Oregon Ducks: Brett Hundley

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
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Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

It’s only the middle of June, but the familiar sound of the Heisman buzz has already started.

The Pac-12 is no stranger to preseason Heisman buzz. Andrew Luck had it. So did Matt Barkley. Marcus Mariota had it for a while last season. And, along with reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, Mariota is again in the spotlight.

Earlier this week ESPN.com Insider Phil Steele started looking at potential Heisman candidates for the 2014 season. And Mariota’s name is at the top of his list.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota accounted for more than 4,000 yards last season, even as he was hampered by a knee injury.
Steele made his case for the Oregon quarterback Wednesday when he wrote:
Last year, Mariota became the first Oregon quarterback to top 4,000 yards of total offense (4,380) while accounting for 40 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. He accomplished this despite wearing a knee brace for much of the second half of the season, which limited his mobility. With added rest for the bowl game against Texas, he ran for a season-high 133 yards. Now 100 percent healthy, he has a solid shot to top last year's remarkable statistical totals while leading a Ducks team that figures to play a huge role in the first College Football Playoff.

If you’re an Oregon fan, all of those things have to make you feel awful giddy. But Mariota isn't the only Pac-12 quarterback getting some love. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley should also see his fair share of hype, and he checks in at No. 6 on Steele’s list of top-10 candidates.

Writes Steele:
It is dangerous putting Hundley this low, as I think the Bruins have a great shot at making the College Football Playoff. Last year, despite playing behind a questionable offensive line that allowed 36 sacks, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards, completed 67 percent of his passes, posted a 24-9 TD-INT ratio and became the first UCLA QB to lead the team in rushing (748 yards) since 1964. This year, Hundley has a healthier offensive line and a strong supporting cast with 16 returning starters that not only has Bruins fans thinking Pac-12 title, but also their second Heisman in school history (Gary Beban in 1967).

Steele also looked at the top-15 quarterback units in college football, examining the depth of the position groups. One-third of his teams come from the Pac-12, including UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. This should come as no surprise. The conference is as quarterback-heavy as it's been in recent memory -- maybe ever.

Here’s what Steele had to say about the Cougs’ QB depth.
Last year Connor Halliday set Pac-12 single-season records for completions (449), attempts (714) and passing yards (4,597) while leading the Cougars to their first bowl game since 2003. He also tied a NCAA bowl record with six touchdown passes and had a solid 16-5 TD-INT ratio in his last five games. Now in his third year of head coach Mike Leach's pass-happy offense, he could even top last year's outstanding numbers. His backup Tyler Bruggman (PS No. 29) was highly regarded coming out of high school and Lucas Falk had a solid spring.

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

3-point stance: Pac-12 QB talent

April, 24, 2014
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1. According to ESPN Insider and Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, it’s a thin year for veteran quarterbacks everywhere but the Pac-12. Listing the top pro prospects for the 2015 NFL draft, Savage, speaking with me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Wednesday, started with Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, then tossed in Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Not to mention the league has Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Cody Kessler of USC.

2. Dabo Swinney is a good man and a stand-up guy. He is proud of his Christianity and believes it can help others as much as it has helped him. As the coach of Clemson, a public university in a religious state, he is preaching to the choir. I’d bet it never occurred to Swinney that he stepped over the line between church and state, perhaps because the line is blurrier in South Carolina than in Madison, Wis., where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is based. If the foundation’s complaint makes Swinney realize again that everyone is not Christian, then the foundation’s complaint is a success.

3. The town of State College is crowdsourcing a statue to honor the late Joe Paterno, and it’s wonderful that the planned site is not far from Old Main, the home of the Penn State administration that removed the original Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium in July 2012. What are the university administrators thinking? Do they understand they never should have made the removal of the statue permanent? Do they understand how much they rushed to judgment to vilify Paterno? When will they do their part to restore Paterno’s place of honor in Penn State history? The locals are doing their part.

Video: Mailbag on QB draft decisions

March, 25, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell answers a reader's question about returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 concludes with punters.

Arizona: Drew Riggleman is back after handling all of the punting responsibilities last season. He averaged 40.1 yards per kick, pinned 18 inside the 20 and had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards. He ranked eighth in the conference -- though the difference between first (Utah’s Tom Hackett) and Riggleman was an average of 3.4 yards.

