NCF Nation: Derek Earls
Akron linebacker Brian Wagner will enroll at Arizona this week and will be immediately eligible due to an NCAA rule that allows athletes pursuing graduate degrees not offered at the former school to play right away.
Wagner, 22, averaged 13.36 tackles per game in 2011, and considering top tackler Luke Kuechly of Boston College is off to the NFL, Wagner will be the top returning tackler in FBS football.
Wagner, who earned first-team All-MAC honors, is taking advantage of the same transfer rule that was used by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
Why is this a big get for Arizona? Because its top two tacklers, Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are graduating, and the Wildcats' top two returning linebackers -- sophomores Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins -- combined for four starts and 18 tackles last season, in large part due to the Wildcats using a base nickel formation much of the season. But when you toss in 2010 starter Jake Fischer, who is coming back from an ACL injury, you have four experienced guys for three spots.
And, yes, you can essentially pencil Wagner, 6-foot, 235 pounds, into the starting lineup.
From the Tucson Citizen:
He played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at Akron. Exactly where he fits into Arizona’s scheme is to be determined, Wagner said, with the Cats presumably running a 3-3-5, no matter who coach Rich Rodriguez eventually brings in as defensive coordinator.
As for that defensive coordinator, nothing yet -- I found this to be an interesting narrative on back-and-forth with West Virginia DC Jeff Casteel. Speculation that Penn State also might be a player with Casteel raised one of my eyebrows, though Casteel's 3-3-5 doesn't sound like a Penn State defense.
1. How will Katz react when the lights go on at Cowboys Stadium? Oregon State's Ryan Katz has done everything well since he quickly took control of the quarterback job during spring practices. He's got the arm, head and athletic ability to become an All-Conference QB. But no one really knows how he will react to the big-stage pressure of his first career start. Many great QBs played like a squirrel darting across a highway in their first start. Others did just fine.
2. Time for Locker to step up: It's no longer about Jake Locker's extraordinary potential, which has NFL scouts salivating. Now it's about Locker performing. It's about him becoming the QB he is projected to be but hasn't yet been. That means completing 60-65 percent of his passes with few mistakes and converting big play after big play with both his arm and his feet. The visions of Locker now need to match the reality of him. Otherwise, a season of great hope for the Huskies won't get out of the starting gate.
3. Is Prince ready? what about his line? UCLA QB Kevin Prince has missed almost all of fall camp with a back problem. Sure, he's a returning starter, but the Bruins are adopting -- at least parts of -- a new "pistol" offense, which he inconsistently ran during the spring. You would think Prince, at the very least, will be a bit rusty at Kansas State. Also, it won't help much that the line he played behind in the spring doesn't look much like the makeshift unit that will be protecting him Saturday.
4. USC can make a statement: Everybody is curious how motivated the Trojans will be in 2010 when they aren't eligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. If they deliver an angry beatdown at Hawaii, some of that curiosity will be answered. And it wouldn't hurt Lane Kiffin for his squad to be sharp in his first game as head coach.
5. Oregon QB Darron Thomas needs to get his starters legs under him: Oregon is going to whip New Mexico, no matter how Thomas does in his first start at quarterback. But Thomas needs to push through those inevitable first-game jitters and find a comfort level on the big stage. Because next weekend he's going to be playing at Tennessee in front of 105,000 folks who will be slightly less supportive than the crowd Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
6. Can Oregon State get pressure on TCU QB Andy Dalton? While much of the pre-game attention with the Beavers showdown with TCU is focused on how Katz will react to the Horned Frogs' relentless blitzes, the Beavers own pass rush is almost as big a question. Recall that last year Oregon State, typically an attacking defense, struggled to get much pressure on opposing QBs, registering just 17 sacks, which ranked ninth in the conference and was just four more than poor ole Washington State. The hope is tackle Stephen Paea will be such a distraction inside that ends Gabe Miller and Taylor Henry will be able to beat one-on-one blocks with their athletic ability. But if the Beavers can't get to the underrated Dalton, it could be a long evening.
7. Are Arizona's three new LBs still thinking too much? The chatter started in spring and lasted through much of fall camp: The Wildcats new linebackers were thinking too much and therefore not playing with the right amount of aggressiveness. And then when they attacked, they often made the wrong fit or ended up in the wrong place. Toledo plays well at home and runs a productive spread offense. They will challenge Derek Earls, Jake Fischer and Paul Vassallo, who are each making their first career start. The Rockets will try to confuse them and get them out of position. There's inevitably going to be a growth process for the new LBs. The question is how slowly that process will progress.
