Pac-12: Jim Dray
Middleton, by the way, was named preseason first-team All-Pac-10 by Phil Steele, even though he only caught 26 passes last year and was being challenged for the starting job by Chris Izbicki.
Only four teams welcome back their starting tight end, and only one -- California's Anthony Miller -- even earned honorable mention all-conference honors.
Why is the position down? Attrition after an "up" season. Consider the departed: Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, Oregon's Ed Dickson, Stanford's Jim Dray, UCLA's Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya and USC's Anthony McCoy. Those guys are now stocking NFL rosters.
So where do things stand? Well, you might say we graded the position on a curve, though there is plenty of potential here.
- California: Miller was the Bears' third-leading receiver last year. Six-foot-7 sophomore backup Spencer Ladner saw action in seven games.
- UCLA: While the Bruins lost their top two TEs, they look solid here with Cory Harkey, Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria and hybrid TE-WR Morrell Presley.
- Stanford: Even though the Cardinal lost Dray, Coby Fleener was their top pass-catcher at the position, and the depth is good with Konrad Reuland, Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo.
- Oregon State: The Beavers get credit here for H-back Joe Halahuni, who caught 35 passes for 486 yards and three TDs in 2009. Senior Brady Camp is a good blocker with 18 career starts.
- Oregon: The Ducks lose Dickson, but David Paulson saw extensive action in 2009 and JC transfer Brandon Williams was impressive this spring.
- Arizona: Gronkowski's back injury made A.J. Simmons the season-long starter, so the Wildcats are at least experienced. Redshirt freshman Jack Baucus is the backup.
- Washington State: The Cougars' depth chart lists five TEs, with Skylar Stormo and Zach Tatman offering experience at the top.
- USC: Attrition and injuries make this a questionable position for the Trojans. If Blake Ayles and Rhett Ellison stay healthy, things should be OK. The incoming freshman class is strong, starting with Xavier Grimble, who ranked No. 1 at the position, according to ESPN Recruiting.
- Washington: With Middleton, the Huskies would have been in great shape. Izbicki had a good spring, but he only caught three passes for 7 yards in 2009 and the depth is questionable.
- Arizona State: Jovon Williams is gone and Dan Knapp is a tackle, but the Sun Devils could move up here just because the position figures to be more involved in the offense in 2010. Trevor Kohl and Christopher Coyle top the depth chart.
- A former Arizona Wildcat joins the ESPN family.
- Arizona State's Samson Szakacsy is a renaissance man who wants to give back. This former Sun Devil isn't doing so well.
- California is using temporary facilities.
- Oregon enjoyed a hot workout.
- Former Stanford TE Jim Dray signs an NFL contract.
- What really happened with Dillon Baxter and his so-called tampering? Tennessee folks continue to obsess about USC coach Lane Kiffin. Therapy? The USC exodus continues.
- Spying on Washington's off-season workouts.
- Washington State may have found its QB of the future.
Why is it deep? Start with the fact that nine starting centers are back from 2009, though Washington's Ryan Tolar has moved to guard and former starting tackle Drew Schaefer has moved inside to center. Then consider that of those nine, six earned a spot on the 37-man watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's best center. Even Washington State, which lost Kenny Alfred, probably feels pretty good about Andrew Roxas, who's started nine career games.
The big names: Six players are legitimate all-conference candidates: USC's Kristofer O'Dowd (he could be the top center in the 2011 NFL draft), Arizona's Colin Baxter and Stanford's Chase Beeler (both were second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010), Oregon State's Alex Linnenkohl (who has 26 career starts), Oregon's Jordan Holmes and UCLA's Kai Maiava.
