NCF Nation: Taylor Hart

Pac-12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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Who were the Pac-12 standouts this bowl season? Here are our picks.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley finished the season with a strong performance in the Bruins' bowl win.
QB Brett Hundley, UCLA: Hundley accounted for four touchdowns in the Bruins' 42-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. He rushed for 161 yards on 10 carries -- 16.1 yards per run -- with two touchdowns and he also completed 16 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two scores. Other QBs had nice games, but Hundley put up big numbers against an outstanding defense.

RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: In the AdvoCare V100 Bowl win over Boston College, Carey rushed for 169 yards on 27 carries and two scores, averaging 6.3 yards per rush. He decisively outplayed Boston College RB Andre Williams, who won the Doak Walker Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

RB D.J. Foster, Arizona State: Despite being banged up, Foster rushed for 132 yards on 20 carries -- 6.6 yards per carry -- in the Sun Devils' 37-23 loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. He also caught five passes for 23 yards.

WR Marqise Lee, USC: In his career finale, Lee caught seven passes for 118 yards with two touchdowns in USC's win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

WR Nate Phillips, Arizona: Phillips, a true freshman, caught nine passes for 193 yards in the Wildcats' win over Boston College.

WR Josh Huff, Oregon: Huff caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in Oregon's 30-7 win over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA: Su'a-Filo led the Bruins' offensive line against a tough Virginia Tech defense. UCLA rushed for 197 yards against a top-10 rushing defense and yielded only two sacks.

OL Abe Markowitz, USC: The sixth-year walk-on stepped in at center for an injured Marcus Martin -- the Trojans' best offensive lineman this season -- and played well in the 45-20 win over Fresno State. The Trojans yielded only one sack and rushed for 154 yards. He was named the "Offensive Outperformer of the Game" by his coaches.

OL Jake Fisher, Oregon: Fisher led a strong effort from the Ducks' offensive line in the win over Texas. Oregon rushed for 216 yards and yielded only two sacks. Fisher did a good job against Texas' top defender, end Jackson Jeffcoat.

OL Micah Hatchie, Washington: Hatchie, the Huskies' left tackle, was the biggest reason BYU didn't record a sack in the Fight Hunger Bowl, a 31-16 Huskies victory. Washington also rushed for 190 yards.

OL Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Seumalo led perhaps the Beavers O-line's best effort of the season. Oregon State rushed for 195 yards and yielded no sacks.

K Travis Coons, Washington: Coons made a 45-yard field goal against BYU -- the longest Pac-12 postseason field goal -- and was good on all four of his PATs.

DEFENSE

DL Scott Crichton, Oregon State: Crichton had three tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and pass breakup in the win over Boise State.

DL Taylor Hart, Oregon: Hart had a game-high 11 tackles, with half a sack and a forced fumble in the Ducks' win over Texas.

DL Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: Kikaha had nine tackles with three sacks and a forced fumble in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: Skov had nine tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble in Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

LB Jake Fischer, Arizona: Fischer had a game-high 14 tackles in the Wildcats' win over Boston College. He also had a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Arizona held Williams to only 75 yards on 26 carries.

LB John Timu, Washington: Timu had a game-high 14 tackles, a sack and an interception in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Jabral Johnson, Oregon State: Johnson had a game-high 12 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry in the Beavers' win over Boise State.

DB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State: Reynolds had 10 tackles and returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the Beavers' win over Boise State. The fumble returns went for 70 and 3 yards.

DB Avery Patterson, Oregon: Patterson had nine tackles and returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the win over Texas.

DB Josh Shaw, USC: Shaw held Fresno State receiver Davante Adams to nine receptions for 73 yards in the Trojans' win over the Bulldogs. He finished with six tackles and had an interception in the end zone.

DB Anthony Jefferson, UCLA: Jefferson had seven tackles, shared a tackle for a loss and had a pass breakup in the Bruins' win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies completed only 15 of 36 throws for 176 yards.

P Ben Rhyne, Stanford: With five punts, Rhyne averaged 49.8 yards per boot in the Rose Bowl.
We've looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver -- so now let's look at the defensive version.

That would be elite combinations of top tacklers, top sack men and top interceptors, as tackles, sacks and interceptions make defensive coordinators happy.

The combinations here might be stronger even than the offensive troikas. Stanford, for example, welcomes back an elite, All-America sort of player for each category. It seems to us all 12 teams have at least one player to be excited about heading into the fall.

