<
>

What to watch in the Pac-10 this spring

2/18/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Hope springs eternal this time of the year, when every team has questions but is absolutely certain it will find answers.

The Pac-10 enters spring practices with nearly across-the-board uncertainty at quarterback -- only Oregon and Washington have a definitive starter -- and lots of issues worth reviewing.

Arizona Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game
: April 4

What to watch:

  • For the first time in 3 1/2 seasons, the Wildcats will have a new quarterback, and the competition to replace Willie Tuitama will be wide open. It appears that sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles, a Michigan State transfer, will begin ahead of sophomore Bryson Beirne. Scott and Foles both have good arms. Scott is more athletic, while Foles is a prototypical 6-foot-5, 230-pound drop-back passer.

  • The offensive line needs to replace three starters, including left tackle Eben Britton, who bolted for the NFL draft a year early. Center Blake Kerley will sit out spring, meaning Colin Baxter will continue at that position instead of guard. Guard Mike Diaz and right tackle Adam Grant are both experienced, and there are some promising young players ready to step up, but developing cohesion will be the critical element.

  • The Wildcats' no-name defense was surprisingly stout in 2008, and players like cornerback Devin Ross, tackle Earl Mitchell and end Brooks Reed will give the unit a less under-the-radar feel in 2009. Still, four holes need to be filled -- two at linebacker, two in the secondary. Robert Golden and Corey Hall appear poised to step into the secondary vacancies, but the competition at linebacker should be interesting, particularly filling Ronnie Palmer's spot in the middle.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game
: April 18

What to watch:

  • The Rudy Carpenter era is over, and more than a few folks around the program believe the offense is plenty ready for a fresh start. The most obvious guy to step in is rising senior Danny Sullivan, who has patiently waited his turn but isn't terribly athletic. Sophomores Samson Szakacsy and Chasen Stangel and redshirt freshman Jack Elway likely will yield nothing. Moreover, Brock Osweiler, a 6-foot-8, big-armed, athletic true freshman out of Kalispell, Mont., who has already enrolled, has raised more than a few eyebrows.

  • After two years in the dumps, the offensive line has to get better. It certainly will be more experienced, with just about everybody listed on the 2008 depth chart back other than guard Paul Fanaika. Moreover, the return of sophomore Matt Hustad, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, should bolster the unit, though he will be limited this spring. Senior Shawn Lauvao will move from guard to left tackle, tackle Jon Hargis could move inside and other position moves are expected. The development of sophomore center Garth Gerhart, Stanford's star running back Toby Gerhart's brother, will be key.

  • Three starters must be replaced on defense, but the return of middle linebacker Gerald Munns, a former starter who left the team last year for personal reasons, and good depth at end mean that the lone glaring hole is the vacancy at free safety left by Troy Nolan. The competition will include Jarrell Holman, Clint Floyd, Ryan McFoy, Keeland Johnson, Max Tabach and freshman Matt Tucker, who's already enrolled. If the Sun Devils adequately fill that void, this could end up one of the top three defenses in the conference.

California Golden Bears

Spring practice starts: March 10
Spring game
: April 18

What to watch:

  • The passing game needs to rediscover itself after an anemic effort in 2008. At quarterback, junior Kevin Riley started nine games last year, but he's going to have to prove himself again because of his inconsistency. He figures to get a strong challenge from sophomore Brock Mansion. Moreover, a pecking order needs to establish itself at receiver. The unit was green last year but that won't be an excuse this spring. If the veterans don't step up, there are some talented youngsters waiting in the wings.

  • The defense is strong up front and in the back half, but there are three vacancies at linebacker, which is a critical issue in a linebacker-heavy 3-4 scheme. Senior Eddie Young figures to slide into one spot, while Devin Bishop, D.J. Holt and Charles Johnson should step up from their backup roles in 2008.

  • The offensive line needs to replace two starters -- most critically center Alex Mack -- but the benefit of 2008's injury woes is that six other returning players started at least one game, and that doesn't include tackle Mike Tepper, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of last season. So the competition should be intense. Moreover, the crew will be working under a new offensive line coach, Steve Marshall, after the departure of mainstay Jim Michalczik.

