Pac-12 Football: 5 Top Performers from Spring Practice
With every Pac-12 team looking at spring football in the rearview mirror, it's time for us to look back and see what light, if any, was shed upon the upcoming season.
Most of the talk flowing forth from each program was your standard coachspeak. In other words, all you typically heard about were players getting better, position groups working on fundamentals and whether the "energy" of a particular session was where it needed to be.
So how do we judge who had a better spring practice than someone else? We're mostly looking for buzz created by that player and how often he was cited in practice reports as someone who stood out that day.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the players who improved over the last few months, but here are five guys who shined a little brighter than everyone else.
WR Devon Allen, Oregon
One of Oregon's top priorities this spring had to be finding a way to replace the production of wide receiver Bralon Addison, who will likely miss the entirety of the 2014 season to injury.
Several names, such as Darren Carrington, Chance Allen and Devon Allen, popped up time and time again, but in the end it was D. Allen who stood out the most. Even if we're judging solely on the spring game, which isn't fair to everyone else, Allen looks like a major contributor in the fall.
He finished the afternoon with a pair of touchdowns, including one on the game's final play in which he caught a pass, juked a defender and then flat outran him to the end zone. Rob Moseley, the editor of goducks.com, noted Allen notched at least one touchdown in each of the Ducks' three scrimmages this spring.
We’ve had very high expectations from him. He’s getting track speed out on the football field. We love tough track guys. There’s that perception that a track guy is soft. That’s absolutely not the case if they’re the right guy.
There's no way to fully replace the experience Addison brings to the table, but if Allen's hard work in the spring is a sign of things to come, the passing attack will still have plenty of weapons in the fall.
WR Thomas Duarte, UCLA
With Shaq Evans having used up his eligibility, the UCLA Bruins, much like the Oregon Ducks, entered spring with extra emphasis on developing the wide receiver position.
Young talents like Devin Fuller, Devin Lucien and Jordan Payton all figure to play sizeable roles in 2014, but perhaps no player will make a bigger leap forward than the mega-talented Thomas Duarte. At 6'3" and 225 pounds, Duarte looks more like a tight end than a wideout, and he had a solid freshman season with 16 grabs for 214 yards and three scores.
In an interview with The Daily Bruin's Jordan Lee, Duarte said:
(I feel) a lot faster, a lot bigger, a lot stronger, to be honest, I just feel like a different player. Mentally, my game has stepped up due to the coaches, spending time in their offices, watching film, just elevating my mental game so that my physical game can match that.
That sounds like a player who mentally has turned a corner. As someone who already owns a physical build and has the athleticism to excel, it could mean Duarte is becoming the complete package.
LB D.J. Calhoun, Arizona State
From Vontaze Burfict to Brandon Magee and Carl Bradford, Arizona State has always had a fearsome linebacker in recent years, sometimes two or three at once.
It would appear D.J. Calhoun may be the next in line to hold that title, even as a true freshman. The 6'0", 205-pound beast from El Cerrito participated in the team's spring practices and has been drawing rave reviews.
The most important ones, of course, come from the coaching staff, and Todd Graham had some nice things to say about Calhoun (via Tyler Lockman of msn.foxsports.com):
That guy is impressive. He can run, move, cover. He's going to be special. We're excited about him. We threw him in there, and I thought he showed up, had a great spirit about him.
Also gone from the 2013 defense is linebacker Chris Young, whose void may be filled by Calhoun despite his youth. Either way, the Sun Devils know they have a player with All-conference potential, and his huge strides in spring may be a sign of things to come just a few months from now.
OG Joshua Garnett, Stanford
Stanford goes as its offensive line goes, and thus finding adept replacements for guys like David Yankey and Cameron Fleming is essential for success in 2014. Sure, the Cardinal have had outstanding running backs, but you might not even remembers the names Gerhart, Johnson or Gaffney if not for the behemoths the trio ran behind.
Don't expect David Shaw's team to run out of elite offensive linemen anytime soon, but it's always interesting to see which guys will simply turn into solid performers and who could become elite on a national level.
Guard Joshua Garnett appears to fit that latter category. Given his experience, he might not have made quite the stride forward as other members of the list, but that doesn't mean he won't go from contributor to steamroller in the offseason.
Ted Miller of espn.com makes mention of Garnett's "leadership traits," which are sure to come in handy with Yankey and Fleming off to the NFL.
We don't have any fancy stats to throw out for the 6'5", 316-pound monster lineman. But entering his junior season, Garnett has already seen time in 28 games and two Rose Bowls. If defensive fronts don't have a very specific plan as to how to approach the Cardinal's powerful rushing attack, Garnett could end up in the end zone ahead of his running backs on several occasions in 2014.
RB Devontae Booker, Utah
When quarterback Travis Wilson was unable to go late in 2013 due to injury, the Utah offense became an absolute mess. Not only was there an expected drop in production at signal-caller, but the running back stable was nowhere to be found for long stretches of games.
In fact, after scoring 27 points or more in five of the first six games, the Utes hit that number just once the rest of the way. Erasing offensive woes will depend largely on the return of Wilson, but perhaps even more on the emergence of a running back. Based on spring practice, Devontae Booker may be that very guy.
It's been a long time since the junior college transfer has seen meaningful action on the gridiron, but coach Kyle Whittingham liked what he saw during the spring, even comparing him to a former standout Ute (via Dirk Facer, Deseret News):
Relative to how long he’s been here and what he’s doing on the field, we’re very pleased. We think he’s got a lot of upside. It’s a lot like when John White got here a few years back. He was here in spring and you could see the talent, but there was not a lot of production along with the talent. Then that next fall he really started to come into his own.
That's high praise for such a new face, but that face must become well-known around the conference if the Utes hope to put a few more points on the board next season.