Pac-12: D.J. Alexander

We continue our series looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2014. If you feel a little nostalgic, you can check out the top performances from 2013.

Up next: D.J. & the Doctor heal the Beavers

Who and against whom: Oregon State senior linebackers Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander make huge fourth quarter plays to finish off No. 6 Arizona State 35-27 in one of the Pac-12's biggest upsets of the season.

The numbers: Doctor picked off Sun Devils QB Taylor Kelly and went 35 yards for a touchdown that gave the Beavers a 35-27 lead with 1:38 remaining. Alexander then sealed the deal with a sack of Kelly on fourth-and-2 with 1:10 left.

A closer look: Oregon State didn't have a good season, finishing 5-7, their fourth season in five years with at least six defeats. Then, with grumpiness growing over the state of the program, particularly in comparison to rival Oregon, coach Mike Riley bolted for Nebraska. This victory over the Sun Devils, in fact, was their only quality win. It pretty much came from nowhere, as the Sun Devils, who had played their way into longshot contention for the College Football Playoff, led 24-14 at halftime and seemed to be coasting toward an expected win. Yet the Beavers, losers of four in a row, got off the canvas and rallied for the victory, mostly behind a defense that shut down ASU in the second half, allowing just three points. Alexander finished with seven tackles, including two for a loss, and Doctor added five. The pair combined for 70 starts in their careers, and in 2011 they seemed like one of the conference's bright young linebacking tandems. Neither career came together as hoped for in Corvallis, with injuries being an issue, but this was one shining moment for them and their team in 2014.
We're continuing our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see, because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

Up next: Linebacker. Teams in each category are listed in alphabetical order.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: The Ducks are in great shape with inside linebackers Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick returning next to outside linebacker Tony Washington. The only departure they’ll have to account for is Boseko Lokombo, and that spot appears destined for Tyson Coleman once he’s completely healthy following a knee injury that sidelined him for the Alamo Bowl. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot is one of several talented young players to keep an eye on when the Ducks empty their bench during blowouts.

Oregon State: The Beavers are deep at linebacker with D.J. Alexander, Jabral Johnson and Michael Doctor projected to start in their 4-3 scheme. Rommel Mageo was a starter down the stretch last season and should see plenty of playing time, as will Caleb Saulo and Darrell Songy.

USC: Only outside linebacker Devon Kennard is gone from a a solid group that should have a rather seamless transition playing in new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's 3-4 defense. Hayes Pullard and Anthony Sarao figure to start inside, with Jabari Ruffin or Quinton Powell playing outside opposite J.R. Tavai.

Washington: The Huskies weren’t fully stocked during the spring, but figure to have one of the best groups in the conference with John Timu playing between Shaq Thompson and Travis Feeney. Cory Littleton can be listed at defensive end or outside linebacker -- UW calls him a rush end -- and is coming off a productive sophomore season.

GOOD SHAPE

Colorado: Addison Gillam led the Pac-12 in tackles per game last year (8.9) and will likely start between sophomore Kenneth Olugbode and senior Woodson Greer. The Buffaloes have depth, too, with Brady Daigh, a reliable backup for Gillam, and outside linebacker Deaysean Rippy, who sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh. Rippy was listed as an alternative starter to Greer on Colorado’s post spring depth chart.

Stanford: There might not be a more difficult task in the conference than replacing outside linebacker Trent Murphy and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, both of whom drew All-American accolades in multiple season. Inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley, already a three-year starter, is one of the conference’s unheralded players and outside linebacker James Vaughters is poised for a breakout senior season. Kevin Andersen has seen a lot of playing time over the past two years at outside linebacker, but the other inside spot needs to be ironed out.

UCLA: Like Stanford, the Bruins have a tough task in replacing Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, but have two talented returners in Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack. UCLA could very well end up one of the best groups in the conference pending the development of Kenny Orjioke, Deon Hollins, Isaako Savaiinaea and Zach Whitley.

Utah: Junior Jason Whittingham is a potential first-team all-conference type player and the Utes are high on Jared Norris, who started seven games last year. The group looked even better when Miami-transfer Gionni Paul was projected to contribute, but the start to his season is expected to be delayed by a broken bone in his foot. Uaea Masina, after contributing on special teams last year, will likely see a lot of playing time.

