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TGS 2017 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE PAC 12--PART II

                                          by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor 

Following is our look at the Pac-12 South, with teams as always presented in predicted order of finish.  Included are 2016 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" marks.
                                          
SOUTHERN CAL (SUR 10-3; PSR 8-5; O/U 4-9)...After his sparkling, record-setting performance in the Rose Bowl, redshirt soph QB Sam Darnold has vaulted Southern Cal back into the national championship equation for the first time in six years. At the same time, the Trojans’ strong finish (winning their final nine games) has taken lots of pressure off USC coach Clay Helton, well-liked by the players, but who was being lambasted by Trojan fans after the team’s 1-3 start to the 2016 season.

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Those fans were asking why a long-time assistant such as Helton had been elevated to such a premier post as head coach of USC without ever previously serving as a full-time HC at any level. But for now at least, oodles of optimism are surrounding good-guy Helton, who was the point man in recruiting and developing Darnold, who seemed like a master of prestidigitation in January’s Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. And let’s not forget that Troy’s initial one-third of the 2016 season was as testing as any in the nation—No. 1 Alabama (in Arlington), a brief home “breather” vs. Utah State, then at No. 7 Stanford, then at No. 24 Utah (which was the first start for Darnold). Few teams in the nation could have done much better than 1-3, especially while breaking in a new starting QB (Max Browne for the first three games, then Darnold).

Going into 2017, it’s a different deal, however. Especially after Darnold led USC to the front, and then from behind, to edge Penn State 52-49 in Pasadena, hitting 33 of 53 passes for a Rose Bowl record 453 YP, with 5 TDP. For the season, Darnold—demonstrating an innate escapability and a unique knack to envision plays on the run—completed 67.2% with 31 TDs and 9 interceptions. Both Helton and Darnold agree that the QB can reduce his turnovers now that he has more experience.

Troy must replace 3 of 5 OL starters and go-to WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (70 catches, 10 TDs). But few in the Pac-12 expect USC’s offense (34.4 ppg LY) to suffer, especially given Darnold’s uncanny ability to evade early pass rushers. The there is plenty of experience and also future potential returning up front in the O-line at Troy. Same situation at RB, where speedy Ronald Jones II (1082 YR, 6.1 ypc in 2016) leads the way. Behind him is the sometimes-unorthodox, but usually effective Aca’Cedric Ware (397 YR last year), eager for more carries in 2017.

Replacing the physical 6-2, 220-lb.. WR Smith-Schuster might initially figure to be more difficult. But Darnold had been showing developing rapport with jr. WR Deontay Burnett, who caught 13 of Darnold’s aerials in the Rose Bowl, good for three TDs. Burnett totaled 56 recs. last year as a soph. Steven Mitchell Jr. had 24. Anticipating the loss of Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers (56 LY), and speedster CB/WR/KR Adoree’ Jackson after 2016, USC kind of stockpiled its young WR talent LY. 6-4 soph Michael Pittman Jr. (6 recs. in a cameo role LY) shone brightly in spring. Also fighting for playing time TY will be redshirt freshmen Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. So will jr. Jalen Greene, a talented one-time scrambling QB. Four-star true freshman Joseph Lewis comes aboard in August. WRs the Trojans have. As long as Darnold is healthy, Troy will move the ball.

Defense is another matter, as USC gave up 24.2 ppg LY. That’s too lenient to reach the Final Four. So, improvement in 2017 is needed. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, in his second season, sees reason for optimism. Pendergast says his charges are now familiar with his communication-based system. DL coach Kenechi Udeze says his front line is deeper this season, allowing players to fit into their natural position after LY’s thin crew required some improvisation. Like most teams these days, the Trojans are using more nickel defense than in the past, so Troy will be able to rotate its pass rushers and run-stuffers to better effect. 6-3, 295 blue-chip DT Marlon Tuipulotu (a late blue-chip recruiting flip from Washington) enrolled early and turned heads in spring. And 6-5, 280 DE Rasheem Greene should improve upon his 55 Ts and 6 sacks of LY. If all goes as planned, Troy should clamp down on LY’s 4.1 ypc allowance.

