NCF Nation: Aaron Pflugrad

ASU QB competition is wide open

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There, it seemed, was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback.

In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the Sun Devils' starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

"My mindset changed immediately," Bercovici said. "I was really excited when I heard the news."

Of course he was. It's natural that the backup becomes the favorite to win the job when the starter leaves. Osweiler's decision meant Bercovici was suddenly in line to become No. 1 on the depth chart a year earlier than expected -- as a true sophomore.

But, as everyone also knows, Osweiler also wasn't the only person who bolted the Sun Devils. When coach Dennis Erickson was fired, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his spread passing attack moved on to UCLA. Enter Todd Graham and his spread-option, Oregon-esque offense, which asks the quarterback to be a running threat.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Jennifer Hilderbrand/US PresswireMike Bercovici was last season's backup at Arizona State, but might not be the best quarterback for new coach Todd Graham.
Bercovici has a big arm but isn't really known for his ability to run the ball.

"I'm not as familiar with the zone read," he said.

The guy who lost out on the backup job to Bercovici last preseason, sophomore Taylor Kelly, however, does have experience running the spread option. And, oh by the way, redshirt freshman Michael Eubank, an impressive athlete at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, was recruited by Graham to play quarterback at Pittsburgh.

"He tells me he knows me. He's told me that numerous times since he's been here," Eubank said. "But I'm fighting for the job like the rest of the guys. I don't feel like I have any advantage just because I know him."

What we do know: This feels like an honest-to-goodness battle. This offense seems to fit Kelly's and Eubank's comfort zone better than Bercovici's, but Graham's offense also emphasizes throwing the ball downfield -- much more so than Mazzone's quick-hit passing attack. Bercovici can hurl the rock downfield, there is absolutely no doubt about that.

But Graham isn't talking so much about the different skill sets of his signal-callers. For one, spring practices only start Tuesday, so he hasn't seen them in action. But he makes clear that there's a lot more to playing the position than passing and running.

"We spend a lot more time focusing on the intangibles, the mental part of it," he said. "The guy who will win this job will be the guy who can lead our team."

That said, becoming proficient with the spread option is a key component of the competition. But it's not all about athletic ability and blazing speed, either.

"The read zone is a part of what we do," Graham said. "We want to hurt them with our legs but slay them with our arm. Most of the guys in this system have been between 4.8 and 5-flat [in the 40-yard-dash], but if you have great technique you can be very deceptive in the option game."

(Graham said his offense best compares to what Chad Morris runs at Clemson and what new Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn ran as Auburn's offensive coordinator).

None of the three has any real college experience. And all three are young, so whoever wins could be in line to be a three- or (in Eubank's case) four-year starter. Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said each will get equal time with the first-team offense until a pecking order establishes itself.

"I don't have a timeline for when we're going to cut it to a two-man race or when we're going to name a starter," Norvell said. "It's a process and it's going to take its course. We're going to see how the guys compete."

And the competition is almost certain to extend well into fall camp.

Said Norvell, "I think I'll find it hard to name a starter after just 15 practices."

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 23, 2012
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Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

Spring practice is almost here. Here's a snapshot at what to expect from the Pac-12 South in the coming weeks.

ARIZONA

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Hello, my name is ... Like the other two teams in the South Division with new head coaches (Arizona State and UCLA) much of Arizona's first few weeks will be Rich Rodriguez evaluating his personnel and getting to know what he has to work with. Likewise, the players are going to have to figure out what this new coaching staff is about. Everything from how they do pre-practice stretches to how they call the cadence is going to change.
  • New scheme and a new scheme: A spread option on offense and a 3-3-5 on defense. That's a lot of new material to digest on both sides of the ball. Until Rodriguez can recruit the players he likes into his scheme, he's going to have to make it work with the players he has. Fortunately on the defensive side of the ball, Arizona has good depth in the secondary with Cortez Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Shaquille Richardson, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant. The Wildcats should also get a boost with the return of injured players Jake Fischer (LB), Jonathan McKnight (CB) and Adam Hall (S).
  • Perfect fit? Former starter Matt Scott, who was beaten out by Nick Folesin 2009, is expected to reprise his starting role under Rodriguez. He redshirted the 2011 season and -- magically -- Foles never got hurt last year despite taking 23 sacks and countless hits. Scott is considered the more versatile quarterback and should fit nicely into the new run-based spread attack.
ARIZONA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 13

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • QB competition: We know what kind of offense new coach Todd Graham is going to run; now it's a matter of figuring out who is going to run it. Graham has his choice of three players -- Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly or Michael Eubank -- to replace NFL-bound Brock Osweiler. Graham said earlier this month that there are no favorites heading into the competition and each one brings his own skill set to the table. Eubank has the size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), Bercovici (6-1, 205) is a mechanic and Kelly (6-1, 202) is a little bit of everything.
  • Get the locker room: By the end of the 2011 season, ASU's locker room wasn't just divided, it was completely splintered. Graham's task -- and that of his new coaching staff -- is to pick up the pieces, mend internal fences and find some chemistry on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Brandon Magee, long considered a great locker room leader, should help get the Sun Devils back on track as he returns from a season-ending Achilles injury.
  • Hands competition: The Sun Devils lose three of their top four wide receivers from last season -- Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie. Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team last season with 60 catches and six touchdowns. Rashad Ross figures to be the No. 2 guy, but establishing depth in that corps -- especially if Graham wants to be up-tempo -- is key.
COLORADO

