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Pac-12 Media Days Live: Orchard dreams of playing offense, too

Published July 23, 2014 5:43 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Los Angeles • Stay right here for updates Wednesday and Thursday from Tribune Utah beat writers Kyle Goon and Matthew Piper.

Last season, Myles Jack sparked the imagination of college football fans by excelling as both a linebacker and running back.

It sparked Nate Orchard's imagination, too. The senior defensive lineman would love his crack at an offensive role, he told Pac-12 reporters. If only he could talk Kyle Whittingham into letting him play receiver.

"I'd love to," Orchard said. "Catching the football is my favorite thing in the world. Once that ball's in the air, it's all mine."

Orchard isn't just full of hot air: He was an all-state receiver at Highland High, averaging nearly 100 yards per game with 17 receiving touchdowns as the Rams won the 4A state title.

He played along with media queries, talking about his technique for high-pointing passes and using his body to block corners out. Although he might be more of a red zone threat now rather than a deep receiver, Orchard said he would love to bend Whittingham's ear about letting him play offense somehow.

"I'm trying, I'm trying," he said. "I might have my wife bake him some cookies or something like that. I don't know."

At 255 pounds, Orchard weighs a generous amount more than he did in high school. But could he go both ways?

Dres Anderson said he could possibly see it. Maybe.

"He would look good at receiver, I'm not going to lie," he said of Orchard. "I don't know what his speed would be like. But just going up for it, trying to come down with the ball, with that body — whoa. He'd be like a little Megatron out there. Without the speed."

— Kyle Goon

Anderson not ready to compare QBs

Quarterback Travis Wilson's health was a hot topic at Pac-12 media day. Unfortunately, the long-haired Californian wasn't on hand to answer questions himself.

Would you like to ask his publicity agent, receiver Dres Anderson?

On Wilson's offseason training: "Man-to-man, [Travis] looks like Hercules right now. I thought I saw him when I walked in here and saw that little statue of Hercules over there. But he's very good, he's strong, he's confident. He's coming back and trying to prove he's a leader on our team."

On Wilson's return: "He's been basically doing all the same things — we just weren't hitting him. It's all good. We've seen Travis in tackling situations, and he's a beast."

Utes fans have been wondering if incoming transfer Kendal Thompson from Oklahoma will push the returning starter at quarterback. Anderson gave a positive review of Thompson so far, including his quick release and good feet, but stopped a little short of putting the two head-to-head.

Save it for camp, he said.

"You really don't know how somebody is until you see them out on the field, you know?" Anderson said. "Even though I've seen Kendal throw — and he looks very good — what's going to happen when he gets a rush? I don't know those things, and I've seen Travis in those positions. I don't know the difference, really."

— Kyle Goon

Utes steamed at fifth-place prediction

If the Utes were wondering if the media takes them seriously this season, the number "five" speaks loud and clear.

Fifth, to be more specific. Behind UCLA, behind USC, behind Arizona State and Arizona. Picked to finish fifth in the South Division.

"I don't think anybody respects us," Nate Orchard said. "At the end of the day, we love it."

The Utes were burning a bit after seeing the program listed so far down in the media rankings, only above Colorado. Of course, that's where they were last year at the end of the season, but Dres Anderson said the poll makes him more eager to get out on the field.

As much as anything, the Utes are trying to prove it to themselves that they are improved from the last two 5-win campaigns.

"When you're used to being a program that goes to bowl games, that wins 10 games, and then you can't do those things, it's like 'Come on, we're better than that,'" Anderson said. "We're always coming into the season with a chip on our shoulder, but we have to make sure we fulfill those expectations we have for ourselves.

Whittingham said they don't pay particular attention to others' expectations, but that the Utes have continued to improve. The problem is, the Pac-12 has, too.

"We certainly are a better team this year than we were when we went into the Pac-12," Whittingham said."

Washington State says it's learned from bowl loss

Five more minutes, Mike Leach said. If his team had just played five more minutes …

Well, it's all hypothetical.

As it was, Washington State suffered the most miserable defeat of its season, a 48-45 loss in the New Mexico Bowl that saw Colorado State score twice in roughly two minutes.

It was brutal.

"It taught us not to get complacent," linebacker Darryl Monroe said. "It's never over until there's four zeros on the board."

It's a lesson that's really hit home in the time since the season-ending loss. Connor Halliday said he was only able to digest the game in bits in pieces — he hasn't watched the whole game over, and he may never commit himself to such a painful experience.

But Washington State is very much a team on the cusp of potentially moving into the upper half of the league. They return Halliday, their talented prolific passer, and a whole host of receivers. While the offensive line will have new faces, Leach said they're expected to be bigger this year than last when the Cougars had the smallest line in the league.

After the wild schedule last year — which included beating USC and nearly upsetting Auburn, but also tough losses to Oregon State and Arizona State — Leach said he hopes his team can find the consistency they lacked last season, even at the very finish of the season.

