USC coach Steve Sarkisian said he could pick a starting quarterback before the Trojans end spring practice drills on April 19.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler finished with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall.
At the beginning of spring practice, Sarkisian had declared open competitions for all positions, and that included the quarterback spot where incumbent starter Cody Kessler would face a challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne.

At the time, Sarkisian said he was unsure if he would name a starter at the end of spring or wait until fall camp, but it appears as if the decision will come sooner rather than later.

“Honestly, yes,” Sarkisian said when asked if he was closer to naming a starter. “I would suspect we’ll name one before the end of spring. As I’ve said before, when I have a pretty good feeling for it I’m going to let it sit for a little bit, maybe watch for a bit and view it that way, see what that feels like. I feel like that’s a good way to go about it.”

Kessler -- a redshirt junior -- is expected to retain his starting spot after leading the Trojans to a 10-4 record last fall while completing 236 of 361 passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was also named MVP of the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Trojans defeated Fresno State.

Sarkisian praised Kessler earlier this spring for his quick release, arm strength and accuracy.

"Cody has gotten better every day. Max is improving as well, but maybe not at the rapid pace that Cody has been so far," Sarkisian said after a recent Coliseum scrimmage.

Browne is a former No. 1-ranked quarterback recruit who has tremendous touch on the deep ball and is considered to have a bright future in the program.

Offensive explosion plays: South

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM PT
Just as defenses like to create negative plays for offenses, offenses like to create explosion plays -- plays of over 20 yards.

So which Pac-12 offenses created the most explosion plays in 2013? And how? And who's coming back in 2014?

I appreciate you asking.

The number to the left is the team's national ranking. "TDs" is how many of the explosion plays produced touchdowns. The "returning in 2014" is the explosion plays produced in 2013 by players who return in the fall.

In the "lost" and "returning" categories, we list players who had five or more explosion plays in 2013.

T7. Arizona State (10-4)
2013 explosion plays: 86 (62 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 11 pass, 14 run

Returning in 2014: 50 (38 pass, 12 rush)

Lost: RB Marion Grice (15); WR Kevin Ozier (9); TE Chris Coyle (6)

Returning: WR Jaelen Strong (22); RB D.J. Foster (11); QB Taylor Kelly (7)
36. UCLA (10-3)
2013 explosion plays: 69 (45 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 12 pass, 5 run

Returning in 2014: 53 (31 pass, 22 run)

Lost: WR Shaq Evans (10)

Returning: RB Paul Perkins (9); WR Devin Lucien (8); QB Brett Hundley (8); RB Steven Manfro (5)
T40. USC (10-4)
2013 explosion plays: 67 (43 pass, 24 run)

TDs: 12 pass, 11 run

Returning in 2014: 49 (26 pass, 23 run)

Lost: WR Marqise Lee (10); TE Xavier Grimble (5)

Returning: WR Nelson Agholor (15); RB Javorius Allen (12); RB Tre Madden (9)
T53. Arizona (8-5)
2013 explosion plays: 61 (32 pass, 29 run)

TDs: 6 pass, 9 run

Returning in 2014: 27 (25 pass, 2 rush)

Lost: RB Ka'Deem Carey (16); QB B.J. Denker (9); WR Terrence Miller (6)

Returning: WR Nate Phillips (9), WR Garic Wharton (8)
T71. Utah (5-7)
2013 explosion plays: 56 (38 pass, 18 run)

TDs: 9 pass, 5 run

Returning in 2014: 38 (23 pass, 15 run)

Lost: TE Jake Murphy (6); WR Sean Fitzgerald (5)

Returning: WR Dres Anderson (15); RB Bubba Poole (8); QB Travis Wilson (6)
T104. Colorado (4-8)
2013 explosion plays: 43 (36 pass, 7 run)

TDs: 14 pass, 3 run

Returning in 2014: 24 (17 pass, 7 run)

Lost: WR Paul Richardson (19)

Returning: WR Nelson Spruce (7); RB Michael Adkins (6)

video

USC offensive line coach Tim Drevno took time out on Tuesday to talk to WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz about how his group is coming along this spring.
LOS ANGELES -- It has to go down as one of the top highlights of the spring so far at USC. During a late 11-on-11 period last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne stepped back and launched a ball to Nelson Agholor on a post pattern. With the pass just a tad bit off target, the star wideout was able to adjust his position in time to make a beautiful grab on a 70-plus yard scoring play.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, but after all, the end result is what counts most, isn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesClay Helton has been impressed by how well his quarterbacks have adapted to USC's new offense.
Not according to USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton. Playing a vital role in the installation of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this spring, he’s an admitted stickler when it comes to doing things right.

