Pac-12 Football: 8 Most Crucial 2014 Fall Camp Battles
OK, friends, Pac-12 football is literally right around the corner, and it's time to take an early look at what to watch during fall camp.
As always, fingers are crossed that teams can stay healthy, and it's always exciting to hear initial reports on the true freshmen to see which members of the 2014 recruiting class have the skills to contribute immediately.
But while you generally have an idea of what the starting 22 will look like, there are always a few positions that remain up for grabs as far as the pecking order is concerned.
Which position battles will receive the most attention? How big of an impact will the ultimate decisions have on both the team and conference as a whole?
Here are eight crucial fall camp battles to keep an eye on.
Arizona Wildcats Starting Quarterback
The candidates: Fr. Anu Solomon, Sr. Jesse Scroggins, So. Connor Brewer, Jr. Jerrard Randall
In perhaps the most exciting fall camp battle in the entire conference, Arizona's stable of quarterbacks will duke it out for the right to trot out onto the field in Week 1 as the team's starting signal-caller.
Ironically, Solomon was the only player to sign with Arizona out of high school, but coach Rich Rodriguez seized the opportunity to reel in Scroggins, Brewer and Randall, formerly of USC, Texas and LSU, respectively.
Given that Solomon was recruited and has had his sights set on the gig for longer than the others, he may have the upper hand. He's an athletic, dual-threat type very much in the mold of what Rodriguez looks for in his starting quarterback, that is, someone who can hurt defenses in a variety of ways.
After all, B.J. Denker was hardly the most accomplished passer, and calling him a noodle arm wouldn't be entirely inaccurate. However, Denker won the job in 2013, progressed as the season went on and piled up big stats, some of which came in a dominant victory over Oregon. No one was poking fun at Denker when December rolled around.
Randall is the most athletic of the bunch, and both Scroggins and Brewer were touted prospects coming out of high school. Whoever wins the starting job will own the keys to one of the nation's best offenses, and if he's able to hold down the spot, look for him to become one of the league's best quarterbacks by 2015.
Oregon Ducks Starting Running Back
The candidates: Jr. Bryon Marshall, So. Thomas Tyner
It should immediately be noted that regardless of who wins the starting spot, both players will receive plenty of carries throughout the year assuming a clean bill of health. That's because not only are both Marshall and Tyner extremely talented, but the Ducks' offense relies heavily on a run game that wears opponents down throughout the contest.
The favorite to be the first back out on the field is Marshall, who's the Pac-12 leading returning rusher after piling up more than 1,000 yards last season. He isn't as fast as former Ducks LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but he's surprisingly shifty, tough to catch once he hits the open field and tough as nails between the tackles.
Where Tyner comes in is the "potential" department, although over 700 yards as a true freshman means it's much more than that already. With track speed and NFL size, Tyner is the kind of player nobody would be surprised to see grab the reins, rush for 1,600 yards and never look back.
Marshall owns the experience category and probably has a future in the NFL. Without injuries last season, he may have piled up close to 1,300 yards, which is nothing to scoff at. But Tyner simply looks the part of a future Pro-Bowler.
Again, both will get their carries, and the designation of starter isn't crucial to either player's success. But if Tyner is somehow able to win the job from the more experienced Marshall, the buzz around him will grow even louder.
Washington Huskies Starting Running Back
The candidates: So. Dwayne Washington, Sr. Jesse Callier, Sr. Deontae Cooper
With the departure of Bishop Sankey, the biggest question mark for the Washington Huskies leading into the 2014 season is at running back, where a pair of veterans will battle it out along with a young gun for the starting spot.
You could argue that more eyes will be on the quarterback battle, but it's likely that Cyler Miles will retain the starting position after serving his one-game suspension, if only because of the potential he showed in 2013 when subbing in for an injured Keith Price.
But the best teams new head coach Chris Petersen has been a part of have featured outstanding play from the running back position, starting with Ian Johnson, then with Doug Martin and, most recently, Jay Ajayi.
The defense is saltier than it's been in a few years, but the offense won't have a chance to flourish without a real ground threat outside Miles at quarterback. Washington led the three candidates in 2013 with 332 yards and four touchdowns while averaging over seven yards per carry.
Next on the stat sheet was Cooper with 270 yards, and Callier rounded out the trio of then-backups with 213 yards. Will Petersen go with the promising youngster, or will veteran leadership win this round?
Oregon State Wide Receiver No. 2
The candidates: So. Malik Gilmore, So. Victor Bolden, Fr. Hunter Jarmon
Junior wide receiver Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes for 788 yards and three scores in 2013, and if not for the massive shadow cast by fellow wideout Brandin Cooks, he might have a lot more buzz heading into this season.
But Cooks is gone, the big-armed, gun-slinging Sean Mannion is back at quarterback and Mullaney will be counted on to at least top the 1,000-yard mark. Mannion threw for 4,500 yards last fall, but even with significant contributions expected at tight end, other receivers must step up.
