Pac-12: Greg Nwoko

The Pac-12 features another strong crop of running backs -- seven return after compiling more than 900 yards rushing in 2011 -- but there are also a few teams facing uncertainty at the position.

Evaluations aren't easy here. A number of teams have an A-list leading rusher back but uncertain depth. Others have plenty of experience returning but no proven A-lister. So stars and depth matter here.

A general impression: Running back is strong position in the conference. No team has a sense of desperation here.

So how does it stack up?

Great shape

Stanford: Stepfan Taylor was second-team All-Pac-12 last year after rushing for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns. But the Cardinal also welcomes back its second- and third-leading rushers, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, as well as Ricky Seale, who was impressive this spring. And, of course, there's a guy called BARRY SANDERS arriving in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJohn White
Chris Morrison/US PresswireJohn White is the Pac-12's leading returning rusher -- and could get help in the Utah backfield.
Utah: John White, also second-team All-Pac-12 in 2011, is the conference's leading returning rusher with 1,519 yards last year. He was mostly a one-man show -- he led the conference in carries -- but that won't be the case this fall. Harvey Langi and Kelvin York, both over 220 pounds, showed they are ready to contribute quality reps this spring.

California: Isi Sofele ranked fifth in the conference with 1,322 yards rushing in 2011, but he'll have to old off a challenge from C.J. Anderson -- 345 yards and eight TDs in 2011 -- to retain his starting job this fall. The depth is strong with Brendan Bigelow, Daniel Lasco and Darren Ervin.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils have both a star in Cameron Marshall and good depth. Marshall rushed for 1,050 and 18 touchdowns last season. Depth? Kyle Middlebrooks, James Morrison, Deantre Lewis, Marion Grice and incoming freshman D.J. Foster will be battling for touches.

Oregon: The Ducks are difficult to rate. If everything falls into place -- and it's reasonable to believe they will -- Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James' longtime backup, will become a star, spectacular hybrid RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas will make a bunch of big plays in a change-of-pace role and touted incoming freshman Byron Marshall will become the third option. Nonetheless, one injury here would be a major blow.

USC: The Trojans are just like the Ducks: Top-heavy with questionable depth. The underrated Curtis McNeal -- the 1,000-yard rusher averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2011 -- is back, and so is D.J. Morgan, who rushed for 163 yards last year. If redshirt freshman Javorious "Buck" Allen and incoming freshman Nelson Agholor step up, things should be fine. But depth here is one of the Trojans' few question marks.

Good shape

UCLA: Johnathan Franklin is back, and he's been highly productive -- if fumble-prone -- for a while. Malcolm Jones, who rushed for 103 yards in 2011, is back, and Steven Manfro was a spring standout. While the position isn't spectacular for the Bruins, it's certainly not a chief worry heading into the season.

Arizona: Is promising sophomore Ka'Deem Carey ready to become a star? He rushed for 425 yards last year and looked good this spring. There's also good depth behind him: Daniel Jenkins, Taimi Tutogi, Kylan Butler, Greg Nwoko and Jared Baker.

Washington State: The two leading rushers from 2011, Rickey Galvin and Carl Winston, are back, and they combined for more than 1,000 yards. But sophomore Marcus Mason was with the No. 1 offense during the spring game, and Leon Brooks also is in the mix. Catching the ball well will be almost as important as taking a handoff under new coach Mike Leach.

Washington: Workhorse Chris Polk is gone, but Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey both saw plenty of action in 2011. Might Deontae Cooper get healthy -- finally -- and work his way into the picture? Like a lot of teams, the Huskies have the potential to be fine here. But it's reasonable to expect the running game to take a step back this fall, particularly with issues on the O-line.

We'll see

Oregon State: Everybody is back, but no Beaver rushed for more than 423 yards last year. And, of course, Oregon State was one of the nation's worst rushing teams. The pecking order also didn't seem to completely work itself out, though redshirt freshman Storm Woods had a strong spring.

