Marcus Mariota. Brett Hundley. Sean Mannion. One Pac-12 quarterback after another spurned the NFL draft, giving the conference the deepest crop in the nation.
Quarterbacks are coming back, and defensive stars are leaving. Ten of 12 first-team All-Pac-12 defensive selections were seniors in 2013. Among the names are UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, Stanford linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly.
And that’s not including the early departures to the NFL, including USC defensive end George Uko and safety Dion Bailey, Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell and Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton.
Defense has reigned supreme in the conference known for its offense the last two seasons with Stanford’s nationally top-10 ranked unit. The Cardinals completed their second straight conference championship campaign in December by stymieing the 40-points-per-game spread offense of Arizona State.
An exodus of upperclassmen exit the Stanford defense that set the standard in the Pac-12 the past two seasons, but there's no shortage of returning talent. Defensive end Henry Anderson and linebacker A.J. Tarpley will not enter May's NFL draft, and their veteran experience will spearhead the development of a talented bunch stepping into the departing seniors' vacancies.
More importantly, defensive coordinator Derek Mason is back leading the group for another season. Mason's success against zone-read offensive schemes has made him a hot commodity and one of the most celebrated assistants in the nation, and other Pac-12 programs are in search of their own answers to the conference's many potent offenses.
Defensive coordinators of Mason's caliber come at a premium. New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who brought Justin Wilcox to Washington in 2011 to kick-start the Huskies' struggling defense, brought the coordinator to Heritage Hall.
Jettisoned USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is without a home. That shouldn't last long. Under Pendergast's direction, the Trojans were the nation's No. 16 scoring defense.
No Pac-12 defense needs an immediate solution more desperately than Cal, which gave up more points than any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, save Idaho. Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes reassigned Andy Buh, and The San Francisco Chronicle reports Pendergast, a Cal assistant from 2010 through 2012, could be a top target.
"Defense is a critical part of the equation in winning championships," Dykes said in his statement on CalBears.com.
Cal is not alone in its search for a new defensive coordinator. The retirement of long-time Oregon coordinator Nick Aliotti in December leaves head coach Mark Helfrich with a vital hole to fill.
All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is returning for his senior season to rejoin 2013 defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Tony Washington and linebacker Derrick Malone.
The development of Oregon's defense under its new coordinator is among the more intriguing storylines to unfold this offseason into 2014.
Per The Daily Emerald, in a press conference before Oregon's stellar defensive performance in last month's Alamo Bowl—a 30-7 win over Texas—Malone alluded to the program's dreams of winning a championship, saying, "No matter what happens, who’s leaving, who’s staying between players or coaches, we have one common goal."