Pac-12 Football: 10 Players to Watch in Spring Practice
Spring practices are now beginning for a number of programs around the country, and we're looking toward the Pac-12 to get an early glimpse at what should be one of the deepest conferences in the nation.
Though it seems like only yesterday that Florida State was lifting the crystal ball, all eyes are now squarely on the 2014 season. Out in Pac-12 country, the storylines haven't changed that much over the past few seasons, with the exception of several serious challengers to the Stanford-Oregon two-step taking place at the very top.
UCLA is at the top of the list of teams most likely to knock the Cardinal off their perch, while Arizona and USC both have to feel good about the potential to achieve big things in the coming year.
Spring practice is a time when fans can learn about new names as well as find out who's been putting in the work between the end of the 2013 campaign and now. For some players, it's now or never. For others, it's about continuing a natural progression and making sure the next step is being taken.
And for another group of guys, it's about making the jump from promising talent to regular contributor.
Here are 10 players from the Pac-12 that you should keep an eye on during spring practice.
All stats via cfbstats.com
Arizona: WR Austin Hill
If you've only recently tuned in to Pac-12 football, there's a chance you haven't heard much of Arizona wide receiver Austin Hill.
That's because after a dominating sophomore campaign, Hill missed the entire 2013 season because of an injury. That's 81 catches for 1,364 yards gone from the previous year, when Hill was easily the league's second-best pass-catcher behind USC's Marqise Lee.
The Wildcats' offense still found success with the ever-churning legs of running back Ka'Deem Carey, but all eyes will be on Hill as he returns to a wide receiver stable that could be among the best in the country.
The best news of all is that Hill is healthy and ready to go. That's according to his coach, Rich Rodriguez, who thinks the dynamic playmaker is primed for a big spring (via Kyle Bonagura of ESPN.com):
He is still wearing the knee brace, but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too.
If Hill is even remotely the same player that he was in 2012, opposing secondaries will have their hands full throughout the entire season.
Arizona State: RB D.J. Foster
The loss of running back Marion Grice is a snowstorm-sized blow to the Arizona State offense, considering his ability to make plays as both a runner and receiver. On the bright side, there's still a tornado ready to step up and make its presence known in the form of the speedy D.J. Foster.
A smaller, shiftier version of Grice, Foster takes over in the backfield where he'll be lining up next to quarterback Taylor Kelly, the star of the show.
With Kelly and wide receiver Jaelen Strong both back for another go, the main passing connection is well established. But Grice provided that all-purpose threat to take the pressure off everyone else, and now it's Foster's turn to duplicate his efforts and perhaps even surpass them.
In 2013, Foster ran for nearly 600 yards at a clip of almost 5.5 yards per carry for six scores. He also had 653 yards receiving and another four touchdowns through the air.
As one of the elite home run threats in the Pac-12, all eyes in Tempe will be on Foster this spring. If he can handle an increased workload as a running back and continue to provide a big-play threat, the Sun Devils' offense will be difficult to stop.
On the other hand, replacing the multidimensional Grice will have its challenges, so Foster certainly has his work cut out for him.
California: QB Jared Goff
Most first-year coaches are granted a bit of leeway in their initial campaign at a new school, but notching just one victory couldn't have been part of the plan for Cal coach Sonny Dykes.
What was part of the plan, apparently, was throwing freshman quarterback Jared Goff into the fire and seeing how he handled it. All in all, the young gunslinger did pretty well.
He threw for nearly 3,500 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In the "Bear Raid" offense, those kinds of yards are to be expected, and Dykes would probably like to see the touchdown mark reach 30 in the coming season.
What we'll be looking for in the spring is to see if Goff has taken that next step forward in the leadership department. He's the main man on offense, and in a program that is now officially struggling, his guidance is crucial to a turnaround in Year 2 under Dykes.
Cutting down turnovers should also be a goal, although 10 interceptions isn't the worst number in an offense where you're throwing it more than 44 times per game and don't have any sort of running game to speak of.