Washington State: Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen return as starters and Tana Pritchard, who saw his role grow as the season went along, will be leaned on heavily. The final spot up for grabs is the ‘buck,’ which looks like it will come down to Kache Palacio, a slight favorite who started at the end of the season, and Ivan McLennan. Chester Su'a could also make some noise after missing last season with an injury.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats need to replace three-year starter Marquis Flowers and two-year starter Jake Fischer. Scooby Wright started 12 games as a true freshman last season and gives the Wildcats a good piece to start with, but we’ll take a wait-and-see approach once the other pieces are in place. The good news is that Arizona has recruited well at linebacker.

Arizona State: Salamo Fiso returns, but having to replace three of the four starters from a year ago leaves more questions than answers. Early-enrollee D.J. Calhoun drew rave reviews during spring practice, but will have to beat out redshirt junior Antonio Longino for a starting job. Eriquel Florence (devil), and Laiu Moeakiola/Marcus Washington (spur) were also listed as starters at the end of spring practice.

Cal: Jalen Jefferson, Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson are all back, but after last season’s defensive woes it’s hard to go in with much optimism. The situation at linebacker is clearly better than it was last year, but that’s not inspiring enough not to erase speculation.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS:
The year 2013 wasn’t exactly what you’d call a banner one for the Oregon State Beavers defensively. While the offense accumulated jaw-dropping numbers, the defense had one too many palm-to-forehead moments.

Injuries played a part in that, and none was bigger than losing linebacker Michael Doctor for the year in the second game of the season to an ankle injury. Doctor was the team’s leading tackler in 2012 with 83 stops. And in his two appearances last season he had seven tackles, 2.5 for a loss, and two sacks. He was tied for third on the team in sacks after playing in only two games. Stretch those numbers out over a 13-game season and you have a potential all-conference candidate.

[+] EnlargeMichael Doctor
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsHaving Michael Doctor return from injury will help an Oregon State defense that struggled in 2013.
Losing his production, coupled with his leadership, was a massive blow to a defense that fell short of expectations. In fact, what made the 2013 defense so disappointing was that the Beavers were outstanding defensively in 2012. Their 20.6 points allowed per game was the second lowest average in school history for a 13-game season and was good for 22nd nationally. It’s one of the reasons they started 2013 ranked No. 25.

Of course, that all came crashing down in the wake of a 49-46 loss to FCS Eastern Washington in the season opener -- the school’s second loss to an FCS team in three years. The 49 points allowed was the second highest total in a year where OSU yielded a disappointing 31.4 points per game.

Last week Doctor was granted a fifth year by way of a medical hardship for the 2013 season by the Pac-12 conference. There are a few criteria he had to meet, per the NCAA, to get a medical hardship. But the big one is the fact that he didn’t play in at least four of the first six games and then missed the remainder of the season. As expected, Doctor was thrilled with the news.

“I’m very excited to have another year,” Doctor said in a statement from the school. “Last year was bittersweet for me. I had a chance to learn from a coaching perspective and ... grow and I think from all of this it will make me a smarter player.”

Doctor will join the team when it starts spring ball. The Beavers are also hoping that linebacker D.J. Alexander will be available for spring after undergoing neck surgery in December. A source close to the program says Alexander is expected to participate, though it’s likely head coach Mike Riley will hold him back some. That makes Doctor’s return that much more significant for a Beavers defense looking to plug some holes on the defensive line and secondary.

A little veteran leadership never hurts, either, in a position group that should be considerably strong.

“From a football standpoint, I’m very excited to have Michael back; he solidifies our outside linebacker depth,” Riley said. “From a personal standpoint, Michael has meant a great deal to this team not only on the field, but off as a captain and a true leader. Having No. 40 back in the lineup is a huge plus for the defense.”

Hawaii Bowl prediction

December, 24, 2013
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Kevin went 1-1 over the weekend. Ted went a yucky 0-2.

Kevin now leads Ted by two games with seven bowls remaining, his record sitting at 76-18 while Morose Miller is 74-20.