Just two teams -- Arizona State and Utah -- only hit on one category. Arizona, Colorado and Washington join Stanford hitting all three, though Colorado's interception numbers from 2012 are so meager -- 3! -- that it's not terribly relevant. And USC's just missing was a matter of 0.4 tackles per game.

So here's how we see things stacking up.

And, again, you should feel free to be outraged by our lunkheaded bias against your team, which obviously should be ranked much higher.

1. Stanford
LB Shayne Skov, OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds

The skinny: Three potential All-Americans. There is no finer troika in the nation. Not sure if anyone else is even close.

2. USC
LB Hayes Pullard, OLB Morgan Breslin, S Dion Bailey

The skinny: Pullard was seventh in the conference with 8.2 tackles per game, just behind safety T.J. McDonald. Breslin is transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker, which actually seems like a better fit. And Bailey, who led the Trojans with four interceptions, is moving back to safety from linebacker.

3. UCLA
LB Eric Kendricks, OLB Anthony Barr, S Randall Goforth

The skinny: UCLA gets here on the power of the first two, an elite combination, with Barr a likely top-10 NFL draft pick next spring. That balances out the questions in the secondary. Goforth, a promising player, just seemed like as good a choice as any.

4. Oregon State
LB Michael Doctor, DE Scott Cricthon, CB Rashaad Reynolds

The skinny: Doctor took a big step forward last year, even if D.J. Alexander is a flashier player. Crichton, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2012, is trying to lead the Beavers in sacks for a third consecutive year. Reynolds had three picks last year and now becomes the Beavers' lead cornerback with Jordan Poyer off to the NFL.

5. Oregon
LB Derrick Malone, DE Taylor Hart, S Erick Dargan

The skinny: Malone was just thrown in there because the Ducks' linebacker situation is cloudy. Hart is a budding all-conference guy who should get his due this fall. Dargan led the Ducks with five picks, but there's an acknowledgement here also of cornerback Ekpre-Olomu, a preseason All-American, who had four.

6. Arizona State
LB Chris Young, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby

The skinny: Sutton is the big fish here, obviously. Linebacker is a question for the Sun Devils, who lost their top two tacklers. Young and Darby are returning starters, though, with Young ranking third in tackles and Darby second in interceptions in 2012.

7. Washington
LB John Timu, OLB Josh Shirley, CB Marcus Peters

The skinny: This is a solid but unspectacular trio, as none of the three were all-conference. But the Huskies defense, which was greatly improved in 2012, has a lot of production back. It's worth noting that defensive end Andrew Hudson tied Shirely for the team lead with 6.5 sacks, and linebacker Shaq Thompson also had three picks, like Peters.

8. Arizona
LB Jake Fischer, LB Marquis Flowers, CB Jonathan McKnight

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but they get marked down for the overall defensive numbers in 2012. Flowers, an underrated player, had 5.5 sacks and was tied with McKnight with three interceptions.

9. California
LB Nick Forbes, DE Chris McCain, S Michael Lowe

The skinny: Forbes averaged 7.1 tackles per game last year. McCain tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5, but don't be surprised if Todd Barr or Brennan Scarlett lead the pass rush. Lowe had three picks last year to tie for the team lead, but he's listed behind Alex Logan on the post-spring depth chart.

10. Washington State
S Deone Bucannon, OLB Logan Mayes, LB Cyrus Coen

The skinny: Bucannon is an A-list guy, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. He led the Cougars in tackles and interceptions, so we included Coen, who was second with three picks. The gigantic void is the pass rush, which lost four-year sack leader Travis Long.

11. Utah
LB/S Brian Blechen, DE Trevor Reilly, S Eric Rowe

The skinny: These are three solid players, but there's a lot of uncertainty on the Utes defense. The Utes lost their top two sack men and their top three cornerbacks. Blechen has bounced back and forth between linebacker and safety, and neither Reilly nor Rowe were able to top the depth chart at his position this spring without an "Or" beside him.

12. Colorado
LB Derrick Webb, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, CB Kenneth Crawley

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but we're listing the promising Crawley instead of the two guys who had a single pick last year. Uzo-Diribe is legit. He has 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including seven last year. Big issue here, however, is how terrible the Buffs defense was last year.

Stanford's Oregon problem

November, 16, 2012
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Stanford is 31-5 since the beginning of the 2010 season. The Cardinal have lost three games during that span by a combined 14 points, and two of those were in overtime.

