Pac-12 spring storylines

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For the past three seasons, Oregon has become accustomed to being the top dog — or, duck — in the Pac-12 with two Rose Bowl berths and a BCS championship appearance. Heading into 2012, can Oregon make it four conference titles in a row?

After all, change is in the air for Pac-12 teams, from saying hello to new coaches to goodbye to some of the best players in college football. But some familiarity returns, too. USC is once again feeling preseason love and could be back to contending for national titles after finishing a two-year bowl ban.

It all starts sometime. Here’s what storylines we’re watching in the Pac-12 this spring:

Can the Quack Attack fly without missing a beat?
Oregon executes the “next guy in” philosophy as good as any program in the country. So the fact that running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas left for the NFL is less worrisome than some of the other off-the-field distractions the Ducks have had since their Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Coach Chip Kelly reportedly nearly left for the head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Bucsor maybe not — and the NCAA’s investigation into UO’s recruiting practices took another step forward last week with the “proposed findings of violations.”  The good news is that Kelly does a phenomenal job at keeping his players focused on the task at hand. Spring practice is going to look a little different for the Ducks without James and Thomas, but the players asked to fill the void should be able to do so in a business-as-usual way.

Stanford, you got some replacin’ to do, too 
Yes, Stanford has to replace quarterback Andrew Luck. That’s going to be a point of emphasis with all Cardinal coverage until the first snap of the season is taken. But coach David Shaw has more gaps to fill than the one Luck is leaving behind. Stanford loses two outstanding lineman in Jonathan Martin and David DeCastroas well as a senior-laden receiving group. That’s not even counting the three starters from the team’s secondary that will be replaced, including all-conference safety Delano Howell. 2012 will only be Shaw’s second season as head coach, but it has more of an intrigue than Shaw’s first year where he was handed the keys to a football team littered with All-American and All-Pac-12 players.

New coaches, ahoy!
Four Pac-12 teams will be breaking in new coaches this spring: Arizona (Rich Rodriguez), Arizona State (Todd Graham), UCLA (Jim Mora) and Washington State (Mike Leach). Rodriguez and Graham will have plenty to talk about when they meet for the Territorial Cup this year. Both have Big East ties, with Graham coaching under Rodrguez for two seasons at West Virginia. Leach and Mora join the Pac-12 after getting fired from their previous jobs following the 2009 season. Spring practices for these four programs should be a lot of fun as most of the new coaches are known for airing it out on offense.

Return of Troy?
USC became the media’s sexy pick to win the Pac-12, and maybe a BCS championship, next season when quarterback Matt Barkley announced he would be coming back for his senior year. Receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are back, too. But the biggest question for the Trojans is depth. Scholarship reductions as a result of NCAA sanctions mean USC will have to make the most of the talent available and USC only signed 12 players this past signing day. Simply put, there is no room for error. The effects of the depth chart belt-tightening may not be felt right away, but health and production will start to be a top priority for USC this spring.

Last spring for Jeff Tedford?
A 7-6 season and Holiday Bowl loss to Texas has fans in Berkeley a little restless with Cal coach Jeff Tedford. The Golden Bears haven’t won 10 games or at least a share of the Pac-12 title since 2006 when they defeated Texas A&M in the, you guessed it, Holiday Bowl. And it’s not as though Cal doesn’t have talent — the Bears have always had plenty — but when Washington scooped up ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi last month, it cost Tedford’s program some top-notch recruits. Going into spring, Tedford is going to have questions, fairly or not, about his job security. Sept. 1’s kickoff against Nevada probably can’t come soon enough for the 11th-year coach.

Ex-UCLA OC helped convince Wilton Speight to transfer to Westwood

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When Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight announced he was going to graduate and transfer to UCLA, many were caught by surprise given that the 6-foot-6 pro-style passer is not your typical fit for Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense. While the new Bruins’ head coach brought up how Sam Bradford and Nick Foles ran his system to convince the quarterback to pick the school for the 2018 season, it was a former assistant at the program who appears to have been just as convincing in bringing the big QB to Westwood.

That would be Jedd Fisch, who was Speight’s coach in Ann Arbor for two years before he left to take the offensive coordinator job with the Bruins when Jim Mora was still in charge last season. The veteran coach returned to the NFL as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams shortly after Kelly was hired but he reconnected with his old pupil to give him an honest assessment of how he’d fit in with a school sporting a different shade of blue.

“As a coach, you can kind of sniff out the B.S.,” Speight told the LA Times, “and he was able to do that and say, ‘Look, you’re getting what you see at UCLA and I think it’s the right fit,’ and I couldn’t have agreed more.”

