Pac-12 football: What we learned from spring practice (it’s not all about Deion … or is it?)

Pac-12 football programs experienced exactly the type of spring practice they wanted ahead of the most anticipated season in years: an uneventful one (with the exception of Colorado).

There were no trajectory-altering injuries, no chemistry-rattling incidents and no headline-generating developments across the footprint (with the exception of Colorado).

While uncertainty over the future of the conference lingered — the media rights negotiations have entered their 11th month — the on-field product appears relatively stable.

Quarterback competitions and leadership vacuums are sparse, and havoc caused by the transfer portal appears contained to a few position groups on a handful of teams (with the exception of, eh, never mind).

The conference began the offseason cycle with at least four teams (Utah, Washington, Oregon and USC), and as many as six (UCLA and Oregon State), likely to appear in the AP preseason poll.

It’s ending spring practice in the same situation.

So what did we learn? Let’s dive in …

Lesson 1: Rewritten playbooks

Half the offenses are works in progress, which makes complete sense given that half the teams have new offensive coordinators.

Washington State’s Ben Arbuckle wants more downfield passing after quarterback Cam Ward averaged a paltry 6.5 yards-per-attempt last season (91st nationally).

Colorado hired an elite offensive mind, Kent State coach Sean Lewis, to maximize the skills of quarterback Shedeur Sanders.

Cal scrapped its Pro Style attack and is implementing a version of the spread passing game under new coordinator Jake Spavital, who’s also a former Cal playcaller (2016).

Stanford’s new coach, Troy Taylor, will call his own plays and attempt to diversify the most predictable offense in the conference.

Oregon’s Will Stein won’t implement radical changes, opting instead for tweaks that lean into quarterback Bo Nix’s experience and varied skill set.

And Arizona State’s rookie head coach, Kenny Dillingham, smartly hired a veteran playcaller, Beau Baldwin, to tag-team the rebuild in Tempe.

The new coordinators are pressed for time: All six teams face Power Five opponents in either the first or second game of the season. And at least three (Colorado, Stanford and Cal) will have new starting quarterbacks.

Lesson 2: Boulder gobbles the oxygen

Colorado generated enough attention this spring to satisfy the PR needs of the entire conference.

From their sold-out spring game on ESPN to their unprecedented roster overhaul to the breathless coverage of Deion Sanders’ every utterance, the Buffaloes dominated the news cycle like no Pac-12 program in recent memory.

Not all the media attention was favorable. The cutthroat nature of Sanders’ restructuring, with more than 50 players hitting the transfer portal throughout the offseason, jolted traditionalists.

But it was merely an extreme, and extremely public, version of the roster manipulation that unfolds regularly across the country. Players wanted more freedom of movement, and that freedom has made coaches more aggressive with personnel decisions.

The Hotline is deeply skeptical that CU will produce a winning season but wholly convinced the Buffaloes will receive more media attention than all but a handful of losing teams in the history of the sport.

Lesson 3: The holes up front

Offensive line was arguably the Pac-12’s weakest position entering spring practice, and we saw nothing to suggest that state-of-play has changed. The majority of teams lack high-end talent, cohesive units or both.

Cal’s line was an absolute mess last year and remains mudded. Same with Colorado and Washington State.

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Stanford’s unit wasn’t much better and lost its top players to the transfer portal.

Arizona State’s version is being rebuilt following significant attrition.

Arizona’s line looks wobbly, as well, at least until Jordan Morgan returns from a knee injury.

The paucity of talent is particularly glaring at tackle, which should add intrigue to the season considering the stout collection of edge rushers lurking across the line of scrimmage.

Lesson 4: The bottom is better

Pay close attention to the teams on the bottom tier of the standings last season.

Even if its performance doesn’t match the Sanders hype, Colorado will be significantly more competitive.

Same with Arizona State as the clouds of the Herm Edwards era have been removed.

And we expect Arizona to continue its ascent under Jedd Fisch.

(The outlook for Cal and Stanford isn’t as bright.)

In a zero-sum regular season, the bottom of the conference impacts the top. The Pac-12 needs a handful of bad teams in order to make wins readily available for the good ones.

Last season, six teams won at least nine games because Cal and ASU were weak and Stanford and Colorado were awful.

But if the bottom improves — and it should — the top could suffer as a result.

Parity is the enemy of playoff bids.

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.


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