Spring practice is underway in the Pac-12 and the parity from top to bottom is as good as it's ever been. With it surfaces a number of emotions surrounding the addition of new coaches, potential of new recruits and how teams will fill the empty holes left by departed players. The Pac-12 North, led by Stanford and Oregon, has dominated the conference in recent years, winning every title since expanding to a 12-team field and this season seems no different than years of the past.
New head coaches, returning stars and players waiting in the wing to fill the holes left by the departed will be the biggest things to watch for this spring as we head into the first season of the College Football Playoff era.
This article will cover the top stories in the North Division, but stay tuned for Friday's update on spring in the Pac-12 South.
With new head coach Chris Petersen at the helm, the Washington Huskies will be the team in the North to keep an eye on in the 2014 season. Petersen, who collected 92 wins, a pair of Fiesta Bowl victories, and five conference titles at Boise State, will replace Steve Sarkisian, who left the Huskies for USC after five seasons and a 34-29 record. Based off wins, Petersen has been one of the most successful coaches in the nation in recent years, boasting a 92-12 (.885) record and he is also the first and only two-time winner of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in 2006 and 2009. If the success can continue, you could see the Huskies move up to the upper echelon of the North Division.
Another interesting change to make note of is the replacement at defensive coordinator for the Stanford Cardinal. After Derek Mason accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, the Cardinal promoted outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson to take over what has become one of the most dominating defenses in the country over the past few seasons.
Will the Cardinal be able to keep up their elite status to win a third consecutive conference title?
According to head coach David Shaw, in a quote taken from Chris Patterson of CBS Sports, "Lance has worked under two of the best defensive minds in football in Vic Fangio and Derek Mason," coach Shaw said. "He will continue our defensive tradition of being aggressive, being physical and setting the tone for how we play football here at Stanford University."
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS
Not surprisingly, the top North returners reside at the quarterback position; Marcus Mariota, Kevin Hogan, Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday are all experienced under center in the competitive Pac-12. Even Washington's Cyler Miles, who sat behind Keith Price last season, has shown to be an efficient signal caller.
However, there are returners at skill positions and on defense who are vital components to a team's success and overturn into a new season.
The Oregon Ducks lose three members of their starting secondary, but return cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and a number of experienced linebackers. One of the main concerns with Oregon is the lack of bulk on the defensive line, which was trounced in 2013 by Stanford and Arizona. Luckily in the wing they have juniors DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who are experienced and provide great size and athleticism to the defensive front.
Just north in Corvallis, Oregon State is dealing with the departure of wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL, who led the conference in receptions and was the main target for quarterback Sean Mannion last season. Richard Mullaney--coming off an 800-yard 2013 season--will be the presumed number-one guy for Mannion. Mullaney's play doesn't offer anything close to the playmaking ability of Cooks, but he offers strong hands and reliability. Mannion will also have Victor Bolden and Malik Gilmore to throw to. The Beavers offense was explosive last season but without the Mannion-to-Cooks combo, finding an efficient playmaker is a must this spring.
FILLING IN THE GAPS
Many teams in the North fell victim to aftershocks of the NFL Draft early entry deadline. In result, there are significant holes that must be filled this spring to feel prepared and confident with the 11 guys that will take the field come September.
For returning champion Stanford, their biggest concern lies in replacing a star studded senior class - Shane Skov, Trent Murphy and Ed Reynolds to name a few - and developing an array of new starters on the offensive line. Fortunately, the Cardinal is ready to feature their highly ranked 2012 offensive recruiting class, which included two five-star, and four four-star recruits, according to Rivals.
In Seattle, Bishop Sankey is headed for the NFL and Washington will be looking to find a workhorse in the backfield to take his spot. Seniority rides with Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier but Dwayne Washington, who was just a freshman in 2013, has immense potential to jump to the top of the depth chart. Dwayne Washington was also the only back on the Husky team that averaged more than seven yards per carry.
Staying in Washington, the Cougars have one of the biggest feats to overcome and that is to find a replacement for safety Deone Bucannon, who was the heart and soul of the WSU defense in 2013. Bucannon brought physicality and leadership to the defense, tallied 114 tackles in 2013, the most of any player in the Pac-12. However, brother and redshirt sophomore David Bucannon will get his first chance to shine on the field after his brother's departure. If the Cougars fail to fill the gaping whole in the secondary, Washington State could be in for a long season with the lethal offensive attacks in the Pac-12.
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