Justin Toscano of The State Press and House of Sparky staff writer Kaelen Jones attended Pac-12 Football Media Days in Burbank, California. Here are some of their thoughts and predictions for the upcoming Pac-12 football season.
Question: Which storylines intrigue you the most as the season approaches?
Justin Toscano: Just as everyone else is, I'm excited to see how the Pac-12 South plays out. If you look at the division's preseason media poll, I think USC, ASU, UCLA and Arizona all have a chance of winning the Pac-12 South title. Within those four teams, I'm really interested to see if USC can become the Trojans of old.
Everyone talks about the sanctions and how they derailed the program a bit, but I think this is the year they break through. I expect Cody Kessler to have the fantastic year many are expecting from him, and I see USC having a great season. Kessler spoke about becoming a better leader and being accountable for everything. It really seems like he's ready to take the team to the next level with weapons like JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson.
Su'a Cravens also sounded confident about freshman linebacker Cameron Smith at media day, so perhaps he can be the young guy who comes in and performs well right away—Cravens said he intercepted a couple of Kessler's passes in the spring, so look for him to make an impact this year.
Kaelen Jones: It's tough to say, considering how many different storylines are developing within the conference, as well as how much talent presides in the Pac-12. Personally, if one story in particular stands out from the rest, it has to be whether or not Oregon can remain the class of the conference.
They're now entering the post-Mariota stage, and it will be interesting to see how they fare without him. Head coach Mark Helfrich said that he has "100 percent confidence" in redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Lockie, noting that he had "an extremely efficient spring." Helfrich isn't expecting him to be Mariota; but he's expecting him to do his job.
Offensively, Oregon is still returning a ton of talent, including running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner along with receivers Byron Marshall, Bralon Addison and Devon Allen. Helfrich still has plenty of weapons to utilize, and—in his system— they're going to utilize them. It's just a matter of whether their counterparts in the conference will be able to knock them off.
Question: Who do you think will have a breakout year for ASU?
JT: I think it's going to be sophomore Demario Richard, who will be taking over the role of ASU's No. 1 running back with DJ Foster transitioning to receiver. He's the definition of acomplete back. He has good speed, but he's elusive and shifty. Most importantly, though, he's a great power back who runs between the tackles well. As a true freshman, he had some huge third down runs, partially due to his impressive vision.
Mike Bercovici thinks highly of him, saying that there is no more time left for him to be one of the young guys—his time is now. He also gave him credit as one of the smartest players on the team, whether it be in knowing his protections, seeing running lanes or being in the right position. I really believe he's going to have a great year because ASU will use him much more.
Foster rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and Marion Grice rushed for 996 the year before, and with two experienced linemen like center Nick Kelly and offensive guard Christian Westerman, I don't see why Richard can't do the same. I also think an underrated part of his game is catching passes out of the backfield because once he has the ball, his vision and shiftiness make him dangerous.
KJ: I say it's redshirt sophomore receiver Ellis Jefferson. Jaelen Strong leaves some big shoes to fill, but at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Jefferson certainly poses as that big-bodied candidate to help ease the offense transition. Quarterback Mike Bercovici called him "a mismatch in the slot," and I expect him to work from that spot often, just as Strong did before him.
Strong and D.J. Foster accounted for 54.8 percent of total team targets last season, with Strong earning 34 percent of them. While I don't expect Jefferson to be targeted on such a high amount of ASU passes next season, it's not unreasonable to believe that he serves a role very similar to that of Strong as the go-to, possession target opposite of Foster.
Question: Who do you predict will win Pac-12 Player of the Year?
JT: I think it will be Royce Freeman, the star running back for Oregon. Freeman had an outstanding freshman year, becoming the first true freshman 1,000-yard rusher in program history. Much of the talk surrounding Oregon here in Burbank was about replacing Marcus Mariota. While head coach Mark Helfrich said you can't actually replace a legendary player like Mariota, you can equal his output by everyone else on the team doing just a bit more.
That being said, Freeman said he is going to really embrace the challenge of stepping into a leadership role on the offense, which is always a good sign. Unlike some other running backs, I'm not really concerned with Freeman's success being due to a good offensive line—he's a freak athlete with tremendous speed and power, which makes him almost like a man amongst boys when he's on the field with some other players.
Regardless of the new quarterback and the confidence the Ducks may have in him, Freeman will have a chance to get more touches alongside Thomas Tyner, but I think he will end up sticking out en route to winning Pac-12 Player of the Year.
KJ: I'll go with USC quarterback Cody Kessler. He's come a long way in his development as a quarterback over the course of his career, and he's had to fight for his opportunity to start. I think that last year, he took great strides as far as command of the offense, and he undoubtedly has the weapons in place around him to help him succeed when you consider he has playmakers such as Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith on the outside, then can hand the ball to a workhorse like Tre Madden. Last season, Kessler completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, not to mention he threw for 3,826 yards for 39 touchdowns against five interceptions. Should USC prove to be a national title contender, Kessler will be at the forefront of the run. Personally, I think the Trojans will go as far as he can carry them this season.
Question: Who are your top five coaches in the conference and who do you think will win Coach of the Year?
JT: Top Five: 1. Todd Graham (ASU), 2. David Shaw (Stanford), 3. Jim Mora Jr. (UCLA), 4. Steve Sarkisian (USC), 5. Rich Rodriguez (Arizona)...
I think Steve Sarkisian will win Pac-12 Coach of the Year this season because I think it's the year that USC is finally back. Yes, he has a talented team, but navigating through the mess that has been the past couple years for the Trojans should warrant some credit as well. They looked as if they were going downhill, but I think he deserves to be recognized for keeping the program afloat to a degree. In a tough Pac-12 South, USC was competitive last year, but received a couple bad breaks and lacked consistency. I think this will be the year Sarkisian has them ready for a strong run in the division.
KJ: Top Five: 1. Graham, 2. Mora, Jr., 3. Mark Helfrich (Oregon), 4. Shaw, 5. Sarkisian
I agree. I believe Sarkisian will end up winning Coach of the Year almost by default should USC win the conference. If they were to do so, it's pretty hard to imagine them not being one of the four teams selected to compete in the College Football Playoff. Like you noted, there's talent already established, but it takes good, consistent coaching to get a team that far without any hiccups along the way. Not to mention, he's done a fantastic job in developing Kessler into one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
As far as who's the best coach in the conference, I'd argue that Sarkisian isn't necessarily the best, but if he can guide the Trojans out of the Pac-12 and into the College Football Playoff, I'd give him the award without hesitation.
Question: Which teams do you think will play in the Pac-12 Championship game and which team will prevail?
JT: I think it will be a season filled with twists and turns in the Pac-12. The South division is in my opinion the second-best division in college football after the SEC West and with Mariota gone, the North is open for Stanford to make a run after a disappointing campaign last season.
That being said, I'm going with the common picks of Oregon and USC to meet in the title game, with USC taking home the title. I think Oregon will be great behind Royce Freeman, but in the end, a team needs that leadership at quarterback and when it comes time for the title game, Kessler will push the Trojans over the edge.
KJ: I agree. Stanford will pose as a legitimate threat to knocking Oregon down in the North. Still, I ultimately see the Pac-12 Championship pitting USC against Oregon, with the Trojans coming out on top. I think the Trojans' defense will be the difference, and they'll be on their way to competing in the College Football Playoff.