NCF Nation: Gerell Robinson
Spring practice is almost here. Here's a snapshot at what to expect from the Pac-12 South in the coming weeks.
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Hello, my name is ... Like the other two teams in the South Division with new head coaches (Arizona State and UCLA) much of Arizona's first few weeks will be Rich Rodriguez evaluating his personnel and getting to know what he has to work with. Likewise, the players are going to have to figure out what this new coaching staff is about. Everything from how they do pre-practice stretches to how they call the cadence is going to change.
- New scheme and a new scheme: A spread option on offense and a 3-3-5 on defense. That's a lot of new material to digest on both sides of the ball. Until Rodriguez can recruit the players he likes into his scheme, he's going to have to make it work with the players he has. Fortunately on the defensive side of the ball, Arizona has good depth in the secondary with Cortez Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Shaquille Richardson, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant. The Wildcats should also get a boost with the return of injured players Jake Fischer (LB), Jonathan McKnight (CB) and Adam Hall (S).
- Perfect fit? Former starter Matt Scott, who was beaten out by Nick Folesin 2009, is expected to reprise his starting role under Rodriguez. He redshirted the 2011 season and -- magically -- Foles never got hurt last year despite taking 23 sacks and countless hits. Scott is considered the more versatile quarterback and should fit nicely into the new run-based spread attack.
Spring practice starts: March 13
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- QB competition: We know what kind of offense new coach Todd Graham is going to run; now it's a matter of figuring out who is going to run it. Graham has his choice of three players -- Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly or Michael Eubank -- to replace NFL-bound Brock Osweiler. Graham said earlier this month that there are no favorites heading into the competition and each one brings his own skill set to the table. Eubank has the size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), Bercovici (6-1, 205) is a mechanic and Kelly (6-1, 202) is a little bit of everything.
- Get the locker room: By the end of the 2011 season, ASU's locker room wasn't just divided, it was completely splintered. Graham's task -- and that of his new coaching staff -- is to pick up the pieces, mend internal fences and find some chemistry on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Brandon Magee, long considered a great locker room leader, should help get the Sun Devils back on track as he returns from a season-ending Achilles injury.
- Hands competition: The Sun Devils lose three of their top four wide receivers from last season -- Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie. Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team last season with 60 catches and six touchdowns. Rashad Ross figures to be the No. 2 guy, but establishing depth in that corps -- especially if Graham wants to be up-tempo -- is key.
Spring practice starts: March 10
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Momentum, maybe? For as rough as 2011 was for the Buffs, they ended the year on a high note, winning two-of-three down the stretch -- including a 17-14 win over Utah in the season finale. But there is also the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. With just four returning starters on offense, spring in Boulder will likely be more about teaching and less about refining.
- Where to start (offense)? Well, quarterback might be a good place. In the court of public opinion, Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, seems to be the favorite. Nick Hirschman appeared in five games last season, mostly in mop-up time when the game was already out of hand. It's also possible a starter could be named by the end of spring ball. Finding offensive weapons to surround the new quarterback will also be a challenge. Wide receiver Paul Richardson caught 39 balls last season, and running back Tony Jones showed a flare for catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll likely step in as the new workhorse back for the departed Rodney Stewart.
- Where to start (defense)? Last in this. Last in that. Last in almost every team statistic the Pac-12 has to offer. But there are some intriguing youngsters on the roster. Cornerback Greg Henderson was all-conference honorable mention as a freshman with a team-high nine passes broken up. Jered Bell also returns from injury after blowing out a knee last preseason. If healthy, he's expected to be a big contributor in the secondary. Linebacker Jon Majorreturns as the team's leading tackler, and if Doug Rippy is fully recovered from his knee injury, he'll look to build on what was a pretty good season last year before getting hurt.
Spring practice starts: April 3
Spring game: May 5
What to watch:
- QB up for grabs: Like the majority of the conference, UCLA enters spring with a quarterback competition. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said he doesn't care how much experience (or lack thereof) a player has -- if he can play, he wins the job. So don't be surprised if Brett Hundley passes Kevin Prince and Richard Brehautas the new man leading the Bruins. Fans have been clamoring for a change. Hundley might be it.
- Attitude adjustment: One of the first things new head coach Jim Mora did was slam the team for its tradition of going "over the wall," a time-honored senior ditch day, saying if they want to jump the wall, they should just keep on going. How's that for sending a message? UCLA has earned a reputation for being soft and underachieving despite good talent. Attitude and toughness is needed -- and so far, Mora appears to be hammering that point home.
