NCF Nation: Shane Vereen

Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."
Over on the Big 12 blog, David Ubben decided to go through all the teams in the conference and see how they've done against the Top 25 since 2008.

That sounded like a ton of fun, so here's a look at the Pac-12 results. For seasoning, I added a best/worst category against Top 25 teams, which is very subjective and, as always, open to debate.

Since 2008 the Pac-12 is 52-105 against Top 25 teams. Utah and Colorado records prior to 2011 are not factored in, but we'll still look at them in the team-by-team breakdown.

Oregon carries the flag for the conference with a robust .705 winning percentage while Washington State has a Blutarsky.

Here's how the entire conference shapes up:

Oregon

Record vs. Top 25: 12-5 (.705)

Best win: The Stanford victories in consecutive years put the Cardinal back in their place (and last year, signified the clear leader in the North), but the 45-38 win over No. 10 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last season was a breakthrough for the program. It put an end to the "can they win the big one" questions and was critical for the legitimacy of the league. Oregon to the rest of the conference: You're welcome.

Toughest loss: The Boise State loss in 2009 was a stinger. But anytime you lose in the National Championship game to the No. 1 team -- and the way it went down in those obscure final two minutes -- it's tough. That loss brought about some of the questions the Ducks were able to answer with the Rose Bowl win.

USC

Record vs. Top 25: 9-5 (.642)

Best win: The 35-3 win over Ohio State in 2008 stands out. But the victory at No. 4 Oregon last year bloodies the water for this year's much-anticipated showdown.

Worst loss: Also from last year, the triple-overtime loss to No. 6 Stanford shouldn't have ended the way it did. Maybe Stanford still would have won -- but that game was too epic to end on a fumble.

Stanford

Record vs. Top 25: 7-6 (.538)

Best win: The '09 win over Oregon stands out because the Ducks were a Top 10 team on a seven-game winning streak. Toby Gerhart ran wild -- picking up 223 yards and three scores. It was really Stanford's declaration that they'd arrived in the conference under Jim Harbaugh.

Worst loss: Many will think it's the Fiesta Bowl last year because the wound is still fresh and the manner in which it went down. But losing the Big Game 34-28 to No. 25 Cal in 2009 -- especially after notching back-to-back wins over Oregon and No. 9 USC -- is simply deflating. If the Oregon game was a declaration of arrival, the Cal game was a reminder of how deep the conference can be.

Utah

Record vs. Top 25: 4-5 (.444)

Best win: The 2008 Sugar Bowl. Big, bad 'Bama gets bounced by a tiny little non-AQ, leaving most West of the Mississippi with a great-big smile.

Worst loss: An overtime loss hurts. An overtime loss to a rival hurts more. An overtime loss when the opposing quarterback gives you a verbal smack down following the loss is just brutal. The 2009 Holy War loss to No. 19 BYU will always sting.

Arizona

Record vs. Top 25: 4-10 (.285)

Best win: Willie Tuitama was simply prolific in carving up No. 16 BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, throwing for 325 yards, two touchdowns and running for another in a 31-21 win. It was Arizona's first bowl win in a decade.

Worst loss: The double-overtime loss to Oregon in 2009 was tough, but the 33-0 beat down by No. 22 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl that same year was a real stinker.

Oregon State

Record vs. Top 25: 5-15 (.250)

Best win: Jacquizz Rodgers busted out 186 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a 27-21 stunner of No. 1 USC in 2008. Doesn't get much sweeter than an unranked knocking off a No. 1. Though the 3-0 win over No. 20 Pitt in the 2008 Sun Bowl gets a tip of the cap simply for the novelty.

Worst loss: The Beavers were shutout 38-0 by No. 6 Stanford in '10. That came a week after a 36-7 win over No. 20 USC. Talk about highs and lows.

Washington

Record vs. Top 25: 5-15 (.250)

Best win: Because of the record the previous year and because it was Steve Sarkisian against Pete Carroll, the 16-13 stunner over No. 3 USC in 2009 is one worth re-living over and over if you're a Washington fan. Erik Folk was so clutch.

Worst loss: Anything from 2008 will do.

UCLA

Record vs. Top 25: 4-12 (.250)

Best win: Maybe No. 7 Texas was looking ahead to the showdown with Oklahoma. Oh well, don't turn the ball over four times in the first 30 minutes. Great performance from Johnathan Franklin in the 34-12 win in 2010.

Worst loss: Toss up between the 35-0 loss to No. 25 Stanford at home in 2010 or the 59-0 loss to No. 18 BYU in 2008. Both were brutal -- but the BYU one probably stung more since the Bruins had clipped No. 18 Tennessee in overtime just 12 days earlier in the season opener.

