NCF Nation: Conrad Obi

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.
Every season coaches talk about being young. But eventually those young starters and contributors become veteran players. And sometimes breakout stars.

Even more dramatic: Sometimes players go from star to superstar -- see Oregon running back LaMichael James -- who went from all-conference to unanimous All-American, Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist.

So who do you think will make the biggest jump in 2011?

It's impossible to predict, but we've got five candidates.

Oregon State QB Ryan Katz will be in his second year as a starter, so he should make a jump. A lot depends on his supporting cast, particularly the health of his top targets: James Rodgers, Jordan Bishop and TE Joe Halahuni.

Arizona State lost receiver T.J. Simpson this spring, but Gerell Robinson stepped up and more than filled the void. The Sun Devils like to pass, and Robinson figures to be the top target.

Conrad Obi was an afterthought at Colorado before the this spring, but the talented but previously underachieving defensive tackle dominated this spring. He could work his way into the 2012 NFL draft.

USC cornerback Nickell Robey got picked on early in the 2010 season, but that won't happened in 2011. He improved dramatically last fall and he turned in an outstanding spring for the Trojans.

As for Washington's Alameda Ta'amu, he's a 330 pounder who's more than a big body in the middle of the Huskies D-line. He's an often dominant playmaker.

But who makes the biggest jump in 2011?
BOULDER, Colo. -- Colorado's practice went well over two and a half hours Tuesday. There was plenty of hitting and suffice it to say that new coach Jon Embree leads an animated, vocal staff.

Some observations.
  • There seems to be little question that Tyler Hansen will be the starting quarterback. He didn't have a great practice, but even then his command and presence stood out. Redshirt freshman Nick Hirschman seemed to lead in the battle with JC transfer Brent Burnette for the backup job.
  • Two defensive players who stood out haven't done so previously in their careers: senior defensive tackle Conrad Obi and junior linebacker Douglas Rippy. Both pass the eyeball test and, more important, both have been consistently making plays. Obi, in particular, is intriguing: Athletic 310-pound defensive tackles are really, really nice to have.
  • The offense ran better than it passed. Running back Rodney Stewart and company will benefit from a pro-style scheme that uses a fullback. Of course, seeing that the Buffaloes didn't use a fullback last year, the fullback candidates converted from other positions, including Tyler Ahles, who was in the rotation at linebacker last fall.
  • Embree said before spring he would emphasize special teams and he's clearly following through, though that doesn't mean the special teams were consistently good.
  • UCLA fans probably won't want to watch Colorado's offense this year: Sophomore receiver Paul Richardson, who transferred from UCLA after an off-field incident, appears poised for a breakout season. He's clearly the Buffaloes best receiver.
  • Junior Ray Polk may have the inside track at safety, where he'd start beside senior Anthony Perkins, who's out with a knee injury. Cornerback still seems unclear among a gaggle of candidates, including senior Jonathan Hawkins, sophomore Deji Olatoye, junior Makiri Pugh and sophomore Jered Bell.