CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Ahead of Pac-12 Media Day, 12 questions for 12 coaches

Jul 20, 2023, 9:05 AM

UW Huskies Kalen DeBoer...

UW Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer during the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, 2022. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

With Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day nearing and the league still negotiating its next media-rights contract, much of the attention in Las Vegas will focus on commissioner George Kliavkoff and any details he might provide about what has been a fairly mysterious process. It was widely reported Tuesday that the league believes it will finalize a deal in the “near future,” for whatever such an anonymous forecast might be worth at this point.

Regardless, Kliavkoff’s question-and-answer session will eventually end, and the Pac-12’s 12 head coaches* and 24 players — two from each Pac-12 school — will take turns answering questions. (*Actually, it’s 11 Pac-12 head coaches and one defensive coordinator, because Colorado coach Deion Sanders will reportedly miss Pac-12 Media Day due to a foot procedure scheduled for Thursday.)

Here is one question for each coach attending Friday’s media day.

Jedd Fisch, Arizona

How has NIL affected your program, on the whole?

There are two sides to this. Arizona has embraced NIL, with an active, robust donor collective, Friends of Wilbur and Wilma, at the center of those efforts. Fisch has the Wildcats recruiting at a higher level than probably anyone assumed possible, a trend punctuated by the recent commitment of five-star Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe edge rusher Elijah Rushing. But Arizona also has lost several key players to the transfer portal — and to USC, in particular — with NIL presumably playing a role.

Is NIL still a net positive for a program like Arizona? While perhaps unable to entice prospects the way the Trojans can, it seems the Wildcats’ NIL operation at least functions at a high enough level so as not to be dismissed by star recruits. I’m curious how Fisch sees it.

Fisch could face questions, too, about quarterback Jayden de Laura settling a civil lawsuit related to a 2018 sexual assault allegation, and the decision to allow him to continue playing.

Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State

How do you define expectations in Year 1?

Like just about any first-year coach in 2023, Dillingham set about turning over a depleted roster with help from the transfer portal. He added two quarterbacks (Drew Pyne and Jacob Conover) to compete with returning part-time starter Trenton Bourguet and heralded 2023 signee Jaden Rashada. He added running back Cameron Skattebo, the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year last season at Sacramento State. ASU returns some intriguing pass catchers, too.

Are there enough weapons there to make a run at bowl eligibility? And what about a defense that ranked 107th nationally in points per game allowed last season? How does Dillingham, 33, define success in his program?

Justin Wilcox, California

How has the transfer portal made you better?

Wilcox and the Golden Bears were far more active in the portal this offseason, building their depth at running back (Byron Cardwell, Isaiah Ifanse, King Doerue) and receiver (Brian Hightower, Taj Davis, Marquez Dortch), adding multiple quarterbacks (Sam Jackson V, Ben Finley) and beefing up the secondary (Patrick McMorris, Marcus Scott II), too. They’ve also re-introduced a familiar face, Jake Spavital, as offensive coordinator after finishing 4-8 and 2-7 in conference play last season. How much better did Cal get over the past eight months? And where, specifically, does Wilcox feel the Golden Bears have upgraded most?

Charles Kelly, Colorado defensive coordinator

How are you working toward cohesion with so many new players?

Deion won’t be there, but you could ask this question of any Colorado position coach or coordinator. The Buffaloes made headline after headline this offseason for their roster transformation, shipping out dozens of players to make room for incoming transfers. How does Kelly, who came to CU after four seasons as associate DC and safeties coach at Alabama, ensure that everyone is on the same page? Where does that effort start, and how are coaches being intentional about building the kind of relationships necessary for any group of players to thrive?

Also: how much will Jackson State cornerback transfer Travis Hunter play at cornerback as opposed to receiver? And can five-star freshman Cormani McClain compete for a starting job in his first college season?

Dan Lanning, Oregon

What will this team’s defensive identity be?

It seemed the Ducks lacked much of an identity on that side of the ball last season, finishing 88th nationally in yards per play allowed and yielding several fourth-quarter scores in close losses to Pac-12 rivals Washington and Oregon State. Does Lanning, the former Georgia defensive coordinator, have a sense for what might be different in 2023? The Ducks were active in the transfer portal, adding edge rusher Jordan Burch, who should boost a group that managed only 18 sacks in 13 games last season. Linebackers Jestin Jacobs and Connor Soelle, and safety Evan Williams and cornerback Khyree Jackson add experience at other position groups. Do they have the dudes necessary to complement what should again be an explosive offense with quarterback Bo Nix at the helm?

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

Have you seen what you needed to see from DJ Uiagalelei?

