Pac-12 Spring Football Storylines to Watch
Spring practice has officially begun in the Pac-12.
Over the next four weeks, Pac-12 teams will start scraping off the rust from last season and return to the field to address concerns over last season's performances and fill in holes at key positions.
Nothing much usually gets resolved in spring practices, largely because the majority of incoming freshmen haven't enrolled—it's difficult to solidify a depth chart when not every player has had a chance to vie for a spot on the chart.
Still, some teams have big question marks—a change in the coaching staff, a change in schemes or wide open positional battles, which all make some of spring practices' best story lines.
So which story lines should you be watching in the Pac-12?
Take a peek...
Who's Going to Play Quarterback?
Some teams are set at quarterback or at least have a returning starter at their disposal, but some teams are in search mode for a new field general.
Arizona, California and USC are all without their starting quarterbacks from last season: Matt Scott, Zach Maynard and Matt Barkley, respectively.
In a league that is generally viewed as a pass-happy conference by football fans—interestingly enough, the two highest-ranked teams in the league (Oregon and Stanford) were ranked No. 7 and No. 10 in the Pac-12's passing offense last year—the battle for quarterback will be watched closely.
Oregon State will also have an interesting battle since both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz are back—Vaz did an outstanding job when Mannion went down with injury last season and head coach Mike Riley is going to have a tough decision to make by this fall.
UCLA is set with Brett Hundley but the experience behind him is very thin. The Bruins have had problems keeping their quarterbacks healthy over the years. Despite Hundley having a great 2012 season, there still should be a solid No. 2 quarterback behind him—just in case.
Finally, here's all you need to know about Colorado's quarterback situation, courtesy of the Denver Post:
Last year, Jordan Webb, Nick Hirschman and Connor Wood combined for 11 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions in the 1-11 season.
According to the Post, head coach Mike MacIntyre called the positional battle at quarterback “truly an open door.”
Which Pac-12 Players Are Early Heisman Front Runners?
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the early pick to be the league's front-runner in the 2013 Heisman race, but he won't be the only one, not even the only one that calls Autzen Stadium home.
Running back De'Anthony Thomas should grab a lot of the spotlight from Mariota, considering that star Duck running back Kenjon Barner entered the 2013 NFL Draft.
USC receiver Marqise Lee finished fourth in last year's Heisman voting results and with former teammate Robert Woods declaring early for the NFL draft, Lee may see even more opportunities to impress voters.
Finally, don't rule out UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley who had a solid freshman year after redshirting under then-head coach Rick Neuheisel.
Who Will Have the Biggest Schematic Changes in the Pac-12?
With defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaving USC for the NFL, Clancy Pendergast will now be in charge of a Trojan defense that under achieved last season. Instead of a base Cover 2/Tampa 2, Pendergast will be switching to a 3-4 base.
What that means is that there should be stronger linebacker play against the run and more pass rushing from the outside linebackers. Right now USC is without Dion Bailey and Scott Starr the entire spring due to injury, so some new guys are going to have to step up and impress the coaching staff.
Colorado has a new staff, including head coach Mike MacIntyre (San Jose State), and in all honesty, everything will probably change in Boulder because nothing worked last season (1-11). The Buffaloes may go heavy on the running game this year if they can't settle their quarterback issue—last season Colorado's rushing offense was ranked No. 11 in the league.
Cal too has a new coach in Sonny Dykes, and I expect to see a lot more creativity in the Golden Bears' offense. Dykes is an "Air Raid" disciple of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, but he's missing a lot of key components to make that offense work—like a quarterback.
Which Teams Are the Sleepers to Unseat Oregon and Stanford?
Both Oregon and Stanford play in the Pac-12 North and only one of them can play in the league's championship game.
No matter which of those two teams represents the North, is there any team in the Pac-12 that can knock them both out of the championship game?
The Washington Huskies only lose center Drew Schaefer and fullback Jonathan Amosa on the offense and defensive end Talia Crichton and defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Justin Glenn on the defense. In all, the Huskies return 17 starters, so this is a veteran group.
The O-line was dinged up badly all last season so the offense's point production was average, but the team still managed to go 7-6 with lots of injuries. If everyone stays healthy and quarterback Keith Price can be kept from running for his life on every play, then the Huskies could be a sleeper in the North.
Arizona returns everyone on defense, but it must replace quarterback Matt Scott, the league's most productive passer, as well as find a center. Still, the Wildcats look—on paper—to be a sleeper in the South, but their spring practices will see a lot of unfamiliar faces, as 13 players won't be available to due to injury.
