USC Trojans: leonard williams

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.”

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
1:00
PM PT
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've already done offense for the South and North divisions.

Next up: South Division defensive three-headed monsters.

1. USC

LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams, S Su'a Cravens

The skinny: Pullard was second-team All-Pac-12 after leading the Trojans with 94 tackles. While DE Devon Kennard led the Trojans with nine sacks last year, Williams was a force inside with six. It's also possible, of course, that attention to Williams, a certain preseason All-American, will open things up for a DE/OLB, such as J.R. Tavai. Cravens is likely to become as a true sophomore an all-conference performer. He had four interceptions last year, second on the team.

2. UCLA

LB Eric Kendricks, OLB Kenny Orjioke, CB Ishmael Adams

The skinny: Kendricks ranked third in the Pac-12 with 8.8 tackles per game last year. Does he finally break through on the all-conference team after two years as an honorable mention? Orjioke is the frontrunner to replace Anthony Barr. He's 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and has tons of potential. He, however, had just 12 tackles and two sacks as a sophomore. Adams led the Bruins with four interceptions last year.

3. Arizona

LB Scooby Wright, DE Reggie Gilbert, "spur" LB Tra'Mayne Bondurant

The skinny: Wright earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 as a true freshman, finishing with 83 tackles, including 9.5 coming for a loss. With both MLB Jake Fischer and weakside LB Marquis Flowers gone, he seems like a favorite to lead the team in tackles, even if he stays at strongside backer. Gilbert ranked second on the team with four sacks, though it's possible the Wildcats defense will do some juggling to increase anemic sack numbers this fall. Or a new guy, such as LB Antonio Smothers or DL Jeff Worthy, will break through. Bondurant, a hybrid LB/safety, led the Wildcats with four interceptions in 2013.

4. Arizona State

LB Salamo Fiso, DE/OLB Viliami Latu, S Damarious Randall

The skinny: The Sun Devils are replacing nine starters on defense, but Randall and Fiso are two of the three returning starters. It is notable that coach Todd Graham has been moving guys around on defense this spring, so ultimate positions are a matter of conjecture at this point. Fiso ranked fourth on the team with 71 tackles. Sophomore Latu might have a lead in the battle to replace Carl Bradford at the highly productive "devil" LB position. Randall had three interceptions last year.

5. Utah

LB Gionni Paul, OLB Jacoby Hale, S Eric Rowe

The skinny: Paul, a Miami transfer, is drawing raves this spring. He was a terror on the scout team a year ago. Hale is likely to replace Trevor Reilly, who led the Utes in tackles and sacks last year, at the "stud" linebacker. He was second on the Utes with 10 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks a year ago. As for the Utes’ leader for interceptions, well, funny you should ask about a team that had just three picks all of last year, tied for fewest in the nation. We're going with Rowe, even though he didn't have a pick in 2013 and had just one in 2012.

6. Colorado

LB Addison Gillam, TBA, CB Greg Henderson

The skinny: Along with Wright and UCLA's Myles Jack, Gillam was a true freshman LB revelation last year. He led the Buffaloes with 107 tackles. He might be a good bet to lead the team in sacks, too. The Buffs are replacing leading sacker Chidera Uzo-Diribe (4), and it's unclear who will fill that void. D-lineman Samson Kafovalu is a possibility, but he's sitting out spring focusing on academics. Derek McCartney -- yeah, that McCartney -- has been playing well this spring. Henderson led the Buffaloes with four picks a year ago.
video
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans returned to the practice field for the opening day of spring practice, and coach Steve Sarkisian said the impact of the up-tempo style was evident throughout the day.

“I really liked the energy and focus that our players and coaches showed,” Sarkisian said. “We were by no means perfect, and there is plenty to learn from, but it was just awesome to get on the field finally with these guys.

“It’s such a long process after you get hired, you need to fill the staff and finish off the recruiting season, so it was nice to walk through Goux Gate and onto the practice field. We ran 120 plays today, which was similar to what we ran on the first day at Washington when we installed the up-tempo system. I thought the players responded really well to that, we only had one time period where we didn’t meet our quota of plays.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian said the Trojans weren't perfect in their first spring practice, but he liked what he saw.
Sarkisian also noted one change from his time as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, as his offices are now in the John McKay Center as opposed to Heritage Hall.

“It’s a much shorter walk to the field now,” Sarkisian said with a smile. “I didn’t really have time to think too much about anything. I left the locker room and went up the All-American walk, made a right and, boom, I was at the field.”

Once he got to the field, there was plenty to note about the performance of his team during the first practice session of the spring.

The Trojans have an opening at center, which will be critical to fill on the offensive line, and Max Tuerk was working with the first unit. Tuerk has started games for USC at left tackle, right tackle and left guard and he was projected to move to RT this year to take over for Kevin Graf. Instead, Tuerk will get a look at center, where he played in limited action last spring before being moved back to guard due to struggles with the center/quarterback exchange.

“Max is a very bright young man and talented,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of work to be done on the line and we will take a look at options to see how things develop. It was a good day though, he didn’t snap the ball over anyone’s head and there were no grounders.”

Notes: Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Josh Shaw (stress fracture) were among those who did not participate on the defensive side of the ball. ... On offense, Justin Davis, George Farmer and Steven Mitchell all received limited work in walk-through sessions as they return from injury. ... Max Browne made an early impression in the quarterback competition with a pair of deep passes, including a touchdown to George Katrib. … Chris Hawkins had an interception and a pass break-up. ... Among the guests in attendance were Adoree' Jackson, Damien Mama, Ricky Town, Rahshead Johnson and former USC tailback Justin Fargas.

Q&A with Max Tuerk

Q: When were you told you’d be taking reps at center?

A: I was told by Coach [Tim] Drevno a little bit before we started meetings, probably about a month ago.

Q: What are your thoughts on the move?

A: Whatever is best for the team. I’m a big team player. I’ve moved around a lot in the last two years, so moving to center is a new, awesome thing that I can do.

Q: Is it better to not have the quarterback under center?

A: Yeah, I like the shotgun better.

Q: Is this a permanent move to center?

A: Whatever the team needs. If they need me to play center, then yes I will play center.

Q: Is the comfort level more than a year ago when you tried to play center? How is it different?

A: Yes, definitely. I just have a lot more confidence. We are all picking up the offense pretty good. It’s good to learn the offense and then start at center. It’s a little harder to start at a different position and then re-learn the offense at center.

Q: Is there one position you like better than the other in terms of blocking people?

A: I like them all.

Q: How was the speed today with the no huddle?

A: It was a lot of plays. It was good though.

