Call me old fashioned, but I'm a "show me" kind of guy.

I picked Stanford to win the Pac-12 in 2013 because I wanted Oregon to "show me" it could win in its first year without Chip Kelly. It didn't.

I picked Oregon to win in 2014 because I wanted Stanford to "show me" it could win without one of its bell cow running backs. It didn't.

I picked USC to beat the Bruins in 2012, because I needed to see the Bruins "show me" that they'd put the 50-0 beat down behind them and could move forward in the Jim Mora era. They did.

And so on and so on. It's not a perfect system. But it's the most logical one I have to operate with. I rarely pick on hype. Last time I did, Washington State was getting spanked at BYU in Mike Leach's debut (it remains my most shameful hour since joining ESPN).

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCody Kessler passed for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions for USC last season. But how did he do against ranked teams?

While on vacation last week I stumbled across Ted Miller's column asking whether 2015 is the Year of the South in the conference? and felt the urge to weigh in.

Obviously -- especially in the league where anything can happen "after dark" -- there are a few South teams that have a chance. But until one of them can show me, I'm not buying it yet.

Is the South deeper? Sure. But that's not the issue. The question is whether a South team is poised to rise up and take the title from Oregon or Stanford (a team I have a feeling is going to bounce back pretty strong in 2015).

Ted references Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25, in which USC starts the year ranked at No. 3. On the surface, it sort of makes sense, I guess. They do, after all, have Cody Kessler coming back. And I get that there are some young and electrifying players on the Trojans roster, plus a few more coming in.

My concern with Kessler -- who I've spent some one-on-one time with -- is that he has to "show me" he can do it against ranked teams. His numbers in 2014 were impressive, for sure. The 39-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio immediately jumps out.

But take a closer look. Against unranked teams, he completed 70 percent of his throws, averaged more than 336 passing yards per game and had a ratio of 33 touchdowns with two picks. Against four ranked teams, he drops below 200 passing yards on average and he has just four touchdowns to three interceptions. Twenty-two of his touchdown passes came against Colorado, Washington State, Cal and Notre Dame – teams that ranked 114th, 122nd, 116th and 84th, respectively, in pass efficiency defense.

Before I buy into the Trojans, I need them to show me they can also do it against upper-tier teams. Because as of March 17, I'm not yet a believer.

Before you start horn-tooting, UCLA fans, let's not forget you have to overcome the loss of a quarterback who accounted for 32 of your 44 offensive touchdowns (including a team-high 10 rushing and 22 passing). And you're still 0-for-Stanford/Oregon in the Jim Mora era.

Arizona, the defending South champion, has offensive line concerns and a quarterback looking to win back the confidence of his coaches. Utah might have one of the best ground attacks in the conference, but the Utes are breaking in another offensive coordinator (must be March). Not sure what to make of ASU yet.

And I know the counter argument is coming: "Buh … buh … Gemmell … what about Oregon having to replace Marcus Mariota. Don't they have to 'show you' they can win without him?"

Of course. But for all the passing efficiency that Mariota brought -- and it was substantial -- Oregon is still a run-first offense. It's why the Ducks have led the league in rushing offense the last four seasons. And last time I checked, there are still a few Seabiscuits in that stable.

Stanford is an intriguing team. Few squads finished the year as strongly as the Cardinal did -- when they finally found their offensive footing.

If you want to argue whether the South is the stronger division, I'll listen. Then I'll agree. Because I think it is top to bottom. But will the South champ, which no doubt will have run a brutal gauntlet just to get to the conference title game, actually win the whole thing? Think it'll have to show me first. Let the mailbag rage commence in 3 ... 2... 1...

One of the key areas of focus for the USC defense this spring has been the interior of the D-line, a group that is adjusting to injuries that have depleted the depth chart in addition to the loss of Leonard Williams to the NFL draft.

Not only is two-year starting nose tackle Antwaun Woods (72 career tackles, 5 sacks) out for spring with a chest injury, but key reserves Greg Townsend Jr. and Kenny Bigelow are not expected to get anything more than limited work as they recover from injuries as well.

[+] EnlargeClaude Pelon
John Cordes/Icon SportswireClaude Pelon is looking to benefit from having extensive playing time this spring.

The good news is that means plenty of work in the starting lineup for Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon, with Cody Temple moving up to replace Woods in the starting lineup. Simmons (44 tackles) and Pelon (19 tackles, six TFL) got extensive playing time last fall after transferring to USC as juniors, and they will be expected to play an even bigger role in the fall.

