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Pac-12 football: All eyes on Sarkisian, Petersen as spring wraps up

Published April 24, 2014 10:20 am

USC's Steve Sarkisian and Washington's Chris Petersen are quickly trying to put their stamp on conference programs in their first season at the helm.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While spring is traditionally a time when football fans clamor for signs of progress, it's been slow and steady up in Seattle.

New coach Chris Petersen has a lot of eyes on his Washington program as he embarks on his first season as a coach at the major conference level. With a laundry list of achievements at Boise State in his wake, the bar has been set high.

That hasn't made him speed things up, he said after the Huskies' spring game.

"We've got to tighten up the details on everything we do," he told the Seattle Times. "That's the difference [in] everything — the details. We're not detailed enough, so that's where we've got to go moving forward."

As Utah has learned, the Pac-12 can be unforgiving to newcomers. This year, many football observers will be watching what two big-name coaches who, thus far in spring, haven't gotten too anxious about the mountainous tasks before them.

Take Steve Sarkisian in his return to USC. While a 10-win 2013 season would've been an achievement for most programs on the block, the former Trojan assistant will take on the challenge of building the team back into an annual national title contender. It's no small feat, since USC is just recently coming off of sanctions that hurt its numbers, and Stanford and Oregon have grown into powerhouses in the Trojans' slump.

As far as anyone can tell, Sarkisian is not burdened by the weight of all those expectations. He seems, in fact, to welcome them.

"You can't afford the injury bug like they've had," he told Sports Illustrated earlier this spring. "But all in all, when we put our 22 starting guys on the field in the fall and their backups, we'll have a very good football team that's good enough to win a championship."

Sarkisian's replacement, Petersen, has plenty to prove as well. For years as he built an empire in Boise, speculation grew that he might try to bring his system to college football's highest level. Here's his chance.

It's not easy, he told the Pac-12 Network after his Huskies wrapped up spring. But that's also true for his new team, adapting to his style. And that's how it should be.

"It's hard work," he said. "Any transition is tough. Being new - from new coaches to new players - we're out of our comfort zone. But that's part of life, and the guys who handle those transitions best are going to be the most successful in life."

A look at the Pac-12 coming out of spring.

Arizona (8-5, 4-5 in 2013)

It's a quarterback battle in Tucson, where the Wildcats have pretty much an open race between as many as four guys, the Arizona Daily Star reported, even after the spring game. There are more offensive question marks at running back, where the team has to replace All-American Ka'Deem Carey. Three seasons in, though, Rich Rodriguez is getting a lot of talented recruits in. He told the Star that half of his incoming class this fall could see playing time as true freshmen.

Arizona State (10-4, 8-1)

With playmakers such as QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong back in the fold, it may have been surprising that a spring game problem was dropped passes. But expect the offense to be fine in capable, experienced hands in the fall. Todd Graham's biggest issue is on the defensive side, where nine starters are gone. He told reporters after ASU's spring game that he sees developing newcomers as the biggest thing that stands between the Sun Devils and competing for a league title.

Cal (1-11, 0-9)

Nowhere really to go but up for Sonny Dykes and company. After a miserable debut in the Pac-12, Dykes is hoping another season will see his team improve. A new defensive coordinator, Art Kaufman, has brought in a 4-3 scheme that has players feeling optimistic, ESPN reported. Returning skill players are promising for Dykes' plans for a high-tempo attack, but they still need to develop help on the line.

Colorado (4-8, 1-8)

Another rebuilding project in the bottom of the conference still has some significant questions following spring camp. The Daily Camera reported that the Buffs look more physically ready to compete, but if both the offensive and defensive lines don't make strides, it could be another rough season. One guy Colorado does feel good about is quarterback Sefo Liufao, who had two touchdowns in the spring game.

Oregon (11-2, 7-2)

The biggest positive for the Ducks is having Heisman-contending quarterback Marcus Mariota back in the fold. So far this spring, he's looked like the playmaker he was early last year at the helm of Oregon's high-paced offense. But the program's defense could stand to be more disruptive. Linebacker Derrick Malone told the Oregonian that declining tackles for a loss has been "the biggest concern" for the other side of the ball.

Oregon State (7-6, 4-5)

Still with a week and a half to go, one issue is replacing standout wide receiver Bradin Cooks. Quarterback Sean Mannion has some good candidates, including Victor Bolden and Richard Mullaney, the Statesman Journal reported. Along with an offensive line that was dinged up in 2013, Mike Riley is still hunting for answers across the defense, including a line that is filling three departures.

Stanford (11-3, 7-2)

Surprise: The Cardinal defense was the standout story of the spring game last weekend. In the complicated scoring system allowing defense to score, the White team built a 30-3 halftime lead before quarterback Kevin Hogan and the offense could get touchdown drives together. The offense is a work in progress, but defensively, David Shaw should have his house in order for another run at the Pac-12 title.

UCLA (10-3, 6-3)

The Bruins haven't yet played their spring game, but the early outlook is that they'll be a strong contender. Though they lose great playmakers along the defensive front, the expectation is that quarterback Brett Hundley will have a talented offensive line to play behind, the L.A. Daily News reports. Myles Jack is probably a defense-only player this year, which will help UCLA a lot in stopping opponents. The secondary is a strength also.

USC (10-4, 6-3)

There's still a lot of mystery in Troy. The L.A. Times reported that 20 or more players were shelved for spring either with injury or trying to avoid it. USC has announced Cody Kessler will start over heralded underclassman Max Browne, but the Trojans' new no-huddle offense didn't score a touchdown in the spring game. Defensively, they bring back such critical starters as Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens, but new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is putting his own imprint on the scheme as well.

Washington (9-4, 5-4)

With so many offensive playmakers gone, Chris Petersen's toughest task might well be replacing his skill players. Quarterback is a question mark still with Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams each vying to start, the Seattle Times writes. The coaching staff has stressed fundamentals and minute details this spring, but how will players digest the whole playbook on both sides of the ball? With a soft opening to the 2014 schedule, they'll have time to prepare.

Washington State (6-7, 4-5)

Another coach in his third year, Mike Leach is looking to figure out how to build on a 6-6 regular season that lost some luster with a devastating bowl loss. As one might expect with Leach, the Spokesman-Review has reported the defense is a few steps behind the offense so far. QB Connor Halliday and WR Vince Mayle have been some early standouts from camp, returning into skill roles. —

Pac-12 power rankings

North

1. Oregon • As always, boasts the league's best talent

2. Stanford • Really considered "1A" thanks to elite 'D'

3. Washington • New coaching staff tasked with replacing skill-position standouts

4. Oregon State • Defense will need improvement

5. Washington State • Can Leach improve on 6-7?

6. California • Work remains on both sides of the ball

South

1. UCLA • Returners make Bruins a tough matchup

2. Arizona State • Offensive firepower returns

3. USC • Top-notch athletes could boost Trojans

4. Arizona • Youth will have to carry Wildcats

5. Utah • Promising spring ... will it translate to this fall?

6. Colorado • Still putting things together after a rough finish to last season