Many Utah fans are grumpy after consecutive losing campaigns. After the Utes won 33 games over their final three seasons in the Mountain West Conference, they have won 18 in their first three in the Pac-12. Some Utah fans blame coach Kyle Whittingham for not making the transition to the big leagues less bumpy.

Whittingham isn't happy sitting home during the bowl season either, and he's aware of the harrumphs. But after concluding spring practices last weekend and officially beginning the offseason, he's tuning out his critics.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesUtah coach Kyle Whittingham was encouraged this spring by the play of QB Travis Wilson.
"I don't pay any attention to that," he said. "We're working as hard as we can trying to improve every year. The external things, I don't pay any attention to them."

What he is paying attention to is the quarterback position. If the Utes can square that away satisfactorily, they could become a player in the Pac-12 South race. While the Pac-12 certainly has presented a greater uptick in competition that most Utes adherents -- coaches, fans and players -- thought it would, it's important to note a significant difference between the 2008-2010 seasons and 2011-2013 seasons: Continuity and productivity behind center.

Dave Christensen -- the Utes sixth different play caller in six years -- was hired to bring his up-tempo version of the spread offense to Salt Lake, and the first order of business is to figure out who will be directing the show. If all goes according to plan, which it hasn't for three years running, that will junior Travis Wilson.

Wilson, whose career appeared threatened after a season-ending intracranial artery injury in November, showed some early rust but by the end of the spring drills he put some separation between himself and Conner Manning and Adam Schulz. He will take the first snaps behind center when fall camp begins.

"As spring wore on, he got better and he started to play more like he did in the fall for us," Whittingham said. "No tentativeness whatsoever. He wasn't apprehensive about anything we were doing. He looked like his old self by the end of spring ball."

Of course, there's an asterisk with Wilson. Whittingham and Christensen won't know if he will be cleared to resume full-contact football until July. So Manning, Schulz, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson and incoming freshman Donovan Isom could end up being plan B. In fact, some fans are clicking their heels together over Thompson, a redshirt junior who went 4-of-13 with a touchdown and an interception in three seasons at Oklahoma. Those fans might want to revisit our observations on "Incoming Dude Is Obviously Transcendent" (IDIOT) syndrome.

Whatever Wilson's status, Whittingham makes it clear that nothing is resolved at the position.

"[Wilson is] No. 1 guy going into fall," he said. "But there still will be some competition, some jockeying for position, I guess you could say. But we've got to get solidified there rapidly once fall camp starts so we can rep the guys who are the ones and twos on the depth chart."

QB is still at issue, and the knee injury to play-making LB Jacoby Hale was a drag, but Whittingham was upbeat about several areas this spring.

For one, talented OT Jeremiah Poutasi, after cutting about 30 pounds, appears poised for the breakthrough many projected for him last season.

"He is playing at the level that we were hoping he was going to play at last year," Whittingham said.

The depth at running back is strong with the emergence of Devontae Booker and Troy McCormick beside Bubba Poole, with the injured Lucky Radley rejoining the fray in the fall. Dominique Hatfield emerged as a potential No. 3 receiver, at least until touted junior college transfer Kaelin Clay arrives. Westlee Tonga, injured much of last season, gives the Utes an A-list tight end.

On defense, Whittingham was pleased with the development of depth at cornerback, and he believes Nate Orchard is ready for his closeup as a pass rusher. Further, if all goes according to plan with a couple of incoming players, including the arrival of touted JC transfer Pasoni Tasini, the competition should be fierce at defensive tackle.

While getting things squared away behind center is priority one, Whittingham also is quick to answer when asked what needs to change this fall for his team to get back to its winning ways: Turnovers. Both giveaways and takeaways. The Utes had too many of the former and too few of the latter in 2013.

Utah, which led the Pac-12 in turnover margin while going 8-5 in 2011 despite complete chaos behind center, ranked 11th in the conference in turnover margin last fall. They were minus-9 for the season in large part because they tossed 21 interceptions while grabbing only three picks. That was by far the highest interception percentage in the conference and tied for the fewest interceptions in the nation on defense.

So Whittingham isn't focused on his critics as he turns his attention to the offseason. He's focused on his QB situation and improving his team's turnover margin.

Here's a guess that if he solves both of those issues he'll have a lot less grumpiness to ignore.
Welcome to the mailbag, where no question is dumb. Except for the dumb ones.

Jaime in Los Angeles writes: Your poll was interesting about anointing a quarterback. Where do you come down?

Kevin Gemmell: If you can, you should, without question. Coaches, however, don’t always have that luxury.

This is an interesting season for Pac-12 quarterbacks because there are potentially 10 starters returning. That’s pretty rare for a conference. But it’s also a relief to 10 coaches who don’t have to deal with Ted texting them at 2 a.m. inquiring who their starting quarterback is going to be. (Now he just texts me).

To have a starting quarterback in place post-spring -- if it’s the right quarterback -- can be a blessing. He’ll lead the way in the weight room. He’ll call his receivers up to go throw for no other reason than he wants to throw. He’ll bond with his guys and they’ll start to respect him off the field.

Now for the two schools that don’t have a starter coming back -- Arizona and Washington -- there is no reason to rush things. During this time, Chris Petersen and Rich Rodriguez will be getting feedback from their strength coaches about how the quarterbacks interact with the other players. Who is stepping up and being a leader? Who do the guys respect? Who do they respond to? It’s not just about the Xs and Os.