“I’m a lot more comfortable this spring,” Simmons said. “I was a little rusty last year but that comes with the decision I made to transfer [from Texas Tech]. The experience of going through the season has definitely helped me and I feel a lot more relaxed and not as hesitant.”

USC coach Steve Sarkisian knows how important this spring development time is for guys like Simmons and Pelon to help reach that next level of play.

"We need them to be really good players if we want to be the type of defense that we think we can be," Sarkisian said. "We need them to be really physical and to play disciplined. I think we've seen flashes of that from each of them, but what we're looking for here for the remainder of spring is that consistency."

Simmons is quick to point out that, while there has been so much attention paid to what will happen without Williams, it’s more a matter of maintaining a certain level of performance.

“It doesn’t have to do with one person leaving,” Simmons said. “It’s about coming out here every day and working to that USC standard. There is always going to be pressure here to make plays, to keep your job, and I don’t think Leonard leaving is going to change that. ”

Things will certainly look somewhat different in the fall when the 325-pound Woods returns in the middle of the line. He brings leadership and a high football IQ to the group, too. His presence will give the Trojans a versatile trio of seniors along the interior and that should bode well to help make up for the loss of Williams.

“We mesh well,” Simmons said. “We all play where we needed, no specific spot. Claude and I both started games at nose last year when Antwaun was out, so the coaches can move us around wherever they need us.”

In addition to the expected return of Townsend and Bigelow to help with depth, the Trojans also have redshirt freshman Malik Dorton getting work behind Pelon this spring while the fall will mark the arrival of four freshmen to potentially plug into the rotation as well.

No. 1 Greg Little has visit plans 

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The top ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, Greg Little, has been committed to Texas A&M since June 20 of 2014, but that hasn’t kept many of the nations top programs from attempting to knock down the door in hopes of swaying the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Texan.

The nation's No. 1-ranked offensive tackle made a first visit to someone other than the Aggies since committing in February, making the short trip north to take a look at the Oklahoma Sooners. As it turns out, that will be just one of many hurdles the Aggies have to clear to sign the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game selection.

"Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, UCLA and USC are coming at me hard,” Said Little. "And Auburn and Florida, too. The first week of June, I’m going to take visits to the Southeast. I’ll go to Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and some other schools like that. Then in the middle of the summer I’m going to go to the West Coast to see USC, UCLA and Stanford. I want to try and get up to Ohio State, too."

Little, who lists the Aggies and Bruins as the schools he talks to the most, says building a relationship with new offensive line coach Dave Christensen is going to be key for keeping his commitment to Texas A&M.

"[A&M] is telling me to just be patient. They have a new O-line coach, so we have to build a good connection. I just have to get to know him, because I think we have only talked a couple of times. I need to get to know him a little more."

For Texas A&M fans hoping or expecting Little to make a final declaration by the end of the summer, that is unlikely to happen.

"I will probably have a true final decision after my senior season. Probably at the beginning of January."

Following the Nike Opening Dallas Regional on Sunday, Little was one of 13 players invited to the The Opening to be held July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters.

Quick take: There are a couple of key factors to look at with the recruitment of Little. First is his relationship with teammate and class of 2015 Texas A&M signee Kyler Murray. Murray is a pied piper of sorts on the recruiting trail, and this is certainly true when speaking about Little. As long as Murray shows up on campus and suits up for the Aggies, and does not choose to go the MLB route if selected in the first round of the June draft, Texas A&M stands a good chance to sign Little. Should Murray end up going to MLB, and Little does not feel comfortable with his relationships with the Aggies' offensive staff, then all bets are off.

With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

Today, we move to the defensive side of the ball and we're starting with the defensive backs. For the sake of time and avoiding headaches, we're going to just separate this into three groups -- the defensive backs, linebackers and defensive line. For teams that have certain hybrid positions and players, we put them into which of those three categories we thought they best fit. If you don't like how we did it, feel free to complain here.

UCLA: The Bruins' secondary will miss the versatility of Anthony Jefferson (72 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 interception, 8 pass break ups), but UCLA has some good talent and depth built up, too. The Bruins return starting corners Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau, as well as both of their back ups in Priest Willis and Marcus Rios. Adams and Moreau were both top-10 tacklers for the Bruins last season, but it’d be nice to see both play a bit more consistently, specifically Moreau, who really stepped up at the end of last season. But, that’s what the spring is for -- getting back to those basics and learning to play better as a unit consistently. It gets interesting at safety for the Bruins where they have Tahaan Goodman, who stepped in for Randall Goforth last season and finished with 46 tackles, and Jaleel Wadood, who had a fantastic freshman season, finishing as the Bruins’ fifth-leading tackler. Those two could be the lead candidates for starters but don’t count out Randall Goforth, coming off surgery on both shoulders, who’s expected to be back though Jim Mora hasn’t given any official word on him yet.

