Our three-part series touring through the spring camps of PAC 12 schools continues. Today, we break down what we learned with WSU, Colorado, Utah, and Cal.
Key storylines: reloading targets for Luke Falk; restocking the secondary; building offensive line momentum
2016 wasn’t a great year for the Cougs. Nevertheless, they entered 2017 spring camp on about as solid footing as any Coug team that I’ve observed in the last 15 years.
Sure, there were lots of pieces to replace. Guys like River Cracraft, Gabe Marks, Riley Sorenson, and Shalom Luani were all critical pieces. But this spring opened up with more talk about players - guys like QB Luke Falk, DB Marcellus Pippins, DB Marcus Strong, and RB Jamal Morrow - who are looking to take the “next step” as opposed to the guys who will be stepping into big shoes.
Nevertheless, some players seemed to really explode onto the scene. At receiver, Dezmon Patton and Easop Winston (who Luke Falk claims has the “softest hands” he’s ever seen) emerged to push presumed starters Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Tavares Martin. Senior OG B.J. Salmonson had a big spring and looks like a stabilizing factor on the offensive line. Defensive linemen Daniel Eukale and Kingston Fernandez emerged as legitimate players to complement incumbent star Hercules Mu’atafa. In fact, if this spring is any indication, the Cougar D-Line might be sneaky good by the time fall camp breaks.
It looks like it was a really good spring for the Cougs both from a player performance and a team health standpoint.
Key storylines: the secondary, the emergence of a new QB, keeping the momentum
Nobody saw the 2016 Colorado Buffaloes coming. Even fewer than nobody - which I suspect is impossible, but true - predicted the Buffs in the PAC 12 championship. But that is exactly what transpired. As the Coach Mac led his troops into this year’s spring camp, the question on everybody’s mind was how to sustain the mojo.
The Buffs have a decent starting point with eight returning starters on offense. That number becomes nine if you count the talented Steven Montez at QB. All reports are that Montez has assumed the leadership mantle from former QB Sefo Liufau and that his performance this spring backed up all of the talk. He’s got weapons to work with, including receivers Devin Ross and Shay Fields, that should make his transition that much more seamless.
Defensively, the Buffs have eight starters to replace. In addition, former star LB Addison Gillam has decided to retire due to injury. That leaves Colorado in full rebuild mode with a new defensive coordinator - D.J. Eliot - pulling the strings.
The names to watch for Colorado coming out of the spring start with a pair of defensive backs: S Afolabi Laguda and CB Isaiah Oliver. Laguda has played a lot of football for Colorado and, this spring, was observed playing the role of on-field coach helping to direct younger players. Oliver was a regular in the rotation of that same excellent Buffalo secondary and, by all accounts, has taken over as their leading playmaker this spring.
Transfer NT Javier Edwards showed up last January at a whopping 385 lbs, got down to 360 this spring, and is shooting for 345 by this fall. He is a monster-in-the-middle and was one of the highlighted newcomers this spring.
Finally, all eyes will be fixed on returning LB Derek McCartney. McCartney was not able to make it back from his ACL injury in time for spring. His return to a full health will be critical if the Buffs hope to hold serve on the progress that their defense showed in 2016.
Key Storylines: installing the Red Eagle offense, rebuilding the offensive line, finding a running back
The last time a Washingtonian saw Troy Taylor, he was coaching UW quarterback Jake Browning at Folsom High School. A couple of years and a stopover at Eastern Washington later, he’s the new offensive coordinator for a Utah football team that is replacing four starting offensive linemen, a stud running back, and a bunch of receiving talent. Given that Taylor was brought in with the idea of refurbishing a not-so-dynamic offense, it would also make sense that the quarterback position might be in focus despite the presence of incumbent starter Troy Williams.
Thus, offense was the priority in Salt Lake City over their spring camp.
Most reports indicate that the transition remains a work in progress. The QB position has, indeed, been opened to competition with Williams trying to secure his spot against three competitors: former Alabama QB Cooper Bateman, sophomore Tyler Huntley, and freshman Drew Lisk. Each of the competitors is a “throw first” kind of QB as you might expect someone like Troy Taylor to favor. Williams’s experience means he’s still on top, but Bateman’s big arm and Huntley’s emerging talent give some observers pause.
The O-Line didn’t do much to resolve itself over the spring. The Utes return just three players with game experience and each of them struggled with dings and nicks during the spring. There will be a heavy emphasis on getting the best five out there come fall. One bright spot - and this is by extension to the offensive line question - was the play of freshman TE Baba Falemeka, a 6’3” 245-lb beast. He will be a name PAC 12 fans might want to keep tabs on, though he might contribute more as a blocker at first.
There were fewer questions about Utah’s defense coming into spring. Star DT Lowell Lotuleilei (the best D-lineman in the league IMHO), S Chase Hansen, and the entire starting LB corps all were present and accounted for during camp. There is some drama at CB where Utah is rebuilding their rotation. Sophomore Julian Blackman - a big corner at 6’1” - had a nice spring and could be the leading breakout candidate on the Utes’ defense in 2017.
And, yes, I know that Utah needs a new kicker and that this is kind of a big deal in Utah. The heir apparent is a sophomore named Hayes Hicken...and that is about all I know.
Key Storylines: New coaches, new quarterback, new just about everything
Yes, I’m reviewing Cal in segment 2 of this series. Queue the “Cal is ranked too high” jokes now. Still, no one can deny that Cal is one of the more intriguing stories to watch this offseason.
The arrival of Justin Wilcox and what really looks to be an excellent staff that includes guys like offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin (former HC of Eastern Washington), QB coach and recruiting coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter (former Fresno State coach), defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, and offensive line coach Steve Greatwood. It is an experienced and accomplished group of coaches. Unfortunately for Cal football players, the methods and philosophies of this group bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Sonny Dykes group that departed. Thus, everything is new in Berkeley.
The big news is that Cal’s four-way QB competition became a two-man competition as the veterans - Chase Forrest and Washington State native Ross Bowers - seemed to take control from the two young QBs that Sonny Dykes signed last season. It isn’t clear yet where Baldwin is leaning, but if his history at Eastern taught us anything it is that he loves himself a gunslinger. Forrest may have more of those tendencies than the more heady Bowers.
Defense is the critical area of needed repair for the Bears. Unfortunately, DeRuyter didn’t see enough in the spring even to make decisions on what their base personnel should be. We know that we will see both a 3-4 and a 4-2-5 intermixed, but the Bears were not able to sort through their best looks in their first 15 practices.
If you are looking for a few names of breakout candidates, I have a couple who flashed this spring. True freshman cornerback Elijah Hicks, a one-time Notre Dame commit, was all over the quotation board this spring and might already be penciled in as a starter going into the fall. Offensively, look for the return of a healthy Kanawai Noa. The sophomore, who got a redshirt after missing his sophomore year to injury, is a Gabe Marks-type of receiver who had a big spring. He’s exactly the kind of guy one would expect to thrive in a Beau Baldwin offense.