NCF Nation: San Francisco 49ers


PHOENIX -- The overriding message coming out of Pac-12 meetings is that major changes in college football governance are now inevitable, even if the details and long-term consequences of those changes remain unclear.

The Big Five conferences will meet in August and almost certainly obtain a new autonomy level within the NCAA structure. At that point, major rules changes, including those that significantly bolster the support and benefits provided to athletes, will start to be formulated. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott intimated that things could move fairly quickly thereafter, so his message to conference coaches and athletic directors was basically to buckle up.

"Quickly is a relative concept, but deadlines are good," Scott said. "I think if we get the autonomy that we've asked for, the commissioners will be setting out a very aggressive timetable to put proposals out ... I expect we'll have a very intensive process over the next four months -- September through December -- where practitioners from our campuses are working on different agendas, including those with a deadline of January, specific proposals that can be voted upon by the 65 schools [in the Big Five]."

So "quickly" might mean?

"The goal is to implement whatever changes we're going to implement for the 2015-16 year," Scott said.

Chief among those would be cost of attendance scholarships, which could vary significantly by team and conference. Scott, however, noted that doesn't create a massive change of direction and complication because the pure value of tuition scholarships also vary by team and conference.

What does need to be implemented to prevent any fudging is a clear formula that all 65 schools apply to calculate the new value of their cost of attendance scholarships.

"I don't think it will that big of a deal, but there will be issues to work through in terms of a common method of determining the full cost," Scott said.

There is a significant degree of consensus within the Big Five conferences for adopting the cost of attendance scholarships, and it appears there is unanimity within the Pac-12.

"These are a lot of things that are going to be costly for us but I think are necessary and in line with what I believe we should be doing for our student-athletes," said Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, echoing other conference ADs.

While Scott was unwilling to admit that the Northwestern football union challenge and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA were driving the oncoming changes, he did concede the legal challenges to the NCAA governance structure and the publicity surrounding them weren't too far from administrators' minds.

"Is it some of these external challenges driving it? I would say no. There's been a recognition for some time [about these issues]," Scott said. "But I'd say external pressures bring a helpful focus and helpful push to get these things done."

[+] EnlargeLevi's Stadium
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezLevi's Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, could be the new home of the Pac-12 championship game as well.
As for the other major item on the Pac-12 agenda, it was more based on the West Coast: The location of the 2014 Pac-12 championship game. There were earnest discussions over the two days about changing it from a game hosted by the conference's top team to a neutral site, specifically the San Francisco 49ers' new home, Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, California.

While the potential move was an intriguing idea, it also isn't a done deal.

"I think there was a lot of positive feeling about it," Scott said. "Some objected. There are some pros and cons."

Said Moos: "Personally, I think [Levi's Stadium] is the way to go."

Said USC athletic director Pat Haden: "I think the current model has actually worked pretty well, the home host. I know the CEOs are debating that and discussing that. I don't think any decision has been made. Quite honestly, at USC, we don't mind the home-host model because we think we've got a chance of hosting."

Shrugged Washington's Scott Woodward: "I'm ambivalent. I trust the league and what they want to do. I have no problem one way or the other."

If the title game is going to be played in the new 49ers stadium on Dec. 5, a decision almost certainly would be announced in June, when the Pac-12 presidents meet.

"If we are going to make the move, it wouldn't be later than that," Scott said.

So it appears that the summer, once a quiet time for college football news, will be anything but that this year.

Stanford and Shaw: A good marriage

December, 19, 2012
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Second-year head coach David Shaw has repeatedly said he views Stanford as his destination job. After he signed what was termed a "long-term contract extension" Wednesday, perhaps more folks will believe him.

Of course, Stanford didn't provide any details about just what "long-term" means, or about how much Shaw is being paid, because it is a private school that likes keeping secrets. If it were a 10-year deal worth, say, $30 million we could conclude both parties -- Shaw and institution -- are fully invested in each other.

But even without the details, this feels like a reasonably solid gesture of mutual affection.

Shaw played for Stanford. He loves the place. He's also a family guy who's living in a great place to raise one (if you can afford it). He's got a good thing going, both on the field and with recruiting.

On the field? Stanford finished 11-2, won the Pac-12 title and is preparing for its first Rose Bowl in 13 years. It's won 11 games for the third consecutive season, which it has never done before. Stanford is one of just four teams from AQ conferences to win 34 or more games over the last three seasons, joining Oregon (35), LSU (34) and Alabama (34) in an exclusive club, though Stanford's SAT averages are a bit higher than that troika.

The Cardinal’s .872 winning percentage since 2010 is tied for third-best among FBS teams during that stretch.

Not too shabby, which is why Shaw, the two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, is a finalist for the Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year Award.

When Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season, some wondered if Shaw could maintain the Cardinal's unexpected rise in the Pac-12. Whereas Harbaugh was edgy and eccentric, Shaw was polished and articulate. And, perhaps, some might have fretted, a bit too mellow.

Yep, Shaw is a smooth dude. But he's 4-2 against USC, Notre Dame and Oregon and playing in another BCS bowl game with a team that appears to have a bright future.

Again, not too shabby.

We will humbly offer up a suggestion to both Shaw and Stanford, though we suspect Shaw is well ahead of us here: Take care of the Cardinal's nine assistant coaches. These guys deserve raises, too.

We've repeatedly lauded defensive coordinator Derek Mason and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Both are strong head coaching candidates. But the entire staff, from veterans such as defensive line coach Randy Hart to youngsters like running backs coach Mike Sanford, have participated in creating an outstanding team culture.

And by "team culture," what we really mean is a team that is on the cusp of a third consecutive final top-10 ranking.

 

Mason builds defensive power at Stanford

November, 28, 2012
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Stanford's defensive performance against Oregon on Nov. 17 was a thing of beauty.

In a 17-14 overtime victory, the Cardinal held the Ducks 157.6 yards below their season average, 127 yards below their season rushing average and, most important, 40.5 points below their season scoring average.

The Cardinal was disruptive. It didn't let Oregon's speed get around the edges. It controlled and filled gaps. It forced the zone-blocking Ducks' offensive line backwards. It tackled well, not allowing yards after contact or catch. It didn't let up for 60 minutes, as so many seemingly strong defensive performances against Oregon tend to. And when Oregon busted its one explosion play on the evening, backup safety Devon Carrington made sure it was a 77-yard Marcus Mariota run to the Stanford 15-yard line and not a 92-yard TD scamper that might have changed the game.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinStanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason is a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach.
The man behind that defense is Stanford coordinator Derek Mason, a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach, and a guy who's name is bouncing around as a budding head coaching candidate.

What was the secret to the Cardinal solving the Ducks?

"We worked extremely hard at making sure we were going to be who we were," Mason said.

That's not as simple as it sounds, particularly against the Ducks, but it's something the Stanford players cited after the game as well.

"We took a greater focus on ourselves this time," linebacker Shayne Skov said after the Oregon game. "We didn't try to make too many adaptations to our own system. We were going to do what we do."

Yet what Stanford does has changed through the years. Significantly.

In 2009 -- Jim Harbaugh's third season -- the Cardinal was a plodding unit that ran a 4-3 and gave up 27 points a game. Enter Vic Fangio, who installed a 3-4. That same year, Mason took over the Cardinal secondary.

When Harbaugh and Fangio bolted for the San Francisco 49ers, new coach David Shaw handed the defense to Mason, who shared coordinator duties in 2011 with Jason Tarver, who is now running the Oakland Raiders' defense.

Let's just say Stanford's defense now looks sort of like its own thing, Mason's thing.