Kevin Gemmell: If I’m an Oregon State fan, Boise State's rushing attack scares me. Jay Ajayi has six 100-yard rushing games this year and four multi-touchdown games. Oregon State’s rushing defense wasn’t particularly stout, yielding 193.2 yards per game and 27 touchdowns – the second-highest total in the conference. Then again, quarterbacks complete 64 percent of their throws against the Broncos, who allow 248.4 yards in the air per game. The Boise State-Fresno State game might offer some comparable insight as Derek Carr threw for 460 yards and four touchdowns. The Broncos are opportunistic, however, with 15 interceptions this season. The question is whether Sean Mannion reverts back to the guy who was on fire the first half of the season, or if he’s the guy who has thrown 11 interceptions in the last four games. I’m leaning toward Brandin Cooks and Mannion blowing up in a high-scoring affair. Oregon State 38, Boise State 35.

Ted Miller: The Beavers and Broncos have two common opponents: Washington and San Diego State. The Huskies blew out both, while the Beavers nipped San Diego State on the road and Boise State lost in overtime, also on the road. While neither result is telling, it does suggest neither team seems clearly superior. Kevin noted the Beavers issues against the run, and that might be exacerbated by the absence of injured LB D.J. Alexander, who had neck surgery. Of course, the Broncos are without starting QB Joe Southwick, who was suspended from the game. His backup, Grant Hedrick, however, has mostly played well when Southwick was hurt in the last half of the season. Boise State is also playing the first game since Chris Petersen stepped down to take over at Washington. The Beavers do have one clear advantage -- the four words and two numbers that will follow. Boise State 38, Oregon State 35.

Oregon State season preview

August, 14, 2013
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We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season, in reverse alphabetical order, with the Oregon State Beavers.

Oregon State

Coach: Mike Riley (81-67, 13th year)

2012 record: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12 North)

Key losses: WR Markus Wheaton, CB Jordan Poyer, DT Castro Masaniai, RT Colin Kelly, TE Colby Prince, DT Andrew Seumalo.

Key returnees: WR Brandin Cooks, RB Storm Woods, DE Scott Crichton, LB D.J. Alexander, CB Rashaad Reynolds, Michael Doctor, S Ryan Murphy, DE Dylan Wynn.

Newcomer to watch: With the departure of Poyer, the coaching staff will look to replace him with a rotation of Sean Martin -- who saw some time last season -- and newcomer Steven Nelson, rated by one service as the No. 2 junior college cornerback in the country. Nelson, once a Georgia commit, comes from the College of Sequoias and, by all accounts, has had a solid spring and fall camp thus far.

Biggest games in 2013: The Civil War at Oregon (Nov. 29) is always huge. But Stanford (Oct. 26) and Washington (Nov. 23) -- both home games -- will be big for establishing the pecking order in the Pac-12 North.

[+] EnlargeOregon State's
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesReceiver Brandin Cooks will surely be the top target for the winner of Oregon State's QB race.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: On the surface, the outcome of the quarterback competition seems like the biggest question. And it’s an important one. Yet Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz have both shown they can win big games. Who they’ll be throwing to, however, might be the more important question. Without a doubt, Cooks is an explosive playmaker. But we’re still waiting to see who steps up opposite him. Much of Cooks’ success last season (67 catches, 1,151 yards, five touchdowns) was because of Wheaton playing on the other side. Double-teaming either one was a nightmare because the other would break out. Kevin Cummings is a solid slot receiver. But the Beavers will need someone like Obum Gwacham or Richard Mullaney to provide a threat that opens things up for Cooks, or vice versa.

Forecast: The Beavers are a really interesting team this season because of the way their schedule shapes up. You have to think they’ll be favorites in their first seven games (though at Utah, at San Diego State and at California probably won’t be walkovers). Just before Halloween, it starts to get nasty, with five straight against teams that will likely be in or hovering around the Top 25: Stanford, USC, ASU, Washington and Oregon.

It’s not hard to believe the Beavers could replicate last year’s 6-0 start, and possibly even press it to 7-0 before the schedule ramps up. There are a couple of ways to look at it; it’s a good thing because it will give Riley more time to settle on either Mannion or Vaz, and it allows ample time for the receiving corps to come together. There are also some plug-and-play JC defensive linemen who could also use a few warm-up games.

The flip side is that outside of San Diego State, the Beavers won’t be facing an FBS team that had a winning record last year until Stanford comes to town. How much will we really know about this team? Unlike last season -- when the Beavers scored quality wins at home against No. 13 Wisconsin and on the road at No. 19 UCLA and BYU in the first half of the season -- the Beavers will probably achieve a high ranking, though the résumé won’t be there to support it.

