Pac-12: Brandon Rankin

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.

Pac-12 NFL prospects in 2012?

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is over, which means it's time to look at who the Pac-12's top senior prospects in 2012 likely will be.

First of all, plenty of top non-seniors from the conference might -- or are likely to -- enter the draft, including Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oregon RB LaMichael James, Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict and USC QB Matt Barkley. Those four range from sure to likely first-round draft picks.

But this list includes only players in their final year of eligibility. And some might rate a bit of a reach as NFL prospects.

Arizona: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, CB Trevin Wade

Arizona State: CB Omar Bolden, DE James Brooks, C Garth Gerhart

California: S Sean Cattouse, TE Anthony Miller, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, OT Mitchell Schwartz, P Bryan Anger

Colorado: OG Ryan Miller, RB Rodney Stewart, DT Conrad Obi, TE Ryan Deehan

Oregon: TE David Paulson, SS Eddie Pleasant, OT Mark Asper, LB Josh Kaddu

Oregon State: S Lance Mitchell, WR James Rodgers, FB-TE Joe Halahuni

Stanford: WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleenor, S Delano Howell

UCLA: S Tony Dye, FB Derrick Coleman, TE Cory Harkey

USC: LB Chris Galippo, DE Armond Armstead, TE Rhett Ellison, RB Marc Tyler

Utah: OT Tony Bergstrom, LB Chaz Walker, OT John Cullen

Washington: DT Alameda Ta'amu, WR Jermaine Kearse, OT Senio Kelemete, K Erik Folk

Washington State: DT Brandon Rankin, OG B.J. Guerra, WR Jared Karstetter

Changes on WSU depth chart

April, 28, 2011
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Washington State has released its post-spring depth chart -- link here -- and there are a number of changes from the pre-spring depth chart worthy of note.
  • Offensive linemen John Fullington and Wade Jacobson switched starting spots, with Fullington moving from right tackle to left guard and Jacobson replacing him at right tackle. Also on the offensive line, Rico Forbes moves from backup left tackle to backup right tackle.
  • Andrei Lintz is No. 1 at tight end after Skylar Stormo moved from No. 1 tight end to backup defensive end behind Travis Long.
  • Redshirt freshman Connor Halliday is now the No. 3 quarterback after starting spring at No. 4.
  • Ricky Galvin is listed at backup running back behind Logwone Mitz.
  • Toni Pole has move from No. 3 to starting left defensive tackle. Anthony Laurenzi is No. 1 at right defensive tackle, ahead of Brandon Rankin, who sat out spring due to injury.
  • Mike Ledgerwood is now No. 1 at middle linebacker, ahead of C.J. Mizell, who started spring at No. 1.
  • Damante Horton is No. 1 at one cornerback ahead of senior Aire Justin, a returning starter, though there might be a complicated explanation for that.

What jumps out of this depth chart? There's way more "maybe" here than in the previous three seasons under coach Paul Wulff.

For one, all five offensive linemen have starting experience and four are seniors. That's typically a good thing.

The Cougars have six receivers who can play, topped by Marquess Wilson, and a veteran quarterback in three-year starter Jeff Tuel. Another good thing.

The defensive depth chart is just that: There's some depth. There's far less "Who?" when reviewing the two-deep. Officially, eight starters are back, but there's plenty of playing experience. Big question will be if JC transfer Ian Knight, No. 1 at right defensive end, is ready for the grind of a Pac-12 schedule.

Does the cumulative effect of this mean the Cougars are a threat in the Pac-12 North? Probably not. But this is a roster that can compete and perhaps win a handful of games in the Pac-12.

Maybe.

Spring concludes: Washington State

April, 15, 2011
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Spring game: Saturday at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT in Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash. Admission is free

What happened this spring: The offense dominated the first scrimmage, the defense the second. The general feeling coming out of Pullman was improvement on both sides of the ball. While defensive tackle Toni Pole hurt his knee -- severity unclear -- during the final practice, the Cougars mostly stayed healthy, and that's critical for a team that appears ready to rise out of the conference cellar in 2011. QB Jeff Tuel and receiver Marquess Wilson lead a high-quality passing game, while Rickey Galvin offers some explosiveness at running back. Backup QB Marshall Lobbestael turned in a solid spring -- having an experienced, quality backup is a nice luxury to have.

What's ahead: While every team has optimism coming out of spring practice, Washington State's positive feelings have a firmer foundation than at any time during the Paul Wulff era (in 2008 and 2009, the talent void was even something a layman could see while watching practice). Still, both lines will be questions until they prove themselves. The Cougs must be able to run and stop the run in 2011 if they hope to climb in the highly competitive Pac-12 North. Special teams also are a work in progress. Further, the youngsters who will be asked to contribute next fall need big offseasons in the weight room. Finally, there's a lot of talk about better leadership. The proof of that will be a productive offseason that includes no off-field issues.

Spring stars: The defensive line showed up despite the absences of three key players due to injury: Travis Long, Jordan Pu’u-Robinson and Brandon Rankin. Tackle Anthony Laurenzi stepped up, and JC transfers Steven Hoffart and Ian Knight look like they could contribute at tackle and end, respectively. Linebackers Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Mike Ledgerwood had good springs, while the talented but mercurial C.J. Mizell languished a bit. Galvin and redshirt freshman receiver Kristoff Williams sparked the offense.

Cougars see reason for hope at start of spring

March, 7, 2011
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A quick glance at the Washington State depth chart yields something it hasn't over the previous three years. A "maybe."