- Speaking of toughness ... The defense has to get tougher. No two ways about it. It was weak against the run last season, allowing more than 190 yards per game on the ground; couldn't get to the quarterback; and couldn't get off the field almost 50 percent of the time on third down. It's time for potential all-conference players such as defensive end Datone Jones to start living up to the hype and the defense as a whole to stop getting pushed up and down the field. At 6-5, 275 pounds, Jones has the physical makeup to be a major force in the conference and catapult himself into the elite class of collegiate defensive players.
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Ignore the hype: Few teams ended last season hotter than USC and returning quarterback Matt Barkley. The Heisman talk has already started, the way-too-early rankings already have the Trojans as national championship contenders, and the public perception is that the offense is unstoppable. Nice to hear, but hype is a double-edged sword. Head coach Lane Kiffin has a knack for deflecting hype. This season will be his toughest test to date.
- Insurance? The Trojans are loaded on both sides of the ball with returning players. But after the starting 22, things start to get dicey. Developing depth and keeping the starters healthy is a top priority -- particularly on the offensive and defensive lines and at running back, where experience is thin outside of the starters. The entire back seven returns on defense -- headlined by hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald. Stopping the pass has been a major priority for Kiffin, and if this group stays healthy it should see the pass-efficiency numbers improve even more.
- Other options: Along those same lines, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee make up the most feared receiving duo in the conference -- maybe the country. But who are the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers behind them? George Farmer? Victor Blackwell? De'Von Flournoy? Don't overlook the tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, which should rival Stanford's Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as the best tight end tandem in the conference.
Spring practice starts: March 20
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- Youthful approach: Head coach Kyle Whittingham turned some heads by naming former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Johnson, who recently turned 25, said he's not looking to make wholesale changes to the offense, though he wants to put his stamp on it and continue to build around running back John White IV, who had a breakout season in his first year of major college football. Having quarterback Jordan Wynn back healthy should also help as the team transitions to Johnson running the offense.
- Fixing the line: Who is going to protect Wynn (if he does indeed win back the starting job) and make holes for White? That's a major concern heading into spring as the Utes have to replace a pair of all-conference linemen in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. The Utes should be set at the interior but have to adjust to a new position coach, with Tim Davis leaving for Florida after just one season and Dan Finn -- a former Utah graduate assistant who was brought on to help Davis -- taking over the whole line following a one-year stint at San Diego State.
- Work the experience: The defensive line should be one of the best in the conference, especially with the return of Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy last season as the conference's best defensive lineman. With the Kruger brothers returning to the line -- Joe at defensive end and Dave at tackle -- Derrick Shelby is the lone starter who has to be replaced. There's also some pretty good depth in the secondary that was tops in the conference last season in pass-efficiency defense.
Yet even on an indoor track, Ross still hasn't really mastered those pesky starting blocks.
"Honestly, I don't really know how to start all that good," Ross said. "But I can end good."
Of all the collegiate football players in the country who also run track, Ross has the fastest time in the nation in the 200-meters indoor with an altitude-adjusted mark of 21.25. That's also the sixth fastest indoor mark in ASU history. Overall, he ranks 24th in the nation among all runners.
"I like the 200 because I know if I screw up the start, I have time to make it up," he said.
That should give you some indication of just how fast this guy is -- slow starter, huge finisher. It's that way on the football field as well. One needs only to look at the opening kickoff of the second half in the Las Vegas Bowl, when Ross took it back 98 yards, to see what happens when he gets it going. It was one of the few highlights on an otherwise off night for ASU against Boise State.
The Sun Devils and new head coach Todd Graham are going to need plenty of speed at the wide receiver spot next year. They lose three of the top four receivers from last season; Gerell Robinson (77 catches, 1,397 yards, seven touchdowns), Aaron Pflugrad (44/665/5) and Mike Willie (36/455/3). Which means the fleet-footed Ross could be the next big thing.
Aside from his track training, he's been working out on the side with a couple of the quarterbacks who will be in line to replace Brock Osweiler. Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly are all in competition for the starting gig.
"A lot of people say quarterback is going to be an issue for us next year," Ross said. "We'll see. I have faith in all of them."
