Spring football primer: Burning questions for each Pac-12 team
|Pac-12 spring practice dates|
Last year at this time, four high-profile head coaches -- Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State's Todd Graham, UCLA's Jim L. Mora and Washington State's Mike Leach -- opened their first spring camps at their respective new schools. This year, the changing of the guard continues with three new faces. Oregon's Mark Helfrich looks to maintain the Pac-12's most dominant program of the past four years; Cal's Sonny Dykes picks up for departed 11-year coach Jeff Tedford; and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre tries to salvage the league's recent doormat.
Given all of the turnover, third-year Stanford coach David Shaw is suddenly a veteran. His defending Pac-12 champions quietly opened camp on Feb. 25. Meanwhile, fourth-year USC coach Lane Kiffin is practically an elder statesman -- and he doesn't do anything quietly. The Trojans began digging out from last year's debacle on March 5.
• Arizona: Who is RichRod's next quarterback? In his debut season, Rodriguez was fortunate to inherit a fifth-year senior quarterback, Matt Scott, whose dual-threat abilities perfectly aligned with the coach's spread-option attack. Scott racked up 4,126 yards of total offense and led the Wildcats to a surprising 8-5 campaign. Now, Rodriguez starts over at that vital position, and his options may be limited this spring. Senior B.J. Denker, Scott's backup last season, is the logical No. 1 candidate, but sophomore Nick Isham is an intriguing alternative. Isham started seven games as a true freshman for former Arizona offensive coordinator Dykes at Louisiana Tech in 2011. With the return of national rushing leader Ka'Deem Carey and 10 starters from a defense that struggled for much of last season but should be bolstered by improved depth, the Wildcats could benefit from answering the quarterback question early.
• Arizona State: Can the Sun Devils win with defense? Arizona State ended 2012 on a three-game winning streak, putting up 46, 41 and 62 points against Washington State, Arizona and Navy, respectively. The return of quarterback Taylor Kelly and running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice should allow the offense to continue that momentum in 2013. More surprisingly, however, the Sun Devils finished the season ranked third nationally in pass defense and second in the Pac-12 in total defense. All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton is back to anchor a defensive front that routinely pressured opposing quarterbacks, but new faces need to emerge at linebacker and in the secondary. Early enrollee Chans Cox, a four-star outside linebacker, will have the chance to play into the rotation with a strong showing this spring.
• California: Who gets to quarterback the Bear Raid? Over three practices during the last week of February, new coach Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin installed the up-tempo scheme with which they engineered the nation's most prolific offense last season at Louisiana Tech (577.9 yards per game). They also began narrowing down a list of at least five candidates for the starting quarterback job. Junior Austin Hinder and touted redshirt freshman Zach Kline are considered the favorites. Whoever wins the job will have no shortage of talented young receivers to work with (sophomores Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, redshirt freshman Kenny Lawler). While Franklin has employed more balanced offenses in the past, last year's top two rushers gone and running back Brendan Bigelow is out for the spring while recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee.
• Colorado: Where to begin? Here's the good news: New coach MacIntyre is no stranger to rebuilding. He was part of David Cutcliffe's original staff at Duke, then he took over a San Jose State program that had fallen among the worst in FBS and led it to a historic 11-win season. Now, he takes over long-suffering Colorado, which hit rock bottom with last year's 1-11 campaign. There's only so much MacIntyre can fix in his first spring, but he and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren -- who came with MacIntyre from San Jose -- will start by identifying a likely starting quarterback and tailoring their offense accordingly. They've been known to use the Pistol scheme, but only with a mobile quarterback. At Colorado, Jordan Webb, Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman all saw the field last season and will compete again in the spring alongside redshirt freshman Shane Dillon.
• Oregon: Will Helfrich make his Mark? On paper, Oregon's coaching transition should be among the smoothest in the nation. Not only is Helfrich fluent in former boss Chip Kelly's offense, but he retained almost all of Kelly's staff. Helfrich welcomes back a standout quarterback, Marcus Mariota, and eight other offensive starters (if you unofficially include star De'Anthony Thomas). The former offensive coordinator's primary charge this spring will be ensuring that the Ducks continue to practice at a familiar breakneck pace while potentially adding some of his own wrinkles to the spread-option attack. Bigger concerns fall on defense, where coordinator Nick Aliotti must replace standouts like defensive end Dion Jordan and linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay. The Ducks were particularly deep up front last season, and spring will provide a chance for young linebackers Tyson Coleman and Rahim Cassell and injury-plagued junior-to-be Rodney Hardrick to audition for starting roles.
• Oregon State: How long will the Beavers' quarterback controversy continue? Oregon State had a memorable, and unusual, 2012 season, starting 6-0 and eventually finishing 9-4 (after going 3-9 the year before) with both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz (after Mannion got hurt) taking successful turns under center. However, what began the year as a luxury turned into a headache for coach Mike Riley down the stretch. Both Mannion (against Oregon) and Vaz (against Texas in the Alamo Bowl) had nightmarish performances in late-season losses. After starting hot, Mannion finished with a dismal 15-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and thus Riley declined to pull Vaz in the bowl game even as he coughed up three turnovers and took a staggering 10 sacks. Oregon State returns ample talent on offense, led by receiver Brandin Cooks and tailback Storm Woods, but expect the competition between Vaz and Mannion to dominate discussion throughout the spring -- and probably into August.