The LB crew has a chance to be outstanding, being led by 245-pound jr. ILB Cameron Smith (pace team with 83 Ts LY) and 6-5, 260 jr. OLB Porter Gustin who had 13 TFL and 5½ sacks LY. Jr. Uchenna Nwosu had 53 Ts and 3 sacks LY at another LB spot. Helton says more aggression is needed from the Trojan defense if it is going to win championships once again. While Pac-12 foe Washington was No. 1 in the country in takeaways LY with 33, USC stood only 67th with just 20.

Troy’s secondary has a chance to be among the best in the league next season, led by jr. CB Iman Marshall, a former freshman A-A who has three ints. in each of the L2Ys. He might he joined at CB immediately by his former Long Beach Poly teammate, soph Jack Jones. Rangy 6-3 jr. FS Marvell Tell is loaded with potential in his second year as starter, while sr. Chris Hawkins (4 starts LY) appears ready for a full-time job at SS.

Summary...After enjoying Troy’s exciting Rose Bowl victory for a few weeks, Helton said, “It’s our time to try and go win Pac-12 championships and national championships. That’s what USC is all about.” It has been pointed out several times in L.A. that the last two times (2012 and 2015) the Trojans were ranked in the preseason Top Ten, USC finished unranked. This time, Troy is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South, which, by the way, is 0-6 in the conference championship game. Win the division and conference first. Then we’ll starting talking about the Final Four. In the meantime, USC is leading a three-year, $270 million modernization project of the venerable, 94-year-old Coliseum (to include new video screens in Tinsel Town!).

Worth noting? Since losing his first start at Utah, Sam Darnold is 9-0 SU and 7-2 vs. the spread as the Trojan QB.


UCLA (SUR 4-8; PSR 4-8; O/U 5-7)...It was a disappointing start (a defeat at A&M), an injury-fazed middle (loss of key QB Josh Rosen in Game Six), and stumbling finish (1-6 SU) for UCLA in 2016. The 4-8 end result—after being considered a preseason contender in the Pac-12 South—has HC Jim Mora on unexpected shaky ground heading into 2017. This despite his prior four straight winning seasons to begin his career in Westwood.

With the promising Rosen (3670 YP, 23 TDs, 11 ints. in 2015 as a true freshman) ready to trigger the 2016 Bruin attack, Mora altered his offense for Rosen’s second year, dumping the holdover spread passing game that had worked so well for the more mobile Brett Hundley. The move was toward a more power-oriented attack that was expected to be better suited for the pocket-passing Rosen, complete with use of a fullback and TE, with Mora hoping the Bruins would feature less finesse and more supporting physicality that would aid Rosen and help UCLA put teams away, Stanford-style.

With that concept on the way for last year, Mora parted ways with veteran offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (a spread advocate), replacing him with Kennedy Polamalu a former college FB (at USC) and long-time college and pro RB coach. However, re-designing the Bruin offense that previously had not used a TE and rarely had employed a blocking FB (frequently trusting power running chores to be handled by dynamic LB Myles Jack and DT Eddie Vanderdoes) proved to be a bit much for Polamalu, who had limited experience as a coordinator.

Things turned south, as Rosen took some time to adjusted the new scheme, his receivers dropped too many passes, and the RBs failed to live up to promise. Pro-prospect QB Rosen started taking a beating until his shoulder injury required surgery. With seasoned backup QB Jerry Neuheisel having graduated and deciding to give up a final year of eligibility, former walk-on QB Mike Fafaul was tabbed to carry the torch for the rest of the season. Pac-12 defenses focused on the run and dared the inexperienced Fafaul to pass, which he did, but very erratically, setting several Bruin sincle-game records, but also completing only 52% with 12 ints. vs. just 11 TDs. Fafaul was 1-5 as a starter (beating only Oregon State) while the Bruin offense-in-transition sank to 127th in rush yards with just 1011 for the season. Only Texas State had fewer yards rushing in the Bowl Subdivision. Not once did a UCLA rusher top the century mark in a game, as the Bruins averaged only 2.9 ypc. Not good.

So it’s back to the drawing board for Mora, who had to watch as USC cleaned up in recruiting, with the cream of the L.A.-area blue-chippers heading to Troy for a shot to play with elusive QB Sam Darnold.

Now on tap for the Bruins in 2017 are several changes as Mora seeks to re-establish the UCLA offense in the Pac-12, a league renowned for its many productive attacks. Incoming is offensive coordinator and QB coach Jedd Fisch, the passing game coordinator the past two years at Michigan, where he learned the multiple-TE power schemes of former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Fisch had previously worked more than a decade with NFL offenses. Rejoining Fisch will be former Wolverine assistant Jimmie Dougherty as Bruin passing coordinator. Mora was able to exhale in the spring when the valuable Rosen appeared to be healthy to start his junior year (likely to be his last in Westwood).