Explained Mason, "It's sort of morphed into something that is a little more …" Mason didn't finish the thought -- he started talking about defending spread offenses -- but we will: Funky, unorthodox, flexible. And effective.

Stanford's defense is talented, particularly its front seven, where a handful of guys have a chance to play on Sundays. It's notoriously physical, certainly the Pac-12's most smashmouth unit. And it's sound and disciplined. It doesn't blow a lot of assignments. That's very Stanford-y.

Yet Mason also hasn't been afraid to show some "what the heck is that?" looks to an offense, looks that seem to befuddle even experienced quarterbacks such as USC's Matt Barkley.

The results is this: Stanford is No. 1 in the nation in run defense (71.3 yards per game), sacks (4.42 yards per game) and tackles for a loss (9.25 yards per game). It's also 11th in the nation in scoring defense (16.92 ppg), despite playing a number of the nation's best offenses, something that can't be said for a number of other highly rated defenses. It's eighth in third down defense (29.53 percent).

"It's a containment run defense predicated on making offenses left handed and earning the right to rush the passer," Mason said.

In other words, the Cardinal stops the run, sacks your quarterback and gets off the field.

That's what happened last weekend against UCLA in Stanford's 35-17 win. The Cardinal held the Bruins to 73 yards rushing and recorded seven sacks and nine tackles for a loss.

It was textbook Stanford, which has held eight of 12 opponents below 100 yards rushing this season.

Yet Mason isn't completely believing what he saw in Game 1 with the Bruins. He said he thinks Game 2 on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game will feature a lot more offensive wrinkles from UCLA coordinator Noel Mazzone.

"There are some things they didn't show," Mason said. "It was obvious. I see it as a totally different game."

Mason specifically cited the quarterback run. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley has rushed for 282 yards and eight TDs this season. His legs are weapons, and the Bruins didn't showcase them last weekend.

While UCLA and Stanford's potential first Rose Bowl since after the 1999 season are the immediate motivations and goals, Mason is aware that his name is bouncing around as a potential head coach. While it's clearly a future goal, he doesn't seem to be in too much of a hurry to race out of Palo Alto in order to chase the first opportunity that comes his way.

"I'm so in love with what is happening here with our players," he said. "I truly believe I am where I'm supposed to be."

Mason seems to like things on the Farm, where he's been growing a West Coast defensive power.

Mailbag: Tedford in Cal's big picture

October, 5, 2012
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Happy Friday.

This is the mailbag. If you were looking for a nice fried egg sandwich, you will not find it here.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Ken from Berkeley, Calif., writes: If you look back at the fifty years before Tedford, Cal had about 14 winning seasons. This is through eleven other coaches and who knows how many academic administrations. To what extent are the demands/challenges of coaching at Cal different than other places? At Ohio St., for example, fans kept asking isn't Berkeley just a liberal place full of radicals. Hasn't Coach Tedford uniquely succeeded in providing competitive football at despite the challenges more than any other Cal coach in 50 years? Do some Cal fans have an illusion of what the past 50 years were like and how that a jerk coach like some have would not be acceptable as a role model?

Ted Miller: You make a fair point. It's a point that factors into the thinking of the decision-makers/power brokers at California.

No one denies what Tedford has done for Cal. Even, I'd hope, his fiercest critics. He is, in many ways, a victim of his own success. In 2001, regularly posting winning records and going to bowl games sounded thrilling in Berkeley. By 2006, folks had refocused on Rose Bowls and 10-win seasons.

Tedford won despite facilities that were among the worst in the Pac-12. Heck, worst among AQ conference programs. He's also represented the program with class.

But this is a tough business. And a big business. Tedford's success was the linchpin for the massive facilities upgrades, including the $330 million renovation of Memorial Stadium. Now there is concern about whether the product inside the remodeled stadium is up to the task of paying for it.

Tedford's success changing the perception of Cal football, the new facilities, the changing landscape of college football and the Pac-12's moving into the sport's fast lane has changed the dynamic. This isn't 2001. The judgment on Tedford operates almost entirely over the past two-plus years, which haven't gone well.

Further working against Tedford are the types of losses, many of the blowout variety, as well as a good number of upsets against teams that were viewed as inferior. Meanwhile, Cal has become one of the biggest pipelines to the NFL. That suggests talent isn't the issue.

At 1-4 so far this season, with a 13-17 record -- 7-13 in Pac-12 play -- since going 8-5 in 2009, it is legitimate to question the direction of the program under Tedford. And to ask if he can reverse it.

The parallel thought is: If not Tedford, then who? And how? If the decision is made to go into another direction, then folks making that decision need to have a solid map for what comes next and how they plan to pay for it.

There also is this: The season is not over. The Bears have flashed enough potential this year to maintain hope for a turnaround, even though the schedule ahead remains daunting. A win over UCLA on Saturday could be the touchstone for a rally.

Ken, it's good to hear some measured, big-picture perspective. My feeling is you are not alone in supporting Tedford. I'd suggest that you make your feelings known to athletic director Sandy Barbour, whom I'm guessing is not enjoying this situation in the least.




Engineer Mike from WinterthurSwitzerland writes: We've already talked about how 9 conference games gives the PAC-12 some extra guaranteed losses. However, I'm starting to suspect that the real advantage the SEC has comes from the fact that the easy non-conference schedule is so EARLY. When everybody else is seeing drops after a week of unbeatens matched up against one another, you're actually providing yourself great early access to the polls. Never mind that some of those currently ranked won't be there at the end of the season. They're there now, and used as a stepstool for whoever wins this week. Once established, teams are hard to bring back down. I see a matchup of two 5-0 teams that really should have little more value than the first game of the year for either, and yet they both sit in the top 6. Thought?

Ted Miller: There is no disadvantage to playing eight conference games. None. Other than your fan experience, and SEC teams have no trouble for the most part selling 90,000 tickets even when the opponent is a directional school.

I hear your point about creating a lot of 3-0 and 4-0 teams based on weak opponents. That makes it easier for teams to produce winning records and earn bowl eligibility. It also makes it easier to get ranked.

But, in terms of placement on the schedule, what typically happens with four nonconference games is at least one is scheduled for later in the season. That, too, offers major benefits. It's like adding a glorified bye week or scrimmage at some point in the season when it helps to rest your starters.

For example, on the Nov. 17 weekend Oregon plays host to Stanford and USC and UCLA square off, Alabama takes on Western Carolina and Georgia plays Georgia Southern. The two frontrunners in their respective divisions get a nice weekend to get their legs back under them.

We hear a lot about the grind of the SEC schedule, but a lot of times it pays to go, "Really, let's see that schedule." That's even more true now if the SEC doesn't move to a 9-game schedule, despite growing by two teams to 14. Conference misses will become a HUGE deal in that league. Think back to 2011, when LSU, Alabama and Arkansas were the best teams in the conference. Imagine the good fortune of an East team not playing any of the three. You know: Like SEC East champ Georgia didn't.

The hope, of course, is that going forward in 2014 under our new four-team playoff, a selection committee will essentially disqualify teams that refused to play tough nonconference games and not allow them to hide behind the specious, "Our conference is already tough enough!"




Pep from Stanford, Calif., writes: I'm a little perplexed how my Stanford offense got so terrible, so quickly. Last week, we scored 6 offensive points (both field goals) against the same team we scored 65 against last year.I know we're trying to replace The Best Quarterback Since Peyton Manning, but seriously, do we not have a single guy on the roster who's capable of completing a simple slant route? Or a 5 yard screen pass for crying out loud!Any advice?

