NCF Nation: Brandon Rankin

No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.

Changes on WSU depth chart

April, 28, 2011
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Washington State has released its post-spring depth chart -- link here -- and there are a number of changes from the pre-spring depth chart worthy of note.
  • Offensive linemen John Fullington and Wade Jacobson switched starting spots, with Fullington moving from right tackle to left guard and Jacobson replacing him at right tackle. Also on the offensive line, Rico Forbes moves from backup left tackle to backup right tackle.
  • Andrei Lintz is No. 1 at tight end after Skylar Stormo moved from No. 1 tight end to backup defensive end behind Travis Long.
  • Redshirt freshman Connor Halliday is now the No. 3 quarterback after starting spring at No. 4.
  • Ricky Galvin is listed at backup running back behind Logwone Mitz.
  • Toni Pole has move from No. 3 to starting left defensive tackle. Anthony Laurenzi is No. 1 at right defensive tackle, ahead of Brandon Rankin, who sat out spring due to injury.
  • Mike Ledgerwood is now No. 1 at middle linebacker, ahead of C.J. Mizell, who started spring at No. 1.
  • Damante Horton is No. 1 at one cornerback ahead of senior Aire Justin, a returning starter, though there might be a complicated explanation for that.

What jumps out of this depth chart? There's way more "maybe" here than in the previous three seasons under coach Paul Wulff.

For one, all five offensive linemen have starting experience and four are seniors. That's typically a good thing.

The Cougars have six receivers who can play, topped by Marquess Wilson, and a veteran quarterback in three-year starter Jeff Tuel. Another good thing.

The defensive depth chart is just that: There's some depth. There's far less "Who?" when reviewing the two-deep. Officially, eight starters are back, but there's plenty of playing experience. Big question will be if JC transfer Ian Knight, No. 1 at right defensive end, is ready for the grind of a Pac-12 schedule.

Does the cumulative effect of this mean the Cougars are a threat in the Pac-12 North? Probably not. But this is a roster that can compete and perhaps win a handful of games in the Pac-12.

Maybe.

Who might bolt for the NFL draft early?

December, 16, 2010
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Third-year players -- juniors and redshirt sophomores -- have until Jan.17 to declare their intentions to enter the 2011 NFL draft, and a number of Pac-12 players are likely to do so.

USC already has lost two: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

Many of the upcoming decisions -- both to stay or to go -- are going to be surprises. Some certain early draft picks opt to return for whatever reason, including the fact that they will never -- ever -- have as much fun as they did in college. And a handful of obscure players annually decide to enter the draft for whatever reason, including getting bad advice from a know-it-all "acquaintance" who doesn't know a darn thing.

This will not turn out to be a complete list. And our speculation is intentionally vague because it can be nothing else: We don't know what's going on inside these young men's heads.

Note: Though some players have indicated they plan to return, they are included here because, well, you never know -- they might change their minds.

You can review Mel Kiper's "junior" rankings here.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, Jr.:
Foles would benefit from returning for his senior year and could improve his stock considerably. But his knee injury this year and questions about the Wildcats' offensive line might give him pause.
WR Juron Criner, Jr.: Criner is the best receiver in the country few folks have heard of, but he might want to look at this year's receiver class, which is loaded.
CB Trevin Wade, Jr.: Wade needs to return for his senior season after taking a step back as a junior.

Arizona State
CB Omar Bolden, Jr
.: Bolden rejuvenated his career this fall, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also knows what it's like to get hurt and miss a season. The Sun Devils could break through in 2011, and that could greatly benefit his status.
DT Lawrence Guy, Jr.: The general thinking is Guy wants to return for his senior season. He faces a tough choice.

California
RB Shane Vereen, Jr.:
Mel Kiper ranks Vereen No. 5 among junior running backs. The Bears' questionable supporting cast on offense next year might sway him to the pros.
OLB Mychal Kendricks, Jr.: Lots of potential, but he's not ready.

Colorado
OG Ryan Miller, Jr
.: Miller has already said he plans to return next fall, though Kiper ranks him No. 2 among junior guards.

Oregon
RB LaMichael James, RSo
.: Kiper ranks James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. The Ducks' first unanimous All-American must choose between college glory -- Heisman Trophy, (another) national championship -- or getting paid now. Probably won't get picked until the second round because of size and middling skills as a receiver, but his top-end speed is enticing.
TE David Paulson, Jr.: Kiper ranks him No. 4 among junior tight ends. Good bet to return.

Oregon State
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr
.: Rodgers has indicated he plans to return because his brother, James, is likely to get a fifth year via medical hardship because of a knee injury this past season. But Beavers fans are rooting for it to be Jan. 18.
WR James Rodgers, Sr.: It's likely the Rodgers are a package deal: Both stay or both go.

Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RSo.:
If he enters the draft, he's almost certain to be the No. 1 overall pick. More than a few folks, however, believe he's seriously considering a return for his junior year, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh remains at Stanford. We'll see.

UCLA
LB Akeem Ayers, Jr
.: Odds are that Ayers will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
FS Rahim Moore, Jr.: Odds are that Moore will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.

USC
DL Armond Armstead, Jr
: Armstead has said he plans to return. He should. A healthy season could send his stock skyrocketing.

Utah
CB Brandon Burton, Jr
.: Burton, second-team All Mountain West, is No. 5 on Kiper's list of junior corners. He's definitely on the NFL radar.
OT Tony Bergstrom, Jr.: It would make sense for the second-team All Mountain West player to return for his senior year.

Washington
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr
.: Kearse is highly productive but dropped a few too many balls this year. While he'd benefit from another year, he might be worried about the Huskies breaking in a new quarterback.
RB Chris Polk, RSo: Polk eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season. He's admitted that entering the draft is a possibility.

Washington State
DT Brandon Rankin, Jr.:
It would be wise for Rankin to return for his senior season.

Wulff leads Cougars out of abyss

November, 15, 2010
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Washington State's 31-14 win at Oregon State was impressive and significant in many ways, not the least of which was it ending a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak.

But let's face it: Planets often align in strange ways in the college football universe. Just in the past few years we've seen FCS teams win at powers such as Michigan and Virginia Tech. We saw Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, win at USC with its backup quarterback. We saw Alabama get physically manhandled by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

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AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensWashington State's win against Oregon State may finally be a sign that the program is headed in the right direction.
This year, we've see Kansas lose to South Dakota State in its opener, beat then-No. 15 Georgia Tech in Week 2, then lose to Baylor and Kansas State by a combined count of 114 to 14 on consecutive weekends, then score 35 consecutive fourth-quarter points to beat Colorado 52-45.

So freaky, unpredictable stuff happens all the time.

But nothing about the Cougars win feels "freaky." And this victory -- their first on the road since 2007 -- is about more than a long-awaited payoff for the Cougars. They have repeatedly played well into the second half and even the fourth quarter this season.

To me, the most significant reference point that highlights their improvement is the 42-0 loss at Arizona State on Oct. 30. That's the point in which many, including me, thought the Cougars were waving the white flag over coach Paul Wulff's tenure.

That game seemed to indicate exhaustion and malaise had set in. It seemed to say that Wulff's players had lost their faith and, subsequently, their will. On the Tuesday Pac-10 coaches conference call after that dreadful performance, Wulff said a number of things that could have been used to make a case against him.

Said Wulff, "It felt like we played with a tank that was empty with emotion."

Said Wulff, "We just didn't get a response."

Said Wulff, "That ultimately comes back on me. I've got to get us ready emotionally."

Said Wulff, "I try not to gauge the state of the program on one game."

Said Wulff, "I'm not really worried about retaining for next year. We're in year three of a major rebuilding project. I don't know if I'd state it we have to win these games. Were playing in a lot of ways to our potential and what we are capable of doing. We're close."

All of that could could easily fall into a column about why Wulff shouldn't be back in Year 4. Wulff was being himself -- an honest, stand-up guy -- but it wasn't hard to construe "ultimate defeat" from his words.

But, instead, this is a column about why the only sensible decision is to retain Wulff.

In a nutshell, he got the feckless team that lost 42-zip at Arizona State to become the team that won at Oregon State 31-14 two weeks later. One word: leadership. Wulff got his players, who had fought hard all year -- until the Arizona State game -- to reinvest after they'd hit an emotional nadir. If you've ever been in charge of a group of people, you know how hard that is. Wulff could offer them little incentive; a bowl game wasn't a possibility. His players probably were aware his job status was shaky, so if they quit on him, they'd get a fresh start in 2011 with a new coach.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireWashington State's defense limited the Beavers to just 261 yards of total offense.
All Wulff could say was, "We're in this together. Let's show some pride and compete." And guess what happened? The message stuck and then resonated in what was produced in Reser Stadium.

According to the Sagarin Ratings, Washington State has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, one that has included No. 1 Oregon, No. 6 Stanford, No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 20 USC (AP) and No. 22 Arizona. Moreover, they've played 11 consecutive weeks without a bye.

That's at tough road, period. But the Cougars have done it playing a bevy of young players. Of the 60 Cougars who played at Oklahoma State in the season-opener, 24 were making their college football debuts. The Cougars have played 10 true freshman this season. Of the 113 players on the Cougar roster, only 17 have been in the program more than three years, or prior to head coach Wulff’s arrival in December of 2007. On defense alone, 14 of the 22 players on the current depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.