Thin: Tight end
Why is it thin? Only four teams welcome back a starting tight end, none of whom earned all-conference honors. In fact, only one returning tight end, California's Anthony Miller, earned honorable mention. And consider the list of departed players from 2009: Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, Oregon's Ed Dickson, Stanford's Jim Dray, UCLA's Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya and USC's Anthony McCoy. Phil Steele recently named his four All-Pac-10 teams, and he made Washington's Kavario Middleton the first-team tight end. Middleton caught 26 passes last year and he's fighting with Chris Izbicki for the starting job.
Fill the void? Miller and Middleton (Izbicki?) could be breakthrough players. UCLA is excited about the Joseph Fauria-Cory Harkey combination. Joe Halahuni, though a hybrid, H-back sort, is a threat for Oregon State. Stanford's Konrad Reuland, a Notre Dame transfer, is promising. It appears that David Paulson, Dickson's backup last year, and JC transfer Brandon Williams will be solid for Oregon. Perhaps Blake Ayles finally stays healthy for USC.
2009 overall record: 8-5
2009 conference record: 6-3 (tied for second)
Offense: 8, Defense: 7, punter/kicker: 2
Top returners: QB Andrew Luck, WR Ryan Whalen, WR Chris Owusu, C Chase Beeler, OT David DeCastro, LB/FB Owen Marecic, DT Sione Fua, DE Thomas Keiser
Key losses: RB Toby Gerhart, TE Jim Dray, DT Ekom Udofia, FS Bo McNally
2009 statistical leaders (*returning starter)
Rushing: Toby Gerhart (1,871)
Passing: Andrew Luck* (2,575)
Receiving: Ryan Whalen* (926)
Tackles: Bo McNally (83)
Sacks: Thomas Keiser* (9)
Interceptions: Bo McNally, Delano Howell*, Richard Sherman* (2)
1. Luck is ready to lead: Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't beat around the bush. He'll tell you straight up that he thinks Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the nation. His performance this spring suggested that's not just a coach pumping up his player. Recall that Harbaugh called Toby Gerhart the best running back in the Pac-10 last preseason and ended up being right.
2. The front seven will be tough: The Cardinal adopted a new 3-4 look this spring, but the biggest reason to be hopeful on defense is a combination of experienced veterans and maturing youngsters. Players such as linebackers Shayne Skov, Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas were forced into action early in their careers. Now they -- particularly Skov -- are ready to break through.
3. Is this the best offensive line in the Pac-10? While things are unresolved at right tackle, where Derek Hall and James McGillicuddy are battling to replace Chris Marinelli, there are four returning starters from a crew that was often dominant in 2009. Sophomore guard David DeCastro, sophomore tackle Jonathan Martin and senior guard Andrew Phillips each earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 recognition, while senior center Chase Beeler was second-team All-Conference.
1. Who replaces Gerhart? It's likely going to be a "backfield by committee" approach. Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor are the candidates, but it's interesting that Alex Debniak, a linebacker who dabbles at running back, and freshman Usua Amanam, raised more than a few eyebrows during the spring game when given the ball.
2. Secondary issues: While three or four starters are back in the secondary, that's not necessarily a good thing. Stanford must be more athletic in the back-half if it wants to challenge for the conference title. New defensive backs coach Derek Mason figures to mix-and-match without regard to seniority. Michael Thomas' move from corner to safety was the most noteworthy spring development.
3. Can Stanford sustain success? Harbaugh made a big deal about Stanford becoming a physical, blue collar team. And it worked. Now that the Cardinal is clearly in the mix, it will be interesting to see if they can maintain that mentality. It's worthy of note that Stanford hasn't posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1995-96.
First of all, it's incomplete. Underclassmen will be added later, such as USC receiver Damian Williams and UCLA DT Brian Price. And a number of seniors also will get invitations.
My immediate guess is that Washington linebacker Donald Butler and Oregon defensive end Will Tukuafu will end up receiving invitations, among others.
Arizona: DT Earl Mitchell, CB Devin Ross
Arizona State: DE Dexter Davis, LB Travis Goethel, OT Shawn Lauvao, WR Chris McGaha, WR Kyle Williams
California: DE Tyson Alualu, WR Nyan Boateng, CB Syd'Quan Thompson, WR Verran Tucker.