Ross knows nothing is going to be handed to him. And Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team with 60 catches and six touchdowns last year. Ross' track training keeps him in shape for football and if he wants to build on his 18 catches from last season, he's going to have to win over Graham and his new staff.
"When I first met [Graham], I thought he was nice -- not like what everybody else was saying and I didn't see what everybody else was seeing," Ross said. "And then I heard him talk when he was mad and I was like 'OK, he's not playing around.'"
For now, he's focused on getting that 200 time down even further. If he can get to 21 flat, he'll have a good shot at qualifying for nationals and a 20.73 would make him an automatic qualifier. He also has the eighth fastest time in the conference in the 60-meter at 6.82. His slower starts are even more noteworthy in a quick sprint like the 60, because he is still able to make up time on the finish.
We even created an All-Underrated Team.
Now we recognize our Most Improved Players on both offense and defense.
Jordan went from single-game starter in 2010 to first-team All-Pac-12 as a junior in 2011. Jordan had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2010, when he showed promise after converting from tight end. He lived up to that promise in 2011 with 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Jordan figures to be a leading candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, particularly if he gets his skinny butt into the weight room and eats a lot of steak.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Lotulelei started the final three games of the 2010 season and finished with 21 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks. In 2011, he won the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's best defensive lineman, as voted on by his peers -- the guys who had to block the 325-pounder. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors and was the lineman of the game in the Utes' Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. He finished with 44 tackles, including nine for loss, but his main job was occupying two blockers so linebackers could make tackles. The Utes ranked third in the Pac-12 -- and 20th in the nation -- in run defense.
Honorable mention: Conroy Black, CB, Utah; Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford; Trevor Guyton, DE, California; D.J. Holt, LB, California; Josh Kaddu, LB, Oregon; C.J. Mizell, LB, Washington State; Nick Perry, DE, USC; Eddie Pleasant, S, Oregon; Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State; Nickell Robey, CB, USC; Trevin Wade, CB, Arizona
Offense: Gerell Robinson, WR, Arizona State
Robinson went from bust to bust-out in 2011. In 2010, the once-touted recruit caught just 29 passes for 387 yards. He was best known for inconsistent hands. And at the start of 2011, he also caught an early case -- or two -- of the dropsies. But Robinson caught fire just as the rest of the Sun Devils started to tank, hauling in more than 100 receiving yards in six of the final eight games, including 13 receptions for 241 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State. He finished with 77 receptions for 1,397 yards and seven touchdowns. His 107.5 yards receiving per game ranked ninth in the nation, and his 18.1 yards per catch was tied for first in the Pac-12. His late-season surge earned him a spot in the Senior Bowl.
Honorable mention: Mark Asper, OG, Oregon; Matt Barkley, QB, USC; Matt Kalil, OT, USC; Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State; Isi Sofele, RB, California; Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State; Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State; Robert Woods, WR, USC
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford: Luck completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
QB II Keith Price, Washington: It's impossible to leave Price or Luck out. Price completed 23 of 37 passes for 438 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions in the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. He also rushed for 39 yards and three scores. Those numbers typically would eclipse what Luck did, but Baylor might have the worst defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon: James rushed for 159 yards on 25 carries with a TD in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Taylor rushed for 177 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: Robinson caught 13 passes for 241 yards with a TD in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State.
WR Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon: Tuinei caught eight passes for 158 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl victory.
TE Zach Ertz, Stanford: Ertz caught four passes for 38 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinal's Rose Bowl loss.
OL David DeCastro, Stanford: The unanimous All-American dominated Oklahoma State's D-linemen in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal rushed for 243 yards.
OL Mark Asper, Oregon: Asper is the senior cornerstone of a line that led the way for 345 yards rushing in the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory.
OL Tony Bergstrom, Utah: The senior tackle helped RB John White gain 115 tough yards against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: The Ducks freshman center made all the right line calls against Wisconsin.
OL Senio Kelemete, Washington: The Huskies gained 620 yards and didn't allow a sack in the loss to Baylor.
Freak: Our special position for De'Anthony Thomas, who scored TDs on runs of 91 and 64 yards in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. The Black Mamba also caught four passes for 34 yards and returned five kickoffs for 125 yards.
K: Giorgio Tavecchio, California: Tavecchio capped a strong senior season with a 47-yard field goal in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas.
