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Pac-12 Football Breakdown: Week One

Nov 5, 2020
The Pac is BACK! My name is Yogi Roth and welcome to my weekly Pac-12 football newsletter. While I won’t be calling games this fall on Pac-12 Network, I will be studying just as much film, and the goal of this weekly newsletter is to share my lens on Pac-12 football, as well as offer analysis for fellow broadcasters, writers and fans.
In short: I’ll compete to tell as many stories and insights as possible for the next seven weeks, so let’s get started.
As anyone who follows college football knows, the Pac-12 season kicks off in historic fashion Saturday, as ASU visits USC in a 9 a.m. PT game on FOX. While those two teams will arrive before sunrise in LA, #Pac12AfterDark will be in full effect. Regarding personnel, the depth of this conference is unique, as many teams are welcoming a new signal caller to their rosters, some teams will even welcome back a fullback (!) to college football, and four teams have both new offensive and defensive coordinators (ASU, Cal, UW, WSU). What is clear is that Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and USC’s Kedon Slovis are two marquee quarterback names in the conference entering a seven-game season. In addition, Cal’s Chase Garbers 2020 campaign will be delayed due to the cancellation of their opener, but he has the most wins among returning QBs in Pac-12 play (13), UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns with a focus on leading, Arizona’s Grant Gunnell should showcase the greatest growth of any returning QB with experience and Stanford’s Davis Mills might be the purest passer in the nation.
With that said, defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl Champion and pre-season favorite Oregon will have a new face at QB. They also return a defensive front led by All American and Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year favorite Kayvon Thibodeaux and have the most experienced defensive front in the North. Speaking of defense, former QB turned safety turned back to QB Sam Noyer will lead the Colorado Buffaloes at QB in what was the most unpredictable quarterback race of ‘training camp,’ and with Hamilcar Rashed Jr. returning to the Beavers, Jonathan Smith’s team will not sneak up on anyone after losing three games by a combined seven points last year. And finally, while Utah is overlooked, they have the deepest WR core in the Kyle Whittingham era and a DL that may not have household names, but have talent that we’ve come to expect.
Also, new faces will not only be under center (or in the shotgun) at most schools, but new head coaches will walk the sidelines in Nick Rolovich at WSU, Karl Dorrell at Colorado and Jimmy Lake at UW (next week).  There is a ton to dissect on each match-up, but I’ll give you my top three to six  key points to watch for in each contest. Once the games end, be sure to tune into the new postgame show on Pac-12 Network, ‘Pac-12 After Dark,’ immediately after the final game of the night for insight, interviews and analysis.

Game-by-Game Deep Dives

Arizona State @ USC, 9 a.m. PT on FOX
Arizona State
  • What do you need to watch?
    • Jayden Daniels: I’ve always felt that the limiting factor in reaching your potential is flawed mechanics, and he has very few flaws. His ability to move up in the pocket, regardless of pressure, is as good as I’ve seen for a freshman. Look for him to be stronger in the pocket, based on his off-season activity. And FYI, Daniels has not thrown an INT in his last 154 passes, longest active streak in the conference.
  • Who don’t you know but must?
    • Jermayne Lole: I think he is the most underrated player in the Pac-12, and, one might argue, the nation.
  • Top CBs in the South:
    • Chase Lucas (35 career starts) and Jack Jones return as the top CB duo in the South, and in a revamped defense under Co-DCs Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce, these two will thrive. And it doesn't hurt that Herm Edwards coaches the corners as much as any position on the team.
  • Who catches the rock?
    • TE will be a theme in the Pac-12 this year and Nolan Matthews is as gifted of a young TE as there is in the nation.
  • Who carries the rock?
    • Herm Edwards secured the top two running backs on my recruiting board last year in JC transfer Rachaad White and freshman DeaMonte ‘Chip’ Trayanum, alongside freshman Daniyel Ngata.
  • Biggest question mark?
    • How does the OL gel? They have gotten creative in their roster management via the portal, played two freshmen last year, and Cade Cote was awarded a sixth year. This group is better than most think.             
  • Kedon Slovis
    • Critical throws: I went back and watched Slovis on critical downs last year and he seemed to have a great understanding of situational football in this system. Expect him to have a massive season with Graham Harrell calling the plays and a receiver core loaded with next level talent. FYI, Slovis has not thrown an INT in his last 126 passes, 2nd longest active streak in the conference behind Jayden Daniels.
