Pac-12: Utah Utes

Many Utah fans are grumpy after consecutive losing campaigns. After the Utes won 33 games over their final three seasons in the Mountain West Conference, they have won 18 in their first three in the Pac-12. Some Utah fans blame coach Kyle Whittingham for not making the transition to the big leagues less bumpy.

Whittingham isn't happy sitting home during the bowl season either, and he's aware of the harrumphs. But after concluding spring practices last weekend and officially beginning the offseason, he's tuning out his critics.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesUtah coach Kyle Whittingham was encouraged this spring by the play of QB Travis Wilson.
"I don't pay any attention to that," he said. "We're working as hard as we can trying to improve every year. The external things, I don't pay any attention to them."

What he is paying attention to is the quarterback position. If the Utes can square that away satisfactorily, they could become a player in the Pac-12 South race. While the Pac-12 certainly has presented a greater uptick in competition that most Utes adherents -- coaches, fans and players -- thought it would, it's important to note a significant difference between the 2008-2010 seasons and 2011-2013 seasons: Continuity and productivity behind center.

Dave Christensen -- the Utes sixth different play caller in six years -- was hired to bring his up-tempo version of the spread offense to Salt Lake, and the first order of business is to figure out who will be directing the show. If all goes according to plan, which it hasn't for three years running, that will junior Travis Wilson.

Wilson, whose career appeared threatened after a season-ending intracranial artery injury in November, showed some early rust but by the end of the spring drills he put some separation between himself and Conner Manning and Adam Schulz. He will take the first snaps behind center when fall camp begins.

"As spring wore on, he got better and he started to play more like he did in the fall for us," Whittingham said. "No tentativeness whatsoever. He wasn't apprehensive about anything we were doing. He looked like his old self by the end of spring ball."

Of course, there's an asterisk with Wilson. Whittingham and Christensen won't know if he will be cleared to resume full-contact football until July. So Manning, Schulz, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson and incoming freshman Donovan Isom could end up being plan B. In fact, some fans are clicking their heels together over Thompson, a redshirt junior who went 4-of-13 with a touchdown and an interception in three seasons at Oklahoma. Those fans might want to revisit our observations on "Incoming Dude Is Obviously Transcendent" (IDIOT) syndrome.

Whatever Wilson's status, Whittingham makes it clear that nothing is resolved at the position.

"[Wilson is] No. 1 guy going into fall," he said. "But there still will be some competition, some jockeying for position, I guess you could say. But we've got to get solidified there rapidly once fall camp starts so we can rep the guys who are the ones and twos on the depth chart."

QB is still at issue, and the knee injury to play-making LB Jacoby Hale was a drag, but Whittingham was upbeat about several areas this spring.

For one, talented OT Jeremiah Poutasi, after cutting about 30 pounds, appears poised for the breakthrough many projected for him last season.

"He is playing at the level that we were hoping he was going to play at last year," Whittingham said.

The depth at running back is strong with the emergence of Devontae Booker and Troy McCormick beside Bubba Poole, with the injured Lucky Radley rejoining the fray in the fall. Dominique Hatfield emerged as a potential No. 3 receiver, at least until touted junior college transfer Kaelin Clay arrives. Westlee Tonga, injured much of last season, gives the Utes an A-list tight end.

On defense, Whittingham was pleased with the development of depth at cornerback, and he believes Nate Orchard is ready for his closeup as a pass rusher. Further, if all goes according to plan with a couple of incoming players, including the arrival of touted JC transfer Pasoni Tasini, the competition should be fierce at defensive tackle.

While getting things squared away behind center is priority one, Whittingham also is quick to answer when asked what needs to change this fall for his team to get back to its winning ways: Turnovers. Both giveaways and takeaways. The Utes had too many of the former and too few of the latter in 2013.

Utah, which led the Pac-12 in turnover margin while going 8-5 in 2011 despite complete chaos behind center, ranked 11th in the conference in turnover margin last fall. They were minus-9 for the season in large part because they tossed 21 interceptions while grabbing only three picks. That was by far the highest interception percentage in the conference and tied for the fewest interceptions in the nation on defense.

So Whittingham isn't focused on his critics as he turns his attention to the offseason. He's focused on his QB situation and improving his team's turnover margin.

Here's a guess that if he solves both of those issues he'll have a lot less grumpiness to ignore.

Lunch links: Remembering Tillman

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
2:30
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There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes... and then after about 15 minutes, you're spit out ... into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Ball security in the Pac-12

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
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Teams that commit the fewest turnovers generally win more football games. Teams that turn the ball over frequently generally lose more football games. These are fairly safe axioms to live by, because more often than not they hold true.

But not always, especially in the sometimes-backward Pac-12, where the offense is fast and furious and the defense is underrated.

An examination of turnover margin in the league the last three seasons reveals some very interesting results, trends and trend-busters.

Here’s how Pac-12 teams have shaped up the last three seasons:

