Biggest remaining questions facing each Pac-12 squad post-National Signing Day, Pt. 1
The 2022 class is signed. For most every coaching staff in the country, the attention has been turned to the 2023 class. There are a few stragglers waiting to sign, but now it’s about getting ready for spring ball.
Some teams (Utah) in the Pac-12 footprint have little in the way of questions as we move forward. Some have quite a few. Let’s run down some of the larger ones for each squad. We’ll hit six sides today and six on Sunday.
Utah Utes: are the incoming linebackers ready to roll?
The Utes have lost linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, defensive end Mika Tafua, and safety Vonte Davis. Just from those four players, that’s more than a third of the team’s tackles last season and more than 40% of its total pressures (QB hits, sacks, and hurries).
Freshman defensive end Van Fillinger had 9.5 tackles for loss and 21 total pressures (both third on the team behind Lloyd and Tafua), so it would appear that Utah has another legitimate playmaker on the defensive line. In the secondary, Clark Phillips III and Cole Bishop have stud potential.
There doesn’t seem to be much to worry about with the offense, which means the only real question is what happens at linebacker. Lloyd and Sewell combined for 199 total tackles, 29.5 TFLs, six pass breakups, and five interceptions. They were two of the best playmakers in the conference.
It’s hard to think Utah will be able to just immediately replace them, but if they can mitigate the loss to some extent, growth elsewhere might help balance things out. Either way, Utah should be fine. We’re admittedly splitting hairs here. Incoming linebackers Lander Barton (top-100 2022 signee) and Mohamoud Diabate (Florida transfer) offer a ton of intrigue as plug-and-play guys. Diabate was a two-year starter at Florida with 176 career tackles who could theoretically slide into either role. Barton, and classmate Justin Medlock for that matter, have a chance to play sooner rather than later. How soon?
Oregon Ducks: is this a win-now team or an eye-toward-the-future team?
The answer there will come from what happens at quarterback. Oregon has great talent on defense, and one of the country’s brightest young defensive minds putting the pieces together. It has promise at the skill positions on offense and a huge percentage of returning production along the offensive line.
Dan Lanning can take two routes with his quarterback spot: the established veteran, or the upside youngster.
If Bo Nix—the Auburn transfer with three years of starting experience in the toughest division in football—is the guy it might signal that Lanning thinks this team is good enough to contend for a College Football Playoff spot once again. Let Ty Thompson continue to grow his game and hope that Nix reuniting with Kenny Dillingham, his Auburn OC in 2019, can give the offense a high floor. Nothing’s a given, considering Nix’s checkered career with the Tigers, but his time with Dillingham did earn him a win over Oregon and an SEC Freshman of the Year award. Best-case scenario: you’re set up for a high level of play now and in the future.
If it’s Thompson who earns the job, however, there are going to be some growing pains. Embracing them might say Lanning is fine committing the 2022 season to growth with hope the next two or three years are spent contending for titles. Which isn’t to say the 2022 season should be viewed as a wash if Thompson gets the job—I like his talent—but it would probably make the Ducks a more volatile team.
Arizona State Sun Devils: how much more damage can be caused?
There’s no bigger question than what’s happening at the head coaching spot. Arizona State has the NCAA sniffing around, has lost five assistant coaches from Herm Edwards’ 2021 staff, just signed the worst high school recruiting class in decades, and has the public asking when will it fire its head coach and athletic director.
That’s a tough situation to be in still six-ish months away from the season. A couple of major wins on the football field could quiet the fervor—winning does cure all, after all—but short of that, there’s precious little ASU can do to calm the waters. It could hit the eject button, but it doesn’t seem particularly interesting in doing so… at the moment.
How does the locker room handle all the outside nonsense? Does it become an impossible-to-tune-out distraction? Do they band together and take an “us against the world” approach to training this offseason? If all the negativity around the program continues to fester, how much can ASU endure?
UCLA Bruins: will a clear commitment to pass-catchers pay off?
I actually like the moves the Bruins made on defense this offseason. There’s a big question as to who will be the next defensive coordinator, but until that hire is made official, I think it best to refrain from doing too much speculating on that side. The Bruins hit the transfer portal hard for defenders, and got one of the better available in former Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau; I think he makes a significant impact right away.
So if questioning the defense is off the table, let’s go with the pass-catchers. Kyle Philips had led all Bruins wideouts in receptions and yardage in each of the last three seasons. He and tight end Greg Dulcich were No. 1 and No. 2 in each of the last two. Both need replacing, as does the team’s third-leading receiving in 2021, Chase Cota.
In the 18-man 2022 class, UCLA took six pass-catchers. The freshman group includes 4-star tight ends Jack Pedersen and Carson Ryan, 4-star wideout Jadyn Marshall, and 3-star wideout Braden Pegan. Then there’s former UCF wideout Titus Mokiao-Atimalala and former Duke wideout Jake Bobo. Marshall was a highly sought-after prospect, and he figures to factor into UCLA’s plans right away. Good speed, good hands. Bobo should also be viewed as an immediate contributor.
With Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet back for the new season, UCLA can be a dominant rushing attack. Who’s going to step up on the outside to help this offense stay balanced?
Washington State Cougars: any additions to be made along the o-line?
Obviously one of the most-talked-about topics this offseason will be new quarterback Cameron Ward. Can he make the jump from FCS to FBS ball and live up to the hype? But his success right away will be tied to the success of the guys tasked with protecting him.
And to that end, WSU has a more important question: is the offensive line up to the task? Both tackles are gone. Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan had 84 starts between them across four years. A pair of interior linemen with starting experience transferred. Center might be up for grabs this offseason after uneven play in 2021—Konner Gomness finished 2021 with a 31.9 grade as a pass-blocker and a 59.5 grade as a run-blocker, per PFF.
Which would leave only two spots kinda-sorta settled. Ma’ake Fifita showed improvement throughout the year, but in 474 snaps earned a 48.5 overall grade. Jarrett Kingston was one of the team’s better blockers in pass-pro, but he might play guard or tackle.
WSU signed three tackle prospects from the 2022 cycle, but surely a couple of transfer targets become available once we get into spring ball. Do they become a priority for coach Jake Dickert and his staff?
Oregon State: where do we place expectations?
The Beavers have leaned on immediate help from the junior college ranks and the transfer portal in recent years, but this year’s 2022 class is almost entirely composed of high school prospects. That seems to signal head coach Jonathan Smith hasn’t identified any major holes on the roster that need plugging. Oregon State was a pretty good football team in 2021—sound play, not overly penalized, good on special teams, above-average quarterback play.
BJ Baylor is gone from the backfield, but his two primary backups return after both averaged over 5 yards a carry in their limited roles last season, so we can cautiously project optimism there. Trevon Bradford is gone from the pass-catching group, but quarterback Chance Nolan’s second-favorite target returns and his top tight end returns and Zurich Beason returns after flashing promise in limited roles his first two years. Three of five starters are back on the o-line. Then again, Oregon State loses quite a bit on defense.
After his first winning record in 2021 and competitive play in every game, where should we place expectations for Smith in his fifth year? Challenge Oregon for the North? The Platypus Cup does take place in Corvallis this season… If Oregon State moves through spring ball and into the summer months keeping its distance from the portal, it would seem a pretty good indication that Smith is confident in what he’s got.