“These quarterbacks will tell you, I’m a perfectionist,” Helton said. “It was an unbelievable catch by Nelson, but where is that ball supposed to be? It’s supposed to be led away from him to lead him away from the corner. So, we point those things out, we correct it, and we’re always trying to make our players better mechanically, fundamentally and assignment-wise.”

It’s that attention to detail that played an integral part in Sarkisian’s decision to retain Helton from the Trojans’ previous staff, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

When Helton took over as interim coach following Ed Orgeron’s emotional departure in early December, Sarkisian was, in his words, “blown away,” by the manner in which the 41-year-old Texas native took command of the team and guided it to a victory in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

“For Clay to stand up in front of that team and take the reins -- I was so impressed by that alone,” Sarkisian said. “And his command in team meetings, and his command on the practice field, I just thought to myself, ‘How can I not have this guy on our staff?’”

For Helton, the decision to remain at USC was made just as easily.

“I absolutely love being a part of the USC Trojans staff, working with Coach Sarkisian,” Helton said. “You know, to be a part of this with a guy that is so brilliant, offensively minded, to be a part of this system again and to help in any role that I can is very satisfying and very rewarding.”

And with Helton in the fold, the Trojans have made what appears to have been a fairly seamless transition to the new offense this spring, all while going at a lightning-quick pace. In fact, Sarkisian noted on Saturday that the team has already run over 1,000 plays through nine practices -- over 2,000 if you include walk-throughs.

And while the new system differs dramatically from the prior one in a number of areas, most notably in terms of its tempo, verbiage and the fact that the quarterback now lines up exclusively out of the shotgun, Helton noted the similarities that have helped ease the changeover.

In particular, the emphasis on establishing a physical rushing attack that was present under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and virtually every other USC head coach before him, still exists. That, coupled with Sarkisian’s desire to make plays downfield has resulted in some solid production so far.

“When Coach Sark was at Washington, they were the 15th-best rush team in the country, but then what you see what I really enjoy is the explosion plays down the field,” Helton said. “He really forces the ball down the field. And I think the two go hand in hand, and I think when you add pace to that, and you’re a very explosive offense, and the quarterback makes good decisions, and we make our plays to 15 (Agholor) or to 84 (Darreus Rogers), those type of explosive guys, you’re going to be successful.”

And speaking of those quarterbacks, the position group that Helton has coached since his arrival at USC in February of 2010, all three members of an open competition that includes returning starter Cody Kessler, Browne, and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene, have looked at home directing the new offense.

Helton was quick to praise each of them on Saturday, especially the two veterans who have been taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first unit.

“I feel like they’re progressing extremely quickly,” Helton said. “I like where they’re going, but we’re nowhere near being a finished product. The things that we’re working on are speeding up our decision-making, we’re working on being a little bit more anticipatory, getting the ball out quicker [and] not allowing for sacks. I like what they’ve done thus far in nine practices -- their completion ratios are right at 70 percent, both of them, and they’re protecting the football.”

And while 70 percent isn’t quite perfect, in this instance, it is close enough, providing more than enough reason for optimism for Helton. And that goes for the offense as a whole, which Helton is just as eager to see in the fall as everyone else.

“I think this system right now fits our personnel perfectly with what we’re doing,” Helton said. “I can’t wait to see it live and in person.”
The ball is tipped and there you are. You're running for your life. You're a shooting star.
They say defense wins championships. Well, creating negative plays typically makes for a winning defense.

We're defining negative plays here as tackles for a loss, sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles (we went with forced fumbles instead of fumble recoveries). We're tallying how many of each that Pac-12 defenses produced in 2013 and -- more importantly -- how many of those negative plays were created by returning players.

We start with the South Division.

(Number in parentheses is number of negative plays made by returning players).