And they lost the other two, both to Oregon, by a combined 44 points.

Stanford has an Oregon problem.

"I think the entire conference has an Oregon problem," Stanford coach David Shaw countered reasonably.

True that. Oregon is on track for its fourth consecutive outright Pac-12 title. As ESPN's Brad Edwards noted this week : "If [the Ducks] can win [the Pac-12 title game] again this season, they will join John McKay's USC teams from 1966 to 1969 as the only groups in the history of that conference to win four consecutive outright titles."

[+] EnlargeJosh Huff, Kenjon Barner
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireOpponents haven't been able to slow down the Ducks' potent offense for four quarters.
So Oregon is historically good.

And Stanford, though on a historically good run for its own program, has been Wile E. Coyote to Oregon's Road Runner.

Stanford (8-2) will get another chance to change that Saturday in Autzen Stadium, with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand. The stakes, just like the previous two seasons, are big. The winner takes control of the Pac-12 North Division. The Ducks, of course, need to win to remain in the national title chase.

Shaw didn't hold back praising Oregon (10-0) this week. It could be gamesmanship, but Shaw also seems to genuinely appreciate what coach Chip Kelly has built at Oregon. As Shaw said: "Great athletes, great scheme in all three phases."

"They know how to adjust those schemes based on what you are doing, which to me is the biggest key," he said. "You don't see them stopped for long. If you're doing something that is slowing them down, they are going to make a tweak and make you pay for it."

Well-put. That about sums up Oregon.

And yet ... what about Oregon's injury-riddled defense?

"It doesn't matter," Shaw said. "They put young guys in there, they put new guys in there, and those guys go out there and play great."

Maybe. But maybe not.

There are cracks in the Oregon facade, mostly because a number of front-line players on the Ducks' defense -- once a nationally elite unit -- are questionable or out for Saturday.

Safety Avery Patterson is out for the year with a knee injury. You might recall Oregon previously lost All-America safety John Boyett to a knee injury. Defensive tackle Wade Keliikipi also is almost certainly out with a leg injury.

Also banged up and of questionable health on the defense: DE/DT Taylor Hart (foot), DE/OLB Dion Jordan (shoulder), DT Isaac Remington (ankle) and NT Ricky Heimuli (knee). And backup cornerbacks Troy Hill and Dior Mathis didn't play last weekend against California, which is why word coming out of practice this week was that De'Anthony Thomas was taking reps on defense.

That's a lot of banged up high-quality players, particularly on the defensive line. The past two weeks, Oregon has had to rely on three true freshman D-linemen -- Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci -- often playing them at the same time.

While Stanford's offensive line is not what it was last year with David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, it still is an above-average unit, one that likes to go mano a mano in the trenches. It's certainly much better than the Cal unit that did a fairly good job against the Ducks last weekend.

So the Cardinal may be able to control the football with Stepfan Taylor running the ball, though you can expect Ducks "Stop the Run First" defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to dare Stanford to throw the ball with redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is making his first road start.

But the bigger issue, as usual, is slowing the Ducks' explosive offense, which has gashed Stanford the past two years with big plays -- seven TD plays of 25 or more yards, not including a 40-yard pick-six last season.

Stanford has the nation's No. 1 run defense, but few teams run the ball as well as Oregon. And Ducks redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota leads the nation in passing efficiency.

Oregon, particularly playing at home, seems fully capable of outscoring Stanford if the Ducks' defense is having a bad day. A few teams have been able to slow the Ducks for a quarter here or a quarter there. But even then -- boom! -- things go haywire. Stanford has experienced that itself. Twice in the past two years, in fact.

The question then becomes simple for Stanford: Can it somehow make Mariota and the Oregon offense have a bad day for four quarters?

It's the Oregon problem, and it's not easy to solve.

Instant analysis: Oregon 51, WSU 26

September, 30, 2012
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SEATTLE -- After a wacky week of football at CenturyLink Field, it looked like the Washington State Cougars might make things interesting against No. 2 Oregon. Then came the second half and ultimately another Oregon blowout, 51-26. Here's how it all went down Saturday night in Seattle.

It was over when: Oregon’s Avery Patterson jumped a Connor Halliday ball intended for Gabe Marks and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown with 7:20 left in the third quarter. The play put Oregon ahead 37-19 and sucked the life out of any WSU comeback.

