Pac-12 football: 20 burning post-spring questions
In no particular order, but still numbered because why not:
1. Is it QB1 for Bo Nix?
Bo Nix, Ty Thompson, and Jay Butterfield all turned it over in Oregon’s spring game. They all found the end zone. They all had their moments. If there’s one overarching offensive takeaway from the Ducks’ spring period, it’s that offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham is going to want to be aggressive and vertical in the passing game. Any of the Ducks’ three quarterbacks can push the ball downfield. The question is who can do it efficiently and safely? It seemed like Nix was the popular QB1 on the heels of the spring game, but is this competition truly settled? How much work can Thompson get done this summer?
2. Does USC have playmakers on defense?
A ton of my focus was on the front seven during the spring game. It looks like USC has playmakers at linebacker. Tuli Tuipulotu stood out as an athletic end/edge rusher type. USC has added Eric Gentry, a Freshman All-American last season at Arizona State, to a group that also boasts former No. 1 prospect Korey Foreman and Auburn transfer Romello Height. Shane Lee is going to be an important piece of the entire defense. This was a group that ranked 97th in stuff rate and 108th in front seven havoc rate last year. How much improvement has been made?
3. UCLA likes Jake Bobo… who’s WR2?
A 6-foot-5 wideout transfer from Duke, it seems Jake Bobo is set to be the top wideout for UCLA next season. He caught 126 balls over four seasons with the Blue Devils, capped by a 74-reception, 774-yard season last year. But the duo of Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich (both gone to the NFL) saw 357 combined targets over the last three seasons. That’s about 40% of the UCLA passing game over that time. Last season alone, they had 101 receptions combined. The guy with the third-most receptions on the team after them: Zach Charbonnet out of the backfield with 24. No one else had more than 20. As UCLA looks to keep its offense humming, it won’t be enough to have a stud like Bobo. Does UCLA have another guy who can hurt defenses in the passing game? I like Kaz Allen.
4. How quickly can the Arizona youngsters make an impact?
First-year tight end Keyan Burnett was a big winner during spring ball. First-year wideout Tetairoa McMillan looks like he have a steady diet on the outside. First-year running back Jonah Coleman gives the UA coaches a tough task in figuring out how to divvy up snaps in the backfield. First-year guard Jonah Savaiinaea appears in line to start. Quarterback Jayden de Laura is still relatively young by a quarterback’s standards, having only played in 17 games at the collegiate level. This was an anemic offense last season that ranked 124th out of 130 FBS teams in scoring offense. There are surely going to be growing pains as the Wildcats work in so many young pieces, so how quickly can they gel and build some rhythm?
5. Can Van Fillinger take that next step for Utah?
A 6-foot-4, 250-pound end, Fillinger started 13 games for the Utes on the defensive line last season. He produced 41 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. Three of those sacks came in one outing, an eye-opening performance against Washington State on Sept. 25. Opposite him, Mika Tafua had 74 pressures and a Pac-12-leading 9.5 sacks. Tafua is gone, as is linebacker Devin Lloyd, who led the Pac-12 with 22 TFLs and finished second with eight sacks. While Fillinger won’t fill Lloyd’s shoes, he might be able to keep the Utes among college football’s top havoc-creating defenses. He’s a physically gifted, quick, and very smart. With more responsibility in his second full year as a starter, how much better can he be?
6. QB1 has arrived for ASU, how quickly can he master the offense?
The biggest question for Arizona State, by a country mile, was what the quarterback spot was going to look like after the transfer of Jayden Daniels. Arizona State went through spring ball with Alabama transfer Paul Tyson and fourth-year man Trenton Bourguet battling for the starting spot. The quarterback room felt incomplete. ASU exited the spring period absent a definitive starter. Former Florida quarterback Emory Jones changed everything by electing to join the Sun Devils’ program. In certain aspects of his game, he’s similar to Daniels, and it’ll be a massive upset if he isn’t ASU’s Day 1 starter to open the year. These next few months will be about getting him up to speed. How long does that process take? The Sun Devils begin with Oklahoma State, Utah, and USC in three of their first five games, giving the new guy virtually no runway to get things up and running in-season. Things in Tempe just got even more interesting.