Some intriguing takeaways (pun intended):
  • Stanford, the two-time defending conference champion, is well known for its hard-nosed defense. Yet in 2013, it had a turnover margin of zero (19 takeaways, 19 turnovers) and the Cardinal are in the lower half of the league the last three seasons in total turnovers generated. Worth noting, however, that Stanford also takes care of the ball better than anyone in the league, with a conference-low 54 turnovers in the last three seasons.
  • Oregon has more takeaways than any team in the conference the last three seasons, including a robust turnover margin of plus-21 for the 2012 season (tops in the league for a single-season over that three-year stretch). Wait a second: Doesn’t Oregon catch flak for not playing defense? Huh. The Ducks are second in the league behind Stanford with just 57 turnovers over the last three seasons.
  • Only Arizona State, Oregon and Washington had a positive turnover margin in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
  • Only California, Colorado and Washington State had a negative turnover margin in all three seasons.
  • Stanford is the only team to have a zero margin in a season during the last three years.
  • ASU is the only team in the league to have at least 30 takeaways in all three seasons.
  • During that three-year stretch, only two teams have created more turnovers than Oregon State. During that same stretch, only two teams have committed more turnovers than Oregon State. So while the Beavers' 83 takeaways look great on paper, the 80 turnovers don’t. Makes sense that in the Beavers' best season, 2012, they had a plus-8 margin with 31 takeaways and 23 turnovers. In its worst, 2011, it was minus-8 with 23 takeaways and 31 turnovers.
  • Washington State has the most total turnovers (86) in the last three years. But Colorado has the worst turnover margin. Worth noting that last season the Buffs cut their margin down to minus-3 from the minus-19 in 2012.
  • USC tied with Colorado in 2012 for most turnovers in the league (34). So despite 71 takeaways the last three seasons, their 69 turnovers gives the Trojans only a plus-2 margin. Worth noting that after back-to-back seaspns of negative turnover margin in 2011 and 2012, USC was on the plus side last season at plus-5.
  • Arizona reached the plus side of the turnover margin last season (plus-4) after back-to-back seasons of negative margin in 2011 and 2012.
  • The most turnovers in a season in the three-year stretch was from Washington State, which had 35 last season.
  • The most takeaways in a season in the three-year stretch was by Oregon, which had 40 in 2012.
  • Washington’s much-maligned defense of 2011 still finished the season with a plus-1 turnover margin. Though during the last two seasons under then-coordinator Justin Wilcox (now with Steve Sarkisian at USC), the Huskies are plus-12.
  • The fewest turnovers in a season in the last three seasons is 16 – both from Washington and UCLA last season. Stanford is the only team in the conference to be in the teens in turnovers all three years.
  • Until last season, Utah had been solid at getting takeaways. It led the Pac-12 in turnovers and turnover margin in 2011 (33 takeaways, plus-10 margin). Even in 2012, the Utes were on the plus side, but failed to make a bowl game. Last year Utah dipped to minus-9.

So as you can see, there is obviously some correlation between turnovers and wins/losses. The three Pac-12 teams that didn’t make the postseason last season -- Cal, Colorado and Utah -- each had negative turnover margins.

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the team that has the most turnovers will lose every game and the team with the most takeaways wins. Stanford is a perfect example of that, winning the league last season with an even margin. You don’t need a lot of takeaways to play great defense, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
The biggest theme for the Pac-12 in 2014? Passing, passing, passing.

As you surely know if you frequent the Pac-12 blog -- typically considered the University of Oxford of the Internet -- we've been typing pretty regularly about the returning QB talent in the Pac-12. As in 10 returning starters, a group that includes a handful of national awards candidates.

That alone would support the notion of big passing numbers this coming fall. But there's more!

  • The Pac-12 is extremely deep at receiver.
  • The Pac-12 is questionable at running back.
  • The Pac-12 loses many of its top sack leaders from 2013.
  • The Pac-12 loses many of its top interception leaders from 2013.

Thus the formula: Experienced QBs plus questionable running games plus questionable pass defenses equals big passing numbers.

Of course, that probably means the teams that can run the ball well and play good defense are going to end up leading the conference.

But here are the supporting facts:

Returning rushing leader from 2013: No. 5 Byron Marshall, Oregon (1,038/86.5 yards per game)

2014 challengers: D.J. Foster, Arizona State; Thomas Tyner, Oregon; Jordan James, UCLA; Javorius Allen, USC.

Breakdown: The Pac-12's top four rushers from 2013 are gone and most conference teams are uncertain that the position. In fact, Foster might be the only certain No. 1 option this coming fall.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon State's Sean Mannion is one of 10 returning QBs in the Pac-12 for 2014.
Returning passing leader from 2013: Sean Mannion, Oregon State (4,662/358.6 ypg)

2014 challengers: Marcus Mariota, Oregon; Brett Hundley, UCLA; Taylor Kelly, Arizona State; Connor Halliday, Washington State; Jared Goff, California.

Breakdown: With 10 QBs coming back from 2013 -- a number of whom have national pedigrees -- the Pac-12 is as deep at the position as it has been in recent years. And with Arizona and Washington, the two teams with legitimate QB competitions (assuming Utah's Travis Wilson is given the green light by doctors), the supporting casts around the new QB will be strong. As noted: big passing numbers this fall, across the board.

Returning receiving leader from 2013: Dres Anderson, Utah (1,002/87.7 ypg)

2014 challengers: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State; Nelson Agholor, USC; Chris Harper, California; Ty Montgomery, Stanford.

Breakdown: Despite losing the three most productive pass catches from 2013 -- Brandin Cooks, Paul Richardson and Josh Huff, not to mention Marqise Lee -- the conference is overbrimming with receiving talent. Arizona, California, Stanford, UCLA, Washington and Washington State welcome back most of their top guys from 2013, and Arizona State, USC and Utah also are potentially strong at the position.

Returning sacks leader from 2013: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington (13)

2014 challengers: Tony Washington, Oregon; Kevin Anderson, Stanford; Leonard Williams, USC; Nate Orchard, Utah.

Breakdown: Kikaha and Washington are the only returning guys who ranked among the conference's top-12 in sacks in 2013 (another good sign for conference QBs?). One of the biggest injuries this spring was Utah losing OLB Jacoby Hale.

Returning interceptions leader from 2013: Steven Nelson, Oregon State (6)

Challengers: Marcus Peters, Washington; Greg Henderson, Colorado; Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Arizona; Su'a Cravens, USC; Ishmael Adams, UCLA; Jordan Richards, Stanford; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon.

Breakdown: Only two of the top eight interception leaders is back in 2014 (another good sign for QBs?). A few guys to watch out for: Arizona State's Damarious Randall, Stanford's Alex Carter, UCLA's Fabian Moreau and USC's Josh Shaw.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
2:30
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You picked a dangerous mall to host a game show in. I hear the Easter bunny was accosted this morning.
Happy Friday.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes.

Jake from Spokane writes: What do you think Chris Petersen should do with Cyler Miles and Damore’ea Stringfellow? I know Miles wasn't charged and Stringfellow got off easy, but don't you think he should make an example out of them?