But as they say, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and Oregon State should come out of the gates blazing.

Aside from Cooks, the Beavers have an explosive running back, Storm Woods. The ground game took a big step forward in 2012, and Woods is on the verge of becoming a 1,000-yard rusher (940 yards last year, 13 touchdowns). The offensive line continues to improve and returns four of five starters across the front -- headlined by center Isaac Seumalo, who was phenomenal as a freshman and has emerged as one of the top anchors in the country.

The secondary should also be one of the best in the league with the Martin/Nelson duo playing alongside Ryan Murphy, Tyrequek Zimmerman and Reynolds.

No doubt excitement will bubble over if the Beavers start 7-0. But what they do after those first seven will go a long way toward determining the program’s success in 2013.
Linebacker should a strong position in the Pac-12 this fall. You could argue that six or seven guys are or could become All-American candidates.

So how do the units stack up?

GREAT SHAPE

Stanford: Three starters back for the Pac-12's best run defense, including All-American candidates Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Even the competition to replace Chase Thomas between James Vaughters and Blake Lueders is between two A-list veterans. Depth is good, too. Might be the best unit in the country.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesAnthony Barr is a big reason why the Bruins boast one of the Pac-12 best linebacker corps.
UCLA: Well, start with Anthony Barr on the outside. The general reaction to him at media day, "Dang. He's big. I didn't know he was that big." Then there's the underrated Eric Kendricks inside along with the solid Jordan Zumwalt. There doesn't seem to be much concern about the vacancy at the other OLB, where Aaron Wallace, Kenny Orjioke and, perhaps, incoming freshman Myles Jack are competing.

USC: Inside 'backer Hayes Pullard and Morgan Breslin on the outside make for a good start, as the Trojans transition to a 3-4. Fellow inside linebacker Lamar Dawson had a forgettable 2012 season, but he reacted well to being challenged this spring. Then there's the return of Devon Kennard, who should finally feel comfortable playing the OLB position he was made for.

Washington: As previously noted, the Huskies are extremely strong here, though it doesn't seem that many folks realize it. They will. The general feeling among just about everyone is that Shaq Thompson will make a move toward All-American recognition this year, while Travis Feeney and John Timu also are well above average. Rush end Josh Shirley also merits note as a hybrid LB/DE in Justin Wilcox's amorphous scheme.

GOOD SHAPE

Oregon State: Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander are both back, giving the Beavers speed and experience on the outside. Joel Skotte is expected to win the job at MLB. Depth is a little iffy, but the Beavers run defense was strong in 2012.

Arizona State: Pac-12 blog favorite Brandon Magee is gone, and for that we are terribly sad. Incredibly productive Devil 'backer Carl Bradford is back, as are Steffon Martin and Chris Young, as well as Anthony Jones. Sun Devils struggled a bit against the run last year.

California: The Bears are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which means Chris McCain is now officially a rush end, not an outside linebacker. But this is a better-than-you-think crew, despite the lousy numbers from 2012. Nick Forbes is strong inside, while Jalen Jefferson is back on the strongside. Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt is finally healthy and ready to roll. Depth is a little questionable.

Arizona: Everyone is back, led by Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers, and the Pac-12 blog is of the mind the Wildcats are actually OK at linebacker. The issue is the guys in front of them not being very good at gobbling up blockers. Terrible run defense last year, though.

Washington State: We think one of the big surprises this year might be how solid the Cougars are on defense, and linebacker is one of several reasons why. Most of the 2012 two-deep is back, though losing OLB Travis Long is a big hit. Darryl Monroe is the leader inside.

WE'LL SEE

Oregon: It's not just that the Ducks lost three of four starters. It's that they lost OLB Dion Jordan and Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay inside. Each is on an NFL roster, Jordan being a first-round pick and Alonso going in the second round. No team in the country lost anything approaching that at linebacker. Boseko Lokombo is back on the outside, but injury issues this spring prevented there from being much depth chart clarity.

Utah: While the 2012 run defense was solid, the Utes didn't play well at linebacker last year, though injury issues were the chief concern, preventing any type of week-to-week continuity. Trevor Reilly, who played "stud" 'backer last year, has returned to his more natural end position. A healthy Brian Blechen will take over at "stud" after bouncing back and forth at safety -- he's 230 pounds, too -- and that should help. Big area of fall competition here.

