Hang on Pac-12 football fans, spring practice is coming. But before you grab your sunglasses, binoculars, depth charts and portable grill, ask yourself if you really know what you're looking for in spring practices.
Remember, some of your team's incoming freshmen may not compete for any positions unless they have enrolled early. In other words, those newly-signed commits you were salivating over will probably not be on the practice field.
So what should you be looking for? Obviously, "improvement" pretty much covers every fan's wish list, but there are some specific units that should demand more attention from us than others.
We've gone ahead and listed all of the Pac-12 teams and what we feel are their key areas of concern. Maybe we'll see improvement in the spring camps (don't count on it), maybe we won't.
In the meantime, enjoy watching football (if your school allows public attendance) and start counting the months until we kick off the 2013 season.
Important dates: First spring practice, TBD. April 13, spring game.
What to look for: The Wildcats return all 11 eleven starters from last season's team, so we should see an immediate impact on the practice field—the offense will struggle to catch up since head coach Rich Rodriguez will have to replace quarterback Matt Scott. Rodriguez will also have more pieces to plug in to his spread system, so we also should see some more creativity from a play-calling standpoint.
Important dates: March 19, first practice. April 13, spring game.
What to look for: Last year, college football guru Phil Steele said in his annual preview magazine that Arizona State had "a decent shot at a bowl." The Sun Devils ended up in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, beat Navy 62-28 and finished the season at 8-5.
That's a heckuva start for head coach Todd Graham, but this year he'll have to get his team more competitive against the better teams in the league—Arizona State hung with UCLA before losing but lost to USC and Oregon by over 20 points in each game. Look for some new faces at cornerback and safety on the defense and new targets for quarterback Taylor Kelly to throw to on the offense.
Important dates: February 25, first practice. March 23, spring game.
What to look for: Cal's spring practices will probably be the most interesting to watch among all the conference's teams because of all the new faces on the field. New head coach Sonny Dykes has a huge challenge in front of him: The Bears lost a lot of talent, and the process of filling in all the missing pieces will take time. The biggest concerns should be at quarterback, running back and the secondary, as all of those units lost veteran starters.
Dykes is a Hal Mumme/Mike Leach disciple, so we should expect a lot of passing plays, but interestingly, last year Louisiana Tech—Dykes' former team—had a Top 20 rushing offense, as well as a Top 5 passing offense. Watching Cal go from a Power I/Pro Set offense to an uptempo Air Raid offense could be a little painful, but the offense's progress will certainly be key in spring practices.
Important dates: March 7, first practice. April 13, spring game.
What to watch for: The Colorado Buffaloes have nowhere to go but up after finishing 2012 with a 1-11 record. Head coach Jon Embree is out and former San Jose State head coach Mike MacIntyre is in at Boulder, Colo. Offensively, we probably won't see much of a change as far as schemes and philosophy, but there should be some spirited competition for some open spots on the O-line. Quarterback Jordan Webb returns, but he was wildly inconsistent last year, throwing eight touchdowns and eight interception—he also missed two games.
The defense needs a complete overhaul—last year, five teams scored 50 or more points against the Buffs. Colorado was near the bottom of the league in nearly all defensive categories, but the biggest issue was defending the run. Linebackers Jon Major and Doug Rippy are gone, so that's another area of concern.
Important dates: April 7, first practice. April 27, spring game.
What to watch for: New head coach Mark Helfrich inherits a very experienced team, so there won't be many question marks at spring practice. The defense will have to reload the linebacker corps, and the offense will have to reload the O-line, but those are really the only two areas of concern for the Ducks. Special teams took a hit—both Rob Beard (PK) and Jackson Rice (P) have exhausted their eligibility—but then again, Oregon rarely kicks field goals.
Important Dates: First practice TBD. April 26, spring game.
What to look for: The Beavers' (total) defense was ranked third in the conference last season, but this season they'll be without some familiar faces. Tackles Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo are gone, as well as cornerback Jordan Poyer and safety Anthony Watkins. The defense should be a key unit to keep your eyes on as practices get under way.
Offensively, the Beavers are in good shape—they only lose one starter on the line—but they also lose stud receiver Markus Wheaton. Overall, look for some reloads at some skill positions.
Important dates: February 25, first practice. April 13, spring game.
What to look for: Running back Tyler Gaffney returns to finish up his eligibility after taking time away from the team to play baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league team. How he readjusts to football will be key because the Cardinal will have lost Stepfan Taylor to the 2013 NFL draft. The Cardinal's O-line, always a strength, loses center Sam Schwartzstein.
Head coach David Shaw relies heavily on his tight ends and this unit is a concern—Zach Ertz is gone, but so is Levine Toilolo, who declared early for the draft.
The defense got some great news with linebacker Shayne Skov returning for a fifth year—Trent Murphy is also returning, so this unit could be one of the best in the country, but it'll have to replace the big shoes left by Chase Thomas.
