NCF Nation: Deone Bucannon

WSU takes a right turn to Albuquerque

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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Washington State didn't just achieve a 6-6 record and earn its first bowl invitation since 2003 in Mike Leach's second year as coach, it did so despite playing a brutal schedule, the nation's eighth toughest, according to ESPN's Stats & Info.

The Cougars played the nation's No. 2 (Auburn), No. 5 (Stanford), No. 10 (Oregon), No. 14 (Arizona State) and No. 25 (USC) teams. They also played three other bowl teams (Oregon State, Arizona and Washington). They beat the Trojans and Wildcats -- on the road, no less -- and held serve when the schedule mercifully yielded weaker foes.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonWashington State signal-caller Connor Halliday returns next season, along with several other top playmakers.
Heading into the Gildan New Mexico Bowl opposite Colorado State on Saturday, it certainly feels like the program is on an uptick, particularly after Leach's debut season fell well short of the high expectations he inspired upon his hiring. Year 1, in fact, felt like a disaster, with locker room dissension further tarnishing a 3-9 record, and some Cougars fans were fretting whether the future held much promise.

But Leach, as those who know him well knew he would, maintained his Sinatra and did it his way, insisting the locker room catch up to him, not the other way around.

"A lot of it was establishing expectations, raising expectations and figuring out who wanted to commit and do the work to be the best they could be," he said.

The biggest area of improvement was offense, Leach's chief area of expertise. Last season, the Cougars averaged a meager 20.4 points per game. This season, they averaged 29.8. The biggest improvement? Pass protection. The Cougs surrendered an eye-popping 57 sacks in 2012. This season, they gave up just 27, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. That is pretty impressive considering they threw 698 passes, 76 more than No. 2 California, which gave up 35 sacks. Seven conference teams didn't even throw 400 passes.

But Leach doesn't point to the numbers when assessing the season. He sees improvement there as a natural result of a team growing up and growing together. Keep in mind that the Cougs were 4-5 on Oct. 31 after a dreary 55-31 loss to Arizona State in front of just 20,617 fans in Martin Stadium, and bowl hopes seemed dim with three tough games to play.

"Nobody took their eye off the path," Leach said. "They kept fighting together and pulling together. We steadily improved."

The Cougars are solid favorites to get a seventh win against the Rams, who didn't beat a team with a winning record, and then head into the offseason expecting to take another step forward in the Pac-12's North Division in 2014.

The first question with fans is quarterback. Connor Halliday was decidedly hot and cold this fall. He put up huge numbers, ranking fifth in the nation with 348.9 yards passing per game, but he also threw a conference-high 21 interceptions.

Halliday, however, doesn't appear to be much of a question for Leach.

"Under the best of circumstances, he's going to be hard for anybody to beat out," Leach said.

Halliday needs to not only cut down the interceptions, he needs to improve upon his 62.8 completion percentage. While not horrible by any stretch, particularly considering the Cougs offered little threat to run the ball, Leach's quarterbacks typically eclipse the 70 percent threshold when things are in sync.

Leach said the offseason focus for Halliday is "from the neck up," but he most praised his quarterback's intangibles this season, particularly his leadership, which bodes well for the offseason.

"As we hit hard times during the season, rather than flinching, he always rallied and pulled everybody together and generated an awful lot of presence and enthusiasm among our team," Leach said.

The good news is just about all the Cougs' top skill players are returning next year. The bad news is there are some questions on the offensive line and the secondary, most notably the loss of enforcer Deone Bucannon, who has earned All-Pac-12 and some All-American recognition after the season.

Leach sees two young teams in the New Mexico Bowl that should be better next fall. While he's most encouraged by how his team improved during the season, he also saw something he liked after the regular season ended, something afforded to his team for the first time since 2003: More practices.

Said Leach, "We improved this last week, too."

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
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A few storylines to keep an eye on in the final week of the regular season:

