Return to conquest
There are suddenly two NFL teams in Los Angeles.
But the Hollywood spotlight might find USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen more often this fall than the Rams’ Jared Goff or the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers.
Darnold and the Trojans, coming off a 10-3 season and a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, will be the Pac-12 preseason favorites. Rosen, coming off a debilitating shoulder injury, will try to raise his draft stock and Jim Mora’s program after the Bruins’ brutal 4-8 season.
The two Los Angeles collegiate quarterbacks are at or near the top of the early 2018 NFL mock drafts.
“Really, nothing fazes the guy,” USC coach Clay Helton said of Darnold during the post-spring Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “No moment is too big. He has approached this offseason as an opportunity to improve his game.”
Helton said Darnold, who passed for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, has improved his ability to recognize different coverage schemes and blitzes.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt sophomore also has taken on more of a leadership role with the departure of star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, offensive lineman Zach Banner and other key players from the 2016 Trojans.
Darnold will be on the short list of preseason Heisman Trophy favorites, and the tradition-rich Trojans are seeking their first conference title since 2008.
Despite having to reload at receiver and revamp an injury-plagued offensive line, Helton embraces the College Football Playoff expectations surrounding the program.
“We addressed it with our team this spring right off the bat,” Helton said. “Even though last season was extremely rewarding and made some unbelievable memories with that Rose Bowl victory, I asked the team: ‘Are you satisfied?’
“Not one hand rose because we know what we expect here at ’SC and what our goal is each and every year.”
Mora led UCLA to a South Division title and back-to-back 10-win seasons during his first three years on the job. Since Rosen, a five-star recruit, stepped on campus, the Bruins are 12-13.
The Bruins have sent an impressive list of defensive players to the NFL in recent years. Mora is hoping new offensive coordinator Jeff Fisch can get UCLA balanced enough for a schedule that includes Texas A&M in the opener and road games at Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC.
“Cautiously optimistic,” Mora said of the revamped offense. “We have a nice scheme, and it’s well coached and our players have embraced it. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to improve, mastering the fundamentals and concepts.”
Defending South Division champion Colorado loses four-year starting quarterback Sefo Liufau, and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was lured away by a $1.15 million salary at Oregon.
Four of Leavitt’s former pupils — cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, safety Tedric Thompson and defensive tackle Jordan Carrell — were selected in last weekend’s NFL draft.
Coach Mike MacIntyre, who was on the hot seat a year ago until guiding the Buffaloes to their first bowl game in nine years, said the program is built for sustained success.
“We’ll have more guys every year getting drafted,” said MacIntyre, who attended last weekend’s draft with Awuzie. “We’ll see how we do when the bullets are out there flying, but we have a lot of experience coming back, even on the defensive side of the ball.
“We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football and a lot of guys we believe in.”
Colorado was the fifth different team to win the South in the last five seasons. The only program in the division not to play in a Pac-12 championship game is Utah.
No one is more disappointed in that statistic than coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes have won at least nine games in each of the past three seasons and led the Pac-12 with eight NFL draft picks in 2017.
Finding an elite quarterback is the final piece to the championship puzzle in Salt Lake City.
“We have got to be able to throw the ball more productively, more efficiently. That, in my estimation, is the thing that has kept us from getting over that hump,” Whittingham said. “We’ve played pretty good defense, very solid on special teams, we’ve run the football exceptionally well. The Achilles’ heel has been throwing the football. …
“Ever since we joined the Pac-12, we haven’t been able to throw the football good enough.”
Utah’s incumbent starter, Troy Williams, competed with talented dual-threat prospect Tyler Huntley and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman during the spring.
Territorial Cup rivals Arizona and Arizona State — who were a combined 3-15 in Pac-12 games last season — are trying to climb out of the basement to the top of the standings as Colorado did last fall.
The Wildcats were 3-9 overall and didn’t have a Pac-12 victory until beating the rival Sun Devils (5-7, 2-7) in the season finale.
Rich Rodriguez led Arizona to the South championship in 2014 after counterpart Todd Graham led Arizona State to the division title in 2013.
The North Division is 6-0 in Pac-12 championship games, but hope springs eternal in the South.
“There’s a lot of parity,” Graham said. “Every game comes down to the wire. It’s one of the most unique divisions in the country. You’ve got to stay healthy and you’ve got to bring it every week. It’s definitely a challenging division to be in."