Offensive game ball goes to: Kenjon Barner carried 20 times for 195 yards and three touchdowns. He had scoring runs of 22, 10 and 80 yards. He also caught three passes for 37 yards and another score.

Defensive game ball goes to: Oregon’s Taylor Hart came up huge with a pair of big sacks in the first half when the issue was still in question. He finished with four tackles, three of them solo. As a unit, Oregon's defense registered seven sacks.

Stat of the game: 18 -- The Ducks opened the third-quarter with an 18-play drive that spanned 76 yards and ate up 6 minutes, 21 seconds of clock, ending with a 4-yard De'Anthony Thomas run. Very un-Oregon, but it was the kind of drive that was needed to deflate an excitable Cougars squad coming out of the locker room. It was Oregon's longest drive (by number of plays) since a 19-play drive last season against LSU.

What it means for Oregon: The Ducks could use a bit of adversity after coasting through their first four games. They responded admirably -- on both sides of the ball -- in the second half. A hungry Washington team visits next Saturday.

What it means for Washington State: The Cougars did better than a lot of other teams have done in 30 minutes against the Ducks. But ultimately youth, and pass-protection issues, doomed them in the second half. Still much work to be done.
USC might be No. 1 in the College Football Live spring Top 25 rankings. But it's No. 4 Oregon that has the best chance to knock the SEC off its six-ringed mountain. So says ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, who laid out three reasons (all extremely sound and logical) why Oregon is actually the team to beat Insider in the Pac-12 this season.

Here's a minor re-hash of his three points.
Regarding the quarterback situation: Cam Newton and AJ McCarron won BCS titles the past two seasons as first-year starters under center. McCarron filled the role of game manager, while the Heisman Trophy-winning Newton was the ultimate game-breaker. For Oregon in 2012, either redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota or sophomore Bryan Bennett will be under center as a first-year starter, a point that isn't lost on coach Chip Kelly, but also one that doesn't scare him, either.
The Ducks have an SEC-worthy defensive front: "Yeah, our group thinks they could be [on that level]," Kelly said. "We have some size with Wade Keliikipi [6-foot-3, 300 pounds] and Ricky Heimuli [6-4, 321] that will match some of those guys. Football starts up front. We've learned that in our battles with LSU and Auburn. I really think our defensive line will be the strength of this football team."

Throw in returning first-team all-conference defensive end Dion Jordan (6-7, 245), lengthy and productive redshirt junior Taylor Hart (6-6, 289) and four-star recruit Arik Armstead (6-8, 297) and it becomes clear as to why the normally reserved Kelly gets so excited about his team's prospects up front.
The schedule favors the Ducks: The only road trip in the first six weeks is to face the Washington State Cougars, and not even in Pullman, but rather at Century Link Field in Seattle where the Green and Gold could very well equal the Crimson and Grey in the stands. The easy early slate will provide a soft landing for Oregon's first-year QB.

This will obviously be a major point of contention for both USC and Oregon fans, assuming both teams do as expected, until Nov. 3 rolls around. [Utah fans, feel free to jump in on this until Oct. 4 -- and beyond if your team can top the Trojans at home]. Still, it doesn't mean we can't stoke the fires a little early.
Dion Jordan is flattered, but ultimately unmoved by comparisons. Oregon's defensive end has heard most of them -- Jevon Kearse, Terrell Suggs, Dwight Freeney, to name a few. Not exactly shoddy company, mind you.

"I think it's cool and I've been compared to a few of those guys in the past," Jordan said. "But I want to bring my own game to the table. I've watched those guys in the film room. I've studied the great pass-rushers and outside linebackers that drop into coverage. I want to get as much as I can out of them and then roll that into my own game."

And if all goes according to plan, Jordan's game in 2012 will be to create chaos.

Jordan, a returning first-team all-conference defensive end last season, was one of the most disruptive players in the Pac-12, finishing fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks. There's no reason to believe he isn't poised for equal or better numbers in his senior season. Nor is it out of the realm of possibility to consider him a legitimate candidate for conference defensive player of the year.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAt 6-foot-7, Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan is focused more on getting stronger than adding to his 245 pounds.
"First, I've got to finish up school, graduate and become a better leader for my teammates on the field," said Jordan, who totaled 13 tackles for a loss last year. "My main goal is to get after the quarterback more so I can increase those stats. That will help me and my team a lot. If I can get my hands on the ball, I believe I can get in the end zone one or two times."