"I think [going to a bowl] cracks the door open on what our potential is," he said. "The biggest thing we need to do is the same things over and over again and just do it a little better."

— Kyle Goon

Mariota sees value in returning for senior year

Oregon returns nine of 11 offensive starters, but none more important than Marcus Mariota.

Mariota passed up a chance to be in the discussion for No. 1 overall pick to return and finish his education, a fact highlighted in opening comments from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

"That's something that's truly special, and it can't be taken away," he said.

Mariota, who acknowledged that he has taken out an insurance policy in case of injury, said it's just something that's very important to his family.

Do players need more? He can understand that argument, he said, but "we understand that we have a lot of benefits."

"Getting an education should be sufficient enough for what you do out on the field," he said.

— Matthew Piper

Oregon tailoring preparation for playoff

Mark Helfrich is preparing Oregon for a grind.

After it was announced Wednesday morning that Oregon is the overwhelming media pick to win the Pac-12 Championship and move on, presumably, to the first-ever college football playoff, Helfrich acknowledged that his Ducks have tailored their routine for the long haul.

"You start talking about that and thinking about that in fall camp," he said. "To ramp up to kickoff, and then you have to keep your edge of physicality, your edge to be able to just fundamentally tackle, while staying healthy."

Helfrich said that's not totally new, however. Their plan has been to play "a lot of games" for the last several years.

Ducks senior linebacker Derrick Malone said he's heard concerns about the wear and tear of a 14- or 15-game season, but "I'm excited to have the chance to play more football."

— Matthew Piper

USC's Kessler happy to join Sarkisian

Nothing can really prepare you for going through three head coaches in a season, USC quarterback Cody Kessler said, but at least there was good news at the end of all the turmoil.

When the program announced it had hired Steve Sarkisian, no one was happier than Kessler.

"When I was being recruited, my final two schools were Washington and SC," he said. "Pretty much the main reason was that guy there, Coach Sark. … When he got here, we shook hands and he said, 'I finally got you.'"

There's a lot for Kessler to like about his situation this year. Not only has he been set up with a coach he likes and trusts, he was named the starter out of spring camp.

After going through a long position battle last year, it's a big relief, he acknowledged.

"Last year it was tough, and it was a bit up and down, and I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "It's hard to be that leader you want to be if you don't know if you're going to be the guy. … Now I know what I need to do for our team to win games."

There's a lot of coaches on USC's coaching staff who have played quarterback, and Kessler said it's made him feel more comfortable going through the Trojans' increasingly uptempo practices and new offensive concepts.

Kessler's confidence and work ethic has shown to his teammates as well.

"He works harder than a lot of guys," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. "He's a great leader."

— Kyle Goon

USC ready to move on from sanctions

It was the end of an era, and everyone at USC was happy to see it finally conclude.

The Trojans' football team is no longer under the heavy-duty sanctions it incurred four years ago in the aftermath of a recruiting scandal involving Reggie Bush. And new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian said it's already out of his mind.

The sanctions still have a huge effect on USC's roster: There's about 65 scholarship players at his disposal. It's not ideal, Sarkisian said, but the players he have are also among the Pac-12's best talents — which no one really doubts.

"That's easily something we could've leaved on, and said, 'Oh woe is me,'" he said. "We'll never have that mentality. The focus is on what we do have."

What the Trojans do have is 10 players on watch lists for national awards, including preseason All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams. If they stay healthy, it could be a special group.

Meanwhile, USC is looking forward to a full recruiting class next spring. It's not yet the USC that once made knees quake in the early 2000s, but the coaches and players believe it can get back to that.

"It's obviously not something that's going to be easily rebuilt," he said. "For the future, it's good to be off sanctions."

— Kyle Goon

Cal still has 'bad taste in our mouth from last season'

After going 1-11, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes got the answer to everybody's question out of the way with his opening statement.

"Obviously, we have a bad taste in our mouth from last season and we want to get it out of our mouth as quick as we can," Dykes said.

In other words: We know. We were bad. All we can do is play.

The inverse of Utah's Eric Rowe, Cal junior Stefan McClure is moving from cornerback to safety and has high hopes for a defense that allowed 45.9 points per game.

"We're running a whole new defense," McClure said, saying they'll be a "no loaf," hustle-first approach.

"You can ask any of those guys, they wouldn't say the games they played against us were just easy, like we were rolling over out there."

True sophomore quarterback Jared Goff said he feels "much more prepared" as a true sophomore after throwing for 3,446 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman in 2013. "There's a lot of stuff that I didn't know that you can only learn from experience,"

McClure said the team takes lessons from the approach of defensive lineman Ted Agu, who died of a heart ailment while running in January.

"You never heard him complain," McClure said. "He was one of the happiest people that you'd ever meet, and he just found joy in every circumstance that you'd have."