Spring practice starts: March 10

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Momentum, maybe? For as rough as 2011 was for the Buffs, they ended the year on a high note, winning two-of-three down the stretch -- including a 17-14 win over Utah in the season finale. But there is also the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. With just four returning starters on offense, spring in Boulder will likely be more about teaching and less about refining.
  • Where to start (offense)? Well, quarterback might be a good place. In the court of public opinion, Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, seems to be the favorite. Nick Hirschman appeared in five games last season, mostly in mop-up time when the game was already out of hand. It's also possible a starter could be named by the end of spring ball. Finding offensive weapons to surround the new quarterback will also be a challenge. Wide receiver Paul Richardson caught 39 balls last season, and running back Tony Jones showed a flare for catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll likely step in as the new workhorse back for the departed Rodney Stewart.
  • Where to start (defense)? Last in this. Last in that. Last in almost every team statistic the Pac-12 has to offer. But there are some intriguing youngsters on the roster. Cornerback Greg Henderson was all-conference honorable mention as a freshman with a team-high nine passes broken up. Jered Bell also returns from injury after blowing out a knee last preseason. If healthy, he's expected to be a big contributor in the secondary. Linebacker Jon Majorreturns as the team's leading tackler, and if Doug Rippy is fully recovered from his knee injury, he'll look to build on what was a pretty good season last year before getting hurt.
UCLA

Spring practice starts: April 3

Spring game: May 5

What to watch:
  • QB up for grabs: Like the majority of the conference, UCLA enters spring with a quarterback competition. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said he doesn't care how much experience (or lack thereof) a player has -- if he can play, he wins the job. So don't be surprised if Brett Hundley passes Kevin Prince and Richard Brehautas the new man leading the Bruins. Fans have been clamoring for a change. Hundley might be it.
  • Attitude adjustment: One of the first things new head coach Jim Mora did was slam the team for its tradition of going "over the wall," a time-honored senior ditch day, saying if they want to jump the wall, they should just keep on going. How's that for sending a message? UCLA has earned a reputation for being soft and underachieving despite good talent. Attitude and toughness is needed -- and so far, Mora appears to be hammering that point home.
  • Speaking of toughness ... The defense has to get tougher. No two ways about it. It was weak against the run last season, allowing more than 190 yards per game on the ground; couldn't get to the quarterback; and couldn't get off the field almost 50 percent of the time on third down. It's time for potential all-conference players such as defensive end Datone Jones to start living up to the hype and the defense as a whole to stop getting pushed up and down the field. At 6-5, 275 pounds, Jones has the physical makeup to be a major force in the conference and catapult himself into the elite class of collegiate defensive players.
USC

Spring practice starts: March 6

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Ignore the hype: Few teams ended last season hotter than USC and returning quarterback Matt Barkley. The Heisman talk has already started, the way-too-early rankings already have the Trojans as national championship contenders, and the public perception is that the offense is unstoppable. Nice to hear, but hype is a double-edged sword. Head coach Lane Kiffin has a knack for deflecting hype. This season will be his toughest test to date.
  • Insurance? The Trojans are loaded on both sides of the ball with returning players. But after the starting 22, things start to get dicey. Developing depth and keeping the starters healthy is a top priority -- particularly on the offensive and defensive lines and at running back, where experience is thin outside of the starters. The entire back seven returns on defense -- headlined by hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald. Stopping the pass has been a major priority for Kiffin, and if this group stays healthy it should see the pass-efficiency numbers improve even more.
  • Other options: Along those same lines, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee make up the most feared receiving duo in the conference -- maybe the country. But who are the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers behind them? George Farmer? Victor Blackwell? De'Von Flournoy? Don't overlook the tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, which should rival Stanford's Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as the best tight end tandem in the conference.
UTAH

Spring practice starts: March 20

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Youthful approach: Head coach Kyle Whittingham turned some heads by naming former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Johnson, who recently turned 25, said he's not looking to make wholesale changes to the offense, though he wants to put his stamp on it and continue to build around running back John White IV, who had a breakout season in his first year of major college football. Having quarterback Jordan Wynn back healthy should also help as the team transitions to Johnson running the offense.
  • Fixing the line: Who is going to protect Wynn (if he does indeed win back the starting job) and make holes for White? That's a major concern heading into spring as the Utes have to replace a pair of all-conference linemen in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. The Utes should be set at the interior but have to adjust to a new position coach, with Tim Davis leaving for Florida after just one season and Dan Finn -- a former Utah graduate assistant who was brought on to help Davis -- taking over the whole line following a one-year stint at San Diego State.
  • Work the experience: The defensive line should be one of the best in the conference, especially with the return of Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy last season as the conference's best defensive lineman. With the Kruger brothers returning to the line -- Joe at defensive end and Dave at tackle -- Derrick Shelby is the lone starter who has to be replaced. There's also some pretty good depth in the secondary that was tops in the conference last season in pass-efficiency defense.

