Oregon Ducks: Marcus Mariota

Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Matt from Beaverton, Ore., writes: I'm sure by now you've read the news about the Ducks losing Bralon Addison this season due to an ACL tear. He looked to take a huge step in becoming a focal point of the Ducks offense with Huff graduating. Do you think Oregon returns to running the ball far more frequently, or are there players you think will step up to fill the void? I'm curious how Jonathan Lloyd (senior point guard for the basketball team) pans out as a return specialist/WR.

[+] EnlargeBralon Addison
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Ducks are not devoid of offensive talent, but replacing Bralon Addison will be difficult.
Ted Miller: Losing Addison is a big blow for two reasons. First, he's an intriguing talent who was expected to become QB Marcus Mariota's No. 1 target this fall, an important distinction considering Mariota is a Heisman Trophy contender. Second, the Ducks are now as green at receiver as any team in the Pac-12. They will be without their top four receivers from 2013.

What's left? There's veteran Keanon Lowe, a good leader and a tough blocker, but he only caught 18 passes last year. In terms of wideouts, the next most productive returning receiver is sophomore Chance Allen, who caught five passes.

Of course, there's young talent. A top-five team with Oregon's offensive name brand isn't going to be devoid of guys who could immediately step in and shine, but how that pecking order develops is a mystery. Allen, sophomore Dwayne Stanford, redshirt freshman Darren Carrington and the mercurial B.J. Kelley are possibilities.

Lloyd? It's fun to speculate, but being a great athlete doesn't mean you'll be a good receiver. That gets a firm "We shall see."

As for compensating in the passing game, the Ducks are strong at tight end, so you probably will see more from those guys. They also, as you note, could lean more on the running game, as Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have the potential to be a 2,500-plus-yard tandem.

One of the Ducks mottos is "next man in" and losing Addison hardly knocks the Ducks out of the Pac-12 and national title race. But if you made a list of the top-five most important Ducks in 2014 a week ago, he would have been on it.

 




Ray from Tucson, Ariz., writes: Recognizing that football is a big moneymaker for college athletic departments, conferences and networks, I'm curious as to whether we've already seen the peak of this sport. Between unionization of athletes and issues with concussions and the incidence of brain damage in former players, it seems like there are some issues ahead. Can educational institutions continue to feature a sport that has apparent long term consequences to the players and cash the checks without some lifetime responsibility to those students? 18-22 year olds always think they are immortal, but the faculty and administrators should know that a significant percentage of the kids have potential for injury and brain damage. Perhaps not as bad as what the Roman gladiators had, but still substantial enough that some court cases could change the financial equation. Do you think you'll need to bone up on badminton or soccer rules as an alternative sport for the Pac-12 blog at some point?

Ted Miller: This is a time of change in college football on many levels, and those changes aren't independent of each other.

We've reached critical mass with the flowing revenue and big-money salaries, where the relative deprivation between athlete and coach/administrator is impossible to ignore. We've also reached a point where we need to take strong steps to address player safety and long-term health issues. Most folks around the game see this, even if they don't agree on all the next steps.

The good news is this: Crisis often breeds progress.

As for your question, "Has college football peaked?" Maybe. But that's not my impression.

Ultimately, I don't think college football is going anywhere. Too many people love it and care about it to not figure out ways to improve things.

And the notion of no Pac-12 blog surely will motivate them all to come up with changes we all can believe in.

 




Derek from Salt Lake City writes: So recently it was announced that the student government at the University of Utah was proposing changes to the fight song "Utah Man" because they felt it was sexist and offensive to some people. I would love to know what someone who is not a die-hard Ute thinks about the whole situation ...

Ted Miller: It's funny how trivial things such as this are often highly controversial, emotional and political. My guess is the folks who most loudly claim they are aggrieved probably have never and will never even sing the song.

Still, my first response? Why not change it to "Utah Fan." What is lost? Fact is plenty of Utah fans are women. The assertion that "man" is an inclusion term is disingenuous.

Don't think so? Your momma is a man. See.

The story included Utah social work professor Joanne Yaffe observing, "I don’t think I’m being hyper-PC, I’m just thinking about not really being included in the song."

I agree. Perfectly reasonable observation. And reason to make a change.

Yet she then unfortunately added, "I think that the U can feel like a very isolating, unwelcoming place, and maybe this song is part of that."

