Every Pac-12 Team's Biggest Concern This Offseason
Following the national championship game between Florida State and Auburn, fans will be vaulted into a long offseason devoid of any meaningful college football. For those concerned only with the goings-on of the Pac-12 conference, that darkness crept over life as we know it following Stanford's loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.
But while the shirts, jerseys, hats and tailgate supplies are tucked away to gather dust for the next seven months, coaches and players are entering a part of the year that is crucial for future success.
The bulk of the offseason work will come during spring and fall camps, when coaches identify players who seem ready to take the next step and land a bigger role on the team. Key seniors always need to be replaced with promising young talent. With most teams, glaring issues, such as a weak rushing attack or a secondary prone to giving up the big play, need to be addressed.
Whatever went wrong in 2013 needs to be focused on leading in to the 2014 season, because if you aren't improving, you're getting worse. So out in Pac-12 country, where the conference enjoyed a mostly successful season, what are teams concerned about?
We're taking a look at the biggest issues each Pac-12 team must address this offseason in order to be prepared for the next chapter of college football.
All stats via ESPN unless otherwise noted.
Arizona: Replacing Playmakers in the Backfield
Arizona's biggest challenge this offseason will be replacing the playmakers who helped Rich Rodriguez create such a dangerous offense in his second season as head coach of the Wildcats.
Quarterback B.J. Denker is gone after using up the remainder of his eligibility, and though questions popped up about his size and ability to throw the ball effectively, he ended up having a solid season by passing for 2,516 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also ran for nearly 1,000 yards, so not only must Arizona find the right signal-caller, it'll have to find a way to replicate his ground efforts as well.
But the more interesting situation revolves around running back Ka'Deem Carey, who has yet to make a decision on whether he'll declare for the 2014 NFL draft. It's been reported by Rand Getlin of Yahoo! that he's leaning toward the professional life after receiving feedback from the NFL's draft advisory board.
And why shouldn't he? Running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL, and Carey has rushed for over 1,800 yards in two straight seasons.
Assuming he does leave, his absence, coupled with Denker graduating, will leave an enormous hole on offense. Together, the two accounted for 2,834 of the 3,444 rushing yards this past season.
If any of Rich Rod's young quarterbacks take major steps forward in the offseason and arrive in September ready to take charge, the Wildcats will be in good shape. But the coaching staff must identify players who can fill the shoes vacated by Denker and Carey or the offense may take a step backward.
Arizona State: Weathering Losses on Defense
Despite losing its final two games of the season, Arizona State took another step forward in 2013 by winning 10 games and reaching the Pac-12 championship.
In order to continue on an upward trajectory, however, the Sun Devils will have to weather some key losses on defense.
Start with defensive tackle Will Sutton, a space hog in the trenches who, while not quite the disruptive force that he was in 2012, still managed to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Because a great defensive tackle is hard to find, identifying a worthy replacement won't be easy. If you take a look at the rest of the depth chart, you'll notice a pair of linebackers also departing in Anthony Jones and Chris Young, not to mention defensive end Gannon Conway.
The secondary also loses three starters in Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson, so needless to say, there are quite a few holes heading into the offseason.
Part of the reason the Sun Devils have regained respectability is because of a physical defense that has come up big time and time again. When the offense came around following the emergence of Taylor Kelly, you saw a team ready to compete for conference titles.
With Kelly and his top target Jaelen Strong both returning, that side of the ball should be fine in 2014.
But coach Todd Graham's biggest concern will be finding key playmakers on defense to fill the void left by leaders like Sutton and Darby.
Cal: Getting Players to Buy in
For most teams, the biggest concern heading into the offseason is replacing a key star or addressing the weakness of a particular position group. At Cal, the biggest issue is simply getting the entire team to buy into what head coach Sonny Dykes is selling.
After the Bears won just three games in 2012, Jeff Tedford was fired and replaced by Dykes, an offensive wizard known for impressive passing attacks. But Dykes managed just one victory in 2013, a 37-30 defeat of Portland State. Aside from a five-point loss to Arizona, Cal was beaten by at least 17 points in every other game.
While folks shouldn't expect a complete turnaround right away, getting worse was not part of the plan. Fortunately for Dykes, he has a gunslinger at quarterback in Jared Goff.
But he'll need Goff and the rest of the team to buy into the direction of the program which, at the moment, is six feet underground. If Dykes can get his guys to approach the offseason as a period to get better and build confidence, he'll head into 2014 the right way.
On the other hand, if doubters remain inside his own locker room, next season may be his last.
Colorado: Finding Playmakers at Wide Receiver
The biggest difference between Colorado's one-win campaign of 2012 and four-win campaign of 2013 was the return of wide receiver Paul Richardson.