Cal

Record vs. Top 25: 3-10 (.230)

Best win: What's bad for the Cardinal is generally good for the Bears. The 2009 Big Game win at No. 17 Stanford was extra tasty -- especially when a late Andrew Luck interception in the red zone sealed the deal. Shane Vereen was on fire with 193 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.

Worst loss: The No. 6 Cardinal reclaimed the Axe the following year with a 48-14 thrashing in Berkeley. Stepfan Taylor produced three touchdowns and Luck produced a Stanford fan's dream highlight with his forearm deflection of Sean Cattouse.

Arizona State

Record vs. Top 25: 3-11 (.214)

Best win: The USC and Missouri wins last year were pretty big, but there is nothing sweeter than beating a rival, in double-overtime, on the road, when they are ranked and you aren't. That was the case in 2010 with a 30-29 win over No. 23 Arizona. James Brooks will always be remembered for blocking an extra point near the end of regulation to force overtime. And then blocking a second extra point -- seriously -- to lock up the win. As bizarre as it was magnificent for the Sun Devils.

Worst loss: The loss to No. 7 Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl last year was completely uninspired and capped a horrific end to the season. The Sun Devils went into a tailspin and Todd Graham has to pull them out.

Colorado

Record vs. Top 25: 2-12

Best win: In his first career start in 2009, Tyler Hansen threw for 175 yards, a touchdown and ran for another to spark an upset win over No. 17 Kansas. That was Colorado's last win against a Top 25 team. The Buffs are 0-7 since.

Worst loss: Back in the day before they joined the Pac-12, Colorado had a little rivalry with a midwest school named Nebraska. The No. 15 Cornhuskers sent Colorado into the Pac-12 with an ugly 45-17 loss in 2010.

Washington State

Record vs. Top 25: 0-12

Best win: You have to think the streak ends under Mike Leach -- and sooner rather than later.

Worst loss: Tragically, there are so many choices. But we'll go with the 69-0 loss to No. 6 USC in 2008 because at the time, WSU was riding the nation's second-longest streak without being shutout (280 games). That came to an end in a very embarrassing fashion. While Mark Sanchez threw for five touchdowns, the Cougars managed just 116 yards of total offense.

Big Game means plenty to Cal

November, 17, 2011
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California's Sean Cattouse is a good safety. A sure tackler. An NFL prospect. And you already know where this is going, right?

Cattouse was cast as the part of roadkill for one of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck's most replayed highlights -- his 58-yard scramble in last year's Big Game blowout of the Bears. "Roadkill" is not a role any football player wants.

"A lot of jokes. It's all fun and games," Cattouse said when asked -- again and again -- this week about the play. "I'm just more sickened with myself with how I went about trying to tackle him. It looked like nothing I've done before."

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAndrew Luck and the Cardinal won back the Axe after beating Cal 48-14 last season.
How much do you think Cattouse enjoys hearing about that play? How much do you think he wants a rematch with Luck, one on one? And how much do you think all the Cal players enjoy hearing about how super-awesome Luck and the Cardinal are?

The Big Game is always a big game. It's a rivalry game between elite schools that like to tout how they are more elite really than the other.

And it means plenty to Cal.

For one, they'd get the Axe back. While the Bears have split the last four Big Games, they have won seven of nine under coach Jeff Tedford.

Tedford is another issue. While he's been successful against the Bears' biggest rival -- Stanford was riding its longest winning streak in the series with seven consecutive Big Game victories from 1995-2001 when he arrived in Berkeley -- there is considerable fan frustration with his program's inconsistency over the past few years. A win over a highly ranked Stanford team would mute that, at least in the short term.

Further, Cal is playing for its own stakes. If it beats the Cardinal, it improves to 7-4 and moves up in the pecking order with bowl selections.

That said, there are unintended consequences of playing the spoiler. It would cost the Pac-12 about $6 million because Stanford wouldn't be the pick for an at-large BCS bowl berth. And then the Cardinal likely would end up in the Alamo Bowl, which would knock every other bowl-eligible team down a notch.

"It's not about spoiling anything for them," Cal quarterback Zach Maynard said. "It's a huge rivalry game for us."

Cal also has a strong history of upsets in the series, particularly when the Cardinal boasts a celebrated quarterback.

The Bears beat John Elway twice, producing the greatest play in college football history -- "The Play," in fact -- to do so in 1982. They knocked off Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett in 1970. And, of course, they upset Luck in 2009, 34-28, with Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed grabbing an interception in the waning moments with Stanford on the Bears' 3-yard line.