USC: Let’s start with the corners, where the Trojans are in excellent shape, returning both Adoree’ Jackson (who would like to win the Thorpe and Heisman at USC) and Kevon Seymour. Both Jackson and Seymour finished last season with 49 tackles apiece, and with the starting spots basically locked down, Steve Sarkisian will probably spend the spring looking at the options behind them. Expect Chris Hawkins, Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons to get the most run here.

Both Hawkins and Lockett have taken reps at safety this spring, too, but that’s more to build depth than anything else since the Trojans return both John Plattenberg and Leon McQuay III. Earlier this month USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said that this is a big spring for McQuay and we expect the same is true for Plattenberg, as both need to prove they can play consistently at a high level. Plattenberg started six of the Trojans’ final seven games -- half at free safety and the other half at strong safety -- so he needs to keep that momentum moving forward. These two seem pretty sure bets as the two top safeties coming into the fall but they’ve got to do more than prove they’ll be the best out of spring practice. With stud safeties Marvell Tell’s and Ykili Ross’ enrollments on the horizon, Plattenberg and McQuay need to be as many steps ahead as possible in order to keep those starting spots next fall.

Utah: With as much nickel as the Utes played last season, they’ll want a lot of competition in the secondary this spring as they look to replace Davion Orphey, Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. Dominique Hatfield will enter the spring as a near lock for one of the corner spots after finishing with 38 tackles, one interception (which was a pretty important interception) and nine pass break ups last season. The other front-runner for a starting spot would be Justin Thomas at nickel. He tallied 37 tackles and one sack in 2014. Opposite Hatfield, the other cornerback spot will be fun to watch as Ahmad Christian, Tavaris Williams and Boobie Hobbs battle it out (with Thomas playing a factor as well). Cory Butler, the No. 2 juco corner in the ESPN JC 50, won’t be here this spring so other players need to try and get a leg up on a kid who looks like he could be an instant contributor.

At safety the Utes get a boost with the return of Tevin Carter, who was granted a medical hardship for last season. Competing with him at safety will be Marcus Williams, the player who filled in for him in his absence. Those two will be joined by Jason Thompson (who came over from quarterback, because that position group certainly has enough competition as is), Andre Godfrey and Austin Lee, which gives the Utes some pretty good competition at safety.

LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans take a week off from spring practice for Spring Break, one of the bright spots thus far has been the play of sophomore safety John Plattenburg, who is working hard to help reinvent a defense that is striving to overcome the losses of All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams and standout middle linebacker Hayes Pullard.

Seeing significant action as a true freshman at safety and on special teams, Plattenburg started six of the Trojans' final seven games, three times as a free safety and three times as a strong safety. Overall, he appeared in 10 games, although a strained thigh caused him to miss the game against California.

Although the petroleum engineering major made significant strides in 2014 and is not considered a safety issue, he knows there's still much work to be done.

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Pac-12 morning links

March, 16, 2015
Mar 16
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the Mailbag, pre-March Madness edition.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes!

Grant from Seattle writes: What do you make of Cyler Miles' leave of absence? A precursor to his leaving the program? And to me, it seems like Chris Petersen didn't handle this very well, given Troy Williams ' departure as well. Is that fair & accurate?

Ted Miller: It seems safe to say that Miles is questionable-to-doubtful to be Washington's quarterback in 2015.

This from Adam Jude:
As things stand, Miles does not plan to play for the Huskies during the 2015 season, but he is keeping his options open, a source with knowledge of Miles’ plans told The Seattle Times.

Even if Miles' up-and-down career at Washington -- both on and off the field -- isn't over, he figured to face a stiff challenge in spring practices and preseason camp for the Huskies' starting job. While Miles did some good things in 2014 after being suspended for his first spring practice with new coach Chris Petersen, it became pretty clear that his upside as a playmaker is limited, though it might be unfair to dismiss the rising junior thusly because he was a first-year starter working with a new system.

What this means is the Huskies' quarteback next fall will either be junior Jeff Lindquist, who has some experience but hasn't done much with his game action, or redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels or true freshman Jake Browning, a touted recruit.

