Welcome back to the Monday Rewind. Hope everyone had a great week. Let’s dive in.

Caleb Williams has his teammates’ respect

Early on in spring ball, Lincoln Riley seems encouraged by what he’s seen from his USC Trojans. “This team, there’s a good vibe about this team right now,” he told reporters last week. “They really like working.” Full buy-in is something he’s talked about several times, finding leaders, building culture, building winning habits, all those things new coaches preach when they take over at a place. 

And it feels like a key component in fostering all that is a championship pedigree that Riley—and quarterback Caleb Williams—immediately brings to the table. 

“The biggest thing with Coach Riley is he has a formula, and he has a formula that we as players can believe in because it has worked,” quarterback Miller Moss said. 

In that way, Williams is right at home. New colors, new logos, new routes to memorize for practice and school schedules, but the work remains the same. Coach and quarterback are together again on the football field and that surely plays a factor in elevating the whole vibe. 

USC has an elite quarterback again who isn’t just elite because of what his high school production signaled but because of what he’s already shown at the collegiate level. And yet there’s still so much room to grow.

“He’s a long way from being the best player he can be,” Riley said.

The ceiling is the roof!

Williams seems deadset on getting there. Teammates are already raving about the sophomore quarterback. 

“He’s a leader,” running back Austin Jones said. “Most definitely he’s an alpha. He’s going to come out here, he’s going to make plays, and he’s going to do his thing. And you see it in him. Whatever you see on tape is exactly what you see. Dude’s a baller. He comes out here and makes plays.

“First day he shows up to campus, he’s the first one breaking it down. … You can see it in him, just the way he talks and the way he holds himself. Great dude.”

That last part is the interesting one. Williams didn’t speak to the Oklahoma media during his first season of school. Now, he’s front and center for the Trojans and not only holds court but sort of dominates the mic. He’s got a confidence about him and a way of making the whole awkward “press conference” vibe turn more conversational. 

“Caleb’s got a good way about him,” Riley said. “He’s one of those guys who can walk into a room with people he doesn’t know and he’s kind of a chameleon. He can fit in in any place.”

Teams take on the personality and the attitude of their best players. As USC continues to grow through spring ball, Williams figures to be just as important to setting a tone as he is to dropping a deep ball in the bucket for a guy like Brenden Rice or Mario Williams. 

Washington State gets rolling

The Cougars began spring ball last week. There’s quite a bit of work to get done between now and the team’s spring game on April 23. Head coach Jake Dickert is going through his first spring period as the head coach. Wazzu is looking to improve off a surprisingly stout finish to last season and a 6-3 conference record. And then there’s the quarterback spot. Asked which group he’s most excited to watch throughout the period, Dickert echoed what many Cougar fans would likely say: it’s the quarterback spot. 

Two-year starter Jayden de Laura dipped into the transfer portal this offseason, swapping his Washington State crimson for Arizona red. Dickert and his staff swiftly replaced him with FCS Incarnate Word transfer Cameron Ward, one of the most sought-after transfer quarterbacks of the cycle. 

Ward reunites with his former coach in new WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who brings a modified Air Raid attack to Pullman that Ward is intimately familiar with. 

Despite having to replace seven starters on offense and five on defense, Washington State feels like a potential player in the Pac-12 North—or, at the very least, a team that can make life uncomfortable for Oregon in the division race—because of Ward’s ability and his fit within the Cougar attack.

“This is a quarterback-driven offense,” Dickert told reporters last week. “There’s a lot of freedom in that position. He controls a lot of the things that we do, and he’s a football-smart guy.”

Added Ward: “I like that.”

And Dickert was clear about Ward’s standing. He’s the guy. The rest of the quarterbacks on the roster will get reps this spring because you can “slice,” as Dickert said, where you need to in order to ensure everyone gets work—this won’t be a situation where Ward gets 90% of the snaps—but Dickert said plainly that the transfer will get the majority of reps at quarterback. 

Ward is hoping to prove himself as he jumps from the FCS level to the Power Five level. He’s got the arm talent and the size to be effective. Just how much will factor into the North’s race.

Oregon’s QB room

I find myself thinking about Oregon’s quarterback spot at least once or twice a day. That might feel excessive, maybe even a little weird. Oh well. Basketball is nearly done for the Pac-12 but spring football is a renewable source of clean, positive energy and there’s plenty to be encouraged by with the Ducks. 

For folks who followed what coach Dan Lanning did with Georgia’s defense, there seems to be a baseline level of confidence he can mold Oregon’s unit into one that’s active, aggressive, and effective. Now consider the tools he has to work with in terms of defensive talent. Encouraging, right?