Speight will join a very competitive race to be the starter for the opener against Cincinnati when fall camp rolls around. Devon Modster is the incumbent having gotten experience last year when Josh Rosen was held out of several games while incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is considered the future at the position and figures to see early playing time.

It remains to be seen just how good UCLA will be in their first season with Kelly in charge but the head coach will certainly have a variety of options to choose from at the most important position on the field this year.

Proposed California amendment would cap coaches salaries at $200,000

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Some states do everything they can to help out athletics programs in their borders, that is something that California has never really been accused of doing. A state-wide travel ban has already caused some ripples with regards to scheduling for some teams and it seems lawmakers in Sacramento are back with a new constitutional amendment that could hamper schools ability to pay their coaches.

UCLA student paper The Daily Bruin passes along news that a new constitutional amendment was announced last week “that aims to restrict the University of California’s autonomy by reducing staff salaries, the length of regents’ terms and the authority of the UC president.” That first item is the biggest to take note of, which would institute a cap on non-faculty salaries to $200,000 per year — something that would affect everybody from coaches to the athletic director and everybody in between.

The University of California (UC) system most notably includes Pac-12 schools like UCLA and Cal, which means coaches like Chip Kelly and Justin Wilcox could be affected. To take Kelly as an example, he signed a five-year contract worth a total of $23.3 million when he was hired by the Bruins this offseason.

Head football coaches salaries are not typically paid completely by a school directly however, so there is some wiggle room should this amendment wind up passing. Often a separate athletics organization will foot most of the bill using funds raised from donors while other outside companies sometimes also get involved. Things might be a little more interesting when it comes to assistant’s salaries or non-football/men’s basketball head coaches and support staffers however, who could fall under the purview of the cap.

In other words, some creative accounting practices might have to be implemented by schools like UCLA or Cal or else they’ll be at a significant disadvantage compared to their private school peers like USC or Stanford as well as conference rivals like Arizona or Oregon.

It’s far from certain the amendment will pass given that it requires a two-thirds vote in the state legislature as well as passing muster on a state-wide ballot measure during a general election. We don’t typically see college coaches wade too far into political waters but, in this case, they might be forced to because its one that directly affects their wallets.

Arkansas moving back to natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2019

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It’s a new era at Arkansas with Chad Morris and a new athletic director in charge and not even the turf will be spared from seeing changes.

Per the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the school will be moving to a natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium instead of replacing their current artificial turf again as it nears the end of its lifespan.

“Let me say my preference is I love natural grass,” Morris told the paper a few months ago. “That’s just me. Maybe that’s just the high school coach in me.

“Worrying about what the next surface out here looks like is irrelevant to me. I just want to get through a practice and get better today. But I prefer, I’m a natural grass type of guy. I love being on a grass field. There’s nothing better than that in college football, or football period.”

Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek confirmed this weekend that the change was being made in Fayetteville after the 2018 season concludes. The current turf was put in back in the Bobby Petrino era in 2009 and will need to be replaced after a decade or so of heavy use.

This will not be the end of Razorbacks playing on turf however, as they will not only see the stuff for games at neutral sites and at other SEC opponents but also when they make their annual trek to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock — which had turf installed a dozen years ago.

West Virginia President on old Big 12 expansion craze: ‘Little bit messy’

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E. Gordon Gee is one of college athletics’ most recognizable figures, which isn’t exactly what you typically say about school leaders like him. The West Virginia President known for his trademark bow tie (and who has never shied away from an interview or a quip he didn’t like) is on the cusp of his first set of spring meetings in the conference as the new chairman of the Big 12 board of directors.

Speaking to the Dallas Morning News about a range of issues around the league prior to meeting in Dallas, Gee seems to have come around on conference expansion from a few years ago and thinks it not only could have been handled better, but it probably shouldn’t be done in the first place because being the smallest Power Five league has its advantages too.

“I’m not certain it was the best way to do it,” Gee told the paper. “It was a little bit messy — and I was part of the mess.

“Intimacy gives us an opportunity to do something that a lot of other places can’t do… We’ll play to our strengths. We’re small, but we can be very aggressive in positioning ourselves uniquely.”

I’m sure the folks at places like Houston and BYU would agree the entire process was messy but will certainly disagree with Gee about the Big 12 sticking with just 10 members. It certainly sounds as though the issue has been put to bed for the foreseeable future but if the merry-go-round gets going once again, at least we know that the process everybody goes through will be a lot different.