NCF Nation: Matt LaGrone

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
1:58
PM ET
One week is in the books, and it wasn't a good one. The Pac-10 went 6-4 and ended up frowning in each of its major tests.

Team of the week: Other than a brief first-half lull, Arizona looked like a good team in midseason form, despite losing both of its coordinators and rebuilding its defense. The 41-2 blitzing of a solid Toledo team featured dominance in all three phases. Goodbye bad taste from the Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats outgained the Rockets 518 to 183. Nuff said.

Best game: It's very possible that Oregon State lost to a TCU team that will play for the national title. I came away more impressed with the top-to-bottom quality of TCU than believing the Beavers got exposed. As it was, it was a competitive, well-played, entertaining game. And if Beavers fans need to vent for the sake of venting -- as we all sometimes do -- I'd suggest wondering how might the Beavers' defense have looked if end Matt LaGrone and middle linebacker David Pa'aluhi, returning starters from 2009, hadn't decided to quit the team.

Biggest play(s): Washington twice had fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter inside BYU's 30-yard line. Both times QB Jake Locker threw an incompletion. The Huskies lost 23-17. Great QBs need to make those plays.

[+] EnlargeBarner
AP Photo/Rick BowmerKenjon Barner rushed 17 times for 147 yards and four touchdowns Saturday.
Offensive standout(s): Wow. Lots to choose from. USC QB Matt Barkley completed 78 percent of his passes at Hawaii with five TDs. Arizona's Nick Foles and Stanford's Andrew Luck also were outstanding. But the top notice has to go to Oregon's "backup" running back Kenjon Barner, who was a force of nature against New Mexico, rushing for 147 yards on 17 carries -- 8.6 yards per tote -- with four TDs. Oh, he also caught a short pass he turned into a 60-yard TD.

Defensive standout: Wow. Not a lot to choose from. While it's hard to laud a player from UCLA's defense after it got pushed around by Kansas State, OLB Akeem Ayers showed why so many NFL scouts are salivating over him. He piled up 11 tackles with a sack and a pass breakup. But what really stands out is his ability to get his hands on the football -- he recovered two fumbles. He might want to refrain in the future, however, from pushing a running back when he's out of bounds.

Special teams star: USC receiver Ronald Johnson not only caught three TD passes against Hawaii, but he also went 89 yards for a TD on a punt return. It's notable that UCLA kicker Kai Forbath ignored a preseason injury that was supposed to keep him on the bench and went 3-for-3 on field goals at Kansas State, with a long of 44.

Smiley face: The QBs lived up to the preseason hype. The known guys -- Barkley, Foles, Locker and Luck -- each played well. The new guys -- Arizona State's Steven Threet, Oregon's Darron Thomas and Oregon State's Ryan Katz -- were solid. California's Kevin Riley played well, and Washington State's Jeff Tuel was hardly the reason the Cougars went down hard at Oklahoma State. The only QB who played poorly was UCLA's Kevin Prince, and he probably looked rusty because he sat out most of fall camp with a back injury.

Frowny face: Defense. The top two rushers in the nation at present -- and three of the top 14 -- played against Pac-10 defenses this past weekend. And look who ranks 106th in the nation in total defense, two slots below Washington State.

Thought of the week: This is a quiet week with few marquee games, other than the start of the Pac-10 slate with Stanford's visit to UCLA. But next week will define how the Pac-10 is perceived nationally this season. Consider the slate:

Iowa at Arizona
ASU at Wisconsin
Nebraska at Washington
Cal at Nevada
Wake Forest at Stanford
Houston at UCLA
USC at Minnesota
Washington State at SMU
Louisville at Oregon State

Five at home, four on the road. Three ranked teams. No patsies. The Pac-10 needs to get at least six wins or you'll start to hear how it's a "down year" instead of folks lauding the conference's depth.

Questions for the week: Can California (vs. Colorado), USC (vs. Virginia) and Washington (vs. Syracuse) take care of business against inferior BCS conference foes at home? Same for Oregon: Will the Ducks be able to handle the atmosphere at Neyland Stadium against a Tennessee team the Ducks shouldn't have too many problems against? How will the Trojans' defense react after a terrible effort at Hawaii? Who's got the advantage between UCLA's new pistol offense and Stanford's new 3-4 (which the Cardinal didn't use vs. Sacramento State)? How do the Huskies react to a disappointing loss at BYU?
It's been a fairly quiet spring for Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers. That's typical and how he likes it.