Look for Goff to become one of the league's most dangerous passers in 2014, because if he doesn't, he'll risk the coaches' eyes wandering down the depth chart toward somebody else.
Colorado: QB Sefo Liufau
It's been a while since Colorado had a quarterback with the ability to take the Buffaloes back to the realm of respectability, but Liufau could very well be that guy.
In just eight games as a freshman, Liufau threw for nearly 1,800 yards and 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions. His mobility also netted him positive yards on the ground, a noteworthy feat given the woes of the offensive line in recent years.
His coming-out party came in a 41-24 victory over Cal in which Liufau threw for 364 yards and three scores. Dominating Cal wouldn't be worth mentioning for most programs, but this is a Buffaloes' team that hasn't dominated anybody in quite some time.
It sounds simple, but much like Goff, we're looking to see if Liufau can take the next step and perhaps get Colorado closer to bowl eligibility in 2014. That means two more wins, which won't come easy without star receiver Paul Richardson available to catch the rock.
For the first time in a number of years, it feels as if Colorado actually has forward momentum. Will Liufau become a leader and get the team to believe it can be more than just a league doormat?
Oregon: DL Arik Armstead
The 4th-ranked player in the 2012 recruiting class, defensive lineman Arik Armstead, has yet to make much of an impact in his time at Oregon.
After notching 26 tackles as a true freshman, Armstead made just 15 in his sophomore year, including one sack. Those aren't the kind of numbers fans had hoped to see from the 6'8" 290-pound former 5-star recruit, especially at a position that desperately needs his size.
It would appear that Armstead has recognized this after choosing to leave the basketball team in late January to focus solely on football. Whether this will allow him to tack on more weight is unknown, but it's a good sign coming from someone with all the potential in the world.
With his height, not only does Armstead have the ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage, but his weight and athletic ability give him the measurables to be unstoppable. This spring, we'll be looking to see if his renewed focus on the gridiron has translated into becoming a bigger presence in practice.
Armstead's future contributions are even more important with the losses of Wade Keliikippi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Havili-Heimuli from the Ducks' defensive line. Armstead is now projected as a starter, and if this is the year that he starts to put his talent together, Oregon could have one of the league's most dominant defensive forces.
Oregon State: WR Victor Bolden
It might seem premature to put a spotlight on a player who accumulated just 157 yards rushing and receiving in 2013. But because Oregon State will be without star wideout Brandin Cooks, who opted for the NFL draft, the onus is on the electric Victor Bolden to step up and become an open-field threat in the Beavers' offense.
Clearly, asking anyone to replace Cooks is a foolish request because the departed junior was arguably the best pass-catcher in school history. But Bolden has similar elusiveness in the open field, as evidenced by his 25-yard scoring run off a fly sweep against the Ducks in the Civil War, which put the Beavers ahead with less than two minutes to go in the contest.
Bolden only carried the ball 12 times in 2013, but he averaged almost eight yards per clip. He also had just six receptions, but you can expect both of those marks to go way up in 2014.
Returning to the receiving corps is Richard Mullaney, a sure-handed junior coming off a 788-yard season, and then a host of players who saw limited time. Mullaney is going to get his catches, but he lacks the explosion of a Cooks.
If Bolden's play in the spring demands the ball in the fall when the games begin, it will open up Oregon State's offense that much further. But if the brief glimpses of his potential were just that and they don't translate into improved production, the passing attack could struggle despite the return of Sean Mannion at quarterback.
Stanford: LB A.J. Tarpley
For the first time in seemingly forever, linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy won't be roaming in the Stanford defense and putting fear into the hearts of each and every opponent.
In 2014, the Cardinal won't simply be getting better on the side of the ball because of a year of maturing and returning starters. This time around, David Shaw's club will have to rely on new faces to deliver the goods, but it's an old face who must step on the gas if the defense is to remain salty.