Spoken like a true offensive player at heart. Coming out of Chandler, Ariz., as a 6-foot-6, 215-pound receiver/tight end hybrid, he never imagined himself on the defensive side of the ball -- or on the line, for that matter. But he's grown an inch since arriving in Eugene and is playing at about 245 pounds now -- a proportion he's happy with.

"I can definitely add more weight, but my real goal is to get stronger," he said. "Last year I played at about 240, but if I gain too much, I won't be as effective with my feet. I gotta get stronger. More time in the weight room, take care of my body and stay healthy. That's all that matters right now."

He's being touted early on as one of the top 20 players in the 2013 NFL draft -- something that's crossed his mind, but it's not on his mind. Like all good team leaders, he's got his attention focused on the first game of the season.

"When the season starts, everyone has the same record," Jordan said. "You really can't buy into the hype. All you can do is prepare and come out ready to play. Coach [Chip] Kelly makes sure we're prepared every week to compete against anybody we play. And we feel like if we prepare good enough, we can compete with anybody in the nation."

All of the ingredients are in place. Jordan plays on a high-profile team that's going to win a lot of games and is expected to be in the national championship hunt. And according to defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, he could be Oregon's best defensive player. Kelly is equally thrilled with Jordan's progress.

"I'm really excited about Dion," Kelly said. "He's really come into a leadership role this spring and he's emerged as one of the top players in our conference."

And he's one of the top players on a defense that is loaded with talent. With playmakers like Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso, Taylor Hart and John Boyett -- to name a few -- the Ducks defense looks poised to again be one of the best in the conference.

"It's not about one or two guys standing out," Jordan said. "I honestly think we all do a good job complementing each other in our own way. We work hard. If you look at previous games, not everybody is going to play their best game every week. We do a good job picking each other up."

Ducks-Huskies: Nameless, faceless foes?

November, 3, 2011
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We've got bad news. College football rivalries aren't really about the emotional roller coaster, the good guys versus bad guys of a Hollywood movie. Their fundamental essence is far more akin to those self-help books you see stacked high on the deeply discounted table at your corner bookstore.

While Oregon and Washington fans have spent a lot of time this week painting each other as inferior, uglier, stupider and enemies of all that is right and good, the Huskies' and Ducks' locker rooms have been talking about focusing on "things they can control" and about the "importance of preparation" and about "winning the day."

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
Steven Bisig/US PresswireWashington's Chris Polk remains friends with Oregon's LaMichael James despite the teams' rivalry.
Rivalry talk? It's for fans, not players.

"That stuff is so cool when you are on the outside," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That's why I love this sport. But from the inside, the rivalry is not going to make us play better. It's our preparation."

On Monday, some Oregon fans probably will make up stories about being spit on in Husky Stadium, just like some Huskies fans probably made up stories about being spit on at Autzen Stadium in the past, as if spitting on people is more accepted as proper behavior in Seattle/Portland than in Portland/Seattle.

And Huskies running back Chris Polk will still be from California and Ducks running back LaMichael James will still be from Texas and they will continue to like each other, because the different colors of their jerseys don't hide the fact they have a lot in common.

"He's a real cool person," Polk said. "It just so happens that he's a Duck and I'm a Huskie. I consider him a friend. I respect him as a player and a person."

Further, the bitter hate of this rivalry among fans apparently can be weened out of a young man if he should ever become a player in the game, either via coaching hypnosis, a magic ray beam set up in the locker room, or an untruth serum provided by a sports information department deeply paranoid about players saying anything inflammatory about the rivalry.

For example, Oregon defensive tackle Taylor Hart, a graduate of Tualatin (Ore.) High School, has this in his official bio: "Notable: Father is a UO graduate. Attended first Oregon game (against USC) when he was eight years old."

When asked about this, Hart acts as if he has little memory of it, other than admitting that, yes, he did root for Oregon growing up.

Asked if this game is special for him, he said: "We've been going into every game as the Ducks Super Bowl and that's worked for us. I feel like that's how we're going into this game."

Asked how his father, Doug, might feel about this game, Hart said: "I don't know how he feels."

Hmm.

This, of course, can be attributed to Ducks coach Chip Kelly's well-known mind-control techniques. While Kelly admits that he frequently hears from Ducks fans about their dislike of the Huskies -- "They bring it up. It's relevant to them," he said -- he also coaches by the mantra of playing a "nameless, faceless opponent" each week, and that each game is the equivalent of a "Super Bowl."

