The Huskies held their first fall practice Friday, and teams around the Pac-12 are getting under way this week. Each team enters camp with questions that need answers before the fast-approaching season opener.
Best case: If Khalil Tate stays away from Twitter (it’s only downhill from here) and stays in the pocket; right tackle Thiyo Lukusa (ex-Michigan State) plays like an elite Big Ten recruit; the linebackers are as good as the Hotline advertised; former safety Dane Cruikshank’s name is rarely mentioned; and the stadium renovation remains on schedule.
Worst case: If tailback JJ Taylor is less than 100 percent when game week arrives; the backup quarterback situation remains muddled; Justin Belknap and Co. look wobbly on the defensive front; safety Scottie Young’s situation becomes a distraction; and a whiff of controversy surfaces … from the basketball program.
Sumlin’s mouth to our ears: “When you’re the back-up quarterback, it’s really kind of a cool position because you’ve really got nothing to lose when you go in. You don’t get yanked. You just go back to where you were, right? So there is a little different pressure when you’re a starter, and it comes with the things that are expected of you. Not just on the field, but off the field and on the sideline. So that growth is taking place because as great as his numbers are, he’s really a young player.”
My brain to this keyboard: Aside from a handful of positions on the offensive line, the Wildcats are in solid shape across the depth chart. Combine the quarterback, defense and schedule, and Sumlin stepped into a good situation. The Wildcats should be in Week Three form in Week One.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. Brigham Young
Arizona State Sun Devils
Best case: If the new offensive linemen, especially LT Casey Tucker (ex-Stanford), are ready to contribute pronto; a backup tailback surfaces; nobody gets cut from the roster (at least with the cameras rolling); the defense grasps the basics of coordinator Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme; and Michigan State suffers a chicken pox outbreak that lasts through the second Saturday in September.
Worst case: If quarterback Manny Wilkins stagnates; linebacker Koron Crump and cornerback Chase Lucas feel like they’re playing 2-on-11; anything happens to tailback Eno Benjamin or receiver N’Keal Harry; and Herm Edwards loses his voice after 200-something interviews this offseason.
Edwards’ mouth to our ears: “70% of your day a lot of times is spent on recruiting. It’s a year-round process. I never would have imagined, and I’ve been in college football before — I’ve been recruited as a college athlete — that the degree of recruiting now. You’re talking about 2020 kids. We already are looking at 2020 kids. I’m going, Really, 2020? How do you make a decision on a 2020 kid?”
My brain to this keyboard: New offensive line, new defensive line, new defensive playbook, new culture … and precious little time to learn with San Diego State, Michigan State and Washington in the first month. No team has more to accomplish in camp than the Sun Devils.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. UTSA
Best case: If quarterback Ross Bowers plays so well, coach Justin Wilcox isn’t asked about Brandon McIlwain; the tight ends provide help to offset a depleted receiving corps; defensive tackle Zeandae Johnson turns raw talent into consistent production; and the secondary is as good as expected.
Worst case: If Bowers and McIlwain play poorly enough that Wilcox is asked about the Chases (Garbers and Forrest); the receiving corps is depleted enough that Wilcox is asked about Demetris Robertson; on the defensive line, Luc Bequette is a one-man gang; tailback Patrick Laird quits football, and school, to become a full-time reader.
Wilcox’s mouth to our ears: “We made (tight ends) a priority once we got here. We now have a number of guys that can play there, different body types. You kind of have the traditional tight ends — having Ray Hudson back, a guy that can flex out and catch the ball, but also get in there and mix it up. It just gives you a lot of versatility in terms of run and pass game and protections and a lot of different things.”
My brain to this keyboard: Wilcox, who showed last year that he’s able to maximize the offseason, should have the Bears ready for their non-conference lineup. But the limited talent, particularly on the lines of scrimmage, will force the staff to be creative with schemes.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. North Carolina
Best case: If tailback Travon McMillian (ex-Virginia Tech) loosely resembles Phillip Lindsay; the offensive line produces an upside surprise after the disappointing ’17 season; defensive linemen Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba are impact players consistently; and freshman cornerback Chris Miller plays like a veteran.
Worst case: If quarterbackSteven Montez isn’t sharp; the young wideouts aren’t consistent (the Buffs lost their top-three receivers); and coach Mike MacIntyre doesn’t see a few of the same traits that were visible in Aug. ’16, when CU was quietly positioning itself for a breakout season.
MacIntyre’s mouth to our ears: “(Montez) has gone from algebra to calculus in understanding how to prepare for a game, his film study and all the things he’s doing. He’s been around the office all summer, watching tape, working on it, studying it. And Kurt Roper, our new quarterback coach, has done a great job with him.”
My brain to this keyboard: We won’t begin to speculate on CU’s effectiveness on the lines of scrimmage — too many new players, too little game experience — but the Hotline would be surprised if Montez doesn’t thrive under Roper’s tutelage. Sometimes, a different voice can change everything.
