Pac-12 South Spring Game Review

Utah is the clear front runner in the Pac-12 South, but where does the rest of the Pac-12 South stand? Here’s a recap of the teams since their spring practices.

A review of the Pac-12 North can be found here.

Utah

Utah won the Pac-12 South last year, and they are returning many of their key players from last year’s crew. First, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Utah has one of the best defensive lines in the country. Players like Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, John Penisini, and Pita Tonga will terrorize opposing quarterbacks all year, and take a lot of pressure off the secondary. Many of their offensive stars are returning, like QB Tyler Huntley (who has put himself on NFL radars after a breakout year last year), RB Zack Moss, and WR Brit Covey. In the spring game itself, I was impressed by the play of TE Brant Kuithe, as he would make catches in traffic and remained unfazed as opposing defenders would simply bounce off him when trying to lay him out.

Utah lost a couple of offensive linemen to graduation, but their biggest hole this year will be on special teams. Last year’s punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay are both in the NFL this year, and although they found a new Australian punter (Ben Lennon), they still have a big hole at kicker. The kicker from the spring game, Chayden Johnston, retired from football, leaving only freshman walk-on kicker Jason Redding. Redding missed a 31 yard FG in the game.

Utah’s secondary took a step back with the loss of Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard to the NFL, but they still have enough athletes back there to cover. Former CB Julian Blackmon moved to free safety, and CB Jaylon Johnson and NB Javelin Guidry return (and really, they only need to cover opposing WRs for 2 seconds before the QB is getting rid of the ball anyway).

While I think that Utah will still be strong against the pass (although they had a huge coverage bust early in the spring game), I’m less sure how well they will defend the run. They also have big shoes to fill at linebacker with the departure of super versatile Chase Hansen and Cody Barton to the NFL. It was hard to get a read on how good this unit was as Utah’s spring game split up units to keep balanced teams (whereas other teams often match the 1s against the 1s and the 2s against the 2s).

Probably not relevant to the upcoming season as QB Jason Shelley looked very solid in the backup QB role, but I was really impressed with the arm strength of Texas transfer QB Cameron Rising. He’s someone to keep an eye on in the years to come. I also liked the play of Devonta’e Henry-Cole, as I’ve never really been sold on Zack Moss (who sat out this game with an injury).

Utah’s strong offense and ridiculous defensive line make them the easy favorite to win the Pac-12 South.

Players to watch: TE Brant Kuithe, QB Cameron Rising, DL Eli Morrow, RB Devonta’e Henry-Cole


QB Jason Shelley to WR Derrick Vickers

USC

The big story at USC is that they brought on new offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury Graham Harrell to institute the Air Raid offense at USC. Harrell, you may remember, was Mike Leach’s quarterback at Texas Tech, and the former offensive coordinator at North Texas (who you’ll be hearing about from me soon). Unlike Leach’s offense at Washington State, Harrell kept a fairly balanced offense at North Texas (reminiscent of the “Bear Raid”) with something like 45% running and 55% passing. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what kind of offense USC runs here, because USC’s wide receivers are almost always bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletically gifted than most of their opponents (and good luck to Clay Helton when they can’t out-talent their opponents). USC returns their super talented trio of WRs Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Tyler Vaughns.

USC has a very talented quarterback in JT Daniels, and they’re concerned that he hasn’t been making enough strides with reading a defense. However, my main thought watching this game was: what the hell is wrong with their secondary? They struggled to defend even the most basic route concepts. They lost Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell to the NFL, and other players (like Bubba Bolden) have abandoned ship, and all they’re left with is a young, inexperienced group of players that looked completely lost at times. That’s not to say they don’t have time to grow and get it together, but this unit has a long way to go.

That said, they are still pretty strong elsewhere in the defense. Sophomore ILB Palaie Gaoteote is a monster and should definitely be on NFL prospect watch lists. The defensive line still looks strong with Christian Rector and Jay Tufele returning, but the player that stood out in the spring game was freshman DL Drake Jackson:


DE Drake Jackson intercepts QB Jack Sears

USC has another monster freshman running back in Markese Stepp, who left tire tracks on some of the players he ran over. I do not envy the players who will have to tackle this guy.

Overall, I think USC’s offense still looks fine, but their defense will have taken a step back, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure on USC’s front-7 to account for the deficiencies in the secondary.

