Pac-12 Media Day notebook: Welcome back, Chip Kelly

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Unlike the other Power Five conferences, the Pac-12’s preseason media kickoff comes and goes in just one day with all 12 head coaches addressing the press. Here’s what we took away from each of the Pac-12 head coach press conferences.

Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg contributed to this report.

Chip Kelly might recognize your team’s offensive scheme

It has only been six years since Chip Kelly decided to leave Oregon for the NFL — but a lot has changed in that timeframe.

Kelly, the new UCLA coach, was wildly successful with the Ducks and was known for running an uptempo, spread offense. It’s an offense you see all over the country now. Don’t think Kelly hasn’t noticed.

“I think when I first came into this league there weren’t many spread offenses and we were the only team that had shiny helmets, and now everybody runs the spread offense and everybody has shiny helmets,” Kelly quipped.

“I think the game itself has changed. So I think you have to change with it. I’ve had great experience since I left Oregon from a football standpoint. So being in the NFL for four years, and then last year being out and getting a chance to study the game, I think will help me.”

At UCLA, Kelly has inherited a very, very young team. Even he isn’t sure what to expect when the Bruins step foot on the field, but he’s not going to force any specific scheme on his current roster.

“Every team has a different dynamic, and I think it’s based upon what your personnel is. Our job is to put our players in position to make plays,” Kelly said. “And I’m not being evasive. We only have eight seniors. We didn’t have a lot of guys in spring ball. So there are going to be a bunch of guys that just showed up that are going to play for us because of sheer numbers. So exactly how it’s going to look, I’m not sure how it’s going to look.”

Mike Leach: ‘We all have very fond memories’ of Tyler Hilinski

Washington State coach Mike Leach took some time to reflect on the months since the shocking death of Tyler Hilinski.

Hilinski was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January. He spent most of the 2017 season as the backup quarterback to Luke Falk and was set to take over as the team’s starter in 2018. Hilinski’s parents said this summer their son had CTE when he committed suicide. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can be incited by repetitive blows to the head.

Leach said his program had counselors available to the team within hours of finding out that Hilinski was dead to help players and those who knew Tyler cope and process.

“You know, the biggest thing was as soon as it happened, we got counselors with the team,” Leach said. “But then the other thing is just be present for everybody on the team. Then having the team itself, I think has been very helpful. Then we all have very fond memories of Tyler. We’re proud that we had the opportunity to know him.”

Leach also said that his team had discussions about the importance of mental health.

“I think [mental health] is a constant emphasis, and it needs to remain that way,” he said.

Pac-12 expanding its efforts to shorten games

The Pac-12’s attempt to make the length of college football games shorter is getting bigger in 2018.

The league announced Wednesday that it would expand an experiment it began in 2017. The 15 non-conference game experiment included halftimes that were five minutes shorter (15 minutes instead of 20), fewer long commercial breaks and quicker kickoffs after commercials. Those games were an average of eight minutes shorter.

All of those games were on the Pac-12 Network. With the effort being expanded to 30 games in 2018 — including some conference games — ESPN and Fox will also broadcast games with the shorter game format.

“Improving the fan experience is a critical priority for the Pac-12 and we believe that taking steps to shorten the length of football games is one way to meet that objective,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “We are very pleased that as we continue to pilot innovative ways to shorten the game that this coming year we will be able to include some conference games as well as certain games televised by ESPN and Fox Sports.”

Bryce Love back for Stanford and close to graduation

David Shaw said he wasn’t surprised by running back Bryce Love’s decision to return to school. Love decided to stay at Stanford for the 2018 season after grinding through an ankle injury in 2017. The injury hobbled him, but not enough to prevent him from rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns.

With the finite career of a running back compared to other NFL positions, no one would have blamed Love for entering the 2018 NFL draft. But Shaw said Wednesday — Love was not in attendance because of class — that Love wants to get his degree.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised either way because both had legitimate arguments for him to leave or come back,” Shaw said. “In my heart of hearts, I would have guessed that he would have come back, just knowing what goals he has both in football and out of football.

“I know he wanted to get stronger and be more prepared physically for the pounding of the NFL, and I know what he wants to do off the field in his desire to go to medical school. He’s way ahead academically to the point where he’s got a chance to graduate the fall quarter of his senior year, which is amazing to be in human biology at Stanford University and graduate two quarters early while playing football.”