The two most likely candidates are sophomores Victor Bolden and Malik Gilmore, each of whom played a fairly minor role in 2013. But Bolden had one of the plays of the year when he took a fly-sweep in the Civil War game, raced up field and walked into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
That glimpse of speed and athleticism had Beavers fans everywhere dreaming of a bright future. Gilmore, at 6'3" 210 pounds, is more of a possession-type pass-catcher. And then there's redshirt freshman Hunter Jarmon, who quit the baseball team in the winter to focus on the gridiron.
With talent oozing from Mannion at quarterback, you know Mike Riley will be throwing the ball early and often yet again. After Mullaney, to whom will Mannion's passes be going?
Washington State Receivers
The candidates: Everyone
Not everyone is a candidate to start at wide receiver for Washington State, but if you're unfamiliar with the talent returning to the position, know this: Of the 4,784 receiving yards the team piled up in 2013, only 41 were had by players not returning this fall, and they came from a running back and an offensive lineman.
In other words, the Cougars receiving corps is absolutely stacked with talent. That's in italics so you know it's true.
Names that most fans will know are Gabe Marks and Vince Mayle, who combined for 1,346 yards and 14 touchdowns. But let's not forget Dom Williams (647 yards, seven TDs), River Cracraft (614 yards, three TDs), Kristoff Williams (490 yards) or Isiah Myers (425 yards, three scores), either.
You can expect both Marks and Mayle to crack the starting lineup, and Mayle could be one of the breakout players of the year—at least on a national level—given his 6'3", 219-pound frame.
Every one of the aforementioned players will have an important role, and much like the Oregon backfield, the starting receiver spots at Washington State are flexible, and rotations will occur early and often. But as we enter fall camp, will anybody break out and become the obvious No. 1 target for quarterback Connor Halliday? Or will we at least see a clear pecking order emerge at the position?
The candidates: So. Isaako Savaiinaea, Jr. Kenny Orjioke, Fr. Zach Whitley, Sr. Ryan Hofmeister
This is one of the fall camp battles that may not end up being much of a competition, but that doesn't mean we won't be hanging on every last word out of Jim Mora's mouth to see if there are new developments.
The obvious headliners at linebacker are Myles Jack, whom you know, and Eric Kendricks, whom you should know. The two combined for 181 tackles last season, and Jack is one of the best all-around athletes in the game.
But lost from the 2013 group are Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, two leaders on defense who combined for 157 tackles on their own. Junior Kenny Orjioke looks to be the man to take over Barr's outside linebacker position, although he did have just 12 tackles in limited duty last fall.
At Zumwalt's position, it will likely be sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea who earns the nod after a promising freshman campaign that saw him notch 25 tackles.
But there's experience in senior Ryan Hofmeister and intriguing talent in freshman Zach Whitley. Of course, it's UCLA, and all the candidates have plenty of talent. But if Whitley—a former 4-star recruit, per 247Sports—is as good as advertised, the starting lineup may not be out of reach.
Colorado Buffaloes Starting Running Back
The candidates: Jr. Christian Powell, So. Michael Adkins II, Sr. Tony Jones, Jr. Donta Abron
Colorado needs to get better across the board, so while we're looking at the running backs here, it should be noted that few positions are likely set in stone before fall camp even begins.
That said, fans should be excited about the potential of the running back group, which is headlined by Christian Powell and Michael Adkins, who combined for 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns rushing in 2013.
Powell, at 230 pounds, is the thunder to Adkins' lightning, and the two make a formidable duo. We'll hark back once more to Oregon's situation at running back, where the "starter" isn't necessarily a cut above the other players at the position. The same goes for the Buffaloes, and coach Mike MacIntyre will also be hoping for meaningful contributions from Tony Jones and Donta Abron.
Neither player stood out as much as Adkins and Powell, but they bring the total up to four players who know the offense and can be trusted with carries in important situations.
Will we continue to see the two- and three-back systems used on a consistent basis, or will one of these players make an impression in fall camp and earn the lion's share of carries throughout the season?
Utah Utes Starting Running Back
The candidates: Jr. Bubba (formerly James) Poole, Jr. Devontae Booker
With 607 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in 2013, Bubba Poole is easily the leading returning rusher for Utah, but that doesn't mean he has the starting spot sewn up. Though backup Lucky Radley is gone, junior college transfer Devontae Booker has been making quite the impression.
Booker had 103 yards and two scores in the Utes' spring game and, according to Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com, was the team's breakout player during spring. Writes Gemmell:
But the coaching staff couldn't stop raving about what Booker brings to the table. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, he has the size to motor through people, but not so much size that he can't run around folks, either. For now, Bubba Poole is the starting running back. But Booker is right on his heels.
With an offense that failed to score 30 points per game last fall, the Utes will take all the points-scoring weapons they can get their hands on. Booker certainly appears to be one of them, but the question is, can he surpass Poole on the depth chart?
It's an intriguing battle to keep an eye on throughout fall camp and one that could have a major impact on whether the gears start turning in the Utes' offensive machine or the engine remains stalled.
All stats via cfbstats.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.