Mora promises his 2017 attack will feature a little of everything, beginning with more flexibility and more responsibility for the heady, now-seasoned Rosen. There will be read-option plays when advantageous. The TEs should be better-schooled. RBs Soso Jamabo (321 YR in 2016, 3.9 ypc), Nate Starks (281, 3.3), Bolu Olorunfunmi (280, 3.9), are similar in style. But former Bruin star and new RB coach DeShaun Foster says the backfield rotation will be shortened TY, with carries going to the guy who most earns them. Foster is hopeful that soph Brandon Stephens, a former four-star recruit from Texas, can add a speed element, while 6-0, 251 soph Jalen Starks is being trained as both a FB and short-yardage smash-mouth guy. There is potential in the backfield if Rosen stays healthy and his passes loosen up defenses.

The OL underachieved LY. But Mora believes experience (4 of TY’s projected starters have substantial experience)—plus a couple of incoming graduate transfers—can stabilize things up front. Senior C Scott Quessenberry is considered a strong anchor. Rosen’s injury kept the QB from developing some chemistry with the Bruin receivers, who were inconsistent at getting open and erratic at holding on when they did. But there is potential, represented by 5-10 sr. Darren Andrews (55 recs. LY) and 6-1 jr. Jordan Lasley (41 recs.; 5 TDC). However, top TE Nate Iese has graduated. And drops persisted in spring ball. So Rosen/receiver rapport must be re-established. 6-4, 245 four-star TE recruit Jimmy Staggers was an early-enrollee with the potential to help early.

Last year’s lack of an effective ground game also fazed the UCLA defense, which allowed 27.5 ppg despite the presence of NFL draftees such as burly 3-4 DLman Vanderdoes, DE Takkarist McKinley (10 sacks), top tackler LB Jayon Brown (119 Ts, 2½ sacks, 3 ints. LY), and CB Fabian Moreau. DB Randall Gofourth (4 ints. LY) signed with Philly as a free agent. Now, those players are fighting for spots in the pros while former NFL asst. and HC Mora seeks to mold a new stop unit to hang tough in the offense-oriented Pac-12. Sr. DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (3 sacks), 240-pound sr. LB Kenny Young (5 sacks LY), and heady sr. DB Jaleel Wadood form a veteran trio of leadership. But the stop unit’s force would likely be greatly enhanced if 6-2, 255 RS freshman LB Mique Juarez (personal issues LY) can regain the assertiveness that made him the top prep LB in the country two years ago.

Mora’s recruiting skills and player-development ability will be tested as he readies his younger defenders to come on line in prominent roles in 2017. Mora landed two coveted recruits who could step in immediately—DE/OLB pass rusher Jaelan Phillips and speedy CB Darnay Holmes, both five-star blue-chippers.

Summary...As with most teams, keeping their No. 1 QB healthy will be a key to the Bruins’ prospects. Moreover, if Rosen’s shoulder woes return, the UCLA QB is unlikely to do anything to risk his pro career (remember, Rosen’s father is a noted surgeon). With its share of breaks, UCLA should hang around a while in the usually-contentious Pac-12 South. But road stops at Palo Alto, Seattle, and Salt Lake City—not to mention at USC—are likely to leave the Bruins fighting for a minor bowl, not the South crown.


UTAH (SUR 9-4; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7)...It has been six years since Utah left the Mountain West to join the Pac-12. During that time, the hustling, physical Utes have more than held their own. Still, they are the only South team that has not represented the division in the Pac-12 title game. It will be a pretty big upset if Utah grabs the South crown this year, at least as long as Sam Darnold is healthy and QBing USC. In fact, the last loss for Darnold and Southern Cal was last September 23 in Salt Lake City, 31-27, in Darnold’s first career start. The San Clemente phenom hasn’t lost since. And this season’s meeting with the Utes is Oct. 14 at the Coliseum.

