From Boulder to Spencer Butte, 10 interesting things we learned at Pac-12 Media Day
LOS ANGELES — That was fun.
The Pac-12 commissioner decided it was time to take the kid gloves off and start throwing haymakers at the Big 12. USC and Oregon and Washington State and Washington introduced new coaches to the league’s media contingent. Chip Kelly showed off his geography wizardry—or, at the very least, his Maps comprehension. Players talked about football and cooking in between questions about the Big Ten.
Pac-12 Media Day is now in the rearview. But before completely turning the page and moving to the new season, here are 10 of the most interesting things I learned from the day.
1. Spencer Webb won’t ever be far away
I lost my sister-in-law to cancer last August. She was two months shy of 30. I’d known her as part of my life longer than I hadn’t and I knew her as maybe the kindest person I’d ever met. She graduated from medical school in 2018 and moved to South Carolina to begin her residency. She wanted to work with babies and she wanted to help expectant mothers. In about four months, she helped deliver over 70 children. Then she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
She battled. Her treatment ultimately resulted in Leukemia. She had her bad days. But she never stopped being that person who would give all of herself to help someone else.
You don’t really get over loss like that. You have good days. You have bad days. You keep on because you know they would have. Because you know they did.
I found myself thinking about my sister when Oregon head coach Dan Lanning talked about the legacy Spencer Webb leaves with the Ducks.
The Oregon tight end passed away earlier this month in a tragic accident. Too soon. Unfair.
“I talked to our players about that moment,” Lanning said Friday. “Spencer, on your tombstone, there’s a day when you were born, a day when you pass. But what made Spencer special is how he lived that dash in between those two numbers. We want to live and create a dash that’s meaningful.”
The Ducks are going to climb Spencer Butte in Oregon every year to put a capper on summer workouts. It’ll become an annual tradition, maybe even catharsis. Oregon is going to honor Webb’s memory in more ways than one this season, I suspect. The memorial service the Ducks hosted was touching, the stories heart-wrenching.
I wish Lanning didn’t have to endure this in his first year as a head coach. But I think he’ll be better for it. The more I hear from Lanning, the more I think he’ll do wonders in Eugene. Yeah, there’s the game-planning and the recruiting and the Xs and the Os, but he talks about his ‘progrum’ and he talks about his players and about their goals and you hear devotion.
In the ways he can, I believe he’ll dedicate himself to making that dash meaningful for his players. And that’ll be more important than how many games he wins or titles he plays for. I appreciated that reminder to begin the day.
2. Shane Lee was exactly what USC needed
I was blown away by USC linebacker Shane Lee. He’s massive, as you’d expect a former Alabama defender to be. And he’s intentional.
“Our focus is on building the culture and setting the standard and creating our own expectations, not accepting somebody else’s expectations,” he told reporters on Friday. “We haven’t done anything yet. Everything’s just been noise up to this point. As a football team we haven’t won any games or even stepped on the field against anybody, so there’s nothing to get really excited about now.”
The Pac-12 saved USC for the finale at Media Day. Maybe it knew half the theater would empty if it walked Lincoln Riley out first-thing in the morning. The scrum that formed around Lee and quarterback Caleb Williams—while Riley was talking on the main stage, mind you—was the biggest for any group of players on the day and it wasn’t particularly close.
USC is potential at this point. Nothing more. We have no idea how a roster retrofit by the transfer portal will produce. Riley has called this the most unique roster in program history. Given the personnel USC figures to rely on in 2022, it might be the most unique in modern college football history.
With Riley and Williams and Jordan Addison and Travis Dye and overflowing excitement about an offense that could—read: could—boat race 90% of the league next season, USC needed a balancing force.
“Shane’s a quiet person, but when it’s go time, he’s there. Shane’s always going to show up,” Williams said. “Shane doesn’t care about any of it. If I’m messing up, if anyone’s messing up, if I’m not holding my side of the ball accountable, Shane will speak up.”
Riley has spoken quite a bit this offseason about resetting the culture at USC. In some ways, college football coaches talk about culture the way writers use em dashes—I love them—but when it’s wrong at a place, you know it. Teams with USC’s talent don’t go 4-8 and boast a strong culture. Riley had to change some things.