ASU's Rashad Ross knows how to finish

February, 17, 2012
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Fortunately for Arizona State wide receiver Rashad Ross, starting blocks aren't required for running routes. If they were, the junior might have a hard time getting off the snap. And let's be honest, the shoulder pads and helmet would probably just get in the way.

Yet even on an indoor track, Ross still hasn't really mastered those pesky starting blocks.

"Honestly, I don't really know how to start all that good," Ross said. "But I can end good."

[+] EnlargeRashad Ross
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireWith three of ASU's top 4 receivers from 2011 not returning next season, Rashad Ross has a golden opportunity for playing time.
And at the end of the race -- if you're the one crossing the finishing line first -- no one is going to care how you started.

Of all the collegiate football players in the country who also run track, Ross has the fastest time in the nation in the 200-meters indoor with an altitude-adjusted mark of 21.25. That's also the sixth fastest indoor mark in ASU history. Overall, he ranks 24th in the nation among all runners.

"I like the 200 because I know if I screw up the start, I have time to make it up," he said.

That should give you some indication of just how fast this guy is -- slow starter, huge finisher. It's that way on the football field as well. One needs only to look at the opening kickoff of the second half in the Las Vegas Bowl, when Ross took it back 98 yards, to see what happens when he gets it going. It was one of the few highlights on an otherwise off night for ASU against Boise State.

The Sun Devils and new head coach Todd Graham are going to need plenty of speed at the wide receiver spot next year. They lose three of the top four receivers from last season; Gerell Robinson (77 catches, 1,397 yards, seven touchdowns), Aaron Pflugrad (44/665/5) and Mike Willie (36/455/3). Which means the fleet-footed Ross could be the next big thing.

Aside from his track training, he's been working out on the side with a couple of the quarterbacks who will be in line to replace Brock Osweiler. Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly are all in competition for the starting gig.

"A lot of people say quarterback is going to be an issue for us next year," Ross said. "We'll see. I have faith in all of them."

Ross knows nothing is going to be handed to him. And Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team with 60 catches and six touchdowns last year. Ross' track training keeps him in shape for football and if he wants to build on his 18 catches from last season, he's going to have to win over Graham and his new staff.

"When I first met [Graham], I thought he was nice -- not like what everybody else was saying and I didn't see what everybody else was seeing," Ross said. "And then I heard him talk when he was mad and I was like 'OK, he's not playing around.'"

For now, he's focused on getting that 200 time down even further. If he can get to 21 flat, he'll have a good shot at qualifying for nationals and a 20.73 would make him an automatic qualifier. He also has the eighth fastest time in the conference in the 60-meter at 6.82. His slower starts are even more noteworthy in a quick sprint like the 60, because he is still able to make up time on the finish.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- We've reached halftime here at Memorial Stadium, and what looked like an offensive shootout has slowed down significantly.

Illinois leads 10-7.

Stat of the half: The teams have combined to convert 9 of 16 third-down attempts, but they've also combined for three turnovers, none of which turned into points.

Best player in the half: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Other than a very ill-advised throw into triple coverage, Scheelhaase has sliced up Arizona State's defense. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 104 yards and added 62 rushing yards on 10 carries. Two receivers also have stood out: Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (4 catches, 79 yards) and Arizona State's Aaron Pflugrad (4 catches, 55 yards).

What Illinois needs to do: Stop committing turnovers and start finishing drives. Illinois should have more points against an Arizona State defense that clearly has some flaws. The Illini also need to figure out ways to cover up their problems at the safety position or Brock Osweiler will make more plays in the second half.

What Arizona State needs to do: Pick up blitzes better and allow Osweiler to attack Illinois in the deep middle. The Sun Devils also need to show better discipline after being penalized five times for 55 yards. The defense must keep an eye on Scheelhaase, who has found gaps.

Arizona State finds a way

September, 10, 2011
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The penalties. The critical turnovers. The sloppiness. The bad luck. Same old Arizona State.

It certainly looked that way as Missouri lined up for a game-winning 48-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.

But something happened on the way to blowing a game it led by 14 points early in the fourth quarter. Arizona State got a break: Missouri's standout kicker Grant Ressel missed wide left. Not only that, the Sun Devils took advantage of that break and won 37-30 in overtime.

[+] EnlargeASU's Brock Osweiler and Aaron Pflugrad
Matt Kartozian/US PRESSWIREArizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler (left) and receiver Aaron Pflugrad (right) connected 8 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns on Friday night.
"I was like, 'Not again,'" Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "We've been through too many heart breakers these past two years. But this time we had a little bit of luck on our side."

At one point, Arizona State looked like it was about to run away with an easy win over the No. 21 Tigers. After they jumped ahead 30-16 early in the fourth quarter, they got a defensive stop and forced a punt that looked like would give them good field position. But Jamal Miles fumbled the return, and Missouri took over on the Sun Devils' 32-yard line.