Q: Was it easier to make the move when you saw how Marcus Martin flourished at this spot the last few years?

A: Yeah I definitely learned from Marcus. Marcus was a great player. He’s competing in pro day tomorrow so I’m gonna go watch him. He’s an awesome guy, awesome leader, so anything I can do to be like he was.

Roundtable: Players to watch this month

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
10:00
AM PT
Next week offers a look at the future, the present and the past of USC football. Give one player you are looking forward to seeing at the Los Angeles Nike Camp, one player who will be the talk of the opening week of spring ball, and one player who can improve his NFL stock the most on Pro Day.

Nike Camp

Garry Paskwietz:
When Steve Sarkisian was an assistant coach at USC he saw the Trojans utilize tall and athletic wide receivers such as Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett with a lot of success. Equanimeous St. Brown from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite has a 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame that would seem to offer a similar package of skills, and the Trojans have been very clear in pointing out that fact during the recruiting process. It will be interesting to see how St. Brown compares to the other receivers at the Nike camp, and if he has any connections with USC quarterback commit Ricky Town.

[+] EnlargeRicky Town
Tom Hauck/ESPNTrojans QB commit Ricky Town will get a chance to recruit players at the Los Angeles NFTC this weekend.
Johnny Curren: Defensive tackles such as Rasheem Green from Gardena (Calif.) Serra simply don’t come around very often right in USC’s backyard, and I think that he’s as crucial a target that there is in this class for the Trojans, particular with the possible departure of Leonard Williams following the 2014 season. The linemen one-on-ones are always the highlight of every NFTC, and with a rare combination of 6-foot-5, 269-pound size and exceptional athleticism, I’m really curious to see how Green matches up against the top offensive linemen that Southern California has to offer. From what I’ve seen from him in the past, he has the ability to really dominate at this event.

Greg Katz: For me, it will be quarterback commit Ricky Town, especially if he competes against Josh Rosen. While that could be interesting if both decide to toss it around, the real story will be Town interacting with Trojans recruits who could someday be his teammates. Yes, it’s all about recruiting of players by players, and Town has good reason to be active on Sunday at Redondo Beach (Calif.) Union High. It could be fascinating.

Opening week of spring

GP:
It was a relatively quiet transition year for Kenny Bigelow as a redshirt. After coming in as a top-ranked recruit who many thought would make an immediate impact, Bigelow had time to sit back and watch while learning the college game and spending time in the weight room. That year off should start paying immediate dividends next week when a hungry Bigelow gets a chance to remind everyone why he was such an elite prospect.

JC: Collecting 52 tackles, Su'a Cravens played more like a veteran in 2013 than a freshman, and I expect even bigger things from him in the future starting this spring. Possessing unique playmaking ability to go along with his remarkable physical attributes, I’m particularly interested to see how defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox utilizes his talents in his new scheme. Will Cravens line up at a traditional safety position? Or might Wilcox put him at a possible linebacker/safety hybrid spot, similar to where he showcased Shaq Thompson at Washington? In either case, Cravens has the potential to emerge as a leader of the defense this spring.

GK: The talk of spring ball in the opening week will be -- to the surprise of nobody -- All-American defensive tackle Leonard Williams. With two seasons under his belt, Williams is being touted by some as one of the all-time greats at USC. It figures that even in restricted drills and learning a new system, Williams will look even more destructive in the first week and more noticeably sculptured.

Pro Day

GP:
Marcus Martin was limited at the combine, which didn’t hurt him but it certainly didn’t help him either. Martin has a real opportunity to secure his spot as the top center in the draft and a probable mid-round selection with a solid performance at pro day. He got a boost to his profile recently when Mel Kiper ranked him as the top available center but, as Pete Carroll used to always remind everyone, the NFL simply doesn’t know as much about an early entry player, so Martin can go out and remind them why he deserves that ranking.

JC: Snubbed from the NFL Scouting Combine, Morgan Breslin will receive his first shot to make an impression for scouts at USC’s Pro Day, and I think that he’ll make the most of it. With his senior campaign marred by injury, people forget that he had 13 sacks in 2012. Now apparently healthy, Breslin possesses a tremendous burst off the line, a non-stop motor, and a fierce work ethic that would seemingly make him a welcome addition to any NFL roster. Currently somewhat of a hidden commodity, I think that come March 12 more than a few NFL teams will fall in love with what he can bring to the table.

GK: If he performs, one would think it would have to be Morgan Breslin, who shockingly wasn’t invited to the NFL draft combine. Breslin will apparently have a lot to prove, and a good showing on Pro Day could return him back into the good graces of NFL teams. This is a big day for No. 91.
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Coach Rich Rodriguez is confident in both Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato and anxious to get junior-college transfers Jeff Worthy, who also spent a year at Boise State, and Jerod Cody acclimated to the system. Calvin Allen, Jack Banda and Luca Bruno are coming off redshirt seasons and represent a group Rodriguez said the team needs production from.

Arizona State: With the departure of Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman, there is a question about the team's depth at end. Without Will Sutton clogging things up next year, the Sun Devils' lack of experience is even more of a concern. Sean O'Grady backed up Conway and Coleman last year, but ASU has several well-regarded junior-college transfers in Edmond Boateng, Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry.

California: The Bears list seven defensive ends, but former junior-college transfer Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa gained the most experience last season listed at the rush position. Antione Davis was outgoing starter Dan Camporeale's primary backup, but Brennan Scarlett's return is more important. He started nine games in 2012 and has been cleared to play following a hand issue that cost him the 2013 season. Todd Barr, Sione Sina and recent-transfer Jonathan Johnson are also in the mix.

Colorado: Colorado must replace Chidera Uzo-Diribe, but Juda Parker is back for his senior season, and several others have game experience. Samson Kafovalu is the likely candidate to start opposite him after making 18 tackles in seven games last year. Jimmie Gilbert was Uzo-Diribe's backup, Kirk Poston and De'Jon Wilson also played.

Oregon: The Ducks took a hit with the departure of Taylor Hart, who was named second-team All-Pac-12, but have a talented player in Arik Armstead lined up to take his spot. Armstead started five times in 2013 and left the basketball team midseason to shift his focus back to football. T.J. Daniel, Jason Sloan are projected to be in the mix for playing time.

Oregon State: Scott Crichton is gone, but Dylan Wynn remains and will likely be the Beavers' best defensive player a year after finishing fourth on the team in tackles. Lavonte Barnett, Crichton's primary backup in 2013, and Jaswha James figure to compete for the starting job, but there are two others to keep an eye on. Obum Gwacham recently switched from receiver and Mike Riley has been complimentary of Titus Failauga, who is coming off his redshirt.