  1. Home-field advantage: Who will host the Pac-12 title game? That’s up to Arizona State (and Arizona, for that matter). The scenario is pretty simple. If Arizona State wins, the Sun Devils will finish with an 8-1 record in Pac-12 play and will host Stanford in the championship game. If Arizona wins, the Sun Devils will be 7-2, the same record as the Cardinal, and Stanford will host the championship game by virtue of its tiebreaker over the Sun Devils.
  2. [+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
    Kevin Casey/Getty ImagesArizona tailback Ka'Deem Carey has rushed for 1,559 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
    Home-field advantage (Take 2): Oregon hasn’t lost at home to Oregon State since the overtime game in 2007. Washington hasn’t lost at home to Washington State since 2007. UCLA hasn’t won at the Coliseum since 1997. The Cardinal have a 15-game home winning streak, longest in the country. Arizona State has a seven-game home winning streak. Home-field advantage is obviously important. And for the reasons listed in the first bullet point, the location of the title game is still unknown. But it hinges on the Territorial Cup, and the visiting team has won the past four.
  3. Battle of strengths: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, along with his 155.9 yards per game and 14-game streak of rushing for 100 yards or more, heads to Tempe to face an Arizona State defense that is third in the league against the run, yielding 123.4 yards per game.
  4. The Kelly factor: There are a lot of reasons why ASU is riding a six-game win streak heading into its showdown with Arizona. But one key reason has been the increased use of quarterback Taylor Kelly in the running game. Through the first five games when the Sun Devils were 3-2, Kelly averaged 7.8 rushes per game and 25.8 yards per game with zero touchdowns. Over the past six games, he’s averaging 12.5 rushes per game and 47 yards with eight touchdowns.
  5. Showdown in Tinseltown: The Trojans have won 12 of the past 14 meetings, though the Bruins took out the Trojans last season. Unlike last season's game, there is no bearing on the Pac-12 South title since ASU has already wrapped it up. But there is no shortage of storylines. Is this the game that ends Ed Orgeron’s magnificent run as head coach? Or is it the game that convinces Pat Haden to drop “interim” from his title and make him the guy. It’s a game with massive recruiting implications in Southern California and is always the best game in town, since there is no other football.
  6. Rocky Mountain blues: Neither Colorado nor Utah are going to a bowl game -- again. There is certainly more disappointment in Salt Lake City for a team that had high hopes. But after beating Stanford in October, the Utes have dropped five in a row. Colorado has four wins so far -- which was the total from the past two seasons combined, so coach Mike MacIntyre has things moving in the right direction. At this point, it’s about either team trying to build up some momentum.
  7. Civil showdown: Oregon is looking to extend its Civil War winning streak to six straight over Oregon State. Both teams had a rough November, but an Oregon win would give the Ducks a sixth-straight 10-win season. The Beavers, meanwhile, are trying to snap a four-game skid. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota ranks second in the country in ESPN’s Total QBR ranking, while Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks leads the country with 141.8 receiving yards per game.
  8. Will the real Kevin Hogan please stand up: Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kevin Hogan had a career-high 98.9 Total QBR in Stanford’s 63-13 win against California. Hogan had career highs in passing yards (329), passing touchdowns (five) and 15-yard completions (15). Hogan bounced back from his career-low 23.1 Total QBR in Stanford’s loss to USC last Saturday.
  9. Stanford-Notre Dame quotable: Of course, we all remember how last year’s game ended in South Bend. Notre Dame’s goal-line stand in the rain, Stepfan Taylor failing to cross the goal line in overtime, etc. Coaches love to be reminded of stuff like that, and our own Ted Miller was kind enough to ask coach David Shaw about that play. His response: “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t watch that play again. I think I watched so many times last year that I don’t need to see it again. I know what happened.”
  10. Apples and apples: Washington State reached six wins for the first time since 2006 and could go to a bowl game for the first time since 2003. The Huskies are at the seven-win mark, a hump they’ve failed to get over of late, so this game has a tremendous impact on bowl pecking order. The Huskies are coming off a blowout win over Oregon State where Bishop Sankey rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He’s third in the nation in total yards. WSU safety Deone Bucannon, the Pac-12’s leading tackler, became the first Cougar to post back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles since the turn of the century.

Pac-12 defenses closing the gap

August, 21, 2013
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Changing the perception of a league is no easy task. And for the Pac-12, bucking its offense-first image may never happen.

As long as Oregon keeps gobbling up points by the minute and yards by the mile; as long as Rich Rodriguez does what RichRod does and there are Air Raids and Bear Raids about, offense will always be associated with the Pac-12. As long as De’Anthony Thomas and Marion Grice can score from anywhere; as long as Marqise Lee keeps turning a 4-yard slant into an 80-yard touchdown; as long as Ka’Deem Carey is running wild and Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley are burning up stat sheets, Pac-12 defenses will continue to be overshadowed.

And yet …

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesUCLA linebacker Anthony Barr leads an impressive group of defenders in the Pac-12.
“I would love to see an all-star game with our conference’s defensive players on the same team,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “I think it would be phenomenal, and scary. Anthony Barr is borderline unblockable. Will Sutton gets in the backfield seemingly every play, single block, double block, whatever. Morgan Breslin, Sutton and Ben Gardner on the line and Shayne Skov sideline to sideline with Barr coming off the edge.

“Maybe we’re getting to a golden era for defensive players in this conference because you’ve got good defensive units and some really elite standout players.”

Last season, five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally in sacks per game including Stanford (first), Arizona State (second), USC (fourth), UCLA (eighth) and Washington State (14th). That’s up from three teams in the top 20 in 2011, two teams in the top 20 in 2010 and zero teams in the top 10 in 2009.

ASU and Stanford were first and second, respectively, in tackles for a loss per game, and WSU and USC ranked in the top 11. It’s a given that a lot of points will be scored in the Pac-12. But defenses are making it tougher.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, the dean of the Pac-12 who is entering his 13th season. “What you’re seeing is a premium on speed and guys with a lot of flexibility. There are still big people that need to play on the interior. But your edges -- if you’re going to lead the league in sacks -- then having a great edge rusher is always at a premium.”

