The message this year was different on the Pac-12 Coaches Spring Conference Call this week. No talk from Arizona State’s Todd Graham about “national championships not just Pac-12 championships.”
No national title thoughts from Stanford or Oregon. They’re just building on what they hope are years among the elite to carry them through an upcoming season maybe less certain than the recent past.
From the other end, Colorado can only hope that this is the year they get it going in the right direction at last. And Oregon State? Tell people Corvallis is a really cool college town, Gary Andersen says.
Here’s the way that’s going for the Pac-11 coaches who joined Clay Helton’s upbeat assessment after his first Trojans’ spring as USC head coach that we discussed Tuesday.
To be honest, no one was more positive than Clay on the call – and maybe none with more reason. Everybody has issues, it’s clear. Not sure a new-look USC with more tested depth and experience than at any time in the last five seasons, doesn’t have fewer than anyone, if you listen to the coaches.
So here we go, program by program coach by coach:
STANFORD’S David Shaw: The NFL Draft, the quarterback competition, rebuilding an offensive line and keeping that attitude that has sustained the Cardinal were the talk here. Start with the words Shaw used to describe graduated linebacker Blake Martinez as a “tough, tough customer.” And typical of what the Stanford program has become and why it’s a model for everyone, USC as much as anybody. Toughness matters.
Which gets us to how Stanford can keep it going without its four-year quarterback, its best defender and almost all of its offensive line. How does it get back to where it was at the end of last season, tough and loose and having fun.
”We’re not there as yet,” Shaw said. “We’re not taking anything for granted . . . there are a lot of spots to compete for . . . it has to happen organically . . . it can’t be forced, it can’t be frivolous . . . and it can’t come before you’re playing well.”
But they have a brand to live up to now. Recruits, Shaw said, “have no memory of Stanford as anything but one of the better teams [in the country] . . . that catches people’s eyes . . . we still have a lot of work to do.”
That work starts with finding a quarterback from Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns of whom all Shaw is asking is that they “operate the machine, get us in and out of the huddle, get the snap count and the protection right . . . both have done well but need to get quicker, operate faster, get to game-tempo . . . and if it’s neck and neck, both guys could play early in the year.”
No deadline set but we’re guessing by Game 3, they’ll have one. Same for an offensive line that centers on Jesse Burkett, a backup guard going into last year, who has done well. But looking for help in the fall from incoming freshmen to fill in after the first five or six.
UTAH’S KYLE WHITTINGHAM: The Utes’ impressive defense in recent seasons is starting over with a search for three starting linebackers. “A pair and a spare,” Whittingham said, noting that his team played its customary 4-3 just a sixth of the time last season in favor of “a 4-2-nickel” that the wide-open Pac-12 offenses require. “It won’t be until fall when we solidify it,” he said.
And as a coach in not a prospect-rich state, he made an impassioned plea for satellite camps and the players who can’t afford to fly all over the country to be seen. “The players should come first,” he said.
As to his own players, he has a three-way quarterback race led by the impressively athletic Florida prospect Tyler Huntley and UW transfer Troy Williams by way of Santa Monica CC and Narbonne. Said Huntley’s escapability is impressive for a young man who should still be in high school and that Williams, who was leading until suffering a throwing injury in the eighth practice. The three, with holdover backup Brandon Cox, will start all over again in the fall.
ARIZONA’S RICH RODRIGUEZ: The talk from Tucson was mostly of Scooby Wright’s draft prospects, satellite camps and starting over in the spring – and one early-entry recruit, Serra’s Khalil Tate, who will remain at quarterback but whose redshirt status for the fall has yet to be determined.
Not much talk of players or spring schemes. “Some,” RichRod said. “But mostly fundamentals, not a lot of team practice . . . the installation plan will come the first day of August practice.”
As to the undersized and overachieving Wright, who tore up his knee and left early for the NFL, he said: “Wherever he goes, he’ll make a roster and be a starter and they’ll get a lot of value.”
Said he didn’t want to comment on the kerfuffle between Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and UCLA AD Dan Guerrero on the SEC-pushed vote to ban satellite camps that went against an 11-1 Pac-12 advisory to continue them. But he had plenty to say of the way it all went down from a national point of view.
”Here we go again,” he said of the SEC getting its way with the sudden ban. “A rule is passed . . . no input from the coaches . . . seems to come up every year . . . we need to get that taken care of.”
CAL’S SONNY DYKES: Mostly talk about the departing Jared Goff and why Dykes thinks his quarterback will be the No. 1 pick in this week’s NFL Draft. “He checks all the boxes . . . size, strength, athleticism, arm strength, can make different kinds of throws, great feet creating passing lanes, work ethic and character . . . all the things it takes to be the face of a franchise.”
This year’s Cal team won’t have a Goff so the “air-raid” Bears will look a bit different, Dykes said. But if it were, the “air-raid” that the New England Patriots use with Tom Brady and the Indianapolis Colts did with Payton Manning isn’t the worst way to go.
And instead of “down-the-field receivers,” they’ve got a group of “catch-and-run” guys now. But what Cal will have this year is “size, strength and athleticism on the offensive line,” Dykes said, something they haven’t had. “We’ll be able to run the ball when people know we’re running it, to knock people off the line of scrimmage. That’s important.”
OREGON’S MARK HELFRICH: Another coach with a three-way quarterback competition that won’t be decided no matter what happens in Saturday’s spring game that will be played as a game – with another graduate transfer -- Montana State’s Dakota Prukop -- in the mix followng in the footsteps of Vernon Adams in 2015.
Not that that’s a bad thing, Helfrich says although any player coming after Marcus Mariota and Adams has “an intentionally high standard here . . . we’re pushing them as much as possible,” while noting that the quarterbacks are attempting to “handle the pressure” even if they’re “two clicks behind. We’re looking for full-speed decisions with good intentions,” and that despite some hesitation this spring, Prukop has “played more football than the other guys.”