  • New defensive staff:
    • Led by new DC Todd Orlando, the Trojans have been reportedly competing at extremely high levels in practice. With that said, I think that championship defenses have to be stout down the middle and I like the Trojans. Even while losing Jay Tufele, who opted out of the 2020 season, they have depth up front led by one of my Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year candidates Drake Jackson, who was the first true freshman to lead USC in TFL’s since Jack Del Rio in 1981. Add in explosive LB Palaie Gaoteote and preseason first team safety Talanoa Hufanga the middle of this defense is impressive. CB coach Donte Williams is as good as there is on the West Coast and I look forward to watching Olijah Griffin and Chris Steele compete as the field and boundary corners.
  • What is not discussed?
    • The TE/slot of USC in this game. The Trojans can roll with traditional TEs in Erik Krommenhoek (who worked alongside Browns TE Austin Hooper this summer), Jude Wolfe & Josh Falo, who had the 2017 Pac-12 title game clinching reception - they provide depth, but what is scary is that the Trojans can put Drake London in the slot and possibly others. Watch how this is defended.
  • Sneaky impressive:
    • This offensive line gets minimal pub, but with Alijah Vera-Tucker back on the roster, this group has an anchor and a system that fits the Trojans desire to still run the football.
  • Match-up I’m most anticipating:
    • USC’s elite WR core vs. the secondary of ASU. Both experienced, both confident. This one is going to be electric. Keep an eye on Amon-Ra St. Brown, as talented of a route runner as there is in the nation, and how he and Tyler Vaughns attack ASU’s corners.
  • WR recruits:
    • Both USC and ASU have signed well-known names at WR the last two years and I cannot wait to see Bru McCoy of the Trojans and ASU’s Chad Johnson Jr. and Johnny Wilson line up in the Coliseum.

UCLA @ Colorado, 4 p.m. PT on ESPN2
  • Mastery from DTR:
    • I fully expect Dorian Thompson-Robinson to be the best version of himself at QB this year. It’s easy to forget that he only had just over 300 pass attempts in high school, as he didn’t start at QB until his senior year. (Jayden Daniels had  865 for comparison). After two years of learning the position and understanding Chip Kelly’s system, DTR should have his best year yet, particularly protecting the football.
  • The run game will be a staple:
    • Gone is the man who smiled so loud you could hear it in Joshua Kelley and in the fold is Brittain Brown, a transfer from Duke, who could be the big back in UCLA’s system. Add in the explosive and versatile nature of Demetric Felton, who was the first player in UCLA history to have 4 TD of 75+ yards in the same season (2 rec, 1 rush, 1 return), UCLA has a chance to give defenses fits. I’ve always found it interesting when others assume Chip Kelly’s offense is built on the passing game. He’s always found ways to run the ball successfully, which has allowed his QBs in the past to be their most efficient and explosive.
  • Massive human/massive impact:
    • TE Mike Martinez is a match-up issue for every team in the conference. At 6’5’’ 268, he has a keen understanding of how to use his body in between the hashes and I could see him being a guy who moves the chains for the Bruins and makes critical catches with his 12.5 inch hands.
  • Most competitive position is DB:
    • Brian Norwood arrived via Navy and brings with him extensive respect in the coaching profession and has a talented secondary to oversee. Obi Eboh arrives via Stanford and should lock down one corner while also attending law school, and at safety, Qwuantrezz Knight arrives in Westwood via Kent State. Add in the return of Quentin Lake from an injury-plagued 2019 and freshman John Humphrey, among others, and this secondary should make big strides.
  • How Great Is Ball!
    • New head coach Karl Dorrell returns to the sideline against his alma mater and the team he was leading from 2003-2007. I’ve always said the reality of college football is so good at times it feels scripted, and that you couldn’t make it up if you wanted to. From a sheer nostalgia standpoint, this is a great story for Coach Dorrell’s first game at Colorado, as his first game as a head coach for the Bruins in 2003 was in Boulder against the Buffs! In addition, Coach Dorrell is one of the most respected coaches in the game and his philosophy will be on full display with a team that returns more talent than most assume.
  • What will we see from this offense?
    • Darrin Chivareni returns to the Buffs as their primary play caller after a year away from coordinator duties, and he has Sam Noyer as his starting QB. Noyer, once in the portal and a safety last year, was the underdog to win the job in camp, but his command of this system is what has separated him. The third QB to ever make his starting debut as a Senior in CU history is poised to operate this offense at a high level and prove he is a Pac-12 starting quarterback.