Ted Miller: Yes. And no.

As many of you know, I typically side with second chances. I think zero-tolerance is bad policy. Everything should be a case-by-case basis. For one, there's typically two sides to every story, with the less public, after-the-big-headlines side often being closer to the truth -- see past assault accusations against former Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and Oregon running back LaMichael James. Or Duke lacrosse, for that matter.

I know the self-righteous out there love to tell everyone about their inflexible absolutes with behavior and Puritan standards for character. My experience with people like that is they almost always are full of pooh.

And yet a line I often do draw is at bullying, which the two incidents involving Miles and Stringfellow approximate. A bigger person pushing around a smaller person just because he can is abhorrent. That, to me, does reveal a deep-seated character flaw. The fact that alcohol apparently wasn't involved actually almost makes it worse. When you can't blame the booze, what can you blame, other than a flawed moral compass?

Based on what I know typing this today, here's what I would do if I were Petersen.

First, I would meet with a crew of Huskies seniors who command respect in the locker room and ask their positions on the situation and why they feel that way. I would ask if there were details of the incidents that they knew of or had heard of from reasonably reliable sources that differed from public accounts. I wouldn't ask what they thought I should do, but I would take the measures of their feelings toward both, including whether those feelings were different between the pair.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen hasn't announced the punishment for Washington players Cyler Miles and Damore'ea Stringfellow.
Barring any major surprises, I'd then meet with Miles and tell him he was being conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first game (at Hawaii, so he'd truly be missing a fun trip). I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with strength coach Tim Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third. A quarterback, in particular, is supposed to set a standard in the locker room.

Then, I'd meet with Stringfellow. He too would be conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first three games. I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third.

I'd publicly announce my decision in May or June so it wasn't a big, distracting story right before the beginning of preseason practices. I'd also have both of them meet with the media, though only after a stern session with myself and sports information director Jeff Bechthold, where we'd hammer home talking points about being humble, regretful and accountable while not reviewing too many details of the incidents. Something like, "I know I won't do this again because of how horrible I felt and still feel for hurting someone and embarrassing my family, my school and my team."

I'd also minimize the "put it behind me" talk, which always comes off as lacking regret while suggesting impatience with a justifiable inquisition. Want to win a news conference? Say, "No, I'm not going to put this behind me. I'm going to think about it every day to remind myself of what it feels like to be a bad person, which I never want to feel again."

These situations typically involve a complicated calculus, particularly when the players are key contributors, as both of these guys are. Petersen has a duty to his players, fans, administrators and himself to do what he was truly hired to do: Win. Yes, he should aim to build character and help young men grow into quality adults, but the reality is that comes in second place to winning. Sorry if that bursts your idealistic bubble, but there's a reason why even the greatest teachers aren't paid $3 million a year.

That said, bad apples in a locker room don't help the cause. Sometimes temporary pain -- suspensions or giving players the boot -- helps a program, helps it win over the long term.

My impression of Petersen is he's the clearest of thinkers. While most of us view this as the first big test of his administration, I suspect it feels fairly routine for him.


Tim from Portland writes: Hey Ted, I wonder if I'm the only one thinking that the loss of the Ducks' top four receivers could actually be a good thing. I know we lose a lot of numbers with those four out, but isn't it possible Oregon could go back to the blue-collar attitude they had in Chip [Kelly's] first couple years as head coach? I mean, in those years at least we met or exceeded the expectations for the season.

Ted Miller: Yes, Tim, you are the only one thinking that.

Are you saying that Bralon Addison's blowing out his knee this spring is a good thing? My answer to that: No. One thousand times no. Have you seen Addison play? Before he got hurt, I saw him as a legitimate All-Pac-12 candidate.

And, no, losing your top four receivers is never a good thing, either. Never. Well, unless they all ran 5.0 40s and were locker room cancers.

Also, I'm not sure if I've ever viewed Oregon as a "blue-collar" team. I see Oregon as a cutting edge, fancy-pants team that has the best facilities in the nation and gets to go behind the velvet rope at all the cool clubs.

I'd also like to point out that the Ducks' horribly disappointing season included 11 wins, a dominant bowl victory over Texas and a top-10 final ranking.

Now, if you're saying the Ducks might run the ball more next fall with four returning starting O-linemen, a good crew of tight ends and what should be a dynamic RB combination in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, I could get on board with that.

That said, quarterback Marcus Mariota is an A-list passer. While there are unknowns at receiver, I suspect the cupboard isn't empty. I'd be surprised if Mariota doesn't throw for at least 250 yards per game.


Dave from Tucson writes: Ted, thanks for some good, informative articles on football. Just a minor reporting point on this: "...Not when you consider what Rodriguez and Smith have done with their past two first-year starters in Matt Scott and B.J. Denker." Actually, Matt Scott had beaten out Nick Foles to start the 2009 season and started two games before being benched for Foles. Denker also started a game and played the entire game against Colorado in the 2012 season when Matt Scott was down with a concussion. Matt Scott was not a first-year starter in 2012 and Denker was not a first-year starter in 2013.

Ted Miller: I think you're mixing up "first-time" and "first-year."

Both Scott and Denker had started games and seen action before ascending officially to the starting job, but neither was a returning starter, which is typically defined as starting at least five games during the previous season. Nick Foles preceded Scott as the 2012 starter, and Scott preceded Denker as the 2013 starter.

And, just as Washington QB Cyler Miles, despite starting at Oregon State, was not the Huskies' starting QB in 2013. That was Keith Price.


Mr. Elizabeth Bennet from Salt Lake City writes: I enjoyed the quote you added to your lunch links from April 16. I wonder what your thoughts are on how Jane Austen would have commented on the state of college football, given all the clamoring for change that has happened and the widening gap of aristocracy between the conferences? Also, which "Pride & Prejudice" character best describes each Pac-12 football coach/team? It seems like the Pac-12 blog does a good job as the Elizabeth Bennet of the college football world, offering witty, but insightful commentary on the society within college football.