Arizona State: Punting was one of ASU’s biggest issues last season. Matt Haack started to come on strong at the end of the season and will likely challenge Alex Garoutte, who averaged 38.8 yards per kick last season. Should Haack win the job, Garoutte is always an option with his rollout style. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has also been known to offer the occasional boot. He punted six times last season, once for 50-plus, and had three downed inside the 20.

California: Cole Leininger is back after a very solid season for the Golden Bears, where he was tied for second in the conference with an average of 42.9 yards per kick. Cal has four punters on the roster in addition to Leininger. And while he’s mostly unchallenged, there are plenty of backup options.

Colorado: Third-team all-conference punter Darragh O'Neill returns and was a midseason Ray Guy candidate last season. He averaged 40.5 yards per punt last year and pinned 22 inside the 20.

Oregon: Alejandro Maldonado handled the punting duties last season and made a couple of appearances as a kicker before the job went to Matt Wogan. Expect Wogan to handle all kicking responsibilities, though some walk-ons will also get looks.

Oregon State: Keith Kostol is back as a third-year starter. He finished last season tied for fifth in the conference with an average of 40.5 yards per punt. He also put 23 kicks inside the 20.

Stanford: Ben Rhyne returns to handle the punting duties for the Cardinal. He was one of the best in the conference last season with an average of 42.9 yards per kick -- just half a yard behind Hackett. He had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards and put 15 inside the 20.

UCLA: Sean Covington is back after having a very solid season, where he posted an average of 42.6 yards per punt. Do-it-all quarterback Brett Hundley punted once last season, but it’s safe to assume that Convington’s job is secure.

USC: Kris Albarado didn’t post an impressive yards-per-punt average (37.1), but he was very good at pinning opponents, with 27 kicks inside the 20. And of his 64 kicks, almost half were fair-caught.

Utah: Hackett was last season's first-team all-conference punter, so expect some preseason All-American hype for him. As noted earlier, he led the conference with an average of 43.4 yards per punt and buried 27 kicks inside the 20.

Washington: Travis Coons pulled double-duty last season. In addition to nailing 15 of 16 field goal attempts, he also averaged 40.4 yards per punt and had eight kicks of 50-plus yards to go with 23 inside the 20. Korey Durkee did some punting in 2012 before Coons won the job, so he’ll get the first look in 2014. Newcomer Tristan Vizcaino could also get looks at kicker and/or punter.

Washington State: Wes Concepcion was the starter in the final two games as punter last season. With Mike Bowlin gone, he should be the favorite to handle punting duties full time. Concepcion punted 12 times last season for an average of 36.2 yards. Eight of those 12 were fair catches and three were inside the 20.

Previous positions

Kicker
Safety
Cornerback
Linebacker
Defensive end
Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle
There are plenty of issues Pac-12 teams will be addressing this spring. Here are some that are front and center for your Pac-12 insiders.

Ted Miller: Spring practice is the official transition from taking stock of the 2013 season, including recruiting, to looking ahead to next fall. The 2013 season was all about top-to-bottom depth for the Pac-12 -- and the lack of an elite national-title contender. That might be the case again in 2014, but if the conference is going to be nationally relevant in Year 1 of the four-team College Football Playoff, I think it will be because of the depth and quality of the quarterbacks.

If Travis Wilson is cleared to play at Utah, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back their 2013 starters, and many of these guys are All-American candidates, most notably Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHaving Brett Hundley back makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
The big question for these guys is if they can be better this season than last. If that happens -- for the above four and the six other returning starters -- then it should be a high-flying season with lots of offense. And perhaps a team emerges as a candidate for the playoff.

What most interests you this spring with the Pac-12?

Kyle Bonagura: As a result of the continuity at quarterback, offenses should be in line for a collective step forward. How far could be determined by how quickly the conference's seven new defensive coordinators acclimate to -- and perform at -- their new jobs.

We won't get a great read on how that process is going during the spring, but it'll be interesting to see in what ways defenses evolve moving forward.

For Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, the change will be minimal. Todd Graham will remain heavily involved in how ASU plays defense, and the other three promoted staff members will use the framework and schemes already in place. USC might have a new staff, but considering coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were in the conference last season, it should be an easy transition.

I'm more interested to see how things play out at California and Washington.

Washington is set up for success with the much-anticipated arrival of longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who brought his defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Pete Kwiatkowski. They have a talented front seven to work with and a favorable early schedule that will allow the staff to iron out any kinks: at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State.

