The first phase of the 2015 Pac-12 football season is now fully complete. Each team has culminated spring football with its own version of a closing scrimmage/event/showcase/etc. Hope springs eternal on the gridiron as in all places, and despite the optimism flowing freely from Pullman to Tucson to South Central Los Angeles, legitimate questions abound. Let's take a look at the issues all 12 teams will take with them into the summer. Teams rolled out in chronological order of spring games.
Spring Game: Gold 14, Black 10
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 8th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 11th
Head Coach Mike McCarthy wrapped up his third spring in Boulder with his squad showing signs of some very cautious optimism for Buffs' fans, but signs of optimism nonetheless. The major issue with Colorado at this stage in its rebirth is defense. To that end, McCarthy hired Jim Leavitt to coordinate the defense, and if nothing else he's brought some energy and enthusiasm to a unit in desperate need of leadership and a spark. Junior Defensive Lineman Samson Kofavalu seems poised to have a break-out season, and in the secondary has shown some promise, led by Afolabi Laguda, a 6'1" Sophomore. The defense and secondary got off to an auspicious start in the Spring Game, with Akhello Wihterspoon picking off Jordan Gehrke's first pass of the day and taking it back for six points.
Unfortunately not all was great for the defense. Diminutive back Kyle Evans responded to the pick six by ripping off a 65-yard touchdown run, and Quarterback Sefo Liufau ended the scoring by completing a 70-yard pass to Devin Ross. Ross joins Nelson Spruce and Shay Fields on what should be an effective receiving corps. Old Stanford standout Troy Walters seems to have this part of the Buffaloe offense poised for success, thanks in no small part to some Miyagi-like drills involving tennis balls. With only 12 completed passes in the two quarters that the Gold and Black played, there weren't many showcase opportunities aside from Ross' big catch.
The runners did most of the work, and Evans' run set up a 96 yard-day on 12 carries. Both Phillip Lindsay and Christian Powell sported averages above six yards per carry in limited duty. They will be running behind a semi-reshuffled offensive line. The Buffaloes return three starters up front: Junior LT Jeromy Irwin, Junior Center Alex Kelley, and Senior Right Tackle Stephane Nembot. Colorado integrates Gerrard Kough and Shane Callahan at Left Guard and Right Guard, respectively. Last year's unit will look to improve upon 2014's sixth-rated rush attack. The Buffaloes allowed the second fewest sacks in the Pac-12 last season, so Liufau should have a consistently clean pocket even as the Buffs' rework the interior of their line.
All eyes remain on Leavitt's defensive unit to improve, and he has worked very hard to temper expectations. By his estimation, Colorado assimilated about 80% of his schemes and strategies. Nine starters return from last year's team, and the players have clearly bought in to Leavitt's enthusiasm at the very least. Whether or not that translates to increased stinginess come the fall remains to be seen.
McCarthy put a wrinkle on the spring game process by allowing his senior safeties to draft each team after McCarthy apportioned the seniors himself. The only cloud hanging over the Buffaloes at this point is the status of two Buffaloes from an incident last February. While defensive lineman Josh Tupou saw the case against him for assault dropped. Jaleel Awini and Donovan Lee both have hearings pending in the upcoming months after receiving misdemeanor summons from the incident in question. Aside from that, however, hope springs in Boulder, where the path to Pac-12 South competitiveness still appears to be a rocky road for the Buffaloes.
Spring Game: 4/10 Maroon 37, White 17
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 6th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 7th
Coach Todd Graham's Tempe construction project continues to hum along. Undeterred by the presence of trucks and construction workers taking up 30 yards of the Sun Devil Stadium field, ASU put on a fun-themed Spring showcase that, while really only being a glorified practice, showcased many of the reasons that Sun Devil fans are eagerly anticipating 2015. First, ASU is among the schools with the security of a clearly identified starting quarterback in Mike Bercovici. The Senior-to-be threw for a touchdown on a pass to uber-athlete D.J. Foster, who's going to be used in a number of different roles this season, but he also was picked off in the red zone by his roommate Jordan Simone. The rest of the quarterbacks saw ample opportunities to play, but that's not the group drawing scrutiny on offense for the Sun Devils.
With Jaelen Strong headed to the NFL and junior WR Cameron Smith gone for the year due to an unspecified knee injury, Foster is going to have a huge burden with regard to ASU's passing game. Smith was the Sun Devils' third leading receiver in 2014, and was injured by the second day of spring practice. Between Strong and Smith, ASU loses 123 receptions. The returning trio of Gary Chambers, Ellis Jefferson, and Frederick Gammage combined for 37 last season. There is also hope that Eric Lauderdale, a four-star recruit who redshirted last season, will be able to contribute. Highlight this group as the biggest offensive question mark for ASU heading into the Fall.
Arizona State is also replacing both its tackles going into 2015. Per Doug Haller of AZCentral, Evan Goodman is the likely winner at Left Tackle while Right Tackle is "TBD." ASU returns the interior of its line, so that should help in terms of integrating the tackles.
Defense is Graham's area of expertise, though it says here that he's stepped back a bit in order to get a wider view on the team as a whole. Regardless, ASU returns nine of 11 defensive starters. Safety Damarius Randal and DE Marcus Hardison are the only two starters Graham needs to replace. Sophomore Kalen Ballage, listed as a running back, has apparently blown Graham's mind to the point that stands to be ASU's primary third down pass rusher and a member of every special teams unit as well. If Ballage can be effective, he may be able to fortify a unit that was fifth in the Pac-12 in pass defense and sacks. Despite those numbers, ASU was the best third down D in the conference and had the second most tackles for loss and interceptions, finishing just behind their in-state rivals in both categories. Clearly, Graham's task is to make a decent defense a solid defense, and Ballage clearly has a place in those plans.
