be third team when you can start at another good school, with a good coach?

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 has reached a perhaps unprecedented state of quality depth, but parity probably isn't the right word. The last time a team other than Oregon or Stanford won the Pac-12/10 was USC in 2008, which at that time was riding a streak of six consecutive conference titles.

(Washington State fans: Which was the last team to win the conference not named USC, Oregon or Stanford? Anyone? Anyone?)

But I understand your general point, which concerns USC returning to the dominance of the Pete Carroll Era. Yet even there I don't completely agree.

Simple question: If Nick Saban were named USC's coach tomorrow, what would be the over-under for national titles over the next 10 years? Five? The potential for another USC dynasty is there, and it would be easier to build one at USC than any other Pac-12 school.

While the Pac-12 is unquestionably deeper than it has traditionally been, I do not think that guarantees that USC, the conference's biggest national brand, can't again become, at the very least, first among equals -- see Alabama in the SEC.

It certainly won't be easy, in large part because the conference has upgraded its coaching quality across the board. But the Trojans' late run in recruiting under Steve Sarkisian suggests the USC brand retains allure among young athletes, and not only in Southern California. UCLA coach Jim Mora said as much in an interview with Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports.

"We're still fighting the years and years of great teams that Southern Cal had," Mora said. "A lot of these kids in the area grew up watching Reggie Bush and the other greats. What we're trying to do is turn the tide as quickly as we can, but sometimes it's a little slower than you want, but it all starts with winning the game. I am so excited with the local kids that we signed."

(Notice how he said "Southern Cal." USC folks don't like to be called that, so much so that it's noted in the football media guide and weekly game notes).

How much difference would it have made for USC to have a full array of 25 scholarships, which it will next February? I think a lot -- as in top-five class a lot.

Sarkisian and his staff are relentless and enthusiastic recruiters. They have a chance to perennially sign classes that are in the battle for best in the nation, just like Carroll.

Of course, it's the job of the other 11 Pac-12 coaches, starting with Mora, to make sure that doesn't happen.

And, by the way, there's also the larger question of whether Sark and his staff can coach those Trojans players up as well as Carroll and his staff, which included Sarkisian, once did.


Josh from Lake Stevens, Wash., writes: Big IF here, but if Cyler Miles is suspended or dismissed, who is more likely to take over for him, Jeff Lindquist, Troy Williams (my vote) or KJ Carta-Samuels?

Ted Miller: I have no idea. No one does. New year. New coaching staff. New offense. And none of those guys has any significant experience.

Lindquist, a rising sophomore, would have a slight advantage just by being the most senior guy. I have heard good things about Williams. I think Carta-Samuels, an incoming freshman, would be a huge long shot.

But this is pure speculation. For one, we should wait and see how the investigation plays out. If I were a betting man, I'd wager Miles doesn't get kicked off the team.


Peter from Calgary, Alberta writes: Stanford has been a run-first, power running football team for a number of years now. They've lost 80 percent of their starting offensive line and don't have a proven running back going into the 2014 season. Discuss.

Ted Miller: Stanford loses RB Tyler Gaffney and four outstanding offensive linemen, but Stanford won't lose its identity in 2014. The Cardinal offense will be a run-first, smashmouth team.

For one, I expect LT Andrus Peat, a rising true junior, to develop into an All-American next year. So QB Kevin Hogan's blind side should be well-covered. Further, the offensive line won't be as inexperienced as it appears because the Cardinal's "jumbo" packages have allowed guys such as guards Josh Garnett and Johnny Caspers and OT Kyle Murphy to get plenty of experience the past two seasons.

There might be some growing pains, but this will be a good line. If it stays healthy, it probably will be as good as any Pac-12 line by season's end.

As for running back, that's more a question mark. Remound Wright, Ricky Seale and Barry Sanders all have skills, but none of them had more than 20 carries last year. Heck, incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey might even get into the mix.

Still, even with Hogan and all his receivers coming back, I don't think you'll see the Cardinal throw the ball 40 times a game. They might throw more, but David Shaw isn't going to abandon a style that has paved the way for consecutive Pac-12 titles.


Gerald from Atlanta writes: SEC fan here. You might remember me. I am the SEC fan from Norcross, Ga., who has been harassing you for years on this SEC/Pac-10/Pac-12 debate. Watching this Super Bowl, I have no choice but to eat crow and recant. I was wrong. You West Coast guys were right. Pete Carroll is an outstanding coach and would have massacred any SEC team during their run, even one led by Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. It took a loaded Mack Brown (who I still say was somewhat underrated as a coach) Texas team led by Vince Young (whose NFL failure was due to a head coach and fan base in Nashville who didn't want him, long story) to just barely eke by Carroll and USC, and now I see why. So I apologize, mea culpa, sorry that USC was treated unfairly by the BCS, glad that the BCS is ending, so on and so forth. P.S. Go Auburn Tigers. And 2010 was awesome no matter what the rest of the country thinks. At the very least it was revenge for 2004.

Ted Miller: Someone needs to go down to hell and see if it's frozen over. Oh, never mind -- I'll just call Nick Saban and ask.

Kidding!

This might not mean much to many of you, but Gerald has been a longtime Pac-12 blog and mailbag gadfly. Not sure what to make of this note.

Perhaps someone has stolen his mailbag handle and the real Gerald will read this and his head will explode.

Perhaps Gerald has joined a 12-step program for trolling.

Perhaps Gerald had a good weekend in Vegas, which included taking the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Perhaps he's just trying to soften us up before launching a counterattack to our unguarded flank.

Or perhaps this will start a trend, and all of the Pac-12's blog myriad and often profane critics will suddenly see the error of their ways and profess only love for your kindly Pac-12 insiders.

Wait. That would be incredibly boring. Let's not let that happen.
[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTyler Gaffney set a career-high in yards in Stanford's 27-20 victory over Notre Dame.
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Irish are Gash-ney'd.

Who and against whom: Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney had a career day in Stanford's 27-20 victory over Notre Dame on Nov. 30.

The numbers: In his final game at Stanford Stadium, Gaffney carried 33 times for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown. The performance is tied for the most yards by a Stanford running back in the last four seasons.

A closer look: Build a lead, run out the clock, win. It's a simple formula that Stanford has worked on for several years and was executed to near perfection against Notre Dame on Nov. 30. There were games when Gaffney had more touchdowns (six, actually) and games where he was given more carries (35), but in no other game during his final season was Gaffney more effective for as long as he was against the Fighting Irish. Of his 33 carries, 19 came in the second half, including an 18-yard carry on his final run of the night. That last run allowed Stanford, holding a seven-point lead, to take a knee and finish off the win. It was a fitting final home game for Gaffney, who returned to the Farm after a year away from football while concentrating on a professional baseball career.

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