A healthy dose of open-ended questions
If there was one major theme connecting Pac-12 teams this spring, it was this: to be determined.
Quarterback competitions? To be determined.
Position battles? To be determined.
Success (or failure) of scheme installations? To be determined.
Spring typically doesn't tell us much. The spring of 2013 told us less than usual. It was the season of tight lips.
Here's what we do know. Everyone felt as though they had a productive spring. Everyone still has a lot to work on before fall. It's the Crash Davis school of public relations.
Was anyone really expecting Oregon State coach Mike Riley to reveal his quarterback decision at last week's spring meetings?
No. (Though we were actually kind of hoping he would.)
Were any Oregon players going to say, "Gosh, Coach Helfrich is great. But we sure do miss Chip Kelly."
Any Cal defenders going to say, "The 4-3 just isn't our kind of football. It might work at other schools, but not ours. Thanks, but no thanks."
Spring is a time when high hopes are matched only by the high content of clichés being spouted.
The Beavers have possibly the most intriguing quarterback competition in the nation because both of the players in the mix -- Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion -- are both past starters with fantastic performances and shaky outings on their résumés. The outcome of their competition is pending.
Colorado is trying to install a pistol offense under new coach Mike MacIntyre while also searching for a quarterback. There were six that entered camp and that number has slimmed down to three -- but only because one quarterback is transferring and another suffered a season-ending injury. How's this for uncertainty: MacIntyre refers to his depth chart as a "pencil chart." Nothing screams unanswered questions like the easily-erasable.
Arizona's QB battle? Heck, Rich Rodriguez said he might start three different guys the first three games of the season.
USC, Washington State, California? All intriguing competitions. All with inconclusive results. At least, so say Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes. No doubt, fans have their own opinions on the matter.
So how are we to interpret this? One way is to praise the coaches for not jumping to decisions and giving the competitions their due diligence. Let it play out through fall camp and may the best man win. That's probably the case with a couple of them. But it could also speak to the fact that no viable candidate has truly emerged yet as the go-to guy. That's not particularly worrisome in May. But if there is still uncertainty in late August, then that's a problem.
Because the obvious truth is that we won't know until the season kicks off how much teams have really improved. Washington State's offense put up monster numbers in the spring and fall scrimmages last year, but petered in Week 1 against BYU. The Arizona schools were in full transition mode and ended up winning bowl games. And we know how USC's season failed to match its spring/fall perception.
"To be determined" isn't exactly what fans want to hear when they are starving for news about their team. But it beats the alternative -- sucking down sugar-coated news only to find it leaves you stuffed with empty calories.
What we learned this spring
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears' gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
Best of the Pac-12
Best spring game performance: USC WR Marqise Lee made like, well, Marqise Lee in the Trojans spring game, hauling in eight passes for 148 yards with touchdowns of 70 yards -- first play of the game, in fact -- 5 and 30 yards. The 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner looked a lot like, well, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner.
Best spring game performance II: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota looked like a budding Heisman Trophy candidate, despite lasting just four drives. He scored TDs on three of them, completing 13 of 15 passes for 169 yards with a pair of scoring tosses to Josh Huff.
Ready for their close-up: Arizona DE Kyle Kelley, Arizona State OT Jamil Douglas, California DE Brennan Scarlett, Colorado WR Paul Richardson, Oregon WR Bralon Addison, Oregon State TE Connor Hamlett, Stanford OT Andrus Peat, UCLA WR Devin Lucien, USC WR Nelson Agholor, Utah OT Jeremiah Poutasi, Washington LB Shaq Thompson and Washington State WR Gabe Marks.
Worst imitation of the team it will be this fall: Stanford passed 62 times and ran only 36 times in its spring game, generating 377 of its 484 total yards through the air. While Stanford had a returning starter at QB in Kevin Hogan and a much-improved cast of receivers, the Cardinal are most certainly going to be a run-first, smashmouth team this fall.
Most interesting coaching change: Kyle Whittingham hired Dennis Erickson to be co-offensive coordinator with Brian Johnson. Erickson has been the head coach of six college programs -- including three in the Pac-12 -- and two NFL teams since he was last an offensive coordinator in 1981. Whittingham said the transition was "seamless" this spring. Of course, the measure of things will be the Utes' offensive fortunes this fall.
Worst injury: Arizona receiver Austin Hill, who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last fall after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards with 11 TDs as a sophomore last fall, blew out his knee the last week of spring practices. It's unclear whether he will be able to play this fall.
Best chance to join Pac-12 blog's All-Interview team: Some quotes from Colorado WR Paul Richardson from a 15-minute interview:
• "I expect nothing less than for people to sell us short or pick us to finish last. I even joked before in another interview that if there was a spot below last they'd pick us there as well. But you never know what will happen in the Pac-12."
• "I don't think Coach MacIntyre is in a bad position at all. I think he was given an opportunity to move up to this coaching job at a really good time. We're going to have some key players back and our young guys are going to have experience. To me, he came at a perfect time."
• "I was very upset to say the least [at coach Jon Embree's firing]. It was very surprising. I had a really good relationship with Coach Embree. It caught us all off guard. Some of us were pretty bitter."
• "I think we'll be .500 or above. The best thing I can say is don't sleep on Colorado football. We're a work in progress, but it is progressing over here."
