What to watch in Pac-12 South this spring

Here's a look at the new Pac-12 South division as we head into spring practices.


Spring practice starts: March 21

Spring game: April 16

What to watch:

  • Rebuild the line: The Wildcats must replace all five starters from the 2010 line, including a pair of stalwarts, center Colin Baxter and tackle Adam Grant. There is, however, good-bad news and good-good news. The good-bad news is the veteran line underachieved last year. Both run and pass blocking were surprisingly mediocre. So rebuilding isn't a tragedy. The good-good news is more than a few observers believe the next generation, while lacking experience, is more physically gifted than the 2010 unit. Further, the presence of notoriously demanding Robert Anae, the new running game coordinator, should stir things up this spring. Junior center Kyle Quinn, who started for the injured Baxter in Alamo Bowl, redshirt freshman tackles Mickey Baucus, Fabbians Ebbele and Trent Spurgeon and guards Chris Putton, Trace Biskin and Eric Bender-Ramsay -- all sophomores -- are some of the names you'll read this spring, as well as JC transfer Addison Bachman, redshirt freshman Carter Lees and junior Shane Zink.

  • Find some pass rushers: The Wildcats had the best troika of ends in the Pac-10 last fall in Brooks Reed, Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed, and all three are off to the NFL. The combination of inexperience at end and nice talent at tackle (recall tackle was the question in 2010 while end was a strength) means there might be some scheme tinkering this fall, as in, one of the more athletic tackles might move outside to become a big, strong side end. Senior Muhammed Usman will get a shot, and redshirt freshman Dan Pettinato and senior C.J. Parish are also a possibilities. JC transfer Lamar de Rego arrives in the fall.

  • Secondary issues: The Wildcats probably feel good about their secondary because it figures to be a hot spot of competition this spring, and it's possible young players could unseat established starters. Both starting safeties from 2010 need to be replaced, but Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson also should push returning starters Trevin Wade and Robert Golden at cornerback. There's some flexibility with Golden, who played safety in 2009, and Adam Hall and Marquis Flowers are two big, physical safeties, while Josh Robbins also is in the mix.

Arizona State

Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:

  • There's safety in depth: Both projected starting safeties, Eddie Elder and Keelan Johnson, will sit out spring due to injuries, which means the gaggle of players behind them can battle for position in the pecking order. Depth everywhere, in fact, is the single biggest issue with the Sun Devils this spring. With 19 starters back, not many jobs are open. But opportunities for playing time are.

  • Just for kicks: With the departure of kicker Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins, one area where the Sun Devils will be completely new in 2011 is the kicking game. Junior college All-American Josh Hubner was brought in to win the punting job, while redshirted freshman Alex Garoutte is likely to take over at kicker. While big things are expected out of both, neither has been tested in a pressure situation, which coaches figure to try and create this spring.

  • Will Brock Osweiler assert himself? This might be the single most important question this spring. While Steven Threet is officially the returning starter, Osweiler's late-season performance -- recall he lost a close competition with Threet last fall -- was outstanding. Most project him as emerging as the guy in 2011. And that's good because Threet is dealing with concussion issues that might keep him out of spring, or even longer. Osweiler needs to make a statement. Redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly and true freshman Mike Bercovici will be around to push him.


Spring practice starts: March 11

Spring game: April 9

What to watch:

  • Hello, my name is: Other than longtime Buffaloes assistant Brian Cabral, head coach Jon Embree and his staff are entirely new. They don't know the players, and the players don't know them. That "getting to know you" period typically involves building up and breaking down -- some carrot and a lot of stick. Embree and his coaches surely will want to see what their players can do, and they also might try to weed out the weak links. On the more practical side, new schemes on both sides of the ball as well as basic practice procedures and expectations will be introduced. By the end of spring, Embree will want to know what he's got, and he'll want his players to know him and his staff.

  • Stop the passing fancy: Colorado ranked 112th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense in 2010 and would have ranked last in the old Pac-10. But here's the punchline: Both departed cornerbacks, Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, are top NFL prospects. Go figure. As it is, the Buffaloes need to find some answers in the back half. Having poor pass defense is not a good thing in the Pac-12.

  • Paging Tyler Hansen: Hansen, a senior, seems like the overwhelming frontrunner for the starting job at quarterback, but he's coming back from a ruptured spleen that ended his 2010 season and, well, there's new coaches and a new scheme. Just like everyone else, he'll need to prove himself as a performer and as a leader. His competition includes JC transfer Brent Burnette and redshirt freshman Nick Hirschman.


Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:

  • Getting coordinated:Both coordinators are new. Norm Chow is out on offense; Mike Johnson is in. Chuck Bullough is out on defense; Joe Tresey is in. That means new styles of coaching as well as schemes. That means coaches trying to get to know players personalities as well as skills, and players trying to figure out a coaches quirks and likes and dislikes. Both will test each other. The chief task this spring -- above all else -- is getting coaches and players on the proverbial same page. After a tumultuous offseason that mostly invited media ridicule -- fair or unfair -- players need to walk away from spring practices believing effective leadership is in place under coach Rick Neuheisel.

  • Quarterback? 'Nuff said: The Bruins haven't had much success at quarterback since Rick Neuheisel was hired in 2008. It's imperative, if Neuheisel is to continue coaching the program into 2012, that the Bruins find answers at that position this season. First question, how much can Kevin Prince do on his rehabilitated knee? Second question, is any other returning quarterback, including Richard Brehaut, capable of making an impression as a potential starter? Brehaut isn't helping his case by playing baseball. And, perhaps the most important question: Is touted true freshman Brett Hundley ready? He's the future, but is he the present? The Bruins had one of the worst passing offenses in the country in 2010. That has to change if 2011 is going to feature more than four wins.

  • Get tougher on D: The Bruins were soft on defense in 2010, ranking ninth in the conference in run defense, producing just 25 sacks (eighth) and forcing just 18 turnovers (ninth). They didn't make plays and they got knocked off the ball. That has to change under Tresey, who inherited some promising young talent that needs to gain a little edge.


Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:

  • The eight newbies: USC wanted to sign as many early enrollees as possible -- they count against the 2010 recruiting class -- not only to do an end-around on NCAA sanctions but also to increase the number of bodies this spring. The early entrants play a variety of positions -- line, QB, kicker, long snapper, etc. -- and come in with a variety of pedigrees -- the two QBs are elite recruits who, nonetheless, likely will redshirt; the linemen are less touted. So, how many of the eight rookies are any good? Who can help next fall? That's a big question. Some, such as kicker Andre Heidari might even begin spring at No. 1 on the depth chart.

  • O-line issues: Even with the early entrants, the Trojans are thin on the offensive line. Not only are just two starters back -- tackle Matt Kalil and guard-center Khaled Holmes -- only eight scholarship linemen will be available this spring. That means the second unit consists of just three guys. Not good. Still, the guys who are around have a chance to push their way up the pecking order. In the fall, a number of touted youngsters arrive who could challenge immediately for starting jobs.

  • Getting defensive: Monte Kiffin is one of the best defensive coordinators who ever lived, but that didn't stop the USC defense from being mostly bad last year. It seemed like there was adequate talent but decidedly inconsistent execution. That falls on both Kiffin and the players. There was some attrition at tackle -- Jurell Casey to the NFL a year early; Hebron Fangupo transfering to BYU -- and the Trojans need a new corner, but there's plenty of talent and experience back. The first question might be where do linebackers Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard play? One figures to land inside, the other on the outside.


Spring practice starts: March 8

Spring game: April 16

What to watch:

  • Gotta run: Utah must replace its top two rushers, Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, and it also lost its No. 3 guy Sausan Shakerin to recurrent concussions. The good news is the signing class included three good ones, and two will participate in spring practices: Harvey Langi and John White IV. Both need to learn the offense and a pecking order needs to be established. Toss in new coordinator Norm Chow's more pro-style approach to offense -- versus the spread Utah has mostly used in recent years -- and there will be some tinkering with the running game this fall.

  • Rebuilding the secondary: The Utes knew they were going to lose a safety, cornerback and nickelback, but when cornerback Brandon Burton opted to enter the NFL draft and strong safety Brian Blechen was moved to linebacker, the secondary was left with no returning starters. Athletically gifted senior Conroy Black and junior Reggie Topps should be in the mix at cornerback, while senior Greg Bird and sophomore Quade Chappuis were the backups at safety in 2010. But there's a clear path for some younger players to make moves for playing time, too.

  • With Wynn watching: QB depth: While it's not good that starting QB Jordan Wynn is sitting out spring practices while recovering from shoulder surgery, the depth behind him is devoid of quality experience, so they will get plenty of quality reps. Behind Wynn is a sophomore Griff Robles, who's seen some limited action, and true freshman Tyler Shreve, an incoming grayshirt. Considering that you never really know with shoulder injuries, getting Robles and Shreve up to speed is important.