RET: Rashad Ross, Arizona State: Ross returned the third-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a TD against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
DL Josh Shirley, Washington: While it's difficult to recognize anyone from the Huskies defense against Baylor, Shirley did sack Robert Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner, three times.
DL Trevor Guyton, California: Guyton had five tackles, with two coming for losses, and a sack in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DL Star Lotulelei, Utah: The Utes DT had six tackles and a fumble recovery and generally blew up the middle of the Georgia Tech line in the Utes' Sun Bowl victory. He was named Most Valuable Lineman.
LB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: Zumwalt had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and an interception in the Bruins' loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon: The Ducks LB had five tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, with a sack and a key interception in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win. He was named Defensive MVP.
LB Michael Clay, Oregon: The Ducks LB had 13 tackles, including two for a loss, and a critical fumble recovery in the Rose Bowl victory.
LB Mychal Kendricks, California: Kendricks had 10 tackles, including 1.5 for losses, in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DB Terrance Mitchell, Oregon: Mitchell had five tackles in the Rose Bowl, but his most important contribution was forcing a Wisconsin fumble on the Ducks 27-yard line with four minutes left in the game. Perhaps even more important than that, he inspired coach Chip Kelly to jump up and down in a wonderful -- and slightly goofy -- show of spontaneous emotion (search YouTube for "Chip Kelly jumping").
DB Clint Floyd, Arizona State: Floyd had seven tackles -- two for a loss -- and an interception in the Sun Devils' loss to Boise State.
DB John Boyett, Oregon: Boyett had a bowl-high 17 tackles and half a sack in the Ducks' win over Wisconsin.
DB Marc Anthony, California: Anthony had four tackles, one coming for a loss, and two pass breakups against Texas.
P Sean Sellwood, Utah: Sellwood averaged 49.5 yards on eight punts against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
How the game was won: Boise State dominated on both sides of the ball. It was the better team in every aspect. And let the Pac-12 blog officially voice its opinion -- late to a loud chorus -- that the Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl instead of a BCS bowl is a travesty. Yes, Allstate Sugar Bowl, we are talking to you. You should be ashamed.
Turning point: Boise State's Doug Martin took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a TD. Other than 0-all just before that, 7-0 would be the closest the Sun Devils got all night. So the turning point was Boise State walking into the stadium.
Stat of the game: Arizona State was outrushed 162 yards to minus-11. Wow. What can you say about that?
Player of the game: Boise State QB Kellen Moore didn't have his best game -- he threw two interceptions -- but his 50th win capped one of the greatest careers in college football history. With him behind center, Boise State became the first Football Bowl Subdivision program to win 50 games in four years. One word from all of college football, Kellen: Thanks.
What Arizona State learned: Some Sun Devils showed fight -- QB Brock Osweiler and receiver Gerell Robinson being two -- but this is a program that needs to transform itself. Sloppy, me-first play needs to end. Doing the exact wrong thing at critical moments needs to end. New coach Todd Graham has inherited a considerable challenge.
Record performance: Osweiler, after throwing for 395 yards, set a school single-season record for yards this season.
ASU lost to the Ducks in Tempe last year because of seven turnovers.
And ASU presently leads the Pac-12 in takeaways and turnover margin.
And now the Sun Devils have a 19th takeaway after Kenjon Barner fumbled his first carry. Yes, LaMichael James' replacement made the game's first big mistake.
A 20-yard TD pass from ASU QB Brock Osweiler to Gerell Robinson then made it 7-0.
It was a great toss.
A fast start guarantees nothing against Oregon. We've seen the Ducks stomp folks after starting slow.
But a fast start is better than a slow start for the Sun Devils. And you have to wonder if Barner might start thinking too much.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook has often talked about how his program experienced too much success too soon.
After winning just eight games between 2003-06, Illinois fast-tracked to the Rose Bowl in Zook's third season, finding itself as a surprise participant on college football's grandest stage. Rather than take a step, Illinois skipped about 40.
The Illini tumbled that day against USC and entered a two-year free fall.
No one would describe the 2010 Texas Bowl -- now called the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas -- as an iconic college football setting. It takes place in an NFL venue -- Houston's Reliant Stadium -- and was revived only in 2006.
But for Illinois, the Texas Bowl represented a step, a building block for what players and coaches hopes were bigger things ahead. It didn't hurt that the Illini crushed Baylor 38-14.
