Pac-12: Lavasier Tuinei

Proving grounds: Pac-12 North

June, 19, 2012
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Some players come in with plenty of hype, but never quite seem to match it. Others have a great season, then slip the following year, leaving many to wonder if they were one-year wonders. Still others, have to bounce back from an injury and show they aren't shells of what they used to be.

Either way, there are plenty of players in the Pac-12 with something to prove in 2012.

Monday we took a look at six players from the South Division. Today our focus shifts to the North.

[+] EnlargeZach Maynard
AP Photo/George NikitinZach Maynard led the Golden Bears to a 7-6 record last season.
Zach Maynard, QB, Cal: Is there any quarterback in the conference more maligned than the guy in Berkeley? No doubt, he hit a low point midway through last season with a three-game stretch against USC, Utah and UCLA where he had one touchdown to seven interceptions. His completion percentage was one of the lowest in the conference last year (57 percent). But all accounts are that he had a solid spring and gained a stronger control of the offense. He has pieces in place this year -- an A-list receiver, a solid running game, a very good defense behind him -- so if he's going to silence his critics, this will be his best chance.

Josh Huff, WR, Oregon: On the surface, the obvious pick here is Kenjon Barner with the oh-so-obligatory "can he be the featured back" question. Let's go ahead and address that right now. Yes, he can. There, that was easy. Huff, however, has yet to really show what he's capable of. Last year he was partly hampered by injury (31 catches, 430 yards, two touchdowns) and Lavasier Tuinei was the preferred target. No doubt, the potential is there (see how he made Stanford defenders look silly on his 59-yard touchdown catch). Huff's status remains up in the air pending next month's trial for a DUI citation, so we'll have to see how that plays out. The Ducks have so much offensive potency that they don't need him to be great. But wouldn't it be a whole lot better if he was?

Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State: The beauty of football is that it's not a stat-driven, individual game. A wide receiver can be a great blocker or decoy and never get the statistical credit, but his teammates and coaches know his contributions. With that said, if Wheaton wants to be counted among the elite wide receivers in the conference -- and he absolutely should be -- he'll need to have more than just one receiving touchdown, which was the case in 2011. The fact that Oregon State's running game should be better helps, and Sean Mannion's continued growth is also a plus. He's an underappreciated talent around the conference who's out to prove he belongs in the conversation with the league's elite receivers.

Wayne Lyons, DB, Stanford: When your coach says you'll be up for the nation's top defensive back award by the time your career is through -- before you've put together a complete season -- that's his way of not-so-discreetly applying pressure. David Shaw expects big things out of Lyons -- and the highly touted defensive back will have to deliver. He's fully recovered from a foot injury he suffered last fall that nagged him for two games before shutting it down for the year. Stanford's secondary was dreadfully exposed against Oregon and Oklahoma State. The pressure is on Lyons to produce immediately (say, Week 3 against USC?).

Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: And Baylor just scored again ... Haha. Didn't we all have a nice little chuckle at that one on Dec. 30. Well, the joke was stale by New Year's Eve. However, the lasting image of what Baylor's offense did to Washington is still very much fresh. The Huskies defense got an overhaul in the offseason -- and it's up to a veteran like Trufant to give the unit more punch and less punch line. Not easy, considering the Huskies allowed a whopping 35.9 points per game last year. But Trufant isn't alone in his efforts. He has good support in the secondary with safeties Justin Glenn and Sean Parker (the three combined for 207 tackles last season) and Trufant added a pair of picks. He's a very good defender who is going to have to become a great defender in 2012 to not only prove he can play at the next level, but to show it's time to stop cracking wise about Washington's D.

Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State: Outside of new head coach Mike Leach, no name coming out of Pullman, Wash., this spring has been uttered more than Jeff Tuel. A prototypical NFL quarterback with the arm and the arsenal to boot, all of the pieces are in place for Tuel to have a big season. But injuries have prevented him from reaching his true potential. This offense, which puts the quarterback center stage like no other, should go a long way in helping him reach it. He's picked it up quickly, which should come as no surprise. But there are still Connor Halliday advocates ready to take their shots at Tuel. He's got to prove he deserves to be the guy. Provo, Utah, seems like a good place to start.
Our question this week: Who has the best position group in the conference?