Arizona

Tackles for a loss: 77 (32.5)

Sacks: 24 (11.5)

Interceptions: 18 (12)

Forced fumbles: 9 (6)

Key returners: LB Scooby Wright (9.5 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception); S Tra'Mayne Bondurant (7.0 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble)

Key losses: DL Sione Tuihalamaka (11 TFL, 5 sacks, forced fumble); CB Shaquille Richardson (3.0 TFL, 3 INTs)

Breakdown: The Wildcats must replace a lot of production, including their top two tacklers and tackles-for-loss producers. As has been the question for the past few years, it's uncertain who will lead the pass rush.

Arizona State

Tackles for a loss: 101 (16.5)

Sacks: 40 (5)

Interceptions: 21 (4)

Forced fumbles: 14 (6)

Key returners: S Damarious Randall (5.5 tackles for a loss, 3 INTs, 3 forced fumbles); LB Salamo Fiso (5.5 TFL, 3 sacks)

Key losses: DE Carl Bradford (19 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles); DB Robert Nelson (6 INTs, forced fumble)

Breakdown: After losing nine starters, including six on the All-Pac-12 first and second teams, the Sun Devils are rebuilding on defense. Considering ASU's system is predicated on negative plays, developing new defensive playmakers is priority No. 1 for the defending South champions.

Colorado

Tackles for a loss: 71 (42.5)

Sacks: 17 (11)

Interceptions: 10 (10)

Forced fumbles: 12 (7)

Key returners: LB Addison Gillam (9.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, INT); CB Greg Henderson (4 interceptions)

Key losses: DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe (10.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 forced fumbles)

Breakdown: Other than Uzo-Diribe, just about all the key producers are back. But they need to take a decisive step forward this season. There's a sense in Boulder that the secondary might be ready for prime time.

UCLA

Tackles for a loss: 79 (31)

Sacks: 32 (8)

Interceptions: 14 (11)

Forced fumbles: 17 (9)

Key returners: LB Myles Jack (7.0 tackles for a loss, 1.0 sacks, 2 INTs, forced fumble) CB Ishmael Adams (1.5 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 4 INTs)

Key losses: OLB Anthony Barr (20 TFL, 10 sacks, 5 forced fumbles); DE Cassius Marsh (9.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks)

Breakdown: Obviously, the loss of Barr is huge, but Marsh and LB Jordan Zumwalt also were highly productive players. The Bruins welcome a lot of guys back but those guys need to step up their negative-play production in 2014 -- paging Myles Jack.

USC

Tackles for a loss: 91 (49)

Sacks: 35 (15)

Interceptions: 17 (11)

Forced fumbles: 8 (6)

Key returners: DE Leonard Williams (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles); CB Josh Shaw (5.5 tackles for a loss, 4 INTs)

Key losses: OLB Devon Kennard (13 TFL, 9.0 sacks); DB Dion Bailey (6.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 5 INTs, forced fumble)

Breakdown: USC welcomes back its three leading tacklers. Replacing Kennard's production is the big question for the defense. It was a huge gain for the Trojans when Shaw opted to return, as he solidified what should be a good secondary.

Utah

Tackles for a loss: 80 (31.5)

Sacks: 39 (13.5)

Interceptions: 3 (0)

Forced fumbles: 13 (7)

Key returner: DE Nate Orchard (9 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles)

Key losses: OLB Trevor Reilly (16 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble); LB Jacoby Hale (10 TFL, 6.5 sacks)

Breakdown: Reilly was, by far, the Utes' best and most productive defensive player, but the loss of Hale to a serious knee injury this spring also hurts. It's pretty astounding that the Utes don't have a player coming back who had an interception in 2013.
Tyler Vaughns froze in his seat. The Class of 2016 receiver wanted to leap in the air and scream. He wanted to show emotion, but, in utter shock, he remained still.

Similar to many recruits in Southern California, Vaughns grew up idolizing former USC running back Reggie Bush. He admired the accomplishments of quarterback Matt Leinart. More recently, he followed the progress of receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.


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Pac-12's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
2:30
PM PT
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law.
LOS ANGELES -- Much ado was made regarding the USC quarterback competition between incumbent junior starter Cody Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne, a highly talented and likeable thrower by way of Sammamish, Wash.