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Kevin Sumlin has big goals for Khalil Tate

Kevin Sumlin has coached some really good quarterbacks over the years, but none quite have the explosive athleticism of Khalil Tate. Tate burst onto the scene last year with 1,411 rushing yards, but was inconsistent as a passer.

Sumlin, now at Arizona after six years at Texas A&M, has one particular focus for Tate’s progression.

“He’s a guy that’s really explosive. He’s moving from being an athlete that is a quarterback, to being a quarterback that’s an athlete,” Sumlin said.

How will that work?

“Becoming a student of the game. Working and becoming a leader and accepting those roles. There is a little different pressure when you’re a starter with the things that are expected of you. Not just on the field, but off the field and on the sideline,” Sumlin said.

“That growth is taking place because, as great as his numbers are, he’s really a young player and hasn’t played a lot. So there is still a lot of room for improvement for him. I think he understands that and is working hard in wanting to be a great quarterback.”

Clay Helton: JT Daniels ‘is a damn good quarterback’

With Sam Darnold now wearing a New York Jets uniform, Clay Helton has a quarterback competition around the corner at USC. Redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears duked it out throughout spring practice. But now J.T. Daniels, a five-star true freshman, has entered the mix.

The hype around Daniels is tremendous. Former NFL QB Jordan Palmer even said Daniels already can do some things better than Darnold. Helton won’t go that far — yet.

“I’m never going to put too much pressure on a kid. I want him to be able to grow and to develop,” Helton said. “We are going to give him the opportunity to compete at a very, very young age and see where he is. I’ve known JT since he was in the 7th grade, and he’s been in our camps. Every time he’s been in those situations with USC coaches watching him in competitive situations, he’s always thrived. I would expect nothing less.

“Jordan knows a good one when he sees one, and JT Daniels is a damn good quarterback.”

Helton made one thing clear Wednesday. He won’t be afraid to throw a young quarterback into the fire.

“It’s going to be about who the best player is in the moment. It doesn’t matter his age to me,” Helton said.

Chris Petersen not worried about Washington’s status as Pac-12 favorite

Washington enters the 2018 season as a significant favorite to win the Pac-12, but Chris Petersen doesn’t want to hear it. Petersen told reporters Wednesday that outside expectations will never affect the way his program operates. There’s no pressure created from the preseason hype either.

“That doesn’t mean anything to us. We expect to be good and win games, and that’s never changed. Because other people think that we might win some games, that doesn’t really change our mindset,” Petersen said.

UW opens with a trip to Atlanta to face Auburn. It will be one of Week 1’s marquee games, and the Huskies will be without tight end Hunter Bryant, who had the looks of a rising star before a late-season injury. Petersen confirmed that Bryant, even after participating in spring ball, recently had surgery and won’t see the field for quite a while.

“He’s not going to be ready at the start of the season. This may end up being his redshirt year, especially with the four games that we can play,” Petersen said. “It will be a month or two before we can even kind of really see where he’s at.”

Cristobal: Justin Herbert has transformed into a ‘field general’

Oregon made it back to a bowl with seven wins last fall, but the season could have been better had quarterback Justin Herbert not gone down with a broken collarbone.

Following a 4-1 start, the team went 1-4 without Herbert in the lineup. New Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal, the team’s offensive coordinator last fall, sees Herbert ascending to a new level, especially with his leadership.

“He’s much more vocal. He now is becoming a field general. I think he was a quarterback last year, and now he’s becoming a field general,” Cristobal said.

The way Cristobal described it, Herbert is essentially a coach on the field.

“That guy understands how to flip protections. He understands, ‘We’re getting a seven-man rush here, they’re going to play cover zero.’ He knows how to call a tight end, change the running backs, and get them a protection opportunity,” Cristobal explained.

“He understands the run game like a coordinator does. He could get us into advantage runs when we’re not in one or facing pressure or potentially a negative play. In my opinion, that’s the biggest step as a quarterback, when he can look at it like an offensive line coach can and understand, ‘Where can we get hit? Where can we get hurt? How can we make this an advantage if play for us?’”

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Herm Edwards: ‘Doesn’t matter’ that Arizona State was picked last

Entering his first season as Arizona State’s head coach, Herm Edwards isn’t putting a whole lot of stock into preseason polls. The Sun Devils were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South by the league’s media. He doesn’t really care.