One decision that Helfrich said is working well is the hiring of former Michigan coach Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator. “It’s been great,” Helfrich said. “Of course we’re undefeated. He brings a great balance” as a players coach and a fundamentals teacher. “Having a former head coach has a lot more pros than cons . . . for a lot of things on and off the field . . . nothing but a blessing.”
UCLA’S JIM MORA: He’s talking NFL Draft, position-switching wide receiver Ishmael Adams and Josh Rosen but mostly how the Bruins must have been doing some good things to lose six players early to the draft. “A new phenomenon,” Mora said, “six guys three years and out. That says we’re recruiting some really good players . . . it’s exciting for the program, exciting for us . . . it says a lot about the quality of the players we’re recruiting – and the coaching.”
Of the fifth-year Adams, who has had the ball in his hands as a punt and kick returner and DB, he’ll now get the chance as a wide receiver. “He’s electric with the ball in his hands,” Mora said. “He’s really developed as a route-runner. He’s been here five years and really understands our system . . . he has a hunger to be great.” Although there is this. He could be back at DB, Mora said: “If needed.”
Talked about how well Rosen did as a freshman succeeding in a big media market at quarterback. And defended college offenses from the criticism they’re getting from NFL sources. Said that criticism is “not coming from the decision makers” in the league and that as a former NFL coach, you don’t look at the systems, you look at the player – “his size, speed and strength.”
WASHINGTON'S CHRIS PETERSEN: More quarterback and NFL Draft talk here. Not much about the Huskies. Just a few questions in a session that didn’t last the full 10 minutes. Petersen noted how Jake Browning playing as a freshman is a good example of how much better prepared quarterbacks are coming out of high school now . . . more advanced . . . stronger . . . but not ideal and something you hope you don’t have to do but with the depth issues in college, sometimes you do . . . “Jake will tell you that,” he said.
And after four picks in the top 44 in 2015, Peterson says that in this year’s prospects “we have some guys under the radar.”
ARIZONA STATE’S TODD GRAHAM: Another coach with a three-way quarterback race but in this case, “all three have been very, very impressive,” Graham says. And all three will allow ASU to go back to its RPA [run-play-action] roots the way they played with Taylor Kelly. “All three had great springs,” he says of Manny Wilkins, Brady White and Bryce Perkins. “All three run and throw – but they’re very different.”
And more than one could play as Graham joined Shaw saying maybe he could go with multiple quarterbacks. “It’s possible we’ll use a couple of guys . . . I know you can only have one starter . . . it’ll probably clear up after a couple of weeks in the fall.”
Graham also talked of what exactly happened last year, when ASU lost five games late although not the 42-14 rout to the Trojans. The difference? After three seasons as the nation’s No. 2 team in turnover ratio, the Sun Devils were second-to-last in 2015. “Our guys have a chip on their shoulder,” he said. But four new offensive linemen who will have to be coached up although they should be more physical.
But with a new quarterback, ASU has an experienced, talented corps of wide receivers and tight ends. The big plus for his team, he says, is that his staff is going into its fifth year in Tempe and with 34 wins the past four years has the best run since the 1970s and now expect “a seamless transition” from year to year.
OREGON STATE’S GARY ANDERSEN: The Beavers’ coach, trying to escape the Pac-12 cellar in his second year after coming over from Wisconsin, opened with a Prince reference: “We’re not going to party like it’s 1999,” he said of the football scene in Corvallis. But he did make the case for OSU’s national recruiting that only Corvallis and Pullman are “college towns” in the Pac-12. “We think we can,” he said. “We’re spreading the word that there’s a major transformation going on here.”
But is that enough to change the culture? “We have to . . . we have to have high expectations . . . there’s not a script . . . being good [in the Pac-12] is not really good enough.”
WASHINGTON STATE'S MIKE LEACH: The Pullman Poet talked mostly about satellite camps and the unseemly way the SEC got the NCAA to kill them – for the time being at least.
Said he couldn’t understand how a Pac-12 that was 11-1 in favor of extending the camps ended up voting against them. “I can’t fathom anyone being against them,” he said of the opportunities the camps provide players. Asked if he would have a satellite camp, he said “it would be in Southern California.” Then he wanted people to know “that we do have nonstop flights up here.” But that not all prospects can afford them. So anything to give them other opportunities closer to their home just makes sense.
Will there be a reversal, maybe even this week, of the camp ban that Leach said were allowed for the past 10 years? “That’s my hope,” Leach said. The whole process was a “behind-the-scenes” strike where “whole coaching staffs didn’t even know about it,” he said of the SEC-led move that had “three conferences voting against their best interests.”
COLORADO’S MIKE MACINTYRE: The return of Josh Tupou is good news for the Buffs. But will they get their quarterback transfer? That’s the question.
Of Tupou, Macintyre says: “He’s a pro nose guard, 325 pounds and 6-foot-4 . . . he can bend and move and a real key for our defense.”
That’s the upbeat story for a program that badly needs to break out with 21 seniors and 22 juniors on scholarship. This has to be their year. “Our guys are hungry, they’ve been in the heat of the battle,” Macintyre said. Now they have to win those battles after going 10-27 the three years he’s been in Boulder.
But that improvement needs a quarterback and with Liufau Sefo doubtful with a left foot fracture, all eyes are on Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb, who has signed a grant-in-aid with Colorado and to whom Macintyre talks every day, he says. But NCAA rules allow other schools to recruit Webb and Cal, needing someone to replace Goff, has been hot on his trail among others.
”He says he’s coming to Colorado,” Macintyre says. “I don’t agree with the rule but I do believe he’ll be here next season.”
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