If you wish to mock this approach, please note that Kelly is 29-5 as the Ducks' head coach and is 22-1 in conference play.

"We don't get caught up in the 1923 game," Kelly said. "Or what happened in the '89 game or the '96 game. None of us were here. The only thing we can worry about is what we have an effect on. What we have an effect on is the game we're playing on Saturday."

By the way, the Huskies won 26-7 in 1923, 20-14 in 1989 and 33-14 in 1996. They, however, have lost seven in a row in the rivalry, each defeat by at least 20 points.

This "just another game" talk might feel like raining on a parade, but at least Ducks and Huskies are pretty good at handling rain.

Further, when taken as an observable social trend, this represents an interesting shift in thinking. Recall that some coaches celebrate rivalries and talk specifically about how rivalry games are more important than others. Jim Tressel was immediately embraced by Ohio State fans when he started trash talking Michigan before he'd even coached in the game.

And it wasn't too long ago that then-Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel and then-Ducks coach Mike Bellotti were trading barbs in the newspapers, players were openly taunting each other and Oregon players were wearing T-shirts that said, er, "Huck the Fuskies."

Now, instead, it's fairly clear that Sarkisian and Kelly like each other, at least as well as coaches in the same conference can.

"I think the world of Chip," Sarkisian said. "We've got a very good relationship. I probably communicate with Chip as much as any other coach in our conference in season or out of season."

Finally, the "nameless, faceless opponent" mantra makes sense. Shouldn't a team try to practice and play at its highest level every week? The whole "110 percent" cliche is mathematically impossible, after all, but giving just, say, 80 percent in practice and competition is something any coach or athlete would condemn. And the emotions of "We really hate these guys" can only last a few plays before the football part of football becomes most important: blocking, tackling, executing.

"I don't think you have the time or the energy to get up for one game more than another," Sarkisian said. "The preparation process is really more about us than about Oregon, and our ability to go out and play the best brand of football that we can."

Still, there is something there. Just as Kelly and Sarkisian admit that boosters frequently bring up the rivalry, Polk said he hears about Oregon "just about every day." Being that this is the last game in Husky Stadium before a massive renovation begins, and that former Huskies coach Don James and the 1991 national championship team will be on hand, there's an unmistakable gravitas to the approach of Saturday night.

Oh, and there's that whole Pac-12 North and Rose Bowl thing, too. Both teams have designs on those, the Ducks for a third consecutive time, the Huskies as a sign of program recovery from an extended downturn.

So the cumulative effect will be a game atmosphere that should feel more intense than, say, if either team were squaring off with Missouri State or Eastern Washington.

"There's definitely a sense of urgency," Polk said. "Win or lose, the most important thing is respect. Being that we've not really played our best game the last few times we've played them, and they kind of got in to us, we don't feel like they really respect us. They whole thing this weekend is to go out there and earn respect."

And the notion of earning respect works both as a self-help truism and as an us-vs-them cinematic plot point.
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.

What to watch in the Pac-10 this spring

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

Arizona
Spring practice starts: March 5
Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

The new coordinators: The Wildcats lost two outstanding coordinators -- Sonny Dykes on offense and Mark Stoops on defense -- and decided to replace them with four guys. Tim Kish, promoted from linebackers coach, and Greg Brown, hired away from Colorado, will run the defense, while Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell, both promoted from within, will run the offense, with an assist from new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo. These guys will need to develop a coaching rhythm this spring that will ensure things go smoothly in the fall.

The JC linebackers: The Wildcats must replace three starting linebackers, and JC transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo weren't brought in to watch. If they step into starting spots, then guys like sophomore Jake Fischer, redshirt freshman Trevor Erno and redshirt freshman Cordarius Golston can fight over the third spot and add depth.

Foles 2.0: Quarterback Nick Foles was dynamic when he was on last year, but the shutout loss in the Holiday Bowl served as a reminder that he's not there yet. He's going to be surrounded by a lot of weapons at the skill positions, so he should be able to take another step forward this spring, even with the loss of Dykes.

Arizona State
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

The QB battle: It's a wide-open battle between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler, though the new guy -- Threet -- is perhaps the most intriguing. Samson Szakacsy was supposed to join the battle, but his elbow problem is acting up again, coach Dennis Erickson said Thursday. The competition will be overseen by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who's been handed an offense that has sputtered the past two seasons.

