Pac-12 Football: Every Team's Biggest Spring Practice Concern
Spring practice is underway for some Pac-12 schools and with it comes the annual feelings of excitement, hope, worry and concern.
The chief goal for every school is a clean bill of health heading into the summer months, or at the very least a lack of long-term injuries. Beyond that, however, there are a number of issues each program must address.
Yes, that even includes teams like Stanford and Oregon, who have dominated conference play for the past four or five seasons.
Fans are always intrigued by who has shown improvement and which young players appear ready to break out.
But what we're looking at today are the biggest concerns each program faces during spring practice. A quarterback battle between several talented players is more intriguing than concerning. Zero proven running backs is a real concern with serious consequences if the situation isn't partially resolved by the time April is over.
Take a look now at the biggest concern for each Pac-12 team as we enter spring practices.
All stats via cfbstats.com
Note: Stanford, Arizona, Washington and USC have already begun their spring practices.
Biggest Concern: Finding running backs who can develop a connection with the quarterbacks
There's a whole lot to like about the Arizona Wildcats. The quarterback competition between Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon figures to be intense as both have plenty of talent. The wide receiving corps should be filthy with the return of Austin Hill and the defense is only going to get better.
But the elephant in the room is the loss of running back Ka'Deem Carey, arguably the nation's best over the past two seasons. His backup, Daniel Jenkins, is also gone from the 2013 team.
That leaves exactly one running back—sophomore Jared Baker—who tallied more than 100 yards on the ground this past season. The reason this is a major concern, aside from obvious depth issues, is that coach Rich Rodriguez' offense relies a lot on rhythm and timing and the connection between the starting quarterback and his backfield mates is crucial.
Help is on the way when the 2014 recruiting class begins to trickle in over the summer. But it will be critical for Baker or early-enrollee Jonathan Haden to pick up the offense and develop some chemistry with the signal-callers who are battling it out for the starting gig.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Biggest Concern: Replacing playmakers in the secondary
Many will focus on the loss of defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford as key concerns for the Arizona State Sun Devils entering spring practice. Those are very real issues, to be sure.
Perhaps an even bigger concern, however, is the loss of three starters from a secondary that finished third in the nation in interceptions with 21.
Guys like Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson are all gone from the reigning Pac-12 South champs and identifying replacements has to be a primary goal for coach Todd Graham and his staff.
Keep an eye out for Rashad Wadood, Lloyd Carrington and Viliami Moeakiola to aid in the effort to fill the void left by the aforementioned trio of stars. Given the experienced connection between quarterback Taylor Kelly and wide receiver Jaelen Strong, testing the youngsters in practice with proven offensive weapons won't be an issue. The question, and chief concern, is will they be able to pass the test?
California Golden Bears
Biggest Concern: Keeping morale high
It's a difficult time to be a fan of the Cal Bears. In head coach Sonny Dykes' first season, the team won just a single game and was often blown out by halftime. Staying positive this spring will be no easy task.
But it's nonetheless something that absolutely must happen if the current regime wants to find success in the future. No one is expecting Cal to win seven or eight games in 2014. Heck, winning four or five could prove challenging.
Leaders like quarterback Jared Goff need to set the tone during spring practice and stay positive throughout. If this team sincerely believes it's better than one victory, the results will show on the field.
But if all eyes are focused on a dark tunnel without any semblance of light at the end, improvement of any kind will be tough to come by. The biggest concern for Cal entering spring practice is staying positive, because if we're being honest, there isn't a single position on the team that doesn't need a lot of work.
Biggest Concern: Finding playmakers who can help QB Sefo Liufau grow
The best quarterbacks in football have found success with or without elite playmakers. Just look at what Tom Brady does year in and year out for the New England Patriots. But the process of going from talented youngster to experienced veteran is much smoother with a strong backfield and talented wide receivers.
Which is exactly why identifying players to fill those roles is the biggest concern for Colorado heading into spring practice. Wide receiver Paul Richardson is the only key name departing from the wide receiver position, and Nelson Spruce enters his junior season having caught 55 passes in 2013.
He'll need to continue his progression, as will guys like D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch, who combined for 444 yards and three scores. The pressure will be on this group to step their game up so that quarterback Sefo Liufau can continue to climb toward his ultimate potential.
If the playmakers on offense are unable to to help out and drop the ball, both literally and metaphorically, Liufau might never reach his potential. But if Spruce, Goodson, McCulloch and others do their part, Liufau will get better and the offense will grow.
Biggest Concern: Replacing bulk along the defensive line
The Oregon Ducks are set up once again to win plenty of games in 2014. The offense is without any glaring holes and the defense, despite losing three members of the starting secondary, returns Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at CB and a host of experienced linebackers.
This brings us to the one position of weakness: defensive line. After losing Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli, the Ducks must find some bulk or risk becoming even smaller than the team that was run over by Stanford and Arizona in 2013.
Fortunately, there's serious talent in the form of DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci, but the three combined for just six tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Those numbers are low enough to label the defensive line as an area of extreme concern.
Not only will depth be an issue, but the talent that exists needs to improve a lot between now and September. If it does, the unit could actually become one of the best in the conference. But entering spring practice, the defensive line is a major concern for Oregon fans.
Oregon State Beavers
Biggest concern: Who will put a scare into opposing defenses?
When you think of areas of concern for the Oregon State Beavers, your mind might first jump to the defense, where studs like Scott Crichton are leaving major voids. But with wide receiver Brandin Cooks off to the NFL, the offense is without any players who can truly scare defenses.
That's not to say the roster doesn't have guys who can become terrors. But right now it's pretty much Richard Mullaney and everyone else at receiver. And Mullaney, who's coming off an 800-yard campaign, is a strong-handed receiver who lacks breakaway abilities. If he's the only player defenses are keyed in on, he might find it difficult to find space.
