12 things to watch for as Utah, Oregon, USC and more hold spring games
Saturday features a loaded slate of (spring) football.
UCLA (9 a.m.), Utah (11 a.m.), USC (noon), Colorado (noon), Oregon (1 p.m.), and Washington State (3:30 p.m.) will all hold spring games/showcases on Saturday. Viewing info can be found here. As a table-setter for the action, we’re running down 12 things to watch for throughout the day.
The defending champs’ adjustment
Utah opened up a scrimmage to reporters last week, and it seemed like the ball they were treated to was as top-notch as you’d expect from the defending Pac-12 champions. The kicker? Whereas Utah has made its hay as a physical, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of team that leans more into its defense, this Utes team might have a supercharged offensive engine Rising up to complement.
Rising was surgical in his time at quarterback Saturday, … The Utes offense moved the ball down the field efficiently and at times downright savagely against a mixture of players from the first- and second-string defense.
Tempo was a defining theme of the Utes’ open scrimmage, and if that were in place next season it would be a unique departure for coach Kyle Whittingham and Co. Utah has been under the national average for plays per game in each of the last four seasons. While that’s not a foolproof way of looking at tempo, it does paint a general picture; as offenses go more pace and space, Whittingham has been more keen to keep things in the high 60s, super-low 70s so as to protect his defense.
With the Utes looking to replace some key playmakers on defense and returning a quarterback in Cameron Rising who finished the 2021 season with the sixth-best QBR in the country, it makes sense to lean more into a high-scoring offense that can ease pressure on a defense. Watch how quickly Utah moves between plays on Saturday, even if Rising isn’t on the field.
The Oregon Ducks’ quarterback rotation
Duh, right? Oregon is in the midst of a serious quarterback competition this offseason that’ll likely carry some significant ramifications once it’s settled. The first three quarters of Saturday’s spring game will simulate an actual game between the Yellow and Green teams, and with three different guys vying for a job in a new offense, there’s no reason for us not to get a solid look at each of Bo Nix, Ty Thompson, and Jay Butterfield.
Nix is the expected winner of this competition in that when he committed to transfer from Auburn, where he’d started each of the past three seasons, to Oregon to reunite with former Auburn offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, most people viewed the move as a QB1 swapping out jerseys. Head coach Dan Lanning has said he offered no such assurances to Nix, instead telling him he’d have to earn a job the same as anyone else. And Thompson makes the task more than difficult. A 6-foot-4 signee from the 2021 class, the former top-50 recruit is the highest-rated quarterback prospect the Ducks have ever signed. Yet he played sparingly last season, serving as a backup to Anthony Brown. Thompson has the goods. Butterfield, a former 4-star and top-150 recruit is right there as well.
Saturday’s glorified scrimmage won’t settle the competition, and it may not even reveal much about the pecking order as all three guys have rotated between the 1s, 2s, and 3s all spring, but it’ll certainly give everyone an extended look at how they operate in Dillingham’s system and how the likes of Thompson and Butterfield have developed since joining the program.
The line of scrimmage for USC
The Trojans will be on national television with Kirk Herbstreit in the booth and on everyone’s television. Lincoln Riley will get his debut on the field at the Coliseum. We’ll see quarterback Caleb Williams in the cardinal and gold for the first time. USC will have plenty of new options at the skill positions. That will all be well and good.
But this team’s floor and its ceiling in 2022 will be determined by what the lines look like up front. USC is expected to be undermanned for its spring game after spending most of its spring period with depleted depth—the Trojans had just 60 healthy scholarship players at the start of the session last month—but Riley promised some hitting. “It’s not going to be a game of tag,” Riley said last week. “We’re going to play football.” It’ll be important not to draw too many conclusions about the secondary, as it had only a handful of healthy bodies in the practices leading up to the spring game.
But that means we should be able to take a nice, long look at the front of the Trojans’ defense. Last season, USC got run over entirely too often (96th in yards per rushing attempt allowed) and couldn’t generate any negative plays in opposing backfields (121st in TFLs created). More push, more physicality, more want-to from that defensive front seven will go a long way toward helping USC make good on preseason hype. Watch Korey Foreman, a 2021 5-star looking to bounce back after inconsistent play as a freshman, as well as Auburn transfer Romello Height on the edge. Both are potential difference-makers for that USC defense, but they might be battling with each other for snaps. Can defensive coordinator Alex Grinch get them both on the field? Are they going to force his hand in that regard?
In the battle at the line of scrimmage, we’ll get a little insight into that culture Lincoln Riley has been trying to build.
The roles to fill on UCLA’s defense
Blink and you might miss another Bruin defender entering the transfer portal. The number of UCLA players who have jumped into the portal since the 2021 season ended is nearing 20. That includes guys like Mitchell Agude and Caleb Johnson and Jay Shaw who were expected to be significant pieces of the defense. In several ways, transfers should be expected. Every program is dealing with them. UCLA is also working in what amounts to an entirely new defensive brain trust this spring as well. The Bruins have a new defensive coordinator in Bill McGovern, a new defensive line coach in Chad Kauha’aha’a, a new outside ‘backers coach in Ikaika Malloe, and a new inside ‘backers coach in Ken Norton Jr. That kind of change in personnel is going to lead to more change on the roster.
But that still leaves UCLA in a weird spot to try and fill roles. The Bruins need much better defensive play once the season begins, but as things stand now, there’s a lot up in the air with regards to who is fitting where. Transfers on the defensive side of the ball—linebacker Darius Muasau, ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, and nickel Azizi Hearn—should all be major contributors. Many will be curious to see how they look.