Art Kaufman's job taking over the Cal defense won't be as easy. The Golden Bears should be in better shape than last season from a health and experience standpoint -- the latter partially a result of 2013's injury woes -- but there's a lot of ground to cover between where they were and being competitive.

Ted Miller: One team that had coaching continuity at both coordinator spots is Arizona, and I think the Wildcats are setting up to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South, though I do see UCLA as a strong favorite at this point. The intrigue with Arizona, though, is at quarterback. It seems like the most wide-open competition in the conference.

If Cyler Miles gets back in Petersen's good graces, he's got a significant lead for the Washington QB vacancy. At USC, I think that Cody Kessler is likely to retain his starting job over touted redshirt freshman Max Browne. Kessler steadily improved as a difficult season went on, and he still has his 2013 offensive coordinator/position coach in Clay Helton. At Utah, a healthy Wilson starts for the Utes.

But Arizona has four guys with a legitimate shot at winning the starting QB job this fall: Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer and junior Jerrard Randall. Solomon was one of the jewels of the 2013 recruiting class, while the other three are transfers from A-list programs -- Scroggins from USC, Brewer from Texas and Randall from LSU.

The first big question will be whether Rich Rodriguez narrows the field at the end of spring practices. How much does he want to establish a clear pecking order? You'd think at least one of these guys is going to be relegated to fourth place because there are only so many practice reps to go around.

The good news is the guy who wins the job is going to have an outstanding crew of receivers. He won't have running back Ka'Deem Carey lining up as a security blanket behind him, but Rodriguez's offenses almost always run the ball well. The Wildcats will average more than 200 yards rushing again next season, I feel confident saying that.

The million-dollar question -- the difference between competing for the South title and winning eight games again -- is how efficient the guy behind center is.

Any position battles particularly intrigue you this spring?

Kyle Bonagura: Like you, I'm really intrigued to see how the quarterback competition at Arizona progresses. That's a lot of pressure for the three guys who already transferred from big-time programs. All of them clearly want to play, and it makes you wonder if one of them will end up at an FCS school before the season starts.

The most high-profile battle outside of quarterback has to be at Stanford, where four guys are competing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back. I was out at the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring last week -- and will be out there again on Saturday -- and what stood out immediately was how balanced the reps were. If Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young didn't have equal reps with the first team, it was close.

However it plays out, it's unlikely Stanford will feature one back like it has the past six years with Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart.

Wright probably holds a slight edge in terms of the overall package -- largely because of his capabilities in pass protection -- but there are more similarities than differences in comparing each guy. A lot of people ask about Sanders because of his famous father (my favorite football player as a kid), but the reality with him is that expectations were probably too high when he arrived. His name and recruiting profile are to blame, and the coaching staff isn't going to force his development.

Young, who switched back to running back from receiver, might be the most dangerous with the ball in his hands and Seale, a fifth-year senior, might have the best grasp of the offense.

Spring position breakdown: QBs

February, 24, 2014
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Spring has sprung in the Pac-12, with Stanford starting spring practices this week and several schools following suit next week.

Ergo, we break down where teams stand with each position group, starting with quarterbacks.

Arizona: The Wildcats probably have the most wide-open QB competition, with four guys having a legitimate chance to replace the departed B.J. Denker. Three are transfers from big-time programs: senior Jesse Scroggins (USC), sophomore Connor Brewer (Texas) and junior Jerrard Randall (LSU). The fourth, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, was one of the biggest stars in the 2013 recruiting class. Don't expect much to be settled by the end of spring, though coach Rich Rodriguez might at least allude to some sort of pecking order. Or a top three.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are strong at QB with senior Taylor Kelly, a third-year starter who has put up big numbers the past two seasons, and junior Mike Bercovici, a big-armed backup -- perhaps, in fact, the best backup in the Pac-12. That's why Michael Eubank opted to transfer to Samford in Birmingham, Ala. It will be interesting to see which of the youngsters on the roster emerge as a No.3, a guy who might challenge Bercovici in 2015.

California: It seems unlikely that sophomore Jared Goff will be unseated, particularly after Zach Kline opted to transfer. Goff was uneven last season -- his entire team was -- but flashed plenty of potential. He and a talented crew of receivers should get better this spring. The big question might be whether anyone challenges senior Austin Hinder for the backup job.

