Pac-12: E.J. Savannah

What to watch in the Pac-10 this spring

February, 19, 2010
Taking a look at what to watch for as teams head into spring practices, officially ringing the bell on preparations for the 2010 season.

Spring practice starts: March 5
Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

The new coordinators: The Wildcats lost two outstanding coordinators -- Sonny Dykes on offense and Mark Stoops on defense -- and decided to replace them with four guys. Tim Kish, promoted from linebackers coach, and Greg Brown, hired away from Colorado, will run the defense, while Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell, both promoted from within, will run the offense, with an assist from new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo. These guys will need to develop a coaching rhythm this spring that will ensure things go smoothly in the fall.

The JC linebackers: The Wildcats must replace three starting linebackers, and JC transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo weren't brought in to watch. If they step into starting spots, then guys like sophomore Jake Fischer, redshirt freshman Trevor Erno and redshirt freshman Cordarius Golston can fight over the third spot and add depth.

Foles 2.0: Quarterback Nick Foles was dynamic when he was on last year, but the shutout loss in the Holiday Bowl served as a reminder that he's not there yet. He's going to be surrounded by a lot of weapons at the skill positions, so he should be able to take another step forward this spring, even with the loss of Dykes.

Arizona State
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

The QB battle: It's a wide-open battle between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler, though the new guy -- Threet -- is perhaps the most intriguing. Samson Szakacsy was supposed to join the battle, but his elbow problem is acting up again, coach Dennis Erickson said Thursday. The competition will be overseen by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who's been handed an offense that has sputtered the past two seasons.

O-line issues (take 3): The Sun Devils' offensive line has struggled three years running, and it won't matter who starts at QB if the unit continues to get pushed around. First off is health. Will Matt Hustad, Zach Schlink, Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz and Adam Tello be ready to battle the entire spring? If so, there should be good competition here, particularly with a couple of JC transfers looking to break through.

The secondary: The Sun Devils were very good against the pass last year, but three starters in the secondary need to be replaced. Both starting corners are gone -- though if Omar Bolden successfully returns from a knee injury he should step in on one side -- as well as strong safety Ryan McFoy. The good news is a number of guys saw action here last fall, so the rebuilt unit won't be completely green.

Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: N/A

What to watch:

Embattled Riley: When things go well, the quarterback often gets too much credit. When things go badly... well, you know. Senior Kevin Riley has started 22 games and has played well at times. But there's a reason he's in a quarterback competition for a third consecutive season. Will he be able to hold off a rising Beau Sweeney this spring?

Rebuilding the D: The Bears had questions on defense even before coordinator Bob Gregory unexpectedly bolted for Boise State. Five starters need to be replaced, including mainstays like end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, both first-team All-Pac-10 performers. And with Gregory gone, a new, likely more aggressive scheme now must be incorporated.

RB depth: Shane Vereen is the obvious starter after the departure of Jahvid Best, but Cal has, during the Tedford years, always used two backs. So who's the No. 2? Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie was third on the team with 211 yards rushing last year, while promising freshman Dasarte Yarnway redshirted. One or the other will look to create separation.

Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

The D-line: The Ducks lost perennially underrated end Will Tukuafu, tackle Blake Ferras and backup Simi Toeaina up front. Considering the plan is to run an eight-deep rotation, there will be plenty of opportunities for players like ends Terrell Turner and Taylor Hart and tackles Anthony Anderson, Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi as well as 6-foot-7 JC transfer Isaac Remington to work their way into the rotation.

The passing game: The Ducks' passing game was inconsistent last year, though by season's end receiver Jeff Maehl was playing at a high level. Refining that part of the offense with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would make the spread-option even more dangerous. The receiving corps is looking for playmakers, which means youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Diante Jackson, might break through.

Who steps in for Ed Dickson? Oregon only loses one starter on offense, but tight end Ed Dickson is a big one. David Paulson was a capable backup last year, and mercurial Malachi Lewis may be ready to step up. Expect JC transfer Brandon Williams to work his way into the mix.

Oregon State
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

Katz steps in: Sean Canfield is off to the NFL, so the Beavers' biggest question this spring is crowning a new starting quarterback. Most observers feel the job is Ryan Katz's to lose, and the sophomore looks good throwing the rock around. Still, being a quarterback is about more than a good arm. If he falters, Virginia transfer Peter Lalich might offer an alternative.

Better defensive pressure: The Beavers run a high-pressure defensive scheme, so when the stat sheet says they only recorded 17 sacks in 2009, which ranked ninth in the conference and was 22 fewer than in 2008, you know something is wrong. The entire defensive line is back, so the hope is a year of seasoning, particularly for ends Gabe Miller, Matt LaGrone and Kevin Frahm will mean better production this fall.

The O-line grows up: The Beavers' offensive line returns four starters from a unit that got better as the year went on. Still, it yielded 29 sacks and the run game struggled at times -- Jacquizz Rodgers often had to make yards on his own. Talented left tackle Michael Philipp, who did a solid job as a true freshman starter, should be much improved. A second year playing together with underrated senior center Alex Linnenkohl also should help.