Colorado: The good news is Tony Jones had a good spring and looks capable of replacing the departed Rodney Stewart. Still, he averaged 3.8 yards per rush in 2011. Josh Ford rushed for 128 yards last season. Depth is a bit uncertain also, with D.D. Goodson and Malcolm Creer, who is coming back from a knee injury.
While there is no on-the-record clarity on the situation, it's fair to say that Arizona's All-Pac-10 receiver Juron Criner's season is at-risk due to an "undisclosed personal issue," which a source told the Pac-12 blog was a "non-injury, medical issue."

[+] EnlargeJuron Criner
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireJuron Criner is the best player among a deep group of receivers at Arizona.
Arizona is not commenting because of student privacy guidelines. A source inside the football office texted the Pac-12 blog that his hope was Criner "will be ready for the season."

Criner, a second-team All-American, led the Wildcats with 82 receptions for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Arizona starts fall camp Aug. 3.

What does this mean for the Wildcats? Well, nothing yet. This is obviously a serious situation, but the endgame won't reveal itself until Criner's status is made official.

But it does force us to speculate what the Wildcats offense might be without Criner. The short answer is "probably OK."

While no team wants to lose an All-American, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and experienced crews of receivers in the conference and the nation. Sure, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Criner was the headliner, a guy who could tax a defense in a variety of ways and who always seemed to be the go-to guy when the screws tightened.

But, as we noted with our review of Pac-12 receiving corps, the Wildcats should be better than OK, even without Criner. To quote ourselves:

"David Douglas, David Roberts, Terrence Miller and Richard Morrison -- each caught between 19 and 52 passes a season ago. Oh, and there's also Texas transfer Dan Buckner, Austin Hill, Garic Wharton and Tyler Slavin. There's size, speed, depth and experience."

What this does mean is that Buckner needs to live up to the high expectations we've been hearing for months, and at least one of the speedy youngsters needs to step up as a deep threat.

Still, the Wildcats and quarterback Nick Foles will be able to line up in a four- and even five-receiver set without resorting to a scrub as the last option.

Criner made the Wildcats receivers looking like a great unit. But even -- potentially -- without him, they should be very good.

More on the Criner situation here. And here.

Of course, Wildcats fans already might be thinking about "what-might-have-been" before the 2011 season begins. Criner is potentially the third projected starter lost since the end of last season. Safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer suffered knee injuries this spring, as did backup running back Greg Nwoko and backup defensive tackle Willie Mobley.
The Pac-12 features another strong crop of running backs -- five returning 1,000-yard rushers -- but there are also a few teams facing uncertainty at the position.

So how does it stack up?

Great shape

    [+] EnlargeLaMichael James
    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesLaMichael James leads a talented running back corps that has both experience and depth.
  • Oregon: It's not just that the Ducks have Heisman Trophy finalist and unanimous All-American LaMichael James coming back, it's that they have Kenjon Barner and Lache Seastrunk to help carry the load. When you toss in touted incoming freshman De’Anthony Thomas -- play or redshirt? -- Oregon may have the best backfield in the nation.
  • Washington: Chris Polk is a workhorse who gained 1,415 yards last season -- he's also a good receiver -- and there's good depth with Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper, who sat out last year with a knee injury.
  • Stanford: Stepfan Taylor lead the way with 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010, but the depth is phenomenal with Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart.
  • UCLA: Not unlike Stanford, there's a returning 1,000-yard rusher -- Johnathan Franklin -- and great depth: Derrick Coleman, Malcolm Jones and Jordan James.
  • Colorado: Rodney Stewart, at 5-foot-6, 175 pounds, is a diminutive workhorse. He rushed for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010. The only issue here is depth, though redshirt freshman Tony Jones had a nice spring.
Good shape
We'll see

  • California: Strange to see Cal down here, eh? What in the name of J.J., Marshawn, Jahvid and Vereen is going on? Isi Sofele is No. 1 on the post-spring depth chart, but it's wide open after that, with incoming freshmen expected to be immediately in the mix.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers have experience with Ryan McCants, but he's struggled to break through. Sophomore Jovan Stevenson, redshirt freshman Malcolm Marable and grayshirt freshman Terron Ward are options, as is Jordan Jenkins, who missed spring with a shoulder injury.
  • Utah: The Utes lost their top three backs from 2010, and their top three backs heading into 2011 have no experience. But John White, Harvey Langi and Thretton Palamo showed plenty of promise this spring. It's just we don't know what they'll do when the lights go on in Pac-12 play.
  • Washington State: Logwone Mitz and Carl Winston are back -- they combined for 353 yards in 2010 -- and hopes are high for Ricky Galvin, who was injured early in the Cougars opening game last fall. But this is not a position of strength for the Cougars.
Previous reviews

Quarterback

Opening the mailbag: USC got what it deserved

May, 31, 2011
5/31/11
8:35
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Vacation created a backlog in the mailbag, so I'm going to hit it twice this week.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes.

