Gold Nuggets: Pac-12 Media Day Edition
Welcome back a special edition Gold Nuggets, Saturday Out West columnist Jon Gold’s weekly trip around the Pac-12.
Read below for news, notes and quotes from Pac-12 Media Day…
Arizona: Buzz building in Tucson
One of the hot topics in Pac-12 Media Day was the buzz forming around Arizona, which hauled in one of the conference’s top recruiting classes this year, despite winning just one game.
Among the Wildcats’ prospects is wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan of Servite (Anaheim, Calif.) High. He’s only Arizona’s highest-rated recruit in history at No. 36 overall (No. 4 wide receiver), and he drew high praise on Friday.
“For as young as he is, he’s very mature,” said Jacob Cowing, a somewhat decent wide receiver himself. “He has a bright future. Watching him play in spring ball, he just goes up and gets it. He attacks the ball.”
Added defensive back Christian Young: “The sky? There’s no roof for him.”
Arizona State: Sun Devils go pro once more
Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch said during his time on stage that he likened the Wildcats to the “33rd team in the NFL” because of the NFL coaching experience on his staff.
But the Sun Devils might have something to say about that. Head coach Herm Edwards, who has 17 years of NFL coaching experience himself, talked in depth about bringing on former Super Bowl winner Brian Billick as an offensive analyst. Billick guided the Baltimore Ravens to the 2000 NFL championship, and both are close Sun Devil special assistant to the head coach Marvin Lewis.
“I don’t know if you guys know, but Brian was at BYU when I left Cal and went to San Diego State, so I played against him in college,” Edwards said. “So we all kind of go back together. But it’s another set of eyes. Our offense has changed somewhat from last year a little bit. It will be interesting to see how that kind of looks for us. But it’s good to have him in the building. It’s just another set of eyes, more information.”
Cal: Wilcox confident Cal can thrive in new landscape
Justin Wilcox was north of 10,000 feet in the air when the earth-shattering news broke that UCLA and USC had left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. By the time he landed, the college football world was upside down.
“I got off a flight, and I had a couple messages,” Wilcox said. “Then you get 1,500 links to articles and this article and that report. I can’t say that I was overly surprised. … You weren’t expecting it maybe on that day, but I don’t know that I was overly surprised. Apprehension? No. I still, again, have conviction about where we’re going as an institution and the schools in our conference. We’ve got some really good programs, excellent schools, great coaches. Like I said, I’m confident and bullish on the future.”
Colorado: Some Buffs have seen worst-to-first
Colorado defensive back Robert Barnes believes his teammate, R.J. Sneed, is maybe the poster boy for what the Buffaloes can accomplish this season.
“We have transfers who’ve won a lot of football games,” Barnes said. “You think of the experience of guys like R.J. Sneed – he was on a 1-11 Baylor team that was the worst in college football his freshman year, and his senior year they win the Big-12 championship. Having guys with that experience; I came from Oklahoma; Josh (Chandler-Semedocame) from West Virginia. … That experience will allow us to skyrocket into the development of where we want this team to go.”
Wherever they go, the Buffaloes are trying to get there in a hurry after a 4-8 season. The Pac-12 media don’t expect much improvement, considering they ranked the Buffaloes last in the preseason poll, behind even one-win Arizona.
But regarding that, Barnes had a quote that would make Michael Scott proud.
“It’s no secret, we see where they have us on paper,” Barnes said. “But the good thing about it is it’s paper.”
Oregon: Ducks’ elder statesman talks return
Well into his third position on his second team in his sixth season, Oregon linebacker D.J. Johnson is one of several Pac-12 players taking advantage of the pandemic-gifted extra year.
A triple threat for the Ducks, Johnson began his career as a defensive end before converting to tight end in 2020 and then to linebacker in 2021, while maintaining his tight end status. Johnson played 152 snaps on defense, 98 on offense and 18 on special teams a year ago.
“I love Oregon, so It wasn’t a hard decision to come back,” he said. “When you see who the coach was, and then when we met with him, it was a no-brainer for me.”
Oregon State: Beavers big believers in Beavers
After improving from 2 (in a pandemic-shortened season) to 7 wins in one year, the Oregon State Beavers were among the Pac-12’s surprise teams a year ago. To everyone except the Beavers, that is.
OSU tight end Luke Musgrave pointed out that maybe of the Beavers’ seven losses in 2020 were by narrow margins. That turned around last year. As they say, lose big, lose close, win close, win big.
“A lot of those losses were tight losses, they came down to one or two plays,” he said. “Last year, we won seven games, and we already knew we were capable of winning more.”
Stanford: Cardinal take center stage
It was not lost among the audience that along with Pac-12 Senior Associate Commissioner Merton Hanks, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff took opening questions on stage with Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir. Call it an act of solidarity, or a signal that Stanford is staying put – at least for now – but the Cardinal received plenty of credit on Friday for staying the course.
“For us, without taking the mantle for the conference, really for us being the best we can be and pushing our young people to be the best they can be, that’s our main goal,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “As far as the conference goes, really working with the other nine schools left in this conference to make this conference the best it can be.”
