Saturday, May 21, 2022

One question each Pac-12 team must answer during spring practices ahead of 2022 college football season

Spring camp is underway as the Pac-12 experiences a season of change across the league. There are new head coaches at the three biggest jobs in the league (Oregon, USC and Washington), and first-year Trojans coach Lincoln Riley suddenly gives West Coast football a new face.

While the Pac-12 has not put a team into the College Football Playoff since 2016, the league’s middle class is quietly growing. Oregon State and Utah had breakout seasons, while UCLA and Washington State seem ripe for ones themselves. Even bad situations at Arizona and Colorado added some juice through the transfer portal. Ultimately, the answers to these questions could decide the Pac-12 title. 

Here is the biggest question mark facing each Pac-12 team during spring camp. 

Arizona

How quickly can new additions create an impact?: The Wildcats went 1-11 in a disastrous first season under Jedd Fisch, but Arizona was not deterred. After the miserable season, Fisch turned around and pulled in the Pac-12’s No. 2 high school recruiting class and No. 5 transfer class to completely transform the roster. 

The additions are desperately needed; Arizona ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in nearly every category. The Wildcats failed to produce a 2,000-yard passer or a 500-yard rusher, and the lone 500-yard receiver left for the NFL Draft. The program needs quarterback transfer Jayden de Laura (ex-Wazzu), receiver Jacob Cowing (ex-UTEP) and other new additions to make immediate impacts. 

Arizona State

Can the Sun Devils weather the storm?: Few programs have gone through the chaos that Arizona State has over the past two seasons. As a result of multiple NCAA recruiting violations during the COVID-19 pandemic, half of Herm Edwards’ staff is gone and several key contributors entered the transfer portal. 

The Sun Devils turned to the transfer portal with 10 additions coming to campus, including Alabama quarterback Paul Tyson. However, ASU also fielded the Pac-12’s worst high school recruiting class. Edwards has his hands full trying to get his roster on the same page. 

Cal

Are any offensive answers coming?: The Golden Bears held off a big fish as coach Justin Wilcox reportedly turned down interest from Oregon to stay in Berkeley. The offense remains a liability after five seasons with the program, however. 

While the stats improved marginally, Cal scored fewer than 20 points five times and fewer than 10 points three times. Granted, Cal was also the only team in the nation that dealt with pandemic complications because of local guidelines, but the season ultimately ended with a thud. 

Cal added former Purdue starting quarterback Jack Plummer to compete with sixth-year senior Ryan Glover and promising freshman Kai Millner for the starting job. Freshman blue-chip receiver J.Michael Sturdivant could be ready for prime time. But with Cal’s top two receivers and top running back gone, something significant needs to change. 

Colorado

Where will offense come from after Jarek Broussard’s transfer?: The Buffaloes ranked as perhaps the most miserable offense in the Pac-12 in Karl Dorrell’s first full season. Things only got worse after Broussard, the team’s promising young running back, transferred to Michigan State, leaving the Buffaloes without a single returning skill talent who reached 400 yards rushing or receiving. 

Colorado added three major playmakers from the state of Texas to try to fill gaps. Receiver R.J. Sneed comes from Baylor after posting 1,500 yards receiving over the past three years. Ramon Jefferson cleared 1,000 yards rushing twice and led Sam Houston to a national championship. Maddox Kopp, a quarterback transfer from Houston, is a hidden gem. 

Tweaks aren’t enough to fix a unit that ranked No. 129 in total offense and No. 121 in scoring offense, however. Dorrell needs to quickly develop new playmakers. 

Oregon

Which quarterback will take hold of the starting job?: There’s a glaring opening at quarterback after Anthony Brown’s graduation, and new Oregon coach Dan Lanning has been aggressive trying to fill it. Ty Thompson was on the roster last season and threw 15 passes in relief of Brown, and Lanning added experienced transfer Bo Nix from Auburn. 

Inconsistencies have plagued Nix’s career, however. He was benched for parts of last season and threw for fewer than 200 yards four times. Thompson’s limited reps didn’t inspire much confidence, either. He missed all three of his passes against Arizona and completed just 1-of-3 attempts against Colorado with an interception. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will bring in a new system, but having clarity at the position will make planning for the fall much easier. 

Oregon State

Can the Beavers replace B.J. Baylor?: Baylor quietly put together one of the most impressive seasons in program history by rushing for a Pac-12 best 1,336 yards and earning All-America consideration. With Baylor off to the NFL, there’s now a gaping hole in Jonathan Smith’s offense. 

