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Gekko Files: Pac 12 North Spring Strengths and Weaknesses

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With spring practices well underway or already finished for each team in the Pac 12, we are able to get an early read on how each team is shaping up for the season ahead. We start with the Pac 12 North

David Shaw's defensive rebuild is a key story line in the Pac 12 this spring.
David Shaw's defensive rebuild is a key story line in the Pac 12 this spring.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

I love the Internet.

The onslaught of information that is enabled by Al Gore's greatest invention is like heroin to us college sports addicts.  It has taken even mundane and ordinary happenings - such as tackling drills and 7 on 7 - and turned them into breaking news for football fans across all fanbases to swoon over.

It has also given those of us with tendencies towards the paranoid much more to worry about.  For every piece of information out there available to us about our own team, there are orders of magnitude more for each of the teams that we will be competing against in the season ahead.

It is a good thing that blog writing is considered by many to be a form of therapy.  As such, I will venture to summarize for you, my fellow college sports addicts, the strengths and weaknesses emerging out of each camp in the Pac 12 North as spring practices continue or, in some cases, conclude.  This, of course, is for my benefit.  If you happen to enjoy the topic, all the better.

1.  California

STRENGTHS:  Cal, as one may predict, is enjoying the fruits of experience at the QB position at a time when much of the rest of the Pac is going through transition.  The experience and leadership provided by Jared Goff is a key strength and to be expected  What is a bit more unexpected is the emergence of the Cal running game so far this spring.  While Daniel Lasco is a clear starter, big offseasons by both Vic Enwere and Tre Watson have breathed new life into a unit that, not too long ago, was considered along with WSU as the worst in the conference.  In fact, last year's back up and current Cal track star, Khalfani Muhammad, may now be looking at a possible position change.

WEAKNESSES:  Defense has been the bugaboo around this program since Sonny Dykes arrived.  This year looks to be no different as Cal is dealing with graduations, the transfer of DE Brennan Scarlett (to Stanford!) and a bolus of young players taking on new roles.  In particular, the defensive secondary looks to be in a tough position.  It says something when the two best players of the spring - Luke Rubenzer and Derron Brown - are a backup QB and JC transfer, respectively.

SURPRISE: RB Vic Enwere.  Enwere appears to be surging well ahead of Tre Watson as a clear cut 2nd back and may end up challenging the incumbent Lasco before it is said and done.  The sophomore out of Texas is a bigger back at 6'1" and 225 lbs.  Reports out of camp are that he is becoming more a factor in the passing game - both as a blocker and receiver.  Layer on his ability to blow up linebackers and Cal may have something here.

2.  Oregon

STRENGTHS:  Oregon's spring practices are about as locked down as anybody's in the Pac.  As such, it is hard to know what is going on behind closed doors.  On the surface, the real strengths of this team appear to be at the offensive skill positions - both RB and WR.  There hasn't been anything reported so far this spring that would dissuade from Oregon's attributes in that regard.

WEAKNESSES:  Again, we are going on supposition here as there is very little on-the-ground insight to cull together.  Oregon is spending a lot of time emphasizing development on both the offensive and defensive lines as there are a number of critical pieces like Arik Armstead, Hroniss Grasu and Jake Fisher to replace.  Beyond the "names", there are also a lot of rotational players that need to be replaced in those areas.

SURPRISE:  WR/DB Charles Nelson.  Last we saw of Nelson, he was a dangerous slot receiver in the mold of De'Anthony Thomas - able to house a short pass from anywhere on the field.  However, tremendous depth at the WR position coupled with a dearth of experience in the defensive secondary has led to a position change for Nelson.  As of now, it would appear that he is in line to go into the fall as a starting CB.

3.  Oregon State

STRENGTHS:  Oregon State's offensive line is replacing a few pieces from last year, but remains as a true strength for the team.  LT Sean Harlow is a multi-year starter and C Isaac Seumalo may be the best offensive center prospect in all of the Pac 12.  These two players have been a steadying presence for a unit that has, by all reports, really gelled so far in camp.  Given the fact that OSU will be breaking in a young QB in 2015, this is welcome news to Beaver Fans.

WEAKNESSES:  Pick just about any spot across the defense and you will find more than a few questions.  New DC Kalani Sitake is implementing scheme changes at every level and he is doing so with a bunch of young players.  Defensive line, although it boasts two of the more tenured bodies in the OSU defense in Jalen Grimble and Lavonte Barnett, is probably the area of most concern to Beaver fans as Sitake transitions that group to an odd-man alignment.