"A lot of guys hadn't been to a bowl game," sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "It was kind of good to taste success, but it made us more hungry."
The hunger carried Illinois through the offseason, and the team has been able to retain something it lost following the 2002 Sugar Bowl and the 2008 Rose Bowl.
For their efforts, the Illini, projected by many to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten, likely will earn a spot in the new polls released Sunday.
"We're taking some steps," Zook said. "We're continuing to get where we're supposed to get. ... It makes everybody understand that, 'Hey, maybe Illinois is a bit better than what people think.'"
Illinois and Arizona State both finished the 2010 regular season with identical 6-6 records. While the Illini went bowling, Arizona State stayed home because two of its victories came against FCS opponents.
Still, the Sun Devils entered this season as a team to watch, a belief strengthened by their overtime win last week against Missouri. Arizona State didn't have the letdown coach Dennis Erickson feared, but the Sun Devils couldn't overcome the mistakes (eight penalties, three turnovers) that have plagued them far too often.
Given another chance to turn the corner, Arizona State lost its footing.
"This is gut-wrenching, to be honest with you," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "Everyone is sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."
It happened because Illinois' defense executed an innovative, pressuring, "crazy" game plan devised by coordinator Vic Koenning. Illinois mixed up fronts, blitzed often and repeatedly made plays in Arizona State's offensive backfield.
The Illini racked up six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures. Two of their three takeaways came as a direct result of pressure on Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler, who entered the game ranked 10th nationally in passer rating and 11th in total offense.
"We sat up here Sunday night, put the game plan together, kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said. "But it all worked."
Brown had a breakout performance with 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan combined for 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
"They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap."
What was pegged as an offensive shootout turned into a defensive tussle, and for much of the game, neither team seemed willing to take control. The teams combined for five turnovers in the first three quarters but converted none for points.
Illinois finally ended the trend when, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Mercilus sacked Osweiler, forcing a fumble. An Illini offense that hadn't recorded a first down in the second half then marched to the end zone in only four plays.
"You've got to capitalize," Zook said. "You've got to make something happen when you get the ball back."
Arizona State couldn't do so nearly enough. The Devils had eight possessions end in Illinois territory, but only two culminated in points.
"Very disappointing," Erickson said. "It's two steps forward and one step back."
Who knows how a bowl appearance in the winter would have impacted Arizona State for the 2010 season. But there's little doubt about the positive effect it had on the Illini.
"It changed the culture," Buchanan said. "It changed how guys think about playing on the big stage. ... We got a taste of being on top."
Illinois sits atop the Big Ten as one of just four remaining undefeated teams. The league looks extremely vulnerable, and Illinois has three of the next four games at home with the only road trip to Indiana.
Leaders division foes Wisconsin and Ohio State both must visit Memorial Stadium later this fall.
"We're not shooting for the Texas Bowl," Buchanan said. "We're shooting for a big bowl."
After Illinois forced a three-and-out on the game's first possession, both offenses have looked crisp on touchdown drives. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showcased his speed on a short scoring march, while his Arizona State counterpart Brock Osweiler found huge gaps in the Illinois secondary to even the score at 7-7.
The safety position is a liability for Illinois, and it showed as Osweiler converted two third-and-long situations to wide-open receivers, the second a 21-yard touchdown strike to Gerell Robinson. Illinois needs to keep a safety back or Osweiler will have a field day.
Arizona State, meanwhile, must show it can handle Illinois' speed on offense.
The Sun Devils jumped ahead 7-0 on a 12-yard pass from Brock Osweiler to Jamal Miles. Key play of the drive was a 51-yard connection to Gerell Robinson.
After a good initial drive netted no points, the red zone conversion was big.
Osweiler is 6-for-8 for 113 yards.
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.
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.
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?
Arizona State is no exception to the universal spring optimism, but there's some momentum behind the good feeling after a strong finish in 2010. Expectations are high in Tempe. How high? Buckle up.
Osweiler isn't talking about the Allstate Sugar Bowl, though. He's talking about the BCS title game. Really.
Arizona State hasn't posted a winning season since 2007, when it went 10-3 in Dennis Erickson's debut and inspired false hope that things would be easy under a pedigreed coach. Not so. Over the past few seasons, the Sun Devils have found ways to lose, and they were typically creative in doing so. Missed field goals and extra points, turnovers on the goal line, turnovers in extraordinary bunches, missed tackles, missed throws, missed opportunities. It was sometimes great theater, though redundant tragedy from the Sun Devils perspective.
