Our spring football previews are wrapping up, and with April officially underway, it's time to turn our attention to the Pac-12. Though it's a conference that's taken its share of lumps in recent years for a lack of a true elite power, there are some fascinating teams coming out of this conference for 2021.
USC has certainly underachieved in the past few years under Clay Helton, but just a couple of tweaks at some key positions could finally get the Trojans back into the national spotlight. Across town, it appears UCLA is trending in the right direction as Chip Kelly enters Year 4. In the North, Oregon and Washington are always the topics of conversation. The Ducks and Huskies have big-time quarterback battles this spring featuring a pair of five-star freshmen, so will they be playing in the fall?
We examine those questions and more as we preview spring football in the Pac-12.
Can USC's offensive line take a step forward?
Of all the position groups on a football field, offensive line is the hardest to evaluate in the spring. Still, the Trojans need to take a step forward in the trenches. The good news is that most of last season's line returns in 2021. Continuity and experience are important up front, and USC should have that in spades.
Still, how much has this group upgraded? Left tackle will be a big position battle with the departure of Alijah Vera-Tucker, who was easily the line's best player. Courtland Ford is a player that coach Clay Helton has been high on, and Casey Collier is in the mix as well. But both of those players are redshirt freshmen, and the Trojans didn't sign any high-profile linemen -- either out of high school or through the transfer portal -- in this past recruiting cycle. There's no denying the Trojans have the offensive weapons to make a Pac-12 title run, but do they have the protection?
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Can UCLA's offense find big plays?
I really liked what I saw from Chip Kelly's team last year. It's taken a little more time than perhaps most people expected -- Kelly has been in L.A. for three years and has yet to post a winning season -- but this team was better than 3-4 in 2020. The Bruins lost to Stanford in double overtime to close out the year, and probably should have beat USC.
The key questions is where Kelly is going to find the explosive plays on offense. The biggest piece, running back Demetric Felton, is gone. Brittain Brown, though perhaps not the same multipurpose back Felton was, is returning, which is a plus. Still, the Bruins need big plays outside the hash marks to complement tight end Greg Dulcich. Kyle Philips is likely the most reliable weapon in the passing game, but can he return to 2019 form? Deion Hurt and Chase Cota could also take big steps forward. Right now there are a lot of questions at the skill position, but hopefully spring provides some answers.
Can Sam Huard push Dylan Morris for Washington QB job?
The connection between the Huard family and Washington runs deep, and Sam Huard steps into the Huskies quarterback battle right away as an early enrollee. There's a lot of fanfare around Huard, who was rated as the No. 1 signal-caller in the 2021 class. He was Washington's only five-star recruit and is easily the crown jewel of the bunch.
He won't be instantly handed the job, however. Dylan Morris did more than alright as a freshman in a pandemic-shortened year with nearly 900 yards passing, four touchdowns and three picks. Throw in Colorado State transfer Patrick O'Brien and Washington's quarterback competition this spring is one of the key storylines out of the Pac-12.
Is Oregon ready to make the leap into the elite?
The Ducks made the inaugural College Football Playoff field in 2014 but haven't been back since. This could be the best overall team in Eugene since the Marcus Mariota days, however. The defense is loaded. Linebacker Noah Sewell was a freshman All-American and defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux might be the best player on the field in any game. How this group meshes with new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who did a great job repairing Cal's defense, will be fun to watch after taking a step back last year.
But the offense needs to improve, too. This is the second year with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and the quarterback competition is front and center. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown had a bigger presence late in the season and in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Iowa State, but he'll be pushed by Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford along with five-star early enrollee Ty Thompson. The Ducks have talent, now they just need to put it all together. A full offseason with new coordinators is the first step.
How will Utah's quarterback battle shake out?
Kyle Whittingham's defense should once again be the strength of the team, but the Utes have some intriguing transfer options coming in on offense, especially at quarterback. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer was never the flashiest quarterback -- and in the Big 12, that can be a knock -- but he was generally efficient for most of his career and brings a steady hand to potentially replace Jake Bentley. Another transfer, Ja'Quinden Jackson, and Week 1 starter Cameron Rising are also intriguing options. Rising, however, is out for the spring after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the first game of the year against USC.