As the Pac-12 South Division looks for their first conference crown since the conference expanded, Arizona State and UCLA seem to be the front-runners in the division. However, the Pac-12 offers a number of highly competitive teams that have the ability to compete with the elites. Though there have been notable changes throughout the conference, many of the top storylines consist of teams' concerns with replacing seniors and players leaving to the NFL Draft.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils are the remaining south division champions and they return an offense capable of putting up plenty of points with returning quarterback Taylor Kelly at the helm. Kelly may be one of the most underrated players in the nation. He returns after throwing for 3,635 and 28 touchdowns last season while also rushing for nine scores and another 600 yards.
Offensively, there aren't major concerns for a team that finished second in scoring in the conference. However, a different story is written on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona State was decimated by departures to five players named to the Pac-12 all-conference team in 2013; some notable names include DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford, S Alden Darby, CB Robert Nelson and LB Chris Young.
Fortunately, 4-star linebacker and 2014 recruit, D.J. Calhoun, has been making noise lately out of spring practice. Calhoun is working his way into a Sun Devil defense yearning for help and has taken reps in first-string workouts.
UCLA is poised to make a big splash into the 2014 season. They are projected to be a Top 10 team at the start of the season and with an experienced dual-threat quarterback in Brett Hundley, it could be a very special year for one of college sports most storied programs.
Their biggest feat will be replacing linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Cassius Marsh on defense. Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes have proven to have the skills to compete on an elite level but as of April 1, Vanderdoes will miss the rest of spring due to a broken foot. It is essential the Bruins bring a suitable defense to compete with the conference's high-powered offensive attacks.
New, yet familiarhead coach Steve Sarkisian expressed in his introductory press conference, that he will use similar offensive attacks to what he used at Washington. "We are a run-first team, but we strive for balance," Sarkisian said. "We finished in the top 10 or top 8 in the country in total offense. It is one that will be predicated on speed and a power running game."
Tight ends have played an essential role at USC over the years, but at the moment, the Trojans are perilously thin at the position. After the departures of receiver Marqise Lee, tight end Xavier Grimble and injury to tight end Randall Telfer, questions have spurred regarding the tight end position and the depth of the receiving core in early spring. A vital part of Sarkisian's offense is utilizing a dual-threat tight end, who has the ability to run block and be a reliable target in the passing game. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has been the main focus in spring's early workouts and so far, he has impressed. "Jalen has focused himself on trying to come out and have a good spring," Sarkisian said. "He was really attentive in the first practice and got opportunities in the second and he made them." Coach Justin Wilcox also followed Sarkisian from Washington to take the responsibilities of defensive coordinator.
Arizona has a similar problem to Washington, with one of the biggest holes to fill being the running back position. UA loses Ka'Deem Carey to the NFL, but the competition is sinuous at the moment. Pierre Cormier, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby have been participating in spring practices at the position but the level of play is nowhere near the caliber of Carey.
The Wildcats also have concerns with lack of experience at quarterback in a conference led by some of the nation's elites. Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon has been talked about as an early front-runner to replace senior B.J. Denker, along four other contenders. "I would say one through five is pretty bunched up right now," Rodriguez told reporters Monday. "I have tried to rotate them through there like that. I thought by now there would be a little more separation, but there really hasn't been."
For Ute fans, the biggest news all spring has been the status of quarterback Travis Wilson. Wilson's sophomore season was cut short after a pre-existing medical condition was discovered during a concussion diagnosis in mid-November. He has been cleared to participate in spring ball, but will also be limited to non-contact drills, according to ESPN.com.
The defense has held it's own for the most part and they will add Miami transfer Gionni Paul to strengthen the linebacking core. In 2013, Paul was the third-leading tackler on an exceptional Hurricane squad and he is now establishing himself as a leader on a defense that will need many big plays in a conference led by explosive offenses.
In 2013, the Buffs finished at or near the bottom of total offensive and defense in the Pac-12 and last in the South Division standings. With a new spring underway, it is only a matter of time before Colorado turns things around, and they will receive help from a number of experienced returners on offense. After enduring six different quarterback changes in just three years, sophomore Sefo Liufau is in a good position to keep his job at signal caller. Stability is key for teams looking to rebuild and that is exactly what Liufau--who started seven games last season--brings to the field.
Aiding Liufau on the outside is junior receiver Nelson Spruce. Spruce grabbed 55 receptions for 650 yards and four scores last season, and though he doesn't inhibit the "wow" factor, he is an essential part to Colorado's success this coming season.
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