Pac-12 Football: 5 Starters on the Hot Seat in 2014 Spring Practice
With several Pac-12 schools having already begun spring practice, it's time to take a look at who'll be under the spotlight six months before the season begins.
Or rather, who will be under the magnifying glass burning a hole in the depth chart. In other words, which starters have something to prove this time of year when you'll generally only hear about "one day at a time" and "just getting better."
As casual as spring practice is made out to be, the battles for playing time are raging on throughout the country, and while maintaining health and developing team chemistry are top priorities, earning—or keeping—playing time can be just as important on an individual level.
For some of these players, the pressure is on due to a high-profile backup or incoming recruits who have garnered attention before even stepping on campus. For others, it's about stepping up and forcing the coaches to keep your name in the lineup after what may have been a so-so 2013 campaign.
Fans want to see improvement across the board, and the teams that do that the very best are often the most prepared when the 2014 season begins.
Here are five Pac-12 players on the hot seat during spring practice.
RB Storm Woods, Oregon State
With the departure of wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL draft, the Oregon State offense must improve on the ground or risk taking a major step back in production.
While quarterback Sean Mannion put on quite the show in 2013, he won't be able to put up the same numbers without his main playmaker. Unfortunately, only one Beaver back had more than 500 yards on the year, and the entire ground attack managed fewer than 100 yards per game.
That back, Terron Ward, is listed second on the depth chart and had fewer carries than starter Storm Woods, which puts Woods squarely on the hot seat during spring practice.
As a true freshman in 2012, Woods averaged nearly five yards per carry en route to 940 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. In 2013, he averaged fewer than four yards per carry and had just 477 yards and six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ward had 100 more yards this past season than the year before.
It shouldn't take a college scout to figure out that one back appears to be improving while the other has regressed. Fortunately, the two combined for 379 yards in the Beavers' final two games, so coach Mike Riley should be optimistic that the pair can turn things around.
But if Woods wants to solidify his spot as the first back in the rotation, he'll have to not only bounce back from a less-than-ideal 2013 campaign, he'll have to set the tone in spring practice by reminding the staff what he's capable of on the field.
RB Byron Marshall, Oregon
Unlike Storm Woods, there isn't nearly as much risk of losing carries for Oregon running back Byron Marshall. That's because in the Ducks' fast-paced ground attack, running backs are constantly rotating in and the starter often gets a similar number of carries as his backup.
Still, being the go-to option in the Ducks' backfield has its perks. The last three players to hold that honor were LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, and all three are proud owners of NFL jerseys.
It might sound silly to think that a 1,000-yard back who ran for 14 touchdowns would be on the hot seat, but there are several factors that suggest Marshall needs a strong spring.
The first is his poor finish to the 2013 season. After rushing for 879 yards and 12 touchdowns in the team's first eight games, Marshall had just 159 yards and two scores in the final five contests. To be fair, the sophomore back was dealing with injuries, and the entire offense was in a lull after Nov. 1.
But when you combine a poor finish with a quick look at the depth chart, it should raise an eyebrow. Behind Marshall is superstar sophomore-to-be Thomas Tyner, who had more than 700 yards in his first year on the team. Tyner has track speed and ideal size, and he appears to have a higher ceiling than Marshall.
In the fall, 2014 recruit Royce Freeman will also be entering the fray, which should make the competition for carries fiercer than ever.
Marshall is a good running back and has at times been great. His natural progression even suggests he'll get a look from the NFL. But he'll need to bounce back from a difficult finish in 2013 in order to keep his spot as the first Oregon back out on the field.
RB Jordon James, UCLA
Nobody would find it easy to replace a running back like Jonathan Franklin, which was the challenge for UCLA coach Jim Mora and his staff heading into the 2013 season.
The next in line was Jordon James, a junior who ended up rushing for 534 yards and five scores amidst several injuries. Behind him, however, was freshman Paul Perkins, who ran for 573 yards and six scores.
Despite having seniority, James was unable to separate himself as the clear-cut starter, and if Perkins had that much success in just his first season, many fans will be curious to see how much he will grow in year two.
That alone puts enormous pressure on James to handle his business and make his own improvements. In the Bruins' first three games of 2013, James rushed for 424 yards and four scores. If math class meant anything, James then rushed for just 110 yards and a single touchdown in the team's final 10 games, of which James missed four.
But Perkins wasn't notably better, having failed to produce a single 100-yard effort. Still, he's now the exciting young gun while James, though talented, feels a bit like old news.
In college football, someone is always trying to take your spot. James will get carries either way, but if he wishes to maintain his starting spot in what should be a high-powered offense, he'll need to rewrite the headlines and put in a strong spring effort.
RB Christian Powell, Colorado
It's going to take a team effort for Colorado to deal with the departure of wide receiver Paul Richardson, one of the most explosive players in the country in 2013.
Part of that responsibility will lie with running back Christian Powell, who tallied 562 yards and three touchdowns in the fall. At 6'0" 235 pounds, he's going to get his carries no matter what, especially on third-and-short or goal-line situations.
His backup, Michael Adkins II, may end up stealing the show. As a freshman in 2013, Adkins ran for 535 yards but averaged over five yards per carry and scored six times. He did this in three fewer games than Powell, and even tossed in a 137-yard, four-touchdown performance in a win over Charleston Southern.
Adkins also caught 11 passes for 127 yards compared with Powell's eight for 71 yards. If you were looking at each player's resume from 2013 without being told who was who, you'd probably put the younger player in the lead role in the backfield.
That's not necessarily the case at the moment, and Powell's power is an important asset for a team that must continue to develop a consistent rushing attack to take pressure off quarterback Sefo Liufau.
Both players will get carries, but unless Powell can up his yards-per-carry average and show off a little more explosion in the spring, he'll likely give way to Adkins who may just take the job and run away with it.
QB Cody Kessler, USC
Technically, USC quarterback Cody Kessler is the team's returning starter, so he fits the definition of this piece. But if you dig a little deeper on the issue, you'll realize that the race between him and Max Browne is actually too close to call at this point.
Said head coach Steve Sarkisian, on when he plans to make a final decision, via Rich Hammond of The Orange County Register:
When it feels right. I’m not putting a deadline on it. When it feels right, when it looks right, I’ll probably let it sit one more practice, just to be sure, and then we will make a decision. Right now, we’re just gathering information and installing our stuff.
For Trojans fans, this has to be welcome news. You have a returning starter who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first season as the signal-caller versus one of the most highly touted youngsters in the country. There isn't really a bad option.
But the pressure lies squarely with Kessler given what he was able to accomplish in 2013. If you lead your team to 10 victories and still don't have the gig locked down in the spring, your seat is hardly cool.
Kessler must continue to show improvement and prove that he can be a national championship-caliber player. If Browne lights it up in spring practice and Kessler merely shows more of the same, Sarkisian may be forced to go with the freshman in 2014.