  • WR core is real.
    • While the best playmaker in the conference left the Buffs in LaViska Shenault, they do return a lot of talent, and wideout may be the strength of this offense. K.D. Nixon is the true leader of this team and Dimitri Stanley should have a breakout year. Add in 6’4’’ Daniel Arias, who only has four career catches (2 TDs), and he should stretch the field along with many others including Maurice Bell, Jaylon Jackson and freshman Brenden Rice.
  • Keep an eye on the heart of defense
    • DE Mustafa Johnson and LB Nate Landman are both preseason First Team All- Pac-12 picks, and rightfully so. In their second season under Defensive Coordinator Tyson Summers, expect these two to thrive as seniors.
Stanford @ Oregon, 4:30 p.m. PT on ABC
  • This match-up gives me chills:
    • When you go back to 2012 when Stanford won in OT and re-watch the majority of games since then, it’s easy to be reminded how competitive this game is. While it’s not a traditional rivalry, one look down memory lane proves that this game often had national implications, and in a seven game season, I’d say the same this time, as the winner of this game has gone on to win the North in 6 of the last 9 years.
  • Davis Mills is the purest passer on the West Coast:
    • I can recall evaluating Mills while in high school for the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp and my eval says, ‘Best QB I’ve seen in Elite 11 history on film.’ While his Stanford career has largely been about competing to get healthy, all reports say he is and, if true, look out this fall. I think he has all of the tools necessary to be an elite college QB who will be able to play on Sundays. Even more impressive is what his teammates and coaches say about him, as I think his ‘It Factor’ is a unique trait. More on that as the season progresses.
  • Best WR core in the North?
    • At first glance, one might not agree, but when you look at their performances last year and what is expected, it’s an argument worth making. Starting off with captain Connor Wedington, who worked out with Richard Sherman and other NFL players during this extended off-season, sets the tempo at that position group and it continues with Simi Fehoko, Michael Wilson, Elijah Higgins, Colby Bowman, Osiris St. Brown, Brycen Tremayne, freshman John Humphreys and others. That gives this group a depth they have not had at wideout in quite some time.
  • Tunnel Workers Union is back
    • The amount of injuries on the offensive line over the last two seasons has been dramatically unpredictable. With that said, so many players got valuable experience last year as 4 true freshmen combined for 26 starts, so expect this group to dictate terms at times. Foster Sarell and Drew Dalman are the anchors and sophomore Walter Rouse is as special as they come.
  • Weather and noise factor:
    • While it "never rains in Autzen," I wonder if the weather will have any impact on this game. And if you are a football nerd, the audio should pick up the audibles at the line of scrimmage, so crank up the volume in your home for this one! 
  • Walk on moment:
    • As a former walk-on, these get me every time. Props to the video department as well with the editing - loved the tease at the end. Huge congrats to Thunder Keck and Spencer Jorgensen!
  • Championship program
    • Since Mario Cristobal has taken over, the Ducks have not only recruited at an elite level but they have also developed the players on the roster and created a culture that is dramatically competitive. It is often starters vs. starters in practice and the intensity is as you might imagine after meeting their head coach. They are the favorite to win the Pac-12 and a CFP-caliber program that is only gaining steam in recruiting and on the field. How their culture gets the youngest team in the nation (74% are underclassmen) through a shortened season with minimal game experience on the offensive front, QB, LB and DB will be something to watch, as they welcome new faces at key positions. 
  • QB1
    • It is unlikely that anyone outside of the team will know who the starting QB is for the Ducks, but both Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown (28 starts at Boston College) have dealt with adversity in their lives to prepare them for the adversity that naturally comes on the field. Shough is as natural a leader as I’ve been around in years and if he does take the first snap, expect him to thrive under new OC Joe Moorhead.
  • Memory lane:
    • Speaking of Coach Moorhead, he was a graduate assistant when I was a player at Pitt and from day one, it was evident that he would be a star in the profession.
  • Best running back in the Pac-12:
    • C.J. Verdell has had many spectacular moments in his career at Oregon, but I anticipate him having his most complete season. His position coach, Jim Mastro, called him ‘the best back in the league, if not the country’ and referenced how he changed his body this off-season, as well as his talented hands. With this new system, I’d expect to see him line up all over the field and make noise once again. He is looking to join LaMichael James as the only Ducks to have 3 straight seasons with 1,000 rushing yards and that would be quite the accomplishment given this shortened season.
