Spring Showcase: 4/25
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 3rd
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 5th
The Bruins are one of the more prominent teams leaving Spring Ball with no designated starter at quarterback. All three quarterbacks had their moments at UCLA's Spring "Experience," which featured three 11-on-11 sequences divided by individual and group drills. Redshirt Sophomore Asiantii Woulard and Redshirt Junior Jerry Neuheisel went 1-2 in the 11-on-11 sequences, but that shouldn't be taken as a ranking at all. Neuheisel produced the first touchdown of the day, but that was all just a preamble to the arrival of Josh Rosen, the highly-touted freshman out of Manhattan Beach's St. John Bosco High School. Rosen didn't disappoint, completing 13-17 passes and two touchdowns. He wasn't infallible, as he sandwiched the TD's with an interception, but nevertheless Rosen did nothing to disappoint those who have been anxiously awaiting his arrival in Westwood/Pasadena.
It's key to remember that Rosen or whoever starts at QB isn't being asked to fix anything, but to continue what has been a very prolific tenure for Noel Mazzone. UCLA returns Junior Paul Perkins, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards last season. Receiving leader Jordan Payton returns to headline what may be the deepest position group on an extremely talented team. Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller, and Eldridge Massington all return. In fact the only one of the Bruins' top six receivers not to return is Devin Lucien, who instead heads to Arizona State. All five returners had more catches than Lucien, which may have been the reason for his departure and the fact that UCLA wasn't that upset to lose him. Jordan Lasley, a Redshirt Freshman receiver from Compton's Serra High School, dazzled during the Showcase. Secondaries will have their hands full with the L.A. schools for years to come.
Despite Jim Mora's pedigree, it's the Bruin defense that needs to take a step forward in 2015. Losing Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks and lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa to the draft won't make things any easier. UCLA has talent ready to step up for them, but that talent is going to be inexperienced, whether it's JUCO transfer Takkarist McKinley, Eddie Vanderdoes, or Kenny Clark stepping up to hold the line.
The bottom line is that this is a team that finished ranked 10th nationally and returns 18 starters. There is talent and optimism running wild in Westwood, and once the Bruins settle on who goes under center, they may find themselves facing the same sort of elevated hype that greeted them at the start of 2014.
Spring Game: 4/25
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 9th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 3rd
The Huskies are yet another Pac-12 team hoping to identify a starting quarterback in the wake of QB Cyler Miles' "voluntary absence" from spring ball, which most expect to extend into and through the 2015 season. That leaves three candidates to end up under center when the Huskies open against Boise State in Petersen's return to the Blue Turf. Jeff Lindquist, K.J. Carta-Samuels, and Jake Browning, a high schooler who finished up in time to participate in spring practice, all have their hats in the Husky QB Ring. 13 days into the process, the competition remains on in earnest and all three players remain in contention. As a Junior going up against a redshirt Freshman and the truest of true Freshmen, you'd think the money would be on Lindquist who "has all the tools" per the Huskies' Scout site. What we do know for sure is that the longer it goes, the harder it's going to be for the starter to be ready in time.
Injuries have played a role in crystallizing the Husky depth chart, at least along the lines, but the Huskies do appear set at offensive line. Stanford fans can relate to the Husky OL status, as the Dawgs lose four of their five starters from last year's Cactus Bowl and the one returner, Siosifa Tufunga slides over to the crucial Center spot from Left Guard. Unfortunately, other areas of the squad are in a more nebulous state given an injured list that ran twelve deep (8 non-participants/4 no-contacts). In numerous ways, the Huskies have a huge list of issues to resolve, so it's good for them that they still have months in which to resolve them. The QB fight gains even more urgency when you consider that Washington had the 11th-rated pass offense in the conference last season. The 'Dawgs actually were the third-best rushing team in the Pac-12, and leading rushers Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman both return this season.
The departure of Shaq Thompson obviously creates a void in a defense that was very good for the UW last season. At the moment this doesn't appear to be the year that Chris Petersen turns the corner in Seattle, but they can take a huge step towards the upper echelon of the division and the conference if they settle the QB question.
Spring Game: 4/25
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 7th
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 10th
Now $7.25 million into the Mike Leach Retirement Fund, the Cougars start Year 4 of the Pirate's tenure looking to rebound from a second 3-9 season in three seasons. As Spring ball got underway, the Cougars faced an incredible amount of roster upheaval. Sebastian LaRue, a transfer from Texas A&M, was booted off the team without ever having played a down for Washington State. Washington State also jettisoned two punters, and added to the list of 8 dismissed players here, we have the unmistakeable scent of something rotting in the Palouse. The Cougars are hoping to plug these leaks with 17 walk-ons.
The fact that Washington State is one of many Pac-12 squads dealing with a quarterback controversy, with redshirt Freshman Peyton Bender battling Redshirt Sophomore Luke Falk, who finished up for Connor Halliday last year when Halliday's leg broke before his arm could fall off from leading the Air Raid offense and making 58 throws a game on average. Falk's got experience, mobility, and a firmer grasp of the offense on his side while Bender has the more impressive arm and better footwork, at least through the eyes of this reporter. As noted, Leach doesn't expect to name a starter until the middle of fall camp, making it unlikely that Washington State comes out of the gates looking better than its 3-9 predecessor from last year.
On the plus side, the Cougars return their entire offensive line from last season, so there should at least be some stability in front of whoever wins the quarterback job. That unit will look to reduce the 28 sacks it allowed in 9 Pac-12 games last year, a number that put the Cougs' near the bottom, but that's not accounting for the insane amount of passes they threw. Bottom line is that it's one area that the coaches don't have to fret about moving forward.