So while I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of anointing a quarterback, I also know that if you don’t have one in place you shouldn’t force the issue.




Tim in Salt Lake City writes: Kevin, Which Pac-12 programs do you expect to benefit the most from new rules allowing coaches to work with players over the summer?

Kevin Gemmell: I could give you the “duh” answer, and that’s all of them. Because obviously it’s going to benefit every team. But if you’re looking for the impact on just this upcoming season, I think it’s a huge asset to every team with a young or new quarterback. An Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, etc.

The rule offers an additional eight hours per week (assuming student-athletes hit certain academic benchmarks) and up to two of those hours can be spent in the film room. That means extra time studying formations, cutups, etc. It gives a Sefo Liufau and Jared Goff extra time to review what they did right and wrong in 2013. And it allows one of Arizona’s 17 quarterbacks to gain that little extra knowledge that might make the difference. It could either be catch-up for Cyler Miles or the difference between starting or sitting on the bench for Jeff Lindquist or Troy Williams.

The physical aspect of it is important, also. It’s a way to make sure guys are sticking with their regimen. And for a team like, say, Colorado, which has dramatically needed to improve its physical strength (and made strides in 2013), it’s another few hours of supervised work.

Since you’re writing from SLC, this will be especially helpful as the Utes adjust to their third offensive coordinator in three years. Even for Travis Wilson (assuming he’s the guy), it’s a similar system in terms of concepts, but with probably just enough tweaks from the previous one that a little extra film time would be beneficial.

There isn’t a coach out there who thinks more time during the summer is a bad thing. If for no other reason than just to remind them to do the right thing when they go out at night. I remember a conversation I had once with Mike Leach about players getting into to trouble in the offseason, but because of limited contact, coaches can’t always babysit. Will this new rule stop players from getting into trouble? No. But maybe it stops one from having one too many pops and creating a ruckus.

This is a good thing developmentally for all parties involved on and off the field.




Ryan in NYC writes: Kevin, saw your interview of the UCLA DC. You looked pretty sharp in that coat and tie. But seriously, aren't you guys getting a little tired of the relentless "happy, happy and more happy" spin coming from the UCLA camp? I mean, isn't it pretty clear that they've assumed this position that they won't say anything negative or even something not deemed positive about their program? I mean come on man. I can understand their energy and focus. They have a chance at a really good year. But everybody has concerns and questions, let's be fair. Finally, I think the way they ended recruiting is a reason why they need to be careful. They did a poor job of managing expectations and fell on their faces. Yes, college football fans are passionate, but we're not stupid. Be frank and candid. We know they have a shot at something special, but nothing is perfect, right? Just an observation, not a question. Peace out.

Kevin Gemmell: I found it interesting, Ryan, that you opted to chime in this week regarding the UCLA coverage. Because since I visited both LA schools last week, there was an equal amount of USC stuff -- yet you’re choosing to focus on UCLA. Fascinating.

First, thanks for the kudos. But as someone kindly mentioned in the comments section, I could stand to drop a couple of pounds. So that was appreciated.

As for the message, I got a lot of the same positive thinking at USC as I did at UCLA. Heck, Steve Sarkisian essentially said USC is historically due for a big run. That seemed pretty positive.

Except for maybe the Week 1 news conferences, you won’t find a time when players and coaches are as optimistic about their programs as they are now. Same goes for fans, who are scanning the schedules right now and checking off perceived wins. This is, of course, a dangerous exercise (see Utah-Stanford/Oregon-Arizona etc.). But it’s fun to do.

Yes, I happen to think UCLA is going to be pretty darn good in 2014. And though we haven’t filled out our preseason ballots yet, I’m strongly considering the Bruins as the No. 1 team in the South.

But you’re right. Every team has questions and concerns. The Bruins still need to figure out what’s going to happen at right tackle. They need to find a way to replace Anthony Barr’s production. They need to settle on the running back situation and see just how much the secondary has grown up from last season.

I have no problem with players and coaches putting a positive spin on their team in April. But if a team is 0-5 in October, then the happy-go-lucky chatter gets a little old.




Cougar Brian in Stumptown writes: Hey Kevin, any word on the status of Gabe Marks and DaQuawn Brown in Pullman? Mum seems to be the word, and both are touching the three pillars of Coach Leach's no-nos. Hope all is well, friend!

Kevin Gemmell: As of right now, both guys are practicing with the team. Leach hasn’t addressed it much, other than when he was asked about Brown during his pre-spring news conference and he offered up this:
We’re going to have to wait and see how everything unfolds. I mean, right now it’s appearing most of what’s come out and been spewed around has been greatly embellished so we’ll just have to see how all that comes out.

Marks was limited for the first couple of practices, but has been full go the rest of the way. Though he didn’t participate in the scrimmage on Saturday. I talked to someone in the know Monday and they said they didn’t think that was because of disciplinary reasons.

My guess is that when the legal side of everything gets worked out in the coming weeks, we’ll have a clearer picture of what punishments await. And don’t forget that Leach has already booted a few guys from the team in his two-and-a-half-year tenure.