That, in fact, was one of the worst games of Luck's career. He was 10-of-30 for 157 yards with no touchdowns.

Before that game, Tedford repeatedly tweaked his players with how the media and fans believed then-No. 14 Stanford and running back Toby Gerhart were too physical for the Bears. In response, Cal's Shane Vereen rushed for 193 yards on 42 carries with three touchdowns and outplayed Gerhart.

It was a successful motivational angle that Tedford might revisit. Young people often seem to respond well to the underdog, no-respect role.

"Those are always motivational pieces," Tedford said. "We have a great deal of respect for them. Their accolades -- they are worthy of them."

Still, in the end, all rivalry games are like this. There are Cal men and Stanford men. Blues and Cardinal. And when they meet -- their own and the other -- they will remember who won, and when and how it went down.

Said Cattouse, "It's a big game every year. Every year we want to win it."

Who will be the big bust in 2012?

August, 23, 2011
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CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy looks at the biggest AP preseason poll busts since 2001, and three Pac-12 teams make the list.

2002: No. 9 Washington (finished 7-6)
2001: No. 11 Oregon State (finished 5-6)
2009: No. 12 Cal (finished 8-5)

Easy to remember each of those teams.

The 2002 Huskies featured quarterback Cody Pickett, who passed for 4,458 yards that season, and wide receiver Reggie Williams. The season began with a last-second loss at Michigan due to a massive coaching blunder that cost the Huskies the game. Said then-coach Rick Neuheisel: "We switched substitution groups, which we're going to kick ourselves about for a thousand years."

The Huskies seemed to lose their mojo, but they then rallied for three consecutive wins to finish the regular season -- Neuheisel memorably created the "Northwest Championship" -- over Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State to earn bowl eligibility.

That Oregon State team was touted -- Sports Illustrated ranked the Beavers preseason No. 1 -- after an 11-1 finish in 2000, with quarterback Jonathan Smith and running back Ken Simonton returning. Things immediately fell apart with a blowout loss at Fresno State. A 1-3 start, in fact, featured a 38-7 home loss to UCLA.

As for Cal, at least one writer [insert uncomfortable cough] celebrated the 2009 Bears as a potential national title contender. (They were stacked with talent: backs Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu, linebackers Mike Mohamed and Devin Bishop, cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, etc.) After a 3-0 start, the Bears headed to Oregon ranked sixth.

SPLAT! Cal goes down 42-3. The next weekend, just in case we didn't get the message, USC ripped the Bears 30-3 in Berkeley. Suffice it to say, there was nothing subtle about Cal's unmasking.

Here's this year's preseason top 10. So who becomes the bust this year?

1. Oklahoma
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. LSU
5. Boise State
6. Florida State
7. Stanford
8. Texas A&M
9. Oklahoma State
10. Nebraska
Look, the Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. Everybody knows that. No other conference even approaches the talent the Pac-12 has at the position in 2011.

Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles each could be first-round NFL draft picks next spring. Luck is almost certain to go No. 1 overall. Oregon's Darron Thomas, Oregon State's Ryan Katz, Utah's Jordan Wynn and Washington State's Jeff Tuel also are experienced, talented guys with plenty of upside.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireQuarterback is the position of power in the Pac-12, but LaMichael James and his fellow running backs can make a strong case as well.
So the Pac-12's position of power is, obviously, quarterback.

But don't sleep on the running backs, either.

The conference welcomes back five backs who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last fall, including Oregon's Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner, LaMichael James. That crew includes Washington's Chris Polk, Colorado's Rodney Stewart, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. Those are five backs who ranked among the top-38 in the nation in rushing last fall, including three in the top 13.

(And, by the way, if Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers and California's Shane Vereen hadn't opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, the conference also would include the nation's No. 21 and 23 rushers from 2010).

Further, only California, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State have questions at the position. USC is stacked with talented backs, whether senior Marc Tyler (913 yards, nine TDs in 2010) comes back from suspension or not. Arizona State's Cameron Marshall (787 yards, nine TDs) is one of the most underrated players in the conference, and Arizona's Keola Antolin (668, seven TDs in 2010) has rushed for 1,830 yards and scored 21 TDs in three seasons.

Further, many of the backups -- Oregon's Kenjon Barner, Washington's Jesse Callier, Arizona State's Deantre Lewis or Kyle Middlebrooks, Stanford's Anthony Wilkerson and UCLA's Derrick Coleman (or Malcolm Jones/Jordan James) -- are talented and experienced (other than James, a redshirt freshman).