Offensively, Oregon has the most fundamental piece nailed down. The Ducks’ offensive line has “best in class” potential given the pieces coming back. 

If you’re intrigued by the skill talent (I am), then the quarterback spot should be a topic of great interest the league over. Bo Nix or Ty Thompson? Established vet or promising youngster? Familiarity or potential? Lanning and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have an unenviable decision on their hands. 

“Competition breeds excellence ultimately, and we’re gonna have competition at every position across the board, quarterback included,” Lanning said earlier this offseason when asked about the quarterback spot. “We were really clear with Bo. ‘Hey, you come in here, there’s certainly an opportunity to compete, but we’re really excited about the guys we have on our roster as well and excited to see those guys come in and compete and go to work.’”

Normally, I’m a quick-decision kind of guy in quarterback competitions. Give your offense time to build a rhythm around one guy rather than having to learn two different voices and play styles. This feels like a different situation. Oregon needs to be sure it has the right guy, and Thompson (as well as Jay Butterfield) deserves all the consideration he can get. 

Oregon returns to practice on Tuesday after a two-week break. The Ducks’ spring game is on April 23. I’ll be watching closely to see what ground the quarterbacks can break over the next few weeks. 

The Pac-12 and the NCAA Tournament

So much was made about Notre Dame getting into the NCAA Tournament field and how undeserving the Irish were after a down ACC year. Turns out we were focused on the wrong “undeserved.” The Big Ten, for the second year in a row, sent nine teams into the tournament and puffed its chest about being the best conference in basketball only to become the first league in history to send nine and have none advance past the Sweet 16.

Was the ACC, with two teams in the Final Four, the best conference in basketball? Maybe it’s not fair to judge conference strength by what happens in the tournament. It’s also fine to think we should.

The Pac-12 had three in the field. Should it have gotten more? The Mountain West had four to the Conference of Champions’ three, but all four bowed out after their opening games. The SEC disappointed, too. Should the 21-win Colorado Buffaloes have been selected? Hard to say after an NIT loss on their home floor. What about Washington State? Going to the semifinals of the NIT suggests they might have been able to get a game.

But the Pac-12 was viewed as a weak league, so a 17-14 team (Michigan) was better than a 19-14 team (WSU). We’ll never know. What we do know is the Pac-12 continues to do comparatively well at the NCAA level, and in that regard, it deserves a little more respect than what it gets. Two of the league’s three teams went to the Sweet 16. 

In the last two tournament fields, the Pac-12 has sent five different teams to at least the Sweet 16. Eight bids have come in the last two fields, and six of those teams have won at least two games. The SEC and the Big Ten have each only earned three Sweet 16 spots from 12 and 18 bids, respectively. 

It’s true that this will be the 11th time in the last 13 NCAA Tournaments the Pac-12 failed to advance a team to the Final Four. No team can bemoan injuries this time of year because everyone is missing someone or dealing with something, but it bears mentioning that Arizona had to deal with Kerr Kriisa’s ankle and UCLA had to do the same with Jaime Jaquez Jr. How much those injuries affected team performance probably plays a small part in their respective losses. Small, but not insignificant.

On the whole, Arizona and UCLA both feel like reignited programs. Much will be made about the Bruins going to a Final Four in 2021 and then failing to meet expectations in 2022; criticism is fair. Two 5-stars coming for next season can and should put UCLA right back into the conversation at the top of the sport. Arizona isn’t going anywhere. USC and Oregon are the swing programs. 

A bounce-back season for the Ducks puts them right back into the tournament. Dana Altman won’t miss two in a row. USC has been winning at a rate unmatched by its recognition. The Trojans are a piece away from stepping up into that next tier of program under Andy Enfield. The objective should be to have threats to go deep, not a bunch of Rutgers who squeak into the field. The Pac-12 has several of those.

Don’t sleep on the Conference of Champions next season. 

Actually, please don’t. Stay up and watch their games, East Coasters. That’s part of the problem. 

Shoutouts of the week

  • Stanford women’s basketball: While the men’s side has missed 11 of the last 13 Final Fours, the women’s side has produced a Final Four participant in 11 of the last 13 tournaments now. Stanford, the defending national champion, is going back to the Final Four after beating Texas Sunday night. This will be the program’s ninth trip to the national semis since 2008. 
  • Washington stickball: Husky infielder Will Simpson took a full-count pitch back over the left-field fence to drive home two runs and give Washington a 6-4 win over Arizona State in extra innings on Sunday. The home run marked Simpson’s second in as many days. The win gave UW coach Lindsay Meggs his 300th win with the program.