Paul Wulff probably needs a bowl game to coach into his fifth season, which means he needs to exceed in 2011 the five total wins he's produced in the previous three. But that stark thought ends with that surprising "maybe."

Wulff talks about how winning teams need talent, experience, leadership and chemistry, and -- for the first time -- he sees it with his Cougars.

"As those things start to grow and age -- like a fine wine -- your team is going to start winning football games," he said. "I think this team is going to win football games and I think we can compete for a bowl game, without question... I think we are going to surprise a lot of people."

Where's the hope for a team that went 2-10 in 2010? Consider:
  • Junior quarterback Jeff Tuel heads into his third year as a starter with one of the more experienced and talented receiving units in the Pac-12.
  • While the offense officially must replace four starters, there's experience up and down the depth chart.
  • Washington State has had one All-Pac-10 player over the past three years (center Kenny Alfred, second team in 2009). They have a number of candidates in 2011: Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, guard B.J. Guerra, tackle John Fullington, defensive end Travis Long and strong safety Deone "D-I" Bucannon.

The big question for the Cougars is the trenches: Both groups of linemen struggled last year. WSU couldn't run or stop the run, and the offensive line yielded 51 sacks, second most in the nation. If the Cougars are merely adequate up front, they have a good shot at making a run at six wins and getting to a bowl game.

The Cougars hold their first spring practice this afternoon. Here are some notes from Wulff. (Note: If your favorite backup from last fall is not listed, it doesn't mean he's not in the mix.)
  • Out or limited: RB Arthur Burns (wrist), DE Travis Long (shoulder), DE Jordan Pu'u Robinson (knee), OT Dan Spitz (shoulder), FB Jared Byers (knee), LB Louis Bland (suspended).
  • Position changes: Not many. Spitz has been moved from the defensive line to the offensive line. Fullington, who started at left tackle as a true freshman, has moved to right tackle because David Gonzalez, who broke his arm at midseason last year, is back at LT. Wulff said Guerra or Gonzalez could see some action at center, the biggest position of competition on offense. Brandon Rankin, who played DT last year, could see time outside at defensive end.
  • Redshirt freshmen to watch: WR Kristoff Williams (though he's nursing a turf toe), WR Bobby Ratliff, QB Connor Halliday, RB Rickey Galvin and Toni Pole. Further, early entrants -- LB Darryl Monroe and receivers Henry Eaddy and Isiah Myers -- as well as grayshirt DE Xavier Cooper could play their way into the mix as true freshmen.
  • Quarterback: Halliday could push senior Marshall Lobbestael for the backup job.
  • Running back: Senior Logwone Mitz is No. 1 and Carl Winston is No. 2 on the spring depth chart, but watch out for Galvin, who broke his arm on his first play of the opener versus Oklahoma State. He's undersized but can make folks miss, which the Cougars need at the position. James Montgomery, last year's starter, is not expected to apply for an injury hardship waiver that would allow him to come back for a sixth year.
  • Offensive line: Center is up for grabs between junior Andrew Roxas and JC transfer Taylor Meighen. The other four spots seem mostly set. On Fullington, Wulff said: "[He's] one of the best young tackles in the country. He's got special upside... He's a high draft pick guy."
  • Defensive line: Long and Robinson, the Cougars top two DEs, are out. JC transfer Ian Knight has been generated some buzz; he's listed No. 1 at one end. Anthony Laurenzi steps in for the departed Bernard Wolfgramm at DT. Steven Hoffart also is worth watching at DT. Pole only redshirted last year because he got hurt. He's solidly in the mix inside, as is Justin Clayton, who was hurt last year, too.
  • Linebacker: Sekope Kaufusi steps in at the "sam" strongside lineabcker for Myron Beck, though Eric Oertel could make a push. Wulff called Kaufusi, "a hell of a talent." Getting Bland back -- he's been riddled by injuries as well as off-field issues -- would help next fall because he's a speedy playmaker. Wulff said of talented by sometimes difficult MLB C.J. Mizell: "He's definitely made strides... He's not where he needs to be or can be, but he's clearly growing and that's all we can ask."
  • Secondary: All four starters are back from 2010, but there figures to be plenty of competition. Daniel Simmons, who's struggled with injuries, may challenge at cornerback, where Nolan Washington and Aire Justin are presently No. 1 on the depth chart.
  • Specialists: Andrew Furney is back at kicker, while Dan Wagner will get first crack at replacing Reid Forrest.

Who might bolt for the NFL draft early?

December, 16, 2010
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Third-year players -- juniors and redshirt sophomores -- have until Jan.15 to declare their intentions to enter the 2011 NFL draft, and a number of Pac-12 players are likely to do so.

USC already has lost two: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

Many of the upcoming decisions -- both to stay or to go -- are going to be surprises. Some certain early draft picks opt to return for whatever reason, including the fact that they will never -- ever -- have as much fun as they did in college. And a handful of obscure players annually decide to enter the draft for whatever reason, including getting bad advice from a know-it-all "acquaintance" who doesn't know a darn thing.

This will not turn out to be a complete list. And our speculation is intentionally vague because it can be nothing else: We don't know what's going on inside these young men's heads.

Note: Though some players have indicated they plan to return, they are included here because, well, you never know -- they might change their minds.

You can review Mel Kiper's "junior" rankings here.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, Jr.:
Foles would benefit from returning for his senior year and could improve his stock considerably. But his knee injury this year and questions about the Wildcats' offensive line might give him pause.
WR Juron Criner, Jr.: Criner is the best receiver in the country few folks have heard of, but he might want to look at this year's receiver class, which is loaded.
CB Trevin Wade, Jr.: Wade needs to return for his senior season after taking a step back as a junior.