Worth noting that, from the folks up there I’ve talked to, Connor Halliday is having a great spring, along with receivers Vince Mayle and Dominique Williams. Mayle has leaned up and is “running around and through people,” according to one person I talked to. So if Marks isn’t able to go, the corps is looking pretty good. And so is the quarterback.

Lunch links: Remembering Tillman

April, 22, 2014
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There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes... and then after about 15 minutes, you're spit out ... into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Ball security in the Pac-12

April, 22, 2014
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Teams that commit the fewest turnovers generally win more football games. Teams that turn the ball over frequently generally lose more football games. These are fairly safe axioms to live by, because more often than not they hold true.

But not always, especially in the sometimes-backward Pac-12, where the offense is fast and furious and the defense is underrated.

An examination of turnover margin in the league the last three seasons reveals some very interesting results, trends and trend-busters.

Here’s how Pac-12 teams have shaped up the last three seasons:

Some intriguing takeaways (pun intended):
  • Stanford, the two-time defending conference champion, is well known for its hard-nosed defense. Yet in 2013, it had a turnover margin of zero (19 takeaways, 19 turnovers) and the Cardinal are in the lower half of the league the last three seasons in total turnovers generated. Worth noting, however, that Stanford also takes care of the ball better than anyone in the league, with a conference-low 54 turnovers in the last three seasons.
  • Oregon has more takeaways than any team in the conference the last three seasons, including a robust turnover margin of plus-21 for the 2012 season (tops in the league for a single-season over that three-year stretch). Wait a second: Doesn’t Oregon catch flak for not playing defense? Huh. The Ducks are second in the league behind Stanford with just 57 turnovers over the last three seasons.
  • Only Arizona State, Oregon and Washington had a positive turnover margin in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
  • Only California, Colorado and Washington State had a negative turnover margin in all three seasons.
  • Stanford is the only team to have a zero margin in a season during the last three years.
  • ASU is the only team in the league to have at least 30 takeaways in all three seasons.
  • During that three-year stretch, only two teams have created more turnovers than Oregon State. During that same stretch, only two teams have committed more turnovers than Oregon State. So while the Beavers' 83 takeaways look great on paper, the 80 turnovers don’t. Makes sense that in the Beavers' best season, 2012, they had a plus-8 margin with 31 takeaways and 23 turnovers. In its worst, 2011, it was minus-8 with 23 takeaways and 31 turnovers.
  • Washington State has the most total turnovers (86) in the last three years. But Colorado has the worst turnover margin. Worth noting that last season the Buffs cut their margin down to minus-3 from the minus-19 in 2012.
  • USC tied with Colorado in 2012 for most turnovers in the league (34). So despite 71 takeaways the last three seasons, their 69 turnovers gives the Trojans only a plus-2 margin. Worth noting that after back-to-back seaspns of negative turnover margin in 2011 and 2012, USC was on the plus side last season at plus-5.
  • Arizona reached the plus side of the turnover margin last season (plus-4) after back-to-back seasons of negative margin in 2011 and 2012.
  • The most turnovers in a season in the three-year stretch was from Washington State, which had 35 last season.
  • The most takeaways in a season in the three-year stretch was by Oregon, which had 40 in 2012.
  • Washington’s much-maligned defense of 2011 still finished the season with a plus-1 turnover margin. Though during the last two seasons under then-coordinator Justin Wilcox (now with Steve Sarkisian at USC), the Huskies are plus-12.
  • The fewest turnovers in a season in the last three seasons is 16 – both from Washington and UCLA last season. Stanford is the only team in the conference to be in the teens in turnovers all three years.
  • Until last season, Utah had been solid at getting takeaways. It led the Pac-12 in turnovers and turnover margin in 2011 (33 takeaways, plus-10 margin). Even in 2012, the Utes were on the plus side, but failed to make a bowl game. Last year Utah dipped to minus-9.

So as you can see, there is obviously some correlation between turnovers and wins/losses. The three Pac-12 teams that didn’t make the postseason last season -- Cal, Colorado and Utah -- each had negative turnover margins.

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the team that has the most turnovers will lose every game and the team with the most takeaways wins. Stanford is a perfect example of that, winning the league last season with an even margin. You don’t need a lot of takeaways to play great defense, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
video
UCLA's biggest recruiting victory in 2013-14 didn't involve a high school player.

ESPN.com's recruiting guru Jeremy Crabtree has a nice story on how USC unsuccessfully tried to hire UCLA's ace recruiter and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm away from Westwood. It begins like this:
UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was returning from a recruiting trip this past December, when he received a call from new USC coach Steve Sarkisian with an offer that all but included the opportunity to use the Trojans' famed white horse, Traveler, any time he wanted to avoid traffic on the 405. But UCLA coach Jim Mora wasn't about to lose one of his top assistants to the school across town, so he did what any good coach would do. He made an in-home visit and left with a commitment.

Sark's a smart guy. He knows that Klemm is an elite coach and recruiter, and luring him away from a crosstown archrival would make the hiring a double-whammy.

And Mora is a smart guy, too.
"I was out of town recruiting, and I landed and drove right to his house at about 10 at night," Mora said. "I think I stayed until till or 1 or 2, until I was sure USC wasn't going to come by. ... Until he signed that contract, I wasn't leaving. I wasn't going to lose him."

It's an interesting story because it touches a lot of bases -- the recruiting process, a battle between rival coaches -- it's also notable that Sarkisian and Mora are (were?) friends -- and a rising coaching talent and how he became so coveted.