7. Stanford has QB settled, what about RB?
Tanner McKee is the bee’s knees. This is known. What isn’t known is whether Stanford can regain its potency on the ground? From 2009 through the end of the 2017 season, Stanford averaged less than 5 yards per rush only twice for an entire year. The Cardinal had five top-20 finishes over those nine seasons and two top-10 finishes. The drop-off was immediate and stark. In 2017, led by Bryce Love, Stanford finished sixth nationally with a ground game that bit off 5.9 yards a carry. The following season, Stanford dropped to 3.7 yards per run. The Cardinal averaged 3.7 again in 2019, 4.0 in 2020, and then an abysmal 3.2 last year. With Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat departing after finishing the season first and second in attempts on the team, who is going to step up as the Cardinal’s new running back and will this ground game be able to at least be competent?
8. Is this the year for Cal’s offense?
There are few reasons to question the competency of a Justin Wilcox-coached defense. There are five years worth of reasons to question the offense, however. Cal should have gone bowling last season by lost five one-score games while being held under 20 points five times and under 10 points three times. The offseason arrival of former Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer has given some hope to the Golden Bears that they’ve found something at the quarterback spot. J.Michael Sturdivant gives Plummer a 6-foot-3 blue-chip receiver to throw to. Cal hasn’t averaged more than 25 points a game over the course of a season since Wilcox’s first year at the helm. Is this the year that changes? We’ll have to see it to believe it.
9. Will Wazzu break passing records?
That’s a little hyperbolic, but I am excited about the prospects of this aerial attack. In the Cougars’ spring game, they ran the ball 26 times and threw it 76 times. While that was a spring game and there was a clear and obvious desire to see what the quarterbacks looked like through the air, there’s legitimate reason to wonder if Washington State’s path to a Pac-12 North crown is to just put the game on quarterback Cam Ward’s arm and see if he can make some magic happen. How often is this “Coug Raid” offense going to air it out? How often is this team going to be in shootouts? Washington State, going back to the Mike Leach days, has been one of the most pass-happy teams in the country. Will that be what defines this Eric Morris offense as well? It seems like Washington State has the quarterback to sling it.
10. How much stock should be put in the spring preview performance by UW’s defense?
They looked good. “I do think the defense made some huge strides (during the spring period) above and beyond probably what we expected,” coach Kalen DeBoer told reporters after the spring game on April 30. The defense turned over Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. twice, pushed the offensive line around pretty much the entire day, and showcased effective pressure. Of course, the question worth asking after a performance like that is whether the defense is just strong or the offense is just behind. UW’s defense was bad in 2021. How much stock do we put into a unit that looked much-improved in a spring game?
11. Is Brendon Lewis the guy?
Who will win the quarterback battle? It seems a little boring to once again focus on a team’s quarterback, but it’s the most important position on the field and this was a Power Five offense that produced 19 points a game and 130 passing yards a game last season. The Tennessee transfer JT Shrout, sat out the 2021 season after knee surgery. Brendon Lewis, the starter for all of last season, had no one to push him for the job. Though he didn’t turn the ball over (10 touchdowns to three interceptions), he completed less than 60% of his passes and ranked 99th nationally in QBR among qualified quarterbacks. Shrout should be full-go in fall camp. Lewis should get pushed. Who is the guy that can help give this Colorado offense some oomph.
12. Will Oregon State’s quality play from the RB spot continue?
Hello, yes, hi, buy stock in freshman Oregon State running back Damien Martinez. Throughout the spring period, Martinez made noise. A mid-year enrollee from Texas, the freshman is well-built, standing 6-foot and 228 pounds. He made the most of his spring ball, finding some comfort within the Beaver offense and letting his pure talent shine. An Oregon State tailback led the Pac-12 last season in rushing. An Oregon State tailback finished second in the Pac-12 in 2020. An Oregon State back finished third in 2018. For years, this has been an offense that runs it well. If that offensive line remains among the conference’s best, could Martinez help a backfield that also features Deshaun Fenwick and Trey Lowe once again be one of the league’s better rushing attacks?
13. How much better will Cam Rising be in Year 2?
The question that is frightening to opposing defensive coordinators. Here’s a preseason Heisman hopeful in an offense that looks to feature an abundance of playmakers and going through his first full offseason as the unquestioned No. 1 guy. Last year, Rising was No. 2 behind Charlie Brewer until replacing him a quarter of the way into the regular season. Rising was dynamic immediately and ended the season as one of college football’s most effective and efficient quarterbacks. He ranked sixth nationally in QBR. This offseason, I wanted to see if Rising could grow in the deep passing game, and then he came out during Utah’s spring game and looked downright surgical pushing the ball through the air. If Rising is, in fact, a legitimate Heisman contender in 2022, the Pac-12 South isn’t as close as people want to make it.