From that point until the missed kick, nothing went right for Arizona State. The Tigers tied the game as the sold out crowd of 70, 236, which was dressed in all-black, grew increasingly restless. And then the Tigers drove all the way from their 8-yard line to the Sun Devils 31, looking primed to steal the victory.

Ressel is one of the best kickers in the nation. He entered the game having connected on 44 of 47 field goals. But he missed two against the Sun Devils, including the potential game-winner.

Said Osweiler, "You're never out of a football game until there are zeroes across the time clock."

When overtime started, Osweiler found his favorite target, receiver Aaron Pflugrad, for 13 yards on a third-and-7 play. Miles, earning redemption for his fumble, then scored the winning TD on an 11-yard swing pass from Osweiler.

The defense shutdown the Tigers on four plays. The crowd went bonkers, perhaps shocked at how things turned out but clearly happy to be witnessing the program's first win over a ranked team since 2007.

Osweiler was just short of brilliant. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 34 yards, which included a 12-yard TD. Pflugrad caught eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

Make no mistake: This one wasn't pretty. The teams' combined for 23 penalties for 124 yard, though Miles' fumble was the only turnover.

"I think the thing people need to take from this game is we stuck together," said Pflugrad, who transferred from Oregon after his father was fired by Chip Kelly as the Ducks receivers coach.

"We almost let [mistakes] beat us but we didn't."

That's the rub.

Said coach Dennis Erickson, “The football Gods were with us tonight.”

This was the sort of sloppy performance that left Sun Devils fans in the past asking, "What if?"

This time, instead of reviewing painful details, they're celebrating.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead but prevailed in overtime 37-30.

How the game was won: The game was sloppy on both sides, and it looked like Missouri was about to spoil the Sun Devils big stadium "black out" when Grant Ressel lined up for a game-winning 47-yard field goal in the final seconds. But he missed wide left. Granted new life, the Sun Devils took advantage with a touchdown and a stop in OT.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 23 penalties for 223 yards. Yes, it was sometimes hard to watch.

Player of the game: Sun Devils QB Brock Osweiler completed 24-of-31 for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed five times for 34 yards and a score.

Unsung hero of the game: Sun Devils receiver Aaron Pflugrad, an Oregon transfer, caught eight passes for 180 yards -- 22.5 yards per reception -- with two TDs. All career highs.

What Arizona State learned: The Sun Devils have blown games like this before. They pretty much blew this one, until Missouri returned the favor. But the Sun Devils can walk away with this: It's often better to be lucky than good. The Sun Devils have been pretty good and unlucky before and it hasn't worked. This time, luck smiled on them and they showed the gumption to take advantage.

What it means: The Pac-12 records its first meaningful nonconference victory of the season, and Arizona State gets a marquee victory on ESPN, one that should push them into the top-25. Of course, the Sun Devils head to Illinois next weekend. They need to refocus and get ready for a tough road trip.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A little trickeration will send Arizona State into the fourth quarter with a 23-16 lead over Missouri.

Receiver Jamal Miles took a double-pass from Brock Osweiler and found Aaron Pflugrad for a 35-yard touchdown, which left the Sun Devils one quarter away from their first win over a ranked team since 2007.

Up to that point, the Tigers had dominated the third with a pair of drives for field goals, but their inability to punch it in against a bend-but-don't break ASU defense is the difference.

Big game from Pflugrad, an Oregon transfer. He's caught six passes for 160 yards.

Halftime analysis: ASU 16, Mizzou 10

September, 10, 2011
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Let's take a look inside that first half out in Tempe, Ariz., where Missouri trails Arizona State, 16-10.

Turning point: Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler, who, if you haven't heard, is 6-foot-8, connected with Aaron Pflugrad on a gorgeous 60-yard rainbow down the right side of the field to give Arizona State its halftime lead. The momentum had shifted toward the Tigers, who scored on the previous drive, but Osweiler's deep ball gave ASU points on its first play of the ensuing possession and control of the game once again.

Turning point II: Missouri lost De'Vion Moore early on with an ankle injury and he won't return. Missouri had four reliable backs to begin the season, but for tonight and perhaps a bit into the future, it's down to just one. Henry Josey is the only healthy back left from a group that included Moore, Marcus Murphy (shoulder surgery) and Kendial Lawrence (broken fibula) and rushed for 1,557 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Missouri already entered tonight's game missing six starters due to injury just a week into the season. Moore was a new starter, so it's still six, but still.

Stat of the half: Osweiler and Missouri's James Franklin have combined to complete 23-of-29 passes. It's been a pretty clean-looking game so far with both quarterbacks dealing.

Best player in the half: Osweiler. He's been outstanding, connecting on throws at every level of the defense and really making the Tigers' defense work. In the first half, he was 11-of-14 for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He also swung the game on a huge throw to Pflugrad that earned our turning point of the half.

Second guessing: On Missouri's opening drive, Gary Pinkel elected to kick a 24-yard field goal on fourth-and-short in the red zone, rather than try and tie the game at 7 after Arizona State scored on its first drive. The Tigers have the perfect quarterback to make those kinds of plays, and OC David Yost has lauded Franklin's ability to push a pile. However, coach Gary Pinkel didn't give him the opportunity. Somewhat reminiscent of a similar decision early on against Oklahoma State in 2008, a game in which top 10 Missouri was upset on its home field.