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

Replacing Toby: How do you replace Toby Gerhart and his 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns? You do not. But the hope is sophomores Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor and senior Jeremy Stewart will provide a solid answer that keeps the Cardinal's power-running game churning. It helps to have four starters back from a good offensive line.

Rebuilding the D: If you toss in linebacker Clinton Snyder and end Erik Lorig, Stanford must replace six defensive starters from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the conference in 2009. The secondary is a particular concern after giving up 23 touchdown passes and a 63 percent completion rate. The hope is good recruiting from coach Jim Harbaugh will provide better athleticism in the back-half. Another issue: There was huge coaching turnover, particularly on defense during the offseason, so new coordinator Vic Fangio & Co. will be implementing new schemes and learning about what sort of talent they have to work with.

Luck steps up: This was Gerhart's team in 2009. Now it's Luck's. He might be the most talented QB in the conference. Heck, he might become a Heisman Trophy candidate before he's done. But life won't be as easy without defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because they are fretting about Gerhart. Luck will need to step up his game -- and leadership -- to meet the challenge.

Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Prince becomes king? The fact that offensive coordinator Norm Chow has been such an advocate for sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince should tell you something: He's got the ability. Prince flashed some skills during an injury-plagued 2009 season, and it's important to remember he was a redshirt freshman playing with a questionable supporting cast, particularly the O-line. Prince needs to improve his decision-making, and the passing game needs to develop a big-play capability that stretches defenses.

Front seven rebuilding: UCLA not only must replace six starters on defense, it must replace six guys everyone in the Pac-10 has heard of. And five of the lost starters come from the front seven, and the guys who were listed as backups on the 2009 depth chart won't necessarily inspire confidence. In other words, the Bruins will try to take a step forward in the conference with what figures to be an extremely green defense, particularly up front.

The running game? Know what would help Prince and a young defense? A better running game. The Bruins were significantly better in 2009 than in 2008, but that merely means one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation moved up to ninth in the conference. There's a logjam of options at running back -- with a couple of dynamic runners in the incoming recruiting class -- and the offensive line welcomes back a wealth of experience. It would mean a lot if the Bruins could boost their rushing total to around 150 yards per game (from 114.6 in 2009).

Spring practice starts: TBA
Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

Welcome, Lane Kiffin: The Pete Carroll era is over. Enter Lane Kiffin & Co. In terms of scheme, things will be fairly consistent, seeing that Kiffin was formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator and Monte Kiffin was Carroll's defensive mentor. But there will be a period of adjustment. The guess is the hyper-intense Ed Orgeron might provide a bit of a shock to the D-linemen.

Matt Barkley Year 2: Barkley won't have the president of his fan club -- Carroll -- around anymore. He's a true talent. Everyone knows that, even without Carroll's daily sonnets about his ability. But the numbers show he threw 14 interceptions in 12 games vs. 15 TD passes last year, so he's obviously not arrived. Kiffin runs the offense, so you can expect these two to work closely together. Barkley will have plenty of help on offense, but the talent won't be as good as it was in 2009, with six starters needing to be replaced, including his top two targets (receiver Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy).

Secondary questions: All four starters from the defensive backfield are gone, including center fielder Taylor Mays. It helps that cornerback Shareece Wright, an academic casualty in 2009, will be back. He was a projected starter last fall. There's plenty of talent on hand, but last year's team proved that the Trojans don't always just plug-and-play.

Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:

Unleashing Locker: The return of quarterback Jake Locker was the best news any Pac-10 team received this offseason. Locker's passing improved dramatically in just one year under coach Steve Sarkisian, so it's not unreasonable to expect him to be even better in 2010, particularly with nine starters back on offense and just about every skill player on the depth chart.

Replacing Te'o-Nesheim: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was a four-year starter who blossomed into an All-Pac-10 performer despite almost no supporting cast. He led the Huskies with 11 sacks in 2009, which was 8.5 more than any other player. Also, opposite end Darrion Jones is gone, and the cast at the position is extremely young. Who's the next pass-rushing threat?

The Butler did it: Linebacker Donald Butler blossomed last year, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and leading the Huskies in tackles and tackles for loss (15.5). Toss in E.J. Savannah's failure to earn a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, and the Huskies have some questions at linebacker. Mason Foster is a sure thing at one outside position, and Cort Dennison likely will fill a second gap, but there's an opportunity for a young player to fill void No. 3.

Washington State
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Tuel time: Coach Paul Wulff decided that freshman Jeff Tuel was the Cougars' quarterback of the future last year, so he opted to start him instead of going with a redshirt season. Tuel showed promise in six games, completing 59 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five picks. Most of his supporting cast is back on offense, so the expectation is the Cougars' offense could take a significant step forward this fall.

O-line intrigue: Some of the Cougars starting on the offensive line last fall didn't look like Pac-10 players. Injuries and youth made the line a glaring area of weakness, even with veteran Kenny Alfred at center. Alfred is gone, but the expectations are that last year's youth will be saltier after taking their knocks. Plus, a couple of juco additions should be in the mix for starting jobs.