Lots of teams have a strength at a certain area -- running back, receiver, linebacker, etc. -- but whose team strength is the strongest?

Our thoughts.

Kevin Gemmell: Anytime you have a four-man position group and half of them could be All-Americans, that's phenomenal. And that's what Stanford is looking at this year and that's why I'm picking its linebackers as the best individual position group in the conference.

[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIChase Thomas, who had 8.5 sacks last season, helps make Stanford's linebackers one of the Pac-12s top position groups.
It starts on the outside with Chase Thomas (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for a loss) -- a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and All-American. On the other side, Trent Murphy (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss) is underappreciated because of all the attention Thomas gets. But Murphy is a beast at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds.

Then you move to the inside linebackers where Shayne Skov is one of the best in the nation. There is a to-be-determined punishment pending for his DUI arrest and he's still recovering from a season-ending knee injury from last year. But once he's paid his penance and is 100 percent healthy, he'll be on par with the best middle linebackers in the country.

Who lines up next to Skov is a question. And also a good problem for the Cardinal to have. Jarek Lancaster (team-leading 70 tackles) and A.J. Tarpley (57 tackles) were both outstanding in Skov's absence last year. Lancaster in particular came on very strong at the end of the season.

Highly touted sophomore James Vaughters is also slotted for inside linebacker. The coaching staff treated Vaughters with kid gloves last season -- using him mostly as an extra pass-rusher on third downs, where he tallied 11 tackles, four for a loss, and a sack. But he's expected to be unleashed in 2012.

Another aspect that makes this group so scary is the overall depth. Because of guys like Lancaster, Tarpley, Vaughters, Alex Debniak, Kevin Anderson and incoming freshman Noor Davis, the Cardinal are in a position to absorb a significant injury like they did with Skov last season. Of course, no one wants to see that happen for any team. But injuries are part of the game. And if something happens to one of Stanford's starters, there is significant talent that can rotate in.

One thing to keep in mind is the loss of co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver. He was a brilliant operator of the 3-4 defense -- which is why he's now a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He did an amazing job coaching up Lancaster and Tarpley, which helped Stanford boast the No. 1 rush defense in the conference last year. Allowing just 84.4 yards per game on the ground, Stanford was the only Pac-12 team to hold opponents below 100 yards per game on average.

Factor in the talent returning on the defensive line and that makes the linebacking corps that much better. Stanford not only has the deepest and most talented group in the conference, but you can make an argument that as a unit it is one of the best groups in the country.

Ted Miller: I know you guys are going to get on Kevin for picking Stanford, but I agree with him: Stanford's linebacking corps is the best complete unit in the Pac-12 in terms of both skill and depth. But, of course, a "ditto" doesn't make for much of a "Take 2" now, does it?

I like California's running backs, Oregon's LBs, Arizona State's RBs and Utah's defensive line, but I'm going to go with USC's receivers.

The Trojans aren't terribly deep at receiver. In fact, they are decidedly top-heavy. But what a top.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIUSC's Robert Woods, arguably the nation's top wide receiver, averaged over 107 receiving yards per game last season.
First, you have junior Robert Woods, a 2011 first-team All-American. He ranked eighth in the nation with 107.7 yards receiving per game in 2011. He's the leading candidate heading into 2012 to win the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation's best receiver.

Second, you have Marqise Lee, second-team All-Pac-12, who actually outplayed a banged-up Woods over the home stretch of the 2011 season. He ranked 15th in the nation with 95.3 yards receiving per game. He also is a Biletnikoff candidate, and it wouldn't be too shocking if both of these guys earned All-America honors this upcoming season.

They combined for 26 touchdown receptions. The next highest total in the Pac-12 for a receiving combo was 19 (Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Lavasier Tuinei).

Put it this way: If you made a list of the top-five receivers in the nation this fall, most folks would include Woods and Lee.

