Pac-12 spring football previews: UCLA, Washington State and Cal wrap up spring seasons
The California Golden Bears want to flush last year's struggles down the drain and second-year head coach Sonny Dykes is attacking it like a winning team would. Living in the past doesn't do much good and stability in the program will help Cal move into 2014. Aside from a thin depth chart because of injuries, there are good things happening for the Golden Bears.
Quarterback Jared Goff returns for his sophomore season focusing on playing smarter rather than forcing plays and his offensive line isn't as green as it was a year ago. Dykes even has grown comfortable learning which types of players he can and can't recruit to Berkeley, and now it's a matter of getting healthy and building.
Position battle of note: The Golden Bears expect a lot to pan out at the running back position with returning backs Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco battling atop the depth chart, but that's not the thing to watch Saturday. Incoming freshmen could also have a shot at earning reps, and Muhammad will be competing in a track meet during the spring game. What could be more intriguing is who's blocking for the backs. Dykes has some options on the offensive line with Steven Moore at left tackle, Chris Borrayo at left guard and Aaron Cochran also in the mix to get time.
A name you should know: After playing everything from fullback to tight end, rising redshirt junior Maximo Espitia moved from safety to linebacker this spring and seemingly has a lock on the outside linebacker spot.
Making the Gildan New Mexico Bowl last year broke a long postseason drought for the Cougars and coach Mike Leach sees it as an important stepping stone moving forward. Washington State built a reputation as a sneaky good defensive team at times, and of course Leach is well-known for his offensive innovation that has high entertainment value.
Yet, Leach wants to see improvement in the trenches. The offensive line will be protecting quarterback Connor Halliday, who enters his senior season ripe with experience – he led the NCAA in passing attempts in 2013, after all. Halliday seems to have a promising receiving group led by River Cracraft, Vince Mayle and Dom Williams. Meanwhile, the defensive line will have more on its shoulders and will get help from defensive leader Darryl Monroe, who has taken the leadership duties from departed safety Deone Bucannon.
Position battle of note: Senior-to-be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow go into the scrimmage as two running backs that could be pushing for the most reps in 2014. Marcus Mason is also in the picture.
A name you should know: Daquawn Brown had 50 tackles as a freshman and has gotten positive reviews heading into his sophomore season. With Bucannon off to the NFL, Brown could bring some stability to the defensive backfield.
In terms of trajectory-altering decisions, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley's choice to return for another year in Los Angeles couldn't have made coach Jim Mora any more happy. Hundley threw 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions as a sophomore in 2013 and the Bruins believe he's become even more decisive on the field. Off it, he's more cognizant of the details that come with being great. It's one of the reasons he's going to be an early Heisman candidate once again.
Add Hundley to a physical offensive line, rising sophomore Myles Jack and three running backs – Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and Jordon James – with experience, and there's a lot of promise. On the other hand, UCLA did lose star linebacker Anthony Barr to the NFL, but that won't keep the Bruins from having lofty expectations in 2014.
Position battle of note: Mora will compare the wide receiver group to the posse from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that chased Butch Cassidy; as in, nobody knows one guy from another. It's not a slight, either. Mora thinks he has six to eight solid contributors, including Eldridge Massington and Mossi Johnson who are coming off injuries that kept them out of action last season. There's just not one player that stands out heading into Saturday's spring game.
A name you should know: Kenny Clark, the 315-pound defensive lineman, played in all 13 games as a freshman, and Mora considers him as good as any player on his team. He just doesn't get the attention – it comes with the territory at nose tackle.