8. How much better is Washington State? Few folks believe the Cougars are going to win many games this season, but there are good reasons for cautious optimism, starting with a more experienced -- and healthier -- lineup. It's certainly not helpful, however, to open at Oklahoma State, even if the Cowboys are rebuilding. Still, if the Cougs make this one competitive heading into the second half, they likely will have already exceeded some expectations. The key here is for WSU to walk away from Stillwater thinking, "We can win some games this year." Conversely, a blowout loss could prove catastrophic to the program's fragile confidence.
9. Will anyone produce a Heisman moment? Locker at BYU? Jacquizz Rodgers versus TCU in his home state? Will Arizona's Nick Foles or USC's Matt Barkley roll up big numbers? There are many potential Heisman Trophy candidates in the conference in 2010. Will any make a statement with a SportsCenter performance in week one?
10. Cal, Stanford and Arizona State just need to avoid injuries, not embarrass themselves: All three take on FCS foes -- UC Davis, Sacramento State and Portland State, respectively -- which means they are going to win easily (or become national laughingstocks). The key thing is to start fast and then get the starters safely to the bench.
Spring practice starts: March 5
Spring game: April 10
What to watch:
The new coordinators: The Wildcats lost two outstanding coordinators -- Sonny Dykes on offense and Mark Stoops on defense -- and decided to replace them with four guys. Tim Kish, promoted from linebackers coach, and Greg Brown, hired away from Colorado, will run the defense, while Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell, both promoted from within, will run the offense, with an assist from new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo. These guys will need to develop a coaching rhythm this spring that will ensure things go smoothly in the fall.
The JC linebackers: The Wildcats must replace three starting linebackers, and JC transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo weren't brought in to watch. If they step into starting spots, then guys like sophomore Jake Fischer, redshirt freshman Trevor Erno and redshirt freshman Cordarius Golston can fight over the third spot and add depth.
Foles 2.0: Quarterback Nick Foles was dynamic when he was on last year, but the shutout loss in the Holiday Bowl served as a reminder that he's not there yet. He's going to be surrounded by a lot of weapons at the skill positions, so he should be able to take another step forward this spring, even with the loss of Dykes.
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
The QB battle: It's a wide-open battle between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler, though the new guy -- Threet -- is perhaps the most intriguing. Samson Szakacsy was supposed to join the battle, but his elbow problem is acting up again, coach Dennis Erickson said Thursday. The competition will be overseen by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who's been handed an offense that has sputtered the past two seasons.
O-line issues (take 3): The Sun Devils' offensive line has struggled three years running, and it won't matter who starts at QB if the unit continues to get pushed around. First off is health. Will Matt Hustad, Zach Schlink, Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz and Adam Tello be ready to battle the entire spring? If so, there should be good competition here, particularly with a couple of JC transfers looking to break through.
The secondary: The Sun Devils were very good against the pass last year, but three starters in the secondary need to be replaced. Both starting corners are gone -- though if Omar Bolden successfully returns from a knee injury he should step in on one side -- as well as strong safety Ryan McFoy. The good news is a number of guys saw action here last fall, so the rebuilt unit won't be completely green.
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: N/A
What to watch:
Embattled Riley: When things go well, the quarterback often gets too much credit. When things go badly... well, you know. Senior Kevin Riley has started 22 games and has played well at times. But there's a reason he's in a quarterback competition for a third consecutive season. Will he be able to hold off a rising Beau Sweeney this spring?
Rebuilding the D: The Bears had questions on defense even before coordinator Bob Gregory unexpectedly bolted for Boise State. Five starters need to be replaced, including mainstays like end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, both first-team All-Pac-10 performers. And with Gregory gone, a new, likely more aggressive scheme now must be incorporated.
RB depth: Shane Vereen is the obvious starter after the departure of Jahvid Best, but Cal has, during the Tedford years, always used two backs. So who's the No. 2? Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie was third on the team with 211 yards rushing last year, while promising freshman Dasarte Yarnway redshirted. One or the other will look to create separation.
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: May 1
What to watch:
The D-line: The Ducks lost perennially underrated end Will Tukuafu, tackle Blake Ferras and backup Simi Toeaina up front. Considering the plan is to run an eight-deep rotation, there will be plenty of opportunities for players like ends Terrell Turner and Taylor Hart and tackles Anthony Anderson, Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi as well as 6-foot-7 JC transfer Isaac Remington to work their way into the rotation.