As much as the wide-open quarterback competition theory was advanced prior to and during spring ball, it’s been quite obvious that Kessler has taken first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new offensive system and elevated his game. While Browne has shown improvement in his game, he hasn’t been quite able to keep pace with his older and more experienced teammate.

Kessler’s superior spring performance, however, may actually be a blessing in disguise for Sarkisian, who heavily recruited both Kessler and Browne when he was the head coach at Washington.

Besides the actual on-the-field competition between Kessler and Browne, there are four other underlying factors that may also be taken into consideration when Sarkisian names his quarterback, which appears likely by the end of spring ball on April 19.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThere are several factors that could lead USC coach Steve Sarkisian to name Cody Kessler the starting quarterback by the end of spring.
Factor 1: The Trojans open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 by hosting Fresno State, a team the Men of Troy hammered 45-20 back in December at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. The quarterback of that lopsided demolition was Kessler, who threw for 345 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record and career-high four touchdown passes.

Obviously Sarkisian, who was in Las Vegas to watch the game, saw firsthand as Kessler dissected the Fresno State defense, and No. 6 also knows about the Bulldogs' returning personnel. Given the fact that Sarkisian can’t afford his new team to stub its toes against a squad it beat handily, it would be reasonable to think that with Kessler at the helm, chances would increase substantially for a season-opening victory in the Coliseum.

If the Trojans went into the Fresno State opener with an inexperienced Browne, they would still probably stand a good chance of winning. However, with a rookie quarterback starting his first collegiate game and the Bulldogs aware of it, the possibility of a Fresno State upset would notably increase. A Bulldogs upset would set up a worst-case scenario heading into the following week’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford and, no doubt, a quarterback controversy.

Factor 2: Considering the Trojans shocked highly ranked Stanford last season in the Coliseum, 20-17, you don’t have to be ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso to know that Stanford head coach David Shaw and his team will be looking to hand it to the Trojans in revengeful fashion. And for good measure, they have the returning players to do it.

If the Trojans are to pull off another upset of the host Cardinal -- who return a successful, experienced senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan -- Sarkisian knows he needs an experienced quarterback, and he already has one in Kessler, who passed for 288 yards and one touchdown last season against Stanford.

Again, as talented as Browne is, would it be fair to start an inexperienced freshman quarterback against a team with a tough defense? You can bet Shaw would throw the defensive kitchen sink at a rookie quarterback, something that would be less effective against the experienced Kessler.

Factor 3: Since his hiring and by his own admission, Sarkisian has made no bones about the 2014 Trojans not rebuilding but already being championship caliber. In fact, he recently said that when healthy, his team is more talented than people think. That comment by itself puts increased expectations on the Trojans' new coach.

After the Stanford game, the Trojans travel across the country the following week for a battle at Boston College. Regardless of the Stanford outcome, an experienced quarterback and leader like Kessler would go a long way toward preventing a letdown.

Most would agree that the early schedule could bring immediate praise and early validation for Sarkisian’s new program or unwanted scrutiny. A potential 3-0 start to the season would go far in establishing more answers than regurgitated questions regarding his hire by USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kessler at quarterback would likely position the Trojans for a positive early-season scenario.

Factor 4: Fair or unfair, if things go south early in USC's 2014 schedule, Sarkisian knows that Trojans Nation will point out quickly how the 2013 team beat Stanford and Fresno State with former interim head coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, respectively, and even Boston College under Lane Kiffin.

In a perfect world, Sarkisian should be objectively judged not on the first three games of 2014 but the season in its entirety. However, it’s inevitable that during the early part of the season, comparisons between Sarkisian and Orgeron will be well documented.

All of which brings us back to the competition between Kessler and Browne and potential scenarios with either quarterback starting the season. Of course, given the way Kessler has performed with just six spring practices remaining, all the conjecture, hypotheticals and analysis could be a moot point.
As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe USC defense is likely to look much different in the fall with injured players like Josh Shaw back in action.
When Steve Sarkisian set the agenda for spring ball, he made it clear that one of his goals was to have all the injured players healthy for the fall. With injured veterans like Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw, the decision was made to sit them out entirely. And there was a lot of caution shown in terms of bringing other players back as well.