This, by the way, doesn't feel like a disaster for the Huskies. Based on heavy roster losses, 2015 looks like a transition year for Petersen and his team. I'm not ruling out a successful season -- however you define it -- before we even get past spring practices, but the roster attrition from an 8-6 team is significant enough to say the Huskies don't look like a Top-25 squad.

The point is going young at quarterback might have a payoff in, say, 2016 and beyond.

As for how Petersen handled this, I see no fault with him. Williams' transfer was his choice. It appears that Miles is dealing with personal issues, as the news release emphasized this was not a suspension or disciplinary issue.

It's fair to say there are some growing pains for the Huskies under Petersen. His approach is different than former coach Steve Sarkisian. That means installing his culture isn't something that happens seamlessly and in one season. While Huskies fans might have been hoping that Petersen would wave a magic wand and immediately create a Pac-12 contender to unseat their good friends from Eugene, Oregon, it's become clear the process is going to be a bit more complicated. More like making sausage than making magic.

Larry from Chino Hills, California, writes: Can Jim Mora get UCLA over the hump and win the big games to get to the playoff? Everyone but Hundley back on offense and defense returns 90 percent too ...can't beat Stanford or Oregon. Is this the year?

Ted Miller: Yes to the first question. Maybe to that one you tagged on at the end.

Is there some movement out there to make me out as Jim Mora's Boswell? It seems like we consider Mora just about every mailbag, whether it's his postgame handshake after the Alamo Bowl or some wondering if the Bruins had a disappointing season in 2014.

Again, in 1998, UCLA went 10-2 and lost the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin. The Bruins won 10 games again in just one season -- 2005 -- between then and when Mora was hired in 2012. UCLA had eight nonwinning seasons under three coaches during that span.

Mora has gotten UCLA over the hump already by winning 29 games in three seasons. UCLA's "hump" wasn't becoming a national-title contender in Mora's third season. UCLA becoming a national-title contender would be a modern-day plateau for a program that owns one national championship all-time (1954).

As for the Bruins earning a spot in the College Football Playoff this fall, let's first see how things go at quarterback, really the Bruins' only big question heading into 2015. At present, I'd rate Oregon and USC slightly ahead of the Bruins as playoff contenders, but not by much.

Oscar from Irwindale, California, writes: Being a USC fan, I can say that since the 2010 season it's been a roller-coaster ride. In large part because of the NCAA sanctions on the team, but we can now put that behind us and officialy start clean. Reggie Bush is viewed by many USC fans as the culprit for the team's punishment, but it seems like the recruits or the current young players -- Adoree' Jackson, for example -- idolize him and obviously wants to follow his footsteps for what he did on the field, not off. My question is will Reggie ever be part of USC like Matt Leinart is, or is this a bridge that burned along time ago and will never get repaired? There's no denying what Reggie did for USC, but I think it's time we let go of the past. Fight On!

Ted Miller: If you want my long-form take on this, read this.

As for whether Bush and USC can be reconciled, that seems unlikely in the near future, or at least as long as the NCAA holds sway in Power 5 football. Bush was "permanently disassociated" from USC, per NCAA sanctions, so his coming back to USC would require an OK from the NCAA.

Lachlan from Los Angeles writes: Is this the year we see Cal become an elite member of the Pac-12, or will their defense continue to hold them back?

Ted Miller: "Elite" might not be the right term. Cal, keep in mind, went 1-11 in 2013, so the baseline 2015 goal in my eyes is a winning record and a bowl game.

And, yes, Cal's defense figures to hold the Bears back. The Bears should have an offense good enough to win a Pac-12 North title, but the defense would have to improve dramatically to attain merely mediocre status statistically. It gave up 40 points per game and 42 touchdown passes last year, numbers that cause a sportswriter to double-check himself with a "really?"

You can't win the Pac-12 without a defense that ranks in the top half of the league. In fact, the teams that have dominated the conference in the past decade-plus -- USC, Oregon and Stanford -- typically had defenses that ranked in the top 25 nationally.

Roger from The Woodlands, Texas, writes: Ted, I followed your tweet to the Oregon Register-Guard article about the university potentially taxing the athletic department. After reading the article and posted comments, two of the impressions I came away with: 1) liberal ideology of tax the wealthy (but that's not for the Pac-12 Blog to discuss) and 2) the college sports arms race is amplifying the feeling many have that the athletes are not a proper representation of the university and student body as a whole.Do the faculty and "regular" students feel the athletes even deserve to be there? I'd be curious to see a chart comparing respective graduation rates of each football team, men's basketball team and entire subset of athletes to the entire university. That would be one quick, fact-based way (although I'm sure there are other more elaborate measures) to see if the athletes are truly part of the student body. I suspect negative feelings in some cases are warranted.

