Pac-12 football’s 12 key post-spring questions, from Arizona’s rebuild to Oregon’s offense

The Pac-12 has wrapped up its spring practice calendar, and aside from a few spots here and there across the conference, the transfer market has slowed down.  The offseason has seen many accomplished players join the conference, most notably at USC with some key additions at Oregon, UCLA and Arizona as well. Other Pac-12 teams have watched some important players leave — looking at you, Arizona State and Colorado. And we’ve learned a little more about each roster over the past two months.

Now that all 12 teams are entering a new phase of the offseason, The Athletic’s Pac-12 writers Antonio Morales, Christian Caple and Doug Writer look at the most pressing post-spring questions for each conference program. We’ll start with the South Division, then head to the North.

Arizona (2021 record: 1-11)

Are the Wildcats ready to make a move?

Not so much as a contender but as a program on the rise. Jedd Fisch has changed the energy around the program. It can be felt within the fan base. More importantly, it can be seen in recruiting. Arizona’s 2022 class, ranked 25th in the 247Sports Composite, was the best in school history. That’s not a guarantee of immediate success, but it’s a start. The Wildcats have finished last in the Pac-12 South the last three seasons. It’s time to see if they can jump a couple of spots. Former Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura and UTEP receiver Jacob Cowing should boost an offense that last season ranked among the worst in the country, and Arizona returns the bulk of a defense that performed better than expected. The Wildcats still have a long way to go, but this fall feels like the time to show progress. — Doug Haller

Arizona State (2021 record: 8-5)

Can the Sun Devils score enough to contend?

Despite heavy losses in the secondary, Arizona State’s defense should be solid. The Sun Devils have a deep defensive line and experienced linebackers in Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson. The question comes on offense. Arizona State lost its starting quarterback, its top running back, its top three receivers and three starters on the offensive line. It’s mid-May, and coach Herm Edwards is still bringing in transfers to plug holes. It may work, but a lot has to go right. Arizona State has always run the ball well under Edwards, and with Wyoming transfer Xazavian Valladay in the backfield, that should continue. The key is Emory Jones. After recently transferring to Arizona State, the former Florida quarterback has just a few months to build chemistry with receivers and learn the offense. Last season, Arizona State ranked 99th nationally in passing yardage. By year’s end, the Sun Devils were pretty much one-dimensional. They need significant improvement there. With so many holes, it won’t be easy. — Haller

Colorado (2021 record: 4-8)

Can Mike Sanford revive the Buffs’ offense?

Colorado scored 30 or more points just three times in 2021, one of which came against FCS program Northern Colorado in the season opener. The Buffaloes averaged 18.8 points and ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense. There’s a lot of work to be done here. Complicating matters, Colorado lost leading rusher Jarek Broussard (Michigan State), as well as top receivers Brenden Rice (USC) and Dimitri Stanley (Iowa State) to the transfer portal.

Sanford spent the last two seasons at Minnesota leading a run-heavy offense. He also has had coaching stops at Notre Dame, Utah State, Boise State, Stanford and Western Kentucky, where he was head coach. He has a returning quarterback in Brendon Lewis, who played much of last season under pressure. Transfer R.J. Sneed, who had 133 catches for 1,564 yards during his time at Baylor, gives Colorado a threat at receiver. Seasoned running back Alex Fontenot led the Buffs in rushing in 2019, but overall, this group needs to make major strides. — Haller

UCLA (2021 record: 8-4)

Can new coordinator Bill McGovern elevate the Bruins’ defense and help Chip Kelly finally break through in Westwood?

UCLA quietly led the conference in scoring offense (36.5) last season, finishing 13th in the FBS in that category. Head coach Chip Kelly has seemingly found his groove on that side of the ball, and although the Bruins lost their two starting offensive tackles, they return starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and standout running back Zach Charbonnet to provide a solid foundation for this year’s unit. The defense is what has held the Bruins back the past few years. UCLA gave up 40-plus points in three of its four losses last season, including letdown performances at home against Fresno State and Arizona State. That defensive effort was enough for Kelly to finally move on from former defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. Now McGovern, the Chicago Bears’ inside linebackers coach in 2021, is tasked with improving the unit.

