Kevin Gemmell, Chantel Jennings and Ted Miller got together to discuss which Pac-12 player is most intruiging to them this spring.
Gemmell: Breaking into the rotation of Arizona State’s defensive line is not going to be easy. The Sun Devils return everyone across the defensive front, with the exception of Demetrius Cherry, who was splitting time with returner Viliami Latu. Along with Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker, the Sun Devils have a chance to have one of the top defensive fronts in the conference.
So that makes George Lea an interesting prospect. Most of the coaching staff was convinced that Lea was good enough to start last season as a true freshman. But a bone-headed mistake -- the BB gun incident of last summer -- put him in Todd Graham’s doghouse and he was suspended/forced to redshirt for the entire 2015 season.
Remember, the Sun Devils have a history of giving guys a second chance (recall the tale of Jamil Douglas, who was reinstated under Dennis Erickson and later captained by Graham). And Lea’s second chance might pay huge dividends for the Sun Devils. Last season Arizona State still led the Pac-12 in sacks with 46, but they also gave up way too many plays of 20-plus yards -- 88, to be exact -- which was the second-most in the country and tops among Power 5 conferences.
The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Lea came from New Orleans as the nation’s No. 53 defensive tackle prospect in 2015, per ESPN’s recruiting rankings. Not only does he immediately add quality depth, but if he’s as good as the coaches think he is, he might have a good shot at cracking the starting lineup or at least splitting duties.
This spring is a huge opportunity for him to show that he was worth the second chance. Keep an eye on him and fellow Louisianan Jalen Bates, who is also coming off a redshirt season. They have an opportunity to propel the line into the league’s upper echelon.
Jennings: There’s this idea right now that to be a true freshman who contributes, you need to enroll in January so that you can get time in the weight room, then play spring ball, then go through the summer before you actually start competing in fall camp. I don’t disagree with that notion. Obviously, more prep time is going to make someone more prepared, and, for the most part, the more prepared player will play.
But there are exceptions, and Washington running back Myles Gaskin was one of those exceptions last year.
He showed up in the fall, went through a month of fall camp and then was off and running. Gaskin finished the year with 14 rushing touchdowns (tied for 20th best in the country, regardless of class). He converted 63 percent of his third-down rushing attempts, which was better than Royce Freeman's third-down conversion percentage, Paul Perkin's third-down conversion percentage and Derrick Henry's third-down conversion percentage.
Now, if he did all of that with a limited amount of preparation at the college level, imagine how good he’ll be after having the bits and pieces of preparation that he missed out on last year. When I was in Seattle a few weeks ago, he said that he has basically been living in the weight room and film room.
Gaskin has a natural athletic ability. Last season showed that. Now, pair that with an offseason in Washington’s weigh training, conditioning and nutrition program and I think he’ll be able to come into this spring as a completely different player -- one who’s more prepared. The entire Washington team will be fun to watch this spring, but specifically Gaskin -- who has a chance to be one of the best backs in the conference in 2016 -- will be a player that I keep close tabs on.
Miller: UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen delivered a strong true freshman season in 2015, but true freshmen seasons are only appetizers. We await the main course, the true revelation of who he will become. There is no limit to the endgames, from Heismans and championships to collapses and transfers and future inductions into the “Where are they now?” archive.
Rosen’s frequent displays of tantalizing talent -- pinpoint downfield throws into small windows that even lay folk can identify as special -- only operate as flint sending sparks to kindling. There was no fire. As well as Rosen played, UCLA’s season was a disappointment, capped by an embarrassing physical manhandling by Nebraska in the bowl game.
The question with Rosen is how far he takes his spectacular talent and what that means for Jim Mora and the Bruins.
Last year, Rosen was the brash, obviously gifted youngster -- physically and mentally -- surrounded by veterans, and his chief task was trying to not seem so brash about his obvious physical and mental gifts. He was shielded from media availability other than immediately following games. That worked out because there were other offensive stars to speak for the unit, from running back Paul Perkins to receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte to center Jake Brendel.
Now all of them are gone. In fact, the Bruins' top two receivers and three of top four pass-catchers are gone, and the offensive line has questions. The Bruins offense begins spring practices as a one-star constellation. Rosen is now the unquestioned front man. He needs to step up his leadership. He needs to prepare a more refined public presence. And he needs to zip passes so precisely that they seem attuned to the curvature of the earth and phases of the moon.
He was a promising true freshmen. Now he becomes something else, and UCLA’s football fortunes for at least the next two seasons are tightly tethered to what that might turn out to be.