Ted Miller: I think it's a universally acknowledged truth that Jane Austen would have been a heck of a sportswriter, full of sense and sensibility as well as persuasion. While some -- mostly those who haven't read her -- probably see her as some sort of "chick-lit," the reality is she's a wonderfully biting observer of how folks behave, not to mention underrated when it comes to humor.

As for Austen and college football, she's already commented. You may not know this, but Lady Bertram in "Mansfield Park" is the personification of the NCAA, a novel, by the way, that includes these two felicitous quotes:

  • Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.
  • A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.

As for the "Pride and Prejudice" request, I'm not going to wander down that road -- who wants to be Wickham or Collins or Lydia? -- but I will say Chip Kelly had plenty of "Darcy" in him.
After leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2011, Utah has slipped into the middle of the pack in the conference the past two seasons. While the numbers have been generally solid -- most notably against the run -- you get the feeling that coordinator Kalani Sitake isn't happy with being fair-to-middling.

The Utes entered spring needing to replace some key guys, most notably outside linebacker Trevor Reilly, who was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2013, DT Tenny Palepoi, who earned second-team honors, and cornerback Keith McGill, who is expected to be picked in the NFL draft in May. It also didn't help the cause when playmaker Jacoby Hale blew out his knee in March.

Still, the Utes have some intrigue talent returning on defense, as well as some notable newcomers.

So, with the Utes' spring game scheduled for Saturday, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sitake, a guy who has generated some buzz as a future head coaching candidate.

First let's look back: What was good about the 2013 defense, and what were you unhappy about?

Kalani Sitake: The good part is we had some good play out of our defensive front. We've been solid in run defense for years now. I think the passing game was a little bit spotty at times, not the best. But the thing that was most negative was the lack of turnovers, specifically interceptions. We had three interceptions. In 2011, we led the Pac-12 in interceptions [with 19]. All of the sudden it dwindled to where we were last last year. Not that we didn't have opportunities, we just need to capitalize on opportunities. Three interceptions can't do it. So there's been a huge emphasis this spring on finishing plays and capitalizing on our opportunities. That was a huge, glaring negative for us last season.

With the spring game on Saturday, give me an overall assessment of where your defense is right now.

Kalani Sitake: We have some guys who are banged up, specifically at D-tackle, who haven't been participating. We also are counting on a few guys who have done some good things this spring. I think Eric Rowe and Reggie Porter, our cornerbacks, our defensive backfield of Davion Orphey and Justin Thomas -- I'm naming those guys as corners -- they have really improved. We seen really good things from them. I feel more comfortable with that position now than I did earlier. I think our safeties, with Brian Blechen playing there and as soon as Tevin Carter gets healthy, I think we'll see our safeties start to come along. We're going to be a lot deeper when we get some of these newcomers, Tevin Carter specifically, coming in. I think our defense as a whole got better. I think we are a lot more set. Going through some of the issues we had last year, a lot of guys are more experienced. It wasn't the best defense statistically for us, but the experience a lot of these young guys went through is going to pay off huge for us this fall. Going through the grind of the Pac-12 conference has been good for these guys.

Who replaces OLB Trevor Reilly's production?

Kalani Sitake: We did some things with Nate Orchard and we think he's going to be that guy. Probably not as much at inside linebacker as Trevor played. You'll see Nate doing a lot of what Trevor did last year. He's in his senior year. He's had a great spring, though we held him out of a lot of the scrimmage stuff. He's our big-play guy up front. I see him now as our leader. He's really starting to come into his own, which is perfect timing for us, especially with us replacing Trevor Reilly. Nate Orchard is the next guy in and I think he'll do a great job at it.

What does it mean to have S/LB Brian Blechen back and how will you guys use him this fall?

Kalani Sitake: It's huge because he has more interceptions than any of the defensive backs who are returning. He won games for us as a true freshman with interceptions. The main thing for us is he is a big-play guy. Having a big play guy at safety is valuable for us, specifically when we need turnovers, interceptions. Whether he causes a fumble, makes a big hit or gets an interception, just to have the impact he has. We'd like to keep him at safety but with his versatility and him knowing football so well and knowing our defense, he can play any of the spots on our defense. Having a guy that gives you those options is a huge benefit and huge asset for us defensively.

Let's go through all three levels. First, your defensive line: Who's had a good spring up front?

Kalani Sitake: Up front, I saw some good things out of Hunter Dimick and Jason Fanaika, playing D-end. Jason can also play inside at D-tackle. Same with Hunter. Viliseni Fauonuku has had a great spring. He was banged up a little bit but came back. He's the explosive defensive lineman we need at D-tackle. Pita Taumoepenu has proven that he's a good pass rusher. We're going to need him. As a true freshman last year, he wasn't ready to be an every-down guy. This next little bit in fall camp, I'd like to see him develop into an every-down type of D-end. A little bit undersized [6-foot-1, 230 pounds], but we've had guys we've had to add weight on before. Nate Orchard used to be that guy his freshman, sophomore year. We have some guys up front who are doing some really good things. I'll be excited to get some of our D-tackles back healthy -- Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Sese Ianu -- and we're getting Star Lotulelei's little brother, Lowell, in the fall. And then there's Sam Tevi. So there's four D-tackles who haven't participated in spring. And Filipo Mokofisi will be huge for us up front, too. We also have a [junior college] transfer from Snow College, Pasoni Tasini, who will be huge for us. Defensive tackle-wise, I'm excited about those guys. I think the front is going to be a strength for us.

I think our defense as a whole got better. I think we are a lot more set. Going through some of the issues we had last year, a lot of guys are more experienced. It wasn't the best defense statistically for us, but the experience a lot of these young guys went through is going to pay off huge for us this fall.

Utah coordinator Kalani Sitake on the state of his defense going into the 2014 season.
And at linebacker?