Arizona State
CB Omar Bolden, Jr
.: Bolden rejuvenated his career this fall, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also knows what it's like to get hurt and miss a season. The Sun Devils could break through in 2011, and that could greatly benefit his status.
DT Lawrence Guy, Jr.: The general thinking is Guy wants to return for his senior season. He faces a tough choice.

California
RB Shane Vereen, Jr.:
Mel Kiper ranks Vereen No. 5 among junior running backs. The Bears' questionable supporting cast on offense next year might sway him to the pros.
OLB Mychal Kendricks, Jr.: Lots of potential, but he's not ready.

Colorado
OG Ryan Miller, Jr
.: Miller has already said he plans to return next fall, though Kiper ranks him No. 2 among junior guards.

Oregon
RB LaMichael James, RSo
.: Kiper ranks James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. The Ducks' first unanimous All-American must choose between college glory -- Heisman Trophy, (another) national championship -- or getting paid now. Probably won't get picked until the second round because of size and middling skills as a receiver, but his top-end speed is enticing.
TE David Paulson, Jr.: Kiper ranks him No. 4 among junior tight ends. Good bet to return.

Oregon State
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr
.: Rodgers has indicated he plans to return because his brother, James, is likely to get a fifth year via medical hardship because of a knee injury this past season. But Beavers fans are rooting for it to be Jan. 18.
WR James Rodgers, Sr.: It's likely the Rodgers are a package deal: Both stay or both go.

Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RSo.:
If he enters the draft, he's almost certain to be the No. 1 overall pick. More than a few folks, however, believe he's seriously considering a return for his junior year, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh remains at Stanford. We'll see.

UCLA
LB Akeem Ayers, Jr
.: Odds are that Ayers will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
FS Rahim Moore, Jr.: Odds are that Moore will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.

USC
DL Armond Armstead, Jr
: Armstead has said he plans to return. He should. A healthy season could send his stock skyrocketing.

Utah
CB Brandon Burton, Jr
.: Burton, second-team All Mountain West, is No. 5 on Kiper's list of junior corners. He's definitely on the NFL radar.
OT Tony Bergstrom, Jr.: It would make sense for the second-team All Mountain West player to return for his senior year.

Washington
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr
.: Kearse is highly productive but dropped a few too many balls this year. While he'd benefit from another year, he might be worried about the Huskies breaking in a new quarterback.
RB Chris Polk, RSo: Polk eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season. He's admitted that entering the draft is a possibility.

Washington State
DT Brandon Rankin, Jr.:
It would be wise for Rankin to return for his senior season.

Wulff leads Cougars out of abyss

November, 15, 2010
11/15/10
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Washington State's 31-14 win at Oregon State was impressive and significant in many ways, not the least of which was it ending a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak.

But let's face it: Planets often align in strange ways in the college football universe. Just in the past few years we've seen FCS teams win at powers such as Michigan and Virginia Tech. We saw Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, win at USC with its backup quarterback. We saw Alabama get physically manhandled by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensWashington State's win against Oregon State may finally be a sign that the program is headed in the right direction.
This year, we've seen Kansas lose to North Dakota State in its opener, beat then-No. 15 Georgia Tech in Week 2, then lose to Baylor and Kansas State by a combined count of 114 to 14 on consecutive weekends, then score 35 consecutive fourth-quarter points to beat Colorado 52-45.

So freaky, unpredictable stuff happens all the time.

But nothing about the Cougars win feels "freaky." And this victory -- their first on the road since 2007 -- is about more than a long-awaited payoff for the Cougars. They have repeatedly played well into the second half and even the fourth quarter this season.

To me, the most significant reference point that highlights their improvement is the 42-0 loss at Arizona State on Oct. 30. That's the point in which many, including me, thought the Cougars were waving the white flag over coach Paul Wulff's tenure.

That game seemed to indicate exhaustion and malaise had set in. It seemed to say that Wulff's players had lost their faith and, subsequently, their will. On the Tuesday Pac-10 coaches conference call after that dreadful performance, Wulff said a number of things that could have been used to make a case against him.

Said Wulff, "It felt like we played with a tank that was empty with emotion."

Said Wulff, "We just didn't get a response."

Said Wulff, "That ultimately comes back on me. I've got to get us ready emotionally."

Said Wulff, "I try not to gauge the state of the program on one game."

Said Wulff, "I'm not really worried about retaining for next year. We're in year three of a major rebuilding project. I don't know if I'd state it we have to win these games. Were playing in a lot of ways to our potential and what we are capable of doing. We're close."

All of that could could easily fall into a column about why Wulff shouldn't be back in Year 4. Wulff was being himself -- an honest, stand-up guy -- but it wasn't hard to construe "ultimate defeat" from his words.

But, instead, this is a column about why the only sensible decision is to retain Wulff.

In a nutshell, he got the feckless team that lost 42-zip at Arizona State to become the team that won at Oregon State 31-14 two weeks later. One word: leadership. Wulff got his players, who had fought hard all year -- until the Arizona State game -- to reinvest after they'd hit an emotional nadir. If you've ever been in charge of a group of people, you know how hard that is. Wulff could offer them little incentive; a bowl game wasn't a possibility. His players probably were aware his job status was shaky, so if they quit on him, they'd get a fresh start in 2011 with a new coach.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireWashington State's defense limited the Beavers to just 261 yards of total offense.
All Wulff could say was, "We're in this together. Let's show some pride and compete." And guess what happened? The message stuck and then resonated in what was produced in Reser Stadium.

