Pac-12 finds few answers during spring

Spring practices have wrapped up around the nation and in the Pac-12 Conference, there are plenty of questions throughout as teams prepare for fall camp and the 2012 season.

When it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse for Colorado after finishing in a last place tie in the Pac-12 last season, it did in the spring. The Buffaloes enter the 2012 season without receiver Paul Richardson, who tore his ACL during spring practice. Richardson was the top offensive returner for the Buffaloes, who’ll now be almost brand new at wide receiver, running back and quarterback. Connor Wood, Nick Hirschman, and incoming freshman Shane Dillon are expected to compete in the fall for the starting QB job.

Coach Jon Embree said there’s a “possibility” Kansas transfer Jordan Webb could enroll at Colorado, adding a fourth quarterback to the mix. As for how the reps will be split amongst the quarterbacks during fall camp, Embree said, “It may be by day. It may be by drill.”

There is still a bit of an “Andrew Luck hangover” on the Stanford campus according to coach David Shaw. As the number one pick in the 2012 NFL Draft tries to adjust to NFL life with the Indianapolis Colts, Shaw and the Cardinal are looking for his replacement.

The five man competition is down to two –Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. As they progress, “the worst thing they can do is try to be Andrew Luck,” Shaw said. While they battle to be the signal caller, the kicking battle is not up for grabs. “Jordan is our kicker,” Shaw said. Jordan is Jordan Williamson, who was last seen in a national spotlight missing three field goals in Stanford’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

A lot of the blame was placed on Shaw for what was perceived as taking the ball out of Luck’s hands. The Cardinal coach stands behind his decision making.

 “If we’re ever in a situation where we’re driving in a two-minute drill and against a team that leads the nation in interceptions, I don’t give a dog-gone who the quarterback is, we’re going to run the ball, get to field goal position, and kick a field goal,” Shaw said.

“I’m just worried about getting a first down right now and trying to stop somebody,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. Tempo was emphasized a great deal during his first spring in Tucson. There’s a conditioning level his team has to be at to be able to compete in games, let alone practice, he says. A bright spot during the spring has been the play of quarterback Matt Scott, who redshirted his senior season behind Nick Foles and this spring, has been able to pick up more of the offense than Rodriguez originally expected.

“I think he can be the type of leader that we need,” Rodriguez said.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knew what he was getting into last year when his Utes entered the Pac-12. He wasn’t surprised at all by the level of play and now feels his team is ready for their second tour of duty. The Utes won five of their last six games to end the 2011 season and through all 15 spring practices, Whittingham says his team didn’t have a bad one. However, the team does have questions, particularly on the offensive line, which the coach says is “our most pressing issue, without a doubt, on the entire team.”

They have to replace two All-conference offensive tackles –- Tony Bergstrom, who was a third-round draft pick of the Raiders, and John Cullen. Three players — Kala Friel, Daniel Nielson, and Percy Taumoelau –- competed during the spring, while four newcomers will join the competition in the fall.

First-year UCLA coach Jim Mora had a quarterback competition on his hands in his first spring. Seniors Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince, along with freshman Brett Hundley, are all in the mix heading into the fall.

“I’ve been impressed with all three of them. They’ve acclimated well to the new system,” Mora said.

Freshman Jerry Neuheisel has been mentioned as having an outside shot once the competition resumes this fall. On the other side of the ball, Mora is really impressed with the Bruins defense. He loves the scheme and says he and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos “were able to get just about everything that we wanted to get installed, installed.” W

ith a new 3-4 scheme in Westwood, Mora says, “Anyone that’s watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play will recognize a lot of the things we’re doing.”

Todd Graham immediately put his new program through a cultural makeover after being named the coach at Arizona State and tt was be centered around discipline.

“We’re going to put a team on the field that first and foremost has character and discipline. That’s smart and tough,” Graham said.

So far he’s seen effects off of the field with class attendance improving 66 percent.

On the field, he was “encouraged” by the play of the offensive line, calling their play a “bright spot” of spring. He likes the way they’ve been able to make the transition from a spread passing attack to more of a downhill running team in their up-tempo spread option attack.

Going into the fall, Graham will have to decide on a quarterback. Sophomores Michael Bercovici and Taylor Kelly along with redshirt freshman Michael Eubank all bring something unique to the competition, according to the Sun Devils coach.

“When we come out of camp at Tontozona, we need to have a starting quarterback so that’s kind of our plan,” Graham said.  