Sarkisian chose to focus a lot of attention this spring on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball, including morning walk-throughs and in-practice teaching sessions that would allow those injured players the opportunity to mentally stay with the rest of the team.

One of the trade-offs has been fewer opportunities for live tackling during practice, a concession that no coach wants to make but that sometimes can come into play. There were a few dozen live plays during a recent practice session at the Coliseum -- including a spirited Oklahoma drill -- and other isolated physical sessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it,” USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You work on tackling in controlled environments where you limit the number of bodies potentially going to the ground, you work that way in one-on-one drills, you work it on bags. But when you get to go live, you have to go. There’s nothing like live tackling.”

It’s not like the Trojans don’t have plenty of opportunities to tackle if they want. Through nine days of spring ball, the new up-tempo offensive system has run more than 1,000 plays (more than 2,000 if you include morning walk-throughs), and there is an added benefit there as the defensive players must also adapt quickly to the new pace of play.

“The offense can have the advantage late in the game with the up-tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we practice this way, to prepare for games.”

That late-game advantage would be evident based on what Wilcox has seen so far from his defense.

“We have a tendency to start practices fast and we play well for the first half, but we don’t do as well in the second half,” Wilcox said. “That’s where we have to continue to emphasize finishing strong because the end of the game is when you get up there in play count. When you get to plays 100 to 120, that’s when you really need to sustain things mentally and that’s something we’ve got to work on. The effort has been good, we just have to get better. I would have thought through nine days that we would have it down pat and look great, but I don’t know if that’s reality.”

It would be natural to expect things to look better in the fall, especially when so many of the injured players return. In addition to starters such as Williams and Shaw, there are also players with starting experience like J.R. Tavai, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Brown who are expected back in action.

In the meantime, other players will continue to fill in during the last two weeks of spring to get as much experience as they can.

“With the injured guys out, there’s some guys taking reps right now who won’t be getting reps in the fall,” Wilcox said. “But that’s OK, we need everybody and you’re always looking to build on your depth. It’s a chance for those guys to show us something to maybe earn a bigger role.”

USC Spring Risers

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
4:14
PM PT


video

With nine practice sessions now in the books for the Trojans, WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz and Greg Katz discuss some under-the-radar players who have begun to emerge as potential key contributors this spring at USC.
Welcome to the mailbag. It's Friday, and that is always a good thing.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes.

Bryan from Portland, Ore., writes: Now that Northwestern football players have been declared employees, and are eligible to unionize, can they be taxed for their scholarship? Nobody would be very happy to have to pay $15K in taxes for a full ride scholarship to NW.

Ted Miller: You are correct. And if college football teams in the major conferences unionized across the country, things would become complicated.

In fact, I don't think that's what's going to happen. Further, despite my mailbag last week and tweak of Texas AD Steve Patterson here about being all business until it comes to the issue of treating college football players like employees, my feeling at present is unionizing college football would be fraught with potentially negative unintended consequences and probably not a good thing for the sport -- both for those who play as well as those who coach and administer.

Yet the threat of unionization, the threat of players uniting to get a better cut of the action, is what I view as a positive good. Unionizing should be a last resort if the folks who run things don't figure out a way to treat the players better.

To repeat myself from last week, my thinking on this aligns with Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples, and I keep linking his article because he wrote things I was thinking before I did, so he merits acknowledgment.

Further, this represents a change of heart for me. For a long time, I saw a scholarship as enough payment, and I resented the ignorance of the drive-by-columnists who took shots at college football without regularly covering the sport. My feeling was only a handful of players owned real star power, and that the jersey players wore on Saturdays actually held the enduring value and ultimately created the revenue. But that position was developed in the 1990s. Over the past three to five years, with conferences realigning and then signing mega-deals for broadcasting rights, as well as the coming College Football Playoff, I've adjusted my thinking.

What should players get? Glad you asked.
  • Full cost of attendance scholarships. My feeling is this is going to happen pretty soon.
  • Lifetime disability coverage for injuries suffered while they played college football.
  • Players should be able to profit from their images, though we certainly understand this could get complicated to monitor.
  • Transfer rules need to be reevaluated, making it easier for players to change schools. That will make life difficult for coaches, but they are paid $3 million or so a year to deal with difficulties.
  • There should be a need-based fund that pays for parents to go on recruiting visits and to attend games.