Stanford: Henry Anderson has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the conference and Blake Lueders, who switched from OLB, began the spring atop the depth chart. The intriguing prospect is Luke Kaumatule, who was recruited to play defense but began 2013 as the team's starting tight end. Spring will be important for his development, but his raw ability is impressive.

UCLA: Both Ellis McCarthy and Eddie Vanderdoes were all-Pac-12 honorable mention last season and highlight a talented UCLA defensive line. Their return will help account for the loss of Cassius Marsh, who started 12 games last year. Both McCarthy and Vanderdoes can play inside or outside, but the Bruins listed them both at end. Highly recruited DE Kylie Fitts saw playing time as a true freshman last season, and Keenan Graham and Brandon Willis will provide depth.

USC: Leonard Williams, the only sophomore named first-team all-Pac-12 on defense last season, is the best in the conference. Delvon Simmons, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech, has a lot of game experience. He started 12 games for the Red Raiders in 2012 and had regular playing time as a freshman there in 2011. Both Simmons and J.R. Tavai, who was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection, can play inside or outside.

Utah: There's no replacing Trevor Reilly, who made 100 tackles despite lingering effects from a torn ACL, but Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick both saw extensive playing time last season. The Utes have five other defensive ends on the roster, but of that group only LT Filiaga made a tackle last season.

Washington: The Huskies are in great shape with the return of Hau'oli Kikaha, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, Cory Littleton and Evan Hudson. Josh Shirley has 10 career starts, while Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching provide depth.

Washington State: With Toni Pole expected to move back inside, the depth chart will look similar to how it did going into last season, minus Matt Bock. After making 50 tackles last year, Xavier Cooper will start on one side, with Destiny Vaeao and Lyman Faoliu strong candidates for more playing time. Emmitt Su'a-Kalio is coming off a redshirt, and the Cougars also signed a pair of defensive ends from Hawaii in Kingston Fernandez and Hercules Mata'afa.

Previous positions

Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle

Mailbag: Utah QB prospects looking up

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
5:30
PM PT
Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Justin from Chantilly, Va., writes: I believe Utah fans should be excited for a QB competition entering spring practice. What are the odds of Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson assuming the starting role? Can Utah medically redshirt Travis Wilson for a year to evaluate?

Ted Miller: Things look at lot better at quarterback for Utah than they did a couple of months ago, eh?

Not only is there hope that 2013 starter Wilson will be able to play this fall, there's also the arrival this summer of Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer who is immediately eligible. Those are two guys most Utes fans probably weren't counting on.

I would suggest adopting a pose of cautious optimism.

You should be optimistic because Wilson brings experience and competence behind center that makes the Utes a bowl team. You should be optimistic because Thompson sounds like the sort of athlete who can help the Utes, whether he wins the job outright or not.

You should be cautious, however, because Wilson has not yet been cleared to play in 2014, only to participate in spring practices without contact. While the recent news is good, we won't know until well into the summer if he has overcome the pre-existing medical condition that ended his 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsKendal Thompson showed flashes of potential at Oklahoma.
And you should be cautious because Thompson, the 6-foot-1, 199-pound son of former Oklahoma QB Charles Thompson, has thrown only 13 passes in three seasons with the Sooners, though a foot injury was a big issue last season. He only completed four of those passes and one was intercepted. This is not like Russell Wilson leaving NC State for Wisconsin.

As for the odds of Thompson winning the job, I have no idea. I haven't seen him play and we still don't know Travis Wilson's status. It does seem, however, that plenty of other programs wanted Thompson, and he fits well in new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen's theme.

The positive, big-picture issue is Utah now has more options than it had the past three seasons, when injuries to Jordan Wynn and then Wilson muted the Utes offense.

When you toss in Adam Schulz, who stepped in when Wilson went down, and redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox, plus incoming freshman Donovan Isom, the Utes no longer seem to be all-in with just one guy. That's important.

As for redshirting Wilson, Utah could. He has a redshirt season available. Not sure if that's in play here, but I'm also not sure if it's not.


Jeff from Atlanta writes: How much of Stanford's recent success do people/fans/media in Pac-12 land attribute to Shannon Turley? The amazing Cardinal W-L stats seem to coincide directly with his tenure. I have read a number of articles on his FMS [Functional Movement Screen scores] and think it is a breakthrough mindset. It is only a matter of time before other schools start migrating away from the old ways.

Ted Miller: Jeff, you are not the first to take note of Turley and his innovative conditioning techniques and philosophies. The National Strength and Conditioning Association named Turley its strength and conditioning coach of the year in 2013. More than a few folks around Stanford call him the Cardinal's secret weapon, pretty much a conditioning guru.

For one, this is a pretty strong sell from Turley's bio:
In 2013, his position became the first endowed football directorship in the FBS and was renamed the Kissick Family Director of Football Sports Performance. Turley has created a comprehensive player development program designed to achieve three primary goals: injury prevention, athletic performance enhancement and mental discipline development.

Turley was FootballScoop's 2011 Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Year as determined by a panel of coaches and previous recipients. Turley has earned significant credit from the Stanford coaching staff for his role in turning around a program that won a single game the year before his arrival to a program with three straight BCS bowl appearances.

And this is a pretty strong sell in the New York Times from former Stanford star Richard Sherman.

“We have an advantage when we get into the NFL,” Sherman said. “It shows you how little scouts know in their assessments. I’ll roll with Shannon Turley.”

While he might not be well-known nationally, Turley was important enough on the Farm to merit a three-part series in The Stanford Daily.

I've long believed that a football team's strength coach is every bit as important as a position coach who doesn't call plays, and they should be paid accordingly.

All good teams have great natural athletes with potential. What makes a team elite is what is done with those athletes to maximize that potential.


Jordan from Pullman, Wash., writes: I get that you didn't write the spring breakdown for running backs, but I'm assuming you had some oversight on the article. I have an issue with Washington State's coverage. The Air Raid isn't going to produce thousand-yard rushers often. Or ever. But that doesn't mean that Wazzu doesn't have some very good backs already established, and a few intriguing prospects coming in for next year. The three rushers coming in are three-star recruits. Also, Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason averaged 5.4 ypc, a VERY respectable number, especially in an offense that is not built to produce on the ground. Come on Pac-12 Blog, where's the love?

Ted Miller: I have no oversight. Maybe undersight. Or near sight. Or lack of insight.

I will grant you that Mason finished the regular season with three strong performances, rushing for 203 yards on 32 carries -- 6.3 yards per tote -- while catching 21 passes for 117 yards. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cougars won two of those games and played a competitive Apple Cup on the road at Washington.