The junior became the favorite target of whichever quarterback happened to be playing, and he caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns. That's twice as many yards and scores as any other receiver on the team.
With Richardson opting to test his skills on Sundays (you can view the underclassmen draft tracker courtesy of B/R's Matt Miller here), there's now a major hole at wideout.
Every other aspect of the team seems to be trending upward, and though two of this season's wins came against FCS foes, the Buffaloes did manage a convincing victory over Colorado State, which later won a bowl game. Quarterback Sefo Liufau has intriguing dual-threat abilities, and the defense, while statistically awful, clearly played harder in 2013 than in years past.
But if the Buffaloes can't discover another dynamic playmaker for Liufau to throw to, the offense will stall and the team's progression will cease to exist.
Perhaps it's D.D. Goodson, a diminutive junior who caught 12 catches for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 75-yarder. Or maybe we'll see continued growth from Nelson Spruce, the reliable sophomore who caught four touchdowns in 2013.
In any case, Richardson was an explosive threat no matter where he lined up on the field, and Colorado must uncover a few more dynamic receiving options before beginning the 2014 campaign.
Oregon: Defensive Line Play
After getting run over several times throughout November, Oregon's defense, the front seven in particular, stepped up in a 30-7 Alamo Bowl victory over Texas.
Guys like Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi were dominant on the defensive line, showcasing the strengths of a unit that largely dominated in September and October.
However, Hart, Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli are graduating, and the Ducks will be left with a distinct lack of bulk in the middle. In their places will be defensive end DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle Arik Armstead and nose tackle Alex Balducci.
Buckner had a breakout season, but neither Armstead nor Balducci took notable steps forward in their development. Though both guys are extremely talented, each must show major improvement in the offseason.
With an offense set to reload and a linebacking corps returning the majority of its playmakers, the defensive line will be the biggest area of concern this offseason. Perhaps a new recruit will emerge over the summer and be ready to play right away. Maybe Armstead will show up in spring practice looking like a future All-American.
But whatever solution fans are hoping for, one needs to become apparent before the 2014 season begins, or the Ducks may find themselves in shootouts all year long.
Oregon State: Replacing WR Brandin Cooks
Oregon State had virtually zero running game in 2013 after a previous decade in which the Beavers enjoyed the talents of guys like Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers.
But while the rushing attack will obviously remain a concern, of more importance is finding someone to replace Brandin Cooks.
Cooks, who will be remembered as one of the best wideouts in league history, caught a whopping 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. That's nearly 1,000 yards more than the team's second-best receiver, Richard Mullaney.
The scary part for Beaver fans is that after Mullaney, there isn't another wide receiver on the roster who had more than 130 yards returning next season.
In an offense that relies heavily on its passing game, that's a big problem.
Mullaney, who did have over 700 yards receiving, looks capable of being the No. 1 option for quarterback Sean Mannion. And the tight end spot is in good shape with guys like Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith, each of whom had over 300 yards catching the ball.
But Mullaney isn't the same guy as Cooks, and if defenses can key in on him, the offense will stall without any other options. Of course, there are always players waiting in the wings to show what they can do, but that's the challenge of the offseason for coach Mike Riley.
If the Beavers enter the 2014 season without another dynamic threat in the passing game, they'll be in big trouble.
Stanford: Finding Leaders to Replace Skov, Murphy
The Stanford Cardinal, fresh off a Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State, now enter the offseason with some major concerns surrounding the replacement of two senior leaders on defense.
While David Shaw's team is also graduating running back Tyler Gaffney and a handful of other starters, linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy will be the most difficult guys to replace.
Both were vital in the leadership department, and without their ability to communicate with everyone else on the field, the Cardinal would not be coming off back-to-back Pac-12 titles.
But beyond the cerebral aspect of the game, both guys were flat-out dominant football players.
Skov was always in the right place making a key play, and Murphy manhandled blockers on the edge throughout the season.
When you hear people talk about the physical nature of Stanford football, Skov and Murphy are the two who exemplify that more than anybody else. And though the defense retains plenty of talent, the onus is on backups Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson to step in and replicate that physical game-to-game effort.
If the Cardinal are unable to find players who can at least begin to fill the shoes of Skov and Murphy, the defense will take a big step back for the first time in several years.
UCLA: Replacing Su'a-Filo, Developing Young Offensive Line Talent
The UCLA Bruins will be serious contenders to win the Pac-12 conference next season and maybe even push for a bid in the very first college football playoff.
But in order to do so, they'll need to develop their offensive line in the offseason, a matter which gained more importance following left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo's decision to leave for the NFL.
Quite simply, the play of the Bruins' offensive line will make or break their 2014 season.
If you look at their depth chart, you'll notice only freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. Many of the guys were highly touted recruits, and some, like Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond, saw significant time as freshmen.