I also think we need to reevaluate player-agent contact. While pay-for-play with boosters is about a program gaining a competitive advantage, player-agent contact is about a player looking out for his future. You'll notice that the carping about agents tends to come from coaches, ADs and fans because they don't want their star players entering the draft before their eligibility has expired. Rules against agents have zero benefits for players.

Sure, you could open up some unsavory situations, but it seems like it would be better to have as much as possible happening out in the open than what we have now.


Gret from Salt Lake City writes: Hey guys, the Big Ten blog did this a while back and I thought it would be fun to try here! If you could be the dictator of the Pac-12 for a day, and could only make three changes, what changes would you make?? and no school, no matter how powerful, could fight you on anything. They would all just have to go along with whatever decisions you made.

Ted Miller: First, I adopt much of what I wrote above.

Second, I'd force the Pac-12 Network and DirectTV to reach a compromise deal. This is mostly because I am sick of hearing about the impasse between Pac-12 Network and DirectTV.

Third, I'd schedule more day games. There would be no more than two 7 p.m. PT (or later) kickoffs during the Pac-12 schedule.

Fourth, I'd make Kevin call me "The Great and Powerful Oz." Oh, oh … or "Heisenberg."


Ryan from New York writes: Ted, Nice "puff" piece on the Bruins. But they need to beat somebody other than embattled Bo Pelini and a depleted USC team that dressed less than 50 scholarship players in LA last fall. UCLA is 1-6 in the last couple of years against Oregon, Stanford and ASU. Not good. Before you start popping off about being a national title contender, you have to beat the good teams. Oh, and beating an underachieving Virginia Tech team that played more than half the game with a backup QB who had thrown less than 5 passes all year doesn't count. Peace out.

Ted Miller: I was wondering where you'd been. I fear it's going to be a long and frustrating year for you, Ryan.

UCLA welcomes back 19 starters from a squad that beat five teams that won eight or more games last year, including a 10-win USC team. By 21 points! Also back is QB Brett Hundley, leading a team that finished the season 10-3 and ranked 16th.

The Bruins are going to be ranked in or very near the preseason top 10. Oregon, USC and Stanford all visit the Rose Bowl.

You can stew and frump all you want, but the reason people think highly of the Bruins’ chances is something called "supporting evidence."


Brian from San Diego writes: You know how cities across the U.S. have sister cities? Los Angeles has Athens, Greece for example; and San Francisco has Naples, Italy. Just for fun what schools would you say are "sister schools" of Pac-12 members?

Ted Miller: Just for fun.
  • Arizona-Florida: If you've hung out at both places, you'd get it. Close color schemes, too.
  • Arizona State-Florida State: Hey, bud, let's party!
  • California-Michigan: Great state schools. And not afraid to tell you about it.
  • Colorado-Texas: Perhaps the nation's two best college towns.
  • Oregon-Ohio State: Our fan base is more obnoxious. No, our fan base is more obnoxious. Wait. I like how you think. Same here! (Hugs). [70 percent of Oregon fans will find that at least reasonably funny; 30 percent will swear a blood oath against the Pac-12 blog].
  • Oregon State-Kansas State: Great coaches, overachieving programs, folksy atmosphere, cool towns.
  • Stanford-Duke: They could talk about computer code and James Joyce. Only problem is Duke students are mostly folks who got rejected by Stanford and the Ivy League.
  • UCLA-North Carolina: Good schools. Great hoops tradition. And shades of light blue!
  • USC-Alabama: They'd argue endlessly about which program is the "Greatest in College Football History," and the experience would be absolute bliss for each fan base.
  • Utah-TCU: The Pac-12 is hard! The Big 12 is hard!
  • Washington-Miami: They shared a national title and are presently trying to regain their national stature. And this pairing would give Hurricanes fans somewhere to go in the summer and Huskies fans somewhere to go in the winter.
  • Washington State-LSU: These programs are very different but if you got the fan bases together the party would be absolutely epic, whispered about for centuries, as in: "Great Granddaddy, tell me about the time you partied for four weeks with those Cajuns."