Sigh. That's just gobbledygook. And disingenuous whining is a good way to lose a sympathetic audience.

If I were in charge at Utah, I'd change it to "Utah Fan."

And you folks know I'm up to snuff and never bluff.
It might be a very different looking Oregon team that takes the field next fall … and not because of the uniform changes (though, those are sure to be something different). Instead, the guys wearing those uniforms might fill them out a bit differently.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks and Tennessee Volunteers
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesOregon is hoping the weight gained by player like Johnny Mundt will not affect the team's speed advantage.
Through this winter, several players went through some significant weight changes by making minor tweaks in the strength and conditioning program. But coach Mark Helfrich is hoping that the weight gains aren't just shown physically but in how the players take the field, as well.

“Hopefully a lot of that is confidence,” Helfrich said. “Just that edge of you feeling a little better about yourself, you’re moving a bit more, you’re physically bigger. It’s just you’re coming into the play with more confidence and that’s a big deal.”

Defensive lineman Sam Kamp put on the most weight of any player, packing on another 29 pounds and fellow lineman T.J. Daniel added 22. Not to be outdone, the offensive linemen packed on more than 100 pounds as a unit, with guard Doug Brenner leading the way with 26 pounds and Matt Pierson, Cameron Hunt and Elijah George all bulking up at least 20 pounds.

“I think we’ve kept our speed and athleticism,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “The added weight gain is just there to get us more physical and blowing the defensive line off the ball where we lacked that toward the end of the season.”

But it wasn’t just the big men making significant changes. Tight end John Mundt packed on 20 pounds and in the linebacker group, guys like Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Tyrell Robinson all put on at least 15 pounds.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota is up to 218 pounds and hopes to be at 220 for the start of the 2014 season, while both leading backs made some important changes -- Byron Marshall lost six pounds (down to 201 pounds) while Thomas Tyner added 14 pounds and is up to 215.

With all of the weight gain the main concern would be that the high-powered offense the Ducks feature might be lacking some of that Oregon speed, but the players have tried to keep up their speed with the added weight. Mundt said that one of the focuses was finding that sweet spot for each player at which he stayed as fast as possible but got as big as possible.

“We were all pushing each other in the weight room and in conditioning,” Mundt said. “We’ve all gotten better and stronger, so that’s a good thing. … I think we have more strength and size across the board, but we’re still moving fast.”

Added bulk is certainly going to benefit this team,and as long as each guy can still move the same, the only teams struggling with the weight gain with be opponents. In May, if a player doesn’t appear the same when he takes the field for the spring game, it’s not the uniform, it’s the guy in the uniform.
By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.

With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe return of Marcus Mariota meant big expectations are back for Oregon's offense.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.

However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.

The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.

So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.

Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.

But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.

Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.
Football will be back in Eugene soon enough, but it’s always good to reflect on 2013 and see what can be learned from last season and taken into next. Leading up to spring football, we’re going to break down some stats that need to improve next season.

Stat: Third-down passing conversions

Backing that up: The Ducks were quite fortunate at quarterback last season. Marcus Mariota had an incredible season. He threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions. And when his backups stepped in, they played well too. Jeff Lockie appeared in nine games and completed 8 of 13 passes for 57 yards. Jake Rodrigues played in seven games, completing 3 of 6 passes and threw for one touchdown.

Their combined numbers put them near the top of the nation in almost every single important quarterback statistic. The Ducks completed 60.5 percent of their passes of 10-plus yards (No. 9 nationally), 68 percent of their completions gained a first down or touchdown (No. 7 nationally) and one in every 13 passes scored a touchdown (No. 7 nationally).

But, there was one area in which the Oregon quarterbacks struggled mightily -- third-down passing conversions. In this category the Ducks completed just 32.4 of their passes, moving them from one of the nation’s best group to No. 77 nationally.

Of the 12 FBS teams the Ducks played, their defenses gave up completions on 34.8 of opposing teams’ third-down passing conversions. The difference of 2.4 percent might not seem like a big deal and in most cases it wouldn’t be. It’s just so strange in Oregon’s case because in so many of the other statistical categories the Duck offense destroyed their opponents.