According to the Sagarin Ratings, Washington State has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, one that has included No. 1 Oregon, No. 6 Stanford, No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 20 USC (AP) and No. 22 Arizona. Moreover, they've played 11 consecutive weeks without a bye.

That's at tough road, period. But the Cougars have done it playing a bevy of young players. Of the 60 Cougars who played at Oklahoma State in the season-opener, 24 were making their college football debuts. The Cougars have played 10 true freshman this season. Of the 113 players on the Cougar roster, only 17 have been in the program more than three years, or prior to head coach Wulff’s arrival in December of 2007. On defense alone, 14 of the 22 players on the current depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.

Oh, and that defense, which is statistically terrible based on the entire season, held Oregon, Arizona and Stanford below their season averages for both points and yards. It held California to just 20 points. And it completely stuffed Oregon State.

In other words, maybe we should have seen the Corvallis Cougars Crusade coming.

Wulff inherited a disaster -- things were much worse than the average fan realized -- and his first two seasons ended up exactly that way. But the black smoke is clearing, and a program appears to be reemerging.

Every coach in the Pac-10 has remarked that the Cougars are different this year -- faster, more physical and less sloppy. The list of young talent coming back in 2011 is impressive: quarterback Jeff Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Safety Deone Bucannon, defensive end Travis Long, defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker C.J. Mizell, etc.

We're not ready to proclaim a return to the run from 2001-2003 when Washington State finished ranked in the the final top-10 three consecutive seasons. The Cougars in a bowl game in 2011, in fact, probably will be seen as a longshot.

But you saw what just happened, didn't you? We just typed "Cougars" and "bowl game" in the same sentence and you read it without flinching or doubling over in laughter.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

November, 15, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

Team of the week: Washington State ended a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak with a 31-14 win at Oregon State. The Cougars not only won, they physically dominated the Beavers, outgaining them 378 yards to 261.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SakumaQuarterback Darron Thomas and Oregon survived a scare against California.
Best game: Three of the four Pac-10 games this weekend weren't decided until late in the fourth quarter -- imagine: the Cougs provided the only laugher -- but we've got to go with No. 1 Oregon's 15-13 win at California, because the game kept the college football nation -- particularly Boise State and TCU fans -- fixated at a potential season-transforming upset.

Biggest play: On the second play of the first possession of the second half, California running back Shane Vereen fumbled after a 7-yard run. On the next play from scrimmage, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for a 29-yard touchdown and a 15-7 lead. It was the Ducks only offensive TD of the game.

Offensive standout: USC running back Marc Tyler rushed 31 times for 160 yards and scored a TD in the Trojans 24-21 win at Arizona.

Defensive standout: California linebacker Mike Mohamed had 14 tackles -- 10 solos -- and a sack against Oregon.

Special teams standout: Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown against Cal. It was his fourth punt return for a touchdown this season, which ties a Pac-10 record (Cal's DeSean Jackson, 2006).

Smiley face: The Washington State lines on both sides of the football merit special note. The Cougars rushed for 221 yards (they did yield four sacks, which cost the rushing total 20 yards), and they held the Beavers to just 97 yards rushing while recording five sacks, including two apiece from Casey Hamlett and Brandon Rankin.

Frowny face: Oregon State. Oh, Oregon State. You were 2 of 10 on third down. Washington State was 10 of 17. You were 1 of 3 on fourth down. Washington State was 1 for 1. Washington State had possession time of 40:55. In a 60 minute game! Heck, the Cougars had the ball for 23 of the 30 minutes of the second half.

Thought of the week: On the week that Oregon falls from the top spot in the nation in total offense -- its 542 yards per game is now second to Oklahoma State's 547.5 -- we now can officially establish that the Ducks no longer need to explain that their defense is underrated. Why? Because it's now highly rated by any measure. Oregon's defense ranks eighth in the nation in scoring (17.2 ppg), 20th in total defense (315.4) and fifth in passing efficiency defense. And the Ducks yield only 4.35 yards per play, which is tied for sixth in the nation, ahead of such stalwart units as LSU and Nebraska.

Questions for the week: We've got a clear top-four in the conference, and USC and Washington State aren't going to go to bowl games. Are any of the five teams mired in the middle going to make a late-season run? Or is the conference going to end up full of 5-7 teams?

Pac-10 season predictions

August, 30, 2010
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We're going on record with what we think will happen this season -- team-wise and player-wise. Who will shine? Who will surprise? Who will disappoint?

And feel free to disagree and supply your thoughts.

Conference winner: Oregon

It took a while to re-warm up to the Ducks after the, er, departure of He Who Shall Not Be Named. But the Ducks have so much going for them, it's hard to go against the defending champions.

Offensive MVP: Jake Locker, QB, Washington

Huskies fans: Know all those folks who constantly take shots at Locker and call him overrated? They will either apologize or look stupid at season's end.

Defensive MVP: Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA

Ayers gets the nod because he's the sort who's going to put up a lot of different numbers: tackles, sacks, tackles for a loss, interceptions, fumbles, etc.

Surprise team: Stanford

Stanford might not be a surprise to those in the know, but if the defense steps up -- and here's a bet it will -- then the Cardinal will be in middle of the conference race.

Team most likely to disappoint: USC

The Trojans will still trot out the most talented starting 22 in the conference. There's not a team on the Trojans' schedule that, at this juncture, rates as a "favorite" -- even Oregon because the Ducks must visit the Coliseum on Oct. 30. But with only pride to play for, USC could come apart at the seams.