Definitely worth a read, even you're not a Bruin or Trojan.

Video: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

April, 22, 2014
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Chantel Jennings speaks with Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion about the Beavers this spring, how he can improve and working with new offensive coordinator John Garrett.
The biggest theme for the Pac-12 in 2014? Passing, passing, passing.

As you surely know if you frequent the Pac-12 blog -- typically considered the University of Oxford of the Internet -- we've been typing pretty regularly about the returning QB talent in the Pac-12. As in 10 returning starters, a group that includes a handful of national awards candidates.

That alone would support the notion of big passing numbers this coming fall. But there's more!

  • The Pac-12 is extremely deep at receiver.
  • The Pac-12 is questionable at running back.
  • The Pac-12 loses many of its top sack leaders from 2013.
  • The Pac-12 loses many of its top interception leaders from 2013.

Thus the formula: Experienced QBs plus questionable running games plus questionable pass defenses equals big passing numbers.

Of course, that probably means the teams that can run the ball well and play good defense are going to end up leading the conference.

But here are the supporting facts:

Returning rushing leader from 2013: No. 5 Byron Marshall, Oregon (1,038/86.5 yards per game)

2014 challengers: D.J. Foster, Arizona State; Thomas Tyner, Oregon; Jordan James, UCLA; Javorius Allen, USC.

Breakdown: The Pac-12's top four rushers from 2013 are gone and most conference teams are uncertain that the position. In fact, Foster might be the only certain No. 1 option this coming fall.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon State's Sean Mannion is one of 10 returning QBs in the Pac-12 for 2014.
Returning passing leader from 2013: Sean Mannion, Oregon State (4,662/358.6 ypg)

2014 challengers: Marcus Mariota, Oregon; Brett Hundley, UCLA; Taylor Kelly, Arizona State; Connor Halliday, Washington State; Jared Goff, California.

Breakdown: With 10 QBs coming back from 2013 -- a number of whom have national pedigrees -- the Pac-12 is as deep at the position as it has been in recent years. And with Arizona and Washington, the two teams with legitimate QB competitions (assuming Utah's Travis Wilson is given the green light by doctors), the supporting casts around the new QB will be strong. As noted: big passing numbers this fall, across the board.

Returning receiving leader from 2013: Dres Anderson, Utah (1,002/87.7 ypg)

2014 challengers: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State; Nelson Agholor, USC; Chris Harper, California; Ty Montgomery, Stanford.

Breakdown: Despite losing the three most productive pass catches from 2013 -- Brandin Cooks, Paul Richardson and Josh Huff, not to mention Marqise Lee -- the conference is overbrimming with receiving talent. Arizona, California, Stanford, UCLA, Washington and Washington State welcome back most of their top guys from 2013, and Arizona State, USC and Utah also are potentially strong at the position.

Returning sacks leader from 2013: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington (13)

2014 challengers: Tony Washington, Oregon; Kevin Anderson, Stanford; Leonard Williams, USC; Nate Orchard, Utah.

Breakdown: Kikaha and Washington are the only returning guys who ranked among the conference's top-12 in sacks in 2013 (another good sign for conference QBs?). One of the biggest injuries this spring was Utah losing OLB Jacoby Hale.

Returning interceptions leader from 2013: Steven Nelson, Oregon State (6)

Challengers: Marcus Peters, Washington; Greg Henderson, Colorado; Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Arizona; Su'a Cravens, USC; Ishmael Adams, UCLA; Jordan Richards, Stanford; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon.

Breakdown: Only two of the top eight interception leaders is back in 2014 (another good sign for QBs?). A few guys to watch out for: Arizona State's Damarious Randall, Stanford's Alex Carter, UCLA's Fabian Moreau and USC's Josh Shaw.

Video: UCLA center Jake Brendel

April, 21, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell talks with UCLA center Jake Brendel about the state of the Bruins’ offensive line.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 21, 2014
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You picked a dangerous mall to host a game show in. I hear the Easter bunny was accosted this morning.
EUGENE, Ore. -- The backup quarterback position is likely the best and worst position in football all at once.

They are the default answer that’s found whenever the starting quarterback struggles or misses an open receiver or an “obvious” read. The fans will say that the backup would’ve made that pass or play if he were in the game. But at the same time, especially when he’s behind a player such as Marcus Mariota, the chances that the backup will ever get into the game when it is in doubt are few and far between and likely will only happen upon an injury, which no one wants to see. In Oregon's case last season, that wasn't even enough to get the backups in.

“The backup quarterback is always the kind of hero who never has to prove himself,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

[+] EnlargeJake Rodrigues
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJake Rodrigues is trying to beat out fellow sophomore Jeff Lockie for Oregon's backup QB job.
For the Oregon Ducks, redshirt sophomores Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues currently occupy that best/worst position. But what makes it even more difficult is that they are completely different players.

Nearly three quarters of the way through the spring season, there’s still no clear separation between the two signal-callers.

“I think ideally that plays itself out; there’s separation,” Helfrich said. “But sometimes it doesn’t happen. And you can’t fake that. That’s not something you want to try to create or have it happen in an artificial way ... That’s not the end of the world, either.”

This spring’s no-clear-backup situation isn’t new for Oregon -- last season was the same for Lockie and Rodrigues. Both saw the field in 2013, combining for 124 yards on 11 of 19 passing, two interceptions and one touchdown (thrown by Rodrigues).