And I will grant you that the Cougs' measly 2.9 yards per carry last year, which ranked 120th in the nation, is a bit deceiving because Mason and Caldwell averaged 4.9 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively, while also combining for 78 receptions, catching throws that mostly operated as aerial handoffs.

And the Pac-12 blog wants to give love. That's, really, what we are all about.

But I also think we can all agree that no Pac-12 team puts less emphasis on the running game, and until the Cougars make a big move in the North Division without a running game, a lot of folks will be skeptical that at team can thrive in the deep, physical Pac-12 without at least a fair-to-middling rushing threat.


Benvolio from Los Angeles writes: I was just reading your article on the state of spring ball in the Pac-12 and found the line, "Just one first-team All-Pac-12 performer is back -- Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu." Ted, you forgot Leonard Williams AGAIN. Don't make me tell Leonard.... He's 6-5, 300 pounds and worked hard for that All-Pac-12 title.

Ted Miller: Man, forget Leonard Williams a couple of times and Benvolio goes from peacemaker to biting his thumb at the Pac-12 blog.

Perhaps Queen Mab hath been with me, distracting me from recalling the Pac-12's best defensive lineman this past fall?

Or maybe I just miss you, Benvolio, and wanted to see if you were paying attention?

Or maybe it was just a stupid oversight?

No, couldn't be that. That's too out of character. Had to be Queen Mab.

Roundtable: Biggest noise in spring?

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
6:00
AM PT
WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

Give your offensive and defensive "spring revelations," guys who will make the biggest noise in spring.

Garry Paskwietz: These are good times for the USC tailback spot. Buck Allen was the 2013 team MVP, and Tre Madden and Justin Davis were the darlings of the early part of the season. By the end of the year, however, you couldn’t help but notice the progress that Ty Isaac had made as well. Isaac combines a chiseled, big frame with a natural running style, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him really make a statement this spring.

My defensive revelation is more of a position group than an individual player. The need to replace George Uko along the interior of the line is critical, and the Trojans have some pretty good options. Delvon Simmons is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Texas Tech. You can’t substitute experience, and Simmons has a year as a starter in the Big 12 under his belt. Kenny Bigelow redshirted last year and is ready to start showing why he was such a highly rated recruit coming out of high school. Claude Pelon offers another big, veteran body as a junior college transfer and then there is always the possibility of Greg Townsend, if he can stay healthy.

[+] Enlarge Delvon Simmons
John Albright/Icon SMIDelvon Simmons brings a year of experience from Texas Tech to USC.
Johnny Curren: With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, I really think that wide receiver Darreus Rogers has the potential to explode this spring. Possessing a unique combination of size, soft hands and big-play ability, he gained valuable experience in 2013 as the Trojans’ No. 3 receiver, hauling in 22 passes. I expect him to slide into the starting spot opposite Nelson Agholor and to take on a key role, particularly with USC going to more of an uptempo offense. From what he showed last season in somewhat limited action, he’s more than ready for the increase in responsibility.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Khaliel Rodgers potentially make a splash at center. I was extremely impressed with what I saw from him in practice last season, as well as in high school, and I think, given the opportunity this spring, he’ll succeed.

On the other side of the ball, I think Simmons is the big name to watch. At a hulking 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he’s another performer who impressed out on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on a daily basis last fall. With the added benefit of having started 13 games as a sophomore in 2012 at Texas Tech, he has the ability to step in right away and contribute with no adjustment period. He’ll challenge for the starting defensive end spot opposite Leonard Williams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he lines up there when the Trojans open up the 2014 season. Linebackers Quinton Powell and Scott Starr are two more outstanding athletes who could make some noise this spring.

Greg Katz: Given that it’s a position of not only great need but of great interest, a spring revelation from this prospective will be redshirt freshman Rodgers, who has the size (6-3, 310) to be a dominant center. Playing in postseason all-star game competition coming out of high school, Rodgers really established himself as a prospect. Extremely physical and nasty at the point of attack, Rodgers can play two positions: center and guard. Because of the need at center, Rodgers will get every opportunity to show his stuff there, and it will be a revelation just how much potential this kid has to be outstanding. That said, there is still the leadership role of center and that will be one factor to monitor in his bid to be the starter.

The early loss of Uko leaves a real void and opportunity for somebody to step in and take that defensive tackle spot. There are enough candidates, but the one that will be a revelation will be Simmons, the former U.S. Army All-American. That "6-6, 300" is not some number put into a media guide. He has the necessary game experience and also had quality results playing as a true freshman with the Red Raiders. Keep an eye on this up-and-comer.

USC searches for next intimidator

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:30
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- With spring practice approaching, the new Trojans football staff will be looking for the kind of performer that sends a message to the other team, an intimidator if you will.

New Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will, no doubt, be searching for a defender(s) who goes beyond just rattling the cage of the offense, but an athlete who sends a message that the worst is yet to come.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
AP Photo/Greg TrottRey Maualuga was an intimidating force at linebacker during his days at USC.
The current Trojans defense may have one such player in sophomore ESPN All-American Leonard Williams, the monster from Daytona Beach, Fla., who USC athletic director Pat Haden has already anointed one of the top 10 players he has ever seen play at Troy, either as a player or as the AD.

The question now becomes is there an enforcer besides the aforementioned Williams whom Wilcox will uncover during spring ball, which beings the second week in March?

As a public service, Wilcox might want to check out our list of defensive enforcers over the seasons as a starting point in helping find that “baddest dude” on the cardinal and gold block.

In no particular order, here are the historical Dirty Dozen of defensive “enforcers” that no Trojans opponent wanted to see:

LB Rey Maualuga (2005-08): As intimidating a presence as anybody stepping off the Trojans team bus, one won’t soon forget when he (6-2, 260) provided one of the most all-time intimidating hits when he blew up former UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan in 2007 on national television. He was one bad actor when it came to setting the tone of a game.

SS Troy Polamalu (1999-2002): USC has never had another quite like Polamalu (5-10, 215). An under-the-radar high school recruit, his play raised the entire demeanor of the defense. He continued his trade in the NFL and will go down with the great ones.

DB Ronnie Lott (1977-80): The consummate performer in the secondary, Lott (6-2, 200) brought the pain. He was absolutely one of college football’s all-time hitters. There are players that play without fear; Lott was born without fear.