Growing up: There is hope in that 19 starters are back from a team that played a lot of underclassmen in 2009. That youth should mature in 2010. And solid recruiting classes the past two seasons should offer an infusion of young promise.

Washington won't have Savannah in 2010

February, 16, 2010
Washington linebacker E.J. Savannah's long-shot bid for a sixth year of eligibility has been denied by the NCAA, according to various reports.

That's a blow because Savannah almost certainly would have been a starter next year for a LB unit that already is losing its best player, Donald Butler.

Savannah's career was marred by injuries, academic issues and a falling out with former coach Tyrone Willingham, whose controversial handling of a suspension of Savannah probably was the issue that tripped up the bid for a sixth year.

Savannah was reinstated by new coach Steve Sarkisian and played in seven games last year, ranking sixth on the team with 43 tackles.

Underrated senior Mason Foster will lead the Huskies linebackers in 2010, while junior Cort Dennison, who replaced Savannah when he was hurt in 2009, also is a likely starter. But the competition for Butler's position inside figures to be fairly wide open this spring and into the fall.

Locker nursing thigh bruise

November, 2, 2009
Posted by's Ted Miller

Washington quarterback Jake Locker is nursing a deep thigh bruise that might sideline him for the Huskies' game at UCLA on Saturday.

Coach Steve Sarkisian said Locker was "day to day."

"We're not going to force him back onto the field if he's not healthy and ready to go," Sarkisian said. "I would anticipate that he would be but it remains day to day."

Locker, who suffered the thigh bruise in the first quarter against Oregon on Oct. 24, was limited during bye week practices. He said he felt "pretty good" on Monday.

"I should be ready to go," Locker said.

Sophomore Ronnie Fouch is Locker's backup. Fouch started eight games last year after Locker suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Fouch completed 45 percent of his passes with 13 interceptions and four touchdowns.

"I think Ronnie can go in and perform very well," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian also said linebacker E.J. Savannah, who had surgery on a broken hand, is "very doubtful."

The game is critical to the Huskies' and Bruins' bowl hopes. Both are 3-5 overall and need to win three of their last four games to earn bowl eligibility.

Washington hasn't beaten UCLA in the Rose Bowl since 1995.

Pac-10 lunch links: Cal still figuring out where it stands

October, 28, 2009
Posted by's Ted Miller

Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath. "The horror! The horror!"
  • Top five reasons Arizona is ranked. Quarterback Nick Foles is still sick. Sick-sick, not, "Dude! Foles is sick, man!"
  • With Arizona State's leading rusher Dimitri Nance nursing a bum shoulder, Ryan Bass might get his shot at running back. Danny Sullivan will start at quarterback against California.
  • Will California's run game continue to roll at Arizona State? Cal still doesn't know where it stands in the Pac-10 pecking order.
  • Didn't Oregon and USC do this in 2007? It's deja vu for the Ducks and Trojans.
  • Oregon State is happy with the Pac-10 taking swift action against a bad call. Jacquizz Rodgers is the best player in the Pac-10.
  • Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh likes his quarterback, Andrew Luck. Some bad news for hard-luck lineman Allen Smith.
  • UCLA will use two QBs against Oregon State.
  • USC freshman QB Matt Barkley claims he doesn't spook easily, even on Halloween night amid a "blackout" at Autzen Stadium. USC thrives in big games.
  • Washington linebacker E.J. Savannah can't catch a break -- or, at least, one that doesn't happen inside his hand.
  • Washington State is rarely on TV, and that costs the Cougars. That's a big reason playing Notre Dame in San Antonio is necessary.
  • Interesting note from Chris Dufresne: "The Pac-10 and Southeastern conferences are battling for the title of nation's top conference. The SEC is No. 1 in four of the six Bowl Championship Series computers: Billingsley, Colley, Massey and Wolfe, and No. 2 in Sagarin and Anderson/Hester. The Pac-10 is No. 1 in Sagarin and Anderson/Hester and No. 2 in the other four."

Quick injury report

October, 12, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Some injury notes based on news reports.

Guard Conan Amituanai sprained his knee against Washington. He won't play against Stanford. Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell was hurt in a freak accident on Oct. 9 -- he was knocked out by a door and required stitches -- and didn't play Saturday, but he might return this week. Receiver Bug Wright (knee), defensive end Brooks Reed (ankle), running back Nic Grigsby (shoulder), running back Keola Antolin and defensive end D'Aundre Reed (hand) are all questionable.

Arizona State
The Sun Devils got two player back at Washington State -- guard Garth Gerhart and safety Ryan McFoy -- and didn't suffer any additional injuries. Receiver Kerry Taylor (hamstring), guard Matt Hustad and cornerback Omar Bolden (knee) each missed the Washington State game and are questionable this week.

After taking the weekend off, the Bears may get guard Matt Summers-Gavin (shoulder), wide receiver Nyan Boateng (foot) and tight end Spencer Ladner back for the UCLA game. On the downside, receiver Verran Tucker is battling a calf injury and backup nose tackle Kendrick Payne, who didn't play against USC, is doubtful with plantar fasciitis.