So conference of quarterbacks, conference of running backs -- both are positions of power.

Perhaps the Pac-12 in 2011 is now the Conference of Backfields?

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

Notes on Pac-12 players at NFL combine

February, 28, 2011
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Holy Stephen Paea!

We knew Paea, Oregon State's two-time winner of the Pac-10's Morris Trophy, was a beast, but the defensive tackle proved it to everyone else when he set an NFL combine record with 49 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press.

Folks, it's hard to do any repetitive movement 49 times, much less with 225 pounds.

Paea was just the lead note -- and he knows how to celebrate, by the way -- on what mostly appears to be a strong showing by Pac-12 players at the NFL combine.

Jake Locker ran fast; Nate Solder showed explosiveness, and a lot of other guys made good impressions, including a couple of Pac-12 running backs -- small ones -- per ESPN's Todd McShay:

Vereen leads smaller backs
California's Shane Vereen had a monster day, running the 40 in 4.48, posting a 34-inch vertical jump and putting up 25 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. Vereen is an instinctive back on tape and shows good skills in the passing game, but we haven't seen the kind of explosiveness on film that Vereen displayed Sunday. It's time to go back to the film room and see if we missed anything during our previous evaluation.

Other diminutive backs had good showings as well. Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, Syracuse's Delone Carter and Kentucky's Derrick Locke all showed good balance and lateral explosiveness when bouncing to the outside and then cutting upfield during position-specific drills.


Here are some more links and notes

Who gets and stops explosive rushing?

February, 24, 2011
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Coaches love talking about explosion plays. You want to get a lot of them and give up very few.

We looked at offensive explosion plays -- plays of 20 or more yards -- on Tuesday and defenses that prevented explosion plays on Wednesday. Today we look at explosion plays in terms of rushing offense and rushing defense. On Friday, we'll look at explosion plays in terms of passing numbers.

So here's how the Pac-12 stacked up in 2010 (again, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information). The number to the left in national rank. The number to the right is the total number of explosion plays in the running game in 2010.

4. Oregon... 39
25. Stanford... 21
29. Washington... 20
29. UCLA... 20
49. USC... 16
49. Utah... 16
66. Arizona... 14
66. Arizona State... 14
83. Oregon State... 12
91. California... 11
91. Colorado... 11
99. Washington State... 10

Not many surprises here, though Oregon State's and California's totals might seem low, considering the quality of their tailbacks: Jacquizz Rodgers and Shane Vereen.

Some other thoughts.
  • Oregon ranked second in 2009 (39) and third in 2008 (37). The Ducks, Nevada and Georgia Tech each ranked in the top five the past three seasons.
  • California ranked 18th in 2009 with 24 runs of 20 or more yards, and eighth in 2008 with 30, so its drop-off in 2010 was substantial.
  • With Toby Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Stanford had 20 runs of 20 or more yards. Without him in 2010, it had 21. That said: In 2008, when the Cardinal went 5-7 and Tavita Pritchard was the starting QB, it produced 25 such runs, which ranked 12th in the country.
  • In 2008, UCLA and Washington State tied for 109th in the nation with just six explosion runs. In 2009, Washington State had 10 and UCLA nine, thereby ranking 95th and 98th, respectively. While the Bruins new pistol offense didn't help the passing game, it certainly helped produce explosion plays in the running game, more than tripling the 2008 output and more than doubling what was produced in 2009.
  • Buffalo ranked last in the nation with just two runs of over 20 yards, the worst total over the past three seasons. Nothing to do with the Pac-10, but that's really, really pathetic.

But do piling up explosion plays in the run game correlate to winning? Short answer: More often than not, though a lot has to do with scheme (Georgia Tech and Navy, for example, run triple-options and don't pass much). Here's the top 10 in 2010 with the team's record in parentheses to the right.

1. Georgia Tech... 45 (6-7)
2. Northern Illinois... 42 (11-3)
3. Auburn... 41 (14-0)
4. Oregon... 39 (12-1)
5. Nevada... 38 (13-1)
6. Nebraska... 36 (10-4)
7. North Texas... 32 (3-9)
8. Mississippi... 31 (4-8)
9. Baylor... 30 (7-6)
10. Tulsa... 28 (10-3)
10. Navy... 28 (9-4)

Three teams -- including No. 1 -- posted losing records. On the other hand, seven won nine or more games and six won 10 or more.

Now, on to defense, starting with the Pac-12.

The number to the left in national rank. The number to the right is the total number of rushing explosion plays yielded in 2010.

