USC: Leonard Williams

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

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

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

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

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

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

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

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

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

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

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

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

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

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

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

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

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

Kiper eyeballing Pac-12 defenders

June, 11, 2014
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It will come as no surprise that Mel Kiper Jr. sees two of the five best senior QBs and three of the six best underclass QBs coming from the Pac-12 Insider.

But who would have thought that three of the 11 best defensive tackles Insider would come from the Pac-12, while none came from the D-line rich SEC?

USC's Leonard Williams, a junior, is a likely top-10 pick next spring, and he also is a candidate for top pick overall. But Kiper also really likes Williams' buddy at UCLA, Ellis McCarthy.
Really emerged in 2013 as his first-team reps arrived. McCarthy was a big-time recruit, but he had to learn about leverage and keeping blockers occupied, not just looking to shed them immediately and make plays in the backfield. He has a powerful, 6-4, 330-pound frame and could emerge as a likely first-rounder.

The third Pac-12 DT is Washington senior Danny Shelton.

Kiper also likes Pac-12 cornerbacks Insider. He rates Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as the No. 1 senior, USC's Josh Shaw as No. 2 and Oregon State's Steven Nelson as No. 3.

Among the underclass CBs, Kiper ranks Washington's Marcus Peters No. 2 and Stanford's Alex Carter as "5A."

On the defensive downside, Kiper doesn't including any Pac-12 defensive ends on his list Insider, which bodes well for those QBs.

On offense, Kiper likes Pac-12 receivers Insider but not running backs. He rates Stanford's Ty Montgomery the No. 2 senior receiver and Arizona State's Jaelen Strong and USC's Nelson Agholor as the Nos. 2 and 3 underclassmen, but Oregon's Byron Marshall -- at 5B -- is the only conference running back to make the list.

Trojans organized in voluntary sessions

June, 4, 2014
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USC has started voluntary summer throwing sessions, and it's a great time to see where players are at in terms of physical shape and also to gauge the work ethic of the players when no coaches are around.

One of the things that has jumped out so far is just how organized the sessions are. Steve Sarkisian spent an entire practice during the last week of spring ball showing his players how to run a summer workout, the point being that he wanted to provide as much structure as possible so that the players could maximize those workouts.

The result has been sessions that feature a walk-through, a group stretch, various drill areas such as medicine balls and tall bags, a 7-on-7 period and a series of sprints at the end. As would be expected, the leaders of the sessions are players such as Cody Kessler, Hayes Pullard and Nelson Agholor. The veterans are also doing a lot of teaching to younger players, specifically the incoming freshmen who are taking part in USC workouts for the first time.

Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw are taking part in the workouts after sitting out spring ball as a precaution for lingering injuries. Another player back in action is Steven Mitchell, the shifty wide receiver who suffered a knee injury last year in the summer drills. It’s been clear in limited action that Mitchell is well on his way to a good recovery. He is looking very fluid.

[+] EnlargeTalamaivao
Erik McKinney/ESPN.comUSC signee Viane Talamaivao is working at center in summer workouts.
It will be interesting to watch the situation with Viane Talamaivao, who is getting a look at center. Talamaivao has never played the position before but there was a lot of speculation in the recruiting process that he could ultimately end up at center. He certainly has the athleticism to make the move, but it remains to be seen how he will adjust to snapping the ball, the various reads, etc.

Speaking of Talamaivao, his family is involved with the Prime Time Polynesian Kumite lineman camp, one of which will be held this weekend in Corona, California. Several of top linemen from the area are expected to be in attendance, including Rasheem Green, Keisean Lucier-South and Joseph Wicker.

Another attendee will be Sarkisian, who is scheduled to be one of many college coaches at the camp. The ability of coaches to take part in camps away from their campus has been in the news a lot lately, particularly with coaches from the SEC objecting to coaches from other schools holding camps in their area. It’s something that likely will be addressed in future NCAA rules, but for now it’s something that is perfectly legal and it will give Sarkisian a chance to watch some of the top USC prospects in action.

Pac-12 all over Lott watch list

May, 19, 2014
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It’s time to start thinking about preseason watch lists. And the first one out is the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is given annually to the defensive player who has the biggest “impact” on his team -- impact being an acronym for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.

The award is in its 11th year.

Of the 42 players on this year’s watch list, 11 come from the Pac-12:
UCLA’s Anthony Barr was the 2013 winner. Cal’s Dante Hughes was the league’s only other winner, in 2006.

Other previous winners include Manti Te’o (Notre Dame, 2012), Luke Kuechly (Boston College, 2011), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin, 2010), Jerry Hughes (TCU, 2009), James Laurinaitis (Ohio State, 2008), Glenn Dorsey (LSU, 2007), DeMeco Ryans (Alabama, 2005) and David Pollack (Georgia, 2004).

You can click here for the complete watch list.

Eight from Pac-12 in 2015 mock draft

May, 14, 2014
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ESPN’s Todd McShay released his Way-too-early 2015 mock draft on Wednesday, giving a very early look into the future of some potential NFL draftees next season. Once again, the SEC leads the way, putting 10 players in the first 32 picks of McShay's first mock draft.

McShay predicts the No. 1 draft pick being a defensive lineman just like the 2014 draft. Only, instead of coming out of the SEC, he believes that defensive lineman will be one out of the Pac-12, USC's Leonard Williams.

McShay put eight Pac-12 players in the first round, including three top-10 picks. The ACC is behind the Pac-12 with seven picks, though six of those are from Florida State. The Big Ten has four players on the list while the Big 12 landed three.

Oregon leads the way for the Pac-12 with three players in the top 20 picks -- cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu. USC got on the board with two players in the top 32 while UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State each had one player.

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.

LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”

It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.


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USC defense still a work in progress

April, 7, 2014
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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
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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.

Defense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 26, 2014
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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.

Roundtable: Players to watch this month

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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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.

Spring position breakdowns: DE

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
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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.

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

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

Mailbag: Defending grades, rankings

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
2:30
PM PT
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.

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.

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2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler413292350536
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen25013375.39
J. Davis1255504.44
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
N. Agholor97122312.611
J. Smith5165812.95
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense158.2294.6452.8
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring35.123.811.3