What Missouri needs to do: Get in the backfield. Missouri's defensive line is strong, but it has been quiet in the first half. The Tigers have been unable to pressure Osweiler with any consistency, but the Tigers' cornerbacks need help. E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards have both been burnt already, and two of Missouri's defensive backs somehow whiffed on the first touchdown pass. How did it happen, though? Osweiler had lots of time and receivers were able to find open space in the secondary.
Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz laughs. Yeah, he remembers receiving a head-butt from Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict after a play last season.

"That started before the game, though. He was on the sidelines talking and everything," Katz recalls.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireArizona State is counting on a drama-free season from star linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
He then pauses. Katz is a sharp guy who favors giving reporters vanilla answers. But it's not hard to hear the wheels turning. He's being goaded to spice things up and he's considering whether than might be fun or not.

He takes a pass. Said Katz, "It's just competitive juices flowing. I don't take it personally. Things happen. I know he's an emotional player. He was just trying to get in our head."

Just about everyone who has played or coached against Burfict has a story. Many are about his breath-taking skills that rate the 6-foot-3, 252-pound true junior perhaps the nation's best linebacker, one with an NFL All-Pro future. But others are about him being unhinged, his intensity so overwhelming his self-control that he often hurts his team with his antics.

The head-butt to Katz, in fact, convinced Dennis Erickson, a coach not typically thought of as a strict disciplinarian, to take away Burfict's starting job last fall (albeit briefly).

A few weeks later, in a tight game with Stanford, Burfict was called for a critical face-mask penalty. It was a bad call, but Burfict couldn't resist the urge to point that out to officials, which earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of the face mask, which gave Stanford the ball on the Sun Devils' 7-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stanford pushed in the game-winning score, foiling a potential major upset that also would have earned the Sun Devils bowl eligibility.

In a highly competitive game with Oregon, Burfict spent a lot of time focusing on the Ducks' sideline, including mocking coach Chip Kelly's well-publicized method of signalling plays with random graphics on a large poster board.

Want more? Go to YouTube. If you search Vontaze Burfict, you'll find a long list of great plays and dubious behavior caught on film -- both noticed and unnoticed by officials.

"A lot of people ask about Vontaze -- from Oregon, from other places," said former Ducks and current Sun Devils wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad. "They are like 'What's up with this guy?' He's a shy, quiet guy off the field, but he's just a monster on it. That's the only way to explain it. I've never played with anyone like him before."

While Burfict loves to talk, intimidate and get inside opponents' heads, he's not so chatty or revealing about his own state of mind off it. After a spring and offseason when he worked with the school's sports information office and granted more interviews than he did his first two years, he has turned down interview requests -- including one from the Pac-12 blog -- this summer.

While part of that is because Burfict is reclusive and insecure with public speaking, another part involves things he doesn't want to talk about, including a locker room fight with 200-pound receiver Kevin Ozier, which the school attempted to downplay. Since that incident, reports of other off-field skirmishes, including a practice altercation with receivers coach Steve Broussard -- which Erickson told reporters was "totally ridiculous" -- have surfaced.

All this has clouded a storyline that Erickson and ASU officials had been working on since the spring: Burfict as team leader, a role even more required of him after cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee went down with season-ending injuries.

Said Erickson at Sun Devils media day, which Burfict chose not to attend: "He's matured a whole heck of a lot. I'm really proud of how he's matured." That was just days after the locker room fight.

Fellow linebacker Shelly Lyons, like Magee a former Burfict teammate at Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.), was asked what Burfict needs to work on this season.

"I would say when he gets frustrated," Lyons said. "He really has all the attributes as a player -- size, speed, he can hit. So I'd just say that when he gets frustrated to take it easy. The referees have a target on him. He's got to hold it back this year."

Last season, Burfict led the Sun Devils -- and was ninth in the Pac-10 -- with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. He also forced two fumbles. While there are some holes in his game -- his frenetic style sometimes gets him out of position -- physically, he's a finished product, one whose ability screams he's a certain top-15 NFL draft pick.

But the lack of self-control, on and off the field, will be an issue with NFL general managers.

If Burfict can fully focus his ability and intensity on what happens between the whistles, he could win the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. And the Sun Devils' defense, despite injuries, could become one of the top units on the West Coast.

If that happens, Burfict and the Sun Devils will have a happy ending: Perhaps a Pac-12 South Division title and a high draft pick.

"Hopefully this year it's controlled insanity and he doesn't go after a player or anything," Pflugrad said.

If it isn't, well, it's still likely to be great theater.
Oregon is just sick. And by "sick" we mean sick in the ironic way the cool kids talk. Just go look at these numbers. We'll wait here.

See? Sick. Oregon ranks No. 1 in the nation in just about all the cool statistical categories -- total and scoring defense, total and scoring offense, etc.