Colorado: Senior Derrick Webb is a strong presence on the weakside, but Jon Major and Doug Rippy are gone. The Buffaloes likely will be young here, see true freshman Addison Gillam topping the post-spring depth chart.

You can see previous previews here:

Quarterback

Running back

Receiver

Tight end

Offensive line

Kicker
If the Dictionary of Phrases needs a demonstration of what "cautiously optimistic" sounds like, they might want to chat with Mark Banker about his Oregon State defense.

He makes a good case for optimism. And he's got reasons to be cautious.

It must be first said that Banker probably feels a lot better than he did a year ago when Beavers fans were doubting him, despite a distinguished track record of consistent success, both on the field and in terms of transforming under-the-radar recruits into NFL draft choices.

[+] EnlargeMark Banker
Jesse Beals/ Icon SMIDefensive coordinator Mark Banker is optimistic the Beavers can continue the growth they showed last season, when they ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation, giving up 20.6 points per game.
Yet after consecutive losing seasons in Corvallis, Banker and head coach Mike Riley were on the spot. The 2011 Beavers ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, surrendering 30.8 points per game, and they often were pushed around, yielding a conference-worst 196.8 yards rushing per game.

Few units in the Pac-12 improved as much as the Beavers' defense from 2011 to 2012. Last fall, the Beavers ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation, giving up just 20.6 points per game, a 10.2-point per game improvement. They also ranked third in run defense, holding foes to 129.5 yards per game in a conference with a lot of good running backs.

The difference? Better players, experience, staying healthy and a rejiggered defensive staff, says Banker.

As to what he sees for 2013, he said, "This group is more than capable."

He likes his defensive ends, Dylan Wynn and All-American candidate Scott Crichton. He's got two speedy, experienced outside linebackers in Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander. Three of four starters are back from a secondary that yielded just 14 touchdown passes last fall.

And yet.

He's replacing his middle linebacker Feti Taumoepeau, as well as do-everything backup Rueben Robinson. All-American cornerback Jordan Poyer is now playing for Chip Kelly in Philly. And he's got 644 pounds missing in the middle of his defensive line with the departure of tackles Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo.

Let's start with the optimism. Banker loves underrated free safety Ryan Murphy.

"He can really play -- he's got the greatest chance of being drafted in a high position," Banker said. "He'll be one of the, if not the best, safety we've ever had here as this thing plays out. I hope I don't jinx him."

Further, he feels like he's got a pretty good competition for replacing Poyer, with experienced senior Sean Martin and talented junior college transfer Steve Nelson in a tight battle for the starting job, with the No. 2 guy likely filling a nickel role.

Banker likes true sophomore Joel Skotte stepping into the middle linebacker spot. While Skotte, who saw significant special teams action last season, isn't yet there physically, he's a smart player, the kind of guy who won't make mental mistakes in the middle of the Beavers' defense.

Further, the position isn't as critical to the Beavers' defense as it was in the past, because eight conference teams run no-huddle spread offenses.

"The basis of what we have to have at that position, [Skotte] has," Banker said. "But at the same time, with so many different spread types of offenses, we're in our sub packages quite a bit."

Which means Doctor, who made great strides in 2012, moves into the middle.

Banker admits some frustration trying to get Alexander in the right place to maximize his athletic potential. There were plenty of feast or famine moments with the speedy rising junior in 2012. Great plays followed by mental errors.

"There were quite a few times last year we'd take him out to let him know, No. 1, it's not acceptable and, No. 2, so we could get him squared away in the mental aspect of the game," Banker said.

Then there are the voids at defensive tackle. You can almost feel Banker rubbing a rabbits foot through the phone line.

"We're not so much uncertain, but we're not satisfied with our defensive tackle play," Banker said.

The Beavers welcome back reserves Mana Rosa and John Braun, but four junior college signees are expected to compete for the starting spots.

Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau both participated in spring practices. Hautau, however, broke his hand and missed most of the action, and Delva has a ways to go.

Kyle Peko, Charlie Tuaau and Lyndon Tulimasealii are scheduled to arrive for fall camp, but Banker sounded a cautionary note about all three being squared away academically.