Ultimately, defense is the side of the ball where the Cougars need to sharpen their claws. Coach Leach went to Missouri and stole The Grinch (First-Year D Coordinator Alex) from the Tigers. Early returns suggest some athleticism in a secondary featuring Cornerback Marcellus Pippins. The Cougar run D finished a respectable fifth in conference play, but the pass defense was abysmal, allowing 8.8 yards per attempt and 30 TD's while snaring but one interception in 9 Pac-12 games. Were it not for Cal, the WSU pass D would have been the worst in the conference. That's no place to be in a conference that throws it as well as this one does.
Of course, the much maligned secondary could use some support from the front seven. Washington State finished at 6th in the conference in sacks, so they weren't necessarily leaving the Cougars DB's out to dry on a consistent basis. Two of the Cougars' top three sack leaders return, but the consensus at this point is that there's just not quite enough talent for the high-energy Grinch to make large strides this season. However, if he succeeds in establishing an identity and a system this season, there may be hope that the next $2.4 million headed to Leach produces more W's for the Cougs.
Spring Game: 5/2 Team Pathway (Green) 35, Team Oregon (White) 29
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Offense: 1st
2014 Pac-12 Scoring Defense: 2nd
The Pac-12's Gold (and Green, Yellow, Black, Pink, Grey, etc.) standard closed out conference's Spring Game/Showcase/Salute/Experience slate and let everybody know that at least at this point the path to the Pac-12 Championships still goes over the river and through the woods. Unsurprisingly, Oregon, a team technically in need of a starting quarterback, had an explosive offensive day. The Ducks have a staggering amount of skill talent heading into the fall. They return three of their top four rushers including leaders Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. Freeman averaged 7.7 yards per carry and Tyner went for 9.4 during their brief cameos at Autzen last Saturday (11 carries combined). At receiver they are even more stacked. Oregon returns nine of its top ten receivers, and that's not counting the return of Braylon Addison, who looked fully recovered from his lost 2014 season. Addison had 46 yards rushing, completed three of three passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, and caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
The primary distributor of all that yardage was Jeff Lockie, who earned high praise from Helfrich both for his performance on the field and as a team leader. Lockie went 9-9 for 223 yards and threw for three touchdowns including passes of 50 and 52 yards, one of which was an opening play flea flicker. Many have presumed that Vernon Adams, the free agent pick-up from Eastern Washington, would succeed Hawaiian God of Read Option Quarterbacking Marcus Mariota, but Lockie's showing and experience with the team has made it a clear two-horse race and if the season started today he would obviously be starting. That's a little unfair given Adams hasn't yet participated in a practice as a Duck yet (He graduates in June), but the point is that reports of Lockie's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Two players who appear to be very, very long shots are Morgan Mahalak and Ty Griffin, both of whom had less than stellar showings in the spring game. Oregon has big shoes to fill this fall, but whoever gets the keys is going to have a plethora of weapons to attack opposing defenses.
One issue the Ducks will be dealing with is the departure of the left side of its offensive line plus Senior Center Hroniss Grasu. Left Tackle Jake Fisher's return coincided with the Ducks' flight to the Rose Bowl and beyond last season, so it's possible we could see some early season hiccups on offense given the as yet unresolved QB situation and the replacement of three fifths of the offensive line. A snap from center went over the quarterback's head for a safety, so this is definitely an area of focus for the Ducks heading into summer practice.
Another area of conflict is over the use of All-Everything Talent Charles Nelson, who stood among Oregon's galaxy of athleticism in the spring game. Offensively, he amassed 144 yards and scored two touchdowns, and defensively he had three tackles and an interception, an impressive over-the-shoulder sideline tap dance job that dropped jaws throughout Autzen. The rise of the two (and three) way player is upon us, and as usual Oregon is setting the pace for these versatile weapons with a player who some believe is worthy of a Heisman candidacy. If Nelson manages to keep that trophy in Eugene for a second season, it's hard to imagine the Ducks missing out on multiple postseason return dates.
The Ducks lost some quality defensive players, but help appears on the way up front in the form of DeForest Buckner, who missed all of spring ball due to injury but should be ready by the fall. A name Stanford fans should recognize is also turning heads at the line of scrimmage. Canton Kaumatule, brother of Stanford's Luke, is a five-star D Lineman who many expect to be a heavy contributor this fall.
Oregon falls onto the side of Pac-12 teams headed out of spring with no quarterback, but it's safe to say that no other first-time starter is going to have the talent and support that Oregon's will. Nothing happened in the spring to make anybody believe the Ducks won't be in Santa Clara come December, but let's check back at the end of summer practice.
So as the Conference of Champions looks to build upon a season that saw it supply a national championship game participant, a BCS Bowl participant, a 6-2 record in bowls and a 13-4 mark against its fellow Power 5 Conferences. By far the biggest issue for the conference as a whole is the undefined status of half the conference at the most important position on the field. Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, Utah, Washington, and Washington State all need to make a call on its signal caller before September. That doesn't necessarily mean that those six are in any type of peril at this point. First off, there is legit talent in competition at all these institutions, and by the time the real deal begins, most of these schools will have known for weeks who their starter is. The exception is UCLA, where Coach Mora has suggested that he'd not afraid to go into the season with this issue unresolved. That may have been a move to relieve pressure off his coaches and team, but I'll believe it when I see it. Transition is the hallmark of sustained success, and if the Pac-12 is to remain a true threat to supplant the SEC, it's these kinds of seasons that will tell the tale.
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