The 2017 Ute team will require considerable rebuilding, especially on offense, where four of LY’s OL starters have departed, not to mention HR-hitting RB Joe Williams (1407 YR, 10 TDR, 6.7 ypc LY). Moreover, respected coach Kyle Whittingham (recently extended through 2021) has brought in the ninth offensive coordinator for the team in the last 10 years. That new o.c.—charged with improving the team’s inconsistent aerial game—is former California QB Troy Taylor (1986-89), the most prolific Bear passer in school history until being surpassed by Jared Goff in the recent “Bear Raid” spread. After a “cup of coffee” with the N.Y. Jets after college, Taylor spent half a dozen years as a college assistant. Then another decade developing his own offense as a head coach in the high school ranks, where he helped current Washington QB Jake Browning blow away a load of passing records. Then last season Taylor was the QB coach at Eastern Washington, which upset Washington State while the Eagles were on their way to setting an FCS-record of 5,160 yards passing.

Being a “weather city” in the South Division with a stadium elevation of 4600 feet, the Utes of Whittingham have usually favored the run over the pass, generally with good effect vs. their Pac-12 visitors from the desert and coast. But Taylor’s system worked well on EWU’s red-carpet field in Cheney Washington (near Spokane). Taylor’s uptempo spread (42 ppg LY) used lots of RPOs (run-pass options), allowing for QBs to post some big numbers. With college teams now more familiar with the RPO concept, and with Taylor dealing with tougher defenses in the Pac-12, production such as last year’s is not expected to come so easy. Says Taylor, “In some ways, we’ll be unconventional in terms of some formations and how we attack. But for the most part, it’s a belief you’ve got to efficiently throw the football to be effective.”’

Weather factor or not, Utah has rarely been able to make it out of the bottom half of the league passing stats (last year 9th). The defense has usually been plenty tough, last year allowing 23.9 ppg—fourth in a league known for offense. Utah lost only four times LY, by a total of 19 points.

Getting the first shot at QB this season will be former Washington QB Troy Williams, who was erratic LY (53.1%, 2757 YP, 15 TDs, 8 ints.), but who also showed considerable development. However, with a new offense being installed, Williams will have to fight off mobile 6-1 soph Tyler Huntley, a former Player of the Year in Florida who offers more quickness in the new system and was impressive in spring in Salt Lake City. 6-3 sr. graduate transfer Cooper Batemen (49 of 66 in two seasons of action at Alabama) is eligible immediately and might also figure in.

Under Whittingham, it always seems as if Utah has a quality young RB or two ready to make a name for himself after the departure of a backfield star. Such is also the case this season, with 5-10, 210 Floridian soph Zack Moss (382 YR, 4.5 ypc LY) eager for more playing time. Moss will likely share duties with 5-11, 210 Armand Shyne (373 YR, 4.8 ypc), who takes more of a straight-ahead approach. For the rebuilding OL, 6-3, 340 juco Jordan Agasiva is being counted upon to make an immediate impact.

The WR unit lacks a proven standout going into the season, but Whittingham believes his young receiving talent runs pretty deep and should suffice in the new attack. 6-3 jr. Raelon Singleton (27 recs. & 4 TDC LY) has a nice upside. Also, coming aboard is rangy 6-2 true freshman Bryan Thompson, one of the Utes’ top recruits.

Seven starters return on defense, with the strength up front, as usual, as the Utes regularly have ranked among the top sacking outfits in the country. Sr. DTs Lowell Lotulelei (6-2, 320; 3½ sacks LY) and Filipo Mokofisi (6-3, 285; 5 sacks) are solid anchors in the middle. Meanwhile, sr. DE Kylie Fitts is expected to be the top pressure guy on the outside in his return from injury in Game Two last season. Jr. LB Cody Barton and seniors Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Laufatasaga combined for 175 tackles LY. Undersized but speedy soph LB Donavan Thompson should offer some quality depth.

The top concern on defense is the secondary, which lost three of four starters (plus its starting nickel-back) to graduation. Safety and top tackler S Chase Hansen (90 Ts, 3 ints., 4 fumble recoveries) does return for his senior season to anchor the 2017 deep unit. However, due to the number of uptempo, wide-open attacks in the Pac-12, Whittingham admits he has been forced in recent seasons to use less of his preferred penetrating 4-3 in favor of a 4-2-5 nickel. 6-3 juco safety Corrion Ballard enrolled early and appears ready to join Hansen on the back line immediately.