But if younger players such as Victor Bolden and Malik Gilmore can take a step forward, it will alleviate pressure from Mullaney and give future NFL quarterback Sean Mannion a few more options.
As explosive as the Beavers were in 2013, they relied heavily on the Mannion-to-Cooks section of the playbook. Finding out who may possess traits similar to Cooks is a concern for Oregon State heading into spring practice.
Biggest concern: Replacing leadership on defense
Finding new leaders is an annual task in college football. For Stanford, that task is magnified with the loss of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner.
Sure, the return of players like A.J. Tarpley and Henry Anderson means that with or without leaders, it will be tough to score on the Cardinal in 2014. But the difference between a Rose Bowl team and one that finishes second or third in the Pac-12 north is the vocal leadership on both sides of the ball.
On offense, you have to figure quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery will play huge roles in that department. But on defense, the voice of Skov was what brought the group together over the past few seasons.
Losing one or two key players isn't abnormal and may not sound like a serious concern. But the leadership brought by Skov and Murphy cannot be understated. Finding guys who can fill the vocal void has to be a concern for the Cardinal entering spring practice.
Biggest concern: Growth at running back
The reason growth at the running back position is the biggest concern for UCLA right now is because it could mean the difference between a solid season and one that ends with the Bruins on top of the Pac-12 and in the initial college football playoff.
That might sound extreme, but not when you consider that quarterback Brett Hundley was the team's leading rusher with 748 yards. We know all about Hundley's mobility so the number itself isn't surprising. We also know that running back Jordon James dealt with injuries en route to his 534 yards. Lastly, seeing freshman Paul Perkins run for 573 yards of his own was promising.
But both James and Perkins must improve so that Hundley can focus on becoming a better passer. That's a scary prospect for the rest of the conference because he's already pretty accomplished. But if he knows he can rely on a couple guys to carry the load on the ground, it will open things up through the air even more.
However, if neither back takes a step forward and versatile linebacker Myles Jack sticks to defense, the offense will become more predictable. Seeing the running game take on more responsibility is a primary concern for the Bruins.
Biggest concern: Not letting QB battle distract from other priorities
Cody Kessler or Max Browne? That's the big question that will likely take several more months to decide, and the winner will get his shot to lead the USC Trojans into the 2014 season. Both have promising traits and several question marks.
But the biggest concern isn't finding out who's going to win the quarterback battle, or even seeing who has the lead going into summer. The biggest concern for USC is to not let the duel interfere with getting better everywhere else.
The media will ask about the quarterbacks, and given his background, first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian will probably keep a close eye on Kessler and Browne as well. After all, the most successful USC teams in the last 15 years have all had outstanding play from their signal-callers.
But the offensive line needs work, the tight end spot has some questions and the defense needs to resolve some issues that plagued the back seven. If the Trojans can adapt to the media salivation over the quarterbacks and put in an equal amount of work everywhere else, their biggest concern will vanish.
Biggest concern: Dealing with mounting scrutiny about Pac-12 worthiness
For some teams, the biggest concern heading into spring practice revolves around talent or depth at a single position. For others, like Utah, the concern is on a larger scale. In this case, it's the mounting pressure over whether or not the Utes can find success in the Pac-12.
To be clear, Utah isn't going anywhere, even if the Utes aren't able to win consistently. But the question is about whether they can ever challenge for a conference title. In 2011, the first year of the conference's existence in its current state, the Utes were one victory away from playing Oregon for the league crown.
Since then, however, it's been an uphill battle. The defense has held its own but the offense, due to a lack of talent and a rash of injuries, has struggled. This might seem like too general of a concern heading into spring practice because it's something that's likely been on the minds of fans for a couple years now.
But business as usual is harder to come by when, year after year, the product fails to improve or regresses. The Utes must stay the course, find out what they have in quarterback Kendal Thompson, a transfer from Oklahoma, and focus on making a statement in 2014. With another four- or five-win season, the questions only will grow louder.
Biggest concern: What's up with Miles and Stringfellow?
Quarterback Cyler Miles and wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow remain suspended (via Adam Jude of The Seattle Times) after being allegedly involved in an altercation following the Super Bowl on Feb. 2nd.
Their status has to be the biggest concern for the Huskies, as each was the projected starter at his position. It's a tricky situation because it might not be resolved until well after spring practice concludes.
Both players are extremely talented, and their absence brings about a variety of scenarios that could make life difficult for Washington. What if quarterback Jeff Lindquist plays really well and Miles returns? Will the competition open back up or will Miles start out as the backup? On the flipside, what if Lindquist plays poorly and Miles doesn't return?
As for Stringfellow, the situation is a little more black and white as there are other proven playmakers at wide receiver, most notably Kasen Williams. But he had 259 yards receiving in just his first season, and any time away from the team can only stunt his growth. The situation involving Stringfellow and Miles is a major concern for new coach Chris Petersen.
Washington State Cougars
Biggest concern: Replacing everything S Deone Bucannon brought to the table
As we've said, replacing key players is a natural part of every offseason and has been throughout college football history. But you rarely deal with replacing the heart and soul of the entire team like Washington State is having to do.
We're talking of course about safety Deone Bucannon, who tallied 114 tackles in 2013. But it isn't just his numbers that will be missed. It's his presence on the field.
If elite pass-rushers or lockdown corners are the most coveted players on a defense, a dominating safety can't be far behind, especially at the college level where top-notch talent tends to stand out on the highlight reel.
Bucannon was a team leader and someone who brought a physical presence to every game. Finding a replacement who can not only play the position well, but also maintain a level of physicality and leadership, is a major concern for Washington State.