Ted Miller: My first thought is that you're forgetting this offense didn't just lose Andrew Luck. If OG David DeCastro and OT Jonathan Martin were still on the line, the Cardinal probably could have won against the Huskies without throwing a pass. And if they'd had to throw every once and a while, TE Coby Fleener probably could have helped.

My second is to wonder how things might have been different if Josh Nunes hadn't suffered at least four drops against Washington. It's tough making your first career start on the road. Tougher when your teammates are letting you down.

My third: Nunes had a bad game. Most QBs have those every once and a while. You might recall a certain USC QB looking terrible in a recent game you might be familiar with as a Stanford fan.

Folks are quick to make broad pronouncements about one game. I mean, I still can't believe how in over his head Chip Kelly is! Didn't you see how Boise State stomped him in 2009!

If Nunes is who his coaches think he is, he'll learn from his mistakes and get better. I suspect he might look pretty good Saturday against a questionable Arizona defense.




David Fertal from Calgary, Alberta, writes: Hey Ted, Now that we're 1/2 way through the season, which team has the highest rated defense in the conference? Being a Duck fan, I'm actually a touch worried about our pesky neighbors in Black & Orange... (They who shall not be named)

Ted Miller: Too early to make a final call. We've just started the conference slate, and not all nonconference schedules were created equal.

Here are the notable numbers from my "Stat Attack!" post this week (number to left is national ranking).

Scoring defense

14. Arizona State, 13.6 points per game

21. Stanford, 15.25 ppg

Total defense

10. Arizona State, 276.2 yards per game

21. Washington, 315.0 ypg

24. Stanord, 316.5

Rushing defense

3. Stanford, 65 yards per game

9. Oregon State, 83 ypg

24. Oregon, 110.6

Pass efficiency defense

7. Arizona State

18. Stanford

20. Washington

23. USC

24. Oregon

Third-down defense (percentage)

2. Oregon State, 20.5 %

4. Stanford, 24.62

5. Oregon, 24.69

13. UCLA, 28.21

Sacks

5. Arizona State, 4.2 per game

6. USC, 4.0

10. UCLA, 3.4

13. Oregon, 3.2

13. Washington State, 3.2

25. Stanford, 2.75

25. Utah, (2.75)

Arizona State, which has played a solid schedule, leads the conference in scoring, total and pass efficiency defense as well as sacks.

So, to this point, I'd rate the Sun Devils No. 1, which no one saw coming.

But Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, USC and UCLA remain in the picture. Heck, even Washington does, based on its early numbers.




Derek from Salt Lake City writes: In your chat yesterday, you mentioned Cal perhaps going with a cheap up-and-coming coach, presumably because of the cost to fire Tedford. Do you think WSU going with coach Wulff for 3 years was a good thing? At 600 grand a year, it allowed them to save up a little for the two mil a year that Coach Leach costs, right? Although, Wulff is an example of not all up-and-comers working out. And the ones that do usually aren't up and comers for long, kinda by definition. Chip Kelly was an OC for what, maybe two years before his first and only head coaching job? How many hot names are out there besides Wilcox and anyone that works at Alabama?

Ted Miller: I don't think you go cheap just to save money. At the time of Wulff's hiring at Washington State, he was a former Cougar player who'd done a good job at Eastern Washington. It seemed like a roll of the dice that either would prove to be a perfect fit or one that fizzled in obscurity. I personally thought it was an inspired decision at the time.

I'm not going to make this specific to Cal, but my theory is the best coaching hires are accomplished, veteran coordinators who have the charisma to front a program or an accomplished coach at a nontraditional power. And, if I'm the guy doing the hiring, I'd ask any candidate to tell me who would be on his staff, which is darn near as important as the head coach. Maybe even more so.

Folks were skeptical about UCLA hiring Jim Mora. Then he hired a great crew of assistants and the scuttlebutt changed.

There are only a handful of programs that can make a splashy hire, such as Ohio State getting Urban Meyer or Alabama getting Nick Saban. The circumstances of Arizona hiring Rich Rodriguez and Washington State getting Mike Leach were fairly unique. It's rare two coaches with their pedigrees are available.

Everyone else is best off doing their homework instead of trying to grab a big name. That means having a meeting with the powers that be and hashing out the qualities everyone wants. Then the decision-making should be handed off to one person, typically the athletic director. The more folks playing a role in the search, the less like it will be successful.

Further, the one thing I can say with absolute certainty: It's a waste of money hiring a coach search firm. They offer little and charge a lot.

Last year, I banged a drum for Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who was hired by Pittsburgh to replace Todd Graham.

This year? Here are some guys worth a look, listed merely in the order in which I thought of them:
  • Head coaches: Charlie Strong, Louisville; Art Briles, Baylor; Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech; Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky; Gary Anderson, Utah State; Butch Jones, Cincinnati.
  • Coordinators: Kirby Smart, Alabama; Chad Morris, Clemson; Mark Helfrich, Oregon; Justin Wilcox, Washington; Noel Mazzone, UCLA; Todd Monken, Oklahoma State; Brent Venables, Clemson; Manny Diaz, Texas; Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina; Kalani Sitake, Utah; Pep Hamilton, Stanford; Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State.
And, of course, there's always the NFL. Plenty of great coaches there, many of whom have extensive college experience, such as San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, one of the most creative offensive guys out there.





UODucky Tempe, Ariz., writes: Ted, good fellow, have you or Kevin been reading the discussion boards this week on the UW vs. UO articles [and here] ? If so, have you noticed how civil the discussions have been (notwithstanding 55USC's valiant attempts to stir the pot). Further, does such civility, in light of the apparent attempt by the articles to start a throw-down, frustrate our gallant Pac-12 bloggers?

Ted Miller: Kevin and I both have one, two-pronged purpose: To entertain and inform. If your joy comes from trash talking -- us or other readers -- fine. If you enjoy civility, that's great, too.

The important thing is that you are here, saving lives, making the world safe for democracy and ensuring every puppy finds a loving home.

And, really, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!"

Pac-12 teams left in the lurch

May, 23, 2012
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Our theme today, as part of our "Love to hate" week at ESPN.com, is "Left in the lurch." This is about coaches who bailed out on a Pac-12 program at an unexpected or awkward time. We're not including Urban Meyer leaving Utah for Florida or Jim Harbaugh leaving Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers because their departures were not unexpected and came only after unprecedented success.

Of course, these situations vary greatly in terms of circumstances and reaction. There aren't many college football jobs out there considered better than one in the Pac-12, so most of the coaches who bailed out on their programs left for the NFL.

But here is a sampling from the Pac-12. Feel free to provide your own thoughts below.

  • [+] EnlargePete Carroll
    AP Photo/Don RyanPete Carroll stunned USC fans when he left after the 2009 season to coach the Seattle Seahawks.
    California got dogged twice. First, after going 10-2 in 1991, Bruce Snyder bailed on the Golden Bears for Arizona State. It's rare for a coach to jump from one conference program to another, and it certainly hurts more. Then, in 1996, Steve Mariucci lasted just one year in Berkeley before jumping aboard with the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Dennis Erickson twice left Pac-12 teams for sunnier pastures (at least in theory). After two years at Washington State, Erickson bolted for Miami after the 1988 season. Then, after a strong run at Oregon State from 1999-2002, Erickson left Corvallis for the San Francisco 49ers. He has repeatedly said that was the worst move of his career.
  • Dick Vermeil lasted two seasons at UCLA. After going 9-2-1 in 1975 and upsetting No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, he left for the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Rick Neuheisel shocked many when he left Colorado for Washington before the 1999 season for a million-dollar contract, which was at the time considered exorbitant. He left behind NCAA sanctions for the Buffaloes and immediately got into trouble with the Huskies. It didn't make folks in Boulder feel any better when the Huskies and Neuheisel swept a home-and-home series over the next two years.

