Cover two? Checking in with the Pac-10 safeties

March, 5, 2009
3/05/09
6:55
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Safeties are the last resort. They help on run support. A big-hitting safety can make a receiving corps wilt.

The Pac-10 was strong at safety last year: USC's Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison, Oregon's Patrick Chung and T.J. Ward, Arizona State's Troy Nolan, Arizona's Cam Nelson, UCLA's Rahim Moore and Oregon State's Greg Laybourn and Al Afalava.

Of that group, only Mays -- a huge surprise -- Ward, Nelson and Moore are back.

So where does everyone stand?

Great shape

  • USC: Mays is a certain consensus preseason All-American and a certain first-round NFL draft choice. He might be the best all-around athlete in college football. Will Harris started the final six games last year and played well while Ellison was hurt.
  • California: All four safeties on Cal's two-deep depth chart are back. None of them made all-conference honors, but the Bears' pass defense ranked second in the conference and intercepted twice as many passes (24) as TD throws (12) it gave up.

Good shape

  • Arizona: The Wildcats might be in great shape here if sophomore Robert Golden's move to strong safety from cornerback works out. Junior Cam Nelson was third on the team last year with 67 tackles.
  • Stanford: Strong safety Bo McNally, with his 24 consecutive starts, leads an experienced crew -- Sean Wiser and Taylor Skaufel both started games last year at free safety. But the Cardinal pass defense wasn't very good, which is a problem.
  • Oregon: It's hard to replace a guy like rover Patrick Chung, but the big-hitting Ward -- a free safety in 2008 -- is a good start. Stepping in for Ward figures to be sophomore Javes Lewis.
  • UCLA: Strong safety Bret Lockett is the only loss among the six names on the depth chart at the end of the 2008 season. Moore looked like a budding star at free safety at times last year. A name to look out for is redshirt freshman E.J. Woods, who could jump some folks on the depth chart this spring. 
  • Washington State: Free safety Xavier Hicks, tied for fourth in the Pac-10 with 7.8 tackles per game in 2008, is back. Strong safety Alfonso Jackson is gone, but Chima Nwachukwu started seven games last year. Among the issues facing the Cougars, safety is down the line. 

We'll see

  • Arizona State: Starters Troy Nolan and Rodney Cox are gone. There's plenty of young talent ready to step up, but it is unproven. 
  • Oregon State: Two highly productive starters are gone, but the Beavers actually might be better at the position in 2009, or at least more athletic, with Suaesi Tuimaunei and Lance Mitchell stepping in.
  • Washington: Nate Williams earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors last year, but it's wide open who will start beside him. Recall that the Huskies gave up 24 touchdown passes and allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes last year.

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