O-line issues (take 3): The Sun Devils' offensive line has struggled three years running, and it won't matter who starts at QB if the unit continues to get pushed around. First off is health. Will Matt Hustad, Zach Schlink, Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz and Adam Tello be ready to battle the entire spring? If so, there should be good competition here, particularly with a couple of JC transfers looking to break through.

The secondary: The Sun Devils were very good against the pass last year, but three starters in the secondary need to be replaced. Both starting corners are gone -- though if Omar Bolden successfully returns from a knee injury he should step in on one side -- as well as strong safety Ryan McFoy. The good news is a number of guys saw action here last fall, so the rebuilt unit won't be completely green.

California
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: N/A

What to watch:

Embattled Riley: When things go well, the quarterback often gets too much credit. When things go badly... well, you know. Senior Kevin Riley has started 22 games and has played well at times. But there's a reason he's in a quarterback competition for a third consecutive season. Will he be able to hold off a rising Beau Sweeney this spring?

Rebuilding the D: The Bears had questions on defense even before coordinator Bob Gregory unexpectedly bolted for Boise State. Five starters need to be replaced, including mainstays like end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, both first-team All-Pac-10 performers. And with Gregory gone, a new, likely more aggressive scheme now must be incorporated.

RB depth: Shane Vereen is the obvious starter after the departure of Jahvid Best, but Cal has, during the Tedford years, always used two backs. So who's the No. 2? Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie was third on the team with 211 yards rushing last year, while promising freshman Dasarte Yarnway redshirted. One or the other will look to create separation.

Oregon
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

The D-line: The Ducks lost perennially underrated end Will Tukuafu, tackle Blake Ferras and backup Simi Toeaina up front. Considering the plan is to run an eight-deep rotation, there will be plenty of opportunities for players like ends Terrell Turner and Taylor Hart and tackles Anthony Anderson, Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi as well as 6-foot-7 JC transfer Isaac Remington to work their way into the rotation.

The passing game: The Ducks' passing game was inconsistent last year, though by season's end receiver Jeff Maehl was playing at a high level. Refining that part of the offense with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would make the spread-option even more dangerous. The receiving corps is looking for playmakers, which means youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Diante Jackson, might break through.

Who steps in for Ed Dickson? Oregon only loses one starter on offense, but tight end Ed Dickson is a big one. David Paulson was a capable backup last year, and mercurial Malachi Lewis may be ready to step up. Expect JC transfer Brandon Williams to work his way into the mix.

Oregon State
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

Katz steps in: Sean Canfield is off to the NFL, so the Beavers' biggest question this spring is crowning a new starting quarterback. Most observers feel the job is Ryan Katz's to lose, and the sophomore looks good throwing the rock around. Still, being a quarterback is about more than a good arm. If he falters, Virginia transfer Peter Lalich might offer an alternative.

Better defensive pressure: The Beavers run a high-pressure defensive scheme, so when the stat sheet says they only recorded 17 sacks in 2009, which ranked ninth in the conference and was 22 fewer than in 2008, you know something is wrong. The entire defensive line is back, so the hope is a year of seasoning, particularly for ends Gabe Miller, Matt LaGrone and Kevin Frahm will mean better production this fall.

The O-line grows up: The Beavers' offensive line returns four starters from a unit that got better as the year went on. Still, it yielded 29 sacks and the run game struggled at times -- Jacquizz Rodgers often had to make yards on his own. Talented left tackle Michael Philipp, who did a solid job as a true freshman starter, should be much improved. A second year playing together with underrated senior center Alex Linnenkohl also should help.

Stanford
Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

Replacing Toby: How do you replace Toby Gerhart and his 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns? You do not. But the hope is sophomores Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor and senior Jeremy Stewart will provide a solid answer that keeps the Cardinal's power-running game churning. It helps to have four starters back from a good offensive line.

Rebuilding the D: If you toss in linebacker Clinton Snyder and end Erik Lorig, Stanford must replace six defensive starters from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the conference in 2009. The secondary is a particular concern after giving up 23 touchdown passes and a 63 percent completion rate. The hope is good recruiting from coach Jim Harbaugh will provide better athleticism in the back-half. Another issue: There was huge coaching turnover, particularly on defense during the offseason, so new coordinator Vic Fangio & Co. will be implementing new schemes and learning about what sort of talent they have to work with.