2. Arizona State... 6
13. Arizona... 9
13. Utah... 9
13. California... 9
37. Oregon State... 12
45. Stanford... 14
59. Oregon... 16
82. Colorado... 18
90. USC... 19
98. Washington... 22
103. UCLA... 23
117. Washington State... 29

Arizona is a bit surprising because the Wildcats struggled against the run this season, particularly over the second half of 2010. Stanford is a little low because it gave up four runs of 20-plus yards in its loss to Oregon.

Some other thoughts.
  • Oregon State's number isn't bad, but in 2009 it was tied for fourth in the nation -- and No. 1 in the Pac-10 -- after yielding just six explosion rushing plays.
  • Oregon had better defensive numbers this season than in the previous two, but the Ducks gave up only nine explosion rushing plays in 2008 and 2009.
  • This is clearly an area where Washington struggles. In 2009, it gave up 21 explosion rushing plays (102nd in nation) and 22 in 2008 (102nd in nation).
  • Washington State yielded 22 rushing explosion plays in 2009 (106th in nation) and 34 in 2008 (worst in the nation) Cougars: You need to get better here.
  • In 2008, Tennessee gave up just one run of 20 or more yards. No other team over the past three seasons has yielded fewer than three. In 2009, under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, it gave up 21, which ranked 102nd in the nation. This past season, while Kiffin was in his first season at USC, the Vols yielded 16, which ranked 59th, tied with USC. In 2009, the year before Kiffin arrived at USC, the Trojans yielded 13, which ranked 42nd. Just saying.
  • While a number of teams are consistently good in this area -- Ohio State, Florida and South Florida, to name a few -- only Iowa ranked in the top 10 the past three seasons.

But do limiting rushing explosion plays on defense correlate to winning? Short answer: Not as much as you'd think, at least this past season. Here's the top 10 in 2010 with the team's record in parentheses to the right.

1. Iowa... 5 (8-5)
2. Arizona State... 6 (6-6)
2. Boston College... 6 (7-6)
4. Purdue... 7 (4-8)
4. Iowa State... 7 (5-7)
4. SMU... 7 (7-7)
4. Florida... 7 (8-5)
4. Ohio State... 7 (12-1)
9. Temple... 8 (8-4)
9. Michigan State... 8 (11-2)
9. Buffalo... 8 (2-10)
9. Wyoming... 8 (3-9)

That's six teams (out of 12) at .500 or below, including two teams who combined for 19 losses. Just two teams -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- won double-digit games. Oklahoma went 12-2 despite giving up 25 rushing explosion plays, which ranked 109th in the nation. Heck, Kansas State finished 7-6 despite giving up 31 such plays, worst in the nation.

That said: Seven of the 12 teams that gave up 25 or more explosion plays finished with losing records, and four won three or fewer games.

Early 2011 Pac-12 power rankings

January, 11, 2011
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Here's an early look at the Pac-12 pecking order heading into the off-season. Count on this being fluid, particularly after I get to see teams practicing this spring.

1. Oregon: The Ducks likely will be ranked in the preseason top five even though the offensive line and defensive front seven take some hits.

2. Stanford: While there are plenty of questions -- both lines, head coach -- the return of Andrew Luck makes the Cardinal a preseason top-10 team.

3. Arizona State: Losing defensive tackle Lawrence Guy to the NFL is a significant hit, but the Sun Devils still have 19 starters back from a team that lost by one at Wisconsin. But who will be the quarterback?

4. USC: Trojans take some hits on both sides of the ball, particularly on both lines, but quarterback Matt Barkley will have some nice skill surrounding him on offense.

5. Arizona: On the downside, the Wildcats must completely rebuild their lines. On the upside, quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver Juron Criner will be the top pass-catch combination in the conference.

6. Washington: The post-Jake Locker era begins, so it's hard to judge the Huskies. And post linebacker Mason Foster, for that matter. But coach Steve Sarkisian has been recruiting well, and there are plenty of returning starters.

7. Utah: Hard to place the Utes because we don't know them in this environment. And there are questions on both sides of the ball, particularly in the secondary and offensive skill positions. But the return of quarterback Jordan Wynn helps.

8. California: The Bears must replace their best offensive player, running back Shane Vereen, and their three best defensive players, end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Mike Mohamed and safety Chris Conte. And don't even ask about quarterback.

9. Oregon State: Putting the Beavers down here might be an overreaction to running back Jacquizz Rodgers' decision to enter NFL draft. Or it might be because they lost four of their final five games. And Stephen Paea's departure leaves a HUGE void on the defensive line.