But two departures really stand out.

Don James is on the short list of greatest college football coaches of all time. In 18 seasons at Washington, from 1975 to 1992, he won a national title and four Rose Bowls. He went 153-57-2 (.726) and set a then-record of 98 conference victories. From 1990-92, the Huskies won 22 consecutive games.

He is the Dawgfather.

And that's why many Huskies fans will tell you the lowest moment in program history is when he resigned in protest of NCAA and Pac-12 sanctions on Aug. 22, 1993. (James really, really didn't like Washington president William Gerberding and athletic director Barbara Hedges, either).

His resignation just before the season forced Washington to promote defensive coordinator Jim Lambright, a good man and a good defensive coordinator but not an ideal fit as head coach. Other than a Rose Bowl victory after the 2000 season under Rick Neuheisel, things have never been the same in Husky Stadium. Not yet, at least.

A more recent shocker: Pete Carroll bolting USC after the 2009 season for the Seattle Seahawks.

Carroll's hiring in 2001 was widely panned, but all he did thereafter was build a college football dynasty, winning national championships in 2003 and 2004 and falling just short of a third consecutive title in 2005 in a thrilling loss to Texas. He went 97-19 (.836) in nine seasons (11-2 versus rivals Notre Dame and UCLA), won six BCS bowl games and finished ranked in the AP top-four seven times. He won 34 consecutive games from 2003-05 and coached three Heisman Trophy winners and 25 first-team All-Americans.

So, yeah, he accomplished a lot. And many thought he would coach USC for life, though many others also suspected the lure of the NFL would prove too much.

It was the timing of his sudden, stunning departure that frustrated many Trojans fans. While Carroll has repeatedly denied oncoming NCAA sanctions had anything to do with his decision to leave, that's a hard line to buy. He skipped town after a 9-4 season that featured blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon and left behind a team with a two-year bowl ban and deficit of 30 scholarships over three seasons.

Still, not unlike how James is viewed by Huskies fans, Carroll is mostly spared the wrath of Trojans fans because of what he accomplished.

There's no question, however, that both programs were left in the lurch.
I was a little surprised last week at Chris Owusu's comments regarding concussions.

In an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Owusu, who suffered three concussions in a 13-month span that included the horrific scene in Corvallis, Ore., last season, distanced himself as much as possible from his history of head injuries.
"I just want to move forward. It's unfortunate that I'm part of this conversation. But hopefully in the next couple of months, I'll finally get to change that. I don't want to be known as someone who is surrounded by this topic."
[+] EnlargeChris Owusu
Jim Z. Rider/US PRESSWIREThe concussion he suffered at Oregon State ended Chris Owusu's senior season at Stanford.
Part of me understands where he's coming from. Owusu was an undrafted free agent and he's doing his best to impress his new employers -- the San Francisco 49ers and former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh -- and he's trying to make a team.

This isn't going to be a Owusu-should-hang-'em-up story. Because he shouldn't. He has a dream. He has the physical and mental faculties to live out that dream and, more importantly, he has the blessings of doctors to play. Go for it.

But why distance yourself from concussion talk? This is a time when it's most important to be talking about concussions.

Owusu -- clearly an intelligent individual, as Stanford grads tend to be -- could be at the forefront of change. Tell your story. Tell the doctors and the general managers that concussions are dangerous, but they aren't contagious. Owusu took some of the hardest hits I've ever seen in football. He was strapped to a gurney and taken off a football field via ambulance. And now he's fighting for a spot on an NFL roster. That's something he should be proud of, not running from. Some might even call it gritty and inspirational.

There will always be coaches and general managers who will dismiss Owusu regardless of what the doctors say. There are also GMs who won't take quarterbacks shorter than 6-foot-3, running backs taller than 6 feet and defensive ends less than 260 pounds. Doug Flutie, Eddie George and James Harrison would disagree.

In an interview last month with SI's Jim Trotter, Owusu talks about how he reluctantly agreed to be shut down for the rest of his senior season following the Oregon State incident.
"Did I put up a fight a couple of times to get back on the field? Yes, I did, because I love the game so much," says Owusu. "When you get the game taken away from you like that, it's something where it opens your eyes and it's frustrating. I respect what the coaches and the doctors and the medical staff did for me here at Stanford, I really do. They looked out for my overall well-being and did not take any chances. But could I have played? I felt that I could have. Did they do what they felt was in my best interest? In their eyes, I think they did. But it was a frustrating process."

Of course it was frustrating. Owusu is a football player. But cooler and less-concussed heads prevailed, and Owusu is clearly thankful for that.

I don't expect Owusu to change his style of play, nor do I expect his concussion history to affect his game in the future. He's healed and cleared. That should be that. But with so much talk about concussions and the lingering impact, this strikes me as something Owusu should be running toward, not from. Concussions are a scary part of the game and Owusu has shown tremendous courage by getting back out on the field. He can show the same kind of courage off the field by educating and informing from his past experience.

New Pac-12 coaches

August, 11, 2011
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A quick look at the two new coaches in the Pac-12: Colorado's Jon Embree and Stanford's David Shaw.

Embree and Shaw share some similarities. Both are first-time head coaches. Both played for the program they now coach. Both coached in the NFL. Both say they want to retire in their present job instead of climbing the coaching ladder. And, yes, both are black, the fourth and fifth black head football coaches in conference -- Pac-8 to Pac-10 to Pac-12 -- history.

Here's a quick look at the new guys.

Jon Embree, Colorado

Replaces? Dan Hawkins, who never posted a winning season in five years in Boulder.

Where was Embree last year? He was the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins.

What's he bring to the table that's different? Embree is a hardnosed old school coach -- Hawkins was decidedly new school -- who is from the area and played for Colorado under the revered Bill McCartney. He's spent 10 of his 18 seasons in coaching at Colorado, working from 1993-2002 as a Buffs assistant under three different head coaches: Bill McCartney (1993-94), Rick Neuheisel (1995-98) and Gary Barnett (1999-2002). He has repeatedly said that Colorado is his dream job, not a stepping stone. His singular focus is restoring a program that was once a national power.

What else? Embree, 45, is the first black head football coach at Colorado and the fourth black head coach in Pac-12 history (Stanford's Dennis Green (1989-91), Stanford's Tyrone Willingham (1995-2001), UCLA's Karl Dorrell (2003-07) and Willingham at Washington (2004-08). Shaw became the fifth in January)... Embree earned a communications degree from Colorado in 1988... He was a member of McCartney's first recruiting class... In 1984, he earned first-team All-Big 8 honors and set school single-season records for receptions (51) and receiving yards (680)... He was a sixth-round selection by the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. He played two seasons with the Rams before suffering a career-ending elbow injury in 1989 while a member of the Seattle Seahawks... His original plan after the NFL was to get into TV news, but he took a job as a volunteer assistant with McCartney and was immediately bitten by the coaching bug... He is married to the former Natalyn Grubb and they have three children, a daughter and two sons. Eldest son Taylor, is a receiver at UCLA, while Connor is a receiver at UNLV.

David Shaw, Stanford

Replaces: Jim Harbaugh, who rebuilt the program into a national power before being hired away by the San Francisco 49ers.

Where was Shaw last year: He was Stanford's offensive coordinator.

What's he bring to the table that's different: Where Harbaugh was boisterous, often eccentric and sometimes prickly, Shaw is mellow, polished and accommodating. That said, he's repeatedly insisted that doesn't mean the competitive fire doesn't burn just as hot. He certainly knows Stanford. His father coached there and he's a 1984 graduate. He returned to Stanford in 2007 when Harbaugh arrived -- they were together at San Diego -- so he's seen the Cardinal renaissance firsthand. And, just like Embree, he says that Stanford is his destination job and that he's not looking to move on or up in the coaching profession.