Players to watch: ILB Palaie Gaoteote, RB Markese Stepp, DE/OLB Drake Jackson

UCLA

UCLA is supposed to make some big strides this year (after strategically sucking most of last year so that they could have lots of room for improvement this year), and they’re favored to beat Cal, which annoys me to no end. I’m sorry, but I’m still not on the Chip Kelly train, as he stubbornly sticks to “his guys” (like QB Dorrian Thompson-Robinson or RB Keegan Jones, a 2-star Kelly recruit known for his track speed) even in the face of better players elsewhere. The announcers constantly talked about how great DTR was in leading his team to a 3-9 season, ignoring the fact that (other than the Cal game) it was usually Wilton Speight at quarterback for their competitive games. They beat Cal because Cal imploded, Arizona because Khalil Tate was injured, and very well-coached USC on the backs of Wilton Speight and a 289 yard rushing game from Joshua Kelley. The announcers mentioned how 3-9 UCLA exceeded all expectations last year, which made a lot of sense, because I definitely remember a lot of UCLA fans bragging about how they couldn’t wait to finally go 3-9 after spending a boatload of money on hiring Chip Kelly.

I still haven’t bought the DTR hype, but UCLA will still have a strong running game with RB Joshua Kelley, and they have their most reliable WR Theo Howard returning as well. TE Jordan Wilson looks to be the big receiving target to replace… TE Caleb Wilson (now in the NFL), as he made a number of nice catches in traffic. Former RB Demetric Felton has moved to wide receiver. I was also impressed by the play of freshman WR Chase Cota, who I think will become a big factor on their offense next year. I was not impressed with the passing from DTR, but his backup, freshman QB Austin Burton had a nice arm:


QB Austin Burton hits WR Jaylen Erwin as he beats DB Patrick Jolly

UCLA has a lot of youth on both their offensive and defensive lines, so those units will be important to watch and see how they develop this season. OC Boss Tagaloa and DE Osa Odighizuwa are the stars of those units, respectively. I think Odighizuwa is likely on NFL radars as well.

UCLA does have a favorable schedule this year, as they miss both Oregon and Washington, but they will play the other Pac-12 North heavyweight at home in the last game of the season.

Players to watch: DE Osa Odighizuwa, WR Chase Cota, TE Jordan Wilson, QB Austin Burton

Arizona State

Alright, everyone here knows what the story here is: Jayden Daniels. The quarterback job was redshirt junior Dillon Sterling-Cole’s to lose and, well, he lost it. I didn’t come away from this game particularly impressed by Jayden Daniels, but I did come away seriously unimpressed by Sterling-Cole: I think even the less-heralded freshman recruits (QB Ethan Long, QB Joey Yellen) might have beaten him out for the starting role as well.

The other freshman QBs Ethan Long and Joey Yellen look solid (215+ lbs), but Jayden Daniels looks seriously undersized at his listed 6’3” 180 lbs. He may be a super athletic runner, but he needs to bulk up to avoid any durability issues if he’s going to run the ball much. You rarely see the QB run the ball in spring practices (because defenses usually aren’t allowed to hit them), and I wasn’t super impressed with Daniels passing in the spring practice:


Jayden Daniels misfires on a throw to Brandon Aiyuk

The game plan for ASU this upcoming season is clearly going to be to run the ball with RB Eno Benjamin, and maybe use the threat of Daniels running to keep defenses on their toes. ASU lost star WR N’Keal Harry to the NFL, and the WR unit (Brandon Aiyuk, Frank Darby, Kyle Williams) struggled in their bowl game last year without him demanding the defense’s attention, so the passing game is still a big question mark here. The unit did look maginally better than the ASU secondary, but that’s not saying too much. I think safety Aashari Crosswell is going to be a very good player, but nobody else really stands out to me.

It’s also worth noting that ASU has switched to a 3-3-5 defense (similar to the one TCU runs in a much more pass-heavy league). Star LB Merlin Robertson returns, but I’m not really sure what to make of the rest of the defense. This is a team that will probably be rebuilding, so I’m a bit surprised that Vegas has their win total over/under at 6.5 games (they lost their bowl game to go 7-6 last year with a much more experienced team, e.g. 4-year starter QB Manny Wilkins, NFL WR N’Keal Harry, etc). They miss Washington and Stanford in the Pac-12, and they’ll presumably win against Kent State (2-10 last year in the MAC) and FCS Sacramento State, but they’ve got a lot of games that are likely toss-ups.