Surprise player: Steven Threet, QB, Arizona State

Threet is expected to be announced as the Sun Devils starter on Monday. He's going to be good enough to make the offense respectable.

Newcomer of the year (offense): Josh Smith, WR, UCLA

If he stays healthy, Smith, a Colorado transfer, will be a big-play guy for the Bruins on offense and on special teams as a returner.

Newcomer of the year (defense): Brandon Rankin, DT, Washington State

We hate to interrupt your mocking of Washington State, but Rankin, a JC transfer who stuck with the Cougars despite an offer from Alabama, is going to be a force on a surprisingly stout D-line.

Freshman of the year (offense): Keenan Allen, WR, California

The touted true freshman won a starting job in camp. Expect him and Marvin Jones to inspire folks to start to saying, "You know that quarterback Kevin Riley ain't half-bad!"

Freshman of the year (defense): (tie) Marquis Flowers, S, Arizona & Dietrich Riley, S, UCLA

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next two great safeties in the Pac-10. These freshmen can really play.

Coach of the year: Chip Kelly, Oregon

His Ducks should play in another Rose Bowl, even though they are replacing a quarterback who was projected to be in the Heisman Trophy hunt. If quarterback Darron Thomas shines, this one will be a gimme for Kelly to repeat. So that would be two years, two Coach of the Year trophies. One word: Raise.

Can't miss game: Civil War, Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4

Oregon is the conference favorite. Oregon State is a consensus No. 3 pick. USC is No. 2 but ineligible. Expect the Civil War, for a third consecutive season, to decide who goes to the Rose Bowl.

Pac-10 Q&A: Washington State coach Paul Wulff

August, 27, 2010
8/27/10
3:00
PM ET
Washington State has won just one Pac-10 game over the past two seasons -- three overall -- and the Cougars are a consensus pick by media pundits to finish last in the conference in 2010.

That has many believing third-year coach Paul Wulff is on the hot seat, even though it's been widely acknowledged that he was handed a monumental rebuilding job in 2008 when he returned to his alma mater from Eastern Washington.

The expectations outside the program aren't just low: Many tweak the Cougars as among the worst BCS programs in the nation.

[+] EnlargePaul Wulff
Chris Williams/Icon SMICoach Paul Wulff identified running back as a prime area of competition on his football team.
It shouldn't be surprising that, in Pullman, the view is quite different. Wulff sees a strong offseason, improved recruiting and a more experienced depth chart. He sees potential.

What does he keep saying? "We're going to surprise some people."

The Cougars face a tough opener at Oklahoma State on Sept. 4, so it seemed like a good time to check in and see how the rebuilding is going on the Palouse.

The pundits have you guys pegged at 10th in the conference: How do you deal with that negative outlook when you address your team?

Paul Wulff: A lot of that is based on what happened in past years. It's a new year. We're a new team and we've changed a lot. The players know we've worked hard and we know we are getting better. The people predicting don't know what's happening in the offseason. But it is what it is. We probably deserve to be picked there. I don't know if that's a surprise. It doesn't mean that's where we're going to end up. We sure don't think so. We'll keep working hard. And we believe we will be able to put ourselves in position to surprise a lot of people and win a lot of ballgames and take that step to a bowl game.

I know we've talked about this before and I know you are tired of the topic but there's a general perception that you are on the proverbial coaching hot seat: What's your feeling on that perception?

PW: My feeling again is that's a natural thing for people on the outside that don't understand the situation to think when you have a major rebuilding job. It's never pretty. You go back to Mack Brown, who was 1-10 his first two years at North Carolina. There are a lot of examples: Randy Edsall and Connecticut. We [Eastern Washington] actually beat them as a I-AA school in 2001. We went back there and beat them. We've had to build something here, and like John Wooden says 'good things take time.' We're trying to build something special for the long haul. We're not trying to bring in a bunch of transfers and JC kids to try to win a few games one year. I'm not here to do that. I'm here to build a program that can compete for the Pac-10 title and be in the Rose Bowl and win one and put ourselves in position for a national title. Those programs in those situations didn't get there in one night. It's a five- to six-year building process. You've got to climb a ladder. I care about this university because it is my school. I came here to do that. If I have to take the bullets, as [former WSU basketball coach] Dick Bennett told me I would, I'm just going to have to do that. He was a guy who knew the situation. So I'm doing it and I'll continue to do it. But it's going to turn and when we turn we're going to be an awfully good football team.

On the football side of things: What is better about QB Jeff Tuel in Year 2 after he was forced into action as a true freshman?

PW: His comfort level with the offense and comfort level with some of the players who he's had the offseason to work with. There's a little better continuity there. He's making better decisions, he stronger. Things are happening at a quicker pace for him in his own brain. Obviously that helps our offense. We think highly of Jeff, but he's still got to prove lot of things in ballgames on a consistent basis. But there's no question in practice we see flashes of some really great things.

Where are some prime areas of competition on your team that have yet to be resolved?

PW: Running back is definitely one. We feel like a lot of guys are battling in there. We're hoping two or three really emerge come game day. Because we've got a lot of guys, no one has gotten a tremendous amount of reps. We're hoping that kind of sorts itself out in the first few games. At wide receiver, we're still battling through there, getting a lot of guys time, trying to see who's going to make the plays when the games are live. But we like the young nucleus we have. We think we have a couple special ones that are going to great players here the next four years.

The comeback of James Montgomery is pretty cool: How is he doing?