What else? Shaw is the fifth Stanford alum to become head football coach, joining Charles Fickert (1901), Carl Clemans (1902), Chuck Taylor (1951-57) and Paul Wiggin (1980-83)... He was a member of Stanford's 1991 Aloha Bowl team coached by Dennis Green that finished 8-4. He was also on the Cardinal's 1992 Blockbuster Bowl-winning squad coached by Bill Walsh that went 10-3. He finished his Stanford career with 57 receptions for 664 yards and five touchdowns... He started his coaching career in 1995 at Western Washington. He's also coached for the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens... He's coached quarterbacks, receivers and running backs in his career... Shaw's offense ranked ninth in the nation in scoring last fall (40.3 ppg) and it amassed a school-record 6,142 yards, averaging a notably balanced 213.8 on the ground and 258.7 yards through the air... His father, Willie, had two separate coaching stints at Stanford (1974-76; 1989-91) during his 33-year coaching career, which was mostly spent in the NFL... His bachelor's degree from Stanford is in sociology... He was born in San Diego. He and his wife Kori have three children, Keegan, Carter and Gavin.
It's been a year of big stories in the Pac-12, starting with expansion and continuing with Oregon falling just short of the program's first national title.

The biggest story this spring? Again, it didn't happen on the field. It happened in the boardroom: It was announced on Wednesday that the conference had signed the richest TV contract in college sports history, one that will pay the conference an average of $250 million annually over the next 12 years.

That monumental announcement came after all the spring games had been played. But what happened on the field?

" Three schools entered spring practices with intrigue at quarterback, and only one emerged with few answers: UCLA, where a battle remains among Kevin Prince, who missed spring practice with a knee injury, Richard Brehaut and true freshman Brett Hundley.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price beat out Nick Montana for the starting quarterback job this spring.
There's no such indecision at Washington, which went so far as to announce Keith Price as its No. 1 quarterback over Nick Montana. California provided no such announcement, but Zach Maynard emerged as a clear leader over Brock Mansion and Allan Bridgford.

Oregon and Stanford have no such quarterback issues, and they began spring practices as the clear leaders in the conference based on what they did last season and what they have coming back. Both figure to be ranked in the national preseason top 10, perhaps in the top five. Both will play next fall in the conference's North Division, which means at least one can't play for the Pac-12 championship.

"Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said.

" Big questions for Oregon and Stanford: The Ducks have issues on their offensive line, the Cardinal on their defensive line.

" Luck is playing for the only new coach in the old Pac-10. David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh, who bolted for the San Francisco 49ers. One session of spring practices won't be enough to reveal the big-picture meaning of that transition, particularly with Shaw continuing to hold closed practices.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities. But when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

" As for the two new teams, Colorado and Utah, the Buffaloes fired Dan Hawkins and hired Jon Embree, who led a physically demanding spring session intended to show his players that a new sheriff was in town. But the transition from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 doesn't figure to be too dramatic, other than giving fans much better road trips. Over in Salt Lake City, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham considered the transition from the non-automatic-qualifying Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, which will be an interesting measuring stick in the fall.

"The week-in and week-out level of competition is ratcheted up," Whittingham said. "There are some excellent football teams in the Mountain West Conference -- TCU last year. Not to downplay or disrespect anything that's going on in the Mountain West, but we're convinced the weekly challenges will be much more difficult than they have been in years past for us."

" A big change at Utah? The arrival of offensive coordinator Norm Chow after he fell out of favor at UCLA. But that didn't yield much fruit for the Utes this spring, in large part because quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

" Injuries were an issue on many campuses. USC, for one, was missing 12 players from its two-deep depth chart for all or some of the spring. Still, the Trojans might have lucked out. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA saw injuries to their potential starting players that will jeopardize all or at least a portion of their 2011 seasons. The Beavers, for example, don't know whether receiver James Rodgers will be able to play after a serious knee injury last fall.

" On the noninjury, off-the-field side: Oregon's potential starting middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who was projected to replace Casey Matthews, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested the day after the spring game. It's his second suspension in as many seasons.

Ultimately, every team heads into the offseason with the same hopeful mindset.

Said Luck, "The mindset is still very, very hungry. The price never decreases in football."

Final Pac-12 NFL draft tally

May, 1, 2011
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The Pac-12 provided 37 players to the NFL draft over the weekend, one fewer than the SEC, which led all conferences.

If the six combined picks from Colorado and Utah are taken away from the conference, the old Pac-10 provided NFL teams 3.1 draft picks per team, also just behind the SEC at 3.17.

Here's where the Pac-12 players went:

First round
No. 8 Jake Locker, QB, Washington: Tennessee
No. 9 Tyron Smith., OT, USC: Dallas
No. 17 Nate Solder, OT, Colorado: New England
No. 24 Cameron Jordan, DE, California: New Orleans
No. 27 Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado: Baltimore

Second round
7. Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA: Tennessee
10. Brooks Reed, DE, Arizona: Houston
13. Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA: Denver
21. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State: Chicago
24. Shane Vereen, RB, California: New England

Third round
13. Jurrell Casey, DT, USC: Tennessee
20. Mason Foster, LB, Washington: Tampa Bay
25. Shareece Wright, CB, USC: San Diego
29. Christopher Conte, S, California: Chicago
33. Sione Fua, DT, Stanford: Carolina

Fourth round
5. Jordan Cameron, TE, USC: Cleveland
19. Casey Matthews, LB, Oregon: Philadelphia
21. Jalil Brown, CB, Colorado: Kansas City
27. Owen Marecic, FB, Stanford: Cleveland

Fifth round
8. Brandon Burton, CB, Utah: Minnesota
9. Gabe Miller, DE, Oregon State: Kansas City
14. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Oregon State: Atlanta
23. Richard Sherman, CB, Stanford: Seattle

Sixth round
2. Ryan Whalen, WR, Stanford: Cincinnati
14. Caleb Schlauderaff, OG, Utah: Green Bay
17. Ronald Johnson, WR, USC: San Francisco
19. David Carter, DT, UCLA: Arizona
22. Allen Bradford, RB, USC: Tampa Bay
24. Mike Mohamed, LB, California: Denver
32. Ricky Elmore, DE, Arizona: Green Bay
38. Zach Williams, C, Washington State: Carolina

Seventh round
12. D'Aundre Reed, DE, Arizona: Minnesota
24. Scotty McKnight, WR, Colorado: New York Jets
30. Lawrence Guy, DT, Arizona State: Green Bay
37. Stanley Havili, FB, USC: Philadelphia
38. David Ausberry, WR, USC: Oakland
39. Malcolm Smith, LB, USC: Seattle

By Pac-12 school:
Arizona (3)
Arizona State (1)
California (4)
Colorado (4)
Oregon (1)
Oregon State (3)
Stanford (4)
UCLA (3)
USC (9)
Utah (2)
Washington (2)
Washington State (1)

The final tally by automatic qualifying conferences:
SEC... 38
Pac-12... 37
Big Ten... 36
ACC... 35
Big East 22
Big 12...19

Nebraska was a big swing to the Big Ten from the Big 12 with seven picks. With Colorado and Nebraska, the Big 12 provided 30 selections.