Deshaun Fenwick and Trey Lowe return after combining for 807 yards rushing and five touchdowns in 2021. The Beavers also added former four-star running back Jamious Griffin from Georgia Tech and Damien Martinez from the 2022 class. However, someone needs to step up in the rotation to take on Baylor’s workhorse mantle for OSU to capitalize on its momentum. 

Stanford

Will an experienced offensive line show signs of growth?: Stanford was once a Mecca for physical offensive linemen who wanted to run an aggressive zone scheme. After allowing 31 sacks and averaging 3.2 yards per carry as a team, the Cardinal have work to do to get back to that standard. 

Every starter along the offensive line is back to try to rebuild under second-year offensive line coach Terry Heffernan. With the way Stanford historically recruits the position, along with Tanner McKee emerging at quarterback, there’s no excuse for the Cardinal to be one of the nation’s worst offensive line units. 

UCLA

Can a coordinator change inspire a defensive turnaround?: The Bruins wasted what could have been a program-changing win against LSU by subsequently giving up 40 points to Fresno State, 42 to Arizona State, 34 to Oregon and 44 to Utah. An 8-4 record fell well short of their potential, leading to the departure of defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. 

Chip Kelly turned to longtime NFL assistant Bill McGovern to turn the tide. McGovern has not coordinated a defense in a decade, and only spent one year in college football over that stretch. Spring will be a big opportunity for McGovern to make his mark with a defensive unit that ranks No. 102 nationally in returning production. 

USC

Can Alex Grinch solve the defensive questions?: Grinch was a rising star when he joined Riley at Oklahoma in 2019, but the results never quite came. After posting a top-30 defense in 2020, Grinch’s Sooners fell to No. 76 in a frustrating final year. Now, Grinch has a fresh start next to Riley with a talented roster at USC. 

Several major contributors are off to the NFL, but the Trojans added six high-profile defensive transfers, including former Sooner Latrell McCutchin. Defensive backs Domani Jackson and Zion Branch were blue-chip recruits. Perhaps most importantly, Grinch has a chance to build a defensive culture from scratch instead of trying to fix a mess at Oklahoma. 

Grinch built his reputation during a three-year run in the Pac-12 under Mike Leach at Washington State. If he can get USC to the level he showed at Wazzu, the Trojans could become a dark-horse playoff contender. 

Utah

How will the Utes handle being the hunted?: Utah coach Kyle Whittington finally got his elusive first Pac-12 championship in 2021, as the Utes shocked Oregon twice to earn their first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl. With several key starters back from the championship team, Utah is a popular pick to compete for a playoff spot. 

Coming off the program’s first top-15 finish since joining the Pac-12, Utah now faces a new challenge of being the hunted instead of being the hunter. Whittington did lead Utah to three straight 10-win seasons and an undefeated Sugar Bowl champion season in the Mountain West, but coaching duels with Riley, Edwards and Kelly will provide a different challenge. Instilling a confident mindset heading into 2022 is critical. The Utes have no time to waste with Florida on the schedule in Week 1. 

Washington

Can Michael Penix Jr. get back to form under Kalen DeBoer?: Washington’s total offense ranked only ahead of Colorado in the Pac-12 and among the bottom 20 teams nationally during Jimmy Lake’s miserable final season. New coach Kalen DeBoer comes to UW after leading one of the nation’s top-15 offenses at Fresno State and brings one of his former star pupils along for the ride. 

Michael Penix Jr. completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,394 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions under DeBoer’s leadership at Indiana in 2019 before leading the Hoosiers to a top-15 nationally finish the following year. However, Penix completed just 53.7% of passes and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in 2021. DeBoer knows Penix well. If he is able to get Penix back to 2019 levels of production, the Huskies are in store for a major turnaround 

Washington State

Will the Morris-Ward connection work in the Power Five?: Cougars coach Jake Dickert made an intriguing hire at offensive coordinator by nabbing four-year IUW coach Eric Morris, who brought talented quarterback Cameron Ward with him. Ward won the Jerry Rice Award as the FCS’ top freshman for the 2020-21 season and capitalized with 4,648 yards passing and 47 touchdowns for the Cardinals. He led UIW to its first FCS playoff win in program history and ultimately earned transfer offers from Ole Miss and Houston. 

Last season, Western Kentucky fielded the top passing offense in the country after importing its offensive coordinator and quarterback from an FCS school. Dickert is betting that Morris and Ward can replicate that connection in the Pac-12. The jump in competition will be steep, but Morris’ experience working under both Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury should give him a leg up. 

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