Kalani Sitake: We had those unfortunate injuries with Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul, but Gionni Paul will be back for us for fall camp and for the season. With Hale, it's as soon as we can get him back from his ACL, we'll take him. That's part of football. The great part of it is we've got some depth. We'll get Jason Whittingham back in the fall. Jared Norris has emerged as dynamic at linebacker for us. He can do anything. He can play inside or outside. He's got what it takes. I see, as far as last year to this year, he's made a huge improvement, his speed and agility. I'm excited to see what he can do this fall. Uaea Masina will be a solid linebacker for us this fall. We moved Marcus Sanders-Williams from running back to linebacker after those two injuries, and for a guy who's only been a linebacker for a week ... his second day of being a linebacker was our scrimmage, and he graded out higher than I've had a newcomer grade out. He understands defense and made a ton of big plays. For a guy who's got a lot of speed, I'm excited about him at linebacker. Those guys have done some really good things who we will be relying on this fall.

And in the secondary?

Kalani Sitake: Overall, Eric Rowe, we can play him at free safety, but we feel like Tevin Carter can be a guy, so we've got Tevin Carter and Brian Blechen at safety. We feel good with those guys. I also feel good with Charles Henderson backing up the safety position. A couple of these freshmen coming in should be able to help us out. We also moved Hipolito Corporan from corner to safety. Those guys will give us a solid group at free safety and strong safety. Eric Rowe can be a swing guy from corner to safety, but we feel really comfortable with him replacing Keith McGill and being a big corner for us. Reggie Porter will join him at a corner spot with Justin Thomas as our nickel corner. You also have Davion Orphey who started for us last year at corner. We feel really solid about those four corners right there. And Wykie Freeman is a guy that also gives us a corner we feel good about. We'll see how the young guys come along. We feel really good about our five corners, and Eric Rowe has been dynamic for us.

I know you coach defense, but folks are curious about QB Travis Wilson and his health. How has he looked this spring?

Kalani Sitake: He's a lot lighter now and he's actually caused problems for us scrambling around. He's going against the first-team defense every day and he's looking a lot quicker. He's more comfortable the more he plays. I've been really impressed with some of the things he's done. I think he's back to himself. He's taking on leadership roles with the team. It will be really exciting to see what he can do this fall. Losing the weight, he's a lot more elusive for a 6-foot-7 guy -- I think that's working for him. He can make guys miss and run around and beat guys to the edge. I see him doing some really good things. He's older and feels more comfortable, even though it's a new offensive system.

Lunch links: Any sleeper teams?

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
2:30
PM ET
Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring;
Bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire.
What is your team's best quarter? Worst? And what does it mean?

While it's probably a mistake to read too much into how a team does quarter by quarter -- the final score is what counts -- it might provide some tidbits of insight.

The baseline, of course, is this: Good teams are going to win most every quarter and bad teams will lose most every quarter. But what does it mean if your team starts fast or slowly? Or owns the third quarter? Or sputters in the second?

The conventional wisdom is teams that do well in the third are good at making halftime adjustments, but coaches often snort at such talk.

Former Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter once painstakingly walked reporters through the halftime process to help them understand the small window for making significant schematic changes. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly was at his snarky best -- even as he was being flattered -- when asked about "halftime adjustments."

Kelly, however, would admit that the occasional slow start by his offense was due to a feeling out period, where he and his assistants were taking the measure of what a defense was trying to do. That's the nature of football -- punching and counterpunching, reading and reacting.

Still, you probably shouldn't read too much into these numbers. While it's interesting that UCLA and Washington were very good in the third quarter last year while Arizona State -- curiously -- was not, the salient fact is the Sun Devils beat both.

 
  • Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Washington were the only Pac-12 teams to win every quarter.
  • California was the only Pac-12 team outscored in all four quarters. The Bears gave up 181 points in the first quarter, the worst defensive quarter in the conference.
  • The highest scoring quarter belonged to Arizona State, with 192 points in the second. Washington had 184 points in the third and Oregon 182 points in the first.
  • The best defensive quarter was USC in the first, holding foes to 37 points. Washington yielded 44 in the first and UCLA gave up 44 in the third.
  • Arizona State was dominant in every quarter, other than the third, when it was outscored 109-99.
  • Stanford was dominant in every quarter other than the fourth, which it lost 85-92, suggesting the Cardinal didn't fight for a large margin of victory.
  • Oregon was dominant in all four quarters and, despite that, posted the best fourth-quarter margin of 78 points (137-59), suggesting the Ducks enjoyed producing a large margin of victory.
  • Stanford yielded 60 or fewer points in each of the first three quarters. Oregon did so in the third and fourth (47 points and 59 points). Only three other teams produced even a single quarter with 60 or fewer points: UCLA in the third (44), USC in the first (37) and Washington in the first (44).
  • Colorado was outscored in the first three quarters but won the fourth decisively, 130-70. That suggests Mike McIntyre's team didn't quit.
  • USC won 10 games last year despite being outscored in both the third and fourth quarters. Only Cal and Washington State matched that dubious distinction.
  • Utah was outscored only in the fourth quarter. Oregon State was outscored only in the first.
  • Washington's 119-point margin (184-65) in the third was the largest for any quarter. Oregon's 109-point margin in the first quarter was second (182-73). Arizona State had the largest second-quarter margin at 77 points (192-115).
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
2:30
PM ET
I'm an early bird and I'm a night owl, so I'm wise and have worms.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on on the Metaphysician Network.

To the notes!

Matt from Beaverton, Ore., writes: I'm sure by now you've read the news about the Ducks losing Bralon Addison this season due to an ACL tear. He looked to take a huge step in becoming a focal point of the Ducks offense with Huff graduating. Do you think Oregon returns to running the ball far more frequently, or are there players you think will step up to fill the void? I'm curious how Jonathan Lloyd (senior point guard for the basketball team) pans out as a return specialist/WR.

[+] EnlargeBralon Addison
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Ducks are not devoid of offensive talent, but replacing Bralon Addison will be difficult.
Ted Miller: Losing Addison is a big blow for two reasons. First, he's an intriguing talent who was expected to become QB Marcus Mariota's No. 1 target this fall, an important distinction considering Mariota is a Heisman Trophy contender. Second, the Ducks are now as green at receiver as any team in the Pac-12. They will be without their top four receivers from 2013.