The Clemson transfer and former five-star recruit went through spring practices with the Beavers. He’s hoping the change of scenery will fuel a resurgence, and the Beavers are hoping the fourth-year junior can become the kind of star passer they’ve lacked, even as Smith has orchestrated a steady ascension. OSU has questions to answer defensively, too, after losing several key players on that side of the ball. But if Uiagalelei can recapture some of his perceived potential as a star player at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, the Beavers could look like a completely different team. I’m wondering how Smith evaluates DJU at present, and how much of that assessment he’s willing to share publicly.

Also: how close is 2023 signee Aidan Chiles to pushing for playing time?

Troy Taylor, Stanford

Did you identify this team’s strengths in the spring?

The Cardinal are in rebuilding mode following a multi-year slide and the resignation of longtime coach David Shaw. Tight end Benjamin Yurosek is a bright spot, and E.J. Smith can be a dynamic running back when healthy, but Taylor has few proven playmakers at his disposal on either side of the ball. The first-year coach is implementing an up-tempo offense, and trying to overhaul a defense that ranked 112th nationally last season in points allowed per game (and 125th in yards per play allowed).

One could just as easily ask about the Cardinal’s recent recruiting success, with a whopping 28 prospects already committed in the 2024 class. But with camp a couple weeks away and oddsmakers placing Stanford’s over/under win total in the 2.5 to 3 range, I’m more interested in what Taylor and his staff think they can do on the field in 2023.

Chip Kelly, UCLA

What have you learned about Dante Moore?

Notoriously brief on personnel matters, Kelly is not likely to reveal much about the Bruins’ quarterback situation, with the five-star freshman, Moore, presumably competing against fourth-year junior (and former Washington transfer) Ethan Garbers and Kent State transfer Collin Schlee. But it would be interesting to get at least some insight on Moore, a national top-five prospect in the 2023 class, and how ready Kelly believes he might be to face a college defense. I’d be curious to see what Garbers could do, too, but Moore might be the only true freshman in the conference with a legitimate chance to start the majority of his team’s games this season.

Lincoln Riley, USC

What gives you confidence that you’ve improved enough on defense to contend for a CFP bid?

Caleb Williams returns after winning the Heisman Trophy, and he has plenty of talented players around him to throw or hand the ball to. USC will advance only as far as its defense allows. Utah put 90 points on the Trojans in two victories last season – including in the Pac-12 title game – and everyone remembers the collapse against Tulane. As such, there was a lot of grumbling about defensive coordinator Alex Grinch at season’s end. This feels like a pivotal year for him, as the Trojans aim for their first Pac-12 title since 2017 before departing for the Big Ten.

The solution could simply be the new personnel, such as transfer defensive linemen Anthony Lucas, Bear Alexander, Kyon Barrs and Jack Sullivan, plus linebacker Mason Cobb and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, among others. I’m interested to hear Riley’s assessment of his new-look defense ahead of training camp.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah

How do you feel about playing such a difficult non-conference schedule?

A year after losing their season opener at Florida, the Utes open their 2023 schedule by hosting the Gators on a Thursday night. Then, they travel to Waco for a Week 2 game at Baylor before hosting Weber State. It’s by far the most difficult non-conference schedule in the Pac-12 this year. It has me wondering what Whittingham thinks of playing back-to-back Power 5 opponents to begin the season, and playing road games against Power 5 opponents in back-to-back seasons. (The Utes are scheduled to host Southern Utah, BYU and Baylor in 2024.)

Does it put the two-time defending Pac-12 champs at a disadvantage, vis-a-vis the College Football Playoff? Or does Whittingham relish the challenge?

He’s old school, and not the type to make excuses, though Whittingham has advocated for uniformity in scheduling in the past.

Kalen DeBoer, Washington

Did you see an improved secondary this spring?

Similar to USC, the Huskies had a nationally elite offense in 2022 but allowed 40-plus points in each of their losses. They moved players around and brought in a couple new faces to help address their defensive issues, particularly in the defensive backfield. Given the summer to digest and reflect on how those changes were implemented during spring practices, does DeBoer believe that group will be markedly better this season? More specifically, what did coaches identify as the trouble spots in the defensive backfield last season, and who are they counting on to shore those up?

Jake Dickert, Washington State

How can WSU combat the transfer portal and build a consistent winner?

The Cougars went 7-6 in Dickert’s first full season and return starting quarterback Cam Ward. But their offensive coordinator (Eric Morris) left to become head coach at North Texas, and their defensive coordinator (Brian Ward) left to become DC at Arizona State, and several starters (particularly at linebacker and receiver) left to play for other schools.

More than ever, I hear WSU fans worry their program could become a “feeder school,” so to speak, because it is susceptible to wealthier schools (and donor collectives) poaching its personnel. WSU men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith has lamented this very issue.

What can Dickert do — and what can WSU do with NIL — to identify and sign impact players, and then retain them?

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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