LB Chris Claiborne (1996-98): The Trojans only Butkus Award winner (1998) as the nation’s top linebacker, one could argue that Claiborne (6-3, 250) is USC’s greatest linebacker ever. In a 4-3 defense, this middle linebacker is one of the very few that could control the opposition’s offense through his athletic and intimidating style. Claiborne singlehandedly kept the Trojans in a 1998 game at Florida State.

LB Riki Gray/Ellison (1978-82): Former Trojans linebacker coach Artie Gigantino once said that “those two guys are crazy,” when referring to Gray and a fellow linebacker teammate. Gray (6-2, 220) had the sense of finding the ball carrier and delivering a message not soon forgotten. He had absolutely no regard for his own body or his opponents. He had a style all his own, and it was wicked.

LB Chip Banks (1978-81): One of the great recruits from the South (Atlanta), Banks (6-5, 230) was the other half of Gigantino’s “those two guys are crazy” assessment. Banks was the Trojans’ team captain in 1981 and just had this look in his glazed eyes. His stare was like that of a menacing galactic robot. Playing both inside and outside linebacker during his playing days at USC, he was a two-time all-conference performer and a 1981 All-American.

OLB Charlie Weaver (1969-70): Just on his name alone, Weaver (6-2, 214) would have been singled out, but the fact he was a violent performer coming off the edge in a 5-2 defense was his own special domain. There have been many hits of intimidation over the decades, but Weaver’s running-start collision against UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit in 1969 remains an all-time classic. It ranks right up there with Maualuga’s hit on Cowan. Weaver’s Hall of Fame smash on Dummit can be seen in almost any USC historical football footage.

OLB Jimmy Gunn (1967-69): Another Trojan with a name to build a legend around, Gunn (6-1, 210) was lightning quick playing what was then called defensive end. It could be argued that Gunn was one of the major leaders of the original 1969 Wild Bunch. Gunn, however, might be best remembered as a sophomore when he played against UCLA in the classic 1967 game. On torn knee ligaments, he delivered a late-game sack on eventual UCLA Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gary Beban to preserve the 21-20 victory. Gunn’s courage and savage play against the Bruins is folklore stuff.

FS Mark Carrier (1987-89): A local prep legend out of Long Beach Poly High, Carrier transferred his physical and ferocious style of play to the Trojans. Although not physically intimidating by size (6-1, 185), there wasn’t a receiver in the country that wanted to run across the middle to meet Mr. Carrier. The Trojans lone Thorpe Award winner (1989) as the nations’ finest defensive back, Carrier was like a human hypodermic needle on impact. It you wanted to see fear in a receiver’s eyes and sweat flying out of his helmet, just watch some of Carrier’s most devastating tackles.

DE Junior Seau (1988-89): Before there was the intimidation of Maualuga, there was Seau, the original No. 55. Not only was Seau big (6-3, 245), but the late linebacker was a monster between the sidelines. Junior left many Coliseum fans speechless after his assaults on the opposition’s offense. If new defensive coordinator Wilcox wants to show the freshmen Trojans just what a defensive Trojans football player looks like, he need only whip out some video of the great Seau.

DE Tim Rossovich (1965-67): A man’s man who was larger than life (6-5, 235) during his time period. A stand-up 5-2 defensive end, there is a picture of Rossovich in a 1967 game program that pretty much sums it up. It looks like pure rage and intensity. Rossovich and teammate Mike Battle, an All-American safety, were legendary in their exploits not only on the field but also on fraternity row. A 1967 consensus All-American, he was an enforcer at the highest level.

RE/FB/LB Marlin McKeever (1958-60): A throwback to two-way football, McKeever hit anything that moved on either side of the ball. What makes this intimidator (6-1, 230) all the more impressive is that he was not only a three-time all-conference selection, but he was also a 1959 academic All-American. A member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame, McKeever would be a player of fear in any generation, and his work on defense in the NFL is well documented.

There are obviously others that could be added to this list, but there is little argument that the above don’t belong.

The question: Who’s up next?

Mailbag: Saban's evil plot

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:30
PM PT
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: What are your thoughts on the proposed new 10-second defensive substitution window rules, or what I'm calling "The Oregon Rule." Please explain to me how teams with smaller, faster players can ever expect to beat teams with bigger, stronger players if speed is not a viable weapon. I feel like I'm watching Nick Saban tell Chip Kelly to get off of his lawn in slow motion. Please make it stop. Football needs FEWER esoteric rules instead of more.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban would not win any popularity contests on the West Coast.
0006shy from Los Angeles writes: I just saw the proposed rule change to punish hurry-up offenses. What a joke! What an absolute joke! If the NCAA truly cares about player safety then they should ban games against FCS teams (USC, UCLA and Notre Dame have NEVER played an FCS team.) Nick Saban's five-star athletes pounding Chattanooga players for 60 minutes creates far more serious injuries than a no-huddle offense ever will.

John from Eugene, Ore., writes: Please, reassure us Pac-12 fans that this ridiculous rule change intended to slow down uptempo offenses is not going to pass. Please tell me that just because the rest of the football world seems to worship the ground Nick Saban walks on, that doesn't mean that the NCAA will pass rules that give him exactly what he's whining for? I can't imagine I'm the only person writing in on this. There's no way this proposed change is actually made, is there?

Ted Miller: Don't forget Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. He's as much behind this as Saban.

Further, yes, it is notable that the sudden concern for player safety comes from coaches who don't run uptempo attacks and have been gashed by them over the past few seasons. Hmm.

And, yes, their motives are, at best, 97.6 percent disingenuous. Bielema and Saban, a fantastic football coach who reportedly once ignored and stepped over a convulsing player, and others who support this proposed rule change, are doing so to gain a strategic advantage. Pure and simple.

The diversity of schemes in college football is one of the biggest reasons the sport is so popular. I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever that the sport would not be as popular -- probably not nearly so -- if everyone ran Alabama's or, yes, Stanford's offense.

A fast-paced game not only is fan-friendly, it -- as Haggmeez notes -- gives teams that rely on smaller, faster players a better chance to compete with teams with a gaggle of five-star recruits with NFL measurables.

As uptempo coaches such as Arizona's Rich Rodriguez have noted, if you really are concerned about player safety, make blitzing illegal. That would reduce the number of blow-up shots during game by 30 percent, a number that was arrived at with just as much science as went into this effort to thwart uptempo offenses.

Do I think it will pass? No.

But the NCAA is involved. It's presence tends to inspire stupid and/or disingenuous things to happen.


Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: Very happy to see that my top 25 list ran this past week (for the second year in a row, might I add). Obviously, since I kept all the same players on my list as the official Pac-12 Top 25, I didn't have any major problems with it. My question is in regard to the logic behind the order of some of the choices. In your response to my list, you mentioned that most people would probably pick Marcus Mariota first if holding a conference draft, and I tend to agree with that. But in that same scenario, someone like Marqise Lee would certainly be among the top 10 picks too, and I don't think he belongs in the top 25 for this past season. Later, you continue to assert that Will Sutton belongs ahead of Leonard Williams, even though (I assume) you and Kevin were responsible for Williams being named an ESPN first-team All-American. I guess my question is, when does production/accolades overshadow potential/other intangibles (like positional value), and when is it the other way around?

Ted Miller: Don't expect perfect logic. There are a variety of considerations -- many subjective -- that go into our weekly power rankings of teams, as well as our top-25 ranking of players.

It's a blend of factors such as postseason accolades, statistics, NFL prospects, positional value and a player's pure value to his team. Kevin doesn't consider NFL prospects as much as I do, though I think of that consideration as more of my mental draft picking -- as in, who would I pick first? -- when making a tough distinction.

That was my thinking for Mariota over Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey. You could argue that Carey was more accomplished in 2013, but I'd still say that Mariota's numbers plus his overall value, which is augmented by his playing the most important position, give him the edge.

You noted Marqise Lee. Good question. Lee, in terms of talent and potential, certainly is among the top 25 players in the Pac-12. Probably top 10. But you have to take into account what he actually did this season. His numbers, in large part due to poor QB play and injuries, were not very good. So his down numbers get prioritized over his talent, knocking him off this list.

In some ways, my "draft" idea also overlaps with production -- what a guy actually did that past season. And poor production mutes pure talent factors. See also, Thomas, De'Anthony.

Similar reasoning, by the way, also cost Stanford DE Ben Gardner. The coaches still gave him a first-team All-Pac-12 nod, despite his missing the season's final six games because of injury, but we pretty much ruled him out because of that. Not his fault, but that still seems reasonable to me.

As for Sutton and Williams, most would project Williams having a higher NFL upside. He also had slightly better numbers than Sutton this year, though Williams was a defensive end and Sutton a tackle. Yet what kicked Sutton up a notch was the simple fact he -- again -- was named the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches. That was slightly surprising, but it also was something that validated the idea that Sutton's numbers were down from 2012 because of blocking schemes that were obsessed with him, an invaluable benefit for a defense.

Are we always 100 percent consistent? No. But we do try.


Jonathan from New York writes: With respect to your concerns about Stanford being able to replace Tyler Gaffney's productivity at the running back position, I wonder if you had any insight into whether Barry Sanders has the potential to have a 1,500-yard season. It's true that Coach Shaw didn't give him enough carries this year to come to any conclusions, and even on the punt return unit he mostly had fair catches. But I don't know whether Sanders had such little playing time because Gaffney was just so dependable and successful, or whether it was because Sanders was not showing much potential in practice. Perhaps you don't know any more than I do, but I'd be curious for your take if you have any thoughts.

Ted Miller: My guess is Stanford won't have a back gain 1,500 yards next year. My guess is it will be more of a committee effort. I also think the Cardinal still will run the ball well, just not in the Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney one-workhorse way.

Of course, in advance of the 2014 season, I expected it to be 60-40 between Gaffney and backup Anthony Wilkerson. Gaffney just played too well to take him out.

As for Sanders, I really have no feeling for how things will play out for him next fall. While it's fun to imagine him being a clone of his father, perhaps the most thrilling ball-carrier in NFL history, it's probably unfair to expect him also to have once-in-a-generation talent.

Sanders will be competing with Remound Wright and Ricky Seale for carries, and I've heard little that suggests one is leaps and bounds superior to the other. They seem to have complementary skill sets, so that suggests they each get touches. As the season progresses, one would expect a more clear pecking order to develop.

This, by the way, is a good review of where the Cardinal stands at running back heading into spring practices.


Mitty from Saint Joe, Calif., writes: Which Pac-12 fan base do you most like to target with passive-aggressive shots? I've only noticed one. Kevin will get the same question because he targets the same fan base.

Ted Miller: Passive-aggressive? Moi?

I've always thought of myself as aggressive-aggressive, though my fuse, thankfully, has grown longer in my fourth decade.

Kevin and I, on occasion, discuss tweaks, insults and rants directed at us in the comment sections or elsewhere, but it takes up less of our time than you might think. We don't hold grudges. We really do try our best to remain as objective and fair as possible with all 12 teams. I've never heard anything from an official representative of a school -- coach, AD, sports information director, etc. -- suggesting we were being unfair or favoring or disfavoring a program. That's a fact we take a lot of pride in.

What I have noticed is that fans of teams that aren't doing well tend to think we are unfair to their team, whether that's about win-loss record or recruiting. The inescapable fact is teams that are winning get more coverage, just as teams that sign highly ranked recruits get more attention on national signing day.

Of course, more coverage for a team probably means more of their fans are showing up on the blog, and fans come in all forms. There clearly has been an "Oregon Effect" since the blog started in 2008. Ducks fans, by my unscientific estimates, seem to be the most active here, expressing both love and hate for your gentle bloggers.

But mostly love. Because it's impossible not to, in the end, love the Pac-12 blog.


GoCougs from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Kevin forgot about one Pac-12 alum's participation in the Super Bowl. Please pass on the love for Steve Gleason.

Ted Miller: Great stuff.

Gleason is an inspiration. An all-time great.

Pac-12 Top 25 for 2013: No. 10

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
7:00
PM PT
Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 10: Leonard Williams, DE, USC

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

Preseason ranking: unranked

Making the case for Williams: Then interim coach Ed Orgeron thought enough of Williams to predict the defensive end would eventually become a first-round pick and called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached. On the list of semifinalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, Williams was the lone sophomore. The Florida native was one of three Pac-12 players named to ESPN.com's All-America Team.


The countdown:
No. 11: Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State No. 12: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
No. 13: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
No. 14: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 16: Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
No. 17: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
No. 18: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 19: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA
Tired of searching for Richard Sherman memes? Me, neither. But take a break anyway and enjoy the mailbag.

Jack in Boulder, Colo. writes: Pretty harsh with some of your grades, weren’t you?

Kevin Gemmell: I don’t think so. Did anyone in the league deserve an A? No national champions. No BCS bowl game victories. I didn’t do the Stanford review, that one was all Ted. But I thought a B-plus was fair, considering how the season ended and the fact that the Cardinal did lose to an unranked team that didn’t make the postseason along the way. I did do the Oregon review and thought a B was also a fair grade -- considering what the expectations were for the Ducks in 2013 compared to how they finished.