PW: He's doing great. I think it's got be one of the best stories in the country to do what he's done. He didn't just battle compartment syndrome. He battled a knee surgery that was a pretty extensive one. To do both and to come back and to perform where he is right now is impressive. He's not 100 percent, not in shape and as crisp, as sharp, as he's going to be. We're hoping by the time he gets to Game 3 or Game 4, he'll have caught back up with all that. But where he is today, he's a very good player. He's going to play and be our starter in the opening game and were hoping he progresses from there.

Who are your playmakers in the passing game?

PW: I think Jared Karstetter will be back -- there's no question we can rely on him. We're taking a hard look at Marquess Wilson, a true freshman. He's as dynamic a true freshman receiver as I've been around. Even coach [Mike] Levenseller, who's been here for 19 years, thinks Marquess is a special talent. I think Isaiah Barton and Gino Simone, our slot receivers, will make a difference, along with Jeffrey Solomon and Daniel Blackledge. Those guys will be good players for us. I'm excited to see how they will perform for us.

What have you seen out of your offensive line this spring? How close are they to breaking through as a quality unit?

PW: They're close. Coach [Steve Morton] has done a great job melding those guys together. We're getting better, no question. I'm excited. I think we have some raw talent. It's a relatively young unit -- we really have two seniors who will be contributors on a consistent basis. We have 15 others who are younger. If we can stay healthy there, we're going to surprise a lot of people with our production on the offensive front.

Let's look at defense: How are things stacking up at linebacker?

PW: The thing that's hurting us is two players who aren't playing this fall, who we have high hopes for, and that's Louis Bland, who we're going to redshirt, and Andre Barrington, a redshirt freshman for us, who is academically ineligible this fall. But I do like Alex Hoffman and Myron Beck, those guys have done well. Mike Ledgerwood, Hallston Higgins, Arthur Burns and CJ Mizell -- he's come along. We feel like we've got some makings there. It's a young unit from an experience standpoint, but I like our speed there. If we can stay healthy, it will be a big improvement from where we've been.

And the defensive line: Has tackle Brandon Rankin continued to impress?

PW: He has. He's a good player. He has a chance to show a lot of people what he's all about this fall. He's already doing things in practice that make it pretty obvious. We need him to have a big year. I think he's going to do extremely well. Bernard Wolfgramm is back and it's the first time he's healthy for us. Those two at defensive tackle are probably as athletic at pass rushing as we've had here in years. They will be quality pass-rushing D-tackles that you don't get a lot. They are not just pluggers, they're fairly active guys. I'm very encouraged about those two guys.

You guys are pretty salty on the defensive line. There's four pretty good players.

PW: I think our front four is right up there right now with most people in the Pac-10. We got two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior in Brandon Rankin and a second-year kid, an excellent player, in end Travis Long. It's our most experienced group on our football team. It's probably the best unit we have right now. It goes back to having fifth- and fourth-year players in your program. When you have that consistently throughout, you have a chance to be pretty salty. Right now, if those guys can stay healthy, they give us the most experienced group on our football team.

Finally, the secondary: It sounds like there's some depth back there.

PW: It's been good -- good, healthy competition. It's a young, young group, but there's some really good football players. We've kind of been hit a little bit over the last couple of days with the injury bug. LeAndre Daniels is going to battle a neck issue that we're still working through. We don't know that he'll be healthy at safety. Nolan Washington has been a little nicked up with his hip at cornerback. If those guys can come back, I'm not sure, but I like our talent there. It's a young and green group but we have some kids who can run for the first time in a while. We need to stay relatively healthy because we're youthful back there. I like the group. Our team speed on defense is far and away faster than we've been. I think people are going to notice that pretty quickly.

What is your expectation for this team: What would be a successful season?

PW: I don't want to put any limitations on them. These guys have trained so hard since the end of last season. They've done everything right to get better. We finally got the culture changed to what we expect. So when you work that hard, I refuse to put a limitation on what they are capable of doing. Right now we truly are trying to take it just one game at a time. But we're going to break this thing up into four segments. We've got 12 games, with three games in each quarter. We're going to take it one quarter at a time. We're going to block it like that, and move our way up the chain. I think this team is capable of surprising a lot of football teams, a lot of people out there. I really believe people are going to see a much improved team from what you saw last year. How many wins that's going to equate to, I'm really not sure. It just depends on a few breaks here and there and staying healthy at the right spots.

Pac-10 lunch links: Big news for OSU's Langsdorf

August, 18, 2010
8/18/10
2:30
PM ET
Forget your lust for the rich man's gold
All that you need is in your soul,
And you can do this if you try.
All that I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.

Opening camp: Washington State

August, 8, 2010
8/08/10
9:00
AM ET
Washington State opens preseason camp today. Here's a quick look.

Who's back: Eight starters on offense, six starters on defense and both specialists.

Big names: Quarterback Jeff Tuel, defensive end Travis Long, receiver Jared Karstetter and punter Reid Forrest.

What's new: Coach Paul Wulff made two coaching changes. He hired veteran offensive line coach Steve Morton, who's coached five Pac-10 Morris Trophy winners, and special teams/running backs coach Dave Ungerer.

Key competition: The only two "ORs" on the depth chart are on the offensive line between Wade Jacobson and Micah Hannam at left tackle, and David Gonzalez and Hannam at right tackle. The pecking order at running back probably still remains open, too.

Breaking out: Long, a sophomore, and senior Kevin Kooyman should give the Cougars a solid tandem at defensive end. Junior college transfer Brandon Rankin was impressive during the spring. Cornerback Daniel Simmons has all-conference ability, and safety LeAndre Daniels and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis also will lead the defense.