Frank from Dallas writes: U$C is the biggest cheating school in college football and everyone knows that besides you. Your article was ignorant. U$C got what it deserved. It knew Bush was getting money. He was driving around in a souped up car. U$C is a repeat violator, which you should know is why they got such hard penalties. This was one of the worst cases in NCAA history. You're an idiot.

Ted Miller: May I whine for a moment? I am weary of this subject. This might be the last time I reply to a note about USC, Reggie Bush and the NCAA.

Part of my exhaustion is this: USC critics who celebrate the NCAA's harsh penalties almost uniformly don't know what they are talking about. They don't know the facts of the case. They don't know what is and isn't relevant to the case. They haven't read the relevant documents.

Let's just take one of Frank's assertions: Bush was driving around in a "souped up car."

Wrong. Bush was driving around in a 1996 Impala. The car didn't get dudded up until after Bush declared that he would enter the 2006 NFL draft a year early. Here's the often, er, mis-remembered photo. Note the date. Of course, you can't blame Frank and others. The NCAA infractions committee struggled to keep its facts straight, too.

Look, I know many of you hate USC. I know there are USC-hating blogs out there that have blistered me over my belief the NCAA treated USC unfairly, even though that is a widely held perception among sports writers who actually know the details of the Bush case. I don't mind getting blistered. Just get the details right.

My position on USC and the Reggie Bush case has not changed and is entirely based on my perception of fairness, not some sort of pro-USC bias: USC deserved significant sanctions for major violations, and those penalties should have fallen under the penalties Alabama received in 2002.

There is no conceivable way -- and I'd be glad debate anyone at the NCAA over the matter -- to insist that the widespread, booster pay-for-play scheme uncovered at Alabama shouldn't be considered a worse case than USC-Bush. Just read the USA Today article on the Alabama case.

This is when someone throws out "repeat violator" as a rationale for USC getting worse sanctions. Er, so was Alabama.

(Alabama fans: I am not picking on you. It's just the most relevant, recent case to compare to USC).

Some have suggested that the NCAA wanted to make an example out of USC by handing out game-changing penalties that might act as a deterrent for others. Sorry, I didn't get the memo on that one. If that is, indeed, the case -- that the NCAA took unprecedented measures against one program without formally announcing a policy change -- well, that my friends would be the definition of unfair.

And, by the way, more than a few schools should be worried if that's the case.

As for USC being a big "cheating" school, well, let's just put it this way: List the major football violations the NCAA's four-year investigation uncovered other than Bush getting extra benefits.

Yes, you hear crickets.

"One of the worst cases in NCAA history"? Well, you compare.

I believe USC was treated unfairly by the NCAA. I have yet to read a reasoned account -- from the media or from the NCAA -- that makes a convincing argument otherwise.

Spencer from San Francisco writes: I'm hearing a lot of concern about Cal's chemistry on the offensive line. Shouldn't the return Jim Michalzckzyckyikxzixkxik ease some of these doubts?

Ted Miller: You, of course, mean Jim Michalczik, who shortened his name when he moved from the old country of Port Angeles, Wash.

Cal's offensive line has been disappointing since Michalczik left for Washington (briefly) and then the Oakland Raiders. The first place to point, logically, would be talent. The second, Michalczik's absence. I've consistently heard from people that he's one of the best offensive line coaches out there.

So, yes, I think it's fair for you to ease some doubts about the Bears O-line due to his return.

Andrew from Seattle writes: With the resignation of Jim Tressel, do you think that Mike Bellotti would consider taking a job at Ohio State? Would they be a good fit?

