Pac-12 spring preview: Top storyline, newcomer to watch for each team

ByKyle Bonagura and Paolo Uggetti ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 7, 2023

While the conference deals with its impending search for a new media deal and potential expansion in the wake of USC's and UCLA's 2024 departure to the Big Ten, this spring will be the first time we get to see glimpses of some of the Pac-12's new additions as well as returning stars as it solidifies itself as the conference of quarterbacks.

USC's Caleb Williams leads the charge after winning the Heisman last season as a sophomore while Oregon's Bo Nix, Utah'sCam Risingand Washington's Michael Penix Jr. all opted to return to school for one more year. All four of those teams should enter and emerge from spring ball as the favorites.

But don't overlook teams like Oregon State and Washington State. The former added Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei in the transfer portal while the latter has Cameron Ward coming back for another season. Rounding out the lineup is Kent State transfer Collin Schlee at UCLA (who will have to keep an eye on freshman Dante Moore), Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne (who landed at Arizona State under new coach Kenny Dillingham) as well as returning starters Jayden de Laura (Arizona) and of course, Deion Sanders' son Shedeur Sanders, who will be kickstarting a new era of Colorado football.

In what is already a transition year for the Pac-12, it may be staring at its best chance to get a team back into the College Football Playoff since Washington's lone appearance in 2016.


Top storyline: Can Arizona's defense improve? It's hard to overstate how bad the Wildcats' defense was last season. They were one of the worst 25 teams in the nation in both passing defense and rushing defense while having one of the 20 best offenses in the country. The disparity between the two units is stark, but it also means there's plenty of room for improvement. Defense will certainly be the talk of spring camp, especially after the unit lost players like defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and corner Christian Roland-Wallace to USC in the transfer portal.

Newcomer to watch: Defensive lineman Bill Norton and linebacker Daniel Heimuli are two transfer additions that could help the lackluster unit head in the right direction while incoming four-star freshman linebacker Leviticus Su'a from California proves that head coach Jedd Fisch can recruit potentially elite defensive players, not just those on offense, too. All three will be players to watch in spring as Arizona continues to pry itself away from the bottom of the conference. -- Uggetti

Arizona State

Top storyline:
The hire of Kenny Dillingham to lead the Sun Devils could not have been more opposite than that of his predecessor, Herm Edwards. By all accounts, Dillingham appears to be the right man for the job given his allegiance to the school, his offensive acumen and recruiting prowess. Spring will be the first time we'll get a look at how Dillingham fares as a head coach of a team that badly needs leadership and a brand new start. And as Dillingham surely saw at Oregon while he was an offensive coordinator there last year in Dan Lanning's first year, that job isn't easy.

Newcomer to watch: Drew Pyne. The effect of Dillingham's hire has been felt immediately in not just the recruitment of five-star quarterback Jaden Rashada (who has now flipped to the Sun Devils), but the addition of Notre Dame's Pyne by way of the portal. Pyne threw for over 2,000 yards with 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions last year in South Bend and provides a more than reliable option for ASU at a position that has seen better days in Tempe. Pyne will provide a perfect option to bridge the gap between last season and Rashada's eventual expected rise to starter. -- Uggetti


Top storyline: The Justin Wilcox era has officially entered win-or-else territory. After five full seasons -- plus the limited 2020 season -- the Bears have yet to register a winning record in conference play under Wilcox and, even more troubling, have regressed each year since going 8-5 in 2019. That's enough time to understand what to expect with Wilcox in Berkeley and if there isn't significant improvement this season, it's fair to expect a change. The timing is interesting here because had the plug been pulled last season (as the Bears went 4-8, 2-7), the logical replacement would have been former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor, who instead took the job at Stanford after David Shaw stepped down.

Newcomer to watch: Jake Spavital is back in Berkeley as the offensive coordinator after serving the past four seasons as head coach at Texas State. His return to Cal, where he served as the offensive coordinator for Sonny Dykes in 2016 -- and, briefly, as the offseason interim head coach -- represents a blow-it-up-and-start-over approach to the offense, which has been a glaring weakness during Wilcox's tenure. -- Bonagura


Top storyline: Unlike in previous seasons, there are plenty of storylines and questions in and around the program at Boulder heading into this spring, but all of those more or less come back to the same overarching storyline: How will Deion Sanders begin to reshape a Division I program that needs not just help but a complete overhaul? That overhaul has already begun in myriad ways, but spring camp should be the first look at what Sanders (as well as the seven Jackson State players who followed him to Colorado) will bring to the table.

Newcomer to watch: Travis Hunter. After shocking the sport by getting Hunter (the No. 1 overall recruit last season) to pick Jackson Stateover Florida State, Sanders' move west meant the Buffs were getting Hunter as well. Colorado isn't in a place where one elite player could completely elevate their defense, but Hunter's talent will inevitably raise their floor. -- Uggetti


Top storyline: It's Dan Lanning's team now. What does that mean? Even in this era of college football, where turning over a roster is easier through the evolution of transfer rules, it's hard for first-year coaches to play exactly how they want. Style of play is still dictated, to a degree, by the roster makeup. So, while Lanning turned in an impressive debut season in Eugene -- 10-3, 7-2 in the conference -- it was always part of a larger process. This isn't unique, of course, but that dynamic is what makes this spring so interesting for the Ducks. There are still inherited players on the roster, but this is now, more or less, a team built in Lanning's vision. It will be particularly interesting to see how that manifests on the defensive side, given Lanning's history on that side of the ball.