Quote: Kooyman on the Cougars being picked 10th: “The last two season’s have been really rough. You just kind of have to ignore it. We are going to shock some people ... this season. We don’t really care about the rankings. It is more of a distraction.”

Notes: James Montgomery is back in position to start at running back after a harrowing battle with illness and injury. He required emergency surgery last year for acute compartment syndrome -- which can be life-threatening -- and then missed spring practice because of micro-fracture surgery on his right knee ... Speedy linebacker Louis Bland continues to struggle with a knee problem. He might end up redshirting ... Former Cougars star Chad Eaton is serving as a graduate assistant working with the defensive line ... Backup defensive tackle Dan Spitz will be ineligible for the first nine games because he violated NCAA policy on banned substances. The Cougars previously lost senior defensive tackles Toby Turpin and Josh Luapo because of academic issues ... Redshirt freshman linebacker Andre Barrington is academically ineligible.

Preseason position reviews: defensive tackle

August, 3, 2010
8/03/10
12:09
PM ET
Defensive tackles clog the middle and collapse pockets. Dominant ones who demand attention from two blockers make life much easier for defensive coordinators, who suddenly see their linebackers running to the ball unmolested.

And it's typically not a strength position in the Pac-10. Coaches who have worked both down south and out west will tell you that one of the peculiar differences is how many more DTs there are in SEC and ACC country. (Quarterback goes the other way.)

[+] EnlargeCasey
Tony Medina/SMICasey Jurrell had 54 tackles and four sacks in 2009.
In 2010, however, defensive tackle is solid in the conference. The three teams at the top of this list feature potential All-Americans at the position.

So how do things stack up?

Great shape

  • USC: The Trojans would rank among the nation's best at the position if not for the season-ending knee injury to Christian Tupou. Still, Jurrell Casey is a beast, Hebron Fangupo is huge and DaJohn Harris was one of the surprises of spring practices.
  • Oregon State: All-America candidate Stephen Paea is powerful and explosive and if he turns in a big season beating double-teams, he could end up a first-round NFL draft pick. Brennan Olander is a returning starter and converted end Kevin Frahm provides depth.
  • Arizona State: Both 2009 starters, Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola, are back, and Corey Adams and Williams Sutton should provide quality depth.
Good shape

  • Oregon: Brandon Bair is underrated, and Zac Clark saw plenty of action as a backup in 2009. While inexperienced, there's young talent to provide depth.
  • Washington: The Huskies are solid with Cameron Elisara and Alameda Ta'amu, returning starters who turned in their best work this past spring.
  • California: Hard to rate teams that use a pure 3-4 because there's only a single nose tackle. Still, if Derrick Hill can stay healthy, he and Kendrick Payne will be an outstanding tandem making life tough for opposing centers.
  • Stanford: The Cardinal is breaking in its own 3-4 this year. Nose tackle Sione Fua is solid in the middle, with Terrence Stephens his backup. Stephens saw limited action as a true freshman in 2009.
We'll see

  • UCLA: The Bruins are replacing two starters, including the dominant Brian Price. David Carter, Justin Edison and Nate Chandler were solid in spring practices, so the position isn't a huge concern.
  • Arizona: The Wildcats are replacing two starters, including the underrated Earl Mitchell, a third-round NFL draft pick. After spring practices, Sione Tuihalamaka and Lolomana Mikaele topped the depth chart, which featured six names.
  • Washington State: Another position where the Cougars might be "better than you think," particularly if Bernard Wolfgramm can stay healthy. Touted JC transfer Brandon Rankin was impressive this spring, and true sophomore Anthony Laurenzi, a five-game starter in 2009, offers experienced depth.

Best of spring

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
4:00
PM ET
Everyone loves "best of" lists. Here's one for the Pac-10 after spring practices concluded.

Best spring game performance, offense: USC senior fullback Stanley Havili caught three long touchdown passes -- 28, 33 and 50 yards -- in the Trojans spring game.

Best spring game performance, offense II: With Jacquizz Rodgers chilling on the sidelines, Oregon State's backup running backs made a statement. Sophomore Jordan Jenkins rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries, while junior Ryan McCants had 74 yards on 24 attempts.

Best spring game performance, defense: UCLA's Datone Jones had two sacks, recovered a fumble and, according to the LA Times, "spent a good portion of the evening in the backfield."

Best spring game performance, defense II: Washington State defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, a JC transfer, had two sacks and a tackle for a loss as the No. 1 defense dominated the No. 2 offense.

Best spring game performance by a kicker: UCLA's Kai Forbath, the defending Lou Groza Award winner, was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, making kicks of 44, 34, 51 and 57 yards.

Best competition heading into fall, offense: Nate Costa vs. Darron Thomas to be Oregon's quarterback.

Best competition heading into the fall, defense: Chris Galippo vs. Devon Kennard to be USC's middle linebacker.

Best "who's the best" competition: Let the debate begin between Washington QB Jake Locker and Stanford QB Andrew Luck. Wait. It already has.

Best new marketing campaign: Stanford's new "What's your deal?" ticket plan is a homage to the prickly exchange between Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh and USC's Pete Carroll after Stanford ran up the score on the Trojans. Funny methinks.

Best new playmaker: USC's true freshman running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation with a spectacular run during a scrimmage, but other spectacular runs made it clear he wasn't a one-hit wonder. The Reggie Bush comparisons have already begun.

Best impression of dear old dad: Freshman quarterback Nick Montana capped an 80-yard drive with a short touchdown pass on the final play to give his team the win in Washington's spring game. You may recall that Nick's dad, Joe, was a fairly good NFL quarterback with a penchant for the dramatic -- and noticing John Candy in the stands.