10. UCLA: The Bruins actually have some good players coming back, despite some high-profile early departures (linebacker Akeem Ayers, safety Rahim Moore). But they have offensive questions and we don't know who the coordinators will be in 2011.

11. Colorado: Just like Utah, we don't know the Buffaloes in this environment, plus there's a new coach. And, to be honest, that 52-7 loss at Cal isn't helping their candidacy. Curious how quarterback Tyler Hansen will look this spring after missing much of the year because of injury.

12. Washington State: Do. Not. Panic. Cougars. Fans. I'd bet $1 the Cougs will not finish last in 2011. Quarterback Jeff Tuel should take another step forward and he's got his top targets back. But we're not ready to promote the Cougars just yet.

Vereen entering NFL draft

January, 1, 2011
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California is looking for a new starting running back after junior Shane Vereen announced he will make himself available for the 2011 NFL draft.

Vereen, who has already graduated with a degree in communications, earned second-team All-Pac 10 honors after rushing for 1,167 yards with 13 touchdowns this season. His 22 receptions ranked third on the team.

The Bears now will be rebuilding their backfield this spring. Quarterback is up for grabs, and it is uncertain who will take over for Vereen. Backup Isi Sofele, who rushed for 338 yards in 2010, is only 5-foot-7, 186 pounds.

A nice farewell to Vereen here.

Who might bolt for the NFL draft early?

December, 16, 2010
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Third-year players -- juniors and redshirt sophomores -- have until Jan.17 to declare their intentions to enter the 2011 NFL draft, and a number of Pac-12 players are likely to do so.

USC already has lost two: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

Many of the upcoming decisions -- both to stay or to go -- are going to be surprises. Some certain early draft picks opt to return for whatever reason, including the fact that they will never -- ever -- have as much fun as they did in college. And a handful of obscure players annually decide to enter the draft for whatever reason, including getting bad advice from a know-it-all "acquaintance" who doesn't know a darn thing.

This will not turn out to be a complete list. And our speculation is intentionally vague because it can be nothing else: We don't know what's going on inside these young men's heads.

Note: Though some players have indicated they plan to return, they are included here because, well, you never know -- they might change their minds.

You can review Mel Kiper's "junior" rankings here.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, Jr.:
Foles would benefit from returning for his senior year and could improve his stock considerably. But his knee injury this year and questions about the Wildcats' offensive line might give him pause.
WR Juron Criner, Jr.: Criner is the best receiver in the country few folks have heard of, but he might want to look at this year's receiver class, which is loaded.
CB Trevin Wade, Jr.: Wade needs to return for his senior season after taking a step back as a junior.

Arizona State
CB Omar Bolden, Jr
.: Bolden rejuvenated his career this fall, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also knows what it's like to get hurt and miss a season. The Sun Devils could break through in 2011, and that could greatly benefit his status.
DT Lawrence Guy, Jr.: The general thinking is Guy wants to return for his senior season. He faces a tough choice.

California
RB Shane Vereen, Jr.:
Mel Kiper ranks Vereen No. 5 among junior running backs. The Bears' questionable supporting cast on offense next year might sway him to the pros.
OLB Mychal Kendricks, Jr.: Lots of potential, but he's not ready.

Colorado
OG Ryan Miller, Jr
.: Miller has already said he plans to return next fall, though Kiper ranks him No. 2 among junior guards.

Oregon
RB LaMichael James, RSo
.: Kiper ranks James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. The Ducks' first unanimous All-American must choose between college glory -- Heisman Trophy, (another) national championship -- or getting paid now. Probably won't get picked until the second round because of size and middling skills as a receiver, but his top-end speed is enticing.
TE David Paulson, Jr.: Kiper ranks him No. 4 among junior tight ends. Good bet to return.

Oregon State
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr
.: Rodgers has indicated he plans to return because his brother, James, is likely to get a fifth year via medical hardship because of a knee injury this past season. But Beavers fans are rooting for it to be Jan. 18.
WR James Rodgers, Sr.: It's likely the Rodgers are a package deal: Both stay or both go.

Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RSo.:
If he enters the draft, he's almost certain to be the No. 1 overall pick. More than a few folks, however, believe he's seriously considering a return for his junior year, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh remains at Stanford. We'll see.

UCLA
LB Akeem Ayers, Jr
.: Odds are that Ayers will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
FS Rahim Moore, Jr.: Odds are that Moore will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.

USC
DL Armond Armstead, Jr
: Armstead has said he plans to return. He should. A healthy season could send his stock skyrocketing.

Utah
CB Brandon Burton, Jr
.: Burton, second-team All Mountain West, is No. 5 on Kiper's list of junior corners. He's definitely on the NFL radar.
OT Tony Bergstrom, Jr.: It would make sense for the second-team All Mountain West player to return for his senior year.