Colorado: Sophomore Sefo Liufau is solid as the returning starter. He took some lumps last season but also flashed plenty of promise -- as both a player and leader. After him, there's junior college transfer Jordan Gehrke, a redshirt sophomore, the likely backup. Depth is a problem, at least this spring. As the Boulder Daily Camera noted, "Five quarterbacks have left the CU program either to transfer to other schools or give up the sport entirely since the start of spring football last year. A sixth completed his eligibility last season." That's why the Buffs added walk-on Trent Sessions to the roster. He worked with the equipment staff last year.

Oregon: The Ducks probably feel pretty good about their third-year starter, junior Marcus Mariota, a leading 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate who would have been a first-round pick if he'd entered the 2014 NFL draft. The competition for the backup spot, however, will be interesting because Mariota is almost certain to enter the NFL draft after the season. Sophomores Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues are 2A and 2B, with Lockie first off the bench as the backup in 2013, but Rodrigues the more physically talented player as a runner and passer.

Oregon State: Like their friends to the south, Oregon State is fortunate its 2013 starter, Sean Mannion, decided to return instead of entering the NFL draft. Mannion's chief focus will be finding some receivers to replace the production of the departed Brandin Cooks. The battle for the backup job also will be interesting between sophomore Brent VanderVeen and redshirt freshman Kyle Kempt. Of course, their battle might not resolve things much for 2015, with incoming Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio joining the fray after sitting out a season.

Stanford: It seems unlikely that two-year starter Kevin Hogan will be challenged for the starting job this spring, even though he had some ups and downs in 2013, but there is no lack of talent battling for the backup job. Junior Evan Crower was the backup in 2013, but redshirt freshman Ryan Burns is a big-time talent. As is incoming freshman Keller Chryst, who officially will arrive in the fall but, as a Palo Alto resident, figures to hang around spring practices.

UCLA: Heading into his third season running the offense, Brett Hundley gives the Bruins one of the best starting quarterbacks in the nation. He's a proven dual threat and leader who will be refining his game this spring and building chemistry with his receivers. After him, however, things are a bit iffy, in large part because of the 2013 preseason transfer of T.J. Millweard to Kansas. The chief competitors for the backup job are Jerry Neuheisel, the 2013 backup, and redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard, with Woulard being the guy with the most future upside. Of course, there is another QB out there some UCLA fans might be thinking about.

USC: The returning starter facing the most formidable challenge to his starting job this spring is probably Cody Kessler, even though Kessler played well in the second half of the 2013 season. With the transfer of Max Wittek, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne, at the very least, sets up to be a high-quality backup next season. But plenty of folks think Browne has a legitimate shot to unseat Kessler, particularly with new coach Steve Sarkisian taking over.

Utah: There's still no final word on the long-term health issue that might end QB Travis Wilson's career, and anything decisive might not come for weeks. If Wilson gets cleared, the good bet is on him returning to the starting job. If not, a spring competition will begin between Adam Schulz, who stepped in when Wilson went down, and redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox. In the fall, dual-threat QB Donovan Isom arrives.

Washington: Keith Price, a three-year starter, is gone, but the Huskies seemed fairly set at QB with sophomore backup Cyler Miles appearing plenty capable of stepping into the cockpit this spring. In limited action last season, Miles completed 61 percent of his throws for 418 yards with four TDs and two picks, and he also showed good mobility, rushing for 200 yards. The pecking order at least seemed set, that is, until Miles got into some off-field trouble that threatens his status for spring practice and perhaps beyond. If Miles is still suspended, that means opportunity comes knocking for sophomore Jeff Lindquist or redshirt freshman Troy Williams to make an impression.

Washington State: Connor Halliday will be a senior, three-year starter and the Cougars' top leader in the third season running Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense. He figures to put up huge numbers this fall with a strong crew of receivers. His 2013 backup, sophomore Austin Apodaca, opted to transfer, perhaps believing that redshirt freshman Tyler Bruggman had the inside track to the starting job in 2015. Depth is a bit of a question, with the No. 3 this fall likely being true freshman Peyton Bender.
Happy Friday.
May the mailbag be ever in your favor.

Peter writes: With regards to Pac-12 guys in the Super Bowl, I think you missed Sione Fua, Stanford. DT for the Broncos. Got picked up in November after getting cut by Carolina. I don't think he played Sunday, but I believe he was active.

Kevin Gemmell: The article stipulated that there are other players on the rosters who aren't mentioned because they were inactive. Fua was inactive, per the final stat book.


Sam in Wyoming writes: Will Sutton at 7? Seriously? What makes Kevin and Ted more knowledgeable than the Pac-12 coaches? Do you know something they didn't know? Are you basing this on NFL potential? I just don't see how the player voted No. 1 on defense by the coaches can fall so low.

