Pac-12 Spring Football Breakdown. Key Questions for Each Team

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

The Hotline’s coverage of spring football across the Pac-12 continues with a deep dive into areas of intrigue for each team, with one massive caveat: We’re ignoring the quarterback position.

That’s right, this is a QB-free space.

Rest assured, plenty of words … thousands of words … will be devoted to an assessment of Pac-12 quarterback depth at the conclusion of spring.

Here and now, the spotlight is on other position groups.

You’re welcome.

(Note: ESPN will televise USC’s spring game, with all others on the Pac-12 Networks. Dates provided by the conference office.)

Our eye is on: The offensive line
Comment: For all the progress second-year coach Jedd Fisch has made with the roster, the line of scrimmage is the most daunting challenge for a program that hasn’t had a center, guard or tackle drafted in over a decade. The Wildcats return four starters up front, including both tackles (Jordan Morgan and Paiton Fears). Size isn’t the issue (average across the front last year: 311 pounds), but dramatic improvements are needed in both run blocking and pass protection — not only to give the quarterbacks time but to keep them healthy. A deeper understanding of Fisch’s system will help the precision, as will better leadership.
Player to watch: offensive tackle Joe Borjon
Spring game: April 9

Arizona State
Our eye is on: The defensive mentality
Comment: There are plenty of issues to address for a program hit hard by attrition (players and coaches) and under the ever-present cloud of NCAA scandal. But we picked the defense because of the variety of challenges facing new coordinator Donnie Henderson. First and foremost is a culture change: The Sun Devils desperately need a more mature approach than the undisciplined, Yakety-Yak attitude encouraged by former playcaller Antonio Pierce. Also, there are major personnel losses o address. The secondary was gutted, all-league linebacker Darien Butler is gone, and so are multiple starters on the line.
Player to watch: linebacker Eric Gentry
Spring game: April 9

Our eye is on: The wide receivers
Comment: Let’s start this commentary with a few statistics for your reading pleasure — specifically, Cal’s national ranking in yards per attempt over the past four non-COVID seasons (chronologically): 104th, 124th, 90th and 94th. Responsibility doesn’t fall entirely on the wideout group. The quarterback and offensive line are accountable, as is the playcaller. But clearly, the Bears are in dire need of elite playmakers on the perimeter who can stretch the defense and thereby open running lanes. And without their top three wideouts from last season (Nikko Remigio, Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford), there is opportunity galore for the next wave.
Players to watch: J. Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson
Spring game: April 30

Our eye is one: The offensive line
Comment: Our options are plentiful after a somewhat tumultuous winter for the Buffaloes, who lost several of their best players to the transfer portal (and have a murky quarterback situation). But we selected the offensive line because without tangible improvement up front, fixes elsewhere will have limited impact. In the conference, only Arizona allowed more sacks last year than the Buffs (32). In addition to losing two starters, CU has a new offensive coordinator (Mike Sanford) and a new line coach (Kyle DeVan). That’s significant turnover for the unit that wasn’t elite to begin with and requires better communication than any other.
Player to watch: offensive tackle Tommy Brown
Spring game: April 23

Our eye is on: The skill positions
Comment: Concerns about replacing edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux are a tad overblown — there’s plenty of returning talent throughout the front seven. We mulled focusing on the secondary but opted instead for running back and receiver because of the deep losses on both units: Travis Dye and CJ Verdell in the backfield; and Devon Williams and Johnny Johnson out wide (60 combined catches). Add a new quarterback (Bo Nix or Ty Thompson) and a new play caller (Kenny Dillingham), and there’s good reason to wonder if the Ducks will produce a first-class attack — or will be forced to lean heavily on their loaded defense.
Player to watch: receiver Troy Franklin
Spring game: April 23

Oregon State
Our eye is on: The secondary
Comment: We were tempted (so very tempted) to focus on the interior of the offensive line, where OSU must replace all-conference honorees Nathan Eldridge and Nous Keobounnam. But instead the Hotline spotlight is on the back line of what was a wobbly defense in 2021 and has a new coordinator this year (Trent Bray). The Beavers showed flashes of high-level secondary play but were beaten a few too many times and struggled to avoid pass interference and holding penalties. There’s a foundation in place with the return of nickel Jaydon Grant and cornerback Rejzohn Wright, but how will the pieces fit around them?
Player to watch: cornerback Alex Austin
Spring game: April 16