Oregon: RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Ed Dickson, CB Walter Thurmond, S T.J. Ward.
Oregon State: QB Sean Canfield, OLB Keaton Kristick.
Stanford: TE Jim Dray, RB Toby Gerhart, OT Matt Kopa, DE Erik Lorig.
UCLA: OLB Kyle Bosworth, CB Alterraun Verner.
USC: OT Charles Brown, C Jeff Byers, RB Stafon Johnson, S Taylor Mays, TE Anthony McCoy, G Alex Parsons, CB Josh Pinkard, CB Kevin Thomas.
Washington: DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
While stars -- playmakers on both sides of the ball -- are important, a team often thrives because of the lunch pail guys, players who do their jobs quietly and reliably off to the side and away from media and fan adulation.
Who played well in the shadows this season?
Here's a team-by-team list with their "Underrated Player of the Year."
Arizona WR Juron Criner: The 6-foot-4, 210-pound sophomore doesn't figure to be underrated for long. He led the Wildcats with 579 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, while 27 of his 43 receptions resulted in a first down or touchdown.
Arizona State LB Travis Goethel: Goethel, a senior, ranked third on the Sun Devils' stingy defense with 57 tackles, 40 of which were solo. He also had seven tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery. His responsibilities including the thankless job of taking care of the opposing tight end.
California RB Shane Vereen: Vereen, a sophomore, rushed for 830 yards and 10 touchdowns as Jahvid Best's backup and then the Bears' starter when Best went down with a concussion. He rushed for 193 yards and three touchdowns in the Big Game against Stanford. He also caught 22 passes for 224 yards, ranking third on the Bears, with two touchdowns.
Oregon LB Spencer Paysinger: Paysinger may have been the Ducks' best linebacker among three very good linebackers. The junior tied with Casey Matthews for third on the team with 72 tackles, with 6.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
Oregon State LB David Pa'aluhi: Pa'aluhi, a sophomore playing in the shadow of celebrity linebacker Keaton Kristick, ended up second on the Beavers with 67 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also had two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
Stanford TE Jim Dray: Dray, a senior, is an outstanding blocker. He also caught 10 passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns, which ranked third on the team.
UCLA LB Akeem Ayers: Ayers, a sophomore, won't make this list next year because he appears poised for a breakthrough after leading the Bruins with 12.5 tackles for loss with six sacks and 66 total tackles.
USC LB Malcolm Smith: USC's defense seemed to play better when Smith was healthy. Despite playing in just nine games, he finished third on the Trojans with 66 tackles -- one behind MLB Chris Galippo -- with five tackles for loss and one interception, which he returned 62 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. He also had four pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Washington LB Mason Foster: Only Cal's Mike Mohamed has more tackles than Foster's 190 over the past two seasons -- and Mohamed edged him by two because he played in a bowl game. No. 1 in the Pac-10 last year with 105 tackles, Foster had 85 stops in 2010, which ranked second on the Huskies and seventh in the conference. He also led the team with three interceptions and set a school record with six forced fumbles.
Washington State S Xavier Hicks: Hicks' career hasn't always been smooth sailing, but the senior became a leader on the Cougars defense this season, ranking second on the unit with 81 tackles, including four for a loss. He led the Cougs with three interceptions and also forced two fumbles.
My loneliness is killing me
I must confess, I still believe
When I'm not with you I lose my mind
Give me a signnnnnnn!
Hit me baby one more time!
- Is the UCLA defense ready for Arizona QB Nick Foles? And likewise.
- Arizona State's offensive line is getting better. The Sun Devils top plays this decade.
- California's backfield is not a one-man show.
- This Oregon receiver isn't worried that he's screwed.
- Oregon State's players from southern California use USC recruiting snubs for motivation.
- Stanford is better than just solid at tight end.
