NCF Nation: Sione Potoa'e

Pac-12 media day notebook

July, 28, 2011
ArizonaArizona: There has been a lot of speculation about receiver Juron Criner's absence this summer and the potential of him even playing this season. Coach Mike Stoops said the all-conference player was back participating with the team after having "some personal and family issues with his mother that he had to attend to."

ASUArizona State: If Arizona State were to finish second behind USC in the South Division, they would still advance to the championship game because of the NCAA sanctions levied upon USC. If that were to happen, coach Dennis Erickson and quarterback Brock Osweiler agreed that they wouldn't care. "If you get in the game and you win it, you're going to the Rose Bowl," Osweiler said. "So whatever it takes to get there."

CalCalifornia: Oregon isn't the only Pac-12 team tied to scout/street agent Willie Lyles. California also did business with Lyles. "I have no concern whatsoever about it," coach Jeff Tedford said. "We have the videos, we have the prospect list, and so I have absolutely no concern about it." What Tedford is concerned about is his first losing season, and he said he understood that Bears fans are unhappy with the recent trajectory of the program. "We have created a standard and expectation at Cal over the last nine years," he said. "Last season we fell short of that, and we're not hiding from that."

ColoradoColorado: The Buffaloes have not won on the road since 2007, a span of 18 games. That second number was provided by new coach Jon Embree when asked about the first. He said it's a "sticking point" with him and one that he's noted -- probably more than once -- to the team. "I believe there is no one on our team that's played in a road win," he said. "Good teams win on the road. Obviously we haven't been a good team or I wouldn't be here. The thing I'm excited about is our first game's on the road [at Hawaii] because we need to address that issue immediately. I'll leave it at that. We need to address that issue immediately. It does not sit well with me." Sounds like Hawaii is circled in red ink on the schedule.

OregonOregon: Ducks coach Chip Kelly had high praise for quarterback Darron Thomas. "I don't know if there's a ceiling with Darron," he said. "To come in as a first-time starter and go undefeated in the regular season, and undefeated in this conference and lead his team to a berth in the national championship game. And threw for the second most yards ever in a national championship game, I think the one thing that I remarked and I said it a lot last year is that it almost seemed like every week he just got better and better." Oh, and Kelly also said Thomas was "the toughest quarterback I've been around."

Oregon StateOregon State: Beavers coach Mike Riley provided a cautiously optimistic update on receiver James Rodgers, who blew out his knee last season at Arizona. "The one thing that you can never do with James is count him out," Riley said. "He had two major knee surgeries. He is running. He has always been deemed ahead of schedule. But I'm going to really play this conservatively. I'm going to see where he is. He's got a major doctor's appointment, kind of a last check up before camp coming up. We'll see what they say when he comes home from that. Then we'll go into fall camp and see where he is." Riley also said that he expects tight end Joe Halahuni (shoulder) to "be practicing the last couple of weeks of fall camp, then we'll see about game ready after that."

StanfordStanford: The Cardinal has plenty of questions at receiver, but a healthy return of Chris Owusu would answer many of those questions, including giving Stanford one of the conference's best deep threats. Said coach David Shaw, "Since Chris' last surgery I haven't said anything to him besides play every game. That's all I said to Chris. I said nothing else. I said, 'Chris, … we'll practice accordingly.' We will make sure we take the pounding off him in training camp. We need Chris to play in every single game." As for young receivers stepping up, Shaw didn't provide any names, though he did say if none did, he'd just throw more to the Cardinal's deep collection of tight ends.

UCLAUCLA: Coach Rick Neuheisel hopes to take to the air this year, no matter who he has under center. Juniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut will compete for the starting gig during fall camp, with each looking to bolster an anemic passing attack that ranked 116th out of 120 teams nationally last season. "Somewhere along the line, we lost our ability to throw the ball," Neuheisel said. "I don't think you can point to one factor."

USCUSC: If USC's new-look offensive line ends up being any good this season, a lot of the credit will go to Khaled Holmes, a converted guard who moved to center this offseason because of his cerebral nature. "This is an important move for us," coach Lane Kiffin said. "We do a lot of stuff on our offensive system. Khaled's a very smart football player, so he'll help us up front, because he's going to have two new guards next to him."

UtahUtah: Utes coach Kyle Whittingham didn't mince words when talking about the importance of QB Jordan Wynn, who is coming back from shoulder surgery. "Job 1, in fact, is keeping Jordan Wynn healthy throughout the course of the season," Whittingham said. Whittingham said Wynn's shoulder is "100 percent from a medical standpoint," but that doesn't mean the coaches won't be cautious with him. "[Offensive coordinator Norm] Chow has a plan in place to limit his throws early in camp and progress from there," Whittingham said. "What that number is, we're looking at is it 100 throws a day? Is it 80 throws a day? But we'll have a plan in place to make sure we don't wear him out early on in camp."

WashingtonWashington: The Pac-12 blog recently rated Washington in "great shape" at defensive tackle. That probably is no longer accurate, particularly with some injury issues at the position. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi will be limited early in camp, coach Steve Sarkisian said. Potoa'e has a sprained knee that needs to be watched, while Sarkisian previously said Tokolahi (ankle) likely won't be back before conference play begins on Sept. 24 against California. Toss in the retirement of Chris Robinson due to knee issues, and the Huskies have some issue at the position, at least beyond 330-pound Alameda Ta'amu. The depth, at least, figures to be young, with redshirt freshman Lawrence Lagafuaina and incoming freshman Danny Shelton.

Washington StateWashington State: While the return of QB Jeff Tuel and a top-flight receiving corps is good, the Cougars struggled on the offensive line in 2010, both pass blocking and run blocking. But coach Paul Wulff believes that might change this fall due to continuity, with four starters back as well as some other experienced backups. "I think a lot of things are solved," Wulff said. "Our running game, we're a lot more physical on the offensive line. We're athletic. We have experience. Our running backs are better. Our quarterbacks and then the continuity with some of our young receivers and Jeff are better. So all of those ingredients are going to equate to higher productivity."
No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

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

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

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

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

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

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

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

Good shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll see

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

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

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