Sean Mannion “had a very valuable freshman year,” said Oregon State head coach Mike Riley. Mannion threw for 3,332 yards and 16 touchdowns in 12 games last season. Riley is looking for continued growth from his young signal caller, particularly in his decision making — Mannion threw 18 interceptions in 2011.

There is more uncertainty on the guys in front of Mannion, where Riley says all five positions along the offensive line are up for grabs. In the fall, the Beavers will welcome seven newcomers to the offensive line, including blue-chipper Isaac Seumalo and former UCLA  player Stan Hasiak.

“The door’s open. This is wide open competition,” Riley said. 

The offensive line competition is much like the one brewing in the backfield at tailback. Four players are competing to receive the bulk of the carries — Malcolm Agnew, Jordan Jenkins, Terron Ward, and Storm Woods.

“I’ve tried not to say much publicly about separating these guys because it is truly good competition,” Riley said.

Times have changed in Pullman.

“It’s a little bit unusual. 70-75 percent of the (time), the ball was in the air (during spring practice),” said Washington State defensive coordinator Mike Breske. Considering his defense was on alert facing coach Mike Leach’s offense during the spring, Breske feels the rest of the conference should be aware as well.

“I think they better have lights. The ball’s going to be in the air and we’re going to be explosive on offense,” Breske said.

Defensively, the Cougars will look different as well, switching to a 3-4. Despite their youth at the position, the linebackers are the strength of the Cougars’ defense with Eric Oertel and Chester Su’a leading the way, Breske said.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly flirted with the NFL, only to eventually say no. Bryan Bennett was the favorite to slide in and take over at quarterback for the Ducks after proving his worth as a backup last season, but now he has company in redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Mariota was the winning quarterback in Oregon’s spring game while totaling 301 yards.

In the backfield, the Ducks will have to deal with life after LaMichael James. Kenjon Barner is the heir after totaling 939 yards on the ground last season. It could open up things for Pac-12 co-offensive freshman of the year, De’Anthony Thomas to get more carries out of the backfield.

“He’s always had a great football mind and has picked things up really, really well for us,” said Kelly of Thomas.

Byron Marshall is a guy that’s going to get an opportunity to make it into the rotation during the fall. Kelly likes to have multiple players at the tailback position.

“With the departure of LaMichael, there’s a lot of carries to be distributed,” Kelly said.

There are five new coaches on Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Washington. Four of them are on the defensive side of the ball.

“It’s going to appear with more of a 3-4 feel with nuances of a 4-3 defense,” Sarkisian said.

New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has done a great job of implementing a new system during 15 practices, according to Sarkisian.

In the offensive backfield, the Huskies are challenged with trying to replace Chris Polk.

“Those are relatively big shoes to fill,” Sarkisian said. 

Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey received the bulk of the carries in the spring.

A punter is not usually hard to replace but when you’re Cal and have to replace the highest drafted punter in 17 years, Bryan Anger, it becomes a focus.

Cole Leininger gets the responsibility of trying to replace Anger.

At quarterback, Zach Maynard “did a nice job” this spring. The big question is how the guys around him will develop. The receivers are going to be the youngest position group on the team and a group whose development coach Jeff Tedford says is going to be key in fall camp.

Keenan Allen returns after a 98-catch season, but he’ll be joined by a bevy of newcomers.

“It’s going to be key the learning curve is pretty quick for those guys,” Tedford said.

The offensive line has been “solidified” over the spring as well. Tyler Rigsbee will be inserted at left tackle for Mitchell Schwartz. The Golden Bears’ defensive backfield will have two new safeties in Avery Sebastian and Alex Logan.

Tedford says they were both “productive” during the spring.

After a two-year hiatus, USC is finally eligible to play in a bowl game.

 However the players aren’t thinking about it, according to coach Lane Kiffin.

“That’s so far away at the end of (the season). You come down the tunnel for games and the ball’s kicked off, I don’t think that there’s much thought of what bowl game we’re going to at that point,” Kiffin said.

The Trojans are an early favorite to contend for a national championship. If it pans out for them, “Tailback U” will do so with a lack of depth in the backfield. Curtis McNeal was a 1,000-yard rusher last season. D.J. Morgan started the season with a bang before he was overcome with ball handling issues. Buck Allen is an unproven redshirt freshman.

The Trojans thought they received a shot in the arm after moving Tre Madden from linebacker to running back. The experiment was going well until Madden suffered a season ending knee injury during spring drills.