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Sports >  NCAA football

Pac-12 spring practice wrap: What we learned over 10 weeks of workouts, with an eye on the ’22 season

May 4, 2022 Updated Wed., May 4, 2022 at 5:18 p.m.

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The Hotline devoted 18 hours this week to watching the relevant portions of every Pac-12 spring football game in order to solidify our grasp of the conference ahead of the 2022 season.

While we won’t name names, some “games” were vastly more instructive than others.

A few were real, old-fashioned scrimmages.

Others, not so much.With that, we present a quick-hitting overview of the good, bad, known, unknown, likely, possible and everything in between across the conference:

Arizona

Projected QB: Jayden de Laura (from Washington State)

Key stat: The Wildcats were dead last in the FBS in red-zone touchdown percentage in 2021, scoring on just 12 of 39 trips (31%).

Player to watch: DE Jalen Harris. If Arizona doesn’t increase its pressure off the edges, the defense won’t make a great leap forward. Harris is the key to that process.

Season opener: Sept. 3 at San Diego State

Comment: The offense will be more effective with de Laura in charge and a slew of taller receivers, but the degree of improvement hinges on the offensive line. If the Wildcats can’t run the ball or protect the pocket, de Laura’s impact will be greatly minimized. The front five is better, but is it good enough? We remain skeptical.

Arizona State

Projected QB: Trenton Bourguet

Key stat: The quarterbacks competing for the start job (Bourguet, Paul Tyson and Daylin McLemore) have thrown a combined 28 passes in their careers.

Player to watch: S Khoury Bethley. The transfer (from Hawaii) must solidify a secondary that was hit hard by attrition and could turn from greatest strength to biggest weakness.

Season opener: Sept. 1 vs. NAU

Comment: Since the spring game on April 9, the Sun Devils have lost three key players to the transfer portal, including top receiver Ricky Pearsall, leaving the program with even more questions than it had when the workouts began.

Who knew an NCAA recruiting scandal and no plan for NIL would lead to massive roster depletion.

Cal

Projected QB: Jack Plummer (from Purdue)

Key stat: The Bears lost five games by a touchdown or less in 2021, and in just one instance did the opponent score more than 24 points in regulation.

Player to watch: DL Brett Johnson. Back from an automobile accident, he could be the league’s dominant interior defensive lineman.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. UC Davis

Comment: The postspring story is the same as the prespring story is the same as the 2021 story: Will the Bears muster enough offense (especially big plays) to win the close games against the top teams? Spring scrimmages can leave false clues. No offense, but we’ll wait for proof in the fall.

Colorado

Projected QB: Brendon Lewis

Key stat: Among Power Five teams, only Indiana averaged fewer yards-per-play last season than the Buffaloes (4.4). The next-closest Pac-12 team was Arizona (4.9 ypp).

Player to watch: WR Daniel Arias. The 6-foot-4 senior stands as CU’s best playmaker following key personnel losses (hello, Brenden Rice) to the transfer portal.

Season opener: Sept. 2 vs. TCU

Comment: There are questions everywhere, across all units on both sides of scrimmage, and quarterback tops the lengthy list. But we suspect the offensive line will take a small step forward under the leadership of new position coach Kyle DeVan. And if you can make progress anywhere, that’s not a bad place to start.

Oregon

Projected QB: Bo Nix (from Auburn)

Key stat: Oregon is the only team to win three consecutive division titles (2019-21) since the format was created in 2011.

Player to watch: WR Troy Franklin. The Ducks haven’t produced a first-team all-conference receiver in the Pac-12’s expansion era. Franklin has the talent to become the first.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Georgia (in Atlanta)

Comment: With Bradyn Swinson, Mase Funa, Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell, the Ducks have one of the top linebacker/edge units in the country. (The line looks stout, as well.) If the secondary develops quickly, the defense should carry Oregon through a difficult September, until the revamped offense finds its footing.

Oregon State

Projected QB: Chance Nolan

Key stat: The Beavers hoped to raise $85 million in donations to help pay for the Reser Stadium renovation. Instead, they raised $91 million, according to AD Scott Barnes.