Oh, and that defense, which is statistically terrible based on the entire season, held Oregon, Arizona and Stanford below their season averages for both points and yards. It held California to just 20 points. And it completely stuffed Oregon State.

In other words, maybe we should have seen the Corvallis Cougars Crusade coming.

Wulff inherited a disaster -- things were much worse than the average fan realized -- and his first two seasons ended up exactly that way. But the black smoke is clearing, and a program appears to be reemerging.

Every coach in the Pac-10 has remarked that the Cougars are different this year -- faster, more physical and less sloppy. The list of young talent coming back in 2011 is impressive: quarterback Jeff Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Safety Deone Bucannon, defensive end Travis Long, defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker C.J. Mizell, etc.

We're not ready to proclaim a return to the run from 2001-2003 when Washington State finished ranked in the the final top-10 three consecutive seasons. The Cougars in a bowl game in 2011, in fact, probably will be seen as a longshot.

But you saw what just happened, didn't you? We just typed "Cougars" and "bowl game" in the same sentence and you read it without flinching or doubling over in laughter.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

November, 15, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

Team of the week: Washington State ended a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak with a 31-14 win at Oregon State. The Cougars not only won, they physically dominated the Beavers, outgaining them 378 yards to 261.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SakumaQuarterback Darron Thomas and Oregon survived a scare against California.
Best game: Three of the four Pac-10 games this weekend weren't decided until late in the fourth quarter -- imagine: the Cougs provided the only laugher -- but we've got to go with No. 1 Oregon's 15-13 win at California, because the game kept the college football nation -- particularly Boise State and TCU fans -- fixated at a potential season-transforming upset.

Biggest play: On the second play of the first possession of the second half, California running back Shane Vereen fumbled after a 7-yard run. On the next play from scrimmage, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for a 29-yard touchdown and a 15-7 lead. It was the Ducks only offensive TD of the game.

Offensive standout: USC running back Marc Tyler rushed 31 times for 160 yards and scored a TD in the Trojans 24-21 win at Arizona.

Defensive standout: California linebacker Mike Mohamed had 14 tackles -- 10 solos -- and a sack against Oregon.

Special teams standout: Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown against Cal. It was his fourth punt return for a touchdown this season, which ties a Pac-10 record (Cal's DeSean Jackson, 2006).

Smiley face: The Washington State lines on both sides of the football merit special note. The Cougars rushed for 221 yards (they did yield four sacks, which cost the rushing total 20 yards), and they held the Beavers to just 97 yards rushing while recording five sacks, including two apiece from Casey Hamlett and Brandon Rankin.

Frowny face: Oregon State. Oh, Oregon State. You were 2 of 10 on third down. Washington State was 10 of 17. You were 1 of 3 on fourth down. Washington State was 1 for 1. Washington State had possession time of 40:55. In a 60 minute game! Heck, the Cougars had the ball for 23 of the 30 minutes of the second half.

Thought of the week: On the week that Oregon falls from the top spot in the nation in total offense -- its 542 yards per game is now second to Oklahoma State's 547.5 -- we now can officially establish that the Ducks no longer need to explain that their defense is underrated. Why? Because it's now highly rated by any measure. Oregon's defense ranks eighth in the nation in scoring (17.2 ppg), 20th in total defense (315.4) and fifth in passing efficiency defense. And the Ducks yield only 4.35 yards per play, which is tied for sixth in the nation, ahead of such stalwart units as LSU and Nebraska.

Questions for the week: We've got a clear top-four in the conference, and USC and Washington State aren't going to go to bowl games. Are any of the five teams mired in the middle going to make a late-season run? Or is the conference going to end up full of 5-7 teams?

Pac-10 season predictions

August, 30, 2010
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We're going on record with what we think will happen this season -- team-wise and player-wise. Who will shine? Who will surprise? Who will disappoint?

And feel free to disagree and supply your thoughts.

Conference winner: Oregon

It took a while to re-warm up to the Ducks after the, er, departure of He Who Shall Not Be Named. But the Ducks have so much going for them, it's hard to go against the defending champions.

Offensive MVP: Jake Locker, QB, Washington

Huskies fans: Know all those folks who constantly take shots at Locker and call him overrated? They will either apologize or look stupid at season's end.

Defensive MVP: Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA

Ayers gets the nod because he's the sort who's going to put up a lot of different numbers: tackles, sacks, tackles for a loss, interceptions, fumbles, etc.

Surprise team: Stanford

Stanford might not be a surprise to those in the know, but if the defense steps up -- and here's a bet it will -- then the Cardinal will be in middle of the conference race.

