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the Gekko Files: spring around the PAC, Part 1

Sam Darnold’s Heisman campaign, Arizona’s return to health, and bus rides in Eugene.

NCAA Football: Southern California Spring Game Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanley Cup ...

... March Madness ...

... Opening Day ...

... The Masters ...

... The Playoffs ...

Springtime is always rich in content for the discerning sports fan. College football can often seem like an afterthought. Particularly teams that might reside outside of your preferred area code.

Nevertheless, there are hundreds of players working with dozens of coaches just in the conference of champions getting ready to take the title of “champion” off the mantel of the Washington Huskies. In some cases, top talents are working on honing their crafts. In others, new coaching staffs are focusing on getting their players aboard the proverbial bus.

Whatever the case may be, the goal is the same. Use your 15 practices to get an edge over your competition.

So let’s do a tour around the PAC and see what is happening in other camps. This will be part one of a three-parter. We’ll start with USC, Oregon, and Colorado.


Key Spring Storylines: the Heisman candidate, dealing with high expectations, filling out the D-line

All eyes this spring were on QB Sam Darnold and the high expectations that Trojan nation has for the Heisman-hyped signal caller. But head coach Clay Helton knows that he is going to need more than just stellar QB play if he is going to be able to deliver on the projection of USC as the team to beat in the PAC.

Specifically, this spring was about finding new starters in the offensive skill positions, further adapting to Clancy Pendergast’s new defensive system, and figuring out who will play where on an offensive line undergoing some change. The results were mixed.

Clearly, the offensive skill positions are stocked for the Trojans. It looks like a combination of Jalen Greene (yes, that Jalen Greene), Deontay Burnett, Velus Jones, and Michael Pittman will handle the bulk of receiving responsibilities. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns also put his skills on display and positioned himself well going into fall.

The defense is a bit more of a question mark. The Trojans suffered with injuries - particularly at the LB spot - and didn’t have many bodies to work with. The defensive line also missed the contributions of DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Already short following the transfer of Noah Jefferson to Arizona, the Trojans did see the return to the field of oft-injured star Kenny Bigelow. He, along with 17 year-old Marlon Tuipolotu and senior Josh Fatu, look like the core of the interior that will be sweating depth issues all year. The pass rush positions look unresolved with an injury-slowed Porter Gustin and a talented but inconsistent Olu Betiku getting most of the looks.

The offensive line worked a lot of its depth as presumed starters Nico Falah (herniated disc), Viane Talamaivo (hamstring), Nate Smith (ACL), and Toa Lobendahn (ACL) all were out or limited. There were not a whole lot of answers according to observers. In fact, there was really just one healthy presumed starter (Chris Brown) practicing full-time by the time spring concluded. The extra work for the backups is probably a good thing, but the overall health of this unit is a major issue to resolve this offseason.

Of course, one cannot escape taking a look at the progress that Darnold made this spring. By all accounts, the current Heisman favorite has been excessively turnover-prone, particularly in throwing interceptions. There are many possible explanations for this: aforementioned offensive line troubles, new receiver combos, and the whole “it is spring, so let’s air it out” thing. But Darnold doesn’t seem to have added anything new to his arsenal based on what journalists observed. It makes one wonder.


Key storylines: new coaching staff, QB competition, all things defense, developing the O-line

For the first time in forever, the Ducks commenced a spring camp with virtually no connections to the Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly regimes. No more “win the day” ... no talks of “going to the Natty” ... and no more expectations of running the table in the PAC.

This spring has been all about reversing the fortunes of a four-win season and getting on the Willie Taggart bus.

As one would expect, Taggart has said that all positions are open for competition, including the QB position currently manned by true sophomore Justin Herbert. While the odds are still heavily slanted towards last year’s starter, Taggart has elevated the status of backup Travis Jonsen to the point where some people close to the program insist that the competition is real.

Regardless, Oregon’s offense isn’t really the question most observers have with this team. After all, Royce Freeman, Darren Carrington, and Charles Nelson are all back and primed. On the other hand, the addition of the Pac-12’s most expensive defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, has fans wondering what is going on with the D. In short, the Ducks are in the process of switching back to a 3-4, creating something called “the Duck” position, and trying to figure out how to get their best players on the field.

Much of the defensive talent that has emerged so far this spring has been in the secondary. Players like Fotu Leitao, true freshman breakout candidate Thomas Graham, and returning starter Arrion Springs have had strong camps. This has compelled Leavitt to start experimenting with a situational 3-3-5 look that we can expect to see plenty of this fall. As such, seeing a safety like Leitao show up in the “Duck” linebacker/safety hybrid position feels like a new wrinkle that is coming.

The offensive line remains a source of consternation for the young Ducks. A unit that was the youngest in the PAC seems just as young this season. The good news for the Ducks is that senior Tyrell Crosby is back and looking every bit the dominating LT that he was projected to be last season. Besides that, there is much work in progress as young players like Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, and Jake Pisarcik have struggled to adapt to the changes that new OL coach Mario Cristobal (formerly of Alabama) wishes to install. Still, Cristobal has been effusive in his praise for the baseline talent at hand. Time will tell if that is coaching psychology 101 or if those comments have real merit.


Key storylines: competition at QB?, J.J. Taylor’s health, everything else

Arizona had a collapse of epic proportions in 2016. When camp kicked off this spring, the attention wasn’t so much on the whos and whats but more on just re-establishing the basics.

That started with the QB position. With QB Anu Solomon having transferred to Baylor, Brandon Dawkins is the clear starter. While he is likely already the player he is going to be - a run-first dual-threat guy - developing a passing game has been a top priority this spring. The fact that backup Khalil Tate threw the ball better most of the spring has made the QB situation somewhat interesting.

The offensive line looked pretty good most of the camp. OT Layth Freikh has been solid and should be ready to go this fall. C Nathan Eldridge and OG Jake Alsadek have also solidified roles this spring. RS freshman Michael Eletise has struggled with consistency, but is also projected as a starter.

The biggest news from this spring has been the emergence of RB J.J. Taylor. Last we saw Taylor, he was ripping off ridiculous gains against the otherwise stout UW defense before being lost in that game to a season-ending ankle injury. Taylor made a successful return to spring practice and looks poised to become the top playmaker in the Wildcat offense. If he can stay healthy, he and Nick Wilson project as a dangerous combination behind QB Dawkins in what could look like a true, old-fashioned Rich-Rod offense.