[+] EnlargeWill Sutton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJust because we didn't have Arizona State DT Will Sutton higher doesn't mean we didn't think he had a great year. No. 7 is a pretty good ranking.
Kevin Gemmell: What makes us more knowledgeable? Absolutely nothing. We’re a couple of guys throwing up our opinions. Do with them what you want.

We’re not privy to the coaches’ voting process. From what I understand, it takes place in the bowels of the Pac-12 headquarters and the coaches sit in conclave for days coming up with the list. When they finally do, white smoke is released so the whole world knows that the all-conference team is complete. Here’s what it looks like.

Sutton was a consensus All-American, and everyone ahead of him was either a consensus All-American, a unanimous All-American, a finalist for a national award or the winner of a national award. There are two other defensive players ahead of him. Trent Murphy led the Pac-12 with 15 sacks. Barr was third in the league with 10. Sutton wasn’t in the top 20. Murphy and Barr were first and second, respectively, in tackles for a loss. Murphy had 23.5, Barr had 20. Sutton was 12th with 13.5.

Sutton’s role was different in 2013 than it was in 2012. He put on the extra weight and was asked to be more of a double-team eater than the backfield wrecking ball that he was last year. And his drop-off in stats were a reflection of that.

Further, the ASU defense had 12 fewer sacks in 2013 than it did in 2012 (52 vs. 40) and the scoring defense went up from 24.3 points per game in 2012 to 26.6 points per game in 2013.

Sutton is an outstanding player and was the best defensive lineman in the league. And he was ranked accordingly. But all six players in front him, in the opinion of the Pac-12 blog, deserved to be ahead of him.

Yes, we use the all-conference teams, as voted on by the coaches, as a gauge. But if we went with that, Sutton or Carey would be either No. 1 or No. 2 (interchangeable) and Mariota would be No. 3. and Jack would be in the top 10 for winning offensive and defense freshman of the year.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins was second-team all-conference, but won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.

No list is ever going to be perfect, especially when you have two strong-willed reporters butting heads on a couple of things. But it’s pretty tough to complain when the players ahead of Sutton consist of two Doak Walker finalists, the Biletnikoff winner, one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and two outside linebackers who put up monster stats.


Ken in Clearlake, Calif., writes: Hey Kevin: In an article you wrote about Myles Jack, you mentioned he was the first freshman to score four touchdowns in a game for UCLA. What about Eric Ball (freshman running back) in the 1986 Rose Bowl: He scored four touchdowns against Iowa in relief of Gaston Greene for UCLA.

Kevin Gemmell: That is a fine question, Ken. And I did not have the answer to it. So I submitted it to the good folks at UCLA’s sports information department for clarification last night and Steve Rourke, SID extraordinaire, came back with this:
Ball played in one game in 1984 before getting injured and was a redshirt frosh in 1985 season.

So I guess the clarification required was redshirt vs. true. I bow to your historical knowledge of UCLA football and appreciate the question.


Inert1 in Bothell, Wash., writes: I think you pretty much nailed the top 25, to the extent that such a thing is possible. The problem with endeavors like this is that there are important positions on the field whose contributions can't be quantified easily, and they tend to get left in the dust. There are some amazing players in the Pac 12.

Kevin Gemmell: Couldn’t agree more. And that is often the problem with making lists like this. How do you gauge an offensive lineman vs. a 20-touchdown running back? How do you grade a lockdown cornerback who doesn’t get the stats because teams don’t throw at him vs. an outside linebacker who has more tangible numbers?

As Ted and I have always said in the past when making this list, we tend to favor quarterbacks. As we wrote in our Take 2 this morning, I think that came back to bite us in the tush a little bit this year with Marcus Mariota over Ka'Deem Carey.

But these lists are obviously subjective. That’s why we give you guys the opportunity to make your own lists. Hope you’ll put one together.

But we can all agree on your last point. There are indeed some amazing players in the Pac-12.


D.J. in Berkeley, Calif. writes: Do you think there is any chance we will see (Luke) Rubenzer starting for the Bears this fall? As talented as (Jared) Goff is, he wasn't able to get the ball in the end zone last season despite a group of prolific receivers. I think Goff will develop into a very good quarterback, but I'm curious if Rubenzer might have the spark that was missing from the offense last season.

Kevin Gemmell: My question to you is this: How is Goff going to develop into a very good quarterback if he’s sitting on the bench?