Guys like the aforementioned Barr, Sutton and Breslin, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Cal's Deandre Coleman and ASU’s Carl Bradford are in that conversation. All of them are expected to rank among the nation’s best in sacks and TFLs. That should make for a heated debate when picking the league’s defensive player of the year.

And who says it will be someone from the front seven? Four Pac-12 teams were among the top 20 in interceptions last year, and Oregon led the country. The Ducks have the nation’s best cornerback duo with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, while Stanford boasts the outstanding safety tandem of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards. Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy, USC’s Dion Bailey and WSU’s Deone Bucannon are also elite safeties.

Washington might have the best young defensive player in the league in Shaq Thompson.

“You can have a high-powered offense that puts up big points, but if you can’t stop anybody, it’s anyone’s game,” said Sutton. “With a great defense, you can accomplish anything.”

Those who follow the league know there have been great defenses in the past. Washington in the early '90s and Arizona’s Bear Down defense come to mind. Behind all of USC’s Heisman quarterbacks a decade ago were outstanding defenses.

“I think what we’re starting to see is the individual players and coordinators starting to get some notoriety,” said Shaw, whose team ranked fifth nationally against the run last year -- an amazing statistic considering the running backs they faced in 2012. “When Oregon started being really good and scoring a ton of points, people didn’t realize they were keeping people from scoring too and playing great defense. To this day I still think they have the most underrated defensive coordinator [Nick Aliotti] in the country.”

One of the major challenges of being a defensive coach in the Pac-12 is the diversity of offenses. Oregon’s spread is considered run-based, yet the Ducks had the most efficient passing attack in the league. Arizona’s spread is considered pass-based, yet its running back led the nation in rushing. Stanford is considered “conventional” with its pro-style, but it’ll use personnel groups with seven offensive linemen.

“I don’t even know what pro-style means anymore,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “The perceptions are distorted. You can break down a spread offense or a pro-style and they’ll have the same route concepts. There are only so many. But the formations are different. The personnel is different. The motion before the snap is different. The league has so many speed athletes so one of the reasons we play a 3-4 is to get more speed athletes on the field.”

It’s time, says Bucannon, to let rest of the country know the Pac-12 can play a little defense, too.

“We have fast, up-tempo teams and marquee offensive players. At the same time, there are some great defensive players on that side of the ball,” he said. “And we refuse to be overshadowed.”
CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Hitting.

Apparently it happens quite a bit in the game of football. And Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who announced plans last month for a new contact policy in practice, unveiled the details at Friday’s Pac-12 media day.

The policy still has to be certified by the institution’s athletic directors, but the ADs, presidents, chancellors and coaches have all agreed to establish certain practice parameters that go beyond the current limitations set forth by the NCAA. The plan is expected to be in place for the start of the 2013 preseason camps.

Here are some elements of the new policy (paraphrased). You can see the official language here:

  • The Pac-12 defines “Full contact” sessions as any live tackling where players are taken to the ground. Full contact does not include “thud” sessions or “wrapping up” drills where players don’t go to the ground.
  • Pac-12 institutions will have two full-contact practices per week during the regular season.
  • For days in which Pac-12 institutions schedule a two-a-day practice, full contact is only allowed in one of the two two-a-day sessions during preseason camp.
  • During spring ball, there will be eight permissible full-contact practices, but only two per week.
[+] EnlargeNick Forbes
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireCal linebacker Nick Forbes said that the "best tackles are made with good form."
These rules aren’t anything drastic. In fact, most institutions have adopted similar policies. The Pac-12 is just the first conference to make it official and put it in writing.

“I think our league and about every coach in the country has went to those guidelines anyway, if not even less contact than that,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Because as a coach, you have to be concerned about the welfare of your team and you know your team and you know how beat up you are and what you have to do and how hard you have to work on hitting and what you have to do.

“So I think everybody has worked hard on it and I think most of the coaches in our league and most throughout the country are already kind of doing that anyway.”

In coming to a consensus on the new policy, the league talked with medical practitioners, conference athletic directors and Pac-12 athletes.

“Our coaches support the new parameters, and their feedback helped us strike an important balance that limits contact across all seasons, but allows for our teams to be sharp and compete at the highest level,” Scott said.

Speaking of hitting ...

Besides the contact policy, the new national “targeting” rule that could lead to player ejections was also a hot topic among some of the league’s premier defensive players. Here’s a sampling of what some of the players had to say, which ranged from delicate to defiant:

Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov: “We’ve been trained to hit properly. Football is an aggressive sport and I’m going to keep playing the way I play, and it’s part of the nature of the game … we’re going to play aggressive and do it the right way and if you do that we won’t have any problems with head trauma collisions and I don’t foresee any in the future.”

California linebacker Nick Forbes: “As a defender, the automatic ejection is scary. You don’t want to put yourself or your team in that situation. But fortunately, we were fortunate to have great coaching staffs that teach us the proper technique … the best tackles are made with good form.”

UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr: “I understand the rule, but as a defensive player it’s going to be difficult to fully adjust my game … So as I play, I’m going to play within the rules that I’ve always played and play like I’ve always played, full speed and attacking. And if I get penalized because of it, then so be it. But I’m going play the way I play football.”

Washington State safety Deone Bucannon: “It’s a rule that’s going to be hard to abide by, going full speed, but at the same time, whatever helps player safety. So if that’s what the rule is, then I’m going try as a player to, to the best of my ability, abide by those and to be as safe as possible for the other player and myself. I’m going to be more aware on the field and proper adjustments like I should.”
Taking only a cursory glance at Washington State's 2013 defense, you might only see the loss of four-year sacks leader Travis Long and the 33.7 points per game the Cougars surrendered last year, and therefore your most generous reaction probably would be, "Neh."

But, moving beyond a superficial impression, a closer look yields plenty of "Hmm." And perhaps some, "Maybe."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsSafety Deone Bucannon will lead a more experienced Cougars defense against Pac-12 teams in 2013.
Sure, Long is gone and he'll be hard to replace, but eight players are back from a better-than-you-think 2012 unit and there's a lot more depth -- and competition -- heading into fall camp than a year ago.

This unit will be experienced and physically capable. There's veteran star power with safety Deone Bucannon, and there's up-and-coming talent in middle linebacker Darryl Monroe and tackle Xavier Cooper. There's size and speed on all three levels.

Instead of being tricky and taking chances out of outmanned necessity, the Cougs' defense in 2013 has the potential to just line up and play. That should help stem the tide of explosion plays it yielded last fall.

In fact, the primary goal during spring practices was to keep the scheme basic so guys could play fast and build confidence. Last year, there was a getting-to-know-you feel with new coach Mike Leach and new defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

"This spring, we just hit it running," Breske said. "We had a tremendous spring."

The truth -- and it feels weird asserting it -- is that the Cougs' defense looked worse than it was last year because Leach's offense was so underwhelming. Washington State averaged 20.4 points per game, which ranked 11th in the conference, and it was 10th in time of possession.

It's one thing to rank low in time of possession when you're Oregon or Arizona, averaging 49.5 and 38.2 points per game, as those two did. It's another thing when your lack of possession time is due to not making first downs and touchdowns.

The first question in 2013 is replacing Long. That's not going to happen with one guy. While Logan Mayes is the frontrunner to take over at "buck" linebacker, there's a reason he was one of five guys listed there on the post spring depth chart. Breske said Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan had "great springs," adding, "There's going to be a lot of competition there."

There's also plenty of competition at linebacker. While Monroe, the unit's chief vocal leader, is set in the middle, Cyrus Coen and Eric Oertel are battling on the strong side and Justin Sagote and Tana Pritchard are doing the same on the weakside.

That's good news. It means Breske has four guys he thinks can play.

"We've got a solid two-deep at 'backer," he said. "I wish it was three-deep."

But Breske is most happy with his defensive line, where Cooper, NT Ioane Gauta and end Matthew Bock front a solid two-deep.

"Our D-line was most impressive coming out of spring ball and will be going into fall camp in terms of changing their bodies, their explosiveness," he said. "We've got much better depth in the D-line than we did a year ago."

As for the secondary, Bucannon leads a veteran unit: All four starters figure to be seniors, though Casey Locker is battling sophomore Taylor Taliulu at strong safety. Cornerbacks Damante Horton, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington are all experienced, though redshirt freshman Rahmel Dockery could get into the mix.

Turning up the pressure remains Breske's chief goal -- the Cougars grabbed 15 interceptions and recorded 92 tackles for a loss in 2012 -- but without the offsetting explosion plays.

When asked if he saw the potential for dramatic improvement, Breske said, "You hit it right on the head."

So perhaps the Cougs' defense merits more than a preseason, "Neh."

Pac-12 media day primer

July, 12, 2013
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Two weeks and counting. Ted and I are gearing up for media day. Are you? Here's what you should know.

When: July 26

Where: Sony Studios, Los Angeles

Who will be there (all times PT):
UPDATE: Arizona State informed me Friday morning that it has decided to bring Will Sutton instead of safety Alden Darby. This is a good thing because Sutton was the league's defensive player of the year last season, and his presence helps bolster his name -- and the program -- in the eyes of the national media.

Who won’t be there: The biggest name missing is Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing last season. Coaches tend to bring veterans and guys with experience. Yankey is a great spokesman for Stanford and a good candidate, but I know others wouldn't mind hearing some thoughts from Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan.