Opener: Aug. 31 vs. Colorado State
Best case: If quarterback Justin Herbert’s feet touch the ground, his hands touch the ball, and he has no other physical contact with anything, or anyone; a receiver not named Dillon Mitchell develops chemistry with Herbert; and the combination of end Jalen Jelks, linebacker Troy Dye and safety Ugo Amadi spark comparisons to the days of Dion Jordan, Josh Kaddu and Eddie Pleasant.
Worst case: If backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister looks as skittish as he did in Oct. ’17; Herbert doesn’t trust any receiver not named Dillon Mitchell; and coach Mario Cristobal, so damn excited to be alive, transforms into a ball of pure energy, forcing the Ducks to promote defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to the role of interim head coach and sparking their third search in three years.
Cristobal’s mouth to our ears: “Herbert has transformed his body. He’s committed to being excellent in everything he does … It’s not just how he looks. It’s the mindset that comes with it, the confidence that comes with it. The ability to create a galvanizing affect for the guys in the locker room, because you know you’re preparing and holding each other accountable.”
My brain to this keyboard: There are a smattering of holes on the depth chart, but each unit has at least one high-level player and most have more than one. If the staff doesn’t screw things up, the Ducks should be ready for their season opener Sept. 22 against Stanford. Err …
Opener: Sept. 1 vs Bowling Green
Oregon State Beavers
Best case: If quarterback Jake Luton’s spine remains in one piece; gifted tight end Noah Togiai is not the best option in the passing game; coach Jonathan Smith doesn’t resign, via mutual agreement, midway through August; and the National Weather Service declares a hurricane warning for Columbus, Ohio, for the afternoon of Sept. 1.
Worst case: If Smith is undecided on a quarterback at the end of the third week; the right side of the offensive line remains in flux; the right and left sides of the defensive line remain in flux; vital underclassmen like tailback Calvin Tyler and linebacker Kevontre Whetzel don’t make significant progress.
Smith’s mouth to our ears: “I wanted to come in with a message of: I’ve experienced it here, I’ve sat in those seats, I’ve gone through a coaching change when I was a player. It’s been done before. We can do it again. So trying to be authentic that I’ve lived it, and I want to help them do the same.”
My brain to this keyboard: Only the defensive line is lacking in experience, but the combination of culture change, scheme change, coaching change and talent deficit will make for a challenging few weeks for Smith and his staff. On the bright side: The Week One opponent will have everyone’s attention.
Opener: Sept. 1 at Ohio State
Best case: If boredom reigns; quarterback K.J. Costello returns to form in plenty of time for the opener; the veteran offensive line dominates the wobbly defensive front; a third receiver emerges; the secondary is functional, particularly at safety; and tailback Bryce Love is on the field … in passing situations!
Worst case: If Costello’s hip isn’t quite right and Love is forced to use his knowledge of human biology to self-diagnose an injury; the defensive front is more wobbly than expected (the bar is low); the secondary struggles without Justin Reid and Quenton Meeks; and coach David Shaw spends more time talking about Heisman Trophy voting than his fabulous tight ends.
Shaw’s mouth to our ears: “I would not be comfortable with (standardized injury reports). I coached in the NFL for nine years, and there is a stark difference between working with professionals and working with college kids. I do not feel right giving out medical information of a 19-year-old. I think it’s wrong in any way, shape or form. If there’s something the young man and his family wants to release, that’s up to him. It’s his health.”
My brain to this keyboard: The offense should be far ahead of the defense whether Costello or backup Jack Richardson is under center. And if that’s not the case, something has gone very wrong — this should be one of the most prolific teams of the Shaw era.
Opener: Aug. 31 vs. San Diego State
Best case: If the defensive line solidifies around Chigozie Nnoruka; someone emerges at quarterback not named Dorian Thompson-Robinson (so he can redshirt); tight end Caleb Wilson’s forefoot remains sturdy; and edge rusher Jaelen Phillips shows off the form that made him the most coveted prospect in the class of ’17.
Worst case: If Devon Modster plays like a backup quarterback, Wilton Speight plays like a starter … at Michigan Tech; the defense allows 287.4 rushing yards per practice; the offensive line is as mediocre as expected; and Chip Kelly banishes the Bruins to San Bernardino.
Kelly’s mouth to our ears: “If we’re going to be successful at UCLA, it really starts on the defensive side of the ball. One thing that people don’t realize’ or maybe just kind of glossed over, is when we were really good at Oregon is because we were really good on defense.”