UCLA: Kelly being Kelly
Much has been made about the strain that cross-country travel will have on student-athletes at UCLA and USC, but Bruins coach Chip Kelly dismissed the notion.
“When I was in the National Football League, we did a sports study science of games played on East Coast and West Coast,” said Kelly, the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach. “It happens all the time in the National Football League. You’re only there for probably 18 hours total. You fly in the night before, go to sleep, get up in the morning, touch your toes, play a game, get on a plane and go back. I don’t think it will affect our sport, to really be honest with you. I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
USC: Star power takes over Los Angeles
Either as a form of punishment or holding off the main event for the finale, the Pac-12 had USC up last on Friday. Local media stuck around for hours to make sure they heard from the biggest show in the conference. And Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams and Shane Lee did not disappoint, fielding questions in overtime in front of a throng of media from near and far.
“Like I said in my opening press conference, before even one of these players had come in, I mean, you don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do things small. You got to set your sights big. I don’t think it’s too much. I don’t. I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in what we’re teaching. I believe in the people that we have in there. Obviously it’s going to continue to evolve through years. I didn’t come here for one season. I didn’t come here to do this in a short-term.”
Utah: Utes still have chip on their shoulders
Defending Pac-12 champion Utah, fresh off their first Rose Bowl appearance, is not resting on its laurels. And that includes returning all-conference first team selection Cameron Rising.
“I still feel like I have to prove myself every single day,” Rising said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s my job, that just means I’ll be getting more (first-team) reps.”
Rising sounds like he’s adopting a team-wide philosophy, one that comes from the top.
“We have to go out there and prove it,” he said. “We’re taking it day-by-day, making sure we’re not wasting a day. That championship is not ours, we have to go out and get it just like any other team.”
Later, Rising and teammate Clark Phillips both said that achieving a Rose Bowl birth and winning the Pac-12 felt like the program had hit a new plateau. But one they both hoped they’d eclipse this season with a CFP birth in their sights.
Washington: Huskies’ hulking Kirkland has a soft spot for mental health
Jaxson Kirkland described the day he found out that his ankle injury had worsened to the point that it required surgery – ending the 2022 NFL Draft process for the Oregon senior – as the worst time in his life. Now as an experienced player with several years under his belt, he’s working with Washington’s young players to prioritize their mental health.
“With the advancement of social media and technology, it is great for sports because it amplifies us and expands our platform, but you have people who are watching every move players make and critiquing them left and right. We can’t worry about that outside noise,” he said. “I just tell them, ‘Put the phone away.’”
Kirkland worked with Washington’s sports psychologist extensively this offseason, something he said has paid off in a big way.
“Like any player, I’ve had my ups and downs with the game,” he said. “Defining my worth and learning how to control that, it’s huge.”
Washington State: Stone a budding journalist while Dickert builds a bold staff
Ron Stone Jr. almost had him.
Holding a video camcorder in hand, he had an exclusive interview with his bitter rival turned captivated subject.
The interview winded down.
“OK, thanks, can we get a Go Cougs?” Stone tried to sneak it in.
For a second, like an offensive lineman taking an awkward first step, Washington defensive back Alex Cook almost bit. Then he laughed and shook his head.
For Stone, it was a big moment: He has visions of journalism in his future. His columns on CougFan.com, a site dedicated to Washington State sports, have drawn high praise. Among several current and potential NIL deals, this one is the most special to Stone.
This is a fascinating fact: In a conference in which assistant coaches are recycled like used tires, Cougars coach Jake Dickert chose a different path.
Washington State’s assistant coaches combine for just 15 total years as assistants in the Pac-12. Compare that to a team like Oregon, which employs Demetrice Martin (Colorado, Arizona, UCLA, Washington); Tosh Lupoi (Cal, Washington); Adrian Klemm (UCLA); Kenny Dillingham (Arizona State); Junior Adams (Washington); Joe Lorig (Arizona State) and Tony Tuioti (Cal).
Some of the previous stops of Washington State coaches: Simon Fraser University (British Columbia); Abilene Christian; Montana Western; North Dakota State.
“I’ve coached at every level of college football, and not that I’m carrying the flag for those guys, but there are just a lot of coaches who don’t get an opportunity,” Dickert said. “They’re everywhere. I’ve been fortunate – right people, right place, right players – to continue to move up. But a couple things: I either personally knew everyone I hired, or at some point in their career, they were at Washington State. I wanted their families to know why Pullman is unique and special. Stability is important.
“Just like players, I want a staff that wants to be here.”
Rarely is a coach given such latitude to craft a staff in his likeness.
“It starts with our president Kirk Schultz and our athletic director Pat Chun, they took a chance on me,” Dickert said. “I know they believe in me and they believe in our future as a program. I have comfort in that. I m a big believe in people and energy and how it replicates. In an immediate outcome-based profession we’re in, it’s all about energy and people. Our staff is humble not a lot of ego.”