Five storylines:
  1. Hitting? Scott is expected to announce the league's health and safety initiative, which will limit how much hitting can be done in practice. This isn't a new concept, but the league jumped in front of it by being the first to make a conference-wide mandate.
  2. Bowl updates? We know the status of the Rose, Alamo, Holiday, Kraft Fight Hunger and Sun bowls. Not sure if the rest of the lineup for beyond this season will be announced at media day. But one of us will ask.
  3. New coaches: This is the meet-the-world opportunity for the new head coaches in the league: Dykes, MacIntyre and Helfrich. Expect the requisite questions on the difficulty of changing cultures and rebuilding programs.
  4. Preseason poll: Is there any fodder better than preseason polls? Oregon or Stanford? Stanford or Oregon? ASU, UCLA or USC? Your Pac-12 bloggers will be submitting their ballots this weekend after a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, a seance channeling Nostradamus and a dartboard.
  5. Quirky questions: With the access of media day comes the spectacle of media day. Granted, it's not as bad as some of the quirks at Super Bowl media day. But there's bound to be a couple of left-field questions -- and they'll probably be directed at Leach, who is great and usually has fun with them. Last year he was asked which Pac-12 coach he'd go hunting with and which Civil War generals he'd compare some of his players to.

Ted and I will be trying something new this year (we think). Instead of the on-the-stage posts, we'll be doing a live chat during the entire stage session and bringing you info real time. So take note of the times (in Pacific, to save you the math) and be ready to interact.
Another preseason list. But this one is different.

Athlon has released its preseason All-America team and 22 Pac-12 players were tapped for four teams at 23 spots, second only to the SEC's 25. However, the Pac-12 actually leads all of college football with eight players on the first-team (it probably should be nine, but Anthony Barr was relegated to the second team). The SEC is second with seven.

Here are the Pac-12 players selected:

First-Team Offense
First-Team Defense
Second-Team Offense
Second-Team Defense
Second-Team Specialists
Third-Team Offense
Third-Team Defense
Fourth-Team Offense
Fourth-Team Defense
Thoughts: As always, subjective lists are going to be debatable. For the most part, I think Athlon hit on almost all of the Pac-12 players who should be hit in the preseason. It's nice to see Su'a-Filo get some recognition because I think it's warranted and he'll prove worthy of it by year's end. Same with Sankey and Coyle. Cooks is a pleasant surprise. While I think he certainly has the potential to be on this list, we really need to see someone else step up opposite him to free him up the way Markus Wheaton did last year.

As noted above, I'd have Barr on my first team. But one glaring omission is Stanford safety Jordan Richards. I get Ed Reynolds being on the first team -- that seems to be a popular consensus among the preseason lists. But no Richards at all is a big miss. My guess is both will end up splitting AA honors at the end of the year because both are that good. I just have a hard time believing there are seven other safeties better than Richards.

I didn't mind Bailey on the list. And I think the move back to the secondary is going to be huge for him and for the Trojans. But he's taken some time off from the position and might need a readjustment period. And for that reason, I think second team is too high for him -- especially when Richards is off the board.

I think the same Reynolds/Richards argument can be made for Oregon's Terrance Mitchell (who could be on one of these teams as well) and Ekpre-Olomu, who certainly benefited from having a lockdown corner on the opposite side. As a result, his numbers ballooned. While Richards/Reynolds are the best safety duo in the league (probably the country), the Mitchell/Ekpre-Olomu tandem makes up the best cornerback duo in the league (probably the country).

Finally, I understand the rationale for not having Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota one one of the four teams. Heck, Teddy Bridgewater -- perceived to be the top quarterback in the country by many -- didn't make the list. But I think when all is said and done, Mariota will get All-America honors because his numbers will be too good to overlook. He's shown to be a true dual-threat with precision passing and pretty darn good running skills.
We've looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver -- so now let's look at the defensive version.

That would be elite combinations of top tacklers, top sack men and top interceptors, as tackles, sacks and interceptions make defensive coordinators happy.

The combinations here might be stronger even than the offensive troikas. Stanford, for example, welcomes back an elite, All-America sort of player for each category. It seems to us all 12 teams have at least one player to be excited about heading into the fall.

Just two teams -- Arizona State and Utah -- only hit on one category. Arizona, Colorado and Washington join Stanford hitting all three, though Colorado's interception numbers from 2012 are so meager -- 3! -- that it's not terribly relevant. And USC's just missing was a matter of 0.4 tackles per game.

So here's how we see things stacking up.

And, again, you should feel free to be outraged by our lunkheaded bias against your team, which obviously should be ranked much higher.

1. Stanford
LB Shayne Skov, OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds

The skinny: Three potential All-Americans. There is no finer troika in the nation. Not sure if anyone else is even close.

2. USC
LB Hayes Pullard, OLB Morgan Breslin, S Dion Bailey

The skinny: Pullard was seventh in the conference with 8.2 tackles per game, just behind safety T.J. McDonald. Breslin is transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker, which actually seems like a better fit. And Bailey, who led the Trojans with four interceptions, is moving back to safety from linebacker.

3. UCLA
LB Eric Kendricks, OLB Anthony Barr, S Randall Goforth

The skinny: UCLA gets here on the power of the first two, an elite combination, with Barr a likely top-10 NFL draft pick next spring. That balances out the questions in the secondary. Goforth, a promising player, just seemed like as good a choice as any.