Washington
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr
.: Kearse is highly productive but dropped a few too many balls this year. While he'd benefit from another year, he might be worried about the Huskies breaking in a new quarterback.
RB Chris Polk, RSo: Polk eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season. He's admitted that entering the draft is a possibility.

Washington State
DT Brandon Rankin, Jr.:
It would be wise for Rankin to return for his senior season.

Final: Washington 16, California 13

November, 27, 2010
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The Apple Cup now has meaning, particularly for Washington, which can earn its first bowl berth since 2002 if it wins at Washington State next weekend.

The Huskies scored on the final play of the game -- a 1-yard run from Chris Polk -- to beat California 16-13.

Washington (5-6) has now won two in a row after suffering three blowout defeats. Cal finishes 5-7 after losing four of its final five games.

Expect there to be some soul-searching in Berkeley this offseason. The Bears' streak of seven consecutive bowl games is over.

Huskies quarterback Jake Locker completed 17-for-27 for 237 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass. He set up the winning score with a 46-yard connection to Jermaine Kearse. A supremely frustrating year for Locker could be in some part redeemed by the Huskies reaching a bowl game.

Cal had only 283 total yards. Its offense was running back Shane Vereen and little else. Vereen gained 106 yards on 23 carries.

Halftime: California 3, Washington 0

November, 27, 2010
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A late California field goal prevented dueling doughnuts in Berkeley at the break.

On the plus side, we are getting an answer to the age-old question of what happens when a bad offense (California) faces a bad defense (Washington) and a solid defense (Cal) faces a solid offense (UW).

Not much.

If it seems like we're kind of prattling here, it's because the game isn't on in the Portland Airport and if it were there still wouldn't be much to recount.

Struggling Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio's 53-yard field goal -- a career-long -- as the half ended produced the only points, which is a bit of a surprise in itself.

There were nine punts in the half and three turnovers. The Bears also turned it over on downs once.

Both QBs have thrown interceptions but done little else, so it doesn't appear that Jack Locker will not duplicate his strong performance against the Bears from last year.

Oh, how a season changes things.

The two stars on offense are the running backs. The Huskies' Chris Polk has 60 yards on 10 carries. Cal's Shane Vereen has 65 on 11.

It's not a bad bet that the one who ends up with better numbers will play for the winning team.

The loser will become bowl-ineligible. If Cal wins, it finishes 6-6 and will play in a bowl game. If the Huskies prevail, they will also need to win their season finale at Washington State in order to finish 6-6.

Stanford ranked, but Cal owns the Big Game

November, 17, 2010
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Does Jim Harbaugh need a hug? Sure sounds like it. His poor, old Stanford team: How can it possibly survive this weekend at California in the Big Game?

Sure, Stanford is ranked sixth in the nation, and many educated eyes deem the Cardinal the nation's best one-loss team. Sure, Stanford's offense is among the most potent in the country. Sure, it's led by the likely top overall pick in this spring's NFL draft, quarterback Andrew Luck. Sure, the Cardinal are still in the running for the Rose Bowl, which Cal last played in 457 years ago.

Shane Vereen
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezCalifornia's Shane Vereen racked up 193 yards on 42 carries in the Bears' win over Stanford last season.
But Cal has won seven out of eight Big Games, including a surprising 34-28 upset last year at Stanford.

"You mentioned last year, but you could really go back the last eight years," Harbaugh said. "We're trying to make this rivalry game a rivalry. But you can't really call it a rivalry when you've lost seven out of the last eight games."

Poor, old Stanford.

California darn near beat top-ranked Oregon last weekend before succumbing 15-13. The Bears' defense only allowed one offensive touchdown against the high-powered Ducks. Oregon rolled over Stanford 52-31. So what is the poor old Cardinal to do?

"It's the best defense we've played by far," Harbaugh said. "They really look like the best team in the Pac-10, especially at home."

Cal, by the way, is 5-5. It lost by 21 at Nevada, 34 at USC and 28 at Oregon State, which just lost to Washington State.

Ah, but the Big Game, which ninth-year Bears coach Jeff Tedford seemingly owns, will be played inside Strawberry Canyon, where Cal's only loss this season is the nail-biter to the Ducks.

On the road, the Bears might play like Elmer Fudd but at home they transform into Wolverine. Why? No one knows. It's a mystery on par with Kim Kardashian's celebrity.

"I've been asked that enough times, so I should have analyzed it," Tedford said. "If I had the magical answer it would have been taken care of a long time ago."