Lee was the exact kind of enforcer for that job. What that means for USC’s win-loss record in 2022? We’ll see. But I suspect Lee will be one of those guys Riley points to as the foundational pieces who helped set the program back atop the sport if this whole thing works.
3. The offensive linemen can cook
Arizona State’s LaDarius Henderson likes to cook a chicken alfredo dish from scratch. Thanksgiving dinner is at the home of UCLA’s Jon Gaines II this season. The big boys on the offensive line in the Pac-12 know how to cook up something special in the kitchen.
That’s always my favorite part of days like this. I’ve been to six of these things now, spread across three conferences. The best moments come when you aren’t asking a player the same question for the 17th time that day and you catch them off-guard with something that’s unique to them specifically. Gaines is a poly-sci major with a tremendously well-fleshed-out reasoning for why football players go into politics. Henderson is as comfortable a public speaker as I’ve seen.
Now I just need to figure out a way to get a homemade chicken parm out of one of them.
4. Brendon Lewis has Colorado’s backing
The Buffaloes’ third-year sophomore quarterback is a really interesting figure in the Pac-12 next season. Colorado was picked by league media to finish last in the league. Few expect Boulder to do much rumbling. But that’s a spot where teams get dangerous. Is this a bowl team? A team that catches one or two upper-tier teams sleepwalking or looking ahead?
CU has a sixth-year tailback and a promising No. 1 option at wideout and a remade offensive coaching staff. Lewis is expected to find himself firmly in a quarterback competition with JT Shrout during the upcoming fall camp. But it sure seems like he has already won over this team.
“After the season, he went back and watched all of the games just by himself and made notes and critiques about what he could have done better, what he did well, what he needs to improve on,” coach Karl Dorrell said. “To his credit, he’s invested a lot of time and blood—I would say sweat equity—this last season to develop into being a better quarterback than where he was last fall. There’s no question in my mind and his mind he’s not even the same player.
“… He had a great spring where his efficiency and his numbers, his accuracy in throwing looked much, much better. Continued that into this summer. I’m excited to watch him when we go into training camp next week.”
So, too, are his teammates who were at the event. Guard Casey Roddick told me Lewis is a mentor, a captain, and a part of the team’s leadership council.
“His play on the field is also predicated off my play,” Roddick said. “For him to look down on himself and think he wasn’t as great as he should be, that makes me want to work harder for him so he can succeed. When a lot of people look at him and think he wasn’t as great as he could have been, you’ve got to look at the offensive line first and see how they’re working.
“His knowledge for the game has exceeded expectations. I think putting him into a situation where he can be successful, in terms of the scheme and how he reads defenses and how he operates at the line of scrimmage, I think that’s best for his type of play style. You guys got to see it when he was playing against Texas. He was a star. After that, we didn’t put him in the greatest situations to succeed. Now that we have a great offensive staff and great offensive minds, I think he’s going to have a breakout year.”
And Robert Barnes, a linebacker on the team, wanted to make it clear he notices the work, too.
“What I love about B-Lew is every single day he’s trying to improve something in his game,” he said. “He knows there were a lot of things he could develop and improve and he’s focused every single day on those improvements spending countless hours, extra work, film study, whatever he can do to truly be the best quarterback that he’s capable of being. I commend him for that.”
5. Stanford’s offense is a changing
Both Stanford quarterback Tanner Mckee and coach David Shaw talked about how everything returning on offense is going to allow the unit to function a little more efficiently next season. Stanford returns every single snap played on the offensive line last season. McKee is back. The receiving corps is experienced. EJ Smith finally gets his turn in the backfield. McKee told me he thinks the offense will better match the skillsets of the players next season and that Smith’s running style better meshes with what the offensive line does well. Stanford ended the season averaging a paltry 3.2 yards per rush, so any improvement is going to be noticeable, but with everyone back up front, the improvement should be significant. I’ll have more on this in the coming weeks.
6. USC and UCLA to the Big Ten will help recruiting for… everyone?
Said Lincoln Riley: “USC has always been a national brand, but (the move) opens up with a recruiting base that’s maybe different than ever before in the school’s history.”
Said Chip Kelly: “It’s been positive so far. I think the conversations that we’ve had with the kids that are in high school right now—because those are the guys it impacts—we’ve noticed that as an uptick as a coaching staff and have talked about that.”
