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Returning ball hawks in Pac-12

5/4/2011

With so many good quarterbacks returning in the Pac-12 in 2011, it's a good thing to have a ball hawk in the secondary who can at least challenge the swaggering passers.

After previously looking at top returning passers, rushers, tacklers and receivers, we move on to the returning players with the most interceptions.

Life won't be easy for the QBs, based on this list. Eight of the players who ranked in the top-10 of the conference in picks are back in 2011 -- cornerbacks James Dockery and Richard Sherman of Oregon State and Stanford are gone -- and Utah brings its own pass pilferer in Brian Blechen, though Blechen has moved from safety to LB.

Here's the list:

1. Cliff Harris, Jr., CB, Oregon (6 interceptions): Harris just missed getting his seventh interception in the BCS national title game -- it would have been his second of the game -- against Auburn. Harris also led the Pac-10 by breaking up 17 passes, five more than anyone else.

2. Delano Howell, Sr., S, Stanford (5): The biggest area of improvement for Stanford in 2010 was the secondary, which went from a decided weakness to a strength. Howell was a big reason why.

2. John Boyett, Jr., S, Oregon (5): Boyett, whose pick-six was a critical play in the Ducks win at Arizona State, makes a lot of plays in the Ducks secondary as well as bringing some toughness.

2. Nate Fellner, Jr., S, Washington (5): Not a guy who immediately comes to mind when you list the best defensive backs in the conference, but you can't argue with the number.

5. Nickell Robey, So, CB, USC, (4): If you are looking for a breakthrough player at cornerback for 2011, Robey is a good place to start. He got picked on early in the 2010 season. By the end, he was returning the favor. Hard worker.

5. Brian Blechen, So., S, Utah (4): Move to LB figures to limit his chances to pick off passes, but it also shows you how highly the Utes coaches think of him that they relocated their only returning player from the secondary.

7. Omar Bolden, Sr., CB, Arizona State (3): A unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 selection, Bolden blew out his knee this spring. It's possible he could return by midseason. That would be a significant boost to the Sun Devils.

7. T.J. McDonald, Jr., S, USC (3): Should blossom into one of the best safeties in the country this year. Second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.

7. Aaron Hester, Jr., CB, UCLA (3): Hester, while talented, spent some time in the dog house last year. It's one thing to grab an interception, but there's an equal-and-opposite reaction when you get beaten deep or to commit a big pass interference penalty.