With spring practices starting up throughout the Pac-12, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses for the conference title race in 2017. Last week, we examined the biggest strengths of every Pac-12 team. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.
Earlier today we looked at the North division. Now, we move on to the South:
Arizona: Linebacker. The Wildcats need to replace two starting linebackers -- Michael Barton (65 tackles) and Paul Magloire (81 tackles) -- both of whom were in the top three tacklers for Arizona last year. This spring, there are very few scholarship players who will be competing for those minutes, giving new Arizona linebackers coach Scott Boone very limited options in terms of what he can do with this group moving into the offseason. This could be a position group in which true freshmen, such as early enrollees Jose Ramirez and Tony Fields II, play themselves into the rotation.
Arizona State: Special teams. The Sun Devils need to replace kicker Zane Gonzalez, punter Matt Haack and returner Tim White … so, basically their entire special teams roster (which proved crucial for ASU a season ago). Arizona State only has two place kickers on the roster -- redshirt junior John O’Brien and Brandon Ruiz -- neither of whom has attempted a kick. Currently the only punter on the roster is junior college transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton. And though there are plenty of players on the roster capable of return duties, it’s hard not to overlook the fact that White, who was second in the conference in punt returns, will be tough to completely replace. Overall, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has his hands full as he looks to reload this unit from a season ago.
Colorado: Secondary. The Buffs return just one defensive back starter off the conference’s second-best pass defense from last season. But, not only does Colorado lose cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon, as well as safety Tedric Thompson, but also defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark (both went to Oregon). The lone returning starter -- free safety Afolabi Laguda -- will look for help from junior college transfer Dante Wigley and Isaiah Oliver, but this group certainly will be one that faces a bit of adversity with the number of new faces in 2017.
UCLA: Run game. The Bruins had the Pac-12’s worst run game in 2016, just 84 rushing yards per game (the only conference team to average less than 100 rushing yards per game). So even though UCLA returns running backs Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks, as well as four offensive line starters, this will be the team’s glaring weakness … until it isn’t. This group needs to take a big step forward in order to take the pressure off quarterback Josh Rosen, but that step is going to need to be a very big one just to find itself (almost) equal with the run games at Washington, Oregon and USC.
USC: Offensive tackles. The Trojans find themselves replacing both tackles this offseason off a team that gave up just 12 sacks in 2016 (sixth best among FBS teams). But quarterback Sam Darnold isn't the only one who will miss tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner. The USC run game, which rushed for 1,096 of its 2,609 yards outside the tackles, will be missing its offensive line bookends. Offensive tackle Chuma Edoga, who stepped in for Wheeler a season ago, likely will find himself in one of the two open spots, but USC still is looking for its other tackle heir.
Utah: Offensive line. The Utes lose four offensive line starters -- left tackle Garrett Bolles, left guard Isaac Asiata, center Nick Nowakowski and right tackle Sam Tevi. At the same time, the Utes will be adjusting to Troy Taylor’s no-huddle offense, which will be a big adjustment for every single offensive lineman on the roster. Utah is a team that will be undergoing a lot of transition heading into the 2017 season as much of its defensive line and secondary is replaced, as well as the fact that it’s looking for a new running back to fill Joe Williams’ shoes. But underlying all that is the fact that 80 percent of the offensive line will feature new faces, and 100 percent of the players will be working in a new offensive scheme.