— Matthew Piper

Arizona still trying to figure out QB situation

Rich Rodriguez isn't being coy about his indecisiveness.

One of the first things the Arizona coach said direct: "We haven't quite figured out our quarterback yet."

As many as five guys are still in the battle, and it's hard to narrow down until fall camp opens. It could be Jesse Scroggins. It could be Jerrard Randall. It could be Anu Solomon.

Wide receiver Austin Hill isn't quite ready to tip his own hand, saying he wouldn't name names, but he felt close to "three quarterbacks right now."

It's not easy to try to build all those relationships, he said. It's easier to know in advance.

But the receivers are trying to work through it, even if it takes a little time.

"Whoever it is, we just got to make him comfortable," Hill said. "If it takes all camp, or until the first game, I think we can do that."

— Kyle Goon

Rich Rod loosening up? Not so fast

It's an accusation that could ruin a man's reputation.

Could it really be that Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is … loosening up? Say it ain't so.

"At first I think he was a little more stern, but he's kind of loosened up with us as we've gotten to know him better," senior safety Jared Tevis said. "I can't think of a specific thing. It just happened to gradually."

Hearing about his player's comment, Rodriguez smiled.

"I'm getting too soft," he said. "I'm going to have to talk to Jared about that."

But the claim isn't without merit. Rodriguez is now in his third season with the Wildcats, and though players acknowledge he still has his famous fiery temper intact, he's a little more controlled about when he'll push his players and when he'll hold back.

It's a function of getting to know the guys, Rodriguez said.

"When you first get to a program, you try and coach the guys all the same," he said. "As you get to know your players, you learn some guys react to hard motivation, and some don't. I think also the culture and environment has been established that our guys our going to work hard. They know what to do when we get to work."

Still, Rodriguez said, he might just tell Tevis to stop soiling his good name.

— Kyle Goon

Rich Rodriguez laughs off tempo criticisms

Rodriguez said claims that an up-tempo offense are a threat to player health are "a farce."

"I think it'd be hard to find any hard data," he said, although when asked if he had a problem with certain coaches' attempts to limit total plays through rules changes, he said there were no hard feelings.

"I think there's a concerted effort by every coach in America to try to make things easier for themselves."

Then, the question of whether it's harder to recruit elite players when he doesn't offer a "pro-style" offense again tickled Rodriguez's funny bone.

"That's the funniest thing I've ever heard," he said, adding that quarterbacks in the NFL more and more implement what he's been doing for years.

"To me, shotgun spread is the new pro-style," he said.

— Matthew Piper

Larry Scott touts competitiveness of Pac-12

The Pac-12 commissioner kicked off Pac-12 Media Days by announcing that the Pac-12 has never been better, and that the strength of schedule will be to its advantage in the first-ever college football playoff.

Scott highlighted some numbers: Nine Pac-12 teams went to bowls last season; 10 of 12 Pac-12 schools have returning quarterbacks; and the Pac-12 is coming off a season in which its teams recorded more nonconference wins than in any other (36).

"We are playing the toughest schedule of any conference in the country," Scott said.

Other highlights for Scott were the addition of the first-ever neutral-site championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and the beginning of a multi-year, multi-platform entertainment project that will include a mobile app unveiled by Stanford with stadium details, maps and statistics.

Scott also said the Pac-12 will donate $3.5 million per year over the next few years to study student-athlete health, with a particular emphasis on head trauma.

The "best practices" released from the NCAA on concussion safety closely mirror what the Pac-12 was already doing, Scott said.

After a lengthy discussion of the benefits of the Pac-12's academic mission, Scott acknowledged that they are "at the precipice" of change.

"We've heard some frets over the last week, [but] I'm very confident and optimistic about where college sports are going," Scott said.

— Matthew Piper

Utes picked 5th in South

The Utes have been picked to finish fifth in the South Division by a preseason poll of Pac-12 media members.

Conference powerhouse Oregon was the favorite to win it all, getting 24 of 39 possible first-place votes to UCLA's 13. The Ducks were picked by 37 of 39 media members to win the North, while UCLA got the same number of votes to win the South.

The Utes are fighting low expectations after consecutive five-win seasons, getting 82 points in voting. They were picked to finish behind USC, Arizona State and Arizona. Colorado was picked to finish last in the South.

In the North, Stanford was picked to finish second, followed by Washington, Oregon State, Washington State and California, respectively.

Oregon has been picked to win the conference four times in the last five years.

— Kyle Goon —

Pac-12 media poll

First-place votes in parentheses.

North Division

1. Oregon (37)

2. Stanford (2)

3. Washington

4. Oregon State

5. Washington State

6. California

South Division

1. UCLA (37)

2. USC (1)

3. Arizona State (1)

4. Arizona

5. Utah

6. Colorado

Pac-12 Title Game champion: Oregon (24 of 39 votes). UCLA 13, Stanford and USC with one.