Best position change: Oregon switched Dion Jordan from tight end to defensive end, where his athleticism suggested he could become a dangerous pass rusher. Jordan was going no where at tight end. He may end up in the NFL as a defensive end.

Best performance by a backup quarterback: Senior Mitch Mustain, the most written-about QB to never start a game for USC, passed for five touchdowns and 299 yards in the Trojans' spring game. Quarterback controversy? Naaaa. Might Mustain become the next Matt Cassel? Maybe.

Best comeback by a quarterback: Many were ready to crown Michigan transfer Steven Threet as Arizona State's starting quarterback, but sophomore Brock Osweiler was more consistent much of the spring and could end up running the Sun Devils offense in the fall.

Best offensive threesome you've never heard of: Here's a guess that receivers Gino Crump, Travis Cobb and fullback/H-back Taimi Tutogi make a lot of plays for Arizona next fall.

Best refusal to go away: No player in the Pac-10 has been more analyzed -- criticized -- than California quarterback Kevin Riley. Well, Riley again held on to the starting job this spring and heads into his senior year trying to put a successful cap on a career that has featured just a bit of everything.

Best physical freak of nature: Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea is not only the strongest college football player, he may be the strongest football player in the nation.

Best new acquisition: Arizona State adopted Kyle Oden, 3, who has a pediatric brain tumor and is nearly blind in one eye.

Best quote: Lane Kiffin, who was an USC assistant from 2001-06, on Trojans he inherited, "It's not what it was when we left here."

Best quote II: Norm Chow on whether the UCLA offense breaks through in 2010: "I have no idea, but we have to be better or you'll be talking to somebody else next year."

Best quote III: Mike Riley on Oregon State's offense: "Athletically, it's as good as we've ever been."

Best quote IV: Oregon quarterback Costa on redundant questions about suspended quarterback Jeremiah Masoli: "I'm not tired of answering the questions. If there is someone who should answer the questions, it should probably be me. The public has a right to know what we are thinking and our thoughts on this whole process. So I'm happy to answer those questions."

Best quote V: Washington coach Steve Sarkisian on leading the Huskies to a 5-7 finish in his first season: "I've never been congratulated so much for a five-win season."

Washington State spring wrap

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
6:00
AM ET
Washington State

2009 overall record: 1-11

2009 conference record: 0-9 (10th)

Returning starters

Offense: 8, Defense: 6, punter/kicker: 2

Top returners: QB Jeff Tuel, WR Jared Karstetter, DE Travis Long, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Reid Forrest

Key losses: C Kenny Alfred, RB Dwight Tardy, FS Xavier Hicks, LB Andy Mattingly

2009 statistical leaders (*returning starter)

Rushing: Tardy (417)

Passing: Tuel* (789)

Receiving: Karstetter* (540)

Tackles: Alex Hoffman-Ellis* (84)

Sacks: Travis Long*, Toby Turpin, Casey Hamlett*, Anthony Laurenzi* (2)

Interceptions: Xavier Hicks (3)

Spring Answers

1. Solid at QB: Both sophomore Tuel and junior Marshall Lobbestael played well this spring. Both are more skilled, more mature and better versed in the offense than when they were prematurely forced into action the previous two seasons. Tuel is the heavy frontrunner to start, but it's always nice to have two quarterbacks with starting experience.

2. Offensive line improvement: A big area of concern the past two seasons, the Cougars added a pair of JC recruits midyear and the additions greatly enhanced the competition and depth up front. Also, the addition of offensive line coach Steve Morton and his 35 years of experience, which includes five Morris Trophy winners, already has made a big impact. The line lost one starter from last season (center Kenny Alfred) but the return of four starters, along with the JC additions and return of Andrew Roxas, who missed 2009 due to illness, could make this one of the most improved units in the conference.

3. There's some depth: Everyone around the program insists this is by far the best spring for coach Paul Wulff since he took over a beleaguered program two years ago. Part of that success is legitimate competition for starting spots and playing time. Players who redshirted the past two seasons, in particular, made an impact during the 15 practices

Fall questions

1. Confidence? The Cougars have won just three games over the past two seasons -- just one Pac-10 game. Many of their defeats have been blowouts. While the talent looks better heading into 2010, the Cougars have to believe they can compete -- and win -- in the Pac-10. That belief will drive players to work out hard during the summer. That belief will keep games close into the fourth quarter. That belief might even help them steal a few games. But that belief has to be real, which means it will have to block out all the talk about another dreary 10th-place finish.

2. Will the D-line step up? Sophomore end Travis Long should take the next step. JC transfer Brandon Rankin lived up to his considerable hype at tackle. Senior end Kevin Kooyman is back from injury and had a good spring. That's the good news. The bad news is three of the top four or five tackles are either gone -- or close to going -- before their time. Toby Turpin was kicked out of school over an undisclosed academic incident, while tackles Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo are struggling to remain academically eligible (coaches are more hopeful about Wolfgramm getting back on track). That means youngsters such as Justin Clayton, Dan Spitz, Jordan Pu’u Robinson and Anthony Laurenzi will need to be ready -- and be better than they were in 2009.

3. Receiver depth? The Cougars went through spring with just four scholarship receivers (Jeffrey Solomon, Jared Karstetter, Gino Simone and Daniel Blackledge). The incoming recruiting class features five receivers. JC recruit Isiah Barton is probably the most ready, but at least a couple of freshmen will need to earn spots in the rotation.

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