• Stanford: Who will help Kevin Hogan? Coach Shaw has said the continued development of quarterback Hogan -- who went 5-0 after taking over as the starter last November -- is a top priority this spring. But so, too, is finding new playmakers around him. Five of last year's top six receivers are gone, notably tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Stalwart tailback Stepfan Taylor is gone, too. Tyler Gaffney, after a year away playing pro baseball, will return April 1 to participate in the second half of spring session. In the meantime, veteran Anthony Wilkerson, sophomore Remound Wright, redshirt freshman Barry Sanders and scatback Kelsey Young will get increased opportunities in the backfield, while sophomore tight end Luke Kaumatule and young receivers Kodi Whitfield, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector will benefit from more targets. Veteran fullback Ryan Hewitt is also being considered as an option at tight end.
• UCLA: Can the Bruins become more consistent? Mora's first season in Westwood was unquestionably successful; UCLA won the Pac-12 South, notched nine victories and beat USC for the first time in six years. But the Bruins were also all over the map. They suffered an inexplicable blowout loss at the hands of 3-9 Cal, and, after playing Stanford tight in the Pac-12 title game, they looked lost against Baylor in a Holiday Bowl beatdown. The inconsistency was not entirely surprising given how young UCLA was on offense, from redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley to the presence of three starting freshman offensive linemen. But Mora's bigger concern this spring is likely the defense, which struggled against the pass last season and must replace both starting cornerbacks. Sophomores Marcus Rios and Ishmael Adams may get the first cracks at the lineup this spring.
• USC: Will Kiffin be better off without Dad around? A litany of coaching miscues plagued the Trojans during their disappointing 7-6 campaign, but even Lane Kiffin conceded after the fact that father Monte -- who resigned after the season -- was not well suited for the college ranks. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, formerly of Cal, has a better grasp at countering new-age spread offenses like Oregon and Arizona's. He'll spend the spring installing a diverse scheme that will likely see Trojans defenders playing more man coverage and flexible fronts. Meanwhile, Kiffin and newly anointed passing game coordinator and incumbent quarterback coach Clay Helton will begin grooming Matt Barkley's successor. Sophomore Max Wittek, who struggled against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech following Barkley's shoulder injury, will compete with redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler and early enrollee Max Browne.
• Utah: Is Dennis Erickson the answer for the offense? Utah's transition to the Pac-12 has been more vexing than anticipated, as the Utes' record dropped from 33-6 over their last three Mountain West seasons to 5-7 in their new league last year -- coach Kyle Whittingham's first losing season. Quarterback injuries and a constant churn of offensive coordinators have not helped the cause. Now, Whittingham is betting on former national championship and NFL coach, Erickson, 65, to reignite the offense. And Erickson has already made it known that the Utes will join the no-huddle craze in an effort to lodge more offensive plays. "That is how the game is played and how we are planning on doing it," said Erickson. Spring may be sloppy as Erickson and co-coordinator Brian Johnson get the Utes accustomed to a new tempo and work with rising sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson to become a more polished passer.
• Washington: Will the 2011 version of Keith Price re-emerge in 2013? The Huskies' defense improved considerably in 2012, but previously spectacular quarterback Keith Price and the offense regressed, resulting in coach Steve Sarkisian's third straight 7-6 campaign. Former Washington quarterback great Marques Tuiasosopo has returned to Seattle as the quarterbacks coach, and his first job will be resuscitating Price, who slipped from No. 7 to No. 80 nationally in pass efficiency last season. Price spent the winter immersed in a weight program to strengthen his legs. "We wanted to get that explosiveness back that he had [in 2011]," Sarkisian said. "That's when he's at his best, exploding from the backfield and making plays." Sarkisian also plans to expand the no-huddle package that helped boost the offense in last December's 28-26 MAACO Bowl loss to Boise State. With 10 returning starters, there are no excuses for this year's attack.
• Washington State: Was the Apple Cup a sign of things to come? Leach's debut campaign in Pullman was nothing short of nightmarish -- until the final game, when the Cougars, 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Pac-12 at the time, inexplicably upset rival Washington, 31-28, in overtime. By season's end, Wazzu increasingly counted on young players, particularly at receiver, where three freshmen (Dominique Williams, Brett Bartolone and Gabe Marks) started that last game. Three weeks of spring practice reps should help considerably in an offense that relies heavily on precision and execution. Similarly, rising senior quarterback Connor Halliday, taking over full-time for the departed Jeff Tuel, figures to become more comfortable in the offense. Leach's first year was marked by attrition and controversy, but the win over Washington gave the players something to smile about. Now, it's time to find out whether that performance was a breakthrough or a one-game fluke.