This was the tally through three rounds:
SEC: 20
ACC: 19
Pac-12: 15
Big Ten: 13
Big 12: 9
Big East: 4
STANFORD, Calif. -- There is no one in the world who would disagree with this statement: "New Stanford coach David Shaw is very different from former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh." Where Harbaugh was boisterous, eccentric and often moody, Shaw is measured, polished and mellow.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireNew Stanford coach David Shaw has big shoes to fill after the Cardinal went 12-1 last season under Jim Harbaugh.
Whatever his personality, Harbaugh proved he's a heck of a college football coach by rebuilding Stanford into a national power, one that finished 12-1 in 2010 with a final No. 4 ranking. The question for Stanford fans is whether Shaw can sustain that success.

Shaw has repeatedly said he's going to be his own man and not try to reinvent himself as the second-coming of Harbaugh. That said, it's clear that Harbaugh's tenure, which Shaw was a key part of as offensive coordinator, created a culture that worked on the Farm, one that both took advantage of the school's high academic standards -- read: smart players -- while also going against type -- read: a bullying, in-your-face style.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities, but when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

It's clear that this has been Shaw's message this spring. The man out front has changed, and that means some things will be different, but foundational values have not. The motto first articulated last season by center Chase Beeler -- 'We're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty" -- remains in place.

And just because Shaw is a smooth operator unlikely to head-butt players wearing helmets -- as Harbaugh did -- doesn't mean there's no killa' inside.

"Coach Shaw may seem a little more laid back on the surface, but I guarantee you he's just as passionate as Coach Harbaugh was," quarterback Andrew Luck said.

Luck, of course, is a good starting point for any first-year coach. Having the best quarterback in the nation shepherding your offense helps a coach sleep at night. Further, the Cardinal is loaded at running back and might be the nation's most talented team at tight end (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are going to play on Sundays). The offensive line lost three starters but welcomes back two first-team All-Pac-10 performers in tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. The defense is strong at linebacker and solid in the secondary. The big questions are receiver and defensive line.

Beyond personnel, Shaw and Stanford will need to adapt to their new place in the college football firmament: Front-runner. The Cardinal will be ranked in the preseason top-10 and are expected to battle with Oregon for the top spot in the new Pac-12. In fact, when you look at the schedule and the talent returning, it's not a stretch to note that every game is winnable. The Cardinal likely will be underdogs only once this fall -- the Ducks visit on Nov. 12 -- and even that game might be a pick 'em.

It's clear the Cardinal is eyeballing Oregon, which overcame a 21-3 deficit to stun Stanford 52-31 in Eugene last year.

Said Luck, "Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here."

Said defensive coordinator Derek Mason, "The team we have to go get is the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is king of the hill."

Of course, there are 11 other opponents on the schedule who Stanford won't sneak up on. Know that coaches across the conference have spent plenty of time thinking about Stanford's complicated offense and hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme this offseason. No doubt hey will muster up some counterpunches this fall. Shaw and company will need to maintain the edgy attitude while continuing the scheme creativity that seemed to keep foes off balance on both sides of the football in 2010.

In any event, the glory of 2010 and its blowout Orange Bowl victory against Virginia Tech won't win any games in 2011.

"Andrew [Luck] put it best one time. He said, 'Football is a meritocracy,' and that's what he loves about it," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Every week you have to prove yourself. It doesn't matter what you did the week before."

For Shaw to sustain success, he's going to have to maintain what works, while developing an eye for quickly ascertaining what needs to change. He's going to have to continue to recruit elite athletes who can get into Stanford. And he's going to have to do it his way.

There's considerable momentum, but it's also not easy being the man-after-the-man. There are plenty of potential pratfalls when taking over leadership from a larger-than-life person. Yet Shaw isn't fretting that philosophical big picture.

"To me, going down that track, that gets you off focus, off of what is important," he said. "Every single year, every single team is different. What won for us last year isn't necessarily going to win for us next year. We went through this two years ago with Toby [Gerhart]."

Ultimately, Shaw won't be measured by whether he matches those colorful, Harbaugh-ian moments ("What's your deal?"). He'll be measured by whether he matches Harbaugh's winning.
STANFORD, Calif. -- The media often falls for polite and polished and humble. It doesn't require a gaggle of publicists to know that a superstar athlete doing polite, polished and humble charms reporters and therefore the public. And, of course, it's often a con, or a least a public persona that doesn't match the reality of said superstar athlete.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Paul SakumaStanford's Andrew Luck is a front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy next season.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is a superstar athlete, even if trying to get him to engage the topic is like playing dodge ball with Plastic Man. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season and he almost certainly would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft on April 28 had he not opted to return for his redshirt junior season, in large part, he said, because he wanted to finish up his degree in architectural design.

This story, however, must now pause because Luck has walked away from an interview to help a woman open a door to the Stanford athletic building. She needs to use the restroom, and it doesn't require Woodward & Bernstein to ascertain that this might be a pressing need. Luck points her in the right direction but warns her that they might be cleaning up inside.

Where were we? Yes, moments before becoming a hero to a woman who had perhaps imbibed too much afternoon coffee, Luck walked past a ballroom dancing class and, making small talk, noted, "I don't think I'm coordinated enough for ballroom dancing."

Luck is a buffed-up, 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and, besides ranking third in the nation in passing efficiency in 2010, he rushed for 453 yards. But ballroom dancing students, now those folks are athletes.

Actual exchange once the interview starts again:

Hyperventilating reporter [Me]: "Now, everybody in the country knows who you are."

Luck: "I don't think everbody knows."


Said former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, now with the San Francisco 49ers, last fall: "He's almost embarrassed if somebody compliments him or wants to talk about him. He's very quick to deflect it to his teammates. He's someone people want to follow, want to emulate. It's a unique quality to be the sort of anti-celebrity quarterback, the anti-big-man on campus."

More than a few folks were stunned Luck opted to return, no matter how much he enjoyed college or wasn't burdened by financial need -- his father, Oliver, is a former NFL quarterback and presently the athletic director at West Virginia.

Said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, "Anybody's logic would have been to leave. We were all stunned."

There is a potential red flag here, though, on the football side of things. Some might observe that NFL coaches prefer the singular focus of the football obsessed over a Renaissance man who enjoys college. Further, the best quarterbacks are often swashbuckling sorts -- Tom Brady, Brett Favre (without the text messages), Joe Namath and Kenny "The Snake" Stabler -- so if Luck seems too much the Boy Scout, might that make it difficult for him to lead a locker room that includes an array of edgier personalities?

Ah, but not unlike Peyton Manning, Luck doesn't do Ned Flanders on the football field. Just ask former USC cornerback Shareece Wright and California safety Sean Cattouse, who both ended up on the losing end of a Luck hit when they stood between the quarterback and something he wanted during a game.

"My dad calls it 'crossing the white line'," said new Stanford head coach David Shaw, who's father, Willie Shaw, was a longtime college and NFL coach.

"You can be the greatest human being on the planet, but once you cross that white line, it's whatever it takes to win football games. Andrew has started to remind me of another guy who was like that: [former Cardinal and nine-time Pro Bowl safety] John Lynch. John Lynch was an all-time human being -- a phenomenal person. One of those guys you say you want your daughter to grow up and marry. That's the way Andrew is. But once he crosses that white line, he's such a competitor. He doesn't care who you are, he's going to try to knock you out. Andrew flips that same switch."

While Stanford practices are closed, the scuttlebutt is that Luck has been masterful this spring. Quipped offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton with a straight face, "He was able to complete 70 percent [71 percent actually] of his passes last year. Our goal is for him to complete 100 percent of his passes."

When asked about this, Shaw pointed out that Luck, indeed, missed a throw-- a 6-yard out -- at practice the previous day.