  • Kayvon Thibodeux may be the face of the Pac-12:
    • Not a QB in a conference that is known for QBs, but I think that this Sophomore Defensive End has a chance to be the best player in the Pac-12 this year. He can move all over the field and, while I haven’t seen him compete in practice during this camp, I can’t help but go back and watch him compete in the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl, where he was at his best. I would imagine offensive lines will have to scheme against him, and this match-up vs. the tackles of Stanford is a great one to watch in Week 1.
  • What to watch:
    • Oregon’s competitive depth in the secondary will be on display, as they will get tested. Deommodore Lenoir opted back in and MyKael Wright will be the top corner in the Pac-12 when he chooses to move on to the next level.
  • What I’m most excited to see:
    • Freshman linebacker Noah Sewell has been one of my favorite players since I watched him compete in high school at The Opening and, alongside fellow freshman Justin Flowe, this front 7 is going to be the one to track out west this fall.
Washington State @ Oregon State, 7:30 p.m. PT on FS1
Washington State
  • QB1
    • Freshman Jayden de Laura will start in Nick Rolovich’s debut at Washington State, becoming the first true freshman QB to start the season opener in school history. While the speed of the game will surely be different, the style of offense will not. He ran the Run N’ Shoot in high school (same HS as Marcus Mariota/Tua Tagovailoa) where his team won back-to-back state titles. On film, what stood out was what I like to call ‘LTA,’ or ‘load to arrival.’ Meaning, when he puts his foot in the ground and decides to throw the ball, the amount of time it takes for him to get the ball out and it to arrive to the receiver is incredible. He will have a natural learning curve, but he also has a chance to be a star in this league.
  • Max Borghi
    • While known for the Run N Shoot, this Cougar team will try to establish the run, and they should with Max Borghi returning. He is an electrifying playmaker and will challenge linebackers every week in space, as he is the only player on the watchlists for both the Doak Walker and Biletnikoff awards.
  • Run N Shoot = Aggressive Common Sense
    • I love this scheme. Let me repeat, I love this scheme! Full disclosure I played in the Run N Shoot at Pitt and for someone who wasn’t very fast but could read coverages, it was a perfect fit. In general terms: imagine playing touch football on the playground and the QB said to get open. All of your decisions would be logical decisions based on where there was space and what space the defender took away - that is fundamentally the Run N Shoot.
  • Defensive Scheme and staff
    • Defensive Coordinator Jake Dickert arrives from Wyoming with an incredible reputation and his impact should be felt early. With a focus to stop the run (Wyoming was 11th in FBS in rush defense last year with 107.1 per game), improve in the red zone and minimize explosive plays, his plan will be one to tune into each week. Everyone I’ve met who spends time with him raves about his ability to teach, and I’m anticipating this side of the ball as much as any to watch this season.             
Oregon State
  • Tristan Gebbia to lead the Beavs
    • I recall broadcasting the Oregon State vs. Oregon game last year when Gebbia surprisingly took the first snap. What was most impressive all game was that he never looked surprised, inexperienced or cautious. He seemed comfortable and confident. He should have a high level of mastery within Jonathan Smith’s system.
  • Jermar Jefferson: the Vet
    • Now the face of the program, Jefferson is poised to return to his freshman form where he burst onto the running back scene breaking the OSU freshman rushing record. He discussed that his off-season was incredibly disciplined with workouts, film study and his diet. Expect big things from this back in 2020.
  • You need to know TE Luke Musgrave:
    • One look at Musgrave’s high school film may have you salivating over his ball skills. This 6’6’ 252 lbs former lacrosse player/alpine ski racer has a natural ability to position his body to catch the ball. My top TE in his recruiting class, who should be an All Conference player during his career. FYI he is the nephew of new Cal OC Bill Musgrave and his father, Doug, is a former Oregon QB.
  • Hamilcar returns, no opt out:
    • Hamilcar Rashed Jr., a pre-season All American and game wrecker off the edge, seems to be as motivated as ever. No one would have flinched if he opted out for the NFL, but he chose to return to the Beavs. He reportedly put on 10 lbs this fall and will require each team's QB and Center to identify where he is on each snap.
  • What I’ll be watching:
    • Body language. This team lost three games by a total of seven points last year and were a few snaps away from earning a bowl berth. I think one of the most critical elements when rebuilding a program is the fine line between ‘hoping’ and ‘knowing’ you will win a game, especially on critical downs and distances. How they deal with adversity in real time will be key for this program to turn those small losses into small wins.