Ted Miller: Bellotti was a serious candidate for the Ohio State job in 2001, when Tressel was hired. Ohio State certainly could do worse than Bellotti. It could make for an interesting Rose Bowl if the Ducks and Buckeyes met again.

But Bellotti turns 61 in December, and keep in mind this is a pending hire for the 2012 season. Ohio State probably wouldn't want a coach at that age who'd have to learn the Big Ten and Big Ten recruiting on the fly. And I doubt Bellotti would want a job that came with significant NCAA sanctions.

So, no, it doesn't seem like a good fit.

If Bellotti is going to coach again -- he's done an outstanding job as an ESPN color guy since leaving Oregon -- it almost certainly would be at West Coast school. Don't be surprised if his name comes up as some Pac-12 hot seats get hotter during the fall.

Joey from Chicago writes: What does Arizona's depth chart look like on offense and defense with all the injuries? Can you name the starters if the season started today?

Ted Miller: Arizona has lost two starters and two backups to ACL injuries since the end of last season: safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer are the starters, and running back Greg Nwoko and defensive tackle Willie Mobley are the backups.

That's certainly not good, but it doesn't exactly send Arizona into disarray. Hall and Fischer are big losses. Hall is a budding star, and Fischer's loss is worrisome because the Wildcats are thin at linebacker. The depth in the secondary is pretty good: Robert Golden moves from cornerback to safety beside Marquis Flowers, which doesn't hurt badly because Trevin Wade, Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson are three quality corners.

Linebacker is a bit more tricky. Two backups from 2010, R.J. Young and Trevor Erno, quit the team before spring practices. Redshirt freshman Kyle Benson is listed as Fischer's backup on the spring depth chart, while walk-on Bilal Muhammed is listed as the backup at the other two spots. It's almost certain that at least one of the touted incoming freshmen -- Rob Hankins, Hank Hobson and Dominique Petties -- will be immediately in the mix.

Vince from Scottsdale writes: Ted, You forgot to mention that ASU is @22 in Phil Steele's top 30 rankings..... that scorches the butthole Ted.

Ted Miller: Or, just maybe, when I included the link, Phil Steele had only reached No. 17 on his count-up.

You'll note Steele has Stanford at No. 16.

Cody from Okinawa, Japan writes: Just wanted to point out what some Beaver football players and other athletes are up to. Going to Macedonia to build a house for others.

Ted Miller: Good show. Here's the link to a short video on "Beavers Without Borders."
Arizona has lost a third contributor -- and second defensive starter -- to a knee injury.

Jake Fischer, who started at strongside linebacker last season, tore his ACL late in the spring game Saturday and will have surgery next week. He likely will be out six to eight months.

The Wildcats previously lost safety Adam Hall and backup tailback Greg Nwoko to knee injuries this spring.

Arizona is deeper in the secondary than at linebacker, where Fischer was one of three returning starters. Two backups from 2010, R.J. Young and Trevor Erno, quit the team. Redshirt freshman Kyle Benson is listed as Fischer's backup on the latest depth chart, while walk-on Bilal Muhammed is listed as the backup at the other two spots.

Defensive coordinator Tim Kish said last week before Fischer's injury that he expected incoming freshmen Rob Hankins, Hank Hobson and Domonique Petties to immediately compete for playing time. Now they figure to immediately compete to start.