Passing yards per game:
Oregon’s offense: 291.5 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 248.7 yards

Yards per completion:
Oregon’s offense: 14.8 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 12.1 yards

Touchdowns per passing attempt:
Oregon’s offense: 7.9 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 4.6 percent

Percent of completions that went for 10-plus yards:
Oregon’s offense: 60.5 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 46.5 percent

Percent of completions that gained a first down or touchdown:
Oregon’s offense: 68 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 55.3 percent

Percentage of completions on third-down passes:
Oregon’s offense: 32.4 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 34.8 percent

So when looking at the Oregon offense next season and the strides it must take, third-down passing conversions certainly needs to be a part of the Ducks’ game that needs to move along.

In every category the Ducks are a top-10 team and when Mariota is discussed, his peers are the Jameis Winstons of the world. But in this category that was far from the case as Winston (49), Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (52.2 percent), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (49 percent) and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan (44.6 percent) were far superior to Mariota.

Other stats that must improve:

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
1:00
PM ET
Which Pac-12 team has the best overall three-headed monster?

To review what the heck we are writing about: On offense, that's an elite combination at quarterback, running back and receiver. On defense, it's an elite combination of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 unit has the best three-headed monster?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,817)

We've reviewed South offenses and North offenses and South defenses and North defenses.

But now we want your take on whose troika is the mightiest. Who has the surest thing heading into 2014?

On offense, we like Oregon in the North and Arizona State in the South.

Oregon offers QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall and WR Bralon Addison. Arizona State counters with QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong. That right there is a tough call.

The Ducks probably have a lead at quarterback, but you could say the Sun Devils are better at the other two spots. Or you might not.

On defense, we like USC in the South and Stanford in the North.

USC offers LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams and S Su'a Cravens, while Stanford has LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson and S Jordan Richards.

That's a group of six players who figures to earn All-Pac-12 honors.

First you might choose which crew you like on offense and which one you like on defense. Then you could ask yourself which one you'd most want to play for your team.

It's nice to have star power at all three levels on either side of the ball. But your question today is whose stars shine the brightest.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division.

We looked at the South Division offensive three-headed monsters on Monday. On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the North Division offense.

Only Cal and Washington State return their three-headed leaders from last season. The other four teams have all had a change of some kind. And there are some big question marks surrounding a couple of schools -- especially the one in Seattle.

Let’s take a look:

1. Oregon

QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall, WR, Bralon Addison

The skinny: Heisman candidate + rising star + explosive playmaker = nasty. Though losing Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, the Oregon offense should be explosive once again. Mariota led the nation in adjusted QBR last season to go with 31 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. Marshall is a returning 1,000-yard rusher with 14 touchdowns last season, and Addison hauled in nine scores.

2. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB ?, WR Ty Montgomery

The skinny: The Cardinal get the No. 2 spot here based on experience at quarterback and the fact Montgomery is returning after a second-team all-league year. And whoever the “regular” running back is, be it Kelsey Young (the leading returner in yards), Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders or Remound Wright, he will be running behind a stellar offensive line. Worth noting that Hogan and Montgomery had more rushing yards last year than any of the listed running backs. But Stanford's success running the football leads the Pac-12 blog to give it the benefit of the doubt.

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, WR Richard Mullaney

The skinny: Though the Beavers lose Brandin Cooks, Mannion has the potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country after throwing 37 touchdowns last year. Storm Woods had more carries and touchdowns, but Ward had more yards, so they’ll likely work in unison, again. Mullaney had 52 catches last season.

4. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, WR Gabe Marks

The skinny: WSU gets the edge in the rankings over Washington (for now) because there are still a lot of question marks around the Huskies. Halliday tossed 34 touchdowns last year and threw for nearly 4,600 yards. Marks has blossomed into a bona fide playmaker and should be in the mix for all-conference honors. The Cougars don’t do much in the way of running the football. But when they did last year, Mason totaled 429 yards on 87 carries.

5. Washington

QB?, RB Jesse Callier, WR, Jaydon Mickens

The skinny: Washington is one of those programs that could end up in one of the top two spots by the end of the season. But for now, there is too much unknown. The status of QB Cyler Miles is still up in the air. Callier has the most returning attempts (one more than Dwayne Washington and five more than Deontae Cooper) and the Huskies expect Kasen Williams back by the fall at receiver. Mickens caught 65 balls and five touchdowns last year and the aforementioned RB trio combined for 10 touchdowns.