But none of those statistics came in the pivotal game of 2013, when the Ducks lost to Stanford 26-20 with Mariota, and his sprained MCL, running the offense. Helfrich said on Friday that if that were to occur again, he’d be confident putting either Lockie or Rodrigues in the game. Helfrich said that people misunderstood that situation last season, as it wasn't a case of him not having confidence in either backup.

“Both of those guys want to be that [backup] guy, but there was never enough separation to have that happen last year,” Helfrich said. “I think, again, in some ways it’s a good thing because they were both kind of banged up at different times last year. ... At the same time, we didn’t just throw someone down to the scout team and keep someone up and force the issue.”

With Lockie and Rodrigues occupying the No. 2 spot behind Mariota, the No. 3 or No. 4 spots (or No. 4 and No. 5 spots) are filled by the other two QBs on the Ducks roster, redshirt freshmen Taylor Alie and Damion Hobbs. Four-star signal caller Morgan Mahalak signed with the Ducks in February but won’t enroll until this fall.

Helfrich said that the current quarterbacks “have a ton of reps on him, but you recruit guys for a reason.” So, there’s no reason to rule Mahalak out of any kind of position race, though it seems far more likely for his battle to come against Alie and Hobbs on the scout team.

An abundance of options is one "problem" that coaches want to have. At some point, Helfrich might need to make the decision of which player will be the definitive No. 2 behind Mariota. In the perfect world, it’ll be because the Ducks have a big lead and not a Mariota injury. But even then, Helfrich will have to make that decision and give one of his unproven heroes the chance to finally prove himself.
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- This spring we’re catching up with several coordinators around the conference. We recently spoke with new Oregon State offensive coordinator John Garrett about his move back to college football, coaching with Mike Riley and what the Beavers offense will look like in 2014.

It’s your first college spring ball since 2006, what’s it like being back?

John Garrett: Football is football. It’s all the same plays that we ran in Virginia, Dallas, Tampa, it’s the same plays, just different athletes. You teach it the same way, encourage them the same way, have the same demanding style.

But it’s always neat to be around a college campus. You’re surrounded by a lot of people in academia that are motivated by achievement, the kids are going to school, there are people in and out of the office. You really get to see and do the campus life rather than being in the NFL, when you’re just at the facility and it’s football all the time.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaNew Oregon State offensive coordinator John Garrett returns to the college ranks after several years as an NFL assistant.
Football is football, but how much different are you as a coach -- running your practice, approaching the game plan, etc. -- at the college level than you were in the NFL?

JG: There’s a talent level difference. In college, not every guy is going to go on to pro football, so there are certain things they are capable of doing and certain things that they’re not. You just have to make sure that the things you’re asking [the college players] to do -- the scheme, the offense, the system -- that they’re capable of doing. That’s the biggest difference, just to make sure that we’re not asking the impossible, or that you would if a Pro Bowl NFL player could do. You get those [NFL] starters in there and quarterbacks can throw every ball, receivers can run every route, tight ends can block, all that stuff.

You played for Oregon coach Mike Riley in 1991 for the San Antonio Riders (World League of American Football), now you’re coaching with Riley. What’s that transition like?

JG: It was a joy to play for him. He just treats everyone with respect and he has immense football knowledge. He has been a head coach. He has coached on defense. He has coached on offense. I just learn from him every day. ... That has just continued now that I’m coaching with him. When I say, ‘It’s great to work for you,’ he says, ‘No, no, it’s great to work with me.’ That’s the way he treats people. In his mind, the relationship is always first.

Now, to this team ... having quarterback Sean Mannion back this season, how much does that ease your transition since he’s so experienced?

JG: He’s a fantastic player, and the quarterback position is the most important position in all of sports. If you don’t have one, you’re not going to win many games. And we have one and he did a remarkable job last year just with his play on the field and his leadership. He has continued to do that. He’s a remarkable worker. He’s really smart. We can give him anything scheme-wise, and he can handle and understand it. He picks it up quickly. He’s really hard on himself. Despite throwing for 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns, we’ve discovered that he can get better and he knows that. And he’s always striving to improve. All the great ones have that trait.

His yards will only be as good as his receiving corps, though. How do you go about replacing a guy like Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks?

JG: I have this on my board in my office: 128/1,700+. That was his production -- 128 catches, 1,700-plus yards. It has to come from somewhere else. The last time I checked, [NFL Hall of Famer) Paul Warfield isn’t just going to walk on campus and we’ll find a receiver. So, it has to come from these young receivers. We have talent at the position, and they just have to continue to get better and someone is going to emerge. It has to come from the tight ends. We have a good veteran group there. We can put four or five different guys in the game. It has to come from the running backs. We have two, three, hopefully four guys we can put in the game there. It’s going to be a collective effort to recapture and replace that production that one guy did in Brandin because he was such a fine player.

Once you knew you were coming to Corvallis, how much game film vs. practice film did you watch of the Beavers?

JG: I had to get up to speed on the system because we weren’t going to change anything with a senior quarterback, so I had to learn the terminology and the way we call things. I started watching game tape because not only do you have to learn the system, you always have to learn the players and personnel. Again, the personnel side of it, you have to know what they can do so you tweak the system to their strengths rather than asking them something they can’t do just because it was your favorite play. We’re going to run an offense with Coach Riley’s guidance and everyone all in that this is what we can do, everyone is going to have a role and we’re going to put them in position to succeed.