"You'd have thought it was the Super Bowl," Shaw said. "With a guy like this, you shoot for the moon. You see how far you can push him. And Andrew loves it. He wants to be pushed every day. He wants to be coached, he wants to be coached hard and he wants to be coached specifically. He doesn't know what his ceiling is. So let's not set it."

The high ceiling for Luck is a big reason the national perception is there's a high ceiling for Stanford. The Cardinal will be ranked in the preseason top-10, and Oregon's visit on Nov. 12 is likely the Pac-12 North game of the year, one that might have national championship implications. And if the Cardinal again surges a year after turning in its best season of the modern era, it's almost certain that Luck will be a Heisman Trophy front-runner.

That means even more celebrity for Luck. While Stanford's pristine campus and academically elite student body present a less football-obsessed environment that allows him some privacy, Luck's future is under the klieg lights. It's unavoidable and it will test him.

Luck is told a story about an early Ben Affleck interview with Jay Leno when Affleck tells of pulling out the "I'm Ben Affleck" for the first time to get a restaurant reservation. Luck's asked if he's had a similar moment when waiting for a table.

At first, he seems to be honestly baffled by the inquiry, then replies, "There are enough good restaurants in Palo Alto. We could leave. No, I haven't tried to do that. I don't think it's worth it."

Stanford defensive notes

April, 8, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford's defense went from mediocre-to-lousy in 2009 to darn-close-to-dominant in 2010. New Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who oversaw the secondary last season, is quick to give credit where it is due for what he calls "a complete metamorphosis."

"Vic [Fangio] brought in a sense of accomplishment, stability and experience," said Mason of the coordinator who followed former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers. "Guys bought in to what he was selling."

Considering how much better the Stanford secondary was in 2010, Mason certainly deserves his share of credit. The pass efficiency defense improved from 98th in the nation to 16th in one year with Mason.

Mason believes there's no reason for regression in 2011, even though Fangio and five key starters are gone, including nose tackle Sione Fua, who made the Cardinal's new 3-4 look work by anchoring the middle of the line and keeping the linebackers free to roam in space.

"The biggest component was confidence," Mason said. "When you have some success, it starts to breed confidence."

Some notes from our chat:

  • The general gist from Mason: There's good depth at linebacker, good competition in the secondary and maybe some concerns up front. Replacing Fua -- perhaps the most underrated player in the Pac-10 last year -- isn't going to be easy. "We're going to do it by committee," Mason said. "There is no player right now that we can say, he's the guy."
  • [+] EnlargeStanford's Matt Masifilo
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDefensive end Matt Masifilo was part of a Stanford defense that was dominant last season.
  • As for that D-line, Matt Masifilo is back at one end. Ben Gardner probably is tops at the other end. Terrence Stephens, David Parry and Henry Anderson are options inside at nose tackle. Mason also mentioned Eddie Plantaric as an option. Mason called Anderson, a redshirt freshman, a "swing guy" who could play inside our outside: "When we look at who has come the furthest in the shortest amount of time, it's Henry Anderson."
  • Mason also admitted -- after a certain sports writer whined about the multiplicity of looks from the Stanford D -- that the the Cardinal defense is more of a hybrid 3-4 than a pure 3-4. There were plenty of times last fall when four defenders put their hands on the ground in a 4-3 look. It's about matchups, he said. And if it's clear there's more talent at linebacker, which appears to be the case, "We could take a defensive end out and put another linebacker in. We're going to get the best athletes in."
  • Mason repeatedly talked about incoming freshman, particularly linebacker James Vaughters, who by most accounts will be too good to redshirt, as well as a defensive backs Wayne Lyons, Ra'Chard Pippens and Ronnie Harris. "We're not afraid to play true freshmen," he said.
  • Inside linebacker Shayne Skov and outside linebacker Chase Thomas are All-Pac-12 talents. As for the two vacancies at linebacker, two sophomores, Blake Lueders and Trent Murphy, are battling outside and senior Max Bergen and sophomore Jarek Lancaster are competing inside. Alex Debniak also is in the mix outside -- Mason included him with Lancaster and Lueders when he said, "Those three guys have probably come the furthest in the shortest period of time." And Vaughters, well, he's got great high school video and could help inside or out.
  • Linebacker? "We are a very athletic group across the board," Mason gushed.
  • As for the secondary, the question is not only Richard Sherman's former sport at cornerback. Said Mason, "Richard's spot is up for grabs. Both corners are up for grabs. I'll say this. There's not a position in the secondary that isn't up for grabs." That includes both returning starters at safety, Mike Thomas and Delano Howell (here's a guess Mason was mostly making a point about competition -- "We're always going to keep pushing the envelope" -- Thomas and Howell are almost certain to start). At corner, Barry Browning, Johnson Bademosi and sophomore Terrence Brown are in the mix. Sophomore safety Devon Carrington also has caught Mason's eye.
  • Interesting quote from Mason: "We probably played as much man coverage as any team in the country [in 2010]."
  • The Stanford defense finished ranked in the nation's top 1o in scoring, which is more remarkable when you consider it gave up 52 points at Oregon. That ill-fated trip is something that Mason seems to recall as vividly and often as the fancy, positive stats. It's clear he has -- and likely his staff and players have -- spent plenty of time thinking about the Ducks, who handed Stanford its only loss. Said Mason, "The team we have to go get is the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is king of the hill."

Shaw will be his own man this spring

February, 18, 2011
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It might seem very Jim Harbaugh-y that new Stanford coach David Shaw is so eager to get to work that he's schedule his first spring practice for Monday, when the calendar says we're still in winter. But Shaw is fully aware that he's not Jim Harbaugh. He's not going to adopt a Harbaughian pose. It's not likely he will talk about "enthusiasm unknown to mankind" or not bowing down to any program or comparing his quarterback (Andrew Luck) to his wife because both are "perfect."

Harbaugh was often a colorful quote but a prickly interview. He was unpredictable and edgy, incredibly competitive and just a little nutty.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireAmong David Shaw's chief concerns are filling voids on both lines and at linebacker.
Shaw is polished and measured. As Stanford's head coach, he's going to be David Shaw, and plenty of folks on the Farm think that's going to be a good thing -- see recent good news on ticket sales.

"I just have a different personality," he said. "I'm a different person."

That doesn't mean, however, he's any less competitive. During a short phone conversation Friday, he talked about being "single-minded" and "focused" and getting better each practice. The first task for Stanford this spring is moving past a scintillating 12-1 campaign in 2010. If the Cardinal start believing they've arrived, they surely won't.

As to the business at hand, Shaw announced a couple of staff additions. Mike Bloomgren, a New York Jets offensive assistant, is the Cardinal's new offensive line coach and running game coordinator, and Mike Sanford, a former Stanford assistant who was Western Kentucky's quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator last year, has been hired as running backs coach.

Shaw said the last void on his staff is at tight ends coach. "I'm not going to rush," he said. "I'm not just hiring guys for spring ball."

Previously, Shaw announced that Pep Hamilton had been promoted to offensive coordinator and will work with quarterbacks and receivers and that Derek Mason and Jason Tarver, a former San Francisco 49ers assistant, would serve as co-defensive coordinators. Mason will oversee the secondary and call plays, while Tarver will coach linebackers.

Spring practices will be split into two minicamps. The first session runs Feb. 21 to March 5. The second starts March 28 and ends with the spring game on April 9.

When asked about his primary concerns, Shaw quickly named the offensive line, which must replace three starters, including All-America center Chase Beeler and All-Pac-10 guard David DeCastro.

Other issues: Who's Luck's backup? Who replaces Nate Whitaker at kicker? What about two voids at linebacker and on the defensive line? And who steps in for Richard Sherman at cornerback?