4. Oregon State
LB Michael Doctor, DE Scott Cricthon, CB Rashaad Reynolds

The skinny: Doctor took a big step forward last year, even if D.J. Alexander is a flashier player. Crichton, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2012, is trying to lead the Beavers in sacks for a third consecutive year. Reynolds had three picks last year and now becomes the Beavers' lead cornerback with Jordan Poyer off to the NFL.

5. Oregon
LB Derrick Malone, DE Taylor Hart, S Erick Dargan

The skinny: Malone was just thrown in there because the Ducks' linebacker situation is cloudy. Hart is a budding all-conference guy who should get his due this fall. Dargan led the Ducks with five picks, but there's an acknowledgement here also of cornerback Ekpre-Olomu, a preseason All-American, who had four.

6. Arizona State
LB Chris Young, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby

The skinny: Sutton is the big fish here, obviously. Linebacker is a question for the Sun Devils, who lost their top two tacklers. Young and Darby are returning starters, though, with Young ranking third in tackles and Darby second in interceptions in 2012.

7. Washington
LB John Timu, OLB Josh Shirley, CB Marcus Peters

The skinny: This is a solid but unspectacular trio, as none of the three were all-conference. But the Huskies defense, which was greatly improved in 2012, has a lot of production back. It's worth noting that defensive end Andrew Hudson tied Shirely for the team lead with 6.5 sacks, and linebacker Shaq Thompson also had three picks, like Peters.

8. Arizona
LB Jake Fischer, LB Marquis Flowers, CB Jonathan McKnight

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but they get marked down for the overall defensive numbers in 2012. Flowers, an underrated player, had 5.5 sacks and was tied with McKnight with three interceptions.

9. California
LB Nick Forbes, DE Chris McCain, S Michael Lowe

The skinny: Forbes averaged 7.1 tackles per game last year. McCain tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5, but don't be surprised if Todd Barr or Brennan Scarlett lead the pass rush. Lowe had three picks last year to tie for the team lead, but he's listed behind Alex Logan on the post-spring depth chart.

10. Washington State
S Deone Bucannon, OLB Logan Mayes, LB Cyrus Coen

The skinny: Bucannon is an A-list guy, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. He led the Cougars in tackles and interceptions, so we included Coen, who was second with three picks. The gigantic void is the pass rush, which lost four-year sack leader Travis Long.

11. Utah
LB/S Brian Blechen, DE Trevor Reilly, S Eric Rowe

The skinny: These are three solid players, but there's a lot of uncertainty on the Utes defense. The Utes lost their top two sack men and their top three cornerbacks. Blechen has bounced back and forth between linebacker and safety, and neither Reilly nor Rowe were able to top the depth chart at his position this spring without an "Or" beside him.

12. Colorado
LB Derrick Webb, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, CB Kenneth Crawley

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but we're listing the promising Crawley instead of the two guys who had a single pick last year. Uzo-Diribe is legit. He has 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including seven last year. Big issue here, however, is how terrible the Buffs defense was last year.
Like many, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon fell prey to the belief that by simply setting foot on campus, new head coach Mike Leach was going to instantly make the Cougars better. After all, Leach's hiring was deemed by many as the most significant in college football last season. Though, that was before the Cougars went 3-9.

It still might be. But Bucannon and his teammates realize it's less to do with Leach and more to do with themselves.

"I think we were blinded by how much success he's had in the past and we just assumed we would automatically win games because it's Coach Leach and he has a great system," Bucannon said. "But it's up to us to work that system. Football isn't about systems. It's about players and how much effort they put into it. The system complements the players. We can't put the system first. We thought it would be magic and we'd win games. But we have to put in the work."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesWashington State is expecting big things this season from safety Deone Bucannon.
With the Cougars opening spring ball Thursday, Bucannon is now looked to as the unquestioned leader of the defense, taking the crown from the departed Travis Long. The second-team all-conference safety, who was fourth in the league in total tackles last year (106) and tied for fifth in the league in interceptions, is ready to put the defense on his shoulders entering Year 2 of Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme.

“Really looking forward to seeing Deone [pronounced DAY-own] this spring," Breske said. "He will have 15 practices to compete and get better each time out. This spring will be an opportunity for him to develop and showcase his leadership, both vocally and by example.

"Deone is one of our best competitors, he loves to compete and wants to win every play. Every day, he will be out there to get better.”

Bucannon is a hitter. And hitters hit. But as the rules of college football continue to shift more toward player safety, hitters have to constantly tiptoe the line between being aggressive and being tagged as dirty players. Unfortunately for Bucannon, he picked up the dirty tag last season when he planted a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver. He owned up to the mistake and served a half-game suspension. But the label stuck with him all last year -- and he's hoping to strip it to regain his reputation in 2013.

"If you knew me or talked to me, I'm not what a lot of people said I was," Bucannon said. "I love this game and I would never disrespect the game or another person. I enjoy going 100 percent on the field. It's tough adapting to the new rules right off the bat. I need to control when to hit the player because that's part of the game. Ask any safety that's played college football and they'll say the same thing. It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned."

Those are the kind of acts of leadership he'll need to display as WSU moves to Year 2 under Leach & Co. As the only non-specialist on the Cougars to earn all-conference honors (Andrew Furney was second-team kicker), Bucannon has the staff looking for him to do things the right way on and off the field.