UCLA took some tough transfer portal losses, most notably linebacker Mitchell Agude, but dipped back into the portal to land the Grayson and Gabriel Murphy from North Texas and Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau. The secondary includes a mix of veterans, like Stephan Blaylock, and young talent, like Devin Kirkwood, in the secondary. If the Bruins turn all that change into improvement on that side of the ball, it wouldn’t be totally out of the question for them to make serious noise in the Pac-12 South. — Antonio Morales

USC (2021 record: 4-8)

How far can Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams and the Trojans’ offense carry the team this fall?

USC has one of the brightest offensive minds in the sport as its new head coach, and with Williams following Riley from Oklahoma after a half-season as his starting quarterback, there should be no questions about the identity and leadership on their side of the ball. Oregon transfer Travis Dye gives the Trojans a workhorse at running back as well. The receiver group is deep with solid players, and the offensive line should be better than its recent reputation suggests. The Trojans will need all those groups to be operating at optimal levels if they plan on seriously contending for a Pac-12 title in 2022 because their defense has major question marks.

USC has upgraded at linebacker with the addition of transfers Shane Lee (Alabama) and Eric Gentry (Arizona State) and at rush end with Auburn transfer Romello Height. But major concerns remain on the defensive line outside of Tuli Tuipulotu, and there will be a new starter in each of the five secondary spots. The defense will have its share of rough moments this fall, so the pressure will be on Riley and Williams to score with anyone and everyone on the way to Pac-12 contention. If Pitt transfer and 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison ultimately chooses USC, that would make life easier for all parties as well. — Morales

Utah (2021 record: 10-4)

Who replaces Devin Lloyd?

Utah has enough in place to defend its Pac-12 title, but the loss of Lloyd should not go overlooked. He was the heart of Utah’s defense, the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and, most recently, a first-round draft pick by the Jaguars. The Utes have depth, but the loss of Lloyd and fellow linebacker Nephi Sewell, the team’s top two tacklers, leaves a hole. Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, who missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, should help. He started 10 games for the Gators last season and had 89 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. In addition, sophomore Karene Reid has experience. Utah also has recruited the position well: Ethan Calvert was the No. 8 high school linebacker in the 2021 class, and Lander Barton was No. 7 in 2022. On paper, Utah looks to be in good shape, but some things are difficult to replace. — Haller

Cal (2021 record: 5-7)

Can Jack Plummer win the starting quarterback job and give the Golden Bears’ offense some life?

Cal ranked 60th in the FBS in yards per play last season, and that was actually a significant improvement on Justin Wilcox’s first four seasons at the helm. The Golden Bears’ offense has ranked no higher than 103rd nationally in yards per play since 2017. With starting quarterback Chase Garbers off to the pros, former Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer transferred in this offseason. Wilcox did not name a starting quarterback this spring, but Plummer’s 13 career starts should give him a leg up on the rest of Cal’s quarterbacks. Plummer threw for 884 yards and seven touchdowns for the Boilermakers in 2021.

The Golden Bears’ defense has been steady since Wilcox arrived in 2017, but their offense has prevented them from achieving more. The North is in a state of transition with new coaches at both Washington schools and Oregon. It seems like an ideal time for Cal to pounce, but it’ll need its new quarterback to take some pressure off the defense. — Morales

Oregon (2021 record: 10-4)

If it’s Bo Nix at QB, can he elevate the Ducks’ passing game?

Sure, Oregon has plenty of talent to replace in the secondary, but there are some promising faces there, and the Ducks’ defensive front should be nasty enough to cover any growing pains on the back end. Nix hasn’t officially been named the starting quarterback, with heralded 2021 signee Ty Thompson still in the mix, but the safe money at present is on the Auburn transfer taking the reins. Does he have what it takes for Oregon’s passing game to take a step under first-year head coach Dan Lanning?

It’s not as if the Ducks’ offense was bad in 2021 en route to another Pac-12 North title. They ranked third in the conference in both scoring and yards per play (39th and 42nd nationally), but the passing game still lacked the kind of consistency and explosiveness you need to reliably compete for College Football Playoff consideration. The pieces are in place for the running game: CJ Verdell turned pro and Travis Dye transferred, but Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars should have plenty of room behind a big, experienced offensive line. The question is whether Nix, throwing to young receivers like Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton, can use his experience as an asset and help the Ducks score enough points to make it back to the Pac-12 title game, and perhaps beyond. — Christian Caple

Oregon State (2021 record: 7-6)

Will the defense be good enough for the Beavers to contend?