[+] EnlargeStanford
David Madison/Getty ImagesStanford won the Pac-12 and went to the Rose Bowl, but didn't deserve an A.
Arizona State gets the same grade as Stanford because it won its division and had the best overall record in the Pac-12. No small accomplishment.

Outside of that, who deserves a better grade than they received? Some people thought Arizona’s B was a little too generous, given the schedule they played (see the question below, by the way). But they knocked off Oregon, won their bowl game and made huge strides defensively.

Others have said Cal’s F grade was too harsh. But I’m of the opinion that if you don’t beat an FBS team, that’s a fail.

Oregon State’s C-minus feels right, considering what the expectations were.

UCLA’s B-plus was fair from Ted and my B-minus for USC was pretty reflective of the ups and downs of the season.

I thought Ted’s C-minus for Utah was probably generous, but upsetting Stanford warrants something in the average range.

The Washington schools both got Bs because the Cougs exceeded expectations and the Huskies got over the seven-win hump and won their bowl game.

As always, happy to hear arguments in favor for or against changing grades.


Pac-12 Fan in Reno writes: C'mon, Kevin. Arizona at No. 25 in your final poll? It is now becoming apparent that you have some repressed "feelings" for [RichRod] and Arizona. How can you put AU at No. 25 after the way they were so thoroughly humiliated at the hands of relatively pedestrian ASU (No. 20)? AU beat Oregon and ... whom exactly? Their wins came over the likes of UNLV and UTSA. Wow. Impressive. AU will win 8-9 games again next year because they play a bunch of [weak teams]. You really need to admit your bias/obsession and try to move past it. You are better than this.

Kevin Gemmell: Consider the alternative. Who would you put at No. 25? Washington is there in the AP poll at No. 25, but I had the Huskies higher because I thought they finished strong and deserved a higher ranking.

So let’s look at the options, including all of the teams that finished in the final AP rankings or received votes.

Vanderbilt? The Commodores beat an injury-depleted No. 15 Georgia, but the rest of their schedule sets up much like Arizona with sub-.500 competition.

Nebraska? Its signature win was also over No. 22 Georgia. (And yes, Ryan in New York, I know you are going to chime in about UCLA’s win over Nebraska, but you still won’t convince me that wasn’t an amazing win for the Bruins given all that had happened).

Fresno State? Played one ranked team all year (USC) and got blasted by them in the bowl game.

Northern Illinois? Zero ranked teams on the schedule.

North Dakota State? I’ll actually listen to that argument.

Texas Tech? Never beat a top-10 team.

Georgia? See above.

Iowa? Never beat a ranked team.

Ole Miss? It beat LSU, but won just three games in conference. Thank goodness for the eight-game conference schedule. (I can already feel a retort coming on from Chris Low.)

Kansas State? The Wildcats beat a reeling No. 25 Texas Tech team, but had no other victories over ranked opponents.

That brings us to Arizona. It only beat one ranked team all season. But of all the teams listed above, it was the highest-ranked team in No. 5 Oregon.

There are no repressed feelings. But all things being equal -- and I think you can make a case that all of these teams I’ve just listed pretty much being equal -- I’m going to go with the one that showed the greatest improvement on defense from 2012 to 2013 and has one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers. And Arizona beat a team from a BCS conference in its bowl game.

The Wildcats played in “arguably” the toughest, deepest league in college football, had a comparable record and had the best win of all those teams listed above. On a neutral field, I’ll put the Arizona team that played against Boston College against any one of those teams.


Henry in San Juan Capistrano writes: Your colleague Chris Low stated today that the three "marquee" QB's in the P-12 are Hundley, Marcus and Mannion when we all know that it's Kelly, not Mannion, that rounds out that group. Can you set him straight, Kev? You would be doing all P-12 fans a huge favor.

Kevin Gemmell: Can’t it be both? Mannion had the superior passing numbers, a better completion percentage with 1,000 more passing yards and nine more passing touchdowns. He also finished with a higher raw QBR.

Kelly had fewer interceptions and a higher adjusted QBR. He also rushed for 608 yards and had nine rushing touchdowns while Mannion had minus-223 yards rushing and zero rushing touchdowns.

So when push comes to shove, they had an equal amount of total touchdowns accounted for. Mannion had more turnovers (including seven fumbles).

Both quarterbacks are asked to do very different things. Mannion is a pure drop-back passer. That’s not to say that Kelly can’t chuck it. He was fifth in the league 3,635 passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. But he has more zone-read responsibilities than Mannion does.

When Mannion isn’t going through one of his interception spells, he can be one of the top pure passers in college football, but he has his moments of inefficiency. And Kelly, too, has the occasional bad game, when things aren’t clicking. But both are very good at what they are asked to do.


Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Excellent article on the Pac-12 defenses. But how could you forget perhaps the nation's best interior defensive lineman next year -- Lenny Williams -- when discussing the best defenders in the Pac?

Kevin Gemmell: *Slaps head with palm and shouts “D’oh!”* Yep, Williams is up there as well. Was thinking of younger guys, but he absolutely should be a preseason All-American.

The point of the column wasn’t to say that there are no good defensive players coming back. There are. USC has some. UCLA has some. Stanford and Oregon have some. Pretty much every school has a player or two who is going to get some looks on a preseason all-conference squad.

But given the amount of talented defensive players across the conference that are leaving, combined with coordinators from the top five defensive schools in the conference in 2013, I felt it warranted a column. UCLA fans got after me on Twitter, reminding me of all the young talent the Bruins have coming back. And I agree with all of it. I expect UCLA to be strong defensively. But stronger without Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt? We’ll have to see.

But from a league-wide perspective, the Pac-12 loses a bunch of veteran defenders. When you combine that with the offensive firepower coming back, it makes for an intriguing 2014.


Bob in Menlo Park writes: Kevin, I read your Todd Graham question. I thought I read on the Pac-12 Blog that [athletic director Steve] Patterson signed an agreement with Arizona State not to poach personnel when he went to Texas. Enjoyed your writing and the blog.

Kevin Gemmell: As a matter of fact, you did read that on the blog. Here’s the link.

It’s obviously moot with Charlie Strong landing the job at Texas. If Patterson really wanted Todd Graham, I’m sure there would have been a way to make it work. As Ted points in his piece from November, there isn’t much that can’t be fixed with motivation and money. Contracts can be torn up in lieu of checks.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But if Graham continues at this current pace -- winning division championships and posting outstanding conference records, he’s going to start getting phone calls. What’s an acceptable time frame for a coach to move on? Three years? Five? Seven?