The Ducks only practice Wednesday and Friday during their bye week. It's unclear if quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (knee) or safety T.J. Ward (ankle) will be ready to participate. Offensive tackle C.E. Kaiser sat out all last week with a shin injury but he played against UCLA.

Oregon State
Offensive guard Gregg Peat bruised his knee against Stanford but he should be able to play after the bye week at USC. Running back Ryan McCants (knee) has yet to play this season but he is questionable for the USC game. Receiver Darrell Catchings (ankle) isn't expected to be ready by Oct. 24.

Defensive end Erik Lorig didn't play at Oregon State because of a groin injury. Safety Delano Howell is nursing a quad injury. Both are questionable for the visit to Arizona.

Linebacker Reggie Carter played through a sprained knee against Oregon but he's questionable for the Cal game. Tailback Johnathan Franklin and safety Glenn Love are both nursing sprained ankles. Defensive end Korey Bosworth bruised his ribs but is probable for Saturday.

Receiver Ronald Johnson (collarbone) and defensive end Armond Armstead (foot) are expected to be cleared to play at Notre Dame.

Offensive guard Greg Christine broke his fibula against Arizona and is likely done for the year. He was replaced by sophomore Nick Wood. Running back Chris Polk played through a sprained shoulder against Arizona. Linebacker E.J. Savannah and defensive tackle Cameron Elisara are nursing stingers.

Washington State
It's good news and bad news for the Cougars. Cornerback Daniel Simmons may be done for the season after breaking his leg against Arizona State. On the plus side, guard Zack Williams (ankle) should be ready for the visit to California after the bye week. Tackle Steven Ayers (ankle) and guard B.J. Guerra (knee) are questionable, as are defensive tackle Bernard Wolfgramm (hip) and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis (staph infection).

Pac-10 lunch links: USC is eyeballing Jahvid Best

October, 2, 2009
Posted by's Ted Miller

Happy Friday!
  • Arizona receiver Terrell Turner operates under the radar, but that doesn't mean he's not good.
  • Arizona State might have found a running back, one who's been around for a while.
  • California is still looking for the right cornerback to play opposite Syd'Quan Thompson.
  • Meanwhile, at Oregon, there's a football game this weekend.
  • Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea is relieved to hear his family in American Samoa and Tonga are OK after the tsunami.
  • It shouldn't be a surprise that Stanford's Chris Owusu has a lot of speed.
  • Price remains right at cornerback for UCLA.
  • USC plans to turn up the heat on Cal's Jahvid best. Defensive coordinator Rocky Seto has come a long way.
  • With E.J. Savannah likely out, Washington has put the ball in another Cort at linebacker.
  • Why start true freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel this season, and does that mean Washington State is giving up?

Ranking the Pac-10 linebackers

September, 1, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Just about every Pac-10 team feels good about its linebackers.

Not an easy position to rank.
  1. UCLA: Senior Reggie Carter was second-team All-Pac-10, up-and-coming sophomore Akeem Ayers and senior Kyle Bosworth man the two outside positions, while sophomore backup Steve Sloan started nine games last year.
  2. Oregon State: Keaton Kristick was second-team All-Pac-10, and the two-headed monster on the weakside -- Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey -- is back. Sophomore David Pa'aluhi -- a mixed martial arts fighter -- is promising in the middle.
  3. USC: Yes, USC gets the benefit of the doubt, despite three new starters. By season's end don't be surprised if Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith look like the conference's best unit.
  4. Oregon: Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews return, and Eddie Pleasant steps in for Jerome Boyd on the outside. There's good depth and good speed here.
  5. Arizona State: The Sun Devils have a lot of experience as well as young talent, but the starting crew of Travis Goethel, Gerald Munns and Mike Nixon doesn't possess top-end speed. And sophomore Shelly Lyons is hurt and the NCAA Clearinghouse hasn't yet cleared spectacular true freshman Vontaze Burfict.
  6. California: On the outside, Mike Mohamed and Eddie Young have plenty of experience. Inside, Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt are promising but green. The depth is solid.
  7. Arizona: The Wildcats are fast with Sterling Lewis, Xavier Kelly and Vuna Tuihalamaka, and Lewis and Kelly have starting experience. There's a pretty fair drop-off to the second unit.
  8. Stanford: Clinton Snyder will lead a solid crew that includes Will Powers and Chike Amajoyi. The uncertain status of Alex Debniak (knee) hurts.
  9. Washington: The Huskies have a solid triumvirate. E.J. Savannah returns after missing all of 2008 due to a suspension. He'll play outside opposite Mason Foster with Donald Butler in the middle. Depth is an issue.
  10. Washington State: Andy Mattingly's return on the strongside from defensive end should help. Jason Stripling is a senior on the weakside, but isn't terribly experienced -- he missed almost all of 2008 with a shoulder injury. JC transfer Alex Hoffman-Ellis will man the middle. He redshirted last year. It would help if undersized but quick Louis Bland was 100 percent because he would add much-needed speed.

Pac-10 lunch links: Cal DE Jordan demoted

August, 20, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

A school without football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.

Holt looking forward, not back, for Huskies defense

August, 18, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

SEATTLE -- Talent isn't an issue. Well, it is, but Nick Holt can't do anything about that right now as he heads into his first season as Washington's defensive coordinator.