Best new spring tradition: New California coach Sonny Dykes opened practices for Bears fans and media. While the national trend is to close off access, Dykes understands he risks nothing while helping generate buzz for his team.
Best (fairly) new spring tradition: For the fourth consecutive year, Oregon used its spring game to honor those serving in the U.S. military, a tradition started by Chip Kelly after he toured Iraq with several other football coaches. Nike again created a custom-designed uniform and, following the scrimmage, Oregon players presented their jerseys to approximately 100 uniformed men and women representing all branches of the military.
Best meta-coachspeak: Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez on his unresolved quarterback competition: "The typical coach will tell you he doesn't know, but he really does and just won't say anything until the fall. But I truly don't know." Hmm. Is Rodriguez simply telling us we know he knows but he knows he's not going to tell us he knows and we should know that?
Best position change: USC's Morgan Breslin went from an undersized defensive end to a well-proportioned outside linebacker in the Trojans' new 3-4 look, and he dominated the spring game with 3.5 sacks.
Oregon: Good news, bad news old news, new news? On April 16, we learned that Oregon and the NCAA agreed that the football program committed major violations in connection to the Willie Lyles case. The problem with that report was it was based on documents that were months old, in large part because Oregon delights in stalling on media Freedom of Information requests. Then, on April 24, we learned that Oregon and coach Chip Kelly had already appeared before the NCAA's committee on infractions, which means we could finally -- finally! -- have a resolution on L'Affair de Willie Lyles in advance of the football season. Of course, if Oregon is unhappy with sanctions, it can always appeal, which could drag things out past the New Year.
Best bounce back, backup QB division: A year ago, Mike Bercovici was the front-runner to start at quarterback for Arizona State, but he did a reverse Taylor Kelly. Kelly jumped from No. 3 to No. 1 in the fall of 2012, while Bercovici fell to No. 3 behind Kelly and Michael Eubank. But instead of transferring, Bercovici decided to return and posted a very strong spring. He's not going to unseat Kelly but he might become the backup ahead of Eubank.
Best increased verbiage: Stanford does things its own way. It doesn't have a head football coach, it has a Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. Last May, it decided its offensive coordinator was actually the Andrew Luck Director of Offense. This spring, defensive coordinator Derek Mason became the Willie Shaw Directorship of Defense. The Pac-12 blog believes it should be endowed as the "West Coast Distributors of Awesome."
Worst spring decision: Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, an All-American candidate, was cited for suspicion of driving under the influence in early March. It remains unclear whether he will be suspended for the season opener against Boise State in renovated Husky Stadium.
Best "To be continued in the fall ": Arizona quarterbacks, Arizona State receivers, Oregon linebackers, Oregon State defensive tackles, UCLA defensive backs, USC quarterbacks and Utah defensive backs.
Best honest quote: UCLA QB Brett Hundley explaining one of the reasons he bulked up during the offseason: "After 52 sacks, no one is going to feel good."
Worst moment that turned out OK: Motivation comes from all directions, but we'll let Washington State QB Connor Halliday describe how the Cougars turned a poor spring practice into a good one: "Coach [Mike] Leach was yelling at me that they were dropping balls and then the strength coach came up and said something to me. So it was boiling over and boiling over. This one kid had dropped like five balls. I kind of got in his face and he shoved me. So I took his helmet off and kind of started punching him. We had a great practice after that so it kind of did its job."
Best confidence: Oregon State RB Storm Woods was asked to fill in the blank on this statement: "In 2013, Oregon State football will be " His response? "Among the top-five in the nation."
Players to watch
Post-spring power rankings
1. Stanford: The Cardinal have no obvious holes. Unlike last year, Stanford is set at quarterback, and the defense looks as if it will be even better in 2013. It's always nice to have the nation's most talented offensive line.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at QB, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including QB Brett Hundley and OLB Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the O-line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether QB Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the O-line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at QB, and the Beavers are counting on JC transfers to fill their two voids at DT. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast and there are questions at QB and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing QB Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' QB play will be as good as it was last year, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for RB Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there's no escaping WR Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of QB Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good QB play in 2012? What if RB Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the O-line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There's every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012 mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last year, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
Arizona: Unlike with some other teams with quarterback competitions, Rich Rodriguez doesn't want to name his starter and then stand by his man. For more on the Wildcats, click here.
California: New coach Sonny Dykes brought big changes. For more on the Bears, click here.
Colorado: Colorado has an entirely new coaching staff for the first time since 1979. For more on the Buffaloes, click here.
Oregon: After the initial weirdness -- new coach Mark Helfrich's term -- the post-Chip Kelly era was mostly business as usual. For more on the Ducks, click here.
Stanford: To say that Stanford coaches are giddy about their offensive line's potential might undersell it. For more on the Cardinal, click here.
UCLA: The coaches were extremely pleased with the production of the wide receiver corps this spring. For more on the Bruins, click here.
USC: The Trojans took advantage of the early enrollee signing period by bringing in seven freshmen to take part in the spring session. For more on the Trojans, click here.
Utah: The addition of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson has given an identity on offense that they were sorely missing last season. For more on the Utes, click here.
Washington: Many believe this is the best team Steve Sarkisian has had since coming to Washington. For more on the Huskies, click here.
Washington State: There is breakthrough potential at receiver as five of the top six receivers from 2012 are back. For more on the Cougars, click here.