Pac-12 spring preview: North Division

It's been difficult for you, hasn't it? First, the college football season has the audacity to end, then national signing day slips by, leaving you with ... what? A whole lot of nothing.

Almost makes you thankful for Davonte' Neal's ludicrous recruiting saga.

But the Pac-12 blog has decided to help. Colleague Kevin Gemmell and I have invented something we're going to call "spring football"! (I wanted to call it "super awesome offseason football" but he insisted on "spring.")

Wait ... it already exists. Well, that's OK, too.

Stanford will be first out of the gate, with spring practices beginning Monday. Things will be cracking until late April.

Here's a look at the major storylines, starting with the North Division.


Starts: March 13

Ends: April 21 (no spring game)

What to watch:

  • Maynard the man? quarterback Zach Maynard started fast in 2011, hit a midseason lull of mediocre-to-poor play then surged late before playing badly in the Holiday Bowl against Texas. He finished the season ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with 12 interceptions to go with 17 touchdowns. He needs to show this spring that he's ready to be a consistent and reliable passer and the leader of an offense that looks like it will be extremely young at receiver. If he doesn't assert himself, he may find himself challenged for the starting job.

  • Youth steps up on D: The defense loses both starting ends, both inside linebackers in its 3-4 scheme and both starting safeties. The Bears' recruiting on defense has been outstanding of late, but now it's time to live up to recruiting hype. So will Avery Walls and Michael Coley step up at safety, and will Mustafa Jalil and Brennan Scarlett step up at the ends? The biggest challenge, however, figures to be replacing Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt at linebacker. Some players might move around this spring as the Bears find their best four linebackers.

  • Good to receive: While the return of Keenan Allen at receiver is a good start, after him experience at the position is virtually nonexistent. Cal's next three leading receivers last season are all gone. Redshirt freshman Maurice Harris is promising, but after that it appears at least a couple of the four incoming freshmen receivers could be called to immediate action. And what about tight end? Will the Bears get more production from that position in 2012?


Starts: April 3

Spring game: April 28

What to watch:

  • Replacing Darron: It took most off guard when quarterback Darron Thomas opted to enter the NFL draft. Instead of a three-year starter, the Ducks have a quarterback competition. Sophomore Bryan Bennett is the favorite to win the job, but there's plenty of positive scuttlebutt about redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Bennett came off the bench for an injured Thomas and played well in a win over Arizona State last season and, in his first and only start, completed 11 of 20 attempts for a 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns in win at Colorado.

  • Ready to receive? The Ducks must replace two of their three leading receivers in Lavasier Tuinei and tight end David Paulson. Sophomore Colt Lyerla flashed promise backing up Paulson last season, and Josh Huff and Rahsaan Vaughn have potential at receiver. But the big question is whether a trio of touted redshirt freshmen -- Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley and Tacoi Sumler -- break through and live up to their recruiting hype. How dangerous might Oregon be with the potential to throw five-receiver sets at defenses?

  • End opposite Jordan: While All-Pac-12 defensive end Dion Jordan is back, the Ducks lose Terrell Turner on the opposite side as well as Jordan's solid backup, Brandon Hanna. It's unclear how the pecking order might fill out here. Sophomore Tony Washington and redshirt freshmen Koa Ka'ai and Sam Kamp will be in the mix. Or it's possible, because of the depth inside, that a tackle, such as Taylor Hart, could move outside.


Starts: April 3

Spring game: April 28

What to watch:

  • O-line needs to step up: Three 2011 starters -- right tackle Colin Kelly and guards Grant Enger and Josh Andrews (who were part-time starters) -- are back, and 2010 starter Michael Philipp also is back after injuries did him in last fall. The bad news is that line has been mostly awful for two years running. And oh, by the way, the likely starting center, Geoff Garner, opted to transfer. Roman Sapolu probably will replace Garner at center, and Darryl Jackson and Justin Addie also will be in the mix. Elite recruit Isaac Seumalo arrives in the fall and could immediately contend for playing time. If he doesn't end up on defense, where he might be needed more (just saying).