What's left? There's veteran Keanon Lowe, a good leader and a tough blocker, but he only caught 18 passes last year. In terms of wideouts, the next most productive returning receiver is sophomore Chance Allen, who caught five passes.

Of course, there's young talent. A top-five team with Oregon's offensive name brand isn't going to be devoid of guys who could immediately step in and shine, but how that pecking order develops is a mystery. Allen, sophomore Dwayne Stanford, redshirt freshman Darren Carrington and the mercurial B.J. Kelley are possibilities.

Lloyd? It's fun to speculate, but being a great athlete doesn't mean you'll be a good receiver. That gets a firm "We shall see."

As for compensating in the passing game, the Ducks are strong at tight end, so you probably will see more from those guys. They also, as you note, could lean more on the running game, as Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have the potential to be a 2,500-plus-yard tandem.

One of the Ducks mottos is "next man in" and losing Addison hardly knocks the Ducks out of the Pac-12 and national title race. But if you made a list of the top-five most important Ducks in 2014 a week ago, he would have been on it.

 




Ray from Tucson, Ariz., writes: Recognizing that football is a big moneymaker for college athletic departments, conferences and networks, I'm curious as to whether we've already seen the peak of this sport. Between unionization of athletes and issues with concussions and the incidence of brain damage in former players, it seems like there are some issues ahead. Can educational institutions continue to feature a sport that has apparent long term consequences to the players and cash the checks without some lifetime responsibility to those students? 18-22 year olds always think they are immortal, but the faculty and administrators should know that a significant percentage of the kids have potential for injury and brain damage. Perhaps not as bad as what the Roman gladiators had, but still substantial enough that some court cases could change the financial equation. Do you think you'll need to bone up on badminton or soccer rules as an alternative sport for the Pac-12 blog at some point?

Ted Miller: This is a time of change in college football on many levels, and those changes aren't independent of each other.

We've reached critical mass with the flowing revenue and big-money salaries, where the relative deprivation between athlete and coach/administrator is impossible to ignore. We've also reached a point where we need to take strong steps to address player safety and long-term health issues. Most folks around the game see this, even if they don't agree on all the next steps.

The good news is this: Crisis often breeds progress.

As for your question, "Has college football peaked?" Maybe. But that's not my impression.

Ultimately, I don't think college football is going anywhere. Too many people love it and care about it to not figure out ways to improve things.

And the notion of no Pac-12 blog surely will motivate them all to come up with changes we all can believe in.

 




Derek from Salt Lake City writes: So recently it was announced that the student government at the University of Utah was proposing changes to the fight song "Utah Man" because they felt it was sexist and offensive to some people. I would love to know what someone who is not a die-hard Ute thinks about the whole situation ...

Ted Miller: It's funny how trivial things such as this are often highly controversial, emotional and political. My guess is the folks who most loudly claim they are aggrieved probably have never and will never even sing the song.

Still, my first response? Why not change it to "Utah Fan." What is lost? Fact is plenty of Utah fans are women. The assertion that "man" is an inclusion term is disingenuous.

Don't think so? Your momma is a man. See.

The story included Utah social work professor Joanne Yaffe observing, "I don’t think I’m being hyper-PC, I’m just thinking about not really being included in the song."

I agree. Perfectly reasonable observation. And reason to make a change.

Yet she then unfortunately added, "I think that the U can feel like a very isolating, unwelcoming place, and maybe this song is part of that."

Sigh. That's just gobbledygook. And disingenuous whining is a good way to lose a sympathetic audience.

If I were in charge at Utah, I'd change it to "Utah Fan."

And you folks know I'm up to snuff and never bluff.

Offensive explosion plays: South

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Just as defenses like to create negative plays for offenses, offenses like to create explosion plays -- plays of over 20 yards.

So which Pac-12 offenses created the most explosion plays in 2013? And how? And who's coming back in 2014?

I appreciate you asking.

The number to the left is the team's national ranking. "TDs" is how many of the explosion plays produced touchdowns. The "returning in 2014" is the explosion plays produced in 2013 by players who return in the fall.

In the "lost" and "returning" categories, we list players who had five or more explosion plays in 2013.

T7. Arizona State (10-4)
2013 explosion plays: 86 (62 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 11 pass, 14 run

Returning in 2014: 50 (38 pass, 12 rush)

Lost: RB Marion Grice (15); WR Kevin Ozier (9); TE Chris Coyle (6)

Returning: WR Jaelen Strong (22); RB D.J. Foster (11); QB Taylor Kelly (7)
36. UCLA (10-3)
2013 explosion plays: 69 (45 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 12 pass, 5 run

Returning in 2014: 53 (31 pass, 22 run)

Lost: WR Shaq Evans (10)

Returning: RB Paul Perkins (9); WR Devin Lucien (8); QB Brett Hundley (8); RB Steven Manfro (5)
T40. USC (10-4)
2013 explosion plays: 67 (43 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 12 pass, 11 run

Returning in 2014: 49 (26 pass, 23 run)

Lost: WR Marqise Lee (10); TE Xavier Grimble (5)

Returning: WR Nelson Agholor (15); RB Javorius Allen (12); RB Tre Madden (9)
T53. Arizona (8-5)
2013 explosion plays: 61 (32 pass, 29 run)

TDs: 6 pass, 9 run

Returning in 2014: 27 (25 pass, 2 rush)

Lost: RB Ka'Deem Carey (16); QB B.J. Denker (9); WR Terrence Miller (6)

Returning: WR Nate Phillips (9), WR Garic Wharton (8)
T71. Utah (5-7)
2013 explosion plays: 56 (38 pass, 18 run)

TDs: 9 pass, 5 run

Returning in 2014: 38 (23 pass, 15 run)

Lost: TE Jake Murphy (6); WR Sean Fitzgerald (5)

Returning: WR Dres Anderson (15); RB Bubba Poole (8); QB Travis Wilson (6)
T104. Colorado (4-8)
2013 explosion plays: 43 (36 pass, 7 run)

TDs: 14 pass, 3 run

Returning in 2014: 24 (17 pass, 7 run)

Lost: WR Paul Richardson (19)

Returning: WR Nelson Spruce (7); RB Michael Adkins (6)

This is my mailbag. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Cory in Phoenix writes: Kevin, on Athlon's coaches rating it seemed that much of the ratings for new coaches are based on the talent in place before they arrived. Is Todd Graham really a better coach than Rich Rod or is Jim Mora really better than Mike Leach? So my question, if you were the AD of Generic University, a hypothetical university in the Pac-12 that finished 6-6 (i.e., this is an average team with average talent), and could steal one Pac-12 coach to rebuild your program, which coach do you hire to lead your program to the Rose Bowl?