The possibility of landing a scholarship offer from USC has several in-state recruits antsy for the looming spring evaluation period, with three-star receiver Austin Aaron, three-star cornerback Jihree Stewart and fast-rising defensive end Trevor Howard among the hopefuls.


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Happy Friday!
Hayes Pullard has learned a thing or two about dealing with change in his time at USC. A fifth-year senior with 39 starts and 282 career tackles, he’s playing in the third defensive system in as many years for the Trojans.

Yet to the 6-foot-1, 230-pound inside linebacker’s credit, as well as that of the rest of his defensive teammates, you certainly wouldn’t know it based on the way they’ve performed this spring. Making what appears to have been a seamless transition from Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 to Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple front scheme, the entire group -- particularly the front seven -- has shined throughout the vast majority of the workouts. And that includes during the team’s practice on Thursday, when Pullard opened things up by intercepting a Cody Kessler pass.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams, Hayes Pullard
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsLB Hayes Pullard (10) and the Trojans are learning to play defense faster under the new coaching staff.
So just how have they been able to do it? According to Pullard, it’s easy: The difference between Pendergast’s defense and Wilcox’s system isn’t nearly as dramatic as some might imagine.

“There are a lot of similarities,” said Pullard, who chose to return to USC for his final year. “It’s just the different types of concepts that you have to watch out for, and the different types of verbiage that you have to learn, but it’s all similar.”

One thing that has taken some getting used to, however, is the frenetic pace of practice -- a direct byproduct of USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s newly introduced no-huddle offense. Eight practices into the spring schedule, however, Pullard says that he has gradually adjusted to it over time.

“The first day it was most definitely shocking to everybody, but then Day 2 came, Day 3 came, and you just forgot about it,” Pullard said. “We’ve been conditioning without knowing it.”

Having acclimated themselves to the increase in tempo, Pullard believes the defensive players are now more prepared than they’ve ever been before to take on those lightning quick offensive attacks that have become so en vogue in the Pac-12 over the last several years.

“It’s just about the mindset of being able to play against the fast-paced offenses,” Pullard said, “being able to go down in six or seven seconds, just being able to think about the Oregons, and the Washingtons … they’re doing the same thing, so it’s already preparing us.”

But it’s not all about speed at USC this spring. The common routine at each practice has the team switching back and forth between 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 sessions, and periods where the offensive and defensive groups break apart and go over plays and schemes in meticulous detail at a much slower pace. Personally dealing directly with Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon during these teaching sessions, Pullard believes they have been extremely beneficial for all of those involved.

“We always use the example, it’s like if you’re going into a midterm, you’re going to meet with your professor and learn about what’s going to actually be on the test,” Pullard said. “They aren’t going to give us the answers, but they’re going to help us and tell us how we defend each and every play that the offense is going to throw at us, so when you go out there you won’t think too much, and you’ll be able to go out there and play full speed. I just look at it as them giving us the answers to the test.”

And speaking of Sirmon, Pullard has already developed a close relationship with his new position coach, and it’s safe to say that his coaching style, which grants the players a certain element of freedom on the field, has been a big hit with all of the linebackers.

“When he gets us on the field he just lets us go out there and go full speed,” Pullard said. “He isn’t just in your ear all the time. If he see’s something drastic then he’ll let you know. But he just lets you make a decision going full speed, and if you mess up then we get back to it in the film room.”

Of course, the linebacker corps also has the added benefit of possessing a virtual player-coach on the field at all times in Pullard. A seasoned veteran who served as a team captain in 2013 and led the team with 94 stops, he has made it a priority to ensure that the other members of the unit -- especially those younger players -- are all on the same page, but he has done so in a calculated manner.

“I try to do all of my teaching in the meeting rooms, and when I’m on the field I try to lead by example,” Pullard said. “I remember when I was younger, I didn’t just want a teammate yelling in my ear. I try to lead by example and let them know, ‘Let’s go. I know you messed up on the last play. We’re about the next play.’ “

With seven practices remaining on the schedule this April, the USC defense still has plenty of time to progress even further this spring, particularly with Pullard in the fold. And with the promise that they’ve shown already, Pullard believes that there’s reason for optimism when it comes to their long-term future.

“I’m definitely confident we have what it takes to succeed,” Pullard said.

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