ASU did not emerge as unscathed by injury as some of its other Pac-12 brethren, so the spring can't be called a total success. However, there is no shortage of justified optimism that the Sun Devils ascent should continue in 2015, and Graham isn't shying away from those expectations. On the topic of expectations, he says "The hardest thing to deal with is success. Our guys are real used to winning ten games. We gotta get out of that because we're trying to win 15."
Spring Game 4/11: Offense 96, Defense 68
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 4th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 7th
Only Rich Rodriguez would conceive of a spring game where the defense scores 68 points...and loses by almost three touchdowns. Such is spring ball in 2015. Arizona, a program on the rise after appearing in the Pac-12 Championship and beating Oregon twice in three tries two years, heads into 2015 with a clear mandate: improve its defense and try to make Wildcat fans forget Frank the Tank. Redshirt Sophomore QB Anu Solomon had a clean, efficient evening, throwing for 175 yards on 19-25 passing. Interestingly, this was one of the rare spring games where the team played to its strength. Arizona's offense was clearly the core of the team last year, and the defense, while not terrible, was 11th in the conference in stopping the run. To that end, free agent pickup Paul Magloire may be providing some help in the fall. He had a game high 9 tackles and should be a regular part of the Wildcats' rotation.
Arizona returns Scooby Wright, who recorded 14 of the Wildcats' 38 sacks on his way to the Butkus and Lombardi awards. 31 of those 38 came in conference play, good for third in the conference. Arizona has three cupcakes to start the season, and then the Pac-12 slate should be challenging but doable. Arizona skips Oregon and gets UCLA at home, but then in the back end they close at USC, home vs. Utah, and at Arizona State. They'll know what they've got in Tucson after hosting the Bruins on September's final Saturday. As for the spring, Wilbur, Rodriguez, and the rest of Tucson seem to be sailing along smoothly. Rodriguez felt loose enough to go up into the stands and let fans call plays from his poster-board play sheet, and at least one went for a touchdown.
Spring Game: 4/11 White (Defense) 23 Cardinal (Offense) 7
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 11th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 1st
It's funny how things change over the course of six months. By the end of 2014, Stanford's season had been lost and the culprit was its offense. Just look at the rankings above. For the better part of the season, Stanford struggled mightily to produce points, and it left to waste what was for the most part an outstanding defensive season, the best overall in the conference in fact. Then in the last two games, Stanford's offense exploded on the road against Cal and UCLA and then drubbed Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. Those final results added with the departure of eight defensive starters including the seemingly irreplaceable David Parry and Henry Anderson dramatically altered the focus of concern from the offense to the annually dependable defense. Stanford began spring practice with literally no defensive line, as there were only two serviceable lineman even available to participate as the spring began.
That set the stage for Stanford's spring game, in which the defense....completely dominated. Are there asterisks associated with that performance? Absolutely. First off, Kevin Hogan was very limited in his duty, and while he played managed to go 13-19 for 187 yards. Devon Cajuste and fellow wide receiver Francis Owusu did not participate, and the defense saw essentially a base offense from a Stanford offense that veils its Terra-byte sized playbook like the NSA.
All that being said, the defense definitely calmed nerves with its performance, especially considering Blake Martinez was the only participant who started for the Cardinal last season. Aziz Shittu, Nate Lohn, and incoming free agent from Cal (the super-rare Stanford transfer) Brennan Scarlett will all be contributing in the trenches for Lance Anderson's defense. However, that all important front line of the defense already looks more promising because of two players who did participate in the spring game: the now Super-sized versions of Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips looked ready to compete against Pac-12 competition. Per David Lombardi's excellent game write-up, the duo combined for 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks on the day.
If Stanford fans are at ease about the team's offense and defense, it's third unit shapes up at the moment of one of serious concern. Both the punting and kicking game, replacing mainstays Jordan Williamson and Ben Rhyne, remains a work in progress. Neither Conrad Ukropina nor punter Alex Robinson impressed. Freshman Jake Bailey arrives in the summer, and he will be a serious contender for both jobs when practice resumes. Specialists aside, the Stanford special team took a serious drop last year that was overshadowed by the offense's struggles. Stanford needs to step up in this third phase if it's going to return to college football's elite in 2015.
The running game also continues to be a mystery. Stanford's offensive uptick at the end of 2014 wasn't necessarily due to a spike in the running game. On the plus side, the coaches plan to fully utilize Christian McCaffrey as its feature back. McCaffrey is unquestionably Stanford's most talented back, and he stands to play a starring role after so many scintillating cameos in his Freshman season. The offensive line replaces only one starter as opposed to the four they had to integrate last year. The one is a big one (LT Andrus Peat), but Kyle Murphy has the full confidence of the coaches as he slides over to protect Hogan's blind side. The offensive line and quarterback continuity gives Stanford an edge over many of its Pac-12 brethren. Whether that advantage maintains itself into conference is an entirely other issue, but with the Cardinal leaving the spring with no major injuries on the docket and a chip on its shoulder, there is reason to believe Coach Shaw's squad is back on the ascent heading into 2015.
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