Kevin Gemmell: I get this question a lot in chats. And if I were running the show for the Generic U Fighting Millers, I would probably select David Shaw as my head coach for one very simple reason: We believe the same thing philosophically.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkIf you prefer a power game and a 3-4 defense, then your outlook is rosy with David Shaw.
I grew up in the Bay Area in the heyday of Joe Montana and Steve Young to Jerry Rice. I grew up watching Tom Rathman block for Roger Craig and Bar None Floyd blocking for Ricky Watters. I believe in the West Coast offense. So does Shaw.

I’ve been a beat writer for football teams that have run the spread and the option and the pro style. And the pro style is what I would run if I were a coach. Because I believe that a strong, power-based rushing attack wears teams downs over a 60-minute game; that 3-yard carries in the first quarter become 6-yard carries in the fourth. The ability to run power up and down the field is demoralizing to an opposition. It’s not just X's and O's. It’s a mentality.

Defensively, I believe in the 3-4, especially in the Pac-12, where talented edge rushers are invaluable and perimeter speed is critical.

Of course, that’s what makes this such a fun debate. Say what you want about Utah’s offensive inefficiencies the last few years, Kyle Whittingham can coach up an even front as well as any coach in the country. If I were running a 4-3, I’d snag Whittingham in a heartbeat. If I wanted uptempo, I’d tap Mark Helfrich. If I wanted to raid, I’d go with Mike Leach.

You get where I’m going with this. It’s a question of personal preference. It has less to do with the man and more of what the man believes and whether that’s simpatico with what you believe.


Gerry in Elko, Nevada writes: This isn't really a question, but rather giving praise to the blog. Year after year I hear Oregon State "fans" calling for the firing of Mike Riley because Oregon State doesn't achieve the same success that Oregon does. You all at the blog always seem to praise him for the job he has done for OSU. Anyway, I just got done reading the Athlon Coaches list and [Chris] Petersen at No. 2 sounds a bit high, but I'm OK with that. I expect him to drop a bit because I don't see him having much success in Year 1. The list for the most part is sound in my opinion, though. Keep up the good work!

Kevin Gemmell: Thanks for the kind words, Gerry. I had a great talk with Rick Neuheisel a couple of months back about Mike Riley and one of the things he said was that “Corvallis isn’t getting any closer to the best athletes.” And yet Riley has recruited a quarterback who is on pace to become the league’s all-time leading passer and a receiver who was last year’s Biletnikoff winner. That ain’t bad. Anyone question whether he’s still got “it?” I might be biased (oh wait, I am) because I’ve known Riley since I was covering the Chargers pre-Y2K. But the guy is one of the most respected coaches in the country for a reason. And I hope OSU fans will always appreciate what he has done for that program.

As for Petersen, as I noted in the piece, my first thought as well was that he was a bit high on the list for having never coached in the conference. But when you look at his resume, it’s as strong as anyone else and a good reminder for just how deep the roster of coaches is in this conference.

Consider the current Pac-12 coaches who have won BCS bowl games:

  • Petersen: 2 (2006 Fiesta, 2009 Fiesta)
  • Whittingham: 2 (2004 Fiesta, 2008 Sugar)
  • Rich Rodriguez: 2 (2005 Sugar, 2007 Fiesta)
  • Shaw: 1 (2012 Rose)

Others have won as coordinators or assistants. You can argue that Leach got hosed out of a BCS bowl game at Texas Tech in 2008 (and he’d agree with you). Ask Bob Stoops if he thinks Petersen is a good coach.

As someone who covers the conference, I talk to a lot of folks about other folks. Comes with the job. And so far I’ve yet to hear someone say anything other than glowing about Petersen and what he brings. Oh yeah, don't forget about that whole two-time national coach of the year thing.

Now, will that translate to a playoff berth in Year 1? Probably not. But the guy has a proven system, and I think the rest of the Pac-12 coaches realize that while it was tough before to go to Seattle, it’s about to get a lot tougher.


Justin in Denver writes: What is the deal with Stanford not showing interest in ESPN No. 1-rated QB Josh Rosen? It appears he wanted to go there and then decided on UCLA because Stanford was giving him no love. Does Stanford feel they have too many quarterbacks or did Rosen simply want to know too early from a school that takes its time? Any chance Stanford lures him out of his commitment?

Kevin Gemmell: There is so much insider baseball that goes on with recruiting that, honest answer, I have no clue what happened. Coaches aren’t allowed to talk about players they are recruiting, so we’re only getting one side of the story. Here’s what we got from Erik McKinney’s story when Rosen committed to UCLA last month.
While Rosen began his recruitment as a strong lean to Stanford, Cal actually emerged as the team to beat for a moment after Rosen's relationship with the Cardinal faded due to him not receiving an offer. But a poor season by the Golden Bears allowed UCLA to jump into the picture.

In the interest of giving you the best answer possible, I talked to McKinney this morning. Essentially Stanford looked at Rosen and Ricky Town and opted to offer a scholarship to Town (who has since committed to USC). Simple as that. One seemed like a good fit for the school. Another didn’t.

Just because a recruiting service (yes, even ours) ranks a quarterback as the No. 1 guy, that doesn’t mean he’s right for your program. And sure, you’d like to have a quarterback in every class. But Stanford brought in Ryan Burns two years ago and Keller Chryst last year, so it’s not like the cupboards are completely empty.