In 2009, they lost four games by five or fewer points. In 2010, they lost four games by four or fewer points, including squandered opportunities versus Wisconsin and Stanford. They somehow managed to stay within 11 points of Oregon -- one of three teams to do so -- despite seven (seven!) turnovers.
But from that manure pile sprouts the flower of hope. The Sun Devils welcome back 17 starters that includes depth on the offensive line and loads of speed and skill on both sides of the ball. They look like a slight favorite in the first year of the Pac-12 South Division, even though two returning starters, cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, went down with knee injuries this spring.
"Everybody has to be optimistic before the season starts, but this year it's like everybody just knows," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "It's not like a hope or a feeling. Everybody just knows that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll get to where we want to be."
That high expectations are the top story is good news for Erickson, who would be the subject of hotseat talk otherwise. His fast start hid some roster shortcomings -- most notably a dearth of offensive linemen -- and fans had started to turn away as the mediocrity piled up. In 2007, the average attendance in Sun Devil Stadium was 62,875. Last fall, it was 47,943.
The players are aware there's pressure to win in 2011.
"It's like some negative energy that we're turning into a positive on the field because nobody wants to see a coaching staff change," cornerback Deveron Carr said.
Beyond returning a majority of starters from 2010, the Sun Devils are a veteran team: They will feature a 30-man "senior" class (players in their final year of eligibility). The offensive line welcomes back all five starters and many of the backups even have starting experience. The top-six rushers from last fall are back, as are four of the top-six receivers. On defense, the top-three tacklers are back as are the three leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss.
And these aren't just hacks. The Sun Devils averaged 32.2 points per game in 2010, which ranked third in the Pac-10, and ranked fifth in total and scoring defense.
"We have some experience coming back and we have a lot of confidence in what we are doing," Erickson said. "Our players have been through a lot the last three years, lost some close games. Now it's their chance to step up and make some plays."
The biggest question: Is Osweiler up to the job? After starter Steven Threet went down with his third concussion against UCLA, Osweiler was brilliant coming off the bench and then overcame a bad first half to beat arch-rival Arizona. It was expected to be a tight quarterback competition this spring, but Osweiler won the job by default when the recurrent concussions forced Threet to retire.
The offense struggled early in spring practices, but Osweiler inspired confidence with five touchdown passes in the spring game as the offense dominated.
"He made some great throws that make you go, 'Wow, that was amazing,'" left tackle Evan Finkenberg said.
While losing Bolden and Simpson was a big blow -- both could return by mid-season -- the pieces still appear to be in place for a run at the first Pac-12 title game. And one of those pieces is confidence.
"I think this team knows it's our time now," Finkenberg said. "We have the pieces in place to have a big season and do the things we want to do."
Posted by ESPN.coms' Ted Miller
Just think: 119 sets of fans are optimistic right now. Wonder what that number will be in a week?
- A guide to get ready for Arizona's season, but the news is about TE Rob Gronkowski, who might have mononucleosis as well as strep throat. That could knock him out for a few weeks.
- Good news for Arizona State: Mr. First Down, WR Chris McGaha, returned to practice Sunday after missing 10 practices with a toe injury and should be ready to go against Northern Arizona. The article lists eight true freshmen expected to play: defensive end Lawrence Guy, linebacker Brandon Magee, linebacker Shelly Lyons, cornerback Josh Jordan, tailback Ryan Bass, receiver Gerell Robinson offensive lineman Zach Schlink and safety Clint Floyd.
- What did we learn from California's training camp? Jonathan Okanes breaks it down -- lots of good stuff here.
- We should find out Monday about Nate Costa's knee, but it's clear that Justin Roper will start against Washington. One thing to keep in mind with Costa out: Neither one of the Ducks' backups -- Jeremiah Masoli, a sophomore transfer, who led City College of San Francisco to the JC national title last year, and true freshman Chris Harper -- have played a single down of Division I-A ball. Notes from the official press release.
- Oregon State plays Stanford and coach Jim Harbaugh on Thursday. Know the last name of a Beavers student assistant? Harbaugh. Paul Buker, wedging tongue into cheek, spies on the potential spy. The Beavers aren't exactly sure what they will get out of Stanford. A big concern is new Cardinal defensive coordinator Ron Lynn. An NFL veteran, he may have been scheming up surprises during four years away from the field. A scouting report.