Ted Miller: Not sure how we equate a university's academic side wanting a larger portion of athletic department revenue to taxing the rich. The university preceded the football team. The football team is a part of the university. The football team wouldn't exist without the university.

A rough analogy would be a 12-year-old child actor getting $10 million to star in a movie but not wanting to share that money with his parents, though he still wants to live under their roof and have his needs taken care of.

As for comparing student-athletes to regular students, it's complicated. Even with graduation rates.

Based on available numbers, athletes typically graduate at a slightly higher rate than regular students, and the numbers have been improving nationwide. That holds true at Oregon, too.

Yet there's a lot of comparing apples to roses here. For the most part, once a young person arrives at most colleges -- athlete or not -- he or she can figure out a way to graduate as long as they show up to class and complete assignments. It's easy to avoid academic rigor that requires a significant intellectual investment simply to pass.

It's no secret that many athletes tend to take, er, "forgiving" majors. Even when they don't want to, some academic advisers push them away from classes and majors that might conflict with football. Or prove too demanding. When you read through a media guide and 25 football players are "criminal justice" majors, you should raise a skeptical eyebrow.

On the other hand, when you see an athlete not only seeking a legit major -- economics! English! history! business! pre-med! -- band doing well, you should know those folks are achieving much more than a regular student because they are thriving academically while holding down what amounts to a full-time job.

Tony from Chandler, Arizona, writes: If you could be a fly on the wall for a conversation between any two sports personalities, who would they be? I'm thinking a private conversation between Mike Leach and Bill Walton would be fascinating and mostly incomprehensible, or maybe fascinatingly incomprehensible.

Ted Miller: That's a good one.

What about Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch? Or Chip Kelly and Bill Belichick? Or Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods?

Oh, what about Sherman and Floyd Mayweather?

All that said, if you could get Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy together for a couple of hours and let me listen, I'd die a happy man.

By the way, who's joining me on my campaign to get one or the other the Nobel Prize for Literature?
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

We'll finish up the offense with a look a the offensive lines. The North came earlier, and now to the South:

Arizona: The biggest loss is center Steven Gurrola, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, but the Wildcats also have to account for the departures of four-year starting tackles Fabbians Ebbele and Mickey Baucus. Freddie Tagaloa, a former starter at Cal, is a good candidate to start at either tackle spot. Cayman Bundage probably will get the first crack at center, while Jacob Alsadek, Jordan Poland, Zach Hemmila, T.D. Gross and Lene Maiava are all fighting for time across the line.

Arizona State: Tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka are gone, but the Sun Devils have the middle of the line returning with LG Christian Westerman, center Nick Kelly and RG Vi Teofilo (Teofilo’s status could be in question due to injury). Evan Goodman, Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey are three names to watch at tackle.

Colorado: The Buffs need to replace guards Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer, but return three starters in center Alex Kelly, LT Jeromy Irwin and RT Stephane Nembot. A foursome of Sully Wiefels, Auburn transfer Shane Callahan, Gerrad Kough and Jonathan Huckins figures to make up the group competing for the vacant jobs.

UCLA: Offensive line is clearly listed under strength for the Bruins. In bold. They return all five starters – LT Conor McDermott, LG Alex Redmond, C Jake Brendel, RG Caleb Benenoch, RT Simon Goines – and have good depth as well. Brett Hundley was one of the country’s most sacked QBs during his tenure, but those issues regressed as last season went along.

<USC: Bob Connelly replaces Tim Drevno as the position coach, but every starter from last year’s talented unit returns. Center Max Tuerk, a national honors candidate, is a lock to return at center, but there are six players conceivably in contention for the other four spots. Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner project at left and right tackle, but Toa Lobendahn showed he could played tackle too after Wheeler went down with a torn ACL for the final five games. It will likely come down to Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao battling at right guard, but Khaliel Rodgers could potentially factor in as well.

Utah: LT Jeremiah Poutasi’s early departure for the NFL draft was somewhat unexpected, but the Utes are still in a good spot from an overall talent perspective, although still very fluid. J.J. Dielman is the likely candidate to wind up in Poutasi’s spot, a switch from right tackle, while Siaosi Aiono returns at center. Isaac Asiata is a versatile player who could play guard or tackle, while Salesi Uhatafe should be in line for a bigger role next year as well. Several players, including Hiva Lutui and Jackson Barton, will compete at right tackle.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 13, 2015
Mar 13
What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.