Sure, it would be nice to insert Taylor Mays in as an insurance policy in the secondary. And defensive end Everson Griffen would be an exciting counterpart to line up opposite Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.

But NCAA rules prohibit Holt from inserting his former USC players into Washington's lineup.

So Holt finds himself leading one of the worst defenses in college football after leading the best one.

  AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
  Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt has his work cut out for him.
At this point, Holt's primary charge is mental and psychological rather than physical. He's trying to make the Huskies believe they are better -- way better -- than the 2008 unit, which ranked as the worst in school history, a fitting part of a 0-12 team.

"I think that's the biggest issue -- getting them to believe, to expect to win," Holt said. "We need to understand how to overcome adversity when something bad happens. We can't get our heads down and look in the rear-view mirror all the time. We need to throw away that rear view mirror."

Perhaps that's because objects in that mirror are closer than they appear, including last year's embarrassing numbers: 38.6 points and 452 yards per game.

The good news is 10 starters are back. The bad news is 10 starters are back.

And yet, after all the pokes and jokes are exhausted, it's curiously easy to look at the Huskies D and go: These guys aren't that bad.

The linebackers are solid. Maybe even better than solid. Te'o-Nesheim was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2008 and is a likely NFL draft pick. Strong safety Nate Williams was honorable mention All-Pac-10.

"I think we will control the run a lot better," Savannah said. "I think our linebackers can match up with anyone in the country."

We shall see. Just showing a little swagger is a step forward.

Holt knows swagger. The Trojans had it, and Holt is notoriously full of manic energy. It's unlikely players fall asleep when he's leading a meeting.

After spring practices and summer of workouts, he said his defense is "a lot stronger, a lot faster and a lot leaner." And it's learning how to practice.

"I think our guys understand practice tempo a little bit more," he said.

Still, there are issues. Significant ones.

There's a lack of speed, particularly in the secondary. There's uncertainty at the end opposite Te'o Nesheim. There's some potential at tackle, but it as of yet is unrealized.

"Our corners are getting better, but we have to find some guys we can count on day-in and day-out," Holt said. "We need to help our guys out who maybe don't run as well."

Holt isn't going to be able to run the defense like he wants to because he's going to have to cover up some shortcomings.

"We need to help them out with our calls -- there's no question," he said "We can't leave them on an island by themselves. They're getting better. But we do need to help them out. And that's our job as coaches."

That sometimes means taking chances. USC didn't have to run jailbreak blitzes to pressure the quarterback. The Huskies will.

"You look at it two ways," he said. "You either take risks or you are conservative and play really passive. That's not us. We want our guys to play aggressive and be hungry."

Being in better condition should help. Experience -- even the awful experience of 2008 -- should help. And renewed confidence and hunger should help.

"We better be a lot better than last year," Holt said. "We've got to be. That's unacceptable."

While Washington might not resemble a second-coming of the Trojans in 2009, it should be substantially improved compared to the previous two seasons.

As for the talent, that will require drumming up enthusiasm on the recruiting trail.

Savannah eager for fresh start

August, 17, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

SEATTLE -- E.J. Savannah won't solve all of Washington's defensive problems. After all, he was the Huskies leading tackler in 2007, when the defense posted the second-worst numbers in school history.

Of course, the worst defense in Huskies history was last season's unit, which surrendered 38.6 points and 452 yards per game.

Savannah wasn't a part of that group for a variety of reasons.

  AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
  E.J. Savannah is out of the doghouse and back on the field for Washington.
The easiest explanation for his absence in 2008 is this: He was in then-coach Tyrone Willingham's doghouse.

"Once you get into the doghouse, it's hard to get out," Savannah said.

It was a complicated situation. Savannah admits he missed summer workouts. He was struggling with his grades, though he insists that he wasn't ineligible. He broke his arm during the offseason in a bizarre arm wrestling incident.

But he wanted back on the team and thought he was meeting Willingham's guidelines for what he had to do to earn his way back.

"I can't really tell you the reasons for me being away for that long," Savannah said. "[Willingham] never gave us a concise answer. It was just time to step away. I was in limbo for so long."

Limbo is one way to put it. Watching the Huskies get whipped on TV every week was like something else.

"It felt like I was in prison," he said. "The television was my prison cell."

The Huskies gave up 241 yards rushing per game. Opponents completed 67 percent of their passes.

It was ugly.

Savannah believes his absence hurt.

"I was the leader on defense," he said. "Talking to a lot of the guys, they missed my leadership out there. That was the thing that hurt me most. It was like sending troops into battle without their leader."

As for why things were so awful, Savannah doesn't believe it was just a lack of competitive talent.

"It was too many things to count," he said. "I honestly think it was the players not trusting the coaches and not buying into the program. That's how you get an 0-12 season."

Savannah was probably the most celebrated member of Willingham's first recruiting class -- a collection that was widely panned as the Pac-10's worst in 2005. He led prep powerhouse Bellevue (Wash.) High School to four straight titles and saw significant action as a redshirt freshman.