"All three have significant work that they are doing in the classroom that they need to become eligible," he said.

The hope is that, of the tackles who do make it to camp, at least two will be Pac-12 ready. And maybe one or two others can adequately take up space.

"That's the biggest thing that I'm curious about: Where do they start? Where's the bottom? I hope they don't start down too low," Banker said.

Banker likes what he knows about his defense. And has his fingers crossed hopefully over what he's yet to find out.

Pac-12 defenses set to rebound?

June, 11, 2013
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In 2011, Oregon State ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, surrendering 30.8 points per game. Washington was even worse, ranking 11th while yielding 35.9 points per game

Bad defenses!

Oregon State finished 3-9, the Beavers' worst record since going 3-8 in 1997, coach Mike Riley's first season. The Huskies fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and paid big bucks to lure Justin Wilcox away from Tennessee.

And in 2012 both made huge improvement on defense.

The Beavers ended up ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation, giving up just 20.6 points per game. That's a 10.2-point per game improvement.

Washington ended up fourth in the conference, surrendering a respectable 24.2 points per game, which was 11.2 points better per game.

Our, er, point? Units can make major improvements from one year to the next.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall?

Well, the first question is can we glean anything from Oregon State and Washington?

Oregon State welcomed back eight starters, and that doesn't include space-eating, 354-pound tackle Castro Masaniai. Moreover, there was plenty of star power at all three levels: DE Scott Crichton, LB D.J. Alexander and CB Jordan Poyer.

The personnel losses didn't leave big questions. In fact, it seemed likely in the preseason that the Beavers' defense would be better, even if there's a minor application of hindsight there.

Washington welcomed back seven starters, but there were plenty of questions, starting with a new base 3-4 scheme. There was some veteran talent, topped by CB Desmond Trufant, and promising young players such as DT Danny Shelton, rush end Josh Shirley and LB Shaq Thompson, but dramatic improvement wasn't a certainty. The personnel losses -- DE Everrette Thompson, DT Alameda Ta’amu , LB Cort Dennison and CB Quinton Richardson -- were multiyear starters.

Yet the Huskies, probably in large part due to much better coaching under Wilcox and his rejiggered staff, were dramatically better.

And so we have the bottom five defenses from 2012:


Wow, Colorado ... 46 points per game. That was worst in the nation by nearly three points. I know Buff fans are tired of hearing this but, well, that can't get any worse.

California is transitioning to a 4-3 after being pretty successful with a 3-4 under Clancy Pendergast. The good news is solid talent at all three levels, though some of that talent has yet to live up to its formally big-time recruiting pedigree.

As we've previously touched on, UCLA needs to get better on defense if it wants to again become a national presence. Barr is a great place to start, seeing that he's on the short list for national defensive player of the year. That said: The entire secondary is being rebuilt.

Washington State is filling the biggest void -- Long was the Cougars' four-year sack leader -- but it has a better-than-you-think crew coming back next fall.

But if you were betting on improvement, the Wildcats might be the best place to start. The grounds for that is pretty straight-forward: Everyone is back, so you'd expect most of those guys to be better this fall, with the added bonus of some youthful reinforcements. Further, coordinator Jeff Casteel knows what he's doing. Year 2 with his 3-3-5 scheme is almost certainly going to be better.

The Wildcats' defense might even get a boost from its offense: With QB Matt Scott gone, the offense might lean more on the running game, topped by Ka'Deem Carey. It also might slow things down just a bit, though Rich Rodriguez isn't likely to huddle up and go pro style.
The recent selections of Will Sutton, Shayne Skov, Anthony Barr and Devon Kennard in our "Most Important Player" series has given rise to a very interesting question posed to me in the mailbag. As always, mailbags come out Friday afternoons, but Jerry in San Jose offered this: Kevin, we know Stanford has the best front seven in the league. Which team has the next best?

I won't be answering this question in tomorrow's mailbag for a very simple reason. I don't know. Nor do I immediately agree with his initial premise that Stanford has the best front seven. It might. But so might ASU, or UCLA and I think USC has to be in this conversation, especially if the transition to the 3-4 works the way many think it will.

Stopping the run is the primary role of the front seven, and Stanford certainly was the best in the league at that last year. So is making plays in the backfield, sacks, TFLs etc. Three of the top four and four of the top eight teams nationally in sacks last year hailed from the Pac-12. While it's true this is the conference of quarterbacks, it's also quickly turning into the conference of planting quarterbacks on their keisters.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 team has the best front seven heading into 2013?