Sonny Dykes obviously isn’t afraid to start a true freshman quarterback. So I don’t think we can completely rule out the possibility of Rubenzer pressing Goff.

At the same time, you threw that true freshman into the fire last year and you’ve got to give him an opportunity to prove himself. He already set a Cal passing record with 3,508 passing yards in a season. I think you have to give Goff a good, healthy chunk of the season to show some progress when it comes to finding points. Because you’re right. For as much as the Bears were able to move the ball, they were last in the league in scoring offense (23 points per game). Let’s not also forget that they were last in scoring defense as well (45.9 points per game), so the problems weren’t just on the offensive side of the ball.

There are a lot of issues that need to get fixed with Cal. It might not specifically be the quarterback. But rather quarterback efficiency and seeing if Goff can take the next step. If he hasn’t by midseason -- or if he completely regresses during spring and fall camp -- then we might see another youngster step up.


Alex in Sacramento writes: With very similar 2013 stats and similar playing styles, I think an argument could be made for either Brett Hundley or Taylor Kelly as the second-best quarterback in the Pac-12. As a huge UCLA fan, I'd argue for Hundley, though I admit it's a tough call. What I don't understand is why Kelly was the second-team All-Pac-12 QB, but Hundley finished six spots in front of Kelly in the Top 25. Could you comment on the differences between these two quarterbacks and why you ranked Hundley higher while the coaches picked Kelly for the second-team all-conference?

Kevin Gemmell: I think Kelly being the second-team guy had as much to do with the Sun Devils winning the South and posting the best overall record in the conference as much as anything.

Our reasoning for putting Hundley ahead was multifold. First, he had better overall numbers in the stats that matter. He had a higher completion percentage, fewer interceptions, he took fewer sacks (granted, Kelly played in one more game) and had a higher QBR, both raw and adjusted. Hundley’s raw QBR was 77.6 vs. Kelly’s 61.5. When you factor adjusted QBR, Hundley’s was 84.8 to Kelly’s 74.3. Hundley’s adjusted QBR puts him seventh nationally; Kelly is 24th.

Kelly had more total touchdowns with 37 (28 passing, nine rushing) to Hundley’s 35 (24 passing, 11 rushing). Hundley rushed for 140 more yards in one fewer game.

Both are outstanding quarterbacks, but I think you could argue that Kelly had a stronger supporting cast with Jaelen Strong and Marion Grice at his disposal. Hundley didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver or a running back who scored 20 times.

When we added all of that up and took it all into consideration, we believed Hundley should be the higher ranked of the two.


Scott writes: Wow you guys did not put De'Anthony Thomas on the top 25? Not that I care, but I would suggest you and Ted do not go to OR for a while; you know how those duck fans are.

Kevin Gemmell: I do know how Oregon fans are. They are like every other fan base that cares passionately about their team and its players. But like every other fan base, they are (usually) capable of accepting reality.

And the reality is Thomas, while spectacular when healthy and playing within his niche, didn’t have the kind of season that warrants being on the top 25. And you know what? I haven’t received a single complaint from an Oregon fan. Because they recognize that his limited performance this year didn’t warrant it.

So bravo, Oregon fans. You just went up a notch in my book. Ted, however, I believe, still hates your team.

Mailbag: Hundley vs. Mariota

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
5:30
PM ET
Happy Friday. Welcome to the Friday mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Jeff from Portland writes: I think it was one of Kevin's chats where someone asked him who the best quarterback in the conference was, and he said it was basically a toss up between Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. How do you see it heading into next year? Obviously Hundley has all the potential in the world, but he seemed to be a little more inconsistent than Mariota, and it speaks to Marcus' incredible ability than when his legs were taken away his passing got even better. He's faster, more reliable through the air and has an arm that isn't that far behind, if at all, in terms of strength. Given what we saw in 2013, Mariota has to hold the slight edge at this point, right?

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon QB Marcus Mariota gets the nod as the Pac-12's top QB as no one can match his stats over the last two seasons.
Ted Miller: I don't think Kevin thinks it's a toss-up. We just went through the process of ranking the Pac-12's top 25 players and we both agreed that Mariota should rank ahead of Hundley. Mariota's numbers over the past two years have been decisively better than Hundley's.

Now, you could argue that Mariota has had a better supporting cast. And you could point out that Mariota has had a far more experienced offensive line in front of him. I think that would be correct on both counts. Still, I do think Mariota is ahead of Hundley at present.