Oregon Ducks

Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game
: May 2

What to watch:

  • With just four returning starters, the defense needs to be rebuilt, and the first order of business is the defensive line. The only returning starter is end Will Tukuafu. Brandon Bair probably is the favorite to start opposite Tukuafu, while Tonio Celotto and Blake Ferras will get the first look at tackle. Three JC signees should immediately get into the mix.

  • On the one hand, the offensive line lost four starters, including potential first-round NFL draft pick Max Unger. On the other, it welcomes back four guys with starting experience: Bo Thran, Jordan Holmes, Mark Asper and C.E. Kaiser. The big question is putting all the pieces together and developing continuity. As much as Ducks fans look forward to what quarterback Jeremiah Masoli might do in Year 2 under Chip Kelly, a lot of that depends on the offensive line.

  • As spectacular as th
    e running game was last year, the passing game was inconsistent. Masoli improved as a passer as the year went on, but for that part of the Ducks' spread-option offense to improve in 2009, they will need some help at receiver, particularly with the departure of two of the Ducks' top three receivers, who also happened to be their two best downfield threats: Terence Scott and Jaison Williams. While there's some experience here -- Jeff Maehl and Aaron Pflugrad -- neither stretches a defense. Will that role fall to mercurial USC transfer Jamere Holland or perhaps Drew Davis? Or will it be one of the incoming receivers, such as Diante Jackson?

Oregon State Beavers

Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game
: May 2

What to watch:

  • The secondary must be completely rebuilt -- all four 2008 starters are gone. Tim Clark has started six games in his career, and James Dockery, who missed last season with a knee injury, look like solid replacements at the corners, but there might be opportunities for young players to step in. Also, while replacing a pair of hard-nosed safeties is a concern, sophomores Lance Mitchell and Cameron Collins will be more athletic and should be more capable in pass coverage.

  • The top two receivers, Sammie Stroughter and Shane Morales, must be replaced, and those two totaled nearly 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns, so that won't be easy. Scatback James Rodgers might see more passes, and hopes are high that redshirt freshman Jordan Bishop will make a push after looking good during Sun Bowl practices.

  • Defensive ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris both are gone and their 40 tackles for a loss and 22 sacks left with them. Kevin Frahm and Ben Terry, who both saw action last season, will get the first opportunity to win the starting jobs, but this is another opportunity area for a youngster to make a statement.

Stanford Cardinal

Spring practice starts: Feb. 25 and April 1 (two sessions)
Spring game
: April 13

What to watch:

  • Stanford has a lot of guys back on both sides of the ball, but that doesn't mean every returning starter will win his spot back in 2009, starting with quarterback Tavita Pritchard. The Cardinal ranked ninth in the conference in passing offense last season, and that has to get better, which is why touted redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is expected to challenge Pritchard for the starting job.

  • The Cardinal couldn't pass and it couldn't defend the pass last year, which means the secondary needs to improve. Stanford ranked ninth in the conference in pass defense last season in large part because the secondary couldn't cover well enough. That means the defensive staff is looking for underclassmen who can add athleticism to the unit.

  • Running back Toby Gerhart will be playing baseball during the spring, and 2008 backup Anthony Kimble graduated. That means the Cardinal is looking to establish some depth at running back. That search also could prove more important if Gerhart goes high in the Major League Baseball draft and opts to take the money and run. Of course, help is coming this fall after the Cardinal signed three running backs in their recruiting class.

UCLA Bruins

Spring practice starts: April 2
Spring game
: April 25

What to watch:

  • Is Kevin Craft, who hurled a school-record 20 interceptions last year, the quarterback? Perhaps a year in Norm Chow's system -- and an offseason to decompress -- will help Craft regain his mojo, but, if not, redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, sophomore Chris Forcier, who saw spot duty in 2008, and touted incoming freshman Richard Brehaut, who will participate in spring practices, will get a shot to unseat him. The Bruins just hope they won't get a repeat of last spring, when their top two quarterbacks -- Pat Cowan and Ben Olson -- went down to season-killing injuries.

