Pac-12 Football: Top Spring Practice Battles to Watch for
The first games of the 2014 college football season are more than six months away, but competition around the Pac-12 will heat up in just a few short weeks.
Competition in spring practices is internal, and the conference has a few such competitions ready to unfold that will determine the course of the coming campaign.
As some top performers cycle out of the conference, others cycle into their teams' lineups. For these players, the spring marks the first opportunity to stand out and earn a spot in the starting rotation.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting rankings culled from 247Sports.com.
Position: Running Back
A year ago, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez was tasked with replacing his starting quarterback. The competition lasted throughout the spring and extended into preseason camp.
Rodriguez is again faced with finding a new quarterback, and this year his job is much more difficult now that the chosen starter won't have one of the nation's best running backs on whom to rely.
Ka'Deem Carey was the cornerstone of a prolific offense each of Rodriguez's first two seasons at Arizona. Carey's successor isn't just taking over for a two-time All-American; he's taking over the program's identity.
How that identity might look is anyone's guess heading into the spring, because experience among the pool of candidates is limited. Jared Baker is the only candidate with Pac-12 playing time, but a torn ACL suffered in the Wildcats' regular season finale has him on the shelf for spring practices.
Baker's absence leaves an opening for redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier or Zach Green to set the competition's pace, but true freshman Jonathan Haden will also get an opportunity as an early enrollee.
Arizona State led the Pac-12 and was No. 7 nationally in turnover creation a season ago, and the primary contributors were defensive backs Robert Nelson, Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby. All three are gone, leaving head coach Todd Graham with a huge hole in the secondary.
Damarious Randall is the secondary's lone returning starter and Lloyd Carrington played a prominent reserve role. Otherwise, the unit's game experience is limited.
Cornerbacks Rashad Wadood and Ezekiel Bishop saw some action in 2013, and Laiu Moeakiola recorded 21 tackles in 10 games at safety.
Moeakiola's emergence this offseason may be critical for the secondary's overall stability because, as House of Sparky writes, safety is a major concern with the possibility of Randall moving to cornerback.
Position: Running Back
Byron Marshall earned the starting running back vacancy that 2012 Doak Walker Award finalist Kenjon Barner left behind last spring, and performed well in 2013: 1,038 yards rushing on 168 carries with 14 touchdowns, hardly a stat line worthy of replacement.
A late-season injury opened the door for ballyhooed newcomer Thomas Tyner. Tyner whet the appetite of spectators excited to see the 5-star prospect's collegiate potential with productive outings against Virginia and Washington State, but his 140-yard effort filling in for Marshall against Oregon State offered a main course sampling.
Head coach Mark Helfrich faces a difficult decision. Either running back can assume No. 1 back duties and register impressive numbers. Does Helfrich favor experience or opt for potential? Will he split carries evenly between the two?
Spring practices should provide some insight into what lies ahead for the loaded Oregon backfield.
Position: Tight End
Stanford's fleet of top-tier tight ends in recent seasons gave the Cardinal offense a unique dynamic. Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo were competent blockers and capable receivers, traits that perfectly accentuated head coach David Shaw's offensive philosophy.
The lack of such a tight end on last year's Cardinal offense was glaring, but Shaw will have options to replenish the position come spring.
Austin Hooper, Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton are all big potential targets for quarterback Kevin Hogan, ranging from 6'4" to 6'6." All three also gained experience as redshirts last season.
None have game experience, however, something converted defensive end Charlie Hopkins earned last season in 14 appearances and three starts. Hopkins has a foundation entering spring practice and his second year playing tight end.
With a veteran quarterback and deep receiving corps, the emergence of a new top tight end is crucial to reestablishing Stanford's offensive identity next season.
UCLA has boasted some of the Pac-12's best linebackers in recent seasons, including Jordan Zumwalt and All-American Anthony Barr. The trend continues with Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks both returning in 2014, but new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has a challenge finding their fellow starters.
Kenny Orjioke should compete for the outside linebacker position Barr vacated. He's big—6'4", 240 pounds—and he made a few big plays last season both at linebacker (two sacks) and on special teams (a blocked kick).
Orjioke faces competition from Aaron Wallace, a two-year contributor who made three starts in 2013.
The Bruins also have a starting spot open at inside linebacker, and true freshman Zach Whitley's early enrollment will give the 4-star recruit an opportunity to make an immediate splash.
The Pac-12 has very few quarterback controversies, with at least nine starting quarterbacks returning in 2014. Among them is USC's Cody Kessler, who was embroiled in a springtime competition with since-transferred Max Wittek.
Despite finishing 2013 strong, Kessler may again be competing for his job with the arrival of a new coaching staff and changes coming to the offense.
New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian alluded to a competition in an interview with ESPN.com, via College Football Talk.
I think it’s a great opportunity for Max [Browne] to feel like there’s a crack in the door and let’s see how far he can take it. I think it’s a unique opportunity for Cody [Kessler] to continue to improve because Max is going to give him all he’s got.
The spring season marks one full year for Browne in the program, so he should be much further along than when he was a distant third to Kessler and Wittek in preseason camp. It's also worth noting Sarkisian recruited Browne to Washington.
This is a competition of production vs. potential. Browne's ceiling is high, but Kessler improved each week last season and was a more than capable game manager by year's end. The quarterback who can master the intricacies of Sarkisian's hurry-up play-calling will have the upper hand.
This isn't necessarily USC's most intriguing position battle, but it will gain the most attention.
New Washington head coach Chris Petersen inherited an already intriguing competition to replace three-year starting quarterback Keith Price. The dynamics changed considerably earlier this month when the most seasoned of the contenders, Cyler Miles, was suspended indefinitely.
With Miles' status up in the air, redshirt freshmen Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist seemingly have an inside track heading into spring practices.
Lindquist appeared three times in mop-up duty last season but did not throw a pass, and 4-star 2013 signee Williams redshirted.