Spring games roundup

April, 21, 2014
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Here's a quick look at some of the highlights of the four spring games this past weekend.

Arizona State

Sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola stopped running back Jarek Hilgers on fourth-and-short on the final play as the Maroon team held off the Gold squad 29-23 in front of 8,456 fans at Sun Devil Stadium.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 7 of 22 passes with a touchdown for the Maroon team. Gold quarterback Mike Bercovici went 11-of-24 with three touchdowns and an interception.

“I like the format that we did because it created more competition,” said ASU coach Todd Graham. “The gold team was really down, but came back and fought back, got a chance to win. Maroon held on with a fourth down, goal-line stand. D.J. [Foster] was frustrated with me—he really wanted to play more. I thought he did some good things when he was in there. Loved the big shot to Jaelen [Strong] from Taylor Kelly. I thought Kelly really looked good today. He really managed the offense and was very much in command of things. Both offensive lines divided up evenly on each team — all those guys did some good things."

The complete stats are available here.

USC

In front of 17,500 fans at the L.A. Coliseum, kicker Andre Heidari made four field goals. But the offense failed to get into the end zone and the defense came out on top 16-15.

Newly re-anointed starting quarterback Cody Kessler completed 5 of 10 passes for 86 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Max Browne went 6-of-17 for 76 yards with no scores or picks and Jalen Greene was 4-of-11 for 61 yards – also without a touchdown nor an interception. Notes Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times:
Before getting too alarmed, it is worth noting that dating to the Pete Carroll era, USC's spring finale has not served as a reliable indicator of fall performance.

Rather, it's annually an exercise in avoiding major injury while looking ahead to summer.

So a true evaluation of [Steve] Sarkisian's new fast-paced, no-huddle scheme cannot begin until USC plays its Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State at the Coliseum.

Walk-on tailback James Toland IV was the top rusher with 36 yards on eight carries and tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick caught three passes for 56 yards. Scott Starr had a game-high six tackles, with three for a loss.

"We had a couple big pass plays, but the defense played really well and tackled well,” Sarkisian said. "And we got out of the game with no serious injuries."

Utah

Despite 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns from transfer Devontae Booker, the Red team took down the White squad 28-27 in front of 12,056 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Quarterback Travis Wilson, still shackled by noncontact restrictions, completed 7 of 12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in five drives.

Dominique Hatfield (four catches, 93 yards) and Westlee Tonga hauled in touchdown receptions for the White team. Troy McCormick rushed eight times for 34 yards with a touchdown to lead the Red squad.

"We've been high on Devontae Booker ever since he got here," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He didn't get here more than a week or two before the start of spring ball, so he was fighting his lack of conditioning all spring. But as soon as he gets himself in great shape, I think he'll be a very good running back in this conference. All of the running backs ran hard today. A strong running game is where everything begins, even if you are a spread team."

Sal Velasquez and Filipo Mokofisi each picked off Brandon Cox, who threw the only interceptions of the game. Adam Schulz was 9-of-13 for 110 yards with a touchdown and Conner Manning was 9-of-12 for 86 yards and a score.

The complete stats are available here.

Washington

Though Washington didn’t keep official stats for its drizzly spring game, quarterback Jeff Lindquist threw four touchdowns in red zone and situational drills and, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times, was unofficially 11-of-15 for 134 yards.

Troy Williams, who has been splitting reps all spring with Lindquist while the team awaits the status of Cyler Miles, was 11-of-18 for 38 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Deontae Cooper, Lavon Coleman and Ralph Kinne were the only backs who participated. Cooper carried nine times for 68 yards, Colmean rushed 18 times for 99 yards and a touchdown and Kinne had seven carries for 38 yards.

Head coach Chris Petersen told Gohuskies.com that picking a quarterback to replace Keith Price could go all the way up until the season opener – if not longer.

“Absolutely, that’s possible. Yeah, we could go to Game 9, if it hasn’t been decided,” Petersen said. “We’ll take this one day at a time. One day, one game. I know it sounds cliché, but it really will be. … I mean, it’s all nice to have a starting quarterback, but that guy graduated in December. And so, we are at square one. Until one guy establishes himself, we don’t have a guy.”
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USC fans showed up at the Coliseum on Saturday for the annual spring game hoping to see the new up-tempo offense on full display but were instead treated to an old-fashioned showing of bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Using a modified scoring system, the Trojans ran roughly 100 plays of live tackling within a structured practice format that allowed for multiple teaching periods. The USC defense starred, not allowing the offense into the end zone.

“First of all, it was an awesome day of football,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We got to be out here in the Coliseum with our fans on a beautiful day. It was our first spring game together, and it looked that way. On offense, there were some good plays, and some not-so-good plays. I really thought our defense played well, particularly in the red zone.”

Hayes Pullard got things started for the defense on the opening drive with a tackle for loss on third-and-goal to force a 24-yard field goal from Andre Heidari. Leon McQuay III added a physical hit near the goal line to prevent a potential touchdown reception by George Katrib and Gerald Bowman added a nice pass break-up. There were also a lot of sacks, as Claude Pelon picked up two while J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Charles Burks, Greg Townsend Jr., and Nick Schlossberg notched one each.

