I don’t mind telling you - spring is hard. As spring turns to summer, it gets even harder. Football practices are over, spring sports are racing to their conclusions and the prospect of two months with only the puerility of the “Capitol Olympics” to occupy whatever attention we pay to news cycles until August finally arrives.
Nevertheless, August will eventually arrive and with it plenty of speculation about how things are likely to go for our beloved Huskies football team and all of the rivals that compete with them. To assist in your preparation for the inevitable inane debates, we continue with our jaunt around PAC 12 spring camps to let you know what has transpired and what key questions ought to be tuned in when we next see gridiron giants take the field.
Key Storylines: quarterback competition, where are the signs of life?
There are no shortages of questions surrounding the Oregon State Beavers as they enter year three under head coach Gary Andersen. Despite showing definite signs of improvement, a win over the Ducks in the Civil War being a great example, the Beavers know that they need to make strides across the board in order just to hold serve in the ultra competitive PAC 12 North. Perhaps that’s why Coach Andersen elected to start his spring camp all the way back in February.
Early bird gets the worm.
The most important revelation for the Beavers is that incumbent QB Darrell Garretson is not guaranteed to be back as the starter. In fact, most observers feel that 6’7” JC transfer Jake Luton has created open water in his race against Garretson and veteran Marcus McMaryion after an impressive camp. The Beavers have had a revolving door of QBs since Sean Mannion left the program. I’m sure Andersen values stability and will, therefore, give all three QBs ample opportunities going into the fall. Still, the early money is on the JC transfer.
Whoever plays QB will certainly wonder where his offensive support will come from. Ryan Nall had a fantastic spring - including a 60 yard TD pass in the spring game - and looks fully recovered from his all his bumps and bruises. In addition, Seth Collins and Hunter Jarmon look ready to carry the torch of excellent OSU receiver play ... and don’t sleep on the physically gifted Jordan Villamin. He missed the first half of spring, but came back healthy to close spring very strong.
The Beavers were hoping to find a breakout position group for them to hang their hats on going into the spring. The receivers might be that group. The running back tandem of Nall and Artavis Pierce were also a bright spot. Most surprising was hearing the chatter around OSU’s defensive line. While no stars really stood out, the repetitive references made about the overall depth of the unit has writers buzzing that the Beaver front might be on the upswing - particularly in rush defense.
If you are looking for a breakout candidate coming from the spring, look towards 6’4” TE Noah Togiai. The uber-athletic Togiai is exactly the kind of versatile player that Andersen would love to feature in his offense. He missed most of 2016 after suffering a knee injury. He was back for the spring and looked healthy and sharp. We’ll be watching him closely this fall.
Key Storylines: QB battle, establishing a pass rush, N’Keal’s arc
ASU went into the spring with the idea of reversing some seriously bad juju following a 2016 season that started out hot but turned into a hot mess.
Coach Todd Graham - a clear hot-seat candidate - wanted to get back to his basics with his spring plan: install his blitz-first defense, establish his playmakers and identify a QB. How did he do?
The offense was where most eyes were glued. Gone was OC Chip Lindsey and his wildcat (“Sparky”) offense. New OC Billy Napier came in with a few tweaks designed to feature his quarterbacks a bit more and to develop some depth at WR. Emerging star N’Keal Harry missed some time in the camp. This opened the door for a few newer names to emerge. Jalen Harvey (slot) and Ryan Newsome were a couple of players who took advantage. That said, the breakout star might have been John Humphrey, Jr. who caught three TD passes in the 11-on-11 final scrimmage and almost certainly staked out a starting role opposite Harry.
The ASU defense was a bit harder to read based on media reports. Graham seemed pleased overall with the development of his linebackers group which - no surprise - ought to be pretty strong this season. DJ Calhoun and Christian Sam are a pair of capable and experienced players who both had nice springs. Graham also heaped a great deal of praise on the secondary where a lot of new faces are trying to define roles for themselves. That said, there were a lot of explosive plays all spring against that D. We’ll just have to see.
The biggest question, of course, is the QB situation where incumbent Manny Wilkins was to be challenged by Alabama transfer Blake Barnett and youngster Dillon Sterling-Cole. Wilkins held serve much of the spring, but couldn’t put Barnett away. They’ll go into fall as options 1 and 1a in what will be one of the more interesting QB battles given the stark contrast in their playing styles.
Key Storylines: status of Josh Rosen, new offense, coaching hot-seat
You know things are bad when the story of triumphant return from injury of your all-everything QB is only the second-most talked about story coming out of your spring camp. Such is the case in Westwood where head coach Jim Mora continues to get mentioned the most as the coach atop the most fiery perch in the PAC. I’m sure my colleagues in Tempe might argue that point, but the fact remains that Mora faces a make-or-break 2017.
Having stability at QB will go a long way to pushing Mora to the “make” side of that equation. Fortunately, all reports indicated that Josh Rosen made a triumphant (if not really dominating) and healthy return to the lineup this spring. The bigger challenge for the star UCLA QB now is getting mastery over the Bruins’ new offense.
You might recall that Mora replaced first year OC Kennedy Polamalu after the veteran coach produced one of the worst rushing offenses the program has every seen in spite of the presence of what was supposed to be a high-performing offensive line complemented by young RB stars in Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo. Jedd Fisch comes from Michigan to take over that role with the idea of getting more production out of UCLA’s star players.
The early reviews are that Fisch’s offense looks a lot like Polamalu’s - not surprising given his pedigree. Still, there seemed to be more focus on adding multiplicity to the offensive formations and more focus on developing some of the younger stars. Young WR Theo Howard benefitted greatly and will be a key player that will almost certainly take a major increase in workload this fall.
The offensive line was a little bit more hit and miss if the tea leaves of press reports are to be believed. It might be a bit of smoke and mirrors or it might just be the natural advantage that a defense has over an offense in the spring. Still, given how bad UCLA was up front a year ago, this will be a focus area.
Defensively, the Bruins struggled to establish depth or a pecking order along the defensive line. There are some names that you recognize - the oft-injured Kenny Young, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Boss Tagaloa - all vying to define their roles. But none jumped out and dominated as the coaching staff was surely hoping to see.
The same cannot be said for the defensive secondary. That unit was particularly impressive for much of the spring - part of the explanation of why some people felt that Rosen didn’t look as good as they had hoped. Safety Adarius Pickett was a Kam Chancellor clone for much of the spring while CB Darnay Holmes excelled throughout. The success of the UCLA defense come fall will begin and end with their secondary.