That said, I think Hundley is pretty much equal to Mariota in terms of pure talent and upside. My expectations is that in 2014 the gap between them will narrow.

The good news is if everything goes to preseason expectations, which it rarely does, we might see them play twice -- once in the regular season and once in the Pac-12 title game. That should help us pick a first-team All-Pac-12 QB, as well as the conference's top Heisman Trophy candidate.

And who might go first in the 2015 NFL draft.

Mark from Chapel Hill, NC writes: Heather Dinich's article on ACC "taking on non-conference powers" -- please defend the honor of the Pac by pointing out that the ACC has 14 teams and plays eight conference games, compared to 12 and nine (with six Pac teams ranked in ESPN's way too early poll, that is hugely important!) so any reasonable evaluation has to adjust for this!

Ted Miller: Oh, I'm not sure I want to talk any trash to Dinich. Not only did her conference win the national title, Dinich is rumored to be a ninja when not relentlessly covering the ACC. At least that's what Chris Low is always telling me.

Well, you are correct. The ACC has 14 teams and plays eight conference games. And, yes, the Pac-12 has 12 teams and plays nine conference games. That, as I have written many times, gives the ACC (and SEC) a built-in advantage over the Pac-12 in that it guarantees the Pac-12 will have six defeats that that ACC can avoid by scheduling a soft nonconference foe. An ACC (or SEC) team can schedule its way to four wins, which means a 2-6 conference record would still make it bowl eligible.

But I think Dinich's point is a valid one: The ACC is ramping up its nonconference scheduling. Take Florida State, the defending national champions. The Seminoles are playing Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida next year. Assuming the Gators get over their 2013 face plant, that's a pretty demanding slate (The Citadel is the fourth foe).

Further, the ACC now has a special relationship with Notre Dame, not unlike USC and Stanford. The Fighting Irish will also face North Carolina (Oct. 11),Syracuse (Sept. 27) and Louisville (Nov. 22), which officially joins the ACC's Atlantic Division on July 1.

Of course, the Pac-12 has been scheduling tough nonconference games for years while also playing a nine-game conference schedule. I think that's the future for every AQ conference in our new system with a four-team College Football Playoff. It's just a matter of time until the ACC as well as the SEC are pushed down that road.

Michael from Las Vegas writes: In ESPN "lunch Links" column -- when you click on the UofW site it takes you to the Seattle Times newspaper and they ask you to buy a subscription for approximately $4 a week before you can read the article.

Ted Miller: This is a new trend in the newspaper business. Papers that have long been free on the Internet are now trying to make money on their product.

It's called capitalism. It can be an annoyance -- what once was free now costs money -- but you have a choice to pay for information or look elsewhere for it.

Ben from Washington, D.C., writes: I know WSU isn't as flashy as, say, Utah and Colorado, but Deone Buchanon is kind of a big star. Really appreciate how you included him for those of us WSU fans. Thanks man.

Ted Miller: You're welcome. We try hard to get things correct, such as not calling Washington State safety Deone “Bucannon” an "early entry" seeing that he was a senior this season.

Oh, wait. Were you being sarcastic after not reading the headline of the story where it says "early entry"?

Eddie from Glendale, Ariz., writes: You should write about how well Pac-12 players did with NFL postseason honors.

Ted Miller: OK.

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsFormer Stanford star and current Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman is one of many former Pac-12 players who earned NFL postseason honors.
Here are the Pac-12 players when were named NFL All-Pro by the AP.

Offense (first and second team)

FB Marcel Reece (Washington) Oakland

OT Tyron Smith (USC) Dalls

C Ryan Kalil (USC) Carolina

C Alex Mack (California) Cleveland

Defense (first and second team)

DT Jurrell Casey (USC) Tennessee

LB Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State) Cincinnati

CB Richard Sherman (Stanford) Seattle

CB Alterraun Verner (UCLA) Tennessee

S Eric Weddle (Utah) San Diego

S Jairus Byrd (Oregon) Buffalo

S T.J. Ward (Oregon) Cleveland

P Johnny Hekker (Oregon State) St. Louis

And here are the Pac-12 players selected to the Pro Bowl (note: The Pro Bowl is different this year, as it features teams "drafted" by Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders).

