NCF Nation: James Aiono

No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.

Utah spring wrap

May, 6, 2010
5/06/10
6:00
AM ET
2009 overall record: 10-3

2009 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters
Offense:
8, Defense: 4, Punter/Kicker: 2

Top returners
RB Eddie Wide, RB Matt Asiata, WR Jereme Brooks, OL Zane Taylor, OL Caleb Schlauderaff, QB Jordan Wynn, DB Brandon Burton, DT Sealver Siliga, K Joe Phillips, P Sean Sellwood

Key losses
OL Zane Beadles, DB Robert Johnson, DL Koa Misi, LB Stevenson Sylvester, WR David Reed, DB R.J. Stanford, LB Mike Wright

2009 statistical leaders (* denotes returners)

Rushing: *Eddie Wide (1,069 yards)
Passing: *Jordan Wynn (1,329 yards), *Terrance Cain (1,624 yards)
Receiving: David Reed (1,188 yards)
Tackles: Stevenson Sylvester (81)
Sacks: *Christian Cox (5.5)
Interceptions: Robert Johnson (6)

Spring answers

1. Reloading at receiver: The Utes lost three of their starting four receivers from last year, but Brooks returns as the leader and the Utes got quality performances out of former quarterback DeVonte Christopher and newcomer Griffin McNabb. Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s still looking for depth at the receiver position, but he likes the direction the receivers are headed.

2. Defensive line looks deep: There was some concern about the defensive line heading into this spring, but Sealver Siliga, Dave Kruger, Neil A’asa, James Aiono, Junior Tui’one and Latu Heimuli seemed to have solidified a line that will be the strongest area of the defense this fall. The Utes also got unexpected help from defensive end Trevor Reilly, who could be a factor in the fall.

3. Replacing Robert: Brandon Burton returns at the cornerback position and Lamar Chapman, who started at the nickelback position last year, will start on the other side, replacing Robert Johnson. Conroy Black will be another asset at cornerback, as well. All three players are among the fastest on the team.

Fall questions

1. Linebackers lacking experience: The Utes lost all of their stellar linebackers from a year ago and took a big hit when Nai Fotu suffered a season-ending knee injury. J.J. Williams had a good spring and former quarterback Chad Mannis likely will be in the starting rotation. Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez got some much-needed reps with Fotu out. There’s some good depth at linebacker, but the experience is lacking.

2. Safeties are still a concern: Senior Justin Taplin-Ross was the only safety on the roster with game experience. He had a good spring and was supposed to be joined by Chris Washington, who missed the 2009 season with an injury. But Washington was injured during the spring and missed the final weeks of spring practice, leaving the safety position up for grabs.

3. Still looking for a returner: Shaky Smithson should be the top returner once he’s fully recovered from offseason surgery, but during the spring, players such as Brandon Burton and Griffin McNabb took a shot at returns. The Utes were in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West in both kick and punt returns and are hoping to improve on that number in 2010.
Links are hit and miss at this time of year with basketball going full speed, but I did my best to round up some stories.

Former San Diego State football player Nick Sandford has accused former head coach Chuck Long of a “cover-up” regarding a scuffle with another teammate in 2008.

Utah moves defensive back Victor Spikes to running back.

Idaho Statesman reporter Chadd Cripe breaks down Boise State's wide receiver corps.

As Utah opens spring practices, the quarterbacks look strong.

Could Southern Miss be in the mix for Big East expansion?

Utah defensive lineman James Aiono is excited to be working with the Utes after delaying his transfer last year because of a missed math class.
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Air Force Falcons

Spring practice starts: Feb. 18

Spring game: March 17

What to watch:
  • Air Force is in a comfy position because it has all of its passing, rushing and scoring back from 2009. The biggest key to next season will be the play of quarterback Tim Jefferson. He didn’t get to go through spring football last year, so this should help the Falcons even more for 2010.
  • While all of the offensive skill positions return, the offensive line is depleted. All five starters are gone and while there are competent backups ready, they’ll need to use the spring to get on the same page and continue to open holes for the Falcons' triple option.
  • The defense returns six starters, but they’ll be learning under a new full-time defensive coordinator in Matt Wallerstedt. Wallerstedt was the co-defensive coordinator last year, but it will be interesting to see what twists he adds to one of the NCAA’s best defenses in 2009.
BYU Cougars

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • The top position battle for the Cougars this season will be at quarterback. Riley Nelson has the edge since he was Max Hall’s backup last year, but returning missionary James Lark and early enrollee Jake Heaps will be in the mix, too. The Cougars will add one more quarterback competitor in the fall.
  • Tight end is another interesting competition since both Dennis Pitta and Andrew George are gone. Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson and Mike Muehlmann all will be competing for that starting spot.
  • The Cougars lost their entire starting defensive line and four of the six on the depth chart. The other two players on the two-deep played and there are some returning missionaries that could step in and help right away.
Colorado State Rams