Luck steps up: This was Gerhart's team in 2009. Now it's Luck's. He might be the most talented QB in the conference. Heck, he might become a Heisman Trophy candidate before he's done. But life won't be as easy without defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because they are fretting about Gerhart. Luck will need to step up his game -- and leadership -- to meet the challenge.

UCLA
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Prince becomes king? The fact that offensive coordinator Norm Chow has been such an advocate for sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince should tell you something: He's got the ability. Prince flashed some skills during an injury-plagued 2009 season, and it's important to remember he was a redshirt freshman playing with a questionable supporting cast, particularly the O-line. Prince needs to improve his decision-making, and the passing game needs to develop a big-play capability that stretches defenses.

Front seven rebuilding: UCLA not only must replace six starters on defense, it must replace six guys everyone in the Pac-10 has heard of. And five of the lost starters come from the front seven, and the guys who were listed as backups on the 2009 depth chart won't necessarily inspire confidence. In other words, the Bruins will try to take a step forward in the conference with what figures to be an extremely green defense, particularly up front.

The running game? Know what would help Prince and a young defense? A better running game. The Bruins were significantly better in 2009 than in 2008, but that merely means one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation moved up to ninth in the conference. There's a logjam of options at running back -- with a couple of dynamic runners in the incoming recruiting class -- and the offensive line welcomes back a wealth of experience. It would mean a lot if the Bruins could boost their rushing total to around 150 yards per game (from 114.6 in 2009).

USC
Spring practice starts: TBA
Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

Welcome, Lane Kiffin: The Pete Carroll era is over. Enter Lane Kiffin & Co. In terms of scheme, things will be fairly consistent, seeing that Kiffin was formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator and Monte Kiffin was Carroll's defensive mentor. But there will be a period of adjustment. The guess is the hyper-intense Ed Orgeron might provide a bit of a shock to the D-linemen.

Matt Barkley Year 2: Barkley won't have the president of his fan club -- Carroll -- around anymore. He's a true talent. Everyone knows that, even without Carroll's daily sonnets about his ability. But the numbers show he threw 14 interceptions in 12 games vs. 15 TD passes last year, so he's obviously not arrived. Kiffin runs the offense, so you can expect these two to work closely together. Barkley will have plenty of help on offense, but the talent won't be as good as it was in 2009, with six starters needing to be replaced, including his top two targets (receiver Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy).

Secondary questions: All four starters from the defensive backfield are gone, including center fielder Taylor Mays. It helps that cornerback Shareece Wright, an academic casualty in 2009, will be back. He was a projected starter last fall. There's plenty of talent on hand, but last year's team proved that the Trojans don't always just plug-and-play.

Washington
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:

Unleashing Locker: The return of quarterback Jake Locker was the best news any Pac-10 team received this offseason. Locker's passing improved dramatically in just one year under coach Steve Sarkisian, so it's not unreasonable to expect him to be even better in 2010, particularly with nine starters back on offense and just about every skill player on the depth chart.

Replacing Te'o-Nesheim: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was a four-year starter who blossomed into an All-Pac-10 performer despite almost no supporting cast. He led the Huskies with 11 sacks in 2009, which was 8.5 more than any other player. Also, opposite end Darrion Jones is gone, and the cast at the position is extremely young. Who's the next pass-rushing threat?

The Butler did it: Linebacker Donald Butler blossomed last year, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and leading the Huskies in tackles and tackles for loss (15.5). Toss in E.J. Savannah's failure to earn a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, and the Huskies have some questions at linebacker. Mason Foster is a sure thing at one outside position, and Cort Dennison likely will fill a second gap, but there's an opportunity for a young player to fill void No. 3.

Washington State
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Tuel time: Coach Paul Wulff decided that freshman Jeff Tuel was the Cougars' quarterback of the future last year, so he opted to start him instead of going with a redshirt season. Tuel showed promise in six games, completing 59 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five picks. Most of his supporting cast is back on offense, so the expectation is the Cougars' offense could take a significant step forward this fall.

O-line intrigue: Some of the Cougars starting on the offensive line last fall didn't look like Pac-10 players. Injuries and youth made the line a glaring area of weakness, even with veteran Kenny Alfred at center. Alfred is gone, but the expectations are that last year's youth will be saltier after taking their knocks. Plus, a couple of juco additions should be in the mix for starting jobs.

Growing up: There is hope in that 19 starters are back from a team that played a lot of underclassmen in 2009. That youth should mature in 2010. And solid recruiting classes the past two seasons should offer an infusion of young promise.

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