The Coug Raid
How much does new offensive coordinator Eric Morris want to show of the Washington State offensive attack? How much of Incarnate Word transfer quarterback Cameron Ward do we see. Things can get very exciting in Pullman if Washington State’s offense coalesces quickly, and there’s reason to believe it can. Morris and Ward worked together last season for UIW and that partnership produced 4,600 passing yards, 47 passing touchdowns, and a spot in the second round of the FCS playoffs. At Washington State, Ward will have some nice options to throw to, though the offensive line is replacing quite a bit from last year’s group. Either way, this is going to be an offense with a lot of eyeballs on it. How much do Morris and coach Jake Dickert reveal?
The Colorado offensive line
Last season, only Arizona allowed more sacks than the Colorado Buffaloes. Opposing teams got to the CU quarterback 32 times, only three off the Wildcat pace for most in the Pac-12. CU is replacing starters up front and working in a new offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford and a new line coach in Kyle DeVan. According to The Boulder Daily Camera’s Brian Howell, CU began spring ball with 14 bodies along the offensive line, including three walk-ons, and have only nine left standing as the period draws to a close. More reps for guys now should prove to be a benefit once fall camp rolls around, but improvement needs to be made.
Utah’s next great running back…?
Tavion Thomas gets the attention in the Utah backfield and deservedly so. The 6-foot-2 back returns to Salt Lake City after breaking the program record for rushing touchdowns in a single season (21) last year. But Thomas wasn’t a solo act, he was part of a fantastic three-headed backfield. Between Thomas, TJ Pledger, and Micah Bernard, the Utes got 2,331 rushing yards and 29 scores on nearly 6 yards a carry. Pledger is off to the NFL, and as the Utes have gone through spring ball, freshman tailback Jaylon Glover has seemingly emerged as someone who could step in and play a role right away.
A 3-star recruit out of Lake Gibson (Fla.) HS and the Class 6A Player of the Year last season, the 5-foot-7 Glover ran for more than 6,000 yards in his high school career, recording 80 touchdowns and 32 100-yard rushing games in the process. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has said he thinks Glover will be an important piece for the Utes. What that means in-season remains to be seen, but Glover said this spring he’s “the type of guy that I want to contribute, so I feel like being here in the spring has given me a great opportunity to do that,” according to SI’s Cole Bagley. There’s depth in that backfield, but the spring game feels like a good time to showcase the youth. Glover could steal the show.
The depleted Oregon secondary
Oregon needs to find replacements this offseason for Verone McKinley, DJ James, and Mykael Wright in the secondary. Throughout the spring, it has seen defensive backs like Dontae Manning, Bryan Addison, and Christian Gonzalez pick up bumps and bruises of varying severity. Manning was seen leaving practice in a wheelchair and has been limited since. Gonzalez has been limited of late for what coach Dan Lanning called precautionary reasons. Every coach wants to exit a spring period healthy. Few teams do. It puts coaches in a tough spot during the spring showcase event—role with your guys so the fans get their proverbial money’s worth or water things down and protect your players?
We’ll see who is ready and available to play in the secondary for the Ducks. If the group is limited, there’s one guy I very much want to see get an extended look. A 4-star and top-150 prospect out of Omaha, Nebraska, Avante Dickerson picked the Ducks on signing day just a few weeks after leaving the Minnesota class during the 2021 cycle. It was viewed as a significant win at the time as Dickerson possesses good length, good athleticism, and good ball skills at the corner spot. He played just 56 defensive snaps in his first season, according to PFF, and recorded five tackles. If guys ahead of him are limited or out for the spring game, there should be some opportunity to stake a claim to a larger role if he’s ready for it.
The Dye guy, now at USC
That’s it. I want to see Travis Dye play football again. He’ll do so for USC. That’ll be weird and cool.
The pass-catchers for UCLA
Who is Dorian Thompson-Robinson throwing the ball to next season for UCLA? As exciting a backfield combination the Thompson-Robinson/Zach Charbonnet duo is, the Bruins will need to be able to find some playmakers out wide after losing wideout Kyle Philips and tight end Greg Dulcich to the NFL Draft. Those two combined for 165 receptions over the last two seasons. They were No. 1 and No. 2 among UCLA pass-catchers both years. UCLA also lost Chase Cota, its third-leading receiver last season, to the transfer portal. Watch out for Duke transfer Jake Bobo; the Bruins seem to be optimistic about his ability.
The former hooper-turned-tackle for Washington State
There is going to be an offensive lineman for the Cougars who stands out on Saturday because he will quite literally stand head and shoulder over everyone else. Washington State has a 6-foot-11 (!!) offensive lineman who took first-team snaps with the top-line unit this spring. Jack Wilson, a fourth-year junior walk-on playing tackle for the Cougars, began his collegiate career as a Division I basketball player at Oregon State and Idaho. He appeared in 29 games from 2018-21 before deciding to step away from basketball. He was interning for the WSU basketball team, hoping to become a strength coach, when former head football coach Nick Rolovich asked him to walk on. Football is relatively new—he focused on basketball in high school—but to play D1 ball at 6-foot-11 requires at least some degree of coordination and mobility.
The Colorado backfield
The Buffs went through spring ball with only three scholarship backs—senior Alex Fontenot, junior Deion Smith, and sophomore Jayle Stacks. Fontenot has been limited by an injury this spring and Stacks might end up playing more of a fullback role when the season approaches. Colorado lost Jarek Broussard to the portal after he’d led the team in rushing each of the last two seasons. Sam Houston transfer Ramon Jefferson is coming this summer. Quarterback Brendon Lewis needs to show improvement in the passing game, but he needs help. Colorado taking a step back in the run game would be a problem. Is there a clear No. 1 option in the backfield coming out of the spring or will the coaching staff have to lean on Jefferson?