Here is the updated walking wounded list from the Tucson Citizen:
OL Jacob Arzouman (knee), LB C.J. Dozier (shoulder), WR Trevor Ermisch (hernia), LB Marquis Flowers (shoulder), TE Nolan Heyer (knee), OL Lene Maiava (knee), CB Jonathan McKnight (shoulder), DE Dan Pettinato (knee), WR David Richards (foot), CB Shaquille Richardson (shoulder), QB Jesse Scroggins (foot), DL Kirifi Taula (shoulder).
*the number of returning starters may vary, depending on the team's definition of starter
Which Teams Have the Most to Fix Before Their Season Openers?
Having an FCS opponent for a season opener can be beneficial for teams that are totally rebuilding a unit(s), but some Pac-12 teams don't have an FCS opponent in week one—will they be ready to play?
With an approximate four-month lay off between spring and fall practices, some teams are going to have to do a lot more in the spring due to their tough season openers.
Washington hosts Boise State on August 31, and the Huskies have to solve their productivity problems on the offense—if quarterback Keith Price is having difficulty getting protection in the pocket, then Steve Sarkisian may have to go with a bigger quarterback to withstand the pass rush.
USC plays Hawaii and Washington State in two consecutive weeks starting on August 29. For a team without a starting quarterback and a secondary that has to be completely rebuilt, facing two prolific offenses early in the season is worrisome. Hawaii wasn't its normal prolific-offense self last year under first-year head coach Norm Chow, but the Warriors should be vastly improved this year.
Utah plays Utah State on August 29, which could be another repeat of last year's upset of the Aggies over the Utes. Head coach Gary Andersen is no longer at Utah State, but quarterback Chuckie Keeton is.
Washington State opens at Auburn on August 31 and head coach Mike Leach is going to have to quickly figure out very if he wants to stay with Connor Halliday at quarterback or go with Austin Apodaca—playing in a hostile environment in SEC country is a huge undertaking for any quarterback, much less a first-time starter such as Apodaca.
Finally, Cal plays Northwestern and Ohio State in the first three weeks of the season—both the O and D-lines need retooling and experience before facing the Big Uglies from Columbus.
Will Oregon Change Its Offense at All?
The Oregon Duck offense is a joy to watch—unless your profession is defensive coordinator—but now that Chip Kelly is coaching in Philadelphia, will new Duck head coach Mark Helfrich change anything?
ESPN's Colin Cowherd asked Helfrich that very question on his radio show, and Helfrich, who was Chip Kelly's offensive coordinator before his promotion to head coach, indicated minimal change:
“Under center, wishbone, I joked about that the other day. We’re going to be about 99.2 percent, from a philosophical standpoint, we’re going to be identical.
Of course, that was said in late January, just a couple of weeks before signing day. What new coach would risk losing a recruiting class—a class that had committed to Chip Kelly's spread offense—by indicating big changes were coming?
Still, I can't help but think that Helfrich may change things up—on one hand, don't fix something that isn't broken, but on the other hand, how are you're going to separate yourself from Kelly's shadow unless you make the offense your own? Was the offense Helfrich's when he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator or was it really Chip Kelly's?
Spring in Eugene should be very interesting.
Which Freshmen Will Make the Biggest Spring Impacts?
With so many early enrollees at schools nowadays, the competition to start has never been bigger, and it all starts at spring practice.
USC had seven early enrollees in its class of 2013, and two players—safety Su'a Cravens and quarterback Max Browne—figure to have prominent roles this spring, as both the quarterback and safety positions are up for grabs.
UCLA has two intriguing players in defensive end Kylie Fitts and receiver Eldridge Massington—both were former USC commits. Jerry Johnson's departure opens up a spot for Massington, and Datone Jones' departure opens up a spot for Fitts.
Washington has a few spots open in the secondary, and Trevor Walker could be just the guy to do it—keep your eyes on him during practice.
Cal quarterback Jared Goff is also an early enrollee and figures to be in the thick of a wide-open quarterback competition—all of the other quarterback candidates are former head coach Jeff Tedford's recruits, so it will be interesting to watch Sonny Dykes' first signed quarterback in action.
Which Returning Starters' Jobs May Be in Jeopardy?
When you're a starter, your job security is usually pretty good in the following year.
Except for these guys:
Washington State: Quarterback Connor Halliday
Oregon State: Quarterback Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz were co-starters, but someone is going to be demoted to the No. 2 spot by the fall.
Colorado: Pretty much the entire team's starters from last year
Washington: Quarterback Keith Price
Arizona: Running back Ka'Deem Carey
USC: Quarterback Max Wittek
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