6. California

QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs

The skinny: There is a lot of potential in this group. The Bears just need that potential to translate into points on the field. Goff threw for 3,508 yards in his debut season, and Treggs caught 77 of his passes. Though just one for a touchdown (Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler each caught five). Though the departed Brendan Bigelow had more carries, Muhammad outperformed him with more yards and touchdowns.

Video: Mailbag on QB draft decisions

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
5:30
PM ET
video
Kevin Gemmell answers a reader's question about returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 1: Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will carry the ball 35 times in the spring game.

Why: Last season, the Ducks were the second-most prolific offense in the nation, falling just behind a potent Baylor attack. Oregon accounted for 565 yards of offense per game and 7.55 yards per play (also second best, this time to Florida State).

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon's Thomas Tyner should get ready for some additional work.
Mariota led a balanced offense, with about half of that production coming from the running game (273.5 yards per game, 6.3 yards per rush). The Ducks tallied 42 rushing touchdowns and scored a rushing touchdown, on average, once every 13 carries.

Though the Ducks lost De'Anthony Thomas, they still return their top three rushers --- Marshall, Mariota and Tyner. Marshall led the Ducks with 14 rushing touchdowns and 86.5 rushing yards per game and Mariota and Tyner accounted for nine rushing touchdowns each, creating a three-headed monster that found holes in nearly every defense.

A season later, these three should be even better as they’ve matured in the game, know the playbook better, and have another cycle of offseason conditioning and strength training.

The rushing attack will need to be more prolific this season, at least early on. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers, so other offensive players are going to need to make up for that lost production. It doesn't necessarily need to come from other receivers (though, per prediction No. 4, the tight ends will step up), and with how much experience Oregon returns in the run game, it seems like Oregon might attack with the rushing game early and often to get the offense moving. In situations such as the Sept. 6 game against Michigan State, don't be surprised if the Ducks favor the run over the pass. And don't be surprised if you start to see the pieces of that puzzle forming in the spring game.

In the May 3 scrimmage, with these three on the field (and a defensive line that will still be making major shifts and adjustments), they’ll be able to run wild. Mariota will look to get the ball down the field, but don’t be surprised if these three account for 35 carries in the spring game -- an increase of four carries from the trio’s average of 31 per game last season.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as people would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line
  • No. 2: The offense will look great ... the defense certainly won’t
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 2: The offense will look great … but the defense certainly won’t.

Why: This isn’t a huge surprise. Offenses can evolve more quickly (especially when so many players on the offensive line return) and it theoretically takes less for them to impress fans than a defense. On top of that, because the defense does have more players to replace, the Oregon offense will be playing a group that is still in building mode.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall and the Oregon offense should be ahead of the defense this spring.
This won’t necessarily be the case in 2015 if Marcus Mariota leaves and the offense finds itself trying to find its way under a new quarterback. But for now, the core of the offense -- Mariota, the offensive line and the top three rushers (Mariota, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner) -- return. It will take more work to get the receivers up to the level of the rest of the offense, but (see prediction No. 4) there’s a decent chance the tight ends will get more involved in the pass game.

So, essentially, this spring game isn’t going to tell a whole lot about this team. Yes, Mariota should look great. The offensive line should be able to move the line of scrimmage against a less experienced defensive line, and the running backs -- who have ample experience -- should be able to find the holes and get solid gains.

Those are all certainly things that will make every fan excited, but also remember that it’s also Oregon’s defense out there. The defense will have many more yards to make up and though they’ll show improvement, they’ll be the lesser skilled group out there on the field on May 3.

The best benchmark for the team is at won’t come until the second week of the season when Michigan State, the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, comes to Eugene. That will be the first great defense that Mariota and his arsenal will face, and it will be the first good offense that the Ducks will face and try to slow.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as most would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be far more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line
Every summer we do our “Proving Grounds” post for the North and South divisions. We’ll hit that up again this summer.

But for now, ESPN Insider Travis Haney took a look at some offensive players with something to prove Insider on a national level. Only one Pac-12 player is listed, but he’s an important one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota could earn a huge boost in his Heisman Trophy candidacy on Sept. 6.
Haney notes that this is a critical season for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, stating that for the third-year starter, it’s Heisman Trophy finalist or bust.