[+] EnlargeThomas/James
Kirby Lee/US PresswireDarron Thomas (left), LaMichael James and the rest of the Ducks are sitting atop the NCAA offensive rankings.
Of course, not everything is perfect. Oregon only ranks No. 2 in the nation in rushing offense, averaging a scant 380.67 yards per game, so that's a problem. Better get on that, Chip Kelly.

It's fair to ask if there's anything the fifth-ranked Ducks aren't doing well.

"I don't know the answer to that," Kelly said. "We don't put a whole heck of a lot into the stats after three games... I think we are playing well. I think we're playing hard. I like our effort. But we still have a ways to go to be a really, really good football team."

Oregon is bringing its PlayStation numbers to Arizona State on Saturday. In the preseason, this game probably elicited a "meh" from most observers. Oregon was projected No. 1 in the Pac-10. ASU was tapped ninth. And two games into the season, the reaction was likely the same.

But then the Sun Devils outplayed No. 11 Wisconsin on the road in a 20-19 defeat. There were so many ways that game could have turned in their favor, but there was an obvious positive spin, despite the loss: Arizona State can compete at a high level.

No, coaches and players don't like to talk about "moral" victories, but let's just say Kelly won't need to work hard this week to get his players to take their visit to Tempe seriously after they look at the Sun Devils-Badgers game film.

Coach Dennis Erickson said his team is more confident.

"I would say we are," he said. "We had chance to win a football game on the road against what we thought was a good football team. And yet, in looking at it, we did not play like we're capable of playing."

It's another good sign for the Sun Devils that a question about "moral" victories and "gaining confidence" seems to make quarterback Steven Threet wrinkle his nose in irritation.

"We didn't feel like the underdogs," he said. "I feel like going into it we knew we were a good team. I think some people thought it was a measuring stick for us, but I don't think anybody on our team believes in moral victories. We went in there to win the game. That was our goal."

Oregon thrashed the Sun Devils 44-21 in 2009, but the offense the Ducks will face on Saturday is a far more talented and confident outfit. That can be traced first to Threet, who is second in the conference with 280 yards passing per game, then to better offensive line play -- see 156 yards rushing per game -- and a deeper, more athletic array of skill players who can punish a defense when it messes up an assignment.

A lot like Oregon can.

Of course, the Ducks defense will be the best unit the Sun Devils have seen. But the same can be said for the Ducks offense.

In fact, if you are looking for a key matchup, start with Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict vs. the Ducks spread-option. While it's always about disciplined team defense when opposing the Ducks misdirection, Burfict is the sort of individual talent who could make things tough on running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

Burfict upped his game at Wisconsin and became a force. He needs to take it a few more clicks forward against the Ducks (without committing any boneheaded personal foul or conduct penalties).

"That's probably the best he's played [at Wisconsin]," Erickson said. "But he hasn't played near what he is capable of. He's getting better all the time. You've got to be disciplined against any offense but particularly this one. If you make a mistake and miss a tackle against Oregon, they'll take it to the house."

Another level of intrigue: Two Sun Devils have more than the obvious reasons to dislike the Ducks. Receiver Aaron Pflugrad transferred from Oregon to ASU after his father, receivers coach Robin Pflugrad, was fired by Kelly. And Sun Devils defensive tackle Bo Moos is the son of Bill Moos, who was forced out as Oregon's athletic director in 2007.

"Obviously, they both want to play well against the University of Oregon, where they have had ties over the years," Erickson said. "But I think they'll have the emotional aspect of it under control."

Oregon has looked sick on both sides of the ball thus far. But there will be strong emotions, newfound confidence, a home crowd and a hot desert evening swinging the Sun Devils way.

Maybe all that will combine to make the Ducks just sick enough -- in the traditional sense of the word -- that the Sun Devils can notch the upset.
Receiver is a difficult position to evaluate this year. Just about every team has a solid (or better) lead receiver back and some intriguing, but inexperienced, talent around him. But, other than Washington, no team should feel completely secure.

There is, however, a lot of potential at the position. Many of the names below who appear as secondary options could end up competing for All-Pac-10 spots.

Note: Tight ends and running backs don't count here.

Great shape

  • Washington: The Huskies entire two-deep is back, topped by second-team All-Pac-10 pick Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, who ranked seventh in the conference in receiving yards per game in 2009. James Johnson was probably the best freshman receiver in the conference last year.
Good shape

    [+] EnlargeJames Rodgers
    AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon State's James Rodgers caught 91 passes for 1,034 yards and nine TDs last year.
  • Oregon State: James Rodgers is clearly the No. 1 returning receiver in the conference. Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Darrell Catchings offer promising depth, but they combined for 25 receptions last year (Catchings was injured).
  • Oregon: The Ducks aren't flashy, but they welcome back their top three receivers from last year. By season's end, Jeff Maehl was one of the best in the conference. Things would have been better if Tyrece Gaines and Diante Jackson weren't ruled academically ineligible.
  • Arizona: After Delashaun Dean got himself kicked off the team, the Wildcats must replace their Nos. 1 and 4 WRs, which is why they aren't in "great shape." Still, Juron Criner tops a solid returning crew.
  • UCLA: The Bruins welcome back their top-two WRs -- Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario -- and Colorado transfer Josh Smith figures to make an immediate impact. Sophomores Damien Thigpen and Morrell Presley also seem poised for breakthroughs.
  • USC: While he was hurt much of last year, Ronald Johnson is a top home run threat. Brice Butler and David Ausberry will have to fight to stay ahead of a talented crew of incoming freshmen.
  • Stanford: The Cardinal welcome back their top-two receivers in Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu. That's the good news. The question is who will become options No. 3 and 4?
We'll see