Player to watch: TE Luke Musgrave. Given the turnover in the backfield and at receiver, Musgrave could be the No. 1 option when it’s third down and the game’s on the line.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Boise State

Comment: The Beavers allowed 18.2 points per game at home and 32.3 away from Corvallis. New coordinator Trent Bray plans to implement a more aggressive style but will need playmakers to emerge along the front seven to execute his vision. That said, the back line looks just fine.

Stanford

Projected QB: Tanner McKee

Key stat: The Cardinal allowed 5.74 yards-per-rush last season, which was No. 122 nationally and almost a full yard more than any other Pac-12 defense.

Player to watch: DE David Bailey. The freshman edge rusher from prep powerhouse Mater Dei is the key to rekindling the pass rush for a unit that recorded just 15 sacks.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Colgate

Comment: Washington State might not have the only Air Raid in the Pac-12. With McKee, a slew of quality options in the passing game and uncertainty on the ground, the Cardinal could sling it 45 times a game. Considering the state of the defense, it might have to score 45 to win.

UCLA

Projected QB: Dorian Thompson-Robinson

Key stat: Not difficult to pinpoint the problem in 2021: UCLA’s defense allowed 4.8 yards-per-play in the eight wins and a whopping 6.9 ypp in the four losses.

Players to watch: DE Laiatu Latu. The transfer from Washington briefly retired from football because of a neck injury. He has as much raw talent as any edge rusher in the conference.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs Bowling Green

Comment: The Bruins lost six starters off a mediocre defense, suggesting additional deterioration. But the transfer portal not only taketh away, it giveth. UCLA needs just a handful of newcomers to make a consistent impact in order to remain competitive in the South. The offense should have no trouble scoring.

USC

Projected QB: Caleb Williams (from Oklahoma)

Key stat: Williams had four runs of at least 50 yards last season, more than any quarterback in the country or any player in the Pac-12.

Player to watch: LB Shane Lee. With so much attention on the new skill-position talent, don’t overlook Lee’s arrival. The Alabama transfer should be the anchor of a revamped defense.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Rice

Comment: For all the hoopla over the spring game – anyone else annoyed by ESPN’s crew constantly referring to Williams as ‘Caleb’? – we thought the most telling moment came when the Trojans lined up with two backs, not five wideouts, on third-and-1 during the opening drive.

Utah

Projected QB: Cam Rising

Key stat: The Utes will have the same combination of head coach (Kyle Whittingham) and coordinators (Andy Ludwig and Morgan Scalley) for the fourth consecutive season.

Player to watch: WR Devaughn Vele. The former walk-on projects as Utah’s top threat in the passing game (among the wideouts) following a breakout season in which he averaged 16.9 yards per catch.

Season opener: Sept. 3 at Florida

Comment: The defending champs are hardly without flaws. In fact, we have questions about every unit except quarterback, tailback and tight end. But titles aren’t won in absolutes, and Utah’s concerns are minor compared to the competition. Spring ends as it began, with the Utes as the clear favorite to repeat.

Washington

Projected QB: Michael Penix (from Indiana)

Key stat: The Huskies scored 52 points against Arkansas State but averaged 18.7 points in their other 11 games.

Player to watch: DE Zion Tupuola-Fetui. His effectiveness as a pass rusher off the edge is the key to the entire defense. Without frequent pressure, the flaws elsewhere will be exposed.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Kent State

Comment: The Huskies haven’t posted back-to-back seasons .500 or below since the late 2000s, but first-year coach Kalen DeBoer faces serious challenges in his pursuit of seven victories. The offense is short on playmakers and the traditional strength of the defense, the secondary, is stocked with unknowns.

Washington State

Projected QB: Cam Ward (from Incarnate Word)

Key stat: WSU has posted a winning record in conference play in five of the past six seasons (excluding 2020). No other program in the North can match that level of consistency.

Player to watch: C Konner Gomness. The offensive line carries more questions than any other unit. Gomness, in his fourth year but only a sophomore, is the anchor after starting eight games last season.

Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Idaho

Comment: Tough to get a firm sense for Ward’s decision-making given the (intentionally) bland defense in the spring game. But he can move, has a quick release and makes all the throws. Also, he has more than enough options in the aerial game. It all should work, if there’s enough time for the downfield patterns to develop.

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