Writes Haney:
Mariota, in particular, has something to prove after racing out as the Heisman front-runner but then fading with a knee injury that limited his ability to run and react.

The Ducks have been on the cusp of national title contention the past two seasons, only to be stunted by losses to Stanford. That game in 2013 was the first evidence of a limited Mariota, who had negative rushing yards that week and the one after.

Before the aforementioned knee injury, Mariota looked like a lock to end up in New York. But the injury, coupled with losses to Stanford and Arizona to close out the season, put him in a nationally recognized tailspin from which he could not recover. That the Ducks didn’t qualify for a BCS bowl game didn’t help, either.

With all of that said, Mariota is still, without question, one of the top handful of players in the country and should receive plenty of preseason Heisman buzz. Last year he led the nation in Adjusted QBR and was second only to Jameis Winston in Total QBR. You might recall, also, a tiny little Pac-12 record he set by throwing 353 passes without an interception. Last year he threw 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions and ran for another nine scores.

The Ducks have won at least 10 games in six straight seasons, so they’ll remain in the national spotlight. And Mariota’s stock could rise with a strong performance early in the season when Rose Bowl champion Michigan State comes to Eugene on Sept. 6. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, nonconference games in the Pac-12 in 2014, and a lot of folks will be watching. He’ll start the Heisman race behind Winston, last year’s winner and the clear front-runner. But Michigan State could provide a huge statement game early in the season for the Ducks and their quarterback.
You take the van, I'll keep the dog.
The first day of Oregon’s spring practices is April 1 (no, we aren’t fooling you), which means we’ve got about three weeks until the Ducks take the field again. Last week we counted down the top five Oregon recruiting classes and this week we’re taking a look at the top five players to keep track of during spring ball.

No. 4: The guys who returned -- QB Marcus Mariota and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 statistics:

  • Mariota: 3665 passing yards | 31 passing TD | 4 INT | 860 rushing yards | 9 rushing TD
  • Ekpre-Olomu: 84 tackles | 5 tackles for loss | 3 INT | 6 passes broken up | 9 passes defensed | 1 forced fumble
[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsOregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is already considered a top NFL prospect.
Why to watch them: It’s always interesting to keep an eye on players who decide to pass up millions in the NFL to return to college for another season. Obviously, it’s an individual decision that each player makes, but whether they attack the next season with a chip on their shoulders or have cold feet about their decision remains a question that can only be answered once they hit the field. However, chances are that it will be chips on their shoulders for both Mariota and Ekpre-Olomu.

It would be surprising if either had seasons that were anything less than incredibly impressive, and that progression is likely start to show itself this spring. And there will be a chance for each player to prove himself as both are going to be asked to do even more than they did last season. Mariota is losing his No. 1 and No. 3 receivers; Ekpre-Olomu will be the Ducks’ only returning starter in the secondary. That kind of pressure should help to push these players to the next level, as they’ll be the team leaders.

Ekpre-Olomu said he chose to return because he wanted to progress as not only a player but a person and that he had unfinished business with the Ducks. From an accolades standpoint. there’s not a lot that Ekpre-Olomu can do that he hasn’t already accomplished. He was named an All-American and a is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

Mariota's name popped up in the Heisman Trophy conversation early in the season, but faded later. His numbers dropped a bit, the Ducks lost two games, Mariota was hobbled a bit by injury, and other players across the country put up bigger numbers. But this season, Mariota enters the season as one of the Heisman favorites, which is only helped by the fact that the Oregon’s offensive line returns talent and depth and is ready to protect him again.

But what’s notable about both of these players is how much they’ve progressed each season. Ekpre-Olomu’s tackle totals have gone from 34 to 63 to 84 in his three seasons. Meanwhile, Mariota's passing yardage totals gained nearly 1,000 yards from his freshman to sophomore seasons, and though his rushing yardage remained similar (752 yards as a freshman; 715 yards as a sophomore) he became more productive with his runs, finding the end zone with his feet nine times last season as opposed to five times as a freshman.

After this season, Ekpre-Olomu’s eligibility will run out; Mariota would have one more year. But if their seasons go as many expect they will, at this time next year both players could be first-round NFL draft prospects.

The countdown:
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.
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.

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