Important dates: April 2, first practice. April 27, spring game.
What to look for: The repeat Pac-12 South champs will have one of the most anticipated spring practices in the league—the Bruins hauled in a Top 10 recruiting class and Adrian Klemm was named Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year by 24/7 Sports.
This year, the Bruins' offense has a few holes to fill (running back Johnathan Franklin and tight end Joseph Fauria are gone), but overall they return fairly intact—O-lineman Jeff Baca will be missed, but UCLA has done a great job in recruiting linemen, so I don't see too much concern here.
The defense is a different story—over half of the defensive starters will not return. The secondary will be key—as it always is in the Pac-12—because UCLA only returns starting safety Tevin McDonald. The linebacker unit will also have to reload after it loses half of its starters.
All eyes should be on the defense and how fast UCLA can rebuild and keep up the momentum from its solid recruiting class and beating cross town rival USC.
Important dates: First practice, TBD. April 13, spring game.
What to look for: Where do we even start here? The quarterback competition may be one of the Trojans' spring practice highlights because incoming freshman Max Browne has already enrolled—Browne will challenge heir-apparent Max Wittek after Wittek turned in a poor performance in the 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl. The other skilled positions on the offense look like they're in good shape, despite receiver Robert Woods declaring early for the draft—center Khaled Holmes has also exhausted his eligibility.
The defense is another story. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has resigned, linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton has gone to Nevada, as its defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders has been dismissed. Even more concerning is that Josh Shaw is the secondary's lone returning starter. Newly-hired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast favors a 3-4 defense, which bodes well for USC since the Trojans are loaded at linebacker—if Scott Starr has recovered from a neck issue, then this unit could actually be a strength.
Keep your eyes on how well USC adjusts to the 3-4 (if that is the scheme Pendergast employs) and whether the linebackers can stop the run—USC finished eighth in the league in rush defense.
Important dates: March 19, first practice. April 20, spring game.
What to look for: Utah just hired former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator, which means Brian Johnson will not have the sole responsibility of orchestrating the Utes' offense. How well the two mesh is key for Utah because on paper, this doesn't look like a great fit. Erickson has been a head coach at various schools since 1982—how will Erickson adjust to not being in charge of an entire team?
Quarterback Travis Wilson returns, but that's pretty much it for the offense—Utah will have to completely rebuild its offense, except for two linemen and a receiver. The defense is a giant question mark. The Utes' defensive strength was its front four, but three of the unit's four starters won't be returning: Defensive end Joe Kruger and tackles Dave Kruger and Star Lotulelei. The defense will also have to replace both cornerbacks.
Overall, this looks like a major rebuilding project for head coach Kyle Whittingham—keep your eyes on the skill positions on both sides of the ball, as well as the tempo of the offense.
Important dates: First practice, TBD. April 20, spring game.
What to look for: The Huskies ended their 2012 season with disappointment. Washington lost to Washington State 31-28 (OT) in the Apple Cup and lost to Boise State 28-26 in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl. Head coach Steve Sarkisian expressed excitement over his defense and the secondary did do an outstanding job, but the lack of a pass rush must be fixed—look for that to be a huge defensive focus during practice.
Losing cornerback Desmond Trufant is a huge loss, but the rest of the secondary gained a wealth of experience in 2012, and we should see the Huskies remain as one of the top pass defenses in the league.
Offensively, it must be killing Sarkisian that the Huskies haven't been able to produce a dominant rushing game—Washington finished eighth among the Pac-12's most productive rush offenses. Center Drew Schaefer is gone, but overall, the offense returns fairly intact and should be able to improve upon last year's rushing numbers. Expect to see an emphasis on the run early in practice.
Important dates: March 21, first practice. April 20, spring game.
What to look for: We weren't expecting a lot in Mike Leach's first year as head coach of the Cougars but notching only one conference win (Washington) was a little surprising. Then again, Leach had some problems to deal with—receiver Marquess Wilson made some wild accusations (he later recanted them) after quitting the team and quarterback Jeff Tuel was injured in the second game of the season.
Quarterback Connor Halliday is the returning quarterback, so there is some stability there, albeit no depth. While 3-star quarterbacks Tyler Bruggman and Isaac Dotson are incoming, they are not enrolled early, so they'll have to wait until fall to possibly compete for the position.
The offense and defense have some holes to fill, but there are three JUCOs (Ivan McLennan, Lyman Sunia-Faoliu and Jacob Seydel) who have already enrolled and could provide immediate help at offensive tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker.
The Cougars' biggest issue is defense, but the offense has to do better, as well—Leach's offense failed to put more than seven points on the board in four league games last year. Washington State also needs to improve on its 3rd down conversions—it finished second-to-last in the conference—and red-zone conversions. Last year the Cougars were dead last among all Pac-12 teams in that latter category, so we should see a focus on sustaining drives in spring practice.