Utah (6th in the country in sacks LY with 43) has racked up more sacks than any other team the last four years. The Utes also lead in combined takeaways over the last two years (31 in 2016). But with the rebuilding Utah secondary TY, those takeaways might dip. Consider the fact that the Utes had eight players drafted by NFL teams in April, plus six others signed as undrafted free agents. That’s a lot of talent departure. Included in that latter group was hustling Hunter Dimick, the undersized DE who had 14½ sacks LY and 29½ for his career. Utah will have to go some this season to duplicate its quantity of defensive impact plays of the last few years.

The Utes must also replace strong-legged kicker Andy Phillips, who connected on 84 of 100 FGs (that’s 84% for those of you who failed fourth-grade math and then dropped out of school), many of them through the November cold and wind in SLC. However, Ray Guy Award-winning punter Mitch Wishnowsky is returning. Wishnowsky will seek to give the Utes their four straight Ray Guy winner after fellow Aussie Tom Hackett booted his way to the prize in 2014 and 2015!

Summary...Life in the Pac-12 seems to agree with Utah, where plans are underway to expand/modernize facilities, including Rice-Eccles Stadium’s locker rooms, suites, and stands. But changes in this year’s attack, OL, and secondary seem to preclude a coveted initial Ute South Division title...barring a big upset of Southern Cal in L.A. The success of Troy Taylor’s offense will likely be the determining factor in how high feisty Utah can climb in the Pac-12 bowl queue.


COLORADO (SUR 10-4; PSR 10-4; O/U 5-9)...With the many divisions in both college and pro sports these days, the worst-to-first scenario is not so uncommon. But that doesn’t mean last year’s 8-1 reversal of 2015's 1-8 Pac-12 mark for once-proud Colorado wasn’t thrilling in Boulder, even though the more-complete Washington Huskies rained on the Buffaloes’ parade big time by a count of 41-10 in the conference championship game.

At least HC Mike MacIntyre, after three straight sixth-place finishes in the South, has established CU as a team to be taken very seriously. Now, after losing 10 starters from LY, including inspirational QB Sefo Liufau (Tampa Bay Bucs camp), Coach Mac faces the task of trying to keep it going in a division that has seen a different winner in each of the last five seasons.

Colorado won only five conference games in its first five years after stepping up into the Pac-12. So the eight league wins in 2016 represent a major advance. Those eight conference wins will be hard to duplicate, especially with Liufau and much of the core of LY’s breakthrough group having departed. However, with MacIntyre at the helm, the Buffs figure to be a “tough out” for the foreseeable future.

On the attack, four of five OL starters, all of the top WR contributors in the CU spread, and very underrated RB Phillip Lindsay return. The over-achieving 5-8, 190 Lindsay danced for 1252 YR in 2016, good for 5.1 ypc and 16 TDs on the ground. The starting WR quartet of Devin Ross, Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Jay MacIntyre (the 5-10 jr. son of the HC) combined for 201 recs. in 2016 and offer a good combination of quickness, size, and possession attributes.

So the key to an otherwise well-established attack will be the performance of 6-5, 225 soph QB Steven Montez (59.3%, 1078 YP, 9 TDs, 5 ints.). He saw action in 10 games, holding his own in an emergency start (21-17 loss) at Southern Cal. He didn’t do so well in relief vs. the likes of Michigan, Washington (Pac-12 title contest), and Oklahoma State (Alamo Bowl). But such experience in the crucible of fire should help Montez as the top guy TY. The Buffs scored 31 ppg in 2016. There shouldn’t be much drop-off in 2017.

It’s on defense where there are more questions. Eight starters have departed, including four NFL draft picks and three more NFL rookie free-agent signees. Worse yet, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt—the orchestrator of CU’s substantial stop-unit improvement in the last two seasons—was sweet-talked into a more lucrative deal at Oregon, with Leavitt taking highly-regarded DB coach Charles Clark with him. Three of four DL starters need to be replaced, not to mention CB Chidobe Awuzie (Dallas, second round), CB Ahkello Witherspoon (S.F., third round), and S Tedric Thompson (Seattle, fourth round).

But new d.c. D.J. Eliot (Kentucky L4Ys, and before that DEs at Florida State) says spring ball showed there is enough on hand for an effective nucleus TY in Boulder. Sr. FS Afolabi Laguda returns to anchor the rebuilt secondary. 6-1 juco Dante Wigley enrolled early and brings enviable height to the corner. Another tall corner is 6-1 jr. Isaiah Oliver, who played 440 snaps LY. Jr. S Nick Fisher was the league Player of the Week in Game 11 LY when he had to step in vs. Washington State following a teammate’s targeting ejection and injury.