If you are looking for more bright spots from the Trojans, look no further than Heidari. The Trojans placekicker hit on four of five field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards.

Things did not go as smoothly for the offense. The quarterbacks went a combined 15-for-37 for 223 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It’s hard to say that anybody really stood out from the group -- starting QB Cody Kessler was 5-of-10 for 86 yards -- although true freshman Jalen Greene opened more than a few eyes with flashes of his athleticism. Tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was the leading receiver with three catches for 56 yards, while walk-on James Toland led all rushers with 36 yards on eight carries.

“I hope the offense is more efficient in fall camp,” Sarkisian said. “Historically we’ve been very strong in the red zone wherever I’ve coached. To be a good team we can’t have a third of our squad on the sidelines with injuries like we had today. We didn’t have any serious injuries during the practice so that was good news. We’ve just got to make sure we’re healthy when the season rolls around, because that’s when it’s really important.”
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To the notes.

Jake from Spokane writes: What do you think Chris Petersen should do with Cyler Miles and Damore’ea Stringfellow? I know Miles wasn't charged and Stringfellow got off easy, but don't you think he should make an example out of them?

Ted Miller: Yes. And no.

As many of you know, I typically side with second chances. I think zero-tolerance is bad policy. Everything should be a case-by-case basis. For one, there's typically two sides to every story, with the less public, after-the-big-headlines side often being closer to the truth -- see past assault accusations against former Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and Oregon running back LaMichael James. Or Duke lacrosse, for that matter.

I know the self-righteous out there love to tell everyone about their inflexible absolutes with behavior and Puritan standards for character. My experience with people like that is they almost always are full of pooh.

And yet a line I often do draw is at bullying, which the two incidents involving Miles and Stringfellow approximate. A bigger person pushing around a smaller person just because he can is abhorrent. That, to me, does reveal a deep-seated character flaw. The fact that alcohol apparently wasn't involved actually almost makes it worse. When you can't blame the booze, what can you blame, other than a flawed moral compass?

Based on what I know typing this today, here's what I would do if I were Petersen.

First, I would meet with a crew of Huskies seniors who command respect in the locker room and ask their positions on the situation and why they feel that way. I would ask if there were details of the incidents that they knew of or had heard of from reasonably reliable sources that differed from public accounts. I wouldn't ask what they thought I should do, but I would take the measures of their feelings toward both, including whether those feelings were different between the pair.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen hasn't announced the punishment for Washington players Cyler Miles and Damore'ea Stringfellow.
Barring any major surprises, I'd then meet with Miles and tell him he was being conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first game (at Hawaii, so he'd truly be missing a fun trip). I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with strength coach Tim Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third. A quarterback, in particular, is supposed to set a standard in the locker room.

Then, I'd meet with Stringfellow. He too would be conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first three games. I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third.

I'd publicly announce my decision in May or June so it wasn't a big, distracting story right before the beginning of preseason practices. I'd also have both of them meet with the media, though only after a stern session with myself and sports information director Jeff Bechthold, where we'd hammer home talking points about being humble, regretful and accountable while not reviewing too many details of the incidents. Something like, "I know I won't do this again because of how horrible I felt and still feel for hurting someone and embarrassing my family, my school and my team."

I'd also minimize the "put it behind me" talk, which always comes off as lacking regret while suggesting impatience with a justifiable inquisition. Want to win a news conference? Say, "No, I'm not going to put this behind me. I'm going to think about it every day to remind myself of what it feels like to be a bad person, which I never want to feel again."

These situations typically involve a complicated calculus, particularly when the players are key contributors, as both of these guys are. Petersen has a duty to his players, fans, administrators and himself to do what he was truly hired to do: Win. Yes, he should aim to build character and help young men grow into quality adults, but the reality is that comes in second place to winning. Sorry if that bursts your idealistic bubble, but there's a reason why even the greatest teachers aren't paid $3 million a year.

That said, bad apples in a locker room don't help the cause. Sometimes temporary pain -- suspensions or giving players the boot -- helps a program, helps it win over the long term.

My impression of Petersen is he's the clearest of thinkers. While most of us view this as the first big test of his administration, I suspect it feels fairly routine for him.


Tim from Portland writes: Hey Ted, I wonder if I'm the only one thinking that the loss of the Ducks' top four receivers could actually be a good thing. I know we lose a lot of numbers with those four out, but isn't it possible Oregon could go back to the blue-collar attitude they had in Chip [Kelly's] first couple years as head coach? I mean, in those years at least we met or exceeded the expectations for the season.

Ted Miller: Yes, Tim, you are the only one thinking that.

Are you saying that Bralon Addison's blowing out his knee this spring is a good thing? My answer to that: No. One thousand times no. Have you seen Addison play? Before he got hurt, I saw him as a legitimate All-Pac-12 candidate.

And, no, losing your top four receivers is never a good thing, either. Never. Well, unless they all ran 5.0 40s and were locker room cancers.

Also, I'm not sure if I've ever viewed Oregon as a "blue-collar" team. I see Oregon as a cutting edge, fancy-pants team that has the best facilities in the nation and gets to go behind the velvet rope at all the cool clubs.

I'd also like to point out that the Ducks' horribly disappointing season included 11 wins, a dominant bowl victory over Texas and a top-10 final ranking.

