Jacob Eason talks after spring practice
We’re in the month of May, which means that spring football is over and the real thing is still a ways away.
So while we await Pac-12 media days and fall camps in August —and try to forget some of the conference’s woes, most notably its drop in revenue — here’s a look at the storylines emerging for each of the 12 Pac-12 teams.
Washington: Reloading the secondary and “Eason Mania”
The skinny: The Huskies had two things that were the talk of spring ball, the official beginning of the Jacob Eason era and how was Jimmy Lake going rebuild / reload in the secondary. It looks like both of those have been fixed. While Eason’s spring preview numbers are underwhelming — he was 7 of 12 for 42 yards and one touchdown — it’s hard to imagine he’s not going to be the No. 1 QB. On defense, Lake looks to have some more potential NFL candidates at UW. Keith Taylor had a standout spring with seven interceptions, safety Cameron Williams enrolled early and started the spring game.
Biggest spring surprise is: Newcomers on the defense.
Freshman linebacker Josh Calvert collected seven tackles in the spring game but he wasn’t the only newcomer who had a big day. The redshirt freshman duo of MJ Tafisi and Edefuan Ulofoshio each had seven tackles as well. Going into a brutal Pac-12 North is going to be tough so you need young players who help build up depth, which is what the Huskies appear to have.
Washington State: There will be a QB in Pullman, but who?
The skinny: We know Washington State is going to put up a lot of points and throw the ball an obscene amount of times. The only question is who is throwing the ball. There are other concerns like the running back spot thanks to the departure of James Williams. The defense, under defensive coordinator Tracy Clays will be improved. Mike Leach with more questions on offense than defense? Weird.
Biggest position battle that will linger into fall: Quarterback. The battle to replace Gardner Minshew was put on hold with Eastern-transfer Gabe Gubrud having foot surgery just before spring ball began. Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon took the snaps but it is likely that all three will battle it out in the fall.
Colorado: New coach, defensive mindset coming?
The skinny: It’s now Mel Tucker’s challenge to turn the Buffaloes into contenders. One of the things Tucker wants to do is hold teams to under 13 points per game; in today’s college football that might seem overly ambitious. In the Buffaloes spring game, it was the offense who shined, so we’re not sure what that says about Tucker’s plan.
Breakout star: Sophomore wide receiver Daniel Arias caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Pair him with the talented Laviska Shenault Jr. and you have a potentially dangerous combination in Boulder.
Stanford: Replacing impact players on offense
The skinny: Stanford’s 2018 season started out rough but finished with four wins in a row, including a victory in the Sun Bowl over Pitt. K.J. Costello returns and is a sleeper Heisman candidate. However, he will need some help if the Cardinal want to contend in the Pac-12 North.
Biggest question: Who replaces running back Bryce Love and receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside? Love is now with the Washington Redskins after being picked in the 2019 NFL Draft. Stanford’s biggest task, aside from battling injuries during the spring is finding his replacement. The running back spot is still in question but Costello and the Cardinal may have found the deep ball threat with Osiris St. Brown. Last season, St. Brown had four catches for more than 45 yards.
Oregon: New DC, new weapons emerging for Herbert?
The skinny: Oregon is probably going to be the odds on favorite to win the Pac-12 once the preseason polls and magazines come out this summer. However, the Ducks will be working with a new defensive coordinator as Jim Leavitt’s rocky relationship with head coach Mario Cristobal came to an end. The new DC is Andy Avalos, a young and smart DC who spent time at Boise State the last few seasons. The two relatively young coaches should be able to coexist much better than Mario and Jim did.
Watch out for: Young wide receivers Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado. Pittman had seven catches in the spring game. The No. 1 receiver spot may be up for grabs as Dillon Mitchell left for the NFL. Oregon’s offense will also be bolstered by Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson, making the Pac-12 North race very interesting.
Oregon State: QB battle shaping up
The skinny: Oregon State’s 2018 was one to forget, much like 2017, 2016 and so on. Head coach Jonathan Smith’s reclamation project is still very far from being complete. One thing that would help in 2019 is a consistent starting QB.
