NCF Nation: Conan Amituanai

Holiday Bowl preview

December, 29, 2009
12/29/09
9:52
AM ET
Breaking down the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl between No. 20 Arizona (8-4) and No. 22 Nebraska (9-4).

WHO TO WATCH: Arizona quarterback Nick Foles doesn't have great mobility -- though his supposed lack of mobility is overplayed -- but the reason he wasn't sacked many times this year is his quick release in the Wildcats' short passing game that emphasizes spreading the field with four or five receivers, hitting screens and quick hitches and trying to beat one-on-one matchups. The key to slowing down one of the best defenses in the country -- the Cornhuskers rank second in the nation in scoring defense (11.23 ppg) and ninth in total defense (284.5 yards per game) -- is to distribute the ball before the pressure arrives. That's Foles' job and he's done it well most of the year. But can he do it against Nebraska?

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Arizona offensive line handle the Nebraska defensive front? Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive tackle in the country -- he might be the best overall player in the country after rolling up 19.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks despite near-constant double teams. And the guy beside him, Jared Crick, isn't chopped liver, either. Few teams have had any success rushing against the Cornhuskers, particularly between the tackles. The interior of the Wildcats' offensive line -- center Colin Baxter and guards Conan Amituanai, Herman Hall and Vaughn Dotsy -- will face its biggest challenge of the year. Of course, the return of slashing running back Nic Grigsby from a shoulder injury means the Wildcats' running game may seek the perimeter and use cutbacks to keep the aggressive Cornhuskers at bay.

WHY TO WATCH: It's a showdown between ranked teams from BCS conferences, and both programs are trying to maintain upward momentum heading into the offseason. It's also fair to say both teams should be happy to be in the Holiday Bowl, even though both were close to bigger bowl games. The Cornhuskers were nipped by Texas in the last moments of the Big 12 title game, while Arizona was only a play or two away from the Rose Bowl. Further, Suh will be playing his last college before heading off to the NFL, where he could be the No. 1 overall pick this spring.

PREDICTION: Don't expect a lot of points. Nebraska's great defense should be able to slow Arizona's good offense, while the Wildcats' solid defense should be able to contain Nebraska's struggling offense. The key for Arizona is Foles' quick release and the defense stopping the run and putting pressure on Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee to make plays passing. And turnovers. Never forget those. The game hints at being tight throughout, but it seems that Arizona's balance on both sides of the ball should help it prevail 23-20.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Much of the talk during spring practices is about guys who are raising eyebrows, pushing for starting jobs or are on the cusp of breaking through.

Here are some of those guys.

Conan Amituanai, Arizona, OG: This 335-pound junior played well this spring and is expected to give the Wildcats flexibility up front as they fill some gaps. Most particularly, his emergence allows Mike Diaz to move out to left tackle, where he'd replace Eben Britton.

Clint Floyd, Arizona State, FS: This sophomore saw action in 2008 -- when he wasn't hurt -- and he's the guy who will replace the invaluable Troy Nolan.

Alex Lagemann, California, WR: Fellow receiver Marvin Jones got a lot of attention for his strong spring, but Lagemann also opened eyes. The sophomore could emerge if returning veterans don't rise to the challenge.

Eddie Pleasant, Oregon, LB: New coach Chip Kelly raved about his linebackers this spring, and Pleasant earned kudos for stepping in for the departed Jerome Boyd.

Suaesi Tuimaunei, Oregon State, S: The Beavers are rebuilding their secondary, with all four 2008 starters gone. While there are concerns at cornerback, Tuimaunei and sophomore Lance Mitchell are an upgrade athletically at the two safety spots, and some believe this position will be stronger next fall.

David DeCastro, Stanford, OG: This redshirt freshman earned good reviews and is almost certainly going to start on one of the guard spots.

Aaron Hester, UCLA, CB: Hester will need to show mental toughness because teams are going to target this redshirt freshman opposite Alterraun Verner.

Tyron Smith, USC, OT: The Trojans welcomed back all five 2008 starters on their offensive line. Smith wasn't one of them. The true sophomore is just too talented to sit.

Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington: The Huskies need a receiver to emerge to complement D'Andre Goodwin. Kearse, a sophomore, could be the guy. Or maybe it will be fellow sophomore Devin Aguilar. Or both.

Skyler Stormo, TE, Washington State: The redshirt freshman had the best spring of any Cougar at the position and caught a couple of passes in the spring game. Showed promise blocking, too.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona finishes spring practices Wednesday, and coach Mike Stoops doesn't see many holes heading into the summer.

Sure, the Wildcats are replacing some good players, such as quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas, linebacker Ronnie Palmer and left tackle Eben Britton. But Stoops seems confident he's got guys who can step up and get to another bowl game.

Or maybe more than just any bowl game.

 
  Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  Arizona coach Mike Stoops says he feels good about his overall depth heading into the 2009 season.

The Wildcats started early and now will be the first to finish spring practices. It seemed like a good time to check in with Stoops and see how things looked in Tucson.

First question has to be about the quarterbacks: How do Matt Scott and Nick Foles stack up with one practice left this spring?

Mike Stoops: They both have done some really good things. I think we can win at this level with both players. We don't feel like we're in any need to name a starter at this point. I can probably see both guys playing. Whether we did that in a constant way, I don't think that would be it. But I could see, early on, us playing both to see how they perform in games. It's not something we would like to do, but they are a little bit different styles of quarterback. Matt gives you that ability to run and create plays with his feet. Nick is a more prototypical, drop-back quarterback. They're different but I think both of them could give us a chance to win. We're very pleased with their growth. They still have a lot of work to do. We probably won't name a starter until seven to 10 days before our first game against Central Michigan. And it's possible both could play in that game.

Biggest position change before practices began was Robert Golden from cornerback to strong safety: How did that play out?

MS: That's been probably one of the best moves we've made. We now can get our best four or five DBs on the field at the same time. And it's really been an easy transition for him. He seems very comfortable. He's been easy to coach. We've been very pleased with that move. It puts Trevin Wade, who led our team in interceptions last year -- and he only played 100 and something snaps -- on the field. Robert had corner ability, corner speed, but he gives us great versatility to cover the field now, which you have to do vs. these spread offenses.

Any other guys change positions during the spring?

MS: Nope. That was the biggest move for us.

Tell us about some guys who really improved their stock this spring, guys when went from backups to potential starters.

MS: We feel like our offensive guards played really well, Conan Amituanai and Mike Diaz. Diaz -- you asked about a personnel change -- Diaz could move from left guard to left tackle. He has the range to play tackle. And that gives Conan, who has really stood out with his development and his attitude and confidence, a chance. He's a 320-pound guy who can really play physically. [Guard] Vaughn Dotsy is another guy I'm pleased with, played last year as a true freshman. Our line has a chance to be very athletic and physical. Other guys: Greg Nwoko, our third running back, has had a great spring -- he's a freshman from outside of Austin, Texas. I feel good about our overall depth, but our biggest concern might be depth at linebacker.

(Read full post)

SPONSORED HEADLINES