Biggest remaining questions facing each Pac-12 squad post-National Signing Day, Pt. 2
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 hit the top six teams in the conference on Saturday, so now it’s time for the six who finished on the bottom half of the league table in 2021.
California Golden Bears: who’s catching Jack Plummer’s passes?
Justin Wilcox got his quarterback, now does he have the horses at wideout to power the aerial attack?
I like Purdue transfer quarterback Jack Plummer quite a bit, having seen him in person over the years. He’s coming from an offense under Purdue coach Jeff Brohm that has done well to develop quality passing quarterbacks, and I think it’s important distinction to make that Plummer didn’t necessarily lose his job as the Purdue quarterback, the other guy was just exceptionally good. At Cal, Plummer will get to take over for Chase Garbers and lead a team that could be a sneaky North threat.
But Cal needs to find some new playmakers out wide. Trevon Clark is gone to the NFL Draft after being Cal’s best big-play threat in 2021 (19.9 yards per reception). Kekoa Crawford led the team in receptions, but has exhausted his eligibility. Nikko Remigio was a possession kind of safety valve for Garbers, posting the second-most receptions on the team, but entered the transfer portal after the season.
Third-year wideout Jeremiah Hunter flashed some promise last season (he averaged 18.5 yards per catch). Cal needs more. The 2022 class only added two wideouts to the roster. The 6-foot-4 Mason Starling comes over from the junior college ranks and could offer immediate help. There should be another few options dipping into the portal after spring ball. Cal could stand to benefit by chasing one or two of them.
USC Trojans: good job with the offense, now… defensive line?
Congratulations are in order to USC for winning the coaching carousel and then following that dub up with a resounding victory in the transfer portal. When Lane Kiffin, who put together a pretty darn good transfer class himself, proclaims Lincoln Riley the Portal King, the arguments over “best class” and this and that are done and dusted. Riley completely overhauled the skill talent on this USC roster and plucked one of the 15 or so best quarterbacks in the country to place at the helm of his operation. If Riley pulled close to double-digit starters from just this class alone, and it looks as if he might have, USC will have a chance to live up to preseason buzz. Maybe. And Riley has said USC isn’t even done with the portal. We’ll see how spring ball goes.
The big, giant, glaring question remaining after signing day is what’s going on with the big, giant, glaring problem on the defensive line? USC added 21 guys; two of them play along the defensive line, two others are listed as edge rushers.
The pair of d-linemen are short on experience and project more as depth adds than impact players. The pair of edge rushers are also fairly green, though they have more upside. USC will return the likes of Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa. Korey Foreman could play as a traditional end or as more of a pass-rushing edge defender, but either way, he’ll need to show some stuff after an uneven debut season.
USC ranked 96th in rushing yards allowed per carry last season, 97th in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), and 119th in havoc rate produced. The front seven was among the 30 worst at the FBS level at generating tackles for loss or forcing fumbles. With the loss of Drake Jackson, the defensive front should get all the attention this spring. Who else is coming? Or who is going to take a leap? USC will be better in 2022 because of its offensive additions. How much better will depend on what comes next with the defense.
Washington Huskies: is the answer at quarterback currently in the room?
A team’s Eckel rate is how often it creates a “quality possession,” defined as a drive that features either a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard-line or a big-play touchdown. Washington’s Eckel rate of 43.0% last season ranked 100th out of 130 FBS teams, according to CFB-graphs.com.
That feels like the big one for head coach Kalen DeBoer’s first year. And it points right to quarterback play.
Dylan Morris, the starter for 11 of UW’s 12 games last season, posted the third-worst total QBR among qualified Pac-12 quarterbacks (87th nationally). Sam Huard, who started against Washington State, threw four picks and completed only 54.8% of his passes in a 40-13 loss. Michael Penix Jr., whom Washington added from the portal this offseason, has completed only 55% of throws over the last two seasons with 11 interceptions and a checkered bill of health. It’s true that Penix’s best season at Indiana came when DeBoer was coordinating the attack, but that was three seasons ago.
Washington needs to be able to sustain offensive possessions in 2022, and then string together multiple at a time. The defense has talent. But it needs help.
Colorado Buffaloes: is it… is the portal exodus done?
Last season was a struggle for Colorado. It went 4-8 while the passing game misfired left and right, and then lost pieces of the coaching staff after the season ended. The Buffs have since lost double-digit scholarship players to the transfer portal. While that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem on its surface, it’s about the type of player leaving and, in some instances, the places they’re going.
Departures include all-conference running back Jarek Broussard, who led the Pac-12 in rushing during the 2020 season, starting wideouts Brenden Rice and Dimitri Stanley, starting defensive backs Christian Gonzalez, Mekhi Blackmon, and Mark Perry, and all-conference punter Josh Watts. Rice and Blackmon went to USC. Gonzalez went to Oregon.
CU has added some talent from the portal—Ramon Jefferson at tailback, RJ Sneed at wideout, Maddox Kopp at quarterback, all intriguing—and the coaching staff expressed some optimism on National Signing Day about the direction of the program given the 2022 class they signed, but it’s worth asking what led to such a talent drain in Boulder and whether or not it’s done.
Stanford Cardinal: about the rushing attack?
The Cardinal finished last season ranked 105th in Bill Connelly’s SP+, with the 104th-ranked offense and the 107th-ranked defense. Everything needs improvement. Because Stanford isn’t much of a player in the transfer market, the Cardinal needs everyone, coaching staff and players, to show growth this offseason.
For his part, head coach David Shaw just signed the best high school class in the conference this cycle, a group that ranked 17th nationally. That included blue-chip edge rusher David Bailey and six other 4-stars. There was a clear desire to upgrade along the line of scrimmage, as seven of the top eight signees play in the front seven on defense or along the line on offense.
The eighth guy was 4-star Missouri running back Arlen Harris Jr., and he’s stepping into a room that’s open for business this offseason. Stanford lost both Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones to the transfer portal; that duo led the Cardinal in rushing both in 2021 and in 2020. EJ Smith is the leading returning rusher, with 26 carries for 133 yards last season and only three catches for 7 yards as a true freshman in 2020.
A former 4-star prospect himself, Smith should be viewed as the favorite to ascend to the starting spot, but regardless of whether it’s him, Harris, someone else, or some combination of several guys, Stanford desperately needs more from the run game in 2022.
Tanner McKee is a good young quarterback, and he has a strong receiving partner in Michael Wilson. But Stanford ranked 117th out of 130 FBS programs last season in rushing efficiency. It averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. That part of the offense needs major overhauling this offseason. Look at how personnel is rolled out in the spring.
Arizona Wildcats: now can you put it all together?
The first season under coach Jedd Fisch featured one win in 12 tries. That’s rough. But this offseason has been anything but. The Wildcats signed the second-best recruiting class in the Pac-12 (22nd nationally) and the third-best overall class (transfers included) in the league. Fisch addressed the biggest needs and added playmakers galore to the offense.
Arizona got its quarterback of the future in Noah Fifita and a quarterback to help win now in WSU transfer Jayden de Laura. It got an elite wideout prospect that can immediately step in and be one of the Pac-12’s better pass-catching options in Tetairoa McMillan. It got a blue-chip running back and a blue-chip tight end. It added one of the best available wideouts in the country in UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing.
The only place UA can go is up. That’s the benefit (if you can call it that) of losing so much right away. Arizona was competitive, particularly late in the season, it was just overmatched. That shouldn’t be the case anymore given the talent Fisch has added this offseason. Now, how can you put it all together?