Said Dan Lanning: “I mean, ultimately we want to recruit the best talent in the nation, right? Obviously California is an important piece for us. It’s amazing to me how many kids I’ll talk to, the first time I talk to them they tell me how Oregon has always been their dream school. This place is a national brand. We’re going to continue to go recruit nationally, but we want to win on the West Coast and win the best players on the West Coast as well. Certainly we’ll continue to recruit California.”
Said Jedd Fisch: “I hope what (the move) does when parents are making decisions on wanting to watch their children play, they don’t have to get on a plane and fly to Newark, fly to Iowa, fly to Ann Arbor. They get to get in a car, drive five and a half hours, and next thing you know they’re at Arizona. They can be able to watch their sons play right here on the West Coast, right in prime time television. We’re hopeful that that’s going to be a huge benefit for us moving forward.”
So… all good, right?
7. A name to keep in mind
Washington has to figure out its quarterback spot. The Huskies take Michael Penix Jr., Dylan Morris, and Sam Huard into fall camp all vying for the starting job. I have reservations about each, but I believe in Kalen DeBoer’s ability to craft an effective offense. However, the name that popped up with UW’s players was offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb.
“Ryan Grubb is a freaking genius,” safety Alex Cook said. “It was so hard trying to play against that offense during spring ball.”
Jaxson Kirkland called Grubb the best kept secret in college football.
Washington’s offense was not good last season, finishing 101st in SP+. Like with Colorado, any kind of improvement is going to be noticeable. I’m curious to see how DeBoer and Grubb work at the Power Five level. They’ve been together at Sioux Falls, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State, and now at Washington.
8. I suppose Cal’s quarterback situation isn’t entirely settled?
Maybe it is, but Cal head coach Justin Wilcox didn’t want to give it away. I’m expecting Purdue transfer Jack Plummer to be the Golden Bears’ Week 1 starter. Wilcox said Friday if they were playing this weekend, he would be. Wilcox also said he expects second-year freshman Kai Millner to push Plummer in fall camp. The difference between the two in the spring was Plummer’s experience, which is a pretty good indicator he’s the guy… but you also would want the difference to be more than just age… right?
“(Plummer)’s probably a bit better than we thought,” Wilcox said. “A very heady guy. He’s played college football at a high level. He can throw the ball. Jack is a passer. It’s very natural for him to deliver it. We’re excited about where he’s going. There still needs to be some chemistry and rhythm built. It doesn’t happen overnight. But he’s put in a lot of time, as has Kai, with the group of receivers and tight ends. Again, feel strongly about what those guys can do.”
9. Kliavkoff said exactly what he needed to…
There were a number of mic-drop-worthy moments in his main stage presser, but maybe the best line came in a chat with SI’s Ross Dellenger.
George Kliavkoff declined to get into specifics about his future relationship with Kevin Warren but told @SINow: "The way I live my life is I give people respect and trust until they prove to me that they don’t deserve it."
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 29, 2022
After the week Warren had, I love it.
10. … but the wins that matter are yet to come
Kliavkoff was thoughtful and measured with his opening remarks Friday. He presented issues and offered solutions. He shared insight. He focused the attention on moving the Pac-12 forward rather than dwelling on what had already happened. When it came time for the question-and-answer session, Kliavkoff let himself journey a bit off the cuff. I appreciated that. I’d imagine officials from several of the league’s remaining schools appreciated the show of strength as well.
But, at the end of the day, these were just words and words mean nothing. Kliavkoff scored a PR win for the day. His retweet-worthy comments don’t sign Oregon to another Grant of Rights.
The league is still months away from closing on its next media rights deal, the commissioner said. Even when Friday felt like a stabilizing force for the league, lots can happen between now and that day—whenever it comes. Hell, USC’s courtship with the Big Ten was a thing, and then it wasn’t, and then it was in theory, and then it rapidly materialized. Maybe all it takes is a phone call from the Big Ten commissioner to Eugene.
The decisive days are still ahead.
Bonus: The champs get the day off.
Utah wins the Pac-12 and then gets 26 of the 33 first-place votes in the next season’s preseason poll and no one wanted to talk about them on Friday. Kyle Whittingham went first, bright and early. Quarterback Cam Rising and corner Clark Phillips III said they were pissed off with how the 2021 season ended. Stanford’s David Shaw said he felt like a tiger in the weeds. I guess that makes Utah the megalodon lurking in the water.