At LB, jr. starter Rick Gamboa is back. And it will be a big plus if 6-3, 248 sr. Derek McCartney is fully recovered from LY’s torn ACL in the third game. He is the Buffs’ biggest LB and had started 25 of 27 career games before being injured last September at Michigan.

With 3 of 4 starters needing to be replaced in CU’s DL, MacIntyre’s improved recruiting should be on display. 6-3, 350 juco NT enrolled early and will add his considerable girth in the middle. Another prized juco is 6-4, 275 juco Chris Mulumba, born in Finland to immigrant refugees from the Congo. An impressive raw talent still learning the skills of football, Mulumba is a three-time Finnish judo champion with a bright upside.

Summary...Coach MacIntyre, who guided San Jose State to an almost unbelievable 10-2 mark in 2012, definitely “has it going on” in the Rockies (despite this June’s fine and reprimand regarding a former asst. coach). There have been facilities improvements, and he’s laid down a solid recruiting system that is now paying dividends. His Buffaloes are bigger, stronger, faster, and so obviously deeper. Repeating in the South has been shown to be very difficult. But the Buffs’ two toughest foes in 2017—Washington and USC—both must visit Boulder. It will be difficult to beat both. But MacIntyre has the Buffalo Nation believing. It should (at least) be a nice bowl for CU.


ARIZONA STATE (SUR 5-7; PSR 6-6; O/U 7-5)...Back-to-back losing campaigns (although 6-7 and 5-7) mean increased pressure this season on ASU coach Todd Graham. In his first three years in Tempe, Graham’s potent offense helped Arizona State produce a combined 28-12 mark, including a spot opposite Stanford in the 2014 Pac-12 title game (won by the Cardinal 38-14). However, some recent hiccups in Graham’s uptempo, misdirection offense have exposed an ASU defense that has too often not had the answer.

Without the same consistency and point production of previous seasons, Graham saw the thin, risk-taking Sun Devil defense overwhelmed with disturbing frequency. In 2016, 39.8 ppg for the season. An allowance of 40 or more points in 8 of 12 games. Forty or more in 7 of 9 conference games. A total of 56 in the embarrassing 56-35 season finale at then 2-9 Arizona. Injuries at QB and other positions also took their toll. RS freshman blue-chip QB Bryce Perkins was hurt in spring and never played. Soph starter Manny Wilkins (63.3%, 2329 YP, 12 TDs, 9 ints.) suffered a high ankle sprain in Game Five after a 4-0 start. Promising 6-3 redshirt freshman Brady White was injured in Game Six, his first start, and never played again. Thus, true frosh QB Dillon Sterling-Cole was forced into action, ready or not. By Game Nine, when ASU gave up 734 yards at Oregon, nine would-be Sun Devil starters were out due to injury. Arizona State lost its last six games.

The Sun Devils will be favored to snap that carry-over losing streak in its August 31 opener vs. New Mexico State. And, now, thanks to last year’s broad experience and an interesting transfer, HC Graham will have several interesting QB candidates from which to choose. Wilkins, now a junior and a decent dual threat (246 YR, 5 TDR) is back to try to win the gig. But joining the battle is 6-5, 200 Californian Blake Barnett (a former 4-star recruit), a pocket passer who started LY’s season opener for Alabama before quickly transferring when Jalen Hurts grabbed the No. 1 job. Sophs Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole are also back, while Perkins has opted to transfer from Tempe. Regardless of the winner of the QB derby, Graham is expected to have plenty of talent on hand.

Three starters return in the OL, which will be able to block for ASU’s dynamic sr. RB duo—6-2, 228 bruiser Kalen Ballage (536 YR, 14 TDR LY) and the slightly quicker Demario Richard (593 YR in 2016). Ballage is the basher who punished the Texas Tech sieve for a record eight TDs (seven on the ground) in LY’s 68-55 ASU victory last September in the desert. The 5-10, 219 Richard rushed for 1098 yards in 2015. Mashers the Devils have.