Injury updates: Arizona, ASU, UCLA and Oregon

April, 5, 2011
4/05/11
9:48
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Injuries are a drag, but they are one of the key elements of spring football. Avoiding them is not unlike adding a couple of five-star recruits.
  • At Arizona, Ryan Finley reports safety Adam Hall and running back Greg Nwoko will undergo knee surgery next Tuesday. Just last week, former Wildcats co-defensive coordinator Greg Brown -- now running Colorado's defense -- was raving to me about Hall's potential. The prognosis is both players will be out seven months. The Wildcats are deep in the secondary, but Nwoko's loss puts pressure on the backfield, where injury-prone Keola Antolin is the starter.
  • At Arizona State, there's no official word on the severity of knee injuries to cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, but the general feeling isn't terribly positive. Reports Doug Haller, both injuries "are considered serious, and possibly season ending." The Sun Devils probably can find some answers at receiver, and there's experience at cornerback, but replacing a first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback is not easy to do.
  • At UCLA, the news is better. Offensive lineman Jeff Baca, who broke his ankle last week, could return "sometime in August," according to the Orange County Register, which could mean a full-speed return in September. Baca, a fourth-year junior, was a projected starter at tackle.
  • At Oregon, defensive end Terrell Turner, the lone returning starter on the Ducks' D-line, was on crutches with his lower left leg immobilized in a cast. Coach Chip Kelly previously told the Pac-12 blog that Turner would miss spring practice with a "leg" injury, so this is consistent with the pre-spring prognosis. Dion Jordan has stepped in for Turner with the first-team defense.

Pac-12 links: Some bad news at Arizona

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
2:30
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But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

Stepping up in the bowls: Arizona

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
7:08
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Arizona kicks off the Pac-10 bowl season on Wednesday with a big test against Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats are underdogs against a Cowboys team that was hoping for a BCS bowl berth until it lost its season finale against rival Oklahoma 47-41. The Cowboys own one of the most potent offenses in the nation. They have really only been slowed down once this year: during a visit to Kansas State when the Cowboys played was without the services of Justin Blackmon, who is only the nation's best receiver.

But let's ask this question: Who might dramatically change this game if he -- or they -- stepped up with a marquee performance?

Running backs Keola Antolin, Nic Grigsby and Greg Nwoko: This is fairly simple. What if Arizona can consistently run the ball against the Cowboys? Well, that would be a game-changer for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would shorten the game and help play keep-away from the potent Oklahoma State offense. Further, if the Cowboys are forced to commit more bodies to stopping the run, it also would open things up downfield for quarterback Nick Foles. The reason three guys are listed here is all three will get carries, and each brings something different to the attack. Antolin is the starter and the most consistent. Nwoko brings a power element. Grigsby is a home run threat who's struggled with injuries. Of course, these guys need the Wildcats to win battles on the line of scrimmage, but it's up to the backs to turn those creases into big plays. If this troika manages to combine for around 180 or 200 yards -- significantly more than the season average of of 135 -- then expect Arizona to be in pretty darn good shape.

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

August, 18, 2010
8/18/10
2:30
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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.

Preseason position reviews: running back

July, 22, 2010
7/22/10
6:56
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Another year, another strong collection of running backs, even with the departures of Toby Gerhart and Jahvid Best.

While Pac-10 quarterbacks will grab most of the preseason headlines -- that's what happens when the two best NFL prospects at the position play in the same conference -- the class of running backs is nearly as strong.

Three 1,00o-yard rushers are back, and that doesn't include California's Shane Vereen, who piled up 952 yards as a backup, nor does it including Arizona's Nic Grigsby, who rushed for 1,153 yards in 2008. Six of the top-nine running backs will return this fall, and more than a few teams are decidedly deep at the position.

By the way, you might note there is more mention of incoming freshman at this position than others. Two reasons: 1. The Pac-1o had a strong haul of RBs in recruiting; and, 2. RB is often the easiest place for a young player to break into the lineup.

Great shape

  • Oregon: While the Pac-10 blog rates Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers ahead of LaMichael James as an individual player, the Ducks have a decided edge in depth, and not only because James' backup, Kenjon Barner, is one of the conference's most explosive players. The incoming recruiting class also features Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams, the No. 6 and No. 13 prep running backs in the nation in 2009.
  • [+] EnlargeJacquizz Rodgers
    Rick Scuteri/US PresswireJacquizz Rodgers may be the most talented individual running back in the Pac-10 this year, but Oregon has the best group.
  • Oregon State: Jacquizz Rodgers is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as the most complete back in the conference. Depth behind him is a little iffy, though Ryan McCants turned in some of his best work during spring practices.
  • Washington: Washington fans often note that Chris Polk gained most of his 1,113 yards last year after contact because he was running behind a young offensive line. That line, with four starters back, should be better in 2010. Good depth with Johri Fogerson and freshmen Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, who both participated in spring drills.
  • California: As noted above, Vereen put up impressive numbers as a backup and then starter over the final four games after Best got hurt. 12 TDs on 183 carries shows he has a nose for the endzone. Depth behind him is uncertain. Trajuan Briggs, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Isi Sofele and Dasarte Yarnway are competing for backup touches.
  • USC: Allen Bradford, a neglected talent under Pete Carroll, who was oddly in love with the mercurial Joe McKnight, could end up being a first-team All-Pac-10 back. C.J. Gable also will have a chance to emerge from Carroll's doghouse. True freshman Dillon Baxter was the star of spring practices, while Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler are major talents who just need to stay healthy.
  • Arizona: The Wildcats welcome back their top three running backs: Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko. But Grigsby, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year when he wasn't hurt, needs to find a way to stay healthy.
Good shape
We'll see