While Savannah, now a senior, thought about transferring, Willingham's midseason termination gave him hope that the next coach would give him another chance, which is exactly what Steve Sarkisian did.

"We wiped the slate clean," Sarkisian said.

While Savannah was rusty during spring practices, it didn't take long for him to rejoin the No. 1 defense as an outside linebacker. The Huskies linebackers, which include middle 'backer Donald Butler and Mason Foster opposite Savannah, are probably the strength of a defense that welcomes back 10 starters and can only get better.

Savannah fractured a bone in his hand -- he said he'd been playing with the injury for a week -- and will wear a cast for four weeks, though the injury isn't expected to keep him from practicing. 

"He' still a little rusty in his assignments from having a year off," coordinator Nick Holt said. "We have to kind of harness him. He wants to do too much sometimes. He wants to make every tackle as opposed to just doing his job. It's kind of scraping the rust off."

Said Savannah, "[Coach Holt] says, 'Don't try to be superman,' but that's how my mentality is," Savannah said. "It's hard because I'm an instinctive player. If I see a run across the field, I want to go get it. But I've just got to play the defense."

While on suspension, Savannah had to get a regular job and live like a regular Joe.

"I did not like it at all," he said.

His slate now clean, he has a chance to be part of the Huskies redemption, as well as his own.

Pac-10 preseason power rankings

August, 10, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

What's our preseason projection for the Pac-10? Probably not many shocks here. This mirrors my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

1. USC: The Trojans are No. 1 until somebody knocks them off the mountain. With nine starters back on offense, including what might be the nation's best offensive line, there will be plenty of help for the new quarterback. And do you really think USC's defense won't be elite again in 2009? Come on.

2. California: The Bears have 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2009, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jahvid Best. The secondary will be one of the nation's best and the defensive line is as good as any in the Pac-10. Replacing three of four linebackers doesn't seem to be causing much stress in Berkeley. The only issue is how much the passing game improves. If it improves significantly, this is a potential BCS bowl team.

3. Oregon: Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount give the Ducks a strong one-two punch on offense and an athletic corps of linebackers and cornerback Walter Thurmond and end Will Tukuafu will lead the defense. Both lines are questions that, if answered, could push the Ducks to the top of the conference.

4. Oregon State: Rebuild or reload? The Beavers have transitioned to the latter category, which is why most are overlooking a defense that needs to replace eight starters, including the entire secondary, and an offensive line that must replace three first-rate starters. There are two veteran quarterbacks in Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield and the explosive Rodgers brothers -- James and Jacquizz -- leading the offense, while tackle Stephen Paea and linebacker Keaton Kristick lead the defense.

5. Arizona: Losing three offensive mainstays -- quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas and tackle Eben Britton --- hurts, but the Wildcats should be even better on defense in 2009, and the general feeling is the offense will be solid whether Matt Scott or Nick Foles wins the job. For one, tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best target in the Pac-10.

6. Stanford: The Cardinal have lots of guys back -- 17 -- from a team that fell just short of bowl eligibility in 2008. They also have seven home games after playing just five a year ago. The key is passing -- on offense and defense. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is supposed to be the answer for the offense, while an injection of young talent should improve the athleticism in the secondary.

7. UCLA: The Bruins have two big questions: quarterback and offensive line. The defense should be good, led by tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner -- all three are All-American candidates -- but it won't matter if the running game remains anemic. One big reasons for optimism: five offensive players are again available who would have started last year but were out for various reasons back: running back Christian Ramirez, tight end Logan Paulsen, center Kai Maiava, fullback Trevor Theriot and tackle Sean Sheller.

8. Arizona State: Not unlike UCLA, Arizona State has questions at quarterback and on the offensive line while the defense looks solid. Senior Danny Sullivan played well in the spring and looks to be the favorite at quarterback, while new faces could key dramatic improvement on the offensive line. If things fall into place, the Sun Devils could win eight or nine games, but it's hard to project that until the offensive line proves itself.

9. Washington: The good news is the Huskies could be the most-improved team in the conference. Of course, it's hard to regress from an 0-12 season. Moreover, Washington could play much better and still have little to show for it because the nonconfernce schedule features LSU and Notre Dame. Still, the return of 18 starters, as well as quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker E.J. Savannah, suggests the Huskies won't be anyone's patsy this fall.

10. Washington State: The biggest hope for the Cougars lies in a potentially improved running game that could keep a defense that is thin on talent on all three levels off the field. That didn't happen last year -- see an offense that ranked 118th in the country that surrendered 38 turnovers, tied for most in the nation. But there's experience on the offensive line and James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy give the Cougars a pair of solid backs. If either Marshall Lobbestael or Kevin Lopina provides adequate quarterback play, Washington State might surprise some folks.

State of the conference: Pac-10

August, 10, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Is this the season?

Is this the season when, after all the huffing and puffing and upsets and injuries and brilliant performances, that the Pac-10 crown is placed upon the head of a team other than USC?

This question has been asked before. Like every preseason since 2003.

State of the conference? What did we write last year?