Team most likely to disappoint: USC

The Trojans will still trot out the most talented starting 22 in the conference. There's not a team on the Trojans' schedule that, at this juncture, rates as a "favorite" -- even Oregon because the Ducks must visit the Coliseum on Oct. 30. But with only pride to play for, USC could come apart at the seams.

Surprise player: Steven Threet, QB, Arizona State

Threet is expected to be announced as the Sun Devils starter on Monday. He's going to be good enough to make the offense respectable.

Newcomer of the year (offense): Josh Smith, WR, UCLA

If he stays healthy, Smith, a Colorado transfer, will be a big-play guy for the Bruins on offense and on special teams as a returner.

Newcomer of the year (defense): Brandon Rankin, DT, Washington State

We hate to interrupt your mocking of Washington State, but Rankin, a JC transfer who stuck with the Cougars despite an offer from Alabama, is going to be a force on a surprisingly stout D-line.

Freshman of the year (offense): Keenan Allen, WR, California

The touted true freshman won a starting job in camp. Expect him and Marvin Jones to inspire folks to start to saying, "You know that quarterback Kevin Riley ain't half-bad!"

Freshman of the year (defense): (tie) Marquis Flowers, S, Arizona & Dietrich Riley, S, UCLA

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next two great safeties in the Pac-10. These freshmen can really play.

Coach of the year: Chip Kelly, Oregon

His Ducks should play in another Rose Bowl, even though they are replacing a quarterback who was projected to be in the Heisman Trophy hunt. If quarterback Darron Thomas shines, this one will be a gimme for Kelly to repeat. So that would be two years, two Coach of the Year trophies. One word: Raise.

Can't miss game: Civil War, Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4

Oregon is the conference favorite. Oregon State is a consensus No. 3 pick. USC is No. 2 but ineligible. Expect the Civil War, for a third consecutive season, to decide who goes to the Rose Bowl.

Spring game wrap: Washington State

April, 26, 2010
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Sophomore Jeff Tuel appears to have a firm grip on the starting quarterback job at Washington State.

[+] EnlargeTuel
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesJeff Tuel completed 11 of 16 passes for 129 yards with a touchdown in the spring game.
Tuel, who started five games in 2009, completed 11 of 16 passes for 129 yards with a touchdown in the Cougars spring game on Saturday, capping a spring in which he was more consistent than junior Marshall Lobbestael.

In three scrimmages, Tuel completed 25 of 41 passes for 297 yards with three TDs and one interception. Lobbestael was 17 of 31 for 165 yards, two scores and three interceptions.

Paul Wulff called it the Cougars' best spring since he took over before the 2008 season. That's good because the Cougars have gone 3-22 the past two years.

The starters played against the second units and mostly dominated. While that might not be very revealing, there's something to be said for building confidence.

Running back Chantz Staden rushed for 86 yards on 10 carries, while Logwone Mitz had 59 yards on 10 totes.

On defense, tackle Brandon Rankin turned in an impressive afternoon with two sacks and a tackle for loss. The No. 1 defense yielded only 13 yards on 26 plays to the No. 2 offense, which is decidedly thin on the line.

The Cougars held one final practice early Monday morning.

For complete statistics from the spring game go here.
Washington State signed a class of 22 that ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-10.

Still, coach Paul Wulff was satisfied. He said the class upgraded the Cougars size and speed.

"I think this is as good a class as has come here," he said.

Top prospects: Linebacker C.J. Mizell, a former Florida State signee, sort of came out of nowhere. You can read about him here. Offensive linemen David Gonzales and Wade Jacobson, both junior college transfers, should compete immediately for playing time. Bobby Ratliff will upgrade the Cougars receiving corps. Tight end Aaron Dunn will play next year.

Under the radar: There's a lot of that with this class, but it's notable that there were plenty of "under the radar" guys playing their way into the NFL when Washington State was winning. More than a few people think quarterback Connor Halliday is underrated.

Issues? The Cougars took a big hit when tight end Asante Cleveland backed out of his commitment and signed with Miami. Also, Wulff was clearly miffed that committed lineman Maxx Forde -- son of a former Cougar player -- decided to sign with Idaho. It's also a bit worrisome that the class only had one defensive lineman and, of the three offensive linemen, only one is a high school player.

Notes: One of the Cougars best new players may be JC defensive end Brandon Rankin, a 2009 signee who's already enrolled. ... The class features five wide receivers, which should help Wulff run the shotgun, no-huddle spread offense that he brought from Eastern Washington. ... Running back James Montgomery, who missed last season after major surgery on his calf, may be ready to return for the 2010 season. The California transfer was the Cougars No. 1 running back before getting hurt. ... Wulff said told reporters he may still sign a couple of JC players. ... The Cougars signed players from four states, including eight from the Bay Area and three from the Spokane area.

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