That would be linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who was second on the team with 93 tackles in 2013. The 6'2" 240-pound senior from Minnesota certainly has the body to duplicate Skov's efforts. He probably won't get to the backfield as often as Murphy, but he has All-Conference potential and then some.
But aside from what he must do on the field, it's his presence off the field that will draw the most attention. That's because both Skov and Murphy were leaders throughout their entire careers. Tarpley has often been a forgotten man, but the Cardinal weren't dominant simply because of talent and coaching.
They were dominant because of leaders on both sides of the ball who constantly stressed hard work and physicality. We feel confident in projecting Tarpley to adequately replace Skov in terms of production. The real question, which we'll hopefully begin to get an answer to in the spring, is can Tarpley make sure he and the rest of the Cardinal D bring the same attitude to work each day like the playmakers of recent years?
UCLA: DL Eddie Vanderdoes
UCLA's climb into the upper-tier of Pac-12 teams is due in large part to quarterback Brett Hundley, a rare talent who can put the team on his back and lead it to victory. In fact, that's something he's already done on multiple occasions.
But for all the talk about Hundley taking the next step and turning the Bruins into a threat for the initial college football playoff, it won't happen unless the defense does its part. Thus, we're putting the focus on defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, a monster recruit from 2013 who turned in a fantastic freshman campaign.
Vanderdoes notched 37 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and had a fumble recovery in just his first year. Those aren't special numbers, but they're noteworthy at a position where guys don't normally make an impact until their second or third years on the team.
The defense loses both Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt from the linebacker corps, putting extra pressure on Vanderdoes to do his job up front. We're not expecting All-America numbers in Year 2, but the massive sophomore should be able to stand out as one of the league's best linemen.
This spring, keep on eye on Vanderdoes to see how he fares as a returning stud with much higher expectations than he had a year ago.
USC: QB Max Browne
Quarterback Cody Kessler is the returning starter at USC, and he'll most certainly have the upper hand in keeping the job when spring practice begins for the Trojans.
That said, how many USC fans aren't itching to see what super-freshman Max Browne can do if given the chance? With Kessler, you're guaranteed a steady performer. The sophomore signal-caller had almost 3,000 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Kessler rarely blows you away with physical talent, but he showed improvement and with the right coaching, there's little doubt about his ability to sniff an All-Conference spot someday. But you can bet new head coach Steve Sarkisian is more than a little curious to get a look at the former 5-star Browne, whom he recruited while at Washington.
Picking Browne here could be considered a risky move, because if Kessler arrives ready to duke it out and looks markedly better than he did in 2013, the job will undoubtedly be his. But Browne is a wild card who probably isn't willing to take a backseat for two more years.
The pressure will be on Kessler to keep his job, but the eyes will be on Browne to see if he is the real deal, and if he can potentially be the quarterback who takes the Trojans back to the top of the Pac-12.
Washington: RB Dwayne Washington
Replacing Bishop Sankey has to be the No. 1 priority for new Washington head coach Chris Petersen. Although Keith Price was a solid quarterback for several seasons, Sankey was truly the heart and soul of the offense in 2013.
Of the candidates to take over the reins in the backfield, we're targeting soon-to-be sophomore Dwayne Washington as the player who's most likely to have the biggest impact.
With apologies to both Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, neither guy appears to have the ability to suddenly become a steady, go-to performer as a senior. Both have had their moments and should be excellent role players, but Washington had more rushing yards than either guy in just his first year.
This discussion isn't meant to belittle the upcoming quarterback battle, which will also be critical to future success. But having a strong, consistent rushing attack is something that can cover up a number of other problems, including a first-year starter at quarterback.
And from Ian Johnson to Doug Martin and most recently, Jay Ajayi, it's clear that Petersen makes it a priority to develop a physical rushing style. We're curious to see if Washington can develop into that type of back and if it will happen as soon as spring practice begins in Seattle.