We're making our way through the offensive position groups, and today we get to tight ends. Let's begin with the South ...

Arizona: Starter Blair Tushaus spent just one walk-on season with the Wildcats before exhausting his eligibility (three previous seasons at BYU) and did so in strictly a blocking role. The team’s tight ends combined for a grand total of zero receptions in 2014. Josh Kern and Trevor Wood are the primary holdovers fighting for playing time, and recent signees Darrell Cloy and Matt Morin, a junior-college transfer, joined the team this spring.

Arizona State: Kody Kohl returns after finishing fourth on the team with 16 receptions for 167 yards and four touchdowns. He will no longer split time with De'Marieya Nelson, but the Sun Devils added three intriguing players through recruiting -- junior-college transfer Raymond Epps, who will have three years of eligibility remaining, and freshmen Tommy Hudson and Jay Jay Wilson. Grant Martinez and walk-on Dan Vear also return.

Colorado: The Buffs lose starter Kyle Slavin (11 catches in 2014) and only return one player with any experience: junior Sean Irwin (7 catches). There are five other tight ends listed on the roster, including sophomore Connor Center, who didn’t play high school football, two walk-ons (Brian Boatman and Chris Hill) and two freshmen coming off their redshirt seasons (Hayden Jones and Dylan Keeney). Two-star Chris Bounds should also factor in when he arrives.

UCLA: The Bruins don’t regularly use a tight end -- they list none on the roster -- but signed talented four-star Chris Clark from Connecticut in their recent recruiting class. The No. 111 overall player in the ESPN 300, Clark could find a role early thanks to his 6-foot-6, 247-pound frame.

USC: A few weeks ago, this figured to be Bryce Dixon's job to lose, but with his status in question becasue of a "student-conduct issue," it’s a bit murky. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who missed the entire 2014 season because of academic issues, is the only other scholarship player on the roster. The Trojans will add four-star Tyler Petite to the roster in time for fall camp, but it again looks like the Trojans will be light at the position while trying to replace starter Randall Telfer.

Utah: Lewis Powell, a former defensive lineman for the Utes, was brought in to coach the tight ends ... all seven of them. Westlee Tonga caught 30 passes for 391 yards as a senior, and his departure doesn’t leave an easy void to fill. Of the players competing to replace him, only junior Siale Fakailoatonga recorded a catch last season (he had two).
LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans senior nose tackle Cody Temple has waited a long time to finally be healthy enough to have peace of mind that he can finally participate in a spring practice knowing he and his temperamental right ankle are now in complete harmony.

The former Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty High star, who has had to deal with a lingering ankle issue dating back to his 2012 ankle surgery, is ever so grateful to show what he can do this spring, even though, ironically, it's at the expense of starting senior nose tackle Antwaun Woods and sophomore Kenny Bigelow, both of whom are being held out of spring contact drills thanks to pectoral and knee surgery, respectively.

"I've had an unfortunate career so far in my time here dealing with multiple injuries back and forth," sighed Temple, who previously also sustained a foot injury and a concussion along the way.

"I am finally to the point now where coming through last season was finally my first year to be able to get some playing time on the playing field and get some recognition of what it's like to play college ball. Hopefully, in my senior year, I'll be able to take as much as I can and do what I can in one year."

Beginning his Trojans career as a redshirt center in 2011, last season Temple performed as a backup nose tackle and a special teams contributor. Appearing in all 13 games on the defensive line, he accounted for 10 tackles, including three for losses along with two sacks.

Through the first two weeks of spring ball, Temple, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds, has made his presence felt, and he's being instructed by not only second-year defensive line coach Chris Wilson but teammate Antwaun Woods, who has really taken the sociology major under his wing.

"Antwaun may be a big guy, but it doesn't matter run and pass, he's a dominant player," Temple said. "He really knows how to work an edge, get his hips moving, and he's a very, very smart football player. His football IQ is ridiculous, so I am trying to take as I can from him."

Despite being the starting spring nose tackle, Temple understands that when Woods and Bigelow are healthy, the competition increases substantially. He is, however, getting a golden opportunity in March and April show his coaches and teammates that he should be part of the 2015 mix.

"You've still got to step up and still play the spot whether someone is there or not," Temple said. "You're always competing for spot. We're sad that Antwaun is out, everybody is, and Kenny is coming back and everybody is working.

"I am taking as much as I can from the opportunity in being able to get as many reps as I can, work as much technique as I can, soak in as much as I can from the coaches, and watch as much film as I can. I still have a long way to improve."