Oregon State’s offense led the Pac-12 in yards per play and passing efficiency, tied for the lead in yards per pass attempt and finished second in yards per rush and fourth in scoring. Enough key players return for coach Jonathan Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren to again assemble a potent attack. There are more questions on defense, where Trent Bray enters his first full season as coordinator after replacing the fired Tim Tibesar on an interim basis last year. OSU finished eighth in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed, ninth in passing efficiency defense and 10th in sacks per game in 2021. The Beavers do have plenty of experience in the secondary and feel good about what they have at inside linebacker, particularly with Omar Speights returning. But can players like outside linebackers Andrew Chatfield Jr., John McCartan and Cory Stover help improve the pass rush? Will Oregon State be stout enough up front to make life easier for what should be a talented defensive backfield? That could be the difference between merely appearing in another bowl game and contending for the North title. — Caple

Stanford (2021 record: 3-9)

Can the Cardinal be respectable in the trenches again?

Stanford used to pride itself on controlling the line of scrimmage during the late Jim Harbaugh years and the beginning of the David Shaw era, but the Cardinal have fallen far from that point over the past four seasons. Last year was a low point, their second losing campaign within the past three, and what was most alarming was how porous Stanford was in the trenches, ranking 88th or worse nationally in sacks allowed, sacks recorded, yards per rush and yards per rush allowed. All those weaknesses were on display in a 52-7 loss to Utah when the Utes rushed for 441 yards and limited Stanford to 82 yards on 31 carries.

Stanford brings back a good amount of experience on its offensive line — 104 total starts — and that group under second-year line coach Terry Heffernan will have to do a better job opening holes in the run game and protecting starting quarterback Tanner McKee. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is switching to a 4-3 scheme this year with hopes of more success on that side of the ball. Four-star freshman edge rusher David Bailey, a big Stanford win over USC on the recruiting trail, should help early, but the Cardinal need returners like defensive lineman Tobin Phillips to take significant steps forward this year. If not, it’ll likely be an extremely bumpy path to bowl eligibility in 2022. — Morales

Washington (2021 record: 4-8)

Is Michael Penix Jr. the guy at quarterback?

The answer for now still seems to be yes, even if Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer is a ways from making it official. Penix, a fifth-year transfer from Indiana, spent started for the Hoosiers with DeBoer as offensive coordinator in 2019, and he did nothing this spring to indicate he isn’t the best option on Washington’s roster. Last year’s starter Dylan Morris and five-star 2021 signee Sam Huard each received plenty of reps this spring, too. Morris seemed a comfortable No. 2, though Huard had his best practice of spring in the finale. Receiver might be the most talented position on the team, and the offensive line received a boost with the news that sixth-year tackle Jaxson Kirkland was cleared by the NCAA to return after initially declaring for the NFL Draft.

There are injury and depth issues at running back, and the defense has to replace two draft picks at cornerback and find some solutions defending the run. But DeBoer’s offensive background suggests decent potential if he can find the right quarterback, and Penix has flashed that ability throughout a career too often interrupted by injuries. So the question might be less about whether he wins the job and more about whether he proves on Saturdays that he’s the guy to move the offense past its ugly 2021 showing — and whether he can finally stay healthy for a full season. — Caple

Washington State (2021 record: 7-6)

Will the offensive line jell in time to let Cam Ward cook?

Jake Dickert checked the most important offseason box by landing Ward, the transfer quarterback from Incarnate Word, to replace the outgoing Jayden de Laura, who transferred to Arizona. That was after Dickert hired Eric Morris, Ward’s coach at Incarnate Word, to be the Cougars’ offensive coordinator. Morris will bring a modern version of the Air Raid to Pullman (they’re going to use a tight end and run the ball some), and he inherits an offensive roster that already was built to throw the ball. The offensive line, though, has a lot to replace. Both starting tackles are gone, including third-round NFL Draft pick Abe Lucas. Former starting center Brian Greene transferred to Michigan State, and Cade Beresford, a guard, left for Boise State in December. A pair of guards with starting experience — Jarrett Kingston and Ma’ake Fifita — are back but are learning how to play tackle, and another tackle, sixth-year Northern Colorado transfer Grant Stephens, should be a factor this fall. There are some legitimate questions defensively, too: Who steps up at linebacker with Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers finally moving on? But Washington State’s outlook mostly seems to hinge on the O-line’s ability to give Ward time to sling it. — Caple

(Photo of Bo Nix: Abbie Parr / Getty Images)

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