The senior has appeared in every game since his freshman season and has ridden the highs and (mostly) lows of the program. But he continues to believe that the Cougars are on the verge of breaking through. He points to last year's come-from-behind win in the Apple Cup as proof of what this team is capable of.

"I remember not one person on the sideline thought we were going to lose that game even when we were trailing in the fourth quarter," he said. "If we can go into every game with that kind of confidence, we can compete with anybody. When we play together and aren't worried about the other team's jerseys, we can beat any team in the country.

"But it was also just one win and we can't live in the past. It was a nice way to end the season, but we need to learn from it and move on and try to win more games next year."

ESPN.com All-Pac-12 team

December, 10, 2012
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It wasn't easy putting together an All-Pac-12 team for 2012. Lots of tough choices, particularly at running back, where four guys were deserving.

It was difficult to leave off UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. As a tandem, they are better than just about any other conference's first-team backs.

Oregon, the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at season's end, led the way with six players. UCLA and Stanford, which played for the Pac-12 title, had four each. Oregon State had three. California, Colorado and Washington were shut out.

Offense
QB Marcus Mariota, RFr., Oregon
RB Ka'Deem Carey, So., Arizona
RB Kenjon Barner, Sr., Oregon
WR Marqise Lee, So., USC
WR Markus Wheaton, Sr., Oregon State
TE Zach Ertz, Jr., Stanford
OL Khaled Holmes, Sr., USC
OL David Yankey, Jr., Stanford
OL Hroniss Grasu, So., Oregon
OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, So., UCLA
OL Jeff Baca, Sr., UCLA
K Andrew Furney, Jr., Washington State
KR Reggie Dunn, Sr., Utah

Defense
DE Dion Jordan, Sr., Oregon
DT Star Lotulelei, Sr., Utah
DT Will Sutton, Jr., Arizona State
DE Scott Crichton, So., Oregon State
OLB Anthony Barr, Jr., UCLA
ILB Michael Clay, Sr., Oregon
OLB Chase Thomas, Sr., Stanford
CB Jordan Poyer, Sr., Oregon State
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, So., Oregon
S Ed Reynolds, So., Stanford
S Deone Bucannon, Jr., Washington State
P Jeff Locke, Sr., UCLA

Final: Washington State 35, UNLV 27

September, 15, 2012
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video

Was Washington State's 35-27 victory over UNLV on Friday night pretty? No.

Did it suggest the Cougars are ready to compete in the Pac-12? No.

But is this program, even with fancy new coach Mike Leach, in any position to gripe about a road victory over an FBS team? Not yet, particularly with its backup quarterback getting the start.

The Rebels aren't good. In fact, they likely are among the worst teams playing FBS football, whose 0-3 start includes a loss to FCS squad Northern Arizona last weekend.

Another stupid personal foul from safety Deone Bucannon -- Deone, open your darn eyes before you blast a defenseless guy who DOESN'T HAVE THE FOOTBALL -- helped the Rebels make things fairly interesting with a late touchdown, but the Cougs held on to improve to 2-1.

Bucannon, one of Washington State's best defensive players, was forced to sit out the first half due to a Pac-12 suspension for a similar cheap shot in the previous game, against Eastern Washington.

So the Cougars head into the Pac-12 schedule needing four wins to earn bowl eligibility.

The good news is quarterback Connor Halliday stepped in for injured starter Jeff Tuel and passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns. The bad news is he also tossed a pair of interceptions and missed a number of throws, completing just 26 of 44 passes.

The good news is the Cougars defense allowed only seven points in the second half. The bad news is it also surrendered 466 yards, more than the UNLV defense did.

And the Cougs also only scored seven points in the second half.

Leach's Air Raid offense has yet to take flight, and the ... whatever-it's-called defense doesn't look ready for Pac-12 offenses.

But the Cougs are 2-1. That's a solid start that leaves open plenty of possibilities for the season.

Good to great: Who makes the jump?

August, 12, 2011
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Who goes from good to great in the Pac-12 in 2011?

By this we mean which player goes from an above-average player to an all-conference sort? Here's some guess, one per team.

(And we don't want to include any players from this list).

DT Justin Washington, Arizona: Washington started fast as a redshirt freshman in 2010 then got banged up. If he stays healthy and takes a step forward, he's got a chance to be all-conference.

WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: The 6-foot-4, 222-pound senior has always looked the part. He just didn't play it. He played it this past spring, and he should put up big numbers in an offense that wants to throw it a lot.

[+] EnlargeKennan Allen
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMICal's Keenan Allen had 46 catches for 490 yards and five touchdowns last season.
WR Keenan Allen, California: Allen is a major talent. With his half-brother, Zach Maynard, playing quarterback, you'd think he's going to get plenty of chances to show it.

WR Paul Richardson, Colorado: Richardson is an A-list receiver on a team without much depth at the position. If he stays healthy, he's got a good shot to approach -- or eclipse -- the 1,000-yard receiving mark.