Biggest position battle that will linger into fall: Quarterback. Surprise, surprise. Going into his sixth season, Jake Luton has been in a QB competition in all six seasons he’s been playing so it’s nothing new. His key competitor going into fall camps is the Nebraska transfer, Tristian Gebbia. In the OSU spring game, Luton was 6 of 9 for 94 yards and Gebbia was 7 of 14 for 67 yards. The battle resumes in August.
Cal: Offensive woes solved?
The skinny: Cal’s offense struggled last season and that might be putting it nicely. The Golden Bears were 111th overall in offensive efficiency and if you saw the Cheez-It Bowl, you know what I mean. Help may be on the way for Cal, during the spring a leader emerged to help their struggling offense.
Breakout spring star: Alex Lethedra. The Bears have a strong stable of running backs that will help take the pressure off of the QBs. If you had to nail down a player to pick a guy to keep an eye on, it is Lethedra. In the spring game, he carried the ball 12 times for 76 yards and had a 29-yard scamper, the longest of the day.
UCLA: Chip Kelly, defense first?
The skinny: Chip Kelly’s return to college wasn’t as grand as he, or the university, had hoped for. Luckily, it was just year one. An ugly 3-9 finish put them in fifth place in the Pac-12 South.
UCLA’s biggest strength is: Defense. Yes, a Kelly-run team’s biggest strength is its defense. The Bruins return Keisean Lucier-South, Lokeni Toailoa, and Osa Odighizuwa. All three combined for 10 sacks last season and the secondary is loaded with Elijah Gates, Quintin Lake, Stephan Blaylock and Jay Shaw. If the Bruins want to be back in a bowl game, it’s going to be the defense that carries them.
USC: Pressure is on the Trojans (as always)
The skinny: The Trojans were and underwhelming 5-7 last season. Since taking over the Trojans in 2015, head coach Clay Helton is 31-17, which isn’t bad but this is USC and the expectations are greater. The underachieving Trojans made matters worse as AD Lynn Swann doubled down on his commitment to Helton shortly after the 2018 season ended. With that commitment comes some help in the form of new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell after the botched Kliff Kingsbury affair.
Biggest question for USC: Can JT Daniels lock down the starting spot? If you watched the Trojans at any time last season, you saw just how good the young QB is. At the same time, if you also saw just how shaky play calling also hindered his growth. If Daniels and new OC Harrell can get on the same page, then the Trojans have a real chance of winning the Pac-12 South.
Utah: New look offense for team to watch in 2019
The skinny: Utah did a lot of good things last season. They exceeded expectations, battled through a ton of injuries and got over their noted November struggles. That makes them an early favorite in the Pac-12 South.
What to watch for: New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is no stranger to the Utes program. 10 years ago, he was on the sidelines as the OC and QB coach. Utah’s offense was one of the best in the nation and ended up winning a Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama. Now beating Alabama is very unlikely now but reaching a New Year’s Six game with Ludwig and dual-threat QB Tyler Huntley? It’s very possible.
Arizona: Veteran core returns to finish job
The skinny: Arizona’s 2018 was a strange one. Kevin Sumlin arrived relatively late after Rich Rodriguez’s exit in January. Couple that with the drop off in play from QB Khalil Tate and you have a 5-7 finish that saw the Wildcats go 2-4 in the season’s final six games.
Reason to remain hopeful: Tate’s return to Arizona is a boon to the Arizona offense. He, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Sumlin have now had a full year to work together .... so the dynamic, breakout offense we expected a year ago in Tucson may be showing up this fall.
Arizona State: The real test for Herm Edwards
The skinny: Raise your hand if you saw Arizona State being a contender in the Pac-12 South at the beginning of 2018? That’s what I thought. Yes, the Herm Edwards-led Sun Devils surprised with a consistent and balanced approach that had ASU in position to win the Pac-12 South deep into November.
The unsolved question entering fall: Will there be some separation entering this fall at the QB spot? Coaches say this all the time, “if you have two quarterbacks then you have none.” Edwards is in that spot entering fall camps as neither Dillion Sterling-Cole or incoming freshman Jayden Daniels emerged as the replacement for the graduated Manny Wilkins. For Edwards sake, you just hope this isn’t a conversation that lingers into September or even later.