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Pac-12 training camp preview: COVID lurks, but a sense of normalcy returns in advance of critical season

Pac-12 training camp preview: COVID lurks, but a sense of normalcy returns in advance of critical season

By the end of the week, every Pac-12 team will be on the field, on time, with no outbreaks and no hesitation.

UCLA was the first to start training camp, then came Arizona State and Utah, followed by Colorado and everyone else, with the rollout mirroring the order of season openers.

It won’t be a normal August across the conference. Instead, we should brace for the new normal: Boundless optimism, competition for starting jobs, position changes, injuries and, of course, COVID.

Combine the small number of unvaccinated players with the likelihood of breakthrough infections and absences are inevitable — scattered, perhaps, but inevitable.

As camp unfolds, we’ll be tracking cases counts but also the following football-related matters:

Arizona: New coach Jedd Fisch has worked hard to change the culture and the offense, switching to a Pro Style attack. (We’re fascinated to watch that approach interact with a recruiting pool that hasn’t traditionally produced top-tier offensive linemen.) This month, Fisch’s priorities are identifying a quarterback — the three-man competition includes Jordan McCloud, a recent arrival from South Florida — and upgrading the line play. In that regard, the Wildcats are in slightly better shape defensively.

Arizona State: All eyes are on quarterback Jayden Daniels, his development as a pocket passer and his chemistry with a talented array of receivers. But with so many starters returning, there aren’t many holes in need of filling these next few weeks. That’s good news for the Sun Devils, so long as they guard against complacency. What impact will the ongoing NCAA investigation have on preparation? Probably very little. But even if the issue becomes a distraction internally, we’re skeptical anyone will admit to it.

Cal: Plenty of roster movement for the Bears in just the past few weeks, what with multi-year starting center Michael Saffell retiring (medical reasons) and former defensive tackle Luc Bequette transferring back to Berkeley after one  year at Boston College. Success depends, almost entirely, on an upgraded aerial attack with quarterback Chase Garbers in his first full training camp under playcaller Bill Musgrave. Also, shifting linebacker Kuony Deng to the outside creates a hole inside that must be filled.

Colorado: Nate Landman’s status is the most significant news out of Boulder thus far: The all-conference linebacker and defensive anchor is close to 100% and will practice, per coach Karl Dorrell. Whatever attention isn’t paid to Landman’s repaired Achilles will be locked on the quarterback competition between returnee Brendon Lewis and Tennessee transfer J.T Shrout. The Buffaloes will have no shortage of motivation through camp: They were picked fifth in the preseason media poll despite a second-place finish last year.

Oregon: Loads of competition on both sides of scrimmage should make for a crackling camp. We’re focused on the quarterback spot, naturally, with senior Anthony Brown attempting to cement his starting status and fend off freshman Ty Thompson (and others). But don’t discount developments on the defensive line, where the Ducks must replace Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. The unit lost a handful of starter elsewhere but is well stocked with high-end talent — hello, Kayvon Thibodeaux — and should be as stout as any in the conference … if the interior holds up.

Oregon State: Let’s start with a position group we won’t be monitoring closely: The offensive line. Why? Because the Beavers are in better shape up front than they have been in years. There’s high-level competition at quarterback — thanks to the arrival of Colorado transfer Sam Noyer and the return (from injury) of Tristan Gebbia — and a litany of questions about the defense. We’ll be tracking the secondary, where the Beavers lost star cornerback Nahshon Wright. Oh, and they need a replacement for that Jefferson guy.

Stanford: Fresh off the most impressive season in the conference — not the most successful, but the most impressive — the Cardinal will be hard pressed to replicate its 2020 success. There is much to accomplish during three weeks of training camp: Stanford needs a starting quarterback to replace Davis Mills (the options are Jack West and Tanner McKee. It must find a big-play receiver, develop anchors on the offensive line and construct a sturdier defense. All of it will unfold in the shadow of an unforgiving schedule that features 12 Power Five opponents.

UCLA: This is arguably the most important training camp of Chip Kelly’s (college) coaching career: Another bad September, and the Bruins could crash-and-burn. Fortunately for Kelly, now in his fourth year, the depth chart is loaded with returning starters and impact transfers like former Michigan tailback Zach Charbonnet and ex-Texas A&M receiver Kam Brown. Given the turnovers last year (13 in seven games), the Bruins should devote an hour each day to ball security — and maybe two hours for quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

USC: Our focus is on two areas: The training room, and the offensive line. Will new strength coach Robert Stiner’s program keep the Trojans healthy throughout camp? Typically, they lose a few key players to severe injuries each August. And will new offensive line coach Clay McGuire forge an effective unit that lost its top player, Alijah Vera-Tucker, and must protect Kedon Slovis 50+ times per game. Combine returning starters with impact transfers, and the Trojans are well stocked everywhere else. If the front holds, the division title should follow.

Utah: With a bevy of so-called super seniors and 19 returning starters, the Utes have fewer issues to resolve this month than most teams in the conference. It might be the clearest, cleanest training camp of Kyle Whittingham’s long tenure, save for one position: quarterback. Returnee Cam Rising, who was injured early last season, and newcomer Charlie Brewer, who arrived from Baylor and looked sharp in the spring game, will compete for the right to lead an offense that has options everywhere and one of the top lines in the conference.

Washington: The Huskies have a quarterback competition despite returning their starting quarterback. Look for Dylan Morris to hold off transfer Patrick O’Brien and freshman Sam Huard, but the situation is worth tracking nonetheless. As usual, we’re skeptical of the receiver position — high-end production on the perimeter has been lacking since Dante Pettis departed. But the key spot is on the defensive edge, where UW must replace injured pocket-crusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui. This would be the time for Sav’ell Smalls to play like a five-star talent.

Washington State: With the possible exception of ASU, no team needs attention shifted onto the field more than the Cougars and their unvaccinated head coach. Nick Rolovich has competition across his depth chart, starting with the quarterback duel between Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano and returning starter Jayden de Laura. We’re also curious about the wideouts. Renard Bell’s season-ending injury leaves WSU with a single returning starter, Travell Harris, and considerable need at what’s usually a deep position.

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*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to pac12hotline@bayareanewsgroup.com 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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