Taking over coaching control of the offense is Billy Napier, the former WR coach at Alabama. Some believe that might give the QB edge TY to Bama transfer Barnett. More likely to benefit from Napier’s presence will be 6-4, 22-lb.0 soph WR N’Keal Harry, who had 58 grabs with 5 TDC LY. Returning jr. WR Jalen Harvey had 21. Big Ballage collected 44. Graham has usually had potent offenses (33.3 ppg LY), although injuries disrupted the ASU attack after a good start.

Defense has been another matter, with Pac-12 foes now familiar with Graham’s high-pressure, but risky, blitzes. It has been Graham’s theory in the past to risk yielding a few big plays in exchange for potential disruptive sacks or momentum-changing takeaways. But last year, there were only 28 sacks (fewest in the Graham era) and only 9 Sun Devil interceptions all told. Not enough, as foes ran for 4.9 ypc and completed 64% for 33 TDs vs. ASU.

Graham has demoted former d.c. Keith Patterson to LBs/STs and has brought in 61-year-old veteran defensive coach Phil Bennett (last six years at Baylor; also former HC at SMU and longtime Bill Snyder aide at Kansas State) to add some stability. Bennett inherits an experienced nucleus up front, as jr. DE JoJo Wicker and undersized DT Tashon Smallwood (6-0, 284) return in the front three. And the veteran LB group could benefit immensely if 6-1, 241 Christian Sam (98 Ts in 2015) can return fully from LY’s early foot injury. The LBs already include sr. D.J. Calhoun (77 Ts, 4½ sacks, 11½ TFL in 2016) and sr. OLB Koron Crump (6-3, 218; 9 sacks LY).

Three of four starters return in the secondary, although jr. S Marcus Ball, sr. S Armand Perry, and jr. Kareem Orr combined for only two ints. LY. That over-worked crew did receipt for a combined 176 tackles, offering some encouraging back-line reliability if the DL and LBs can mine their experience for more stops and pressure up front. Orr opened eyes two years ago with 5 ints. as a freshman.

ASU has some big challenges on STs this season, as PK Zane Gonzalez (96 of 116 FGs in four years), reliable punter Matt Hauck, and PR/KR Tim White must all be replaced. White was also second on the team with 56 receptions.

Summary...ASU’s defense (127th in the country) was historically bad last year, so it’s not too hard to envision a marginal improvement under the direction of proven d.c. Bennett. But don’t look for anything resembling...say, Alabama. That’s not gonna happen, as the Sun Devils are still thin in terms of size, depth, and blue-chip defenders. But Graham should get his offense back to a familiar point, and more determination in the ground game would help the defenders. This year’s schedule is tough, with a visit by stubborn San Diego State, a trip to revenge-minded Texas Tech, and visits to cross-division Pac-12 foes Oregon, Stanford and Washington from the North. Solid QB play will be needed to contend in the South, but a bowl should be within reach heading into ASU’s Territorial Cup grudge match vs. Arizona. Graham probably needs the former, and a win vs. the latter, and more than likely both, to make it back for 2018.

ARIZONA (SUR 3-9; PSR 2-10; O/U 7-5)...Three years ago, Rich Rodriguez was the toast of Tuscon, with his Wildcats representing the South in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game. (Arizona lost that one 51-13 to Oregon, but that’s not important right now.) Following last year’s 3-9 record, RichRod finds himself on shaky ground in the Sonoran Desert. Last season, U of A prevailed against only Grambling, Hawaii, and rival Arizona State. Worst of all, the Wildcats had one of the leakiest defenses in the country, being ripped for 38.3 ppg, 118th in the nation. In Pac-12 games, the allowance was an even uglier 43.7.

Coach Rodriguez was one of the innovators of the no-huddle spread college offense, first developed as HC at Glenville State in West Virginia, and then refined while offensive coordinator for Tommy Bowden, where the two put together a 12-0 season in 1998 at Tulane, of all places. Then came a stops as o.c. at Clemson. Then as head coach at West Virginia and Michigan. But in 2016 at Arizona, his fifth campaign in the desert, RichRod’s attack was the least productive in Pac-12, generating only 24.8 ppg.

Perhaps even more ominous for HC Rodriguez is the fact that for the third time in the last five years, no U of A players were selected in the April NFL draft. Not a promising indicator that the talent level is headed UP in Tucson. This for the team that sent Rob Gronkowski to the NFL in 2010. To make things even more tenuous, there is a new A.D. at U of A, as Greg Byrne—who hired Rodriguez in Tucson—has now taken over at Alabama. So, it’s time Rodriguez to come up with an improved campaign.