The passing game: The Ducks' passing game was inconsistent last year, though by season's end receiver Jeff Maehl was playing at a high level. Refining that part of the offense with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would make the spread-option even more dangerous. The receiving corps is looking for playmakers, which means youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Diante Jackson, might break through.
Who steps in for Ed Dickson? Oregon only loses one starter on offense, but tight end Ed Dickson is a big one. David Paulson was a capable backup last year, and mercurial Malachi Lewis may be ready to step up. Expect JC transfer Brandon Williams to work his way into the mix.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: May 1
What to watch:
Katz steps in: Sean Canfield is off to the NFL, so the Beavers' biggest question this spring is crowning a new starting quarterback. Most observers feel the job is Ryan Katz's to lose, and the sophomore looks good throwing the rock around. Still, being a quarterback is about more than a good arm. If he falters, Virginia transfer Peter Lalich might offer an alternative.
Better defensive pressure: The Beavers run a high-pressure defensive scheme, so when the stat sheet says they only recorded 17 sacks in 2009, which ranked ninth in the conference and was 22 fewer than in 2008, you know something is wrong. The entire defensive line is back, so the hope is a year of seasoning, particularly for ends Gabe Miller, Matt LaGrone and Kevin Frahm will mean better production this fall.
The O-line grows up: The Beavers' offensive line returns four starters from a unit that got better as the year went on. Still, it yielded 29 sacks and the run game struggled at times -- Jacquizz Rodgers often had to make yards on his own. Talented left tackle Michael Philipp, who did a solid job as a true freshman starter, should be much improved. A second year playing together with underrated senior center Alex Linnenkohl also should help.
Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
Replacing Toby: How do you replace Toby Gerhart and his 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns? You do not. But the hope is sophomores Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor and senior Jeremy Stewart will provide a solid answer that keeps the Cardinal's power-running game churning. It helps to have four starters back from a good offensive line.
Rebuilding the D: If you toss in linebacker Clinton Snyder and end Erik Lorig, Stanford must replace six defensive starters from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the conference in 2009. The secondary is a particular concern after giving up 23 touchdown passes and a 63 percent completion rate. The hope is good recruiting from coach Jim Harbaugh will provide better athleticism in the back-half. Another issue: There was huge coaching turnover, particularly on defense during the offseason, so new coordinator Vic Fangio & Co. will be implementing new schemes and learning about what sort of talent they have to work with.
Luck steps up: This was Gerhart's team in 2009. Now it's Luck's. He might be the most talented QB in the conference. Heck, he might become a Heisman Trophy candidate before he's done. But life won't be as easy without defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because they are fretting about Gerhart. Luck will need to step up his game -- and leadership -- to meet the challenge.
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
Prince becomes king? The fact that offensive coordinator Norm Chow has been such an advocate for sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince should tell you something: He's got the ability. Prince flashed some skills during an injury-plagued 2009 season, and it's important to remember he was a redshirt freshman playing with a questionable supporting cast, particularly the O-line. Prince needs to improve his decision-making, and the passing game needs to develop a big-play capability that stretches defenses.
Front seven rebuilding: UCLA not only must replace six starters on defense, it must replace six guys everyone in the Pac-10 has heard of. And five of the lost starters come from the front seven, and the guys who were listed as backups on the 2009 depth chart won't necessarily inspire confidence. In other words, the Bruins will try to take a step forward in the conference with what figures to be an extremely green defense, particularly up front.
The running game? Know what would help Prince and a young defense? A better running game. The Bruins were significantly better in 2009 than in 2008, but that merely means one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation moved up to ninth in the conference. There's a logjam of options at running back -- with a couple of dynamic runners in the incoming recruiting class -- and the offensive line welcomes back a wealth of experience. It would mean a lot if the Bruins could boost their rushing total to around 150 yards per game (from 114.6 in 2009).
Spring practice starts: TBA
Spring game: TBA
What to watch:
Welcome, Lane Kiffin: The Pete Carroll era is over. Enter Lane Kiffin & Co. In terms of scheme, things will be fairly consistent, seeing that Kiffin was formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator and Monte Kiffin was Carroll's defensive mentor. But there will be a period of adjustment. The guess is the hyper-intense Ed Orgeron might provide a bit of a shock to the D-linemen.