What we can understand with metaphysical certainty is that Cal is going to need to score to beat Stanford, and it hasn't done much of that since quarterback Kevin Riley went down with a season-ending knee injury and was replaced by Brock Mansion. In the 11-plus quarters since Mansion has been running the offense -- including starts against Washington State and Oregon -- the Bears have scored just five touchdowns. Mansion has just one TD pass with two interceptions and is completing just 46.8 percent of his throws.

Seeing that Bears running back Shane Vereen gashed Stanford for 193 yards and three scores on 42 carries -- 42! -- in last year's Big Game, you can imagine the basics of the Cardinal's defensive plan: Gang up on Vereen, force Mansion to make plays in the passing game.

"It's going to be very important for him to keep his composure and for him just to play within himself and not try to do too much," Tedford said. "He's still learning, there's no doubt about it."

So Cal's challenge is to figure out creative ways to move the ball and keep the dramatically improved Stanford defense honest.

But that's nothing compared to poor, old Stanford.

"We're really trying to figure out how we can move the ball against them," Harbaugh said. "This week preparing for Cal's defense is pretty much like preparing for an NFL team."

The matchup of Stanford's physical offensive line and the Cal front seven will be interesting. The Bears lead the Pac-10 in total defense and sacks (30). Stanford is 14th in the nation in total offense and has yielded just four sacks, which is tied for fewest in the nation.

When asked about last year's game, Harbaugh said the Cardinal "got the fuzzy end of the popsicle." After purchasing hundreds of different brands of popsicles, the Pac-10 blog was unable to find one with a fuzzy end, but Harbaugh provided clarity by noting that the problem for Stanford in the 2009 Big Game was "we didn't score as many points as the Bears did."

Nothing like cutting to the chase. And in Saturday's game, while there will be an intriguing strength-on-strength battle between the Cal defense and the Stanford offense, this one really comes down to whether Mansion and the Cal offense can rise to the occasion and score more points than poor, old Stanford.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

November, 15, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

Team of the week: Washington State ended a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak with a 31-14 win at Oregon State. The Cougars not only won, they physically dominated the Beavers, outgaining them 378 yards to 261.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SakumaQuarterback Darron Thomas and Oregon survived a scare against California.
Best game: Three of the four Pac-10 games this weekend weren't decided until late in the fourth quarter -- imagine: the Cougs provided the only laugher -- but we've got to go with No. 1 Oregon's 15-13 win at California, because the game kept the college football nation -- particularly Boise State and TCU fans -- fixated at a potential season-transforming upset.

Biggest play: On the second play of the first possession of the second half, California running back Shane Vereen fumbled after a 7-yard run. On the next play from scrimmage, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for a 29-yard touchdown and a 15-7 lead. It was the Ducks only offensive TD of the game.

Offensive standout: USC running back Marc Tyler rushed 31 times for 160 yards and scored a TD in the Trojans 24-21 win at Arizona.

Defensive standout: California linebacker Mike Mohamed had 14 tackles -- 10 solos -- and a sack against Oregon.

Special teams standout: Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown against Cal. It was his fourth punt return for a touchdown this season, which ties a Pac-10 record (Cal's DeSean Jackson, 2006).

Smiley face: The Washington State lines on both sides of the football merit special note. The Cougars rushed for 221 yards (they did yield four sacks, which cost the rushing total 20 yards), and they held the Beavers to just 97 yards rushing while recording five sacks, including two apiece from Casey Hamlett and Brandon Rankin.

Frowny face: Oregon State. Oh, Oregon State. You were 2 of 10 on third down. Washington State was 10 of 17. You were 1 of 3 on fourth down. Washington State was 1 for 1. Washington State had possession time of 40:55. In a 60 minute game! Heck, the Cougars had the ball for 23 of the 30 minutes of the second half.

Thought of the week: On the week that Oregon falls from the top spot in the nation in total offense -- its 542 yards per game is now second to Oklahoma State's 547.5 -- we now can officially establish that the Ducks no longer need to explain that their defense is underrated. Why? Because it's now highly rated by any measure. Oregon's defense ranks eighth in the nation in scoring (17.2 ppg), 20th in total defense (315.4) and fifth in passing efficiency defense. And the Ducks yield only 4.35 yards per play, which is tied for sixth in the nation, ahead of such stalwart units as LSU and Nebraska.

Questions for the week: We've got a clear top-four in the conference, and USC and Washington State aren't going to go to bowl games. Are any of the five teams mired in the middle going to make a late-season run? Or is the conference going to end up full of 5-7 teams?

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