Playing a major role in last year’s decline were early injuries to starting QB Anu Solomon, in his third year as a starter, and RB Nick Wilson, who entered LY with 2100 YR in his first two seasons. Those lingering injuries robbed the Wildcat attack of its familiar pass-run balance and big-play potential. Scoring fell from 37.4 ppg in 2015 to that disappointing 24.8 LY. 6-3 soph Brandon Dawkins—a scary run theat, but only 53.8% passer—was forced into the starter’s role in the second game. The smallish Wilson (5-10, 208) was never the same after Game Two, and even-smaller backup J.J. Taylor was also injured, with sr. WR Samajie Grant eventually called upon to take over as No. 1 RB. The end result of a 2-10 spread record ensued.

Now, sr. Solomon is gone, competing for the QB job at Baylor. The long-striding Dawkins, who led U of A with 944 YR and 7.2 ypc (but tossed only 8 TDP) has a year of invaluable experience under his belt. 6-2 soph QB Khalil Tate (40%, 3 TDs, 3 ints. LY) has a good arm and should be a better backup after being forced into action LY. A wildcard in the QB derby is 26-year-old true freshman Donovan Tate. He was a dual-sport star in high school in Georgia who tried the baseball route in 2009 after being chosen third overall by San Diego as an outfielder. This year’s long, long, l-o-n-g shots at QB include Rhett Rodriguez, son of the HC.

With five starters returning along the OL (all five might not win first-string jobs), there is a nucleus that might allow the Wildcats to repeat as the league’s top rushing team. At RB, the proven Wilson and undersized Taylor (5-6, 170 pounds; 261 YR) return, as well as 5-10, 227 sr. Zach Green (372 YR LY). To add a little all-down impact, RichRod has bee seeking to quickly “coach up” 6-1 early enrollee Nathan Tilford, who offers the prospect of a bigger option in RichRod’s quick-strike, read-option system. Depth at WR is shaky and youthful, with 5-8 jr. Shun Brown (29 recs., 3 TDs LY) leading the way after averaging 18.0 ypr LY.

Seven starters are back on U of A’s 3-3-5 nickel base, with the strength being a secondary that returns nearly intact. But that undersized unit is nearly certain to employ freshmen at LB. And its leaders in the DL are 6-2, 247 soph DE Justin Belknap and 6-1, 247 sr. DE Parker Zellers (3 sacks LY). It’s a credit to LY’s hustling front seven that the Wildcats held foes to even 4.7 ypc. However, while overloaded to hold the line vs. the run, U of A gave up a league-worst 65.8% and 34 TDs through the air. The unit collected only 22 sacks and 8 ints. all year, with 3 of the picks coming vs. Grambling.

Wildcat defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, in his second year in Tucson, says it was the roughest year of his 16-year career. He hopes his second year in the team’s variable-front (sometimes 4-2) nickel will help his players, with jr. S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (78 Ts, 2 ints. LY) anchoring the back line. 6-3, 310 juco early enrollee Sione Taufahema and 6-3, 195 early enrollee true frosh LB Jose Ramirez are nearly certain to see early action. But the Wildcat defense is still likely to be one of the smaller such platoons in the Power Five conferences.

Coach Rodriguez, who had seemed to mellow a bit while producing bowl teams in his first four years at U of A, is not shirking responsibility, blaming his situation partly on mistakes or bad luck in recruiting. “That’s been our priority to fix over the last two years. And it falls on me. I’m responsible for everything in our program,” says the coach. “We had simply dipped a little bit in recruiting.”

Summary...Before being worn down, the Wildcats gave eventual Pac-12 champ Washington all the Huskies could handle last September 24, before losing 35-28 in OT, with Arizona never to recover until vs. ASU in the season finale. Arizona’s facilities have fallen behind in the league, which doesn’t make Rodriguez’ recruiting efforts any easier. But if ground-gobbling jr. QB Dawkins develops more consistency as a passer, Pac-12 defenses figure to have their hands full once again with the Wildcat spread. However, it will be a surprise if the smallish, youth-laden, thin U of A defense withstands the rigors of the Pac-12 race. Even reaching six wins and a minor bowl might be a stretch too far. And that likely means a re-visiting of the RichRod situation in December.

NEXT UP: BIG TEN



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