  • Interior D-line? The Beavers are in decent shape at defensive end, but things are iffy inside. Andrew Seumalo returns, as does Castro Masaniai, who is coming back from a broken left fibula. The depth behind them is questionable. Will Brandon Bennett, John Braun or Mana Tuivailala -- or someone else -- step up?

  • Got to run (and hold onto the football): If running back Malcolm Agnew can overcome fumbling issues that forced him to the bench last season after a promising start, he'll likely get the most touches. If not, the job likely falls to Jovan Stevenson or perhaps Terron Ward. But the Beavers can't afford to be one the worst rushing team in the Pac-12 -- and one of the worst in the nation -- again in 2012.


Spring practice starts: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • Next man up: Perhaps the most watched quarterback competition in the country will happen in Palo Alto, where head coach David Shaw has to find a replacement for the departed Andrew Luck. Whoever it is -- Brett Nottingham, Robbie Picazo, Josh Nunes, Kevin Hogan, Evan Crower et al -- will be a first-time starter. There are no quick fixes, no Scotch tape for replacing a once-in-a-generation quarterback like Luck. So expectations are best tempered as the new guy learns the ins and outs of a pro-style scheme.

  • Plugging holes: Whoever gets that starting spot is going to have two new offensive linemen, replacements for David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, protecting him. David Yankey, Cameron Fleming and Sam Schwartzstein all return, which gives the line some continuity. And the nation's best offensive line class coming in could yield a new starter. But Martin and DeCastro were two of the best in the country at what they do. Finding their replacements is just as paramount as finding Luck's.

  • Settling the secondary: While the front seven should be outstanding with the return of linebackers Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, A.J. Tarpley, Shayne Skov and Jarek Lancaster -- plus the return of defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens -- the defensive backfield has some question marks. The Cardinal need to find replacements for safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas (presumably Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards) and there are questions at cornerback as well. The return of Wayne Lyons from a foot injury should be a good start.


Starts: April 2

Spring game: April 28

What to watch:

  • Getting defensive: The Huskies were awful on defense last season. There are four new defensive coaches, led by new coordinator Justin Wilcox. Therefore, there are three priorities. Everyone getting to know one another, everyone getting to know the new schemes and everyone getting to know a tough-guy attitude that has been lacking for a while on D. Like since the early 1990s.

  • Offensive weapons: The Huskies must replace their leading rusher and top-two leading receivers. Jesse Callier, Chris Polk's backup last season, looks to be in the lead at running back, but what about Deontae Cooper, who is coming back from (another) knee injury? Kasen Williams and James Johnson look like the top-two receiving targets, but what about depth?

  • Backup for Price: Backup quarterbacks aren't important until they become your most important player (I think Jon Wilner writes this every year, so it isn't an original thought). Keith Price was outstanding in his first year as a starter, but backup Nick Montana transferred, and no other quarterback on the roster has experience. In fact, the backup job likely won't be settled this spring. Redshirt freshman Derrick Brown, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster, will be the spring backup, and he's an impressive-looking guy at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds. Touted signees Jeff Lindquist and Cyler Miles arrive in the fall.


Starts: March 22

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Hello, my name is Mike Leach: The first priority with a new head coach, particularly one who hires an entirely new staff, is getting to know each other. Coaches want to know their players' personalities and skills. Players want to learn how coaches do things and what coaches like and don't like. A new culture and set of standards is established. And coaches often trim dead weight. What the Cougs need most is a clear understanding of how things are going to be going forward. Oh, and they need to learn new schemes and stuff like that, too.

  • Tuel time: The Pac-12 blog is of the mind that Leach is going to love Jeff Tuel, and that Tuel will win the starting job at quarterback after an injury-plagued 2011 season had some folks forgetting how good he is. But there are no guarantees. For one, Leach will want Tuel to improve his completion percentage, which is around 60 percent for his career. If Tuel falters, sophomore Connor Halliday could push into the starting picture.

  • O-line needs to shine: The single biggest thing that could hold the Cougars back is their offensive line, which welcomes back three starters from a unit that yielded 40 sacks -- worst in the Pac-12 by six -- and led a rushing attack that ranked just 10th in the conference. Leach's quick-hit passing attack makes it harder to get to the quarterback, but the Cougars still must be at least adequate up front for this team to prove bowl worthy.