By Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
To read about Day 1 of Pac-12 Media Days, click here.
Mike Leach usually isn’t one to just fall in line when it comes NCAA rules adjustments. The Washington State coach was asked a few times Thursday about the new early signing period. In general, he’s against it, but he said he’s willing to watch things shake out to see if there are any potential benefits for signing in December.
“I’m guardedly curious about December. Anything earlier than that I think is a bad idea,” Leach said. “I’m not sure December is a great idea, but we’ll find out. (The recruit) is 18 and making a very important decision, and between him and his family needs more time to make that decision. In addition, as a school, you try to evaluate character and things like that. The more opportunity you have to get to know them, the better your chances of making accurate judgments on that. I think the additional time is helpful.”
One rule change Leach is OK with is the removal of two-a-day practices. He does, however, have a suggestion.
“We haven’t had many two-a-days for quite some time. I just felt like if you get too ground down,” Leach said.
“I think they ought to have four-a-days so hopefully some of these teams will pound their teams into submission and make our work a little easier for us. But it doesn’t sound like they’re going to let them do that. So we’ll just go about our business as usual.”
Oh, and if you were wondering, Leach does not think a hot dog is a sandwich. In fact, he doesn’t like hot dogs at all. He thinks it’s because he ate too many bologna sandwiches as a child. Really.
“I never liked hot dogs when I was a kid, and I think that some of that started with when I was a real young kid. I’d have bologna sandwich after bologna sandwich. So anything that even remotely resembled bologna, I hated. Everybody says go to the ballgame and eat a hotdog. Not me,” Leach said.
“No, it’s not a sandwich. I’m not into hot dogs, with all due respect to those that are, but they can have mine, so there will be more for them.”
Thank you, Mike.
Helton looking for new faces to step up at receiver
USC coach Clay Helton is still anxious to see how his new receivers mesh with quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold enters the season as the Heisman favorite and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft — if the 2018 draft was held today, anyway. After emerging as the starter following USC’s rough start to the season, Darnold threw for nearly 3,100 yards and completed over two-thirds of his passes.
Many of those passes went to receivers who are no longer on the USC roster. The team’s two leading receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, are off to the NFL. They combined for 126 catches and over 1,600 receiving yards in 2016.
Deontay Burnett, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Steven Mitchell will take on bigger roles in the fall. When Helton was asked about his major concerns heading into fall camp, he immediately referenced his pass game.
“Probably the biggest one is the chemistry between Sam and our new receivers,” Helton said. “I think they’re beyond talented, the kids that we red-shirted, but they haven’t been in real live games yet. And to be able to see those bullets fly and see how they react will be really important to us.”
The redshirt freshmen that Helton speaks of are Velus Jones, Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe. USC needs at least one of the three to become a key playmaker for the offense.
Helton was also asked about the Los Angeles competition between Darnold and UCLA QB Josh Rosen for the title of best in the city — and maybe even the conference. Helton didn’t want to have much to do with picking a favorite.
“You all have to do that opinion. My job is to coach [Darnold],” Helton said. “I will say this, he’s an extremely talented individual that is not a finished product, and we’re continuing to get better every day. We’re very fortunate in this city. To have him and Josh right now, how cool is that? I think it’s great for college football … With those two quarterbacks, man, that makes for a heck of a story.”
Taggart wants Oregon defenders to “react and not think”
There’s no sugarcoating it; Oregon’s defense was terrible in 2016. The unit, coordinated by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, gave up over 41 points per game and over 500 yards per game. Opposing offenses averaged 6.4 yards per play.
It was the fourth-straight season that opposing offenses had averaged more yards per play than the previous season against Oregon’s defense. After the Ducks fired coach Mark Helfrich, Hoke was out the door too.
Enter new Oregon coach Willie Taggart, who hired former Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to run his defense. Leavitt has a four-year contract and Taggart said Thursday it’ll be important to have a defense with some stability.
“But I think it all goes back to teaching and being simple enough so these guys can understand and play at a high level and fast, where they’re not running out and thinking too much,” Taggart said. “I think playing on that side of the ball, our guys got to react and not think, and that’s going to be important when it comes to teaching our guys and implementing our system.”
Oregon returns nine starters on that side of the ball. Perhaps a new system will be a kickstart.
“Again, our guys, we play a lot of young guys, you know,” Taggart said. “They took their lumps. Probably, again, they’re playing in another defense, so that part they’re going to learn. But I think going back to the 3-4 is going to help a lot of these guys because a lot of them were recruited to play in a 3-4 system, so hopefully that helps. Hopefully with Coach Leavitt and our defensive staff, they’ll do the things we know they’re capable of doing and get our guys to play at a high level.