And let’s also remember this very important point. It’s only April! A lot can happen between now and next February. Stanford could decide to offer Rosen after all and he might swing back. UCLA could win the national championship and Rosen could be the Bruins QB of the future. Jim Mora, Steve Sarkisian and David Shaw might all quit the business and form a middle-aged boy band called West Coast Pro $tyle (their first single, "TempOh," is gonna be huge). A lot can change between now and signing day -- especially when we’re talking about fickle teens. So while it’s nice to have feathers in your cap in April. It’s better to put ink to quill in February.


TNT in Los Angeles writes: WSU QB recruiting. I would have thought it would be easier to get a quality QB to commit to the Cougs, considering Leach's air-raid system being so stat friendly. We were on two four-star guys and one committed to UW and the other then went to BSU. People are trying to write it off as no problem. When Jake Browning committed to UW, they said we would rather have Brett Rypien. When Rypien committed to BSU, they said he was afraid of the depth we have. Is any of that true?

Kevin Gemmell: Again, because coaches can’t talk about it, we’ll never really know the whole story.

As for depth, after incumbent Connor Halliday, you’ve got a pair of redshirt freshmen in Tyler Bruggman and Luke Falk. And Peyton Bender is set to arrive in the fall. Then you’ve got a few other quarterbacks behind them jockeying for a seat at the table. Bruggman and Bender were both rated as top-30 pocket passers nationally. I would think Leach could work with that.

Nick Nordi of All Coug’d Up had a good summary on the QB situation this morning which you can check out here. His take: Don’t stress about it. I tend to agree.

And I’ll go back to what I said in the previous mailbag. It’s April, folks. Suppose Washington State goes 9-4 with a bowl in win in Las Vegas or San Diego? That would make a lot of QBs think twice about their commitments. Let’s not stress too much about commitments in the spring. As with most things in life, it matters how you finish.
They say defense wins championships. Well, creating negative plays typically makes for a winning defense.

We're defining negative plays here as tackles for a loss, sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles (we went with forced fumbles instead of fumble recoveries). We're tallying how many of each that Pac-12 defenses produced in 2013 and -- more importantly -- how many of those negative plays were created by returning players.

We start with the South Division.

(Number in parentheses is number of negative plays made by returning players).

Arizona

Tackles for a loss: 77 (32.5)

Sacks: 24 (11.5)

Interceptions: 18 (12)

Forced fumbles: 9 (6)

Key returners: LB Scooby Wright (9.5 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception); S Tra'Mayne Bondurant (7.0 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble)

Key losses: DL Sione Tuihalamaka (11 TFL, 5 sacks, forced fumble); CB Shaquille Richardson (3.0 TFL, 3 INTs)

Breakdown: The Wildcats must replace a lot of production, including their top two tacklers and tackles-for-loss producers. As has been the question for the past few years, it's uncertain who will lead the pass rush.

Arizona State

Tackles for a loss: 101 (16.5)

Sacks: 40 (5)

Interceptions: 21 (4)

Forced fumbles: 14 (6)

Key returners: S Damarious Randall (5.5 tackles for a loss, 3 INTs, 3 forced fumbles); LB Salamo Fiso (5.5 TFL, 3 sacks)

Key losses: DE Carl Bradford (19 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles); DB Robert Nelson (6 INTs, forced fumble)

Breakdown: After losing nine starters, including six on the All-Pac-12 first and second teams, the Sun Devils are rebuilding on defense. Considering ASU's system is predicated on negative plays, developing new defensive playmakers is priority No. 1 for the defending South champions.

Colorado

Tackles for a loss: 71 (42.5)

Sacks: 17 (11)

Interceptions: 10 (10)

Forced fumbles: 12 (7)

Key returners: LB Addison Gillam (9.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, INT); CB Greg Henderson (4 interceptions)

Key losses: DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe (10.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 forced fumbles)

Breakdown: Other than Uzo-Diribe, just about all the key producers are back. But they need to take a decisive step forward this season. There's a sense in Boulder that the secondary might be ready for prime time.

UCLA

Tackles for a loss: 79 (31)

Sacks: 32 (8)

Interceptions: 14 (11)

Forced fumbles: 17 (9)

Key returners: LB Myles Jack (7.0 tackles for a loss, 1.0 sacks, 2 INTs, forced fumble) CB Ishmael Adams (1.5 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 4 INTs)

Key losses: OLB Anthony Barr (20 TFL, 10 sacks, 5 forced fumbles); DE Cassius Marsh (9.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks)

Breakdown: Obviously, the loss of Barr is huge, but Marsh and LB Jordan Zumwalt also were highly productive players. The Bruins welcome a lot of guys back but those guys need to step up their negative-play production in 2014 -- paging Myles Jack.

USC

Tackles for a loss: 91 (49)

Sacks: 35 (15)

Interceptions: 17 (11)

Forced fumbles: 8 (6)

Key returners: DE Leonard Williams (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles); CB Josh Shaw (5.5 tackles for a loss, 4 INTs)

Key losses: OLB Devon Kennard (13 TFL, 9.0 sacks); DB Dion Bailey (6.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 5 INTs, forced fumble)

Breakdown: USC welcomes back its three leading tacklers. Replacing Kennard's production is the big question for the defense. It was a huge gain for the Trojans when Shaw opted to return, as he solidified what should be a good secondary.

Utah

Tackles for a loss: 80 (31.5)

Sacks: 39 (13.5)

Interceptions: 3 (0)

Forced fumbles: 13 (7)

Key returner: DE Nate Orchard (9 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles)

Key losses: OLB Trevor Reilly (16 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble); LB Jacoby Hale (10 TFL, 6.5 sacks)

Breakdown: Reilly was, by far, the Utes' best and most productive defensive player, but the loss of Hale to a serious knee injury this spring also hurts. It's pretty astounding that the Utes don't have a player coming back who had an interception in 2013.

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