- UCLA knows Arizona isn't coy and is sure to make a pass (or two) at the Bruins.
- USC's All-American center Kristofer O'Dowd won't start against Oregon State because he's not playing well.
- Should Washington quarterback Jake Locker come back for his senior season or enter the NFL draft?
- Washington State will try to contain Cal's Jahvid Best, but it won't have its fastest linebacker.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
This time Stanford didn't waste a big kickoff return.
Arizona was able to kick away from Chris Owusu, but Michael Thomas isn't bad either -- he exploded for 56 yards to the Wildcats 44.
Andrew Luck tied the game 7-7 on a 30-yard pass to Jim Dray.
What this means is the Cardinal won't have another bad start on the road, like they did last weekend at Oregon State. For a moment, Stanford was headed that way.
It also helps that the Cardinal just recovered an Arizona fumble.
Keep note for Arizona: The Wildcats' top two running backs, Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin, got touches on that first possession. Both were questionable with injuries.
Grigsby and Antolin have the sort of speed that could stress the Stanford defense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Not to be too serious, but take a moment and remember what day it is.
- Arizona surely is sorry to hear the New Mexico QB is struggling.
- Arizona State's tight ends are playing OK, which is a bit of a surprise after significant attrition at the position. Here's a boost for the offensive line. Turns out the "Bring on Georgia" promotion wasn't a conspiracy from Atlanta. My wife loves Chick-fil-A, so consider this an apology.
- Maryland may not look good on film, but this is a long road trip for California. Let's hear it for the fullback, who brings out the Best in the Bears running game. For those interested in a review of how the Tree Sitters started sitting, here's a good read.
- Nice story on Oregon's "other" defensive end, Will Tukuafu, becoming the Ducks' emotional leader.
- What's wrong with the Oregon State defense?
- Stanford TE Jim Dray, back from a knee injury, could play against TCU.
- UCLA might be able to exploit BYU's secondary. Which Kevin Craft shows up at BYU to run the Bruins offense? Speaking of QBs, an update on Ben Olson. And might Moya be Craft's go-to guy?
- Hey, it's USC -- that means celebrities on the sidelines! DT Fili Moala likes Ohio State's physical style of play. A keyboard battle over the USC-Ohio State showdown. Spicer wants to spice things up.
- The good news is Washington safety Darin Harris is OK. The bad news is his concussion will sideline him for the Oklahoma game. Also in the story: RB Chris Polk is likely done for the year due to a shoulder injury but the freshman likely will qualify for a redshirt year. Where's the pass rush? Frosh TE Kavario Middleton is stepping up.
- Washington State is down, but LB Gary Trent is the sort of player who can bring the program back. Former coach Jim Walden asks for patience.
- Jon Wilner reacts to an Indianapolis Star report on "special admits" for football programs, of which California led the nation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Five looks inside this week's games.
USC: Trojans QB Mark Sanchez has been cleared to play at Virginia, but it's not unreasonable to wonder about how his formerly dislocated knee will hold up amid the rigors of game conditions. That's why news that Aaron Corp had eclipsed Mitch Mustain for the backup job is so important. Sanchez may play every meaningful snap this season -- or he might be knocked out the first time his knee takes a hit. It seemed like the USC coaches wanted Mustain, who saw significant action at Arkansas before transferring, to win the job, but he mixed too many mistakes into his repetitions while Corp seemed to get more and more confident.
Washington: The first quarter should be very telling at Autzen Stadium. The Huskies will start four freshmen, including true freshmen at TB and DT, and only six seniors. Many others will be seeing their first significant college action inside the most hostile venue in the Pac-10 -- and the nation, for that matter. Will the youngsters hold up, or will they make critical mistakes that irrevocably turn the momentum early? Of course, last year's game was tied at 24 after three quarters before the Ducks exploded in the fourth to finish off a 55-34 win, so how the Huskies young defensive front holds up late against a rugged, seasoned Ducks O-line will be just as critical.