There are no issues or controversies with Rodgers. Just production. He's established and has little to prove. The only mystery is how spectacular his numbers will be in 2010.


Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREOregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers wants to break off more long runs for touchdowns this season.
He will enter his junior season needing 1,169 yards rushing and eight touchdowns to move into second place on the Beavers all-time list, numbers he easily eclipsed his first two seasons, once as the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year -- the first true freshman to win the honor -- and the second as a first-team All-Pac-10 running back. At his present trajectory -- if he opts to play two more seasons -- he'll end up second on the Pac-10's all-time rushing list behind former USC Heisman Trophy winner Charles White.

It's not a question of whether Rodgers will be good. He'll be a preseason All-American. Then he'll chew up yardage as a runner and receiver. It's a near-certainty, barring injury.

The question is how good? Will he be Heisman Trophy good?

The Pac-10 has plenty of candidates, though the list was whittled down by one when Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the season: Washington quarterback Jake Locker, Oregon running back LaMichael James, USC quarterback Matt Barkley and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, to name the obvious possibilities.

Rodgers mostly shrugs when asked about the Heisman -- "I'm just out here playing football," he said -- but he is aware of Masoli's unexpected absence and what that might mean for the Pac-10 frontrunners, who happen to be the Beavers arch-rivals.

"Anytime you lose anybody that important to your offense, it's going to set you back just a bit," Rodgers said.

More than a few Pac-10 fans see Masoli's absence, as well as USC's 2009 slide, as beacons signaling that the conference is as wide open as it was pre-Pete Carroll, when eight different teams won or shared the title from 1995-2001.

So, does Rodgers see the Beavers stepping to the fore because Masoli is out? Absolutely.

"But even if he was there, I'd feel the same way," he said.

Oregon and USC are still almost certain to be atop preseason predictions for the Pac-10. The Beavers, a solid No. 3 pick, might have received more of a boost among prognosticators after the Ducks off-field woes and the Trojans coaching change if not for the unexpected defection of two starters from their defense: linebacker David Pa'aluhi and end Matt LaGrone.

But the impressive spring produced by sophomore quarterback Ryan Katz appears to be solving the Beavers biggest issue, which is replacing Sean Canfield. That might give rise to a simple query: Why not Oregon State?

And if Oregon State, which welcomes back 17 starters from a squad that was just a few Civil War plays away from earning a berth in its first Rose Bowl since 1965, proves to be a contender, Rodgers' Heisman candidacy will gain legitimacy.

What's not to like? His rushed for 2,693 yards and scored 32 touchdowns over the past two seasons. In 2009, he caught 78 passes, which ranked second -- overall, not among running backs -- in the Pac-10. He's fumbled only once in 640 touches. A year after critics pointed out his lack of explosion plays, he produced at least one run over 20 yards in 10 of 13 games.

But Rodgers wants more. Twenty, 30 or even 40-yard runs? Not enough.

"I need to finish off long runs -- score those 60 or 70-yard touchdowns," he said. "That's what's missing from my game."

Rodgers will get a couple of good early showcases. The Beavers brutal nonconference schedule includes matchups with TCU and Boise State, both likely top-10 or even top-five teams. The Sept. 4 opener against the Horned Frogs will be played on a huge stage -- Cowboys Stadium -- which will represent a homecoming of sorts for the native of Richmond, Tex.

The going might not be easy early on, at least until Katz proves he can making plays in the passing game. Defenses will focus on Rodgers, stack the line of scrimmage with defenders and dare Katz to beat them.

But at least one person thinks the best way to get Katz going is to give Rodgers the ball and allow him to do his thing.

"If we get the running game started, that can help a quarterback get started," Rodgers said.

And if the big-armed Katz makes a few plays downfield, things might play out a bit like they did with Toby Gerhart and quarterback Andrew Luck at Stanford last year.

Which would mean an invitation to New York for Rodgers.

What to watch in the Pac-10 this spring

February, 19, 2010
2/19/10
11:47
AM ET
Taking a look at what to watch for as teams head into spring practices, officially ringing the bell on preparations for the 2010 season.

Arizona
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.

Arizona State
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.

California
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.

Oregon
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.

Oregon State
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.

Stanford
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.

UCLA
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).

USC
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.

Washington
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.

Washington State
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.

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