  • While the recruiting class included a pair of marquee offensive linemen, coaches are probably hoping they can find answers for the beleaguered offensive front with the talent on hand. Two potential starters, however, guard Darius Savage (ankle) and tackle Mike Harris (foot) will miss spring practices. With that in mind, it will be mostly mix and match, with Sean Sheller returning from a knee injury that ended his 2008 season before it began getting a look at left tackle, while Nate Chandler will step in on the right side. Colorado transfer Kai Maiava will compete with Jake Dean at center, while Jeff Baca will move inside from tackle to guard. Micah Kia, Nick Ekbatani, JC transfer Ryan Young, juniors Sonny Tevaga and Brandon Bennett are also in the mix.

  • Senior cornerback Alterraun Verner and sophomore free safety Rahim Moore will lead a secondary that figures to get some help from the incoming recruiting class. That means players on hand this spring better make a statement quickly. In the mix at safety are Aaron Ware, Glenn Love, Tony Dye and E.J. Woods, while Courtney Viney and Aaron Hester are competing for the spot opposite Verner.

USC Trojans

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game
: April 25

What to watch:

  • Who's going to replace quarterback Mark Sanchez? The competition will start with Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain, who have experience in the offense, but if they don't rise to the occasion touted true freshman Matt Barkley, who will participate in spring practices, could jump to the fore.

  • While
    the secondary returns nearly intact, six members of the fearsome 2008 front seven need to be replaced. There's plenty of talent on hand. At linebacker, Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan -- No. 2 on the depth chart last fall -- will faces strong challenges, while sophomore defensive linemen Jurrell Casey, Armond Armstead, Malik Jackson and Wes Horton will be in the mix with more experienced players, such as Christian Tupou, Averell Spicer and Everson Griffen. But it's not just about talent: it's about learning the system and working as a unit.

  • USC lost both coordinators to Washington, and that ensuing coaching upheaval means that the new assistants will be figuring things out nearly as much as the players. New faces include Jeremy Bates (quarterbacks), Jethro Franklin (defensive line), who's previously coached at USC, and special teams coach Brian Schneider.

Washington Huskies

Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game
: April 25

What to watch:

  • Quarterback Jake Locker is the Huskies' best player and the team's heart and soul. He'll be learning a new, pro-style offense this spring that will de-emphasize his running skills and require him to improve his mediocre accuracy. How quickly and completely he learns, buys into and gains a comfort level with new coach Steve Sarkisian's offense will be critical.

  • Getting to know -- and mix-and-match -- the existing personnel will be a priority for Sarkisian and his new coaches. The Huskies return a lot of players, but those players went 0-12 last year. That means seeing players with new eyes and potentially switching them from their existing positions to get the best fit for the new schemes.

  • The biggest personnel question is punter and kicker, but at the end of spring the most important thing will be renewing the confidence, fire and focus of a football team that only went through the motions under Tyrone Willingham. That might mean cutting loose some players who won't pick up the pace in offseason conditioning -- the Huskies have been considered a poorly conditioned team in recent years. That also means building a sense of team and laying the groundwork to rebuild the program's sagging confidence. That's a long-term project, but it must start during spring practices.

Washington State Cougars

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game
: April 25

What to watch:

  • Bigger, stronger and faster. And tougher: Those are the chief priorities of a football team that was physically overmatched in nearly every game it played in 2008. While spring practices will be about figuring out the personnel and teaching X's and O's, the Cougars won't get any better unless they become a better conditioned football team.

  • While there are plenty of returning starters, newcomers participating in spring drills and guys who sat out last year for various reasons -- redshirts, transfers, injuries, etc. -- will get close looks. On top of that list are a pair of California transfers who could finish spring atop the depth chart: Running back James Montgomery and cornerback Brandon Jones. Receiver Johnny Forzani, defensive tackles Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo, defensive ends Jesse Feagin and Jessy Sanchez and a handful of offensive linemen also fall into this category.

  • The passing offense merits particularly attention. Receiver Brandon Gibson is gone. Marshall Lobbestael, the frontrunner to start at quarterback, won't be able to participate in most drills because he's still recovering from a serious knee injury. Still, the Pac-10's worst passing offense must lay the groundwork to improve during spring. That means the players better understanding coach Paul Wulff's scheme in Year 2. That means cultivating some depth at receiver. That means getting good looks at quarterbacks Kevin Lopina and J.T. Levenseller. That means developing pass-blocking continuity on the O-line.