But when the youngsters were forced into action, the offense struggled, as evidenced by a dismal 14-point outing against the Oregon Ducks. However, the unit continued to grow, resulting in a dominant Sun Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
But the 42-12 score doesn't entirely reflect the play of the offensive line. While the Bruins rushed for 197 yards, 161 came from quarterback Brett Hundley. The next leading rusher, Steven Manfro, had 37 yards. No other back averaged more than two yards per carry.
You can go back and forth about whether the blame lies more with the running backs or the offensive line, but a great starting five can make any back look good. The talent is there, and if the Bruins can develop that talent, the offense will be tough to stop.
But if it remains stagnant and arrives in 2014 without improvement, UCLA might be in for an underwhelming year.
USC: Line Play
In order for USC to continue forward in its journey back to the top of college football, it'll need to become dominant in the trenches.
Defensively, that wasn't an issue in 2013. The line play led by tackle George Uko was much improved from recent years. Aiding the pass-rushers was Devon Kennard, a hybrid DE/LB who often lined up with his hand on the turf, ready to blow past an offensive lineman.
The defense as a whole gave up just over 21 points per game, but part of the challenge in duplicating that effort will be finding guys to replace Uko and Kennard.
The issues on the offensive line are a little more concerning. Without center Marcus Martin, the unit will have some major work to do in the offseason.
In 2013, Kessler was sacked 30 times, which was tied for 12th-most in country.
But aside from protecting the quarterback, a good offensive line is the key to any successful rushing attack. With Justin Davis and Javorius Allen set to led the way on the ground, the onus is on the line to improve and work toward becoming as dominant as the great units from the '00s.
If the Trojans can get a similar effort from the defensive line and improve their offensive line as well, they'll be in great shape to contend for a Pac-12 title in 2014. But if replacing Kennard and Uko proves to be a struggle and the offensive line regresses or fails to get better, it will be a challenging first year for Steve Sarkisian.
Utah: Replacing Trevor Reilly
With a young quarterback and young talent elsewhere in the backfield, the expectation is that the Utah Utes' offense should improve in 2014.
But replacing Trevor Reilly on defense isn't going to happen overnight, and it has to be the key concern for coach Kyle Whittingham heading into the offseason.
What Reilly did in 2013 was huge. The senior accounted for nine sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and 100 tackles overall. On a team known for its physical play, Reilly was the most important part of the entire operation.
The hard part about improving each year is that all three phases of the game have to be in sync. If the offense improves but the defense takes a step back, the Utes might not be happy next December.
But if Whittingham and the rest of his staff can identify some playmakers who might have a similar affect in the pass rush, we could see five wins turn into seven or eight wins.
Washington: Replacing RB Bishop Sankey
Washington loses quarterback Keith Price, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Bishop Sankey from its skill positions on offense, and all three played major roles in the Huskies' victories this season.
But make no mistake, replacing Sankey will be the toughest task for Chris Petersen in his first offseason as head coach. The stud junior ran for 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns, providing a physical threat up the middle with the balance and speed to almost always get extra yards.
The next-highest rusher? Dwayne Washington, a freshman with 332 yards and four touchdowns.
Sure, finding the right quarterback is important, as is identifying who his main targets in the passing game will be. But the offense revolved around Sankey, who could be counted on to carry the ball 25 times a game and move the unit down the field.
Regardless of how talented Washington or any other young backs may be, you can't ask a guy with 47 career carries to step in and be an every-down back at Sankey's level. Will Petersen opt for a running back-by-committee approach, or is there another solution out there?
However the new man in charge attempts to solve the issue, it's clearly the biggest concern for Washington this offseason.
Washington State: Avoid Bowl Hangover
Let's just get it out of the way: Washington State absolutely choked away its bowl game against Colorado State. The Cougars fumbled the ball several possessions in a row, including on the final kickoff return after the Rams had tied things up.
But while the team's first bowl game in a decade will go down as a major disappointment, it shouldn't reflect where the program is headed.
Under unconventional head coach Mike Leach, the passing attack is more dangerous than ever and the defense is starting to compete. That latter description may sound like false praise, but it's more than the unit could say in previous seasons.
The key now will be to continue to stay positive and work toward improving upon a terrific 2013 campaign. Connor Halliday, although turnover-prone, can sling it around with the best of them, and the Cougars' stable of receivers rivals any other in the Pac-12.
You could point to replacing safety Deone Bucannon as the biggest issues heading into the offseason, and it wouldn't be a bad choice. But he's just one player. If the Cougars are unable to swallow the disappointment of losing their bowl game in embarrassing fashion, they'll trend backward and Leach's seat will heat up.
Moving forward and forgetting the loss to the Rams is the biggest concern for Washington State in the offseason.