[The Pac-10], from Tucson to Seattle to Eugene to Berkeley to Westwood, looks up and sees USC's Men of Troy standing above, smirking in their Cardinal & Gold Armani armor, which sports six gaudy, sequential badges of Pac-10 supremacy.

Only now it's seven.

And the overwhelming consensus that it will be eight.

And yet.

The whispers of Trojan vulnerability are louder this year. USC is rebuilding its defense with just three starters back. The two leading candidates to start at quarterback, sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley, are greener than most of their predecessors under coach Pete Carroll, though it is true that Matt Leinart won the first of two consecutive national championship in 2003 as a sophomore.

But what's more interesting is not so much talk of Trojan questions, but Pac-10 answers.

Sure, USC was tapped No. 4 in the preseason coaches' poll. But California, ranked 12th, and Oregon, at No. 14, are two legitimate challengers, while Oregon State finally earned the respect that 28 wins over the three previous seasons merit and was 25th.

Last fall, Arizona State, ranked 15th in the preseason, was touted as the Trojans' top challenger, at least in terms of national polls. But the scuttlebutt within the conference was highly skeptical. The Sun Devils had huge issues on the offensive line and had benefited from a highly favorable schedule while winning 10 games in 2007.

There's little skepticism with Cal, in large part because the defense likely will rank among the nation's best. Oh, and this fellow by the name of Jahvid Best is OK, too.

Oregon, which is rebuilding both lines, has more questions, but quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's dramatic improvement down the stretch last season is obscuring those concerns.

Oregon State, meanwhile, has earned the benefit of the doubt after successfully completing what appeared to be substantial rebuilding projects in advance of the previous three seasons. And two experienced quarterbacks and 2008 Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers is a good place to start.

Then there's the middle and lower-third of the conference. From the vantage point of pure preseason speculation, only Washington State appears unlikely to improve from 2008, though even the Cougars have some hope with an easier nonconference schedule and an expectation that injuries can't possibly be as epidemic as they were last fall.

Some seem skeptical about Arizona improving on 2008's eight-win total that was capped by a Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU, but that perspective seems ignorant of the talent and experience the Wildcats have on both sides of the ball as well as a curious focus on Mike Stoops as a coach in 2004 and 2005 rather than his present, more seasoned incarnation.

UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State all appear capable of breaking even -- or better -- and becoming bowl eligible. Washington has 18 starters back, and that doesn't include linebacker E.J. Savannah, a potential All-Pac-10 pick.

Moreover, the return of quarterback Jake Locker and the arrival of a new coaching staff led by Steve Sarkisian suggests that the Huskies won't even remotely resemble the uninspired, 0-12 disaster they were last year under Tyrone Willingham.

In sum, it seems entirely possible that the momentum of a 5-0 bowl season, which reasserted the Pac-10's elite status among BCS conferences -- not to mention reignited debate among the knowledgeable that USC was, again, the nation's best team -- will carry over in 2009.

A caveat for Pac-10 fans: The nonconference schedule is even more brutal in 2009. It includes five road games against teams ranked in the preseason coaches' poll (Ohio State, Georgia, Iowa, Boise State and Notre Dame). And that doesn't include games at Tennessee, Minnesota and Wake Forest.

In other words, it's possible that a repeat of last fall's poor-to-middling performance in early-season nonconference games could cause the rest of the nation to -- fair or unfair -- write off the Pac-10.

So the Pac-10 best adopt a road warrior mentality.

Which, by the way, USC will need in spades to retain its Pac-10 crown and elite national ranking -- see a schedule that includes visits to Ohio State, California, Notre Dame and Oregon.

While you were on vacation ... Washington

July, 29, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

The ninth of 10 quick updates on offseason Pac-10 goings on.

Washington in a sentence

  • While the Huskies hit an all-time low as a program by going winless in 2008, there's an abundance of hope for a dramatic improvement under new coach Steve Sarkisian with 18 starters returning as well as quarterback Jake Locker, who was lost to injury four games into last season, and linebacker E.J. Savannah, who was suspended by former coach Tyrone Willingham.

The big issue

  • When a team finishes 0-12, everything is an issue, but a good start would be shoring up a defense that ranked 110th in the nation last year, yielding 452 yards per game. Ten starters are back on that side of the ball -- not including Savannah --- but will that prove to be a good thing?

Quick hit news

  • Tailbacks Brandon Johnson and David Freeman and linebacker Bradly Roussel left the program.
  • All 13 of the Huskies' freshmen are already on campus. The Seattle Times reported that, of the six JC transfers in the incoming class, only one, tight end Dorson Boyce is presently with the team. Another, defensive lineman Johnny Tivao of Cerritos College, is not expected to make it. The other four are trying to complete their work to become academically eligible.
  • Sarkisian has gotten off to a fast start with his second recruiting class. The Huskies already have 13 commitments and most services rank the present haul among the nation's top 25.

Don't be surprised if ... Washington

July, 9, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Fourteenth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ... the momentum of the Washington program takes a strong turn in a positive direction.

Fact is we don't know if Steve Sarkisian will be a good head coach or if defensive coordinator Nick Holt will prove worthy of all that money.

They haven't coached a game yet.