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Quarterback seems to be the popular question for the Colorado State in the spring. This year, there’s much anticipation over early enrollee Pete Thomas. Thomas will challenge senior Jon Eastman, junior T.J. Borcky, and redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri. Borcky will also play wide receiver.
  • A year ago, the offensive line was a position of strength for the Rams, this year they’re trying to replace four starters and the only returner, tackle Paul Madsen, didn’t even start the entire seasons. Guard Jake Gdowski and tackle Mark Starr figure to be in the mix along with several redshirt freshmen and sophomores.
  • The defense should be a strength for the Rams this year. They lose just two starters and return 24 lettermen, including linebacker Ricky Brewer, who was an all-conference performer in 2008 but was suspended all of 2009.
New Mexico Lobos

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • With Donovan Porterie still waiting to hear about a sixth year, there will be a quarterback competition this spring. Sophomore B.R. Holbrook is the favorite against juniors Tate Smith and Brad Gruner, but the spring winner will have to fend off top recruits Tarean Austin and Stump Godfrey in the fall.
  • Running back Terence Brown, who was the penciled in starter last season before tearing his ACL in the spring, will once again be the favorite to win the top rushing spot for the Lobos. While two freshmen and a sophomore manned the position last year, the Lobos ranked 110th in rushing.
  • In making the running game better, the Lobos have to get better on the offensive line. They lose three starters, including center Erik Cook. There are a few young players waiting in the wings, and the Lobos added three more in this recruiting class.
San Diego State Aztecs

Spring practice starts: Feb. 20

Spring game: March 20

What to watch:
  • The biggest issue facing San Diego State has got to be its running game and coach Brady Hoke has stockpiled running backs in an effort to solve the problem. Dwayne Garrett, Adam Muema and Deonte Williams will compete for backfield playing time with returning starter Brandon Sullivan, backup Davon Brown, and three other running backs who were signed in the 2009 class. as well as, Atiyyah Henderson, who is trying to get a sixth year of eligibility. Figuring out which of those players can balance this offense will be the spring focus.
  • The offensive line also will be an interesting competition to watch. Since Hoke didn’t recruit any offensive linemen in his first class and has to replace seniors at right tackle and left guard, the Aztecs brought in junior college linemen Juan Bolanos, Riley Gauld and Joe Unga to compete immediately.
  • The search for speed on the edges of the defense will begin this spring as defensive coordinator Rocky Long looks to get better at defensive end and at the Aztecs hybrid position. Perry Jackson is the only defensive end joining the Aztecs this spring and they return both of their starting ends from last season.
TCU Horned Frogs

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Replacing All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes will be a big task, but TCU has a history of finding diamonds in the rough. In fact, when Hughes replaced Chase Ortiz, no one knew who he was. D.J. Yendrey, who played defensive tackle last season, and Braylon Broughton, who was Hughes’ backup, will compete for the starting role.
  • The Horned Frogs will look for a replacement for Clint Gresham at deep snapper. Gresham was the team’s deep snapper for the past three seasons and in that time TCU never had a bad snap.
  • Aundre Dean, a running back transfer from UCLA will work at strong safety this spring. He worked out at strong safety some last season, but now the move will likely be permanent. It’s just as well. The Horned Frogs have a quite a few running backs lining up for playing time.
UNLV Rebels

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • UNLV’s offense will undergo a makeover with new coach Bobby Hauck at the helm. Instead of the spread style that the Rebels ran the past five season, they’ll switch to a more run-based, possession attack. The transition shouldn't take long to master, but finding the right players to run the scheme will be a chore.
  • One of the top goals this spring will be finding a more consistent power attack that goes along with Hauck’s offensive coaching philosophy. Channing Trotter was the Rebels top rusher with 479 yards and eight touchdowns, but the next two top rushers were the Rebels' quarterbacks. UNLV ranked 86th in the country in rushing with 126.83 yards per game.
  • The speed defense will also be a focus this spring as the Rebels struggled against the run (220.58 yards per game allowed) and ranked 106th in sacks and 117th in tackles for loss. Only two starters from the defensive line return and the depth is not experienced, so finding some players to fill those holes will be a major concern.
Utah Utes

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • One of the things to watch this spring is the development of junior college transfer John Cullen and how he fills in for departed senior Zane Beadles at left end. Cullen was brought in specifically to fill that hole and him jelling with the rest of the line will be important for quarterback Jordan Wynn this spring.
  • The defensive end position is up for grabs this spring with transfer James Aiono, Junior Tui’one, Christian Cox, Nai Fotu and Lei Talamaivao, who is moving from tackle to end. Talamaivao won the starting defensive tackle spot twice, but suffered a broken leg in each of those years.
  • Former backup quarterback Chad Manis is set to be the starting middle linebacker for the Utes. Manis spent some of last year still working at the quarterback position while making the transition to linebacker. The Utes lost all of their starting linebackers from 2009.
Wyoming Cowboys

Spring practice starts: March 6

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Wyoming will spend the spring transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense. The Cowboys, who allowed 393.31 yards per game and 27.31 points per game, will still be multiple, but will work out of the 4-3.
  • The Cowboys graduated both of their top defensive ends, so they moved Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns, two of their better defensive players, to defensive end. Knapton ranked second on the team in tackles and Biezuns was third on the team in sacks and tackles for loss.
  • With Knapton and Biezuns moving to the defensive line, the Cowboys will be entertaining some competition at linebacker this spring. Players such as Ghaali Muhammad and Ben Durbin, who both played in 2009, will have the opportunity to earn starting roles.

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