“Somebody’s got to be first, somebody’s got to be sixth. Doesn’t matter to me,” Edwards said. “We don’t go by polls. We’ve got our own aspirations. We’re trying to win a Pac-12 championship. They can write what they want. That’s good. Hopefully no players are listening to that, because no coaches are listening to it.”

But can something like a preseason poll serve as a motivational tool? Edwards hopes his players don’t need the media as a source of motivation.

“I would hope that if you need someone else to motivate you, that’s not good,” Edwards said. “I learned this a long time ago on how I grew up. You’ve got to be able to bet on yourself. You don’t let other people set your expectations. Don’t fall into that trap.”

Utah welcomes back WR Britain Covey

Utah, entering its eighth season in the Pac-12, has been consistently competitive since it entered the league, but still hasn’t been able to reach the conference title game. Kyle Whittingham has been at the helm for all of that, and knows his program finally needs to break through.

“We’ve been competitive and had a chance to get to the championship game a couple times, but have not capitalized on that opportunity. That’s the next step of our evolution as a program, in our estimation, is getting to that championship game,” Whittingham said.

One player that can help the Utes make that leap is receiver Britain Covey. Covey caught 43 passes as a true freshman in 2015. Back from his LDS mission trip to Chile, Covey has been hard at work to return to football shape.

“Britain Covey is a tremendous player,” Whittingham said. “Britain has been home since April, so he’s had a pretty good timeframe to get himself ready and get up to speed. Looks great in the summer conditioning. I haven’t seen him run routes and catch balls yet, but we’ll do that next Wednesday.”

First to worst: Colorado looking to bounce back

Colorado finally broke through in Mike MacIntyre’s fourth season by winning 10 games and capturing a Pac-12 South title. The Buffs weren’t able to maintain that success in 2017 and finished the year with a 5-7 record, including a lowly 2-7 mark in conference play.

MacIntyre said that drop-off was a big learning experience for his program; it showed how slim the margin for error can be in a competitive league like the Pac-12.

“It’s a lot more fun to be in first place than down where we were,” MacIntyre said. “It all goes back to winning the close games. You hear coaches talk about that all the time.”

The Buffs played a lot of inexperienced guys last fall. MacIntyre hopes that experience will help flip the script in some of those close games.

“We lost a lot of good players the year before, and so we played some guys out there that were a little bit newer. We just didn’t quite make enough situational plays in some games,” MacIntyre said. “Things that are small factors end up being big factors in close games.”

Justin Wilcox: Ross Bowers is the leader at QB

Ross Bowers was Cal’s starting quarterback in 2017. And it looks like he’s got the edge to keep that role in 2018. Bowers completed nearly 60 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Cal coach Justin Wilcox wasn’t ready to anoint Bowers the starter on Wednesday but made it clear he’s the front-runner.

“He’s a much better player than he was a year ago right now, which is encouraging,” Wilcox said. “It’s going to be competitive though for him. We got a couple other guys, Brandon McIlwain, a transfer who brings a little different element, and Chase Forrest, Chase Garbers.”

“So we’re not ready to name a starter yet. Ross obviously has an advantage because he’s got so many game reps, and he has improved, so I don’t discount that at all, but it will be a competitive camp.”

You may recognize McIlwain’s name. He’s a former South Carolina QB who transferred to Cal and sat out the 2017 season after Jake Bentley took his spot as the Gamecocks starter.

Jonathan Smith gives Oregon State ‘a fresh start’

Jonathan Smith knows he has a rebuild ahead of him at his alma mater.

After six seasons coaching underneath Chris Petersen at Boise State and Washington, Smith is taking over an Oregon State program that has just seven wins combined over the past three seasons. A 1-11 2017 season came to a brutal conclusion: a 69-10 loss to Oregon.

Smith has been tasked with quickly getting his guys to turn the page toward “a fresh start.” To do so, he leaned on his experience going through a coaching change as a player.

“I didn’t dwell on [2017], didn’t talk about it a lot. But I definitely think there were things to learn from. Because that team was in some games,” Smith said. “I wanted to come in with a message of I’ve experienced it here. I’ve sat in those seats. I’ve gone through a coaching change when I was a player. It’s been done before. We can do it again. I’m trying to be authentic that I’ve lived it, and I want to help them do the same.”

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