LB Michael Clay, Oregon: Smart and athletic -- very quick -- Clay saw a lot of action last year, and he did nothing to suggest he won't meet high expectations.

S Lance Mitchell, Oregon State: There are a lot of good safeties in the Pac-12. Mitchell, an NFL prospect, might be the most underrated of them all.

OLB Chase Thomas, Stanford: Very quietly piled up 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons but only earned honorable mention all-conference honors. Expect an upgrade when he gets double-digit sacks this fall.

DE Datone Jones, UCLA: Jones is like a super-secret guy who only folks who've watched UCLA practice the past two years know about. He was a nice player in 2009 who was expected to break out last year. Then he missed the entire season with a broken foot. If he stays healthy, he WILL be an all-conference player. Write it down.

DE Nick Perry, USC: Another talented guy -- the junior is firmly on the NFL radar -- who's been consistently riddled by injuries. If he stays healthy, he and Jones will be opposite each other on the all-conference team.

DT Star Lotulelei, Utah: At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, he looks the part. By the end of the 2010 season, he played the part, too. Coach Kyle Whittingham believes he's a budding star in more than his name, and we concur.

OT Senio Kelemete, Washington: A two-year starter, he's the Huskies' most experienced O-lineman. Coach Steve Sarkisian has been singing his praises for a long time. A breakthrough year?

SS Deone Bucannon, Washington State: He led the Cougars in tackles as a true freshman and made plenty of big plays (see: two interceptions and two forced fumbles). He also made some mistakes. Expect the mistakes to go down and the big plays to go up.
On Friday, we looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver troikas -- so it also makes sense to also look at their defensive counterparts, the best threesomes from each of the three levels of defense: defensive line, linebacker and defensive back.

Here's the tally from last season, if you are interested.

1. Arizona State

DE Junior Onyeali, LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Omar Bolden

The Skinny: No question on No. 1 here. Onyeali was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Burfict is the nation's best inside linebacker. Bolden was unanimous first-team All-Pac-10.

2. Stanford

DE Matt Masifilo, LB Shayne Skov, SS Delano Howell

The Skinny: Masifilo, the lone returning starter on the Cardinal defensive line, was honorable mention All-Pac-10, as was Skov, who was playing as well as any linebacker in the conference over the final third of the season. Howell was second-team All-Pac-10.

3. California

DE Trevor Guyton, LB Mychal Kendricks, S Sean Cattouse

The Skinny: Guyton had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks despite being a part-time starter. Kendricks was second-team All-Pac-10. Cattouse earned honorable mention.

4. Oregon

DE Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, CB Cliff Harris

The Skinny: Two solid returning starters and a second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback who figures to be a preseason All-American after earning second-team honors from the Associated Press and Walter Camp Football Foundation in 2010.

5. Washington:

DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison, FS Nate Fellner

The Skinny: Ta'amu earned honorable mention All-Conference honors and seemed to find himself over the latter half of the season. Dennison had 93 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Fellner tied for second in the conference with five interceptions.

6. Arizona

DT Justin Washington, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade

The Skinny: Washington's numbers fell off when he got banged up, but he still had 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks as a redshirt freshman. Vassallo was honorable mention All-Conference. Wade had an off year last fall, but was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.

7. USC

DE Armond Armstead, LB Chris Galippo, FS T.J. McDonald

The Skinny: This actually could be one of the best threesomes in the conference, but Armstead and Galippo have injury issues and only put up middling numbers last fall. McDonald was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.

8. Washington State

DE Travis Long, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, SS Deone Bucannon

The Skinny: Long was honorable mention All-Conference, Bucannon, who started as a true freshman, and Hoffman-Ellis were the Cougars' top two tackles in 2010.

9. UCLA

DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, SS Tony Dye

The Skinny: A solid threesome that is down here more because it gets an "incomplete." Jones missed all of last season with a foot injury, but, if healthy, he's an All-Conference sort. Larimore was solid in seven games before suffering a shoulder injury. Dye led the Bruins in tackles and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10.

10. Colorado

NG Will Pericak, LB Jon Major, FS Ray Polk

The Skinny: Pericak earned honorable mention All-Big 12. Major was the Buffaloes leading tackler before he blew out his knee in Game 7 (a knee injury also killed the junior's true freshman season). Polk was the second-leading tackler.

11. Utah

DE Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

The Skinny: Honestly don't know how to rank the Utes here. Shelby and Walker are returning starters -- Walker earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. Black was the top backup cornerback last season. But Star Lotulelei might be the Utes' best defensive lineman, and Brian Blechen has moved from strong safety, where he was very good, to linebacker. How highly do the Utes think of him? They list him as an All-American candidate.

12. Oregon State

DE Dominic Glover, LB Rueben Robinson, S Lance Mitchell

The Skinny: Three returning starters, but none of them even earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Mitchell was the Beavers' third-leading tackler, Glover had 2.5 sacks, and Robinson split time with Tony Wilson.

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.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
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.

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