SURPRISE:  QB Seth Collins.  A lightly recruited dual-threat QB (whose other major option was San Jose St), Collins was able to graduate from high school early and had already enrolled at Oregon State by the time that National Signing Day arrived.  He has taken full advantage of the extra practice time by not only making the initial cut from seven to three in Gary Andersen's QB competition, but also by making himself a slight favorite to win the competition outright as a true freshman.

4.  Stanford

STRENGTHS:  Given the turnover and lack of health all across the Stanford defense, this spring has really been about the state of readiness of the Stanford offense.  The offensive line seems well poised to recover from the loss of Andrus Peat, the emergence of Christian McCaffrey seems eminent, tight end depth is as good as it has ever been and, most importantly, Kevin Hogan seems poised to make a huge leap forward after a season of personal struggle.

WEAKNESSES:  While there are definitely some quality reinforcements coming in the fall, the Stanford defensive line has struggled all spring.  At one point early in the spring, they were playing with just three bodies .. period.  The fall return of Aziz Shittu and transfer of Brennan Scarlett will provide some relief, but this spring has proven that this is not your mother's Stanford football team.

SURPRISE:  TE Austin Hooper.  Hooper has had plenty of opportunities this spring thanks to some depth issues at WR and he does not appear to be wasting them.  Reports are that he has struck up a strong rapport with Hogan and that he may well emerge as the best TE in the Pac in 2015.

5.  Washington

STRENGTHS:  Two clear strengths are emerging on the Huskies as we sit back and evaluate spring practices to date.  As many had expected, the defensive secondary is really flashing.  Not only is there strong leadership in the form of Budda Baker and Sidney Jones, but there also exists an ample number of capable athletes across all of the position groups.  They are a bit banged up, but that group as a whole looks deep.

The other key strength is the emergence of the TE position that, on paper, matches with Stanford's as the best in the conference.  They have not disappointed as a group this spring as they've demonstrated both their playmaking skills and physicality.  The versatility of this group promises to be a key part of UW's offense in 2015.

WEAKNESSES:  The receiving corps hasn't flashed very much so far this spring.  Part of this may be due to all of the reps being given to inexperienced QBs while part of it may be just a lack of bodies (John Ross has been MIA for most of the spring).  Still, this is not a deep or physically versatile group to begin with.  The status of this part of the team will continue to draw scrutiny.

SURPRISE:  C Siosifa Tufunga and OT Jake Eldrenkamp.  Most onlookers would have guessed that the competition for both offensive center and left tackle would only be started in the spring and rage deep into the fall.  Instead, it would appear that Tufunga and Eldrenkamp have effectively locked down those respective positions and may have done so even before camp had begun.  If true, then this is a huge step forward for an offensive line that was projected to be in a state of flux going into 2015.

6.  Washington State

STRENGTHS:  Wide Receiver continues to be the strength on this team and it has shown up this spring, even with the departure of Vince Mayle.  Gabe Marks joins Dom Williams on the outside after spending a year redshirting while inside man Dan Lilienthal has been a new name that has really exploded onto the scene.  Assuming that a QB emerges from the Luke Falk / Peyton Bender / Tyler Hilinski battle, the passing game looks to be in good shape in Pullman.

WEAKNESSES:  I thought about putting the O-Line in here as they haven't done much this spring to fuel a high level of optimism.  However, the more pressing weakness that has really shown up is the defensive secondary.  New DC Alex Grinch is implementing more of a Nickel base package for the Cougs and, I'm sure, this explains some of the struggles so far.  With only CB Charleston White returning as a starter, this will be a unit to watch as the Cougs wrap up their spring and go into the fall.

SURPRISE:   Offensive Formations.  Believe it or not, Mike Leach has been spotted preparing his team to take some snaps out from under the center.  Mind you, we are not talking about the pure Jumbo packages that we've seen WSU run on occasion.  We are talking true, any-down, QB-with-hands-under-center types of formations.  This may be just part of the overall evaluation in the QB competition or it may be an indicator of a new twist in the Air Raid.  Either way, it is the surprise of camp so far.

Stay tuned to the Gekko Files for upcoming Pac 12 previews, including a look at the strengths and weaknesses being observed by Pac 12 South teams so far this spring.