  • California: The Bears only lose No. 2 WR Verran Tucker and the underwhelming Nyan Boateng, but, other than Marvin Jones, they didn't get much production here in 2009.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost their top-two WRs, but the cupboard isn't empty, with Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad, who would have started for the Ducks in 2009, and JC transfer George Bell, Gerell Robinson, Jamal Miles and Kerry Taylor. Still, it's not a proven group.
  • Washington State: The Cougars went through spring with just four scholarship receivers, a crew topped by Jared Karstetter and Gino Simone. The incoming recruiting class features five receivers, and at least a couple will get on the field. The Cougars are OK here but they did rank last in the conference in passing in 2009.
So how did quarterback Steven Threet end up at Arizona State?

"You want the long story or the short story?" Threet replies.

The short story: Threet signed with Georgia Tech out of Adrian (Mich.) High School but opted to transfer to Michigan when the Yellow Jackets changed offensive coordinators. Then the Wolverines changed head coaches and offenses from a pro-style scheme to a spread-option under Rich Rodriguez, which didn't fit the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder's style in the least.

[+] EnlargeSteven Threet
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireSteven Threet hopes to win the Sun Devils' starting quarterback job.
D'oh.

The Sun Devils also have changed offensive coordinators since Threet arrived, but no matter. He's hopeful that three times -- and programs -- is the charm.

"I'm comfortable with this offense," he said.

Threet, now a junior, and true sophomore Brock Osweiler will be competing this spring to take the reins of an offense that can only get better in large part because it was mostly lousy in 2009, averaging just 18 points per game against BCS conference foes.

Osweiler (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) played in six games and started one -- an ill-fated, blowout loss at Oregon -- completing 43.6 percent of his passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Threet started eight games at Michigan in 2008, completing 51 percent of his throws for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 201 yards and two scores, so he's not a complete stiff in the pocket.

Both guys have some experience, but neither was anything close to lights out. Both have talent. Both have leadership skills. Both are tall.

And it's a straight-up competition with no leader at this point, at least officially. Coach Dennis Erickson said he flipped a coin to decide who would get the first snaps with the No. 1 offense when spring practices started Tuesday. Threet won the toss, by the way.

"Steven has experience playing in games, and Brock has a lot of physical talent," Erickson said. "So we're going to give them both a fair shot and see what transpires."

Erickson said he's looking for accuracy and good decision making in the Sun Devils' "new" spread offense, which will be run by new coordinator Noel Mazzone.

"New" in quotes mostly means that the scheme looks a lot like what Erickson did in the past when his offenses were humming -- spread the field with four receivers and control the game's tempo.

"The guy who wins the job is the guy who manages what we do offensively," Mazzone said. "You can't be just a flash player and be a good quarterback. The, 'Oh, man, he's got a strong arm -- did you see him throw that one deep?' So what? Can a guy move the football, keep us out of bad situations with down and distance and protect the football?"

(Read full post)

Pac-10 spring breakout players

February, 11, 2010
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Who will breakout and make a move toward stardom this season?

Most of these guys aren't "new," but they could make the next step up in their careers this spring.

Arizona
Juron Criner, WR, Jr
: Criner (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) is already a familiar name to Wildcats fans. Heck, he led the team with nine touchdown receptions in 2009. The reason he makes this list is this: It would be a surprise if he's not first-team All-Pac-10 at season's end.

Arizona State
Aaron Pflugrad, WR, Jr
: Hmm. Name seems familiar? Pflugrad is a transfer from Oregon, who left the Ducks after his father, Robin, was fired as receivers coach. He was expected to start for the Ducks in 2009, and he should be in the same position with the Sun Devils, who need help at receiver.

California
Ernest Owusu, DE, Jr
: Owusu looked like a budding star early last season when he recorded two sacks and three tackles for a loss against Maryland, but that was about it for his production in 2009. Still, he combines good intelligence and speed with special power -- he's the Bears' strongest player -- and that could all come together as he fights to break into the starting lineup.

Oregon
Diante Jackson, WR, RFr
: Many thought Jackson would offer immediate help to the Ducks' receiving corps as a true freshman, but, instead, he was a scout team star last year. The Ducks are looking for a dynamic, play-making presence at wideout and Jackson might be the guy.

Oregon State
The Unga brothers
: The Beavers lost Keaton Kristick to graduation and Keith Pankey may miss 2010 with an Achilles injury, so there are opportunities at linebacker. These twin brothers -- Kevin "Feti" Unga and Devin "Uani" Unga -- could fight their way into the mix.

Stanford
Shayne Skov, LB, So
: Skov started seven games last year as a true freshman and ended up third on the Cardinal with 62 tackles. The early returns are Skov will be first-team All-Pac-10 before he's done.