Players to watch: QB Jayden Daniels, WR Curtis Hodges, S Aashari Crosswell

Colorado

Steven Montez returns for his final season, and while he failed to make the strides last year needed to impress NFL scouts, I have to say that he looked much better this off-season. Colorado will again have a very strong passing game with Montez and returning WRs Laviska Shenault, KD Nixon, and Tony Brown. Shenault sat out of the spring game, but the big news there was that his little brother WR Vontae Shenault also joined the team. Although their passing game is set, they still have a big question mark at running back, with RB Alex Fontenot earning the starting job, but not looking particularly impressive (Colorado struggled at RB last year as well). Freshman RB Jaren Mangham made a number of nice plays, ending the day with something like 3 rushing TDs thanks to a combination of his speed and some big holes opened by the offensive line (he played with the 2s, so it’s hard to take too much away from this performance against Colorado’s backup defenders).


QB Steven Montez hits WR Tony Brown downfield

Colorado had a lot of depth at wide receiver (e.g. WR Dimitri Stanley, and WR Daniel Arias had a big game), but also surprising was the play of the backup QBs, Sam Noyer and Tyler Lytle. They hadn’t looked too good when Montez was hurt last year, but Sam Noyer in particular was on fire all game long. Again, he was playing against backups, but he constantly put the ball where only his receiver could get it, and he made the most out of the opportunities he had.

On the other side of the ball, things aren’t so clear. Star LB Nate Landman returns, star DE Mustafa Johnson returns, and OLB Carson Wells had a good game, but that’s about all I can say. Colorado’s secondary had some injuries (and Ronnie Blackmon transferred), but they looked questionable at best. Their defensive line is also questionable as they lost their nose tackle, and redshirt freshman Jalen Sami will be taking the starting NT job. The defensive line rarely generated pressure on opposing QBs, which is notable since usually you only need to get a hand on them for a “sack.” Colorado had a lot of depth on offense, but not so much on defense, and the offensive backups basically blew out the defensive backups in this game.

New head coach Mel Tucker is supposed to be a defensive-minded coach, but it’s too early (and too vanilla) to see what sort of ideas he has on defense.

Players to watch: WR Tony Brown, WR Daniel Arias, RB Jaren Mangham, OLB Carson Wells (maybe TE?), QB Sam Noyer

Arizona

Okay, I’m sorry, but Arizona is doomed if they continue the “Khalil Tate as a pocket passer” experiment. QB Khalil Tate and RB JJ Taylor didn’t play much in the spring game, and the rest of the offense basically looked lost without them. I have no idea what offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is planning, but Tate still has no idea how to read even a basic defense, and he doesn’t have much going for him other than to occasionally launch it deep down the sideline. Tate had some 300+ yard rushing games, and they’re stubbornly trying to shoehorn Tate into an offense that’s not right for him.


Khalil Tate makes the completely wrong read on a cover-2 defense, but the play works out as S Scottie Young Jr. completely whiffs on the easy interception.

Arizona has a new RB coach, former NFL star DeMarco Murray. It seems their new run style is to hit you in the mouth, because the RBs rarely even bothered to elude tacklers and instead opted to try to run through them. They have a big hole at wide receiver after the graduation of their top 3 WRs from last year; WRs Shun Brown, Shawn Poindexter, and Tony Ellison. Freshman WRs Tre Adams and Boobie Curry looked promising, but I don’t think last year’s strategy of “throw it up and pray your WR comes down with it” is going to work again this year for Tate.

I want to give a special shout-out to DE JB Brown, the only player in all 12 spring games I watched to actually lay a hit on his own quarterback. None of this wussy two-hand touch nonsense for you buddy, you go ahead and show that freshman QB who’s boss.

That said, though, I do think JB Brown is posed for a break out year. Other than Brown and tackling machine LB Colin Schooler, their aren’t too many returning stars. The defensive line dominated the offensive line all game, and stud LB Jalen Harris stood out as well in getting pressure on QBs. The secondary is a big concern for Arizona, but credit to sophomore CB McKenzie Barnes, who had 3 interceptions in this game.

Arizona had a weird scoring system where they gave points to the defense for positive plays, and so the defense won the spring game 87-30, mainly on the strength of how poorly the backup QBs and WRs are. The announcers were complimenting the defense but it was really just an impressively poor performance by the offense (again, as Tate and Taylor didn’t play much). The over/under on wins this year for Arizona is 6.5, which also seems crazy to me, as I think they’ll be fighting to stay out of the Pac-12 cellar.

Players to watch: OLB/DE Jalen Harris, WR Tre Adams, CB McKenzie Barnes, LB Anthony Pandy, WR Boobie Curry, RB Nazar Bombata

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