This is going to be an interesting year for Graham. He’s losing a ton of defensive stars and he spends the majority of his time on that side of the football. It’s not unreasonable to think the Sun Devils might take a step back defensively in 2014, but if they can come close to matching some of their 2013 defensive production after that kind of a talent drain, we’ll know just how good of a coach Graham really is.


Bryce in San Franciso writes: I'm happy to see Kyle Bonagura getting on board with the lunch link quotes. I don't see an inbox for him, so hoping you can pass this note along.

Kevin Gemmell: I’ll let him know. He started strong with a quote from “The Sandlot.” When it comes to the lunch links quotes, we try to have fun with them … but sometimes they can be a bit obscure. Last year, on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I posted a stanza from “The Mighty K.C.” a one-hit wonder song by For Squirrels from 1995. Didn’t think anyone would get the reference, and they didn’t. On the day Ray Bradbury died, Ted quoted “Fahrenheit 451.” Sometimes, it’s just a movie or song or book that’s stuck in my head. They aren’t always gems, but we try to make it fun.
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been back at USC long -- just over six weeks to be exact -- but as he spoke to a gathering of reporters inside the John McKay Center on Tuesday afternoon, it became apparent that the new head coach certainly isn’t tempering his optimism.

“We’ve got a plenty talented roster to go out and compete for a championship,” Sarkisian said, “and that’s what I said [on] Day 1, and I really have not wavered on that.”


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

The Trojans have the decisions of all the NFL draft-eligible players and it was a mixed bag of results, with five players choosing to stay and five players choosing to leave.

It was a strong finish to the process in recent days when Hayes Pullard, Josh Shaw and Buck Allen each made it known that they would be returning. That was welcome news to a team that was looking to withstand the final year of NCAA sanctions on a strong note, but those hopes had already taken a beating with the announcements from the players who decided to leave.

The fact that Marqise Lee was declaring for the draft was understandable and expected. The others, however, brought varying degrees of skepticism as all could have benefited from another year playing for the Trojans. Dion Bailey was probably the player next most ready to leave, and you can make an argument that he had shown what he needed to show at safety after two years spent playing out of position at linebacker.

Marcus Martin was a first-team all-conference selection at center this year, but he will be coming off an injury during the draft process. Martin will be selected, but he would have benefited from a second year of playing at center, having spent his first two years at left guard. George Uko made progress this year and would have seen his exposure rise in 2014 as he would have combined with Leonard Williams to form the most dominant interior defensive line combo in the country.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPerhaps tight end Xavier Grimble could have been a star in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
Xavier Grimble is the one departure that makes the least sense on paper. Grimble had a nice season in 2013 and is certainly a talented player, but he had a chance to come back for 2014 in a system that produced the Mackey Award winner last season. You have to imagine there was a lot of opportunity for Grimble to improve his stock with increased production.

Not only were all five of these departures talented players with a lot of experience, the Trojans cannot replace them because of NCAA scholarship limits that are part of the final year of sanctions related to the Reggie Bush case. USC is allowed to sign a maximum of 19 players this year – four early enrollees which count against last year and 15 new signees on LOI day – and that number does not change, no matter how many players leave for the draft.

So which players will get first shots at replacing the early NFL departees?

At wide receiver, Darreus Rogers figures to move into the starting spot vacated by Lee across from Nelson Agholor. Rogers doesn’t offer the explosive tendencies of Lee or Agholor, but he is a big-bodied guy who can work the middle of the field and the intermediate routes with great success. Don’t be surprised if his touches skyrocket next season. In terms of the next “big-play” receiver, look for Steven Mitchell to make a run for that spot when he returns from injury, along with George Farmer.

Randall Telfer will move into the full-time starting role at tight end that he used to share with Grimble. If Telfer can stay healthy, he is more than capable of putting up big reception numbers of his own. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick should also get a chance to show what he can do in the passing game.

There are plenty of options to replace Uko in the middle of the line. Delvon Simmons transferred in from Texas Tech last year, and he is a wide body. Kenny Bigelow looks ready to show what all the hype was about in his recruiting process, while a guy like Greg Townsend could get in the mix as well, if healthy. And don’t forget Antwaun Woods -- he started at nose last year but could get moved around by the new staff. Claude Pelon figures in the rotation as well, assuming he gets academically qualified.

Su’a Cravens is a good bet to fill the productive role that Bailey departs, and that could mean more playing time for guys like Leon McQuay and Gerald Bowman. It will be interesting, of course, to see what the new staff does with Shaw, who has shown the ability to play either corner or safety.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Martin's spot at center might be the hardest to fill in 2014.
The toughest spot to fill could be at center. Martin made the move last year after the coaches had taken a look at Max Tuerk, a move that didn’t work at the time because of snap fumble issues. Does Tuerk get another shot? What about someone like Cyrus Hobbi or Khaliel Rodgers? Maybe Toa Lobendahn as an early enrollee gets a look during spring ball. Lots of options here, with no clear answer yet.

Even with the obvious issues that present themselves because of the departures, there is still much to be thankful for on the USC end with those who stayed.

Pullard was the biggest key. He’s the leader of the defense both emotionally and on the field, especially during this time of a transition to a new system. That’s when it becomes even more important to have a player like Pullard, a three-year starter who has led the team in tackles in two seasons. You can be sure the coaches breathed a big sigh of relief with the news that he was staying.

The decisions to stay were also huge by Allen and Shaw. There’s a reason Allen was named the team MVP despite being limited to spot duty in the first five games of the season. When given his opportunity, Allen provided the spark that the offense needed to create an explosive presence on the ground. Allen certainly wasn’t the only USC ball-carrier who had success last year, but there was something different about the way he did it. He could be a natural fit in the new system.

Shaw was such a stabilizing presence in 2013, and his move back to corner was as important as any in terms of the USC defense eventually taking the top spot in the conference rankings. It would have been a big step back for that unit if he had left. He returns as one of the more experienced players around.

Finally, Aundrey Walker headed into 2013 as an inconsistent left tackle, but as the year went along he developed into a promising right guard who was just starting to tap into his enormous potential. An injury in the season finale sparked talks that he might leave early, but he will stay to offer another returning starter to a Trojans offensive line that was already losing two starters from last year. It could be a chance for Walker to shine in 2014 with an offensive line coach coming from one of the NFL’s power running teams.

All in all, it could have been better and it could have been worse for the Trojans when it comes to NFL early departures. If there is a silver lining for USC fans, it is the fact that this is the final year of the sanctions, and soon there will be a day when the departures don’t hurt so much. At least now Steve Sarkisian and his staff know what kind of roster they will have returning for next year.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
7:00
AM PT
The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.

SPONSORED HEADLINES