Matt Barkley Year 2: Barkley won't have the president of his fan club -- Carroll -- around anymore. He's a true talent. Everyone knows that, even without Carroll's daily sonnets about his ability. But the numbers show he threw 14 interceptions in 12 games vs. 15 TD passes last year, so he's obviously not arrived. Kiffin runs the offense, so you can expect these two to work closely together. Barkley will have plenty of help on offense, but the talent won't be as good as it was in 2009, with six starters needing to be replaced, including his top two targets (receiver Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy).
Secondary questions: All four starters from the defensive backfield are gone, including center fielder Taylor Mays. It helps that cornerback Shareece Wright, an academic casualty in 2009, will be back. He was a projected starter last fall. There's plenty of talent on hand, but last year's team proved that the Trojans don't always just plug-and-play.
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
Unleashing Locker: The return of quarterback Jake Locker was the best news any Pac-10 team received this offseason. Locker's passing improved dramatically in just one year under coach Steve Sarkisian, so it's not unreasonable to expect him to be even better in 2010, particularly with nine starters back on offense and just about every skill player on the depth chart.
Replacing Te'o-Nesheim: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was a four-year starter who blossomed into an All-Pac-10 performer despite almost no supporting cast. He led the Huskies with 11 sacks in 2009, which was 8.5 more than any other player. Also, opposite end Darrion Jones is gone, and the cast at the position is extremely young. Who's the next pass-rushing threat?
The Butler did it: Linebacker Donald Butler blossomed last year, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and leading the Huskies in tackles and tackles for loss (15.5). Toss in E.J. Savannah's failure to earn a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, and the Huskies have some questions at linebacker. Mason Foster is a sure thing at one outside position, and Cort Dennison likely will fill a second gap, but there's an opportunity for a young player to fill void No. 3.
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
Tuel time: Coach Paul Wulff decided that freshman Jeff Tuel was the Cougars' quarterback of the future last year, so he opted to start him instead of going with a redshirt season. Tuel showed promise in six games, completing 59 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five picks. Most of his supporting cast is back on offense, so the expectation is the Cougars' offense could take a significant step forward this fall.
O-line intrigue: Some of the Cougars starting on the offensive line last fall didn't look like Pac-10 players. Injuries and youth made the line a glaring area of weakness, even with veteran Kenny Alfred at center. Alfred is gone, but the expectations are that last year's youth will be saltier after taking their knocks. Plus, a couple of juco additions should be in the mix for starting jobs.
Growing up: There is hope in that 19 starters are back from a team that played a lot of underclassmen in 2009. That youth should mature in 2010. And solid recruiting classes the past two seasons should offer an infusion of young promise.
Here are top competitions in the conference this spring.
Arizona State, quarterback
Top candidates: junior Steven Threet, junior Samson Szakacsy, sophomore Brock Osweiler
This one is wide-open, particularly with a fresh set of eyes in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone now overseeing things. All three have some playing experience. No one has a lot. Or was particularly impressive when he played. Threet, a Michigan transfer, might be the frontrunner, based on early scuttlebutt, but that might just be folks leaning toward the unknown, new guy. Issue with Szakacsy is whether his arm strength will be consistent because he's struggled an elbow injury.
Oregon State, quarterback
Top candidates: sophomore Ryan Katz and junior Peter Lalich
How much of a competition will this really be? Katz has steadily improved and owns a clear advantage over the Virginia transfer before spring practices start. Both have good arms, though at least one Oregon State beat writer has taken to calling Katz "Nolan" Ryan Katz. Still, Lalich has playing experience -- albeit limited -- and he could make a move during the spring that could make things interesting in August.
Top candidates: Senior Kevin Riley, sophomore Beau Sweeney, junior Brock Mansion
This is an interesting one. Riley has started 22 games, but he's been consistently inconsistent. Coach Jeff Tedford said the competition will be open this spring, just as it was last year when Riley triumphed over Mansion and Sweeney. This time, Sweeney, who eclipsed Mansion on the depth chart last fall, will be the top challenger. Is Riley really going to lose his job as a senior? Well, it happened just across town at Stanford last year, with fairly positive results.
Top candidates: junior Derek Earls, junior Paul Vassallo, senior C.J. Parish, sophomore R.J. Young, sophomore Jake Fischer
Coach Mike Stoops talked last fall about being thin at linebacker behind his three senior starters, so this wide-open -- and fairly urgent -- situation isn't a surprise. Earls and Vassallo are JC transfers who are already enrolled and were not brought in to watch from the sidelines. Parrish, Young and Fischer were listed on last year's depth chart but combined for just 16 tackles.