Our eye is on: The running backs
Comment: Another team with plenty of holes to fill and depth chart uncertainty. But consider this: The Cardinal was No. 126 in rushing yards last season and lost its top tailbacks, Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones, to the transfer portal. (Can you blame them?) The Cardinal isn’t built for an Air Raid style — it needs to run the ball successfully to win. There are several candidates to fill the backfield void, starting with sophomore E.J. Smith. But the son of Emmitt was banged up last year and rushed for less than 150 yards. Consider this one of the biggest skill-position holes in the conference, unless or until someone fills it.
Player to watch: running back Casey Filkins
Spring game: April 9

Our eye is on: The receivers and tight ends
Comment: A fairly easy call given what the Bruins lost in the aerial game: all-conference tight end Greg Dulcich (to the NFL Draft) and their top two receivers, Kyle Phillips (draft) and Chase Cota (transfer). The trio combined for 119 receptions, most of them by Dulcich and Cota. No coach schemes his way out of a personnel jam better than Chip Kelly, and the presence of a veteran quarterback (Dorian Thompson-Robinson) should expedite the process as long as a few players step forward. One possibility is Kam Brown, the former Texas A&M transfer who spent most of ’21 in the long shadows cast by Phillips and Dulcich.
Player to watch: tight end Michael Ezeike
Spring game: April 23

Our eye is on: Everyone who doesn’t handle the ball
Comment: Seriously, the trajectory of USC football in 2022 depends on every position except quarterback, tailback and receiver. At those spots, the Trojans are in great shape. Everywhere else, uncertainty reigns: The offensive line needs work; the defensive line needs more work; the linebacking unit must be fortified (without Drake Jackson); and the secondary has a slew of holes. At its core, this spring is about installing the new systems and focusing on the fundamentals that have been AWOL for years. But Lincoln Riley must establish some shape to his depth chart entering the summer.
Player to watch: linebacker Shane Lee
Spring game: April 23

Our eye is on: The receivers
Comment: There isn’t much to pick from with the Utes, who lost a handful of top players but didn’t suffer significant attrition throughout a specific position group. (They have fewer holes than any other team.) We selected the receivers for two reasons: 1) The position has never been Utah’s strength, and 2) the returnees do not include star slot receiver Britain Covey, who had as many receptions (52) as the other wideouts combined. Fortunately for Utah, all-conference tight end Brant Kuithe will be back to handle a sizable load. But at least one receiver must emerge as a dependable target for quarterback Cam Rising.
Player to watch: receiver Devaughn Vele
Spring game: April 23

Our eye is on: The defensive backs
Comment: For eight years, Jimmy Lake did an extraordinary job evaluating, recruiting and developing defensive backs. How will UW fare in those areas without the master? The Huskies must replace their stellar cornerback combination of Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon. A handful of full-time starters and semi-starters return, including safeties Alex Cook and Asa Turner. But will they progress at the same rate under Kalen DeBoer’s staff? And who is the next dominant cornerback in Seattle? The Huskies aren’t talented enough elsewhere to generate an elite defense if the secondary takes a step back.
Player to watch: Kamren Fabiculanan
Spring game: April 30

Washington State
Our eye is on: The running backs
Comment: In advance of his first spring in charge, coach Jake Dickert laid out a handful of his own questions and concerns, including depth at receiver. But we’re intrigued by developments in the backfield, where WSU must replace Max Borgi and Deon McIntosh, who combined for all but 100 of WSU’s rushing yards (from the tailback position) last season. The shift to an Air Raid approach in ’22 will lessen the reliance on the ground game, but even Mike Leach’s best team had a productive tailback (James Williams). Nakia Watson, a transfer from Wisconsin who played sparingly in the fall, is the favorite for the lead role.
Player to watch: tailback Djouvensky Schlenbaker
Spring game: April 23

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