My brain to this keyboard: Player development was lacking (woefully so) in Westwood under the previous coaching staff. Expect that to change (markedly so) under the current staff: Kelly and his assistants will get the most out of the talent, however much exists.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. Cincinnati
Best case: If JT Daniels plays like Matt Barkley as a rookie, Matt Fink plays like Sam Darnold as a rookie, or none of the quarterbacks play like a rookie; the offensive line avoids serious injury; a cornerback emerges opposite Iman Marshall and a safety emerges opposite Marvell Tell; and playcaller Tee Martin thrives on a staff that has only one coach named Helton.
Worst case: If Daniels plays like a teenager; tailback Stephen Carr (surgically-repaired back) runs like an octogenarian; the defense is anything less than stellar; and if essential personnel, as often happens with all the distraction of Los Angeles, engages in off-the-field nonsense.
Helton’s mouth to our ears: “We’ve got 25 practices. I’ll name somebody (the starting quarterback) before the opening game. I don’t have a crystal ball because I’m going to have to have time enough to allow the kids to compete and make the best decision for the football team. So I think it will be later than sooner.”
My brain to this keyboard: More than a few USC fans are undoubtedly wondering if Helton will pick the right quarterback (as opposed to his ’16 decision). But if execution matches the talent at the other 21 spots, the Trojans would merely need decent QB play to control the South.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. UNLV
Best case: If quarterback Tyler Huntley improves his pocket efficiency; the young defensive backs play like veteran defensive backs; anything bad happens to BYU; receiver Britain Covey plays like he spent a two-year mission on the Patriots practice squad; and coach Kyle Whittingham only has to answer one question per day about never having won the South.
Worst case: If the offense looks like it has a new playcaller (it shouldn’t, because it doesn’t); defensive tackles Pita Tonga and Leki Fotu don’t look like Utah defensive tackles; the receivers prove their skeptics correct; and Chase Hansen is forced to return to safety because of concerns on the back line.
Whittingham’s mouth to our ears: “We’ve had a chance to get to the championship game a couple times, have not capitalized on that opportunity. That’s the next step of our evolution as a program … I’ve heard it over and over: We’re the only team in the South, since we joined the league, that hasn’t gotten there. But we own up to that. We’re not trying to hide from that.”
My brain to this keyboard: Considering the Utes have a veteran quarterback, four returning starters on the line, an established scheme and familiar playcaller, there should be no talk of the defense being ahead of the offense. In all other years, that’s an acceptable state of affairs in SLC, but not now, not this month.
Opener: Aug. 30 vs. Weber State
Best case: If receivers Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds, left tackle Trey Adams and cornerback Byron Murphy all show pre-injury form; the unproven receivers (Andre Baccellia, Ty Jones, Alex Cook, etc.) are the talk of the camp and quarterback Jake Browning is not; Greg Gaines dominates on the defensive front; and the kicking game does not stink.
Worst case: If the aerial attack struggles for rhythm; edge rushers Ryan Bowman and Jaylen Johnson are nonexistent; and Petersen becomes so frustrated with the kicking game that he walks into the student union, introduces himself — he keeps such a low profile, after all — and announces that UW will hold tryouts at 3 p.m., so be there at 2:50.
Petersen’s mouth to our ears: “I don’t think one game determines anything … If we won that game and lost all the rest, that’s going to make us like we’re good, you know? It’s going to be the whole body of work. It’s going to be the league, how they do in the bowls. I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing, the Pac-12 is either good or not on one game. That’s totally unrealistic.”
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My brain to this keyboard: The Huskies are loaded; camp is all about avoiding serious injuries to key personnel and getting just enough reps for the starters to be sharp when they board the flight to Atlanta.
Opener: Sept. 1 vs. Auburn
Washington State Cougars
Best case: If there is a quick and obvious solution to the quarterback quandary; the right side of the offensive line coalesces around JC transfer Robert Valencia; inside linebacker Peyton Pelluer shows pre-injury form; safety Jalen Thompson is in Deone Bucannon form; and Mike Leach avoids tweeting about politics and sticks to what he knows, like aliens, Bigfoot, marriage, golf and Cambodia.
Worst case: If the quarterback depth chart displays more than one ‘or’ when game week arrives; the tailback depth is as fragile as it appears today; the veteran secondary struggles against rookie quarterbacks; Leach is forced to answer questions about the revamped offensive and defensive lines instead of aliens, Bigfoot, marriage, golf and Cambodia.
Leach’s mouth to our ears: “It’s also good that (new coordinator Tracy Claeys) and our defensive line coach worked together before, so I think that creates more continuity. And schematically, what he ran was what we were seeking when I hired Alex Grinch, so it’s pretty close. It’s not like all of a sudden there is going to be a huge change scheme-wise.”
My brain to this keyboard: With just 10 returning starters, major issues at quarterback, a new defensive playcaller and holes along both lines of scrimmage, it’s difficult to see training camp as anything other than the start of a rebuild for the Cougars.
Opener: Sept. 1 at Wyoming