Stanford, running back
Top candidates: sophomore Stepfan Taylor, senior Jeremy Stewart, sophomore Tyler Gaffney.
Just so you know: quarterback Andrew Luck was Stanford's second-leading rusher last year behind Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart. All three candidates have experience, though Stewart is coming back from a knee injury. An incoming freshman, such as Anthony Wilkerson, could join the fray in the fall.
UCLA, running back
Top candidates: sophomore Johnathan Franklin, junior Derrick Coleman, sophomore Milton Knox, sophomore Damien Thigpen, senior Christian Ramirez
This is a logjam of talented players who have yet to break through -- note that senior fullback Chane Moline became the go-to guy by the end of the 2009 season. However the pecking order establishes itself this spring, expect the outstanding incoming freshmen class -- Malcolm Jones, Jordon James and, if he stays at running back, Anthony Barr -- to get a chance to break into the rotation.
Here are some guesses.
LB Derek Earls, 6-3, 220 and/or LB Paul Vassallo, 6-3, 240
The Wildcats must replace all three starting linebackers from 2009. It's almost certain at least one of these two JC transfers starts.
OT Brice Schwab, 6-7, 310
Schwab, a touted JC transfer who originally committed to USC, is expected to immediately work his way into the Sun Devils' starting lineup, giving their beleaguered offensive line a boost.
RB Trajuan Briggs, 5-11, 200
Through the years, Cal has thrived with a tandem of running backs. With the departure of Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen moves up to No. 1. But who's his wingman? Coach Jeff Tedford gushed about Briggs at signing day, and he'll be there to compete this spring.
DE Isaac Remington, 6-5, 265 and/or DE Anthony Anderson
The Ducks lost two starting defensive linemen, including end Will Tukuafu. Kenny Rowe is the undersized speed rusher on one side, but can Remington immediately push himself into the mix on the other? And will Anderson step up after making noise as a freshman on the scout team?
WR Markus Wheaton, 6-0, 167
The Beavers don't have any flashy newcomers this spring, but Wheaton, who caught eight passes last year, is a potentially dynamic player who might assert himself this spring.
WR Jamal-Rashad Patterson, 6-3, 201
Stanford doesn't have any new guys around for spring practices, but Patterson, a touted 2009 recruit who caught one pass as a true freshman, probably senses his opportunity. With Toby Gerhart gone, and quarterback Andrew Luck back, the Cardinal figures to throw the ball more in 2010, which means the receivers will need to step up.
TE Joseph Fauria, 6-7, 245
The Bruins lost two quality senior tight ends, but this Notre Dame transfer figures to step right in and compete for playing time.
WR Kyle Prater, 6-5, 200
With the departure of Damian Williams, there will be opportunities for young USC receivers. Prater's big frame would be a nice complement to Ronald Johnson's speed.
RB Deontae Cooper, 6-1, 185
With starter Chris Polk sitting out this spring after shoulder surgery, Cooper should get plenty of opportunities to make a statement that he's ready to contribute as a true freshman.
OT David Gonzales, 6-5,290 and/or G Wade Jacobson, 6-5, 300
Washington State has to get better on the offensive line. These two might begin to fight their way into the starting lineup this spring.
Top prospects: Defensive tackle Kirifi Taula and safety Marquis Flowers are freshmen who could immediately play their way into the rotation. Junior college transfers Paul Vassallo, Willie Mobley and Derek Earls could play their way into starting jobs.
Under the radar: Stoops said he believes receiver Garic Wharton is the fastest incoming freshman in the nation. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight is USC running back Joe McKnight's little brother.
Issues? For those who care about recruiting rankings, this is not a highly rated class, though it's notable that two teams that finished tied for second in the Pac-10 -- the Wildcats and Oregon State -- finished toward the bottom of the rankings. While Stoops aggressively advocated for quarterback Cameron Allerheiligen, the late decommitment of Matt Brown, who signed with TCU when Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes left for Louisiana Tech, hurt the class.
Notes: The class includes players from nine different states ... Stoops said height was a new emphasis -- he wants a taller, longer team ... The class includes five linemen on both sides of the ball ... Stoops said when he was recruiting McKnight, he tried to call his older brother, Joe. But he had the wrong number -- he was calling Jonathan ... Receiver Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas, must sit out in 2010.