Temple is realistic about where he is in his development and where he wants to go by the time fall camp rolls around. A lot has to do with not only his physical advancement but also his confidence.

"I believe one of my things that my coaches are really feeding into me is believing in my technique, work, and what I can do," Temple said. "I've always been someone who loves the weight room, but it doesn't matter on a football field. You've got to put in the effort and work because there are guys out here with no strength and no physical ability that dominates over somebody else, but it's their dedication and effort.

"I really need to start putting in the connections on what I need to do from coming out of the weight room and coming out here like using my hips. That's one of the things I have seen in the first days out here that the coaches have pointed out."

Temple is using his spring opportunity to work on his game, and there is no better way to measure progress than going against the Trojans senior All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, a 2015 preseason All-America candidate.

"Max probably is the most fundamentally sound guy that I've gone against with technique," Temple said. "I may be stronger than him and weigh heavier than him, but when we line up one-on-one I really got to work on what coach Wilson tells me in coming out of my hips, not raising up, and shooting my hands in his face.

"That boy (Tuerk) works. He fights, keeps his hands inside, and keeps his feet turning, and his motor, he'll blow out before he gives up. His heart is like a racehorse. His heart will explode before he ever backs out. I love being able to go up against him."

So far, Temple has also shown that the recent hot weather hasn't had an adverse affect on the big man. In fact, he has turned the weather negative into a positive. He sees the current Southern California warm-to-hot weather as a bonus for elevating his level of play.

"It's good for you, and I, myself, have to get into better shape," Temple said of the weather. "It's good for you because it also puts you against a no-huddle offense and seeing what it's like. We're expecting some big things next year, and the better shape we can get into, the better it is for us."

And the Trojans are hoping that a healthy Cody Temple can provide defensive line depth, leaving the Cardinal and Gold in good shape, as well.
USC's spring practice glides smoothly into its second week, and there are plenty of encouraging signs.

Quarterback Cody Kessler, clearly more confident and self-assured, is throwing the ball beautifully. A bigger, stronger JuJu Smith appears primed to take over as the go-to receiver. The uniquely-skilled Adoree' Jackson is wisely getting more reps on offense, and the fluid Justin Davis seems ready to make a major impact at tailback behind a young, beefy offensive line that is maturing every day.

But once you look past all that natural optimism, you can sense an undercurrent of concern. It involves the biggest question Coach Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans will face heading into the pivotal 2015 season:

How can a defense that was seriously deficient at times a year ago hope to get better after losing Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard, easily its two best players on that side of the ball?

Think about it. This is a defense that suffered major lapses, if not a total breakdown, in the final minutes against Arizona State and Utah. A defense that coughed up 510 passing yards against the Sun Devils, 471 yards and 38 points vs. UCLA and 525 yards and 42 points in that narrow Holiday Bowl escape against Nebraska.

And now it has to face the future without Williams, a unanimous All-American, likely top three NFL draft pick and one of the two or three finest defensive linemen in the Trojans' gaudy history, and Pullard, who was merely the leading tackler and heart and soul of everything done defensively?

If it sounds scary, it should. Because there are no immediate replacements leaping out from the current USC roster. Oh, there are lots of bodies there, some of whom have more than a shred of potential.

But other than the two all-star candidates among the back seven – linebacker/safety hybrid Su'a Cravens and the aforementioned multi-gifted Jackson at cornerback – there is no one who even comes close to an intimidating presence.

The optimists out there point to the latest glittering recruiting class supposedly overflowing with blue-chippers. But while this seems to be an extraordinarily talented group of freshmen, the only defensive player likely to squeeze his way onto the field immediately is Iman Marshall, the newest hotshot cornerback from Long Beach Poly.

Everyone else will take time. Maybe more time than this struggling defense can afford.

Remarkably, if Sarkisian is concerned about any of this, he doesn't let on.

His practice routine remains the same as it was a year ago. The same as it was throughout the entire tumultuous regime of Lane Kiffin.

The head coach spends not just most of his time, but almost all of his time, with the offense. He is always studying it, tinkering with it, correcting a quarterback's technique here, adjusting a wide receiver's route there. There is a reason he continues to insist on calling plays.

Offense is his passion, his identity. He doesn't just coach it, he totally immerses himself in it.

And while you have to admire his enthusiasm for that part of the job, you continue to wonder if it comes at a significant cost.

Sarkisian's backers will tell you he has total confidence in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and the other assistants defensively. And that's important. He trusts them enough to leave them entirely on their own through every practice.