14. Are the hired guns on defense the real deal for UCLA?
Transfers I really, really liked this offseason: Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau, North Texas edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, Wyoming defensive back Azizi Hearn. They all ended up at UCLA. There is no hiding from the fact the Bruins have to find a way to generate some pressure in 2022. Defense has held coach Chip Kelly’s UCLA teams back, and that was finally addressed this offseason by a change at defensive coordinator and an overhaul of the defensive coaching staff. This is an entirely different unit with all the turnover. It has to be better. Will it be?
15. How scared do we need to be about DJ Johnson?
“I think DJ can be one of the best players in the conference,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said after the Ducks’ spring game on April 23. Prior to Lanning’s arrival, the sixth-year senior was a jack-of-all-trades kind of player for the Ducks, a guy who would play both sides of the ball in a pinch but didn’t have a defined role either way. Well, he’s an outside linebacker now and appears to be a darn good one. Oregon already has defenders in Noah Sewell and Brandon Dorlus who are among the best in the league at their respective positions. Did Lanning and defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi just unlock something with Johnson as an athletic, aggressive pass-rusher off the edge?
16. Does USC have the offensive linemen?
When the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins picked USC, it looked as though the Trojans had their left tackle spot sewn up. A winter foot injury that required surgery put him on the shelf for the entire spring period and gave sophomores Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim more run with the top line than they probably expected. Haskins is expected back in time for fall camp. How does USC manage the offensive line when he does return? In Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon, and Justin Dedich, USC had three of the six highest-graded qualified linemen in the Pac-12 last season, per PFF. They are all back and figure to be starters on the interior. That leaves Haskins, Ford, and Monheim to battle for the starting spots at tackle. If Haskins takes one of those jobs, this spring period will have been a major plus for USC’s depth. Will that group play to its potential in 2022?
17. Can anyone slow down USC’s offense?
Caleb Williams, Travis Dye, Austin Jones, Raleek Brown, Mario Williams, Brenden Rice, Tahj Washington, Gary Bryant Jr., and maybe even a former Biletnikoff winner; man, is USC loaded with offensive talent. Regardless of your feelings on Lincoln Riley, you have to respect his offensive mind. The Trojans are going to be a tough out every single week because of the firepower they possess on offense. Looking specifically at the Pac-12 South, you’ll find one defense that should be strong, one defense that might be strong, and then several others who are in wait-and-see mode. The race for the South crown is going to be an interesting one. How many teams is USC going to be able to simply outscore?
18. Will this be a golden quarterback year in the league?
The aforementioned Cam Rising is back. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back. Caleb Williams joins the fold. Emory Jones is in at Arizona State. Jayden de Laura transferred from Washington State but remained in-conference at Arizona. Cameron Ward took his place at Washington State. Tanner McKee is NFL Draft Twitter’s favorite 2023 quarterback. Bo Nix or Ty Thompson will probably serve as an upgrade over the level of play Oregon got from its quarterback position in 2021. Sam Huard is sneaky interesting with Kalen DeBoer and Washington. The Pac-12 only had two top-30 quarterbacks last season by QBR. It was a year marred by “meh” quarterback play in a lot of places. How much better that position looks across the league could go a long way in helping the overall perception of the league.
19. How tight is the North, actually?
Is Oregon head and shoulders clear of everyone else? Do you believe in Washington State? Do you buy Washington in a Year 1 under a new regime? Do you believe in Oregon State? This could be a division where three teams feel like they have a realistic shot at earning a spot in the Pac-12 title game. This could be a division that Oregon once again runs away with. This could be a division where literally any of the six teams finished second. How close is everyone?
20. Is there a College Football Playoff team in the bunch?
On a macro level, this is the only question that matters to the league. And the Pac-12 might not care if its USC or Utah or Oregon or anyone else. At this point, getting someone into the College Football Playoff field is all that matters. The league hasn’t earned one of the four spots since 2016. From a respectability standpoint and (maybe more importantly) from a network marketability standpoint, the Pac-12 needs to get back into college football’s elite. Can it during this upcoming season?