Shaw: Playing in Pac-12 North is “insanity”
Stanford hit double-digit wins once again in 2016, finishing 10-3 with a six-game winning streak to finish off the year. But to coach David Shaw, it felt a little bit like a disappointment. The Cardinal finished third in the Pac-12 North thanks to back-to-back blowout losses to Washington and Washington State in Weeks 5 and 6.
On Thursday, Shaw was quick to compliment the depth of the Pac-12 North, especially with Oregon’s expected turnaround.
“It’s insanity. It’s crazy. But it’s great. You know there are no bye weeks, there are no off weeks,” Shaw said. “No one talks about the Washington State program that they put together up there. It’s not just the passing game with Coach Leach. They ran the ball well last year. They were physical up front last year. They played great defense last year both secondary-wise and up front. So you’re going to have a tough game in the entire conference.”
Before the Cardinal can focus on its Pac-12 slate, it has the unique opportunity to travel to Australia for its opener against Rice. Shaw has leaned on former Cal coach Sonny Dykes, whose team made the trip last year, for advice.
“I’ve had multiple conversations with Sonny. I talked with Sonny when they first got back. I talked with him midway through the year as we were planning this. I talked to him after the season briefly about the things he would have done differently, what did he do, what would he choose not to do,” Shaw said.
“So we put together a pretty good plan, I believe. The big difference for us, our guys are not going to be in school. So they’ll be able to come back and truly rest and recuperate before we start that preparation for USC.”
What is Shaw looking forward to most about the trip?
“I want to see a kangaroo. Dead serious. I want to see a kangaroo.”
Troy Taylor spicing up “pedestrian” Utah offense
Kyle Whittingham said Utah was “pretty pedestrian” on offense in 2016. To spice things up a bit, he brought in Troy Taylor, the quarterbacks coach and play-caller at Eastern Washington, to run the Utes’ offense.
Whittingham spoke glowingly of what he’s seen from Taylor, who coached at the high school level for many years before one season at EWU, so far.
“I’ve been watching Troy a lot of years. My nephew played for him at Folsom High School. My brother said, ‘You’ve got to look at this guy. This guy is phenomenal as a coach. The schemes, the way he handles the players, his approach to the game is unbelievable.’ So I started watching him, was very impressed,” Whittingham said. “Still it was high school, so I was a little bit skeptical there. When Troy went on to Eastern Washington and had the same success there that he had in high school, I was sold at that point, and that’s when we pulled the trigger and brought him on board.”
Taylor brings a more pass-oriented offense to the Utes compared to recent years, which was music to the ears of quarterback Troy Williams and his group of receivers.
“(Williams was) very excited, as were the receivers, as was really the whole offense. (Taylor) was very well received. Spring ball was very positive, very productive, and the players are excited about the direction we’re going with the offense and the attitude,” Whittingham said.
Williams started all of 2016, but he doesn’t have the starting role locked up just yet.
“(Williams) had an outstanding spring, as did the other two behind him — Tyler Huntley and Cooper Bateman. They came out of spring one, two, three, in that order,” Whittingham said. “Tight enough race that those three guys will continue to get reps at least for the first week or two in fall camp, and then we have to make a decision to get things pared down to the two guys who are going to be getting all the reps and the one guy who is going to be the guy.”
Arizona State QB Brady White not in the starting picture because of foot injury
Arizona State played three quarterbacks in 2016 and all three quarterbacks return for 2017. So ASU coach Todd Graham has a decision to make about his starting quarterback.
But Brady White won’t be part of that decision-making process, at least at the beginning of the season. Graham said White is still recovering from the Lisfranc injury he suffered last season and may not be ready until November.
“So it’s basically a 12-month recovery, so I think it happened at the end of October, first of November. So has not been released medically, and I don’t look for that to happen at least for a while,” Graham said.
“So hopefully we’ll get him back this year, but right now I think that’s just a day-to-day deal … But want to be smart about his recovery, because it’s very, very important that he’s full speed before he gets going.”
Graham also said it would be “smart” to redshirt quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, who threw 55 passes in 2016. With White’s absence and Sterling-Cole’s redshirt, that leaves Manny Wilkins as the presumed starter, right? He was 197-311 passing for 2,329 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016.
Not so fast. Alabama transfer Blake Barnett is now a member of the Sun Devils and eligible immediately. And Arizona State’s new offensive coordinator is Billy Napier, an assistant at Alabama last season. Our guess is Barnett has the starting job in 2017 with Wilkins as his backup.