Newcomer to watch: Offensive lineman Ajani Cornelius is one of the more interesting offseason transfers. An unheralded recruit coming out of high school in New York, he blossomed into one of the most sought-after players in the portal over the last two seasons at FCS Rhode Island. -- Bonagura

Oregon State

Top storyline: Defining success in Corvallis this year will be difficult. Continued improvement? Maintain the level the Beavers showed in 2022? Only slight regression (considering the losses on defense)? It's a matter of framing. Since Jonathan Smith took over prior to the 2018 season, the Beavers have made incremental progress each year to reach last year's 10-3 season, capped by a win in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was just the third time in school history the Beavers won at least 10 games, so it should be remembered as an all-time great season. Except, at the same time, the Beavs only finished in fifth place and, despite the historical context, that's hardly a satisfying spot in the standings.

Newcomer to watch: QBDJ Uiagalelei's arrival is among the most high-profile transfers in college football. He went from the next big thing to out of a job at Clemsondue to inconsistent play. Either way, he represents a significant upgrade at the position for Oregon State, which has been held back by QB play in recent years. -- Bonagura


Top storyline: New era, new vision. After overseeing the most successful period in school history, things just didn't work for David Shaw at the end. A fresh set of ideas was needed and that's what new coach Troy Taylor should provide. At Sacramento State, he took over a team that went 2-8 overall and 0-7 in the Big Sky Conference in 2018 and proceeded to lose just one conference game over the next three seasons (they did not play in 2020). Replicating that type of immediate turnaround will be significantly more difficult in this situation, but it does provide some optimism that Stanford can be competitive again.

Newcomer to watch: Taylor. Some more facts about Taylor at Sac State: The Hornets ranked No. 3 in total offense (499.8 yards per game) using a two-quarterback system in which QB Asher O'Hara was second on the team in passing yards (883) and rushing yards (938). -- Bonagura


Top storyline: Who will replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson under center? After waving goodbye to his longtime, NFL-bound quarterback, Chip Kelly may have a good old fashioned quarterback battle on his hands. The Bruins plucked Kent State'sCollin Schleefrom the transfer portal and Schlee is set up well to take over the quarterback gig for the Bruins. Last season. Schlee threw for over 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns (and ran for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns) and has the potential to further excel in an offense like Kelly's. Yet incoming recruit Dante Moore gives UCLA a five-star wunderkind who looks the part and could give Schlee a run at the position. Speaking of...

Newcomer to watch: The 17-year-old quarterback out of Michigan shocked the college football world last year when he flipped from Oregon to UCLA. Then, at the 2023 All-Americanbowl this year, Moore proceeded to show just how good he already is. In limited snaps at the bowl, Moore threw for four touchdowns and won the game's MVP award. -- Uggetti


Top storyline: It will be difficult for USC to convince the college football world it has done enough to improve its defense until the fall when games begin. Yet after leaving last season on a sour note following a bowl game loss toTulane, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's unit will be the focus of spring camp. Lincoln Riley retained Grinch and reinforced his trust in him after an-up-down season that was buoyed by a historic turnover rate. But much will have to improve for the defense to achieve a level of play that will be enough to avoid getting in the way of what could once again be one of the best offenses in college football. The additions of players like defensive linemen Anthony Lucas and Kyon Barrs via the transfer portal should help.

Newcomer to watch: Dorian Singer. In the wake of Jordan Addison's departure to the NFL, Heisman winner Caleb Williams will need a new No. 1 target. Spring could be the time when Singer -- who transferred from Arizona after a 1,105-yard, six-touchdown season -- may develop a crucial chemistry with Williams to ensure their partnership will be as productive. USC's wide receiver room is full of talented players, but Singer has all the makings to emerge as its best. -- Uggetti


Top storyline: What can Utah do to become a playoff contender? For a team that has now won the conference two seasons in a row, the only ceiling left to break through is the College Football Playoff. Last year, the Utes were a couple of close losses away from being in the field and though there's little doubt Kyle Whittingham's team will have another strong season across all position groups, it's been evident that they're still a cut below the nation's elite teams. Rising's return for another reason gives the Utes every opportunity to get to that level, but replacing players like tight end Dalton Kincaid and cornerback Clark Phillips III will be a challenge.

Newcomer to watch: Emery Simmons. The four-star wide receiver from Indiana hasn't had a particularly stellar career so far, but his move to Salt Lake City could give the Utes a much-needed option on offense. Last year, Utah's leading receiver was tight end Dalton Kincaid, who is now NFL-bound. Both returning receiversDevaughn Veleand Money Parks should play substantial roles in ensuring Rising has plenty of options next season. Spring could be a time for Simmons to get in the mix as well. -- Uggetti


Top storyline: Is Washington a national title contender? It might seem ridiculous to ask that of a Pac-12 team given the conference's history in the playoff era, but that's what springtime is for. This is a team that returns most of its key offensive pieces -- including Heisman candidate Michael Penix Jr. -- from a team that ranked No. 7 in the country in scoring. And it did so in coach Kalen DeBoer's first season. There are some questions to answer in the rushing game with starting RB Wayne Taulapapa gone, but there is every reason to believe this offense will be even better in 2023.

Newcomer to watch: Dillon Johnson is probably the player with the chance to make the biggest impact right away. The Mississippi Statetransfer arrives with over 1,000 career rushing yards and will compete for the starting running back job. -- Bonagura

Washington State

Top storyline: How much does the lack of continuity on the coaching staff matter? Appointing Jake Dickert as head coach was supposed to provide some stability for the Cougars after Nick Rolovich's awkward departure. Instead, the Cougs are working with their third set of coordinators on both sides of the ball in three years. Common sense says that's not ideal, but this group of players has been remarkably resilient through constant change. The Cougars have reached a bowl game in each of the last seven (full) seasons, which is a massive accomplishment considering the previous program record was three (2001 to 2003).

Newcomer to watch: Offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle. At Western Kentucky, Arbuckle coordinated the No. 7 offense in college football (497.2 yards per game) and best among the Group of 5. -- Bonagura

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