Now, if you're saying the Ducks might run the ball more next fall with four returning starting O-linemen, a good crew of tight ends and what should be a dynamic RB combination in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, I could get on board with that.

That said, quarterback Marcus Mariota is an A-list passer. While there are unknowns at receiver, I suspect the cupboard isn't empty. I'd be surprised if Mariota doesn't throw for at least 250 yards per game.


Dave from Tucson writes: Ted, thanks for some good, informative articles on football. Just a minor reporting point on this: "...Not when you consider what Rodriguez and Smith have done with their past two first-year starters in Matt Scott and B.J. Denker." Actually, Matt Scott had beaten out Nick Foles to start the 2009 season and started two games before being benched for Foles. Denker also started a game and played the entire game against Colorado in the 2012 season when Matt Scott was down with a concussion. Matt Scott was not a first-year starter in 2012 and Denker was not a first-year starter in 2013.

Ted Miller: I think you're mixing up "first-time" and "first-year."

Both Scott and Denker had started games and seen action before ascending officially to the starting job, but neither was a returning starter, which is typically defined as starting at least five games during the previous season. Nick Foles preceded Scott as the 2012 starter, and Scott preceded Denker as the 2013 starter.

And, just as Washington QB Cyler Miles, despite starting at Oregon State, was not the Huskies' starting QB in 2013. That was Keith Price.


Mr. Elizabeth Bennet from Salt Lake City writes: I enjoyed the quote you added to your lunch links from April 16. I wonder what your thoughts are on how Jane Austen would have commented on the state of college football, given all the clamoring for change that has happened and the widening gap of aristocracy between the conferences? Also, which "Pride & Prejudice" character best describes each Pac-12 football coach/team? It seems like the Pac-12 blog does a good job as the Elizabeth Bennet of the college football world, offering witty, but insightful commentary on the society within college football.

Ted Miller: I think it's a universally acknowledged truth that Jane Austen would have been a heck of a sportswriter, full of sense and sensibility as well as persuasion. While some -- mostly those who haven't read her -- probably see her as some sort of "chick-lit," the reality is she's a wonderfully biting observer of how folks behave, not to mention underrated when it comes to humor.

As for Austen and college football, she's already commented. You may not know this, but Lady Bertram in "Mansfield Park" is the personification of the NCAA, a novel, by the way, that includes these two felicitous quotes:

  • Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.
  • A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.

As for the "Pride and Prejudice" request, I'm not going to wander down that road -- who wants to be Wickham or Collins or Lydia? -- but I will say Chip Kelly had plenty of "Darcy" in him.
Four more spring games are set for Saturday, at which point more than half the Pac-12 will be done with spring ball. You know what that means ... the countdown to fall camp begins!

Here is quick peek at the four games being played this weekend:

Arizona State

Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Arizona (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: When there are steaks on the line, like there will be in this one, you can pretty much guarantee a competitive atmosphere. Instead of an offense vs. defense scoring system, coach Todd Graham broke up the team with a good amount of starters on each side. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the maroon team and Mike Bercovici will quarterback the gold team, but the with nine starters departed off last season's defense, it's that side of the ball that will be worth paying attention to. Running back D.J. Foster, who has battled a minor toe sprain throughout the spring, will see limited action despite a clean bill of health. Former Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as the analyst on the Pac-12 Arizona broadcast.

USC

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff: 3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It would have been a lot more fun if coach Steve Sarkisian waited until after the spring game to announce Cody Kessler as the starting quarterback. That way everyone could have overanalyzed the competition based on one meaningless game. But really, who are we kidding? The overanalyzation will go on regardless -- and Sarkisian did leave the door open for Max Browne to work his way back into the mix. It'll be interesting to watch both Kessler and Browne operate the up-tempo offense Sarkisian brought with him from Washington and how a rebuilt offensive line stacks up against a talented defensive front. The guys from WeAreSC kick around much more to pay attention to in this roundtable discussion.

Utah

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MT
TV: Pac-12 Mountain (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It'll be good to see quarterback Travis Wilson back under center in a game-like situation again, and even more intriguing because he'll be running new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense against the Utes' base defense. While the setting won't showcase the depths of the playbook, the Cliffs Notes version should provide enough to develop a better understanding of how things will be different next season. The clock will operate as it would in a regular game during a pair of 10-minute quarters in the first half and will use a running clock in the second half after an eight-minute halftime. If you're planning on attending, a food competition and MUSS football game will be held at 11 a.m. MT, with an alumni football game to follow at noon.

Washington

Where: Husky Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Washington (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: Is Shaq Thompson the new Myles Jack? It has been a major storyline in Seattle throughout the spring how the talented linebacker -- and former minor-league baseball player -- is working with the offense. And after watching his some of his high school highlights, it's understandable why new coach Chris Petersen is intrigued by letting him go both ways. Any time there's a brand new coaching staff, the spring game carries a little extra sizzle, but it should also be noted those games aren't necessarily always as telling due to the lack of time the players have spent with the staff. It's a lot of fundamentals, a lot of evaluation, and the scope of what is accomplished is different when compared with schools with established staffs that are familiar with their rosters. Petersen has installed about 50 percent of the playbook. With Cyler Miles still suspended, quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams top the depth chart and will make their cases to replace the departed Keith Price.

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