Shaw isn't eager to provide lists of possible answers. He obviously wants to create as much competition as possible. The good news is the Cardinal, who are almost certain to be ranked in the preseason top 10, appear to have plenty of up-and-coming players who are ready to step in.

As for Luck, Shaw isn't worried that a guy touted as the surefire No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this spring had he not decided to return will try to shoulder too much of a burden.

"I love his leadership style because it's a performance-based leadership," Shaw said. "He wants to be one of the hardest workers on the team. He wants to lead by example. He doesn't want to give a whole bunch of speeches."

In other words, Shaw expects Luck to be Luck. Just like Shaw plans to put his mark on the program instead of trying to be the second-coming of Harbaugh.

Spring transforms conference into Pac-12

February, 17, 2011
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The Pac-10 doesn't become the Pac-12 officially until July 1, but with the advent of spring practices -- Stanford gets an early jump on Feb. 21 -- the reality sets in: It's going to be different this fall.

It's not just about Utah and Colorado joining the "old" Pac-10, which has been stable since adding Arizona and Arizona State in 1978. It's about a massive transformation.

For one, there will be two divisions: North (California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington and Washington State) and South (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, USC and Utah). Teams will still play nine conference games, but the round-robin format adopted in 2006 is over. With 12 teams, every team can't play every other on an annual basis, which affects not only rivalries but also recruiting.

Divisions also bring a conference championship game, which will be played at the home stadium of the team with the best conference record on Dec. 3. The winner of that game, even if it's just, say, 8-5, will be crowned Pac-12 champion and go to the Rose Bowl, if it's not selected for the national title game.

Divisions change the dynamic. In Pac-10 play, every game mattered. In Pac-12 play, divisional games matter a little more.

While some Pac-10 coaches, particularly in the Northwest, weren't terribly excited about expansion and North and South divisions -- Oregon State's always-pleasant Mike Riley was on record as being slightly sour on the idea -- there's no turning back. For the lack of a better phrase, it is what it is.

"It's not really a focal point for us as we head into spring practice," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Our focus for us is on us, trying to get better."

Said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, "Whether there are eight teams in the conference or 18 teams in the conference, it has no effect on us ... I don't care how they split the divisions -- I don't get caught up in that. I don't know why anyone would .... They don't ask us our opinion on that. And it's not that I want that. I don't worry about things I don't have control over."

[+] EnlargeJon Embree
AP Photo/Jack DempseyNew Colorado coach Jon Embree believes the Pac-12 is a better conference for Colorado than the Big 12.
For Utah, coming from the Mountain West Conference -- a solid league but a non-automatic qualifying one -- the move was a no-brainer. For Colorado, leaving the Big 12 was a more complicated proposition. But new Buffaloes coach Jon Embree admits he has a West Coast bias.

"When they were forming the Big 12 [in 1994], it looked like we might go to the Pac-10 at the time, and I was really hoping that would happen for the university as opposed to the Big 12 conference," he said. "I always felt like that conference was a better fit for us."

Embree played high school football in Colorado, went to Colorado and coached there for 10 seasons under Bill McCartney (1993-94), Rick Neuheisel (1995-98) and Gary Barnett (1999-2002). He's a Colorado guy. But his parents are from Los Angeles, he was born in L.A., he spent plenty of time in Southern California growing up and he coached at UCLA. He even played for the L.A. Rams for two seasons (1987-88).

He's got plenty of West Coast in him, just as Colorado's and Utah's rosters are already laden with players from California, as well as a smattering from other Pac-10 states. The transition for both probably will be fairly easy.

And, of course, none of this has much to do with spring practices, which for all 12 programs will be business as usual: Filling voids, fostering competition, breaking in new coaches and tweaking schemes.

On the football side of things, Embree is the only new coach who arrived after a termination. His predecessor, Dan Hawkins, never posted a winning season in five years. At Stanford, Jim Harbaugh bolted for the San Francisco 49ers after leading the Cardinal to their best season of the modern era. David Shaw was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh.

That's it for coaching transitions, though it's fair to say that a number of coaches enter spring practices facing win-or-else seasons, particularly UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, Washington State's Paul Wulff and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson.

Seven teams enter spring with stability at quarterback, including four with legitimate All-America candidates behind center: Stanford's Andrew Luck, Oregon's Darron Thomas, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles. Conversely, three teams appear to have wide-open competitions at the position: California, UCLA and Washington.

UCLA replaced both coordinators, which notably ended up landing Norm Chow at Utah. California and Arizona also had some significant staff turnover, with Bears coach Jeff Tedford stating he planned to work extensively with his quarterbacks this spring.

At Oregon, the Ducks begin earnest preparations to defend their consecutive conference titles needing to rebuild their offensive line and defensive front seven. Arizona, California, Stanford and USC also have questions on their offensive lines, while Oregon State must address the early departure of running back Jacquizz Rodgers and issues on its defensive line. Arizona State, with a conference-high 19 starters back, needs to square things away at quarterback and prepare for being the favorite in the Pac-12 South. Newbies Colorado and Utah have vacancies in the secondary, which should be worrisome in a conference of quarterbacks.

So it's really about football this spring, not transformation. Because you know what every coach will tell you when asked for his thoughts on heading into the first year of Pac-12 play?

"It's just line 'em up and tell me who to play," Embree said.

UCLA staff not Seto

February, 7, 2011
2/07/11
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UCLA still doesn't have a defensive coordinator after coach Rick Neuheisel's flirtation with former USC linebacker and Trojans assistant Rocky Seto abruptly ended.

It appeared last week that Neuheisel was on the cusp of announcing Seto's hiring, but apparently things turned sour in the eleventh hour, perhaps in part because many Bruins fans didn't want a former Trojan running their defense, particularly one without a proven track record. Seto is presently on Pete Carroll's staff with the Seattle Seahawks helping with the secondary.

Further, Nevada running backs coach Jim Mastro is still deliberating whether he will accept a position as the Bruins' running game coordinator. The Orange County Register reported that Mastro would coach tight ends and F-backs while Bruins running backs coach Wayne Moses would stay in his current position, if Mastro opts for Westwood.

Other than Seto, the L.A. Times reported that Neuheisel talked to former Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, now with the San Francisco 49ers, former Miami head coach Randy Shannon and former Florida defensive co-coordinators Teryl Austin and Chuck Heater. Heater was a Washington assistant when Neuheisel was the Huskies' coach from 1999-2002, but Heater was hired to coordinate Temple's defense.

So what now?

Well, maybe Neuheisel just moves down to the next name on his list. Or maybe he regroups and casts out a new net. It would be a bit of a surprise at this point if he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and lands an experienced, "name" defensive coordinator. And, by the way, that might not be a bad thing.

Neuheisel's stated preference for a 3-4 scheme -- or at least a hybrid of it -- suggests his best candidates are NFL assistants who are itching to call their own plays. But how committed is Neuheisel to a 3-4 if he was serious about Seto, whose mentor -- Carroll -- is a 4-3 guy?

While some might think a jump to UCLA under Neuheisel might be risky -- Neuheisel is under a lot of pressure to win in 2011 -- there's solid, young talent on the Bruins' defense. Even a single impressive season in Westwood could provide a career boost. It would certainly be a way to get on a Pac-12 coach's radar.

As it stands now, Neuheisel isn't inspiring much confidence with his constituency. A second 4-8 finish in three seasons, combined with coaching staff turmoil,and a disappointing recruiting class isn't sending the Bruins into the offseason on an uptick.

Of course, all the hullabaloo between now and September could be easily forgotten if Neuheisel simply does one thing this fall: Win.

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