- Low expectations won't keep UCLA's Rick Neuheisel from being optimistic. UCLA's got "The Boz" at DE, but Korey Bosworth is a quiet guy. The future QB at UCLA, Richard Brehaut, has Bruins fans saying Matt Barkley who?
- No. 1 overall? Is USC DT Fili Moala really that good? We shall see. USC's depth chart -- still a lot of "ORs" on it. A first look at Virginia. A Scott Wolf note on RB Joe McKnight's "special status."
- Washington's defense is a huge question mark, but DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is not one of them. Good stuff on his background and upbringing.
- A report from banged-up Washington State... Coug fans might be a little worried about the OL injuries. Stadium renovations mean new stuff on Washington State football Saturdays.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
It's a little-known fact that links are a good source of Vitamin C.
- Arizona might have found its next Antoine Cason in a Golden freshman cornerback, say Greg Hansen and John Moredich. Up front, the pressure is on players like end Ricky Elmore to help the Wildcats inexperienced defense hold its own.
- Arizona State WR Mike Jones hit .184 in the Yankees farm system this summer, so he's obviously saved some juice as he tries to improve on his 10 TD receptions from a year ago. It's never good when your starting tailback is having shoulder issues before full-contact starts. On the other side of the ball, the primary concern is the interior defensive line, where some young guys might see action. Dan Zeiger's notebook also included this about freshmen who could see action:
"Conventional wisdom is that three true freshmen -- Bass, receiver Gerell Robinson and defensive lineman Lawrence Guy -- are expected to play this season. But a number of others are getting every chance to make an impression. Such newcomers as linebackers Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee and offensive linemen Zach Schlink and Patrick Jamison have received practice action with the second team.
- California's new 3-4 defense has been installed. Now it's a matter of figuring out who plays where, with key battles at the fourth LB spot and at nose guard. Two critical things in Jonathan Okanes' practice report: 1. TB Jahvid Best appears completely healthy; 2. Both QBs, Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley, are playing well, with Longshore even showing some mobility. And Rusty Simmons agrees, noting Best might return both punts and kickoffs. Of course, the QB debate hasn't abated in the blogdom.
- If Oregon receiver Jaison Williams has cured his dropsies, then he's going to the best receiver in the Pac-10 and the NFL will raise more than an eyebrow. That's a big IF, though. Speaking of "Ifs" at WR, the Ducks need Jamere Holland to get healthy and learn his plays. Here's a report on the helmet decal tribute to Todd Doxey, who drowned this summer.
- Oregon State's Rodgers brothers might be a problem for the rest of the Pac-10 for years to come. Here's a good story about a young man who found himself and now may help answer questions on the Beavers offensive line.
- The Bootleg talks to a few key Stanford freshmen. If I were a Stanford football fan, I'd subscribe to this Web site -- by far the best source for Stanford football and recruiting information.
- UCLA will vary its snap count this year (it always went on "one" in 2007). So hut... hut... hut--hut... HUT! And when they finally go, the ball will be better spread around under offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
- Brian Dohn also gives UCLA's pecking order in the secondary: "First team
Michael Norris and Alterraun Verner are the cornerbacks, Aaron Ware and Rahim Moore are the safeties. Second team Courtney Viney and Aaron Hester are the cornerbacks and Bret Lockett (suspended for first game) and Glenn Love are the safeties." By the way, that's true freshman Rahim Moore.
- This second item might worry USC fans just a little: OG Jeff Byers is sitting out with an enlarged spleen. And back injuries are starting to hamper the Trojans backup LBs. The important thing here isn't that frosh TE Blake Ayles is getting rock by an overzealous DB, it's that he's already running with the 1s and 2s.
- Bob Condotta looks at Washington's young defensive line. He also includes an item in his blog's practice report about a former player taking issue with coach Tyrone Willingham. Molly Yanity leads her notes with a quick hit on QB Jake Locker's conditioning -- it's good. That's good, because Locker told Don Ruiz he wants to complete 65 percent of his passes this season, which is considerably higher than his 47-percent rate in 2007.
- Washington State needs WR Michael Willis to step up, particularly after Daniel Blackledge suffered a hamstring injury. Willis brought his mom to town for support. And a Coug practice report.