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    23%
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    30%
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    9%
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    11%
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    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,275)

Instead of hitting this in the mailbag and opining for 700 words only to come with "I don't know" as the answer, it seemed like a dandy of a poll question.

Which Pac-12 team has the best front seven heading into the 2013 season?

Your options:

Arizona State: The Sun Devils were the best team in the country last year at getting tackles for a loss and they were No. 2 nationally in sacks. But they came up short stopping the run, allowing 182.8 yards per game on the ground. Still, with headliners Will Sutton and Carl Bradford flanked by an outstanding supporting cast, they should again be at the top of the rankings in backfield-havoc created.

Stanford: With three All-American candidates in Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner, it's awfully easy to make an argument here for the Cardinal. They were No. 1 in the nation in sacks, second in tackles for a loss and fifth nationally against the run. Impressive, considering some of the offenses and running backs they faced. It's a deep and experienced group that has scary potential.

UCLA: They return the league's leading tackler in linebacker Eric Kendricks and the dangerous Anthony Barr, who is projected as a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft. I'm also of the belief that Cassius Marsh is going to have a monster season this year. But the loss of Owamagbe Odighizuwa for the year hurts.

USC: Any scheme that is going to make Morgan Breslin a better pass-rusher is frightening. Add on a healthy Devon Kennard and the league's freshman defensive player of the year in Leonard Williams, and you have a front seven that matches the talent of any in the league.

Other: Cal has a solid front led by standout defensive end in Deandre Coleman. Nick Forbes is a tested linebacker and a lot of folks are excited to see what a healthy Khairi Fortt can do. Oregon State has to rebuild its tackles, but the ends duo of Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn rival any in the conference and they are strong at LB with Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander.
While some might be fixated on how Oregon State's season ended -- another loss to Oregon and a blown fourth-quarter lead in the Alamo Bowl against Texas -- the big picture for 2012 was undeniably attractive.

The Beavers reversed course as a program. After consecutive losing seasons and a horrid 3-9 finish in 2011, they went 9-4 and finished the season ranked 20th.

Those looking ahead might be fretting what is at question heading into 2013: The up-the-middle defense, the departure of two first-team All-Pac-12 standouts in cornerback Jordan Poyer and wide receiver Markus Wheaton and an on-going quarterback cha-cha.

[+] EnlargeScott Crichton
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsScott Crichton (95) leads an Oregon State defense that returns seven starters from 2012.
But there's strong grounds for optimism. There's a reason just about everyone figures the Beavers to be a Top-25 team again in the fall. One of the biggest is defensive end Scott Crichton leading a defense with several key pieces back.

Seven of the Beavers' 17 returning starters are on defense, including Crichton, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012 after posting 44 tackles and leading the Beavers with 17.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. He also forced a fumble, recovered two more, blocked a kick and swatted down three passes.

Crichton had six sacks as a redshirt freshman for a terrible defense. If you project similar improvement from 2012 to 2013, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior could push into some rarified sack numbers.

And Crichton sees plenty of room for improvement. Just start with conditioning. Crichton, who's sitting out spring practices with a shoulder injury, said getting stronger and more fit this offseason will make him a better player. When he watches film from last fall, that's what stands out to him when his play falls short.

"A lot of it was strength and stamina, endurance. I got tired on some plays," he said. "I remember one of the plays in the Stanford game, I was just jogging. I got chewed out by my coach."

Defenses won't be able to obsess exclusively about Crichton on the edge. For one, the capable Dylan Wynn, also a two-year starter, is back on the opposite end. Further, the Beavers are athletic at outside linebacker with D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor.

That foursome accounted for nearly half of the Beavers' total tackles for loss.

Of course, winning is more than personnel and X's and O's. The Beavers seemed to lose their way emotionally in 2010 and 2011. Just about everyone associated with the program recalls a renewed energy -- peppered with some anger -- in advance of the 2012 0ffseason.

"It was a mindset," Crichton said. "Everyone was sick and tired of losing. Everyone was doing extra in the offseason. But it should be like that every time. We shouldn't need a losing season to get going."