  • Stanford: The Cardinal doesn't have one guy who can replace Gerhart. But who does? The good news for a backfield-by-committee approach with Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and freshman Usua Amanam in the mix is the offensive line in front of them should be outstanding.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils must replace leading rusher Dimitri Nance, who didn't exactly scare opposing defenses in 2009. Cameron Marshall is the leading returning rusher with 280 yards. James Morrison and Jamal Miles will provide depth, though an incoming freshman might get into the mix. As has been the case for a while with the Sun Devils, the first order is improving the offensive line.
  • Washington State: Leading 2009 rusher Dwight Tardy is gone. If James Montgomery is healthy -- and stays that way -- he gives the Cougars a quality runner. He was clearly the best guy last preseason before he got hurt. Logwone Mitz, Chantz Staden, Carl Winston and Marcus Richmond will compete for touches during fall camp. Whatever the pecking order, the offensive line is the biggest issue.

Arizona spring wrap

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
10:30
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ARIZONA

2009 overall record: 8-5

2009 conference record: 6-3 (tied for second)

Returning starters

Offense: 9, Defense: 4, punter/kicker: 2

Top returners: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, RB Nic Grigsby, C Colin Baxter, CB Trevin Wade, DE Brooks Reed, DE Ricky Elmore

Key losses: WR Terrell Turner, OT Mike Diaz, DT Earl Mitchell, LB Xavier Kelly, FS Cam Nelson, CB Devin Ross

2009 statistical leaders (*returning starter)

Rushing: Keola Antolin* (643)

Passing: Nick Foles* (2,466)

Receiving: Juron Criner* (582)

Tackles: Devin Ross (81)

Sacks: Ricky Elmore* (11.5)

Interceptions: Trevin Wade* (5)

Spring Answers

1. So far so good with four coordinators: It was only a first run through spring practices but the Wildcats new arrangement with both offensive and defensive co-coordinators seemed to work well throughout spring practices. For one, it appears they've got a plan for the press box and play calling. Further, it helps that coach Mike Stoops is familiar with sharing a coordinator job (he shared the defensive job at Kansas State). It also probably helps that all four guys seem to like each other.

2. There's a lot of skill here: Start with quarterback Nick Foles. Then there's Juron Criner, who is as physically talented as any receiver in the Pac-10. Then there's Bug Wright, David Douglas, Delashaun Dean, Travis Cobb and Gino Crump. And Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Taimi Tutogi in the backfield. Lots of guys who can do things with the ball in their hands.

3. The ends are the beginning: Ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed are a good start for a rebuilding defense that lost seven starters. If a defense can pressure the quarterback -- and Elmore and Reed can -- that makes things easier everywhere else.

Fall questions

1. How will Matt Scott be used: While Scott lost the starting quarterback job to Foles early last season, the coaches still think he's capable of helping the offense, particularly with his speed. Scott also looked like a more confident and refined passer this spring -- guidance from new QB coach Frank Scelfo helped -- so he figures to have a few personal packages inserted into the game plan. And if Foles falters or gets hurt, Scott is a nice plan B.

2. How quickly will the new LBs pick things up? It's not easy to replace seven starters, but it seems particularly burdensome to have voids at all three all LB spots. Things are even more difficult when you're counting on a pair of JC transfers -- Derek Earls in the middle and Paul Vassallo on the weak side -- to immediately step into the starting lineup. The Wildcats will be fine in the secondary -- watch out for incoming freshman Marquis Flowers to get into the mix -- because that's Stoops' specialty. And there's some intriguing talent at defensive tackle, including redshirt freshman Sione Tuihalamaka. But the linebacker question wasn't answered this spring.