UCLA
Cory Harkey, TE, Jr
: With the departure of Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya, Harkey will finally get his chance to take center stage. He caught eight passes for 41 yards and a touchdown in 2009. His production will be many times that in 2010.

USC
T.J. McDonald, S, So
: First off, the son of former USC legend Tim McDonald is listed at 205 pounds. Really? He looks bigger -- in a good way. And he's a hitter. He had seven tackles as a backup to strong safety Will Harris last year, but he could play either free or strong.

Washington
Talia Crichton, DE, So
: Crichton was forced into action last year as a true freshman -- he started four games -- because the Huskies lacked depth on the defensive line. With the departure of both starting ends -- and the questionable status of Kalani Aldrich's knee -- Crichton is almost certain to ascend to a first-team spot. Here's a guess he's better prepared in 2010.

Washington State
Travis Long, DE, So
: Back in the Cougars' glory days -- folks, it wasn't really that long ago, either -- they always had ends who were disruptive. Long led the Cougars with 6.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks as a true freshman in 2009. Those numbers will more than double in 2010.

Pac-10 recruiting wrap: Arizona State

February, 4, 2010
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Arizona State's recruiting class of 26 was about filling "needs," said coach Dennis Erickson, which is why five of the six junior college transfers will play on offense and 15 of the signees come from that side of the ball.

The Sun Devils defense broke through last fall, but the offense struggled -- again --and lost seven starters. The class includes five receivers and three running backs, and it's almost certain at least a couple will be in the rotation in the fall.

Top prospects: You can probably pencil in Brice Schwab as a starting offensive tackle. Erickson called the 6-foot-8, 320 pounder "the best junior college offense lineman that I saw." Offensive guard Chris De Armas also could break through. The Sun Devils needed a tight end and Josh Fulton is a good one, though he is recovering from shoulder surgery. Safety Eddie Elder was signed to compete immediately for playing time. Erickson said receiver George Bell "could be special."

Under the radar: Erickson compared receiver Michael Willie to T. J. Houshmandzadeh, whom he coached at Oregon State. He called cornerback Alden Darby a "sleeper." Erickson compared the class' lone quarterback, Taylor Kelly, to Jake Plummer.

Issues: The class was generally ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-10. And the influx of junior college players might send up a red flag to some. It's a little surprising Erickson wasn't able to sign a couple of highly rated skill position players, considering the immediate opportunity to play.

Notes: Two key players not listed in the class are transfers: quarterback Steven Threet (Michigan) and Aaron Pflugrad (Oregon). Both could be starters in the fall ... Erickson said Joita Te'i and Calvin Tonga will start out on the defensive line but could end up as offensive linemen ... The class features players from five states.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Not to brag, but I know everybody.

Yes, I'm so cool that I can practically recite every Pac-10 team's starting lineup. Practically. At least by September.

[I see all of you mustering Chevy Chase's perfectly mocking, "God, I admire you," from Fletch at this moment.]

That's why Rory Cavaille caused me travail. When he appeared on Oregon's post-spring depth chart with the No. 1 offense, I, well, had no freaking idea who he was.

Ergo, today's topic: Out of nowhere.

Rory Cavaille, WR, Oregon: Cavaille moved up the pecking order when Aaron Pflugrad decided to transfer. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound senior and former walk-on has caught just six career passes. But he's smart -- he was honorable mention Pac-10 All-Academic last year -- and he has good hands. The Ducks get an influx of talent at receiver from their 2008 recruiting class, but Cavaille apparently has played his way into the mix.

D.J. Shoemate, FB, USC: Pete Carroll loves fullbacks -- just ask him about Stanley Havili sometime (if you have an extra half hour) -- and Carroll loved Shoemate, a sophomore, after spring practices, telling the Orange County Register that he was the spring's most-improved player. Shoemate isn't a complete mystery, of course. He was a marquee recruit and he started the Rose Bowl when Havili was academically ineligible, but he has moved around a bit, seeing action before at receiver and tailback.

Kai Maiava, C, UCLA: The Bruins' offensive line is loaded with questions, but Maiava is a firm answer. Barring injury, he will start at center. He sat out last season after transferring from Colorado and missed half of spring ball with an ankle injury, but he's shown enough already to solidify his standing. As for his football bloodlines, yes, he's former USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava's brother and his uncle is pro wrestler/actor "The Rock" (Dwayne Johnson).

David Pa'aluhi, LB, Oregon State: Pa'aluhi wasn't a complete unknown -- the sophomore was impressive enough to top the depth chart entering spring -- but my guess is that, outside of folks who follow the Beavers, he's going to draw a "Who?" at least until the games start. First thing to know: Don't pick a fight with him. He's a mixed martial arts guy. Second, he's fast, reportedly running the 40 under 4.5. And he's got upside, considering he started playing football his senior year of high school.

Alex Debniak, RB-LB, Stanford: Coach Jim Harbaugh gushed about Debniak this spring as a guy who could see significant action at strongside linebacker and running back. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore appeared in eight games as a true freshman and finished with four total tackles. He and Will Powers were practically an either-or at linebacker this spring.

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