But, writing as a person who was an eyewitness to much of program's shocking implosion, I've just got a feeling the six-year Misery on Montlake Era is over.

Which is good for the Pac-10, because the precipitous decline of a perennial power hurt the conference's national image.

(My guess is some Oregon fans will take issue with this, but -- be honest -- don't you folks miss the days when the bitter rivalry really meant something? That to-the-bones hate was electric when both teams were ranked.)

The biggest reason for Huskies fans to be upbeat is the early recruiting returns. Sarkisian has a shot at hauling in a top-25 class, which is quite an achievement for a team that went 0-12 last year.

Washington certainly needs to upgrade its talent -- its across-the-board team speed in particular -- to match up in the Pac-10.

But the thing that's often missed: The Huskies weren't that bad last year, at least not until quarterback Jake Locker got hurt the fourth game -- a seven-point loss to Stanford -- and the team waved a white flag over the season knowing that Tyrone Willingham was being kicked to the curb.

Fact is the Huskies, in terms of pure talent, were a lot closer to the team that lost by one point to BYU. Heck, if administrators had scheduled properly, the team would have won two or three games early in the season and then who knows what might have happened?

But this is about 2009. So what are the reasons for optimism?

  • The Huskies have 18 starters back, and those are all position players. And that total doesn't include linebacker E.J. Savannah, who was the leading tackler in 2007.
  • Folks seem to have forgotten that Locker is one of the most dynamic athletes at his position in the nation. He showed vastly improved accuracy this spring and seemed comfortable running a pro-style offense instead of the spread-option he led the previous two seasons.
  • This team is not devoid of talent. Savannah, Locker and defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim are all-conference-type guys. D'Andre Goodwin leads a solid group of receivers. Things look solid at tight end and linebacker. Nate Williams is a good safety. Running back Chris Polk was offered a scholarship by USC.
  • The high-energy style Sarkisian and Holt brought from USC is perfect for waking up a program in the doldrums (and the lack thereof was one reason the dour Willingham failed). Husky football has lacked fire and enthusiasm since Rick Neuheisel was in charge.
  • No matter how hard other Pac-10 coaches try to motivate their teams otherwise, opposing players are going to sleep on the Huskies. Someone -- or maybe a couple of someones -- is going to get bitten by taking a win over Washington for granted.

All that said, I agree with Seattle Times beat writer Bob Condotta: The over-under on Washington wins is probably four.

But four is a lot more than zero.

And, in 2010, it won't be unrealistic to project six wins and bowl eligibility. (Though, as is their way, UW administrators have signed up a brutal nonconference schedule: at BYU, Syracuse and Nebraska.)

Don't be surprised if ... run defense

July, 7, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Twelfth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ... the ranking of run defenses is roughly equivalent to the conference standings.

Right, right ... we know. Every coach says you've got to be able to run the ball and stop the run to win. Yawn. Welcome to the world of gee-whiz observations.

Yet here's the situation: Six Pac-10 teams ranked among the nation's top 50 in rushing last year. All of those teams scored 21 or more rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards or more per carry.

Five running backs who eclipsed the 1,000-yard benchmark in 2008 are back this fall. And that doesn't include any of USC's stable of thoroughbreds or running quarterbacks like Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli or Washington's Jake Locker.

While there are many questions on offensive lines -- other than USC and, perhaps, California -- there are plenty of reasons to believe the conference will be as good running the ball again in 2009.

Ergo: Stop the run, win the ring.

Here's how run defenses stacked up last year.

Run Defense 2008
1. USC... 87.4 ypg (2.7 ypc)
2. Oregon... 119.4 ypg (3.1 ypc)
3. California... 122.2 ypg (3.2 ypc)
4. Arizona State... 126.5 ypg (3.5 ypc)
5. Arizona... 131.1 ypg (4.1 ypc)
6. Oregon State... 131.2 ypg (3.8 ypc)
7. Stanford... 152.9 ypg (4.3 ypc)
8. UCLA... 169.8 ypg (4.4 ypc)
9. Washington... 240.6 ypg (5.7 ypc)
10. Washington State... 247.6 ypg (5.8 ypc)

Notice how it stacks up much like the conference standings. Oregon State at sixth? That's a bit of a fluke. Before the Civil War, the Beavers ranked second and were giving up just 112 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.

Then something happened in the Civil War -- 385 yards of something, which any Oregon State fan will tell you it's absolutely pointless to regurgitate.

So who's looking good to stop the run this fall? While it's an over-simplification to hand all run-stopping responsibility to a front-7, that's what we're going to do.

Front-7 returning 2009
Washington... 7 (4 DL, 3 LB)
Arizona... 5 (4 DL, 1 LB)
Stanford... 5 (3 DL, 2 LB)
UCLA... 5 (3 DL, 2 LB)
Arizona State 4 (2 DL, 2 LB)
California... 4 (3 DL, 1 LB)
Oregon... 3 (1 DL, 2 LB)
Oregon State... 3 (1 DL, 2 LB)
Washington State... 2 (1 DL, 1 LB)
USC... (1 DL)

So, blending together past performance and what's coming back, what conclusions can we reach?

(Read full post)



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