Team Rice

Offense

QB Alex Smith (Utah) Kansas City

TE Tony Gonzalez (California) Atlanta

OT Tyron Smith (USC) Dallas

OT Jordan Gross (Utah) Carolina

C Ryan Kalil (USC) Carolina

Defense

DE Cameron Jordan (California) New Orleans

LB Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State) Cincinnati

CB Alterraun Verner (UCLA) Tennessee

S Jairus Byrd (Oregon) Buffalo

P Johnny Hekker (Oregon State) St. Louis

Team Sanders

Offense

QB Andrew Luck (Stanford) Indianapolis

QB Nick Foles (Arizona) Philadelphia

WR DeSean Jackson (Cal) Philadelphia

TE Jordan Cameron (USC) Cleveland

FB Marcel Reece (Washington) Oakland

OG Kyle Long (Oregon) Chicago

C Alex Mack (Cal) Cleveland

Defense

LB Terrell Suggs (Arizona State) Baltimore

S Eric Weddle (Utah) Kansas City

S T.J. Ward (Oregon) Cleveland

ST Matthew Slater (UCLA) New England
The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Heisman Trophy contenders in Pac-12

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
10:00
AM ET
Despite being a top-two conference in college football, the Pac-12 was inexplicably shut out when it came to Heisman Trophy finalists. Of course, if the award took into account the entire season, both Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey probably would have been there.

After the bowls, would anyone have voted for Jordan Lynch over Mariota or Andre Williams over Carey? Doubtful.

Here's a look at the Pac-12's top five Heisman Trophy candidates in 2014:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon signal-caller Marcus Mariota finished the 2013 season on a high note, with a blowout victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Mariota shouldn't just be considered the front-runner from the Pac-12, he should be considered the favorite to win the award, period.

Yes, Florida State's Jameis Winston will still be around, but if he were to repeat as the Heisman winner, the Multiple Heisman Club would double in size. History isn't on his side.

Statistically, Mariota has been among the country's best quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons, which bodes well for his candidacy. Plus, Oregon will begin the season as the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender.

There's nothing to question about Mariota's talent, as his decision to stay at Oregon for another season might have prevented him from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. However, spurning the NFL for another year in college didn't help the Heisman chances of the past two Pac-12 quarterbacks who made a similar decision (See: Luck, Andrew and Barkley, Matt).

2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Mariota wasn't the only Pac-12 quarterback who might have turned down the opportunity to be the first quarterback drafted -- Hundley fits that description, too. And when he decided to return to UCLA, the Bruins instantly became the favorites in the Pac-12 South.

If the Bruins, who finished ranked No. 16 last season, take a step forward next season, it'll likely be because of a big year from Hundley.

The schedule sets up well for Hundley, too. The Bruins have an East Coast game (at Virginia) to open the season, play Texas in Arlington, Texas, Oregon at home and finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against USC and Stanford. That's exposure.

3. Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

In just five games, Jack made quite the impression running the ball. Take his stats and extrapolate them over a 13-game season and he would have finished with 694 yards and 18 touchdowns. That touchdown total would have equaled that of Heisman finalist Andre Williams.

Those would be pretty good numbers for a running back, but for a linebacker? Defense is where Jack belongs despite being named both the conference's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.

It might seem strange on the surface, but it's unlikely Bruins coach Jim Mora wants Jack to be a serious Heisman candidate. What it'll mean is that UCLA hasn't found a better option at running back, which is ideally what it'll do between now and its season opener.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesArizona State QB Taylor Kelly finished the 2013 season with 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
4. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

How good was Kelly this year? Good enough for the coaches in the conference to vote him ahead of Hundley and Sean Mannion onto the All-Pac-12 second team.

He threw for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while guiding one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. The Sun Devils finished No. 11 in the country, averaging 39.7 points per game.

Like Mariota and Hundley, Kelly gets it done with his legs, too. He rushed for 608 yards and the same amount of touchdowns as Johnny Manziel (9). We know how the Heisman voters love their dual-threat quarterbacks.

5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State

Mannion will enter the 2014 season as the nation's active leader in passing yards (10,436) and will be in position to shatter Barkley's career conference record (12,327).

When the Beavers sat at 6-1, Mannion was firmly in the Heisman race, but a five-game losing streak took the wind out of those sails. He still set the Pac-12 single-season passing record (4,662) and was rated high enough to earn a third-round grade from NFL scouts.

Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks will be tough to compensate for -- although the same was said about losing Markus Wheaton going into last season -- and winning counts. If the Beavers improve it'll likely be due to a better running game, which could hurt Mannion statistically.

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