3. Paging Nic Grigsby: Grigsby can be a dynamic player with the ball. He's got home run speed and 2,424 career rushing yards. He averages 5.3 yards per carry. He's a good receiver out of the backfield. But he needs to find a way to stay healthy, which he didn't this spring or much of last year. With capable players like Antolin, Tutogi, Greg Nwoko and Daniel Jenkins eager for touches, at some point coaches might just sit Grigsby and go with guys who can stay on the field.

Some pre-spring Arizona notes

March, 5, 2010
3/05/10
3:57
PM ET
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Will have a lot more from Arizona spring practices, but here are some notes and depth chart updates after a round of interviews.
  • Coach Mike Stoops said he still hasn't decided who will call plays on offense and defense. He said that he'll make that decision after evaluating his options during spring practices. Stoops lost both coordinators this offseason -- Sonny Dykes on offense and Mark Stoops on defense -- and replaced them with co-coordinators, Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell on offense and Greg Brown and Tim Kish on defense. Only Brown, who came from Colorado, wasn't already on staff.
  • Three key players will sit out this spring. Starting guard Vaughn Dotsy had back surgery on Wednesday. Running back Greg Nwoko is still recovering from a shoulder injury. Projected starting defensive tackle Dominique Austin is out with a toe injury.
  • While Nick Foles is the No. 1 quarterback, coaches are emphasizing that backup Matt Scott will play a role this year. And if he outplays Foles this spring, the QB competition will be on again in the preseason.
  • The Wildcats are replacing all three starting linebackers from 2009. Junior college transfers Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls are listed as the first-team "Will" and "Mike" linebackers, respectively. Jake Fischer is No. 1 at "Sam."
  • Joe Perkins steps in for Cam Nelson at free safety, while Marcus Benjamin replaces Devin Ross at cornerback opposite Trevin Wade.
  • With Austin out, JC transfer Jonathan Hollins steps in at defensive tackle besides nose tackle Lolomana Mikaele.
  • Richard Morrison has moved from quarterback to receiver.
  • With offensive lineman Adam Grant getting a sixth year of eligibility, he slides in at left tackle with Phillip Garcia opposite him on the right side. Colin Baxter is the center and Conan Amituanai is the left guard. With Dotsy out, Jovon Hayes, Chris Putton and Trace Biskin will get looks.

Strong & weak: Arizona

March, 2, 2010
3/02/10
9:00
AM ET
The second of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Arizona.

Strong: Offensive skill positions.

Why it's a strength: The Wildcats welcome back just about all their top skill guys -- their top-two quarterbacks (Nick Foles and Matt Scott), top three rushers (Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko) and five of their top six receivers (Juron Criner, Delashaun Dean, Bug Wright, David Douglas and David Roberts). The only loss is 2009's leading receiver Terrell Turner. Even the early departure of TE Rob Gronkowski is eased by the fact that he didn't play in a single game last year.

Weak: Up the middle defense.

Why it's a weakness: It's a weakness because the Wildcats must replace both defensive tackles, all three linebackers and free safety Cam Nelson. Moreover, they head into spring without a lot of obvious answers at those position, seeing that the defense's top four tacklers and five of the top six are all gone. Lolomana Mikaele was listed as the backup at both DTs positions at the end of last year, but he finished with just 12 tackles. Two junior college transfers, linebackers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are expected to earn starting positions. Toss in new co-coordinators -- though Tim Kish was promoted from linebackers coach -- and there are a lot of questions on this side of the ball.

Arizona's Grigsby, Douglas won't play at USC

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
3:02
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Arizona tailback Nicolas Grigsby and wide receiver David Douglas will miss Saturday's game at USC, coach Mike Stoops said Monday.

Grigsby has been battling a shoulder injury much of the year. He re-injured it against Oregon on Nov. 21 and didn't play in the win over Arizona State on Saturday.