But the more you watch, the more you are amazed. Shouldn't the head coach wander down to the other end of the field to watch an occasional defensive drill? Even if he isn't comfortable voicing instructions on that side of the ball, shouldn't he show he's at least interested? Don't the kids playing defense need to know that the head coach cares about them, too?

A couple of times during Tuesday's practice at the Coliseum, the defense was drilling just 20 yards away from the offense. But even then, Sarkisian never turned around, never even seemed tempted to sneak a peek.

Do you think Urban Meyer or Nick Saban operate that way? You know they don't.

Then again, maybe Sark knows something everyone else doesn't. Maybe he believes his offense will be so overwhelmingly explosive it will outscore everyone it plays in the fall. Maybe that will actually happen.

Or maybe not.

Spring practice still has three more weeks to go, and it's possible some solutions to a few of the holes on this defense will emerge. And once all those eager, young recruits arrive in August, if nothing else, the competitive level should rise substantially.

But unless something shocking happens between now and then, those who are rushing to project USC among the top 10, and even the top five, nationally might be wise to step back and re-analyze the situation.

All those nice spring vibes aside, this current Trojans' defense, minus Williams and Pullard, appears a long way from championship caliber.
A South Division team has never won the Pac-12. The conference has been all about Oregon and Stanford and Stanford and Oregon. In fact, the last time a present member of the South won the conference was in 2008 when Mark Sanchez led USC to a Rose Bowl victory over Joe Paterno and Penn State.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Ric Tapia/Icon SportswireSteve Sarkisian's Trojans might give the South its first legitimate Pac-12 frontrunner in 2015.
So yeah, a lot has happened since the conference's warm weather teams strapped on a championship belt.

That could change in 2015, continuing a South rising trend that, after inching forward the previous two seasons, became a reality in 2014. The South also might have its first legitimate Pac-12 frontrunner in USC, though more than a few folks still will be backing Oregon -- QB transition be darned -- until the Trojans prove themselves.

Winning the conference title is the only step left for the South, which dominated action between the two divisions last year, when the South was 15-10 against the North. Non-Oregon North teams recorded only two wins against the South, though those were impactful, as Oregon State over Arizona State and Stanford over UCLA made Arizona the South champs. The Wildcats, though they got blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, became the first South team to play in a BCS/New Years Six bowl game this January.

Five South teams ended up ranked in the final AP poll, and those five -- UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, USC and Utah -- are strong candidates for preseason rankings. Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early top-25 excluded only Utah, which welcomes back a bevy of starters from a team that beat USC and UCLA last year.

The North? Only the Ducks finished ranked in 2014, and they are expected to be the only ranked team from the North in the preseason.

The reasons for projecting the South ahead of the North in 2015 aren't limited to last year's results, either. Five South teams welcome back at least 14 starters this fall, including three -- UCLA (18), Arizona State (16) and Colorado (16) -- with 16 or more. Just two North teams welcome back at least 14 starters, and just one -- California with 17 -- welcomes back more than 15. Three North teams have 12 or fewer starters coming back, including Oregon (12). Washington has the fewest returning starters in the conference with 10.

Twenty-one 2014 first- and second-team All-Pac-12 players return in 2015. Just five are from the North, and that includes Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown, who is questionable for the season due to a serious leg injury. In fact, all five are from Oregon (three) and Stanford (two).

Moreover, four South teams have established starting quarterbacks coming back, and a fifth, Arizona State, has a high degree of certainty and experience behind center with senior Mike Bercovici. Only UCLA is wide open at the position this spring.

With the North, things are less certain at QB. Cal and Stanford are set, but Oregon and Oregon State have wide-open competitions. Washington and Washington State have QBs with starting experience, but neither has certainty at the position.

Coaches will tell you that college football is "cyclical," though that's often a coachspeak cliche to avoid breaking down present trends. In this case, that feels like a reasonable explanation. The North was in an up-cycle when it went 33-18 against the South in the Pac-12's first two years of existence. The South is now up 28-22 over the past two seasons.

Of course, we might see a new brand of hand-wringing if the South continues to surge.

When the Pac-12 was originally split into divisions, more than a few folks worried that the South would be consistently stronger, topped by USC and UCLA. It took five seasons, but those worrywarts might finally have scoreboards to feed their concern.

Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney joins Phil Murphy to contrast in-state recruiting priorities in the Pac-12.
Even though recruiters aren't in attendance at events like this past weekend's The Opening regional in Los Angeles, they're easily able to find out who performed well. Melquise Stovall was one of the players that stood out in everything he did and his stock is now red hot with colleges.

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