How much better was 2012 than 2011? It was nearly 10 points on defense. The Beavers surrendered 30.83 points per game in 2011, which ranked 89th in the nation. They yielded just 20.62 in 2012, which ranked 22nd.

If the Beavers continue to take steps forward, they will then run into the Oregon and Stanford tandem that has locked down the conference since 2009, and the Pac-12 North Division since it was created in 2011. The Ducks' recent run of excellence makes it hard to be satisfied in Corvallis, even with Top-25 finishes.

A season won't be truly fulfilling until the Beavers again take the Civil War, which they haven't done since 2007.

"I thought last year was a our year to get them but we lost to them. It was heartbreaking," Crichton said. "We get hungrier every year. Soon that scoreboard will change and it will go our way."

If Crichton collects double-digit sacks in 2013, and one or two of them come against Marcus Mariota, then maybe that scoreboard will change.

Mike Riley shuffles staff

January, 16, 2013
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Oregon State coach Mike Riley has made room on his staff for graduate assistant Trent Bray as linebackers coach by moving Jay Locey from tight ends coach to an administrative position.

Bray, who had coached linebackers as a GA, is a former Beavers standout at the position from 2002-05. He started 34 games and was first-team All-Pac-12 as a senior and second-team as a junior. He previously coached linebackers at Arizona State.

Locey becomes Riley's "chief of staff," while tight ends will be coached by a new GA.

From the news release from Oregon State:
Locey just completed his seventh season as a coach, the last four with the position responsibility for tight ends and the previous three with the Beaver wide receivers. His new role includes the responsibilities of prescreening of opponents, team building activities, leadership development, career/job placement opportunities for OSU football student-athletes, Varsity “O” Football alumni engagement, fundraising, coordinating incoming football student-athletes into the summer BEST Program (high school to college academic/athletics transition), and high school and community relations.

“I’m very excited to have Jay in this new role,” Riley said. “There is no better person than Jay to fill this crucial role because he has a great football mind, is an excellent communicator and has a genuine ability to connect with people.”

Locey, who officially begins his new role July 1 pending final approval by the university’s administration, came to OSU after a tremendously successful career at Linfield College in nearby McMinnville. He is one of the most successful coaches in the history of small college football. The five-time Northwest Conference Coach of the Year led the Wildcats to the 2004 NCAA Division III title and in 10 years as the head coach, guided the program to a record of 84-18, including a streak of 41 consecutive wins.

The Beavers return a strong pair of outside linebackers next fall -- junior D.J. Alexander and senior Michael Doctor -- but also lose middle linebacker Feti Taumoepeau and top backup Rueben Robinson.

Woods' three TDs pace Oregon State

October, 21, 2012
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Cody Vaz's encore wasn’t as pretty as his debut. But an offensive outburst wasn’t needed as the No. 8 Oregon State Beavers pounded their way to a 21-7 victory over Utah to improve to 6-0 and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.

Oregon State is 6-0 for just the second time in school history -- the previous time coming in 1907.

Behind three rushing touchdowns from Storm Woods -- and an outstanding performance from the OSU offensive line against a touted Utah front -- the Beavers were patient and methodical when the passing attack failed to take flight.

Vaz, pinch-hitting for the second week in a row while Sean Mannion recovers from a knee injury, was 16-of-26 with 174 yards with no touchdowns. More importantly, no interceptions and zero sacks.

Utah, however, turned the ball over four times, losing a pair of fumbles and seeing quarterback Travis Wilson -- also making his second consecutive start -- throw two interceptions.

The Beavers jumped ahead 14-0, turning both of Utah’s first-quarter turnovers into touchdowns. Wilson got the Utes on the board when he connected with Jake Murphy to cut the deficit in half with 6 minutes left in the second quarter. Wilson finished 15-of-28 with 172 yards.

Woods would add a third touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Neither offense looked particularly sharp, but Utah (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) did have some success moving the ball. However, anytime the Utes would get in striking distance, they’d turn the ball over or the Oregon State defense would step up with a big play by Scott Crichton or D.J. Alexander.

Oregon State’s fantastic wide receiver duo of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks were kept out of the end zone, though Wheaton did catch a game-high seven balls for 90 yards.

Utah running back John White got 20 carries, but could only muster 68 yards against a Oregon State’s defense, which entered the game ranked first in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally.

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