Douglas suffered a thigh bruise in the Oregon game and also sat out Saturday.

Stepping in for Grigsby will be Keola Antolin, who's been battling a sprained ankle, Greg Nwoko and Nick Booth. Bug Wright will take Douglas' spot in the starting lineup.

Is Arizona poised to make a Pac-10 run?

November, 4, 2009
11/04/09
4:14
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Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Little game of Pac-10 Jeopardy: This nationally ranked team controls its own conference destiny and it never rains in its home stadium.

Oregon!

 
 Chris Morrison/US PRESSWIRE
 Even with a tough upcoming schedule, coach Mike Stoops believes Arizona's best football is ahead.
No, though we enjoy that jocular pregame announcement at Autzen Stadium as much as anybody. And, please, remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.

Who is Arizona?

Right!

No, really. Who is Arizona?

The Wildcats, ranked 18th in the BCS standings, are 5-2 overall and, at 3-1 in conference play, are alone in second place in the standings. If not for an odd and controversial deflection at Washington, the Wildcats would be sniffing the top 10.

Yet few folks seem to know much about them.

They rank No. 1 in the Pac-10 and 14th in the nation in total offense (455 yards per game) and third in the conference in total defense (315 ypg). They are balanced on offense -- 12 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns -- and they do a good job of stopping the run, ranking 17th in the nation (101.3 ypg).

Yet the buzz around the program -- outside of Tucson, at least -- is only a light hum.

"That's all the time. We're always laying low," said Wildcats senior safety Cam Nelson, who knows personally about being underrated.

"We don't get much credit, which doesn't bother us. We don't need anybody to know us. We like being a no-name team that's going to sneak up and make a big run."

Nelson sounds more resigned than perturbed. As for that big run, don't disregard the notion. The schedule ahead is brutal (perhaps the toughest in the nation) but nothing worth achieving is ever easy to obtain.

Arizona should know. It has been waiting a long time for a Rose Bowl berth. Like, er, forever.

We must pause now and acknowledge what Wildcats coach Mike Stoops has been relentlessly telling his team for the past two weeks (Arizona had a bye last week): Do not overlook Washington State, which comes to town on Saturday.

"Our guys are smart enough to understand ... anybody can beat anybody if you give them the opportunity," Stoops said.

But, outside of the locker room, we are free to consider this slate of four games: at California, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.

Is it far-fetched to imagine the Wildcats running that gauntlet unscathed? Absolutely. But not impossible.

Arizona whipped Cal 42-27 last year. It's won two of three from Oregon. It beat the rival Sun Devils 31-10 last year. USC only beat the Wildcats 17-10 in 2008, and these Trojans don't appear as salty as those.

Moreover, the Wildcats have reached this point -- on the cusp of consecutive bowl berths for the first time since 1997-98 -- despite major injury issues.

They lost their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, before the season began with a back injury. They've played their last four games without their best pass-rusher, end Brooks Reed. Two of their top three running backs, starter Nic Grigsby and No. 3 Greg Nwoko, likely will miss the Washington State game with shoulder injuries, while No. 2 Keola Antolin is still nursing a sprained ankle. The offensive line has been down one or two starters much of the season.

Said Stoops, "I think our best football is still in front of us. It's going to need to be."

The good news is that Reed appears set to play Saturday, and Nelson believes the return of one of the best ends in the Pac-10 will have a big impact for a unit that has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.

"It will help a whole lot," Nelson said. "Brooks' intensity on the field, the way he plays and carries himself, you'll see a big change in the defense. D'Aundre Reed has stepped in and done a good job, but there's no substitution for Brooks on the field. He plays reckless, hard. He's fast every play, trying to cause a turnover. Once we get him back, things will be a whole lot different. There will be more pressure, which will make it easier on the back end for us."

Speaking of back ends: Nelson has no problem talking about the rigorous back end of the schedule and what it's going to take to win-out. That doesn't, however, mean he's overlooking Washington State.

"Regardless of their record, they are still a Pac-10 team," he said. "Every week is a challenge."

But if Arizona is up to that challenge from now until Dec. 5 at USC, it may accomplish something it's never done before.

What is earn a Rose Bowl berth?

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