Oregon: While the Oregon defense is being celebrated for its secondary, the Ducks scheme priority is stopping the run (which is why the Ducks gave up a misleading amount of passing yards last season -- see opponent's completion percentage (53) and INTs (20) for a better measure of the secondary). But the up-the-middle defense is suspect, with two new DTs and a MLB, John Bacon, coming off knee surgery. The Huskies OL is strong inside, so a good way to quiet the Autzen Stadium crowd -- and play keep-away from the Ducks potent spread offense -- might be to run right at the Ducks.
Oregon State: The Oregon State defensive front seven features entirely new starters, and the Beavers are notorious for their uneven early-season performances, but Stanford might offer a perfect test. For one, the Cardinal offense was the worst in the Pac-10 a year ago and was missing two starters before preseason camp began: TE Jim Dray and OT Allen Smith. Second, the injury bug hit late in camp, with starting guard Gustav Rystedt knocked out with a concussion and a pair of WRs, Chris Owusu and Marcus Rance, sidelined with knee injuries. Moreover, RB Toby Gerhart and WR Richard Sherman, the offense's two biggest playmakers, are banged up, though they should play. Since Stanford wasn't the deepest of teams in the first place, this patched-up offense figures to offer a less-than-imposing test for the rebuilt Beavers to find their game rhythm.
UCLA: It's almost impossible to imagine UCLA scoring many points against Tennessee on Monday night. So, the real issue is can the Bruins defense and special teams keep the game close? It bodes well that Tennessee is breaking in a new QB, junior Jonathan Crompton. The good news mostly ends there, though. First, problem: The Vols welcome back four OL starters -- a combined 62 starts -- from a crew that surrendered only four sacks last year (an NCAA record), and TB Arian Foster eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The WRs also are experienced. As for special teams, the Vols appeared severely hurt when All-SEC punter Britton Colquitt was suspended for five games, but his replacement, Chad Cunningham, has been a revelation in preseason camp. So big-footed Aaron Perez probably won't give the Bruins as much advantage as originally thought.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
The sixth of 10 quick hit updates of off-season Pac-10 goings on.
In a sentence:
- With 16 position players returning -- most in the Pac-10 -- from a team that beat USC and California, Stanford has the experience to move out of the bottom third of the conference in coach Jim Harbaugh's second season.
The big question:
- Sure, seven starters return on offense, but how can much be expected from a crew that ranked last in the conference in yards and points per game and is unsettled at quarterback?
Quick hit news:
- It's questionable whether a pair of injured starters, offensive tackle Allen Smith (knee cap) and tight end Jim Dray (knee), will be able to suit up this season. The hopeful official word is Smith and Dray might be able to return at some point, though Thebootleg.com has reported that neither will be available in 2008.
- The void left by Dray might be partially filled by Konrad Reuland, a Notre Dame transfer whose younger brother, Warren, signed with the Cardinal this winter. Konrad, one of the nation's top-rated tight ends in 2006 out of Mission Viejo, Calif., won't be eligible until the fourth game of the season, Sept. 27 at Washington.
- Stanford is starting to resemble other programs that try to keep players on or near campus during the summer, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story, which reported 14 freshmen -- out of a class of 18 -- were enrolled in summer school. Two years ago, only one freshman took summer classes.
- Sophomore Corey Gatewood's switch from receiver to cornerback is now permanent under first-year defensive coordinator Ron Lynn. He's competing with junior Kris Evans for the starting job.
- Defensive lineman Sione Fua, a touted recruit from the 2006 class, returned early from a church mission at the end of spring practices and is expected to work his way into the rotation on the defensive line. Fua saw limited action as a true freshman.
- If the three-man battle at quarterback between Tavita Prichard, Jason Forcier and Alex Loukas doesn't produce a clear winner, it's always possible that top-rated quarterback recruit Andrew Luck [Insider] could see action.