Now, it's not unreasonable to question the Trojans' depth at the position. Both Brice Butler and Kyle Prater opted to transfer. Both are capable and would have made this unit scary good. While there's plenty of talent behind Woods and Lee, it's unproven.

That said: It's entirely possible speedy sophomore George Farmer has his own star turn this fall. Folks thought that might happen last year for everybody's prep All-American, but injuries and an odd position change to running back slowed that down. No question Farmer has All-American talent. If he stays healthy, the Trojans could end up with a troika that is almost impossible to defend, one that is superior to many NFL teams. For real.

Other guys who have the ability to help: Junior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell. In the fall, true freshmen Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers could potentially get into the mix.

So there will be solid options for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 receivers.

Still, this is about the top. It's not hyperbole to project that Woods and Lee, with QB Matt Barkley returning, are in position to write themselves onto a very short list of the best receiver combinations in college football history this fall.

Video: Revisiting Oregon's biggest shoes

March, 27, 2012
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Some took issue with the Pac-12 blog saying wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei owns the biggest shoes Oregon needs to fill, so here's further explanation.

Biggest shoes to fill: Oregon

March, 26, 2012
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Starters in, starters out. That's college football. Players' eligibility expires and they leave for the rest of their lives, whether that includes the NFL or not.

And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.

Our concern with this series? The biggest shoes -- in some cases Shaq-like size 23s.

Big shoes: WR Lavasier Tuinei

While De'Anthony Thomas was the Ducks' most dynamic receiver in 2011, Tuinei was the team leader in receptions with 48 and touchdowns with 10. And we all saw what he did in the Rose Bowl: eight receptions for 158 yards with two touchdowns. Oregon has plenty of holes to fill: quarterback, tailback, rover, defensive end and two spots on the offensive line. But in most cases you can say who will step in, or at least you can talk about how good the folks are competing at that position. You can't say that about who will replace Tuinei.

Stepping in: Josh Huff, Rahsaan Vaughn,Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley or Tacoi Sumler

If ability meets performance, the Ducks will be fine at receiver. But there are no guarantees that will happen based on the actual past performances of these five thus far in their careers. Huff? Forget for a moment his off-field issues. He's yet to prove he's a natural receiver, a guy ready to catch six or so passes per game. Vaughn is the same thing. He's a talented JC transfer but he, nonetheless, only caught 14 passes last season. And then there are the three redshirt freshman, whom we've previously noted. They each were touted recruits and have plenty of talent. But none were impressive enough to Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich to drop their redshirt in 2011. The bottom line: There is no sure-thing here.

The 2011 Pac-12 All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
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Our All-Pac-12 bowl team has two quarterbacks and a position we made up. And it wasn't easy to pick the defense, because many of the conference defenses underwhelmed during a 2-5 bowl run.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireEven Andrew Luck would admire Washington QB Keith Price's seven-touchdown effort in the Alamo Bowl.
Offense
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
: Luck completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
QB II Keith Price, Washington: It's impossible to leave Price or Luck out. Price completed 23 of 37 passes for 438 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions in the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. He also rushed for 39 yards and three scores. Those numbers typically would eclipse what Luck did, but Baylor might have the worst defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon: James rushed for 159 yards on 25 carries with a TD in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Taylor rushed for 177 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: Robinson caught 13 passes for 241 yards with a TD in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State.
WR Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon: Tuinei caught eight passes for 158 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl victory.
TE Zach Ertz, Stanford: Ertz caught four passes for 38 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinal's Rose Bowl loss.
OL David DeCastro, Stanford: The unanimous All-American dominated Oklahoma State's D-linemen in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal rushed for 243 yards.
OL Mark Asper, Oregon: Asper is the senior cornerstone of a line that led the way for 345 yards rushing in the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory.
OL Tony Bergstrom, Utah: The senior tackle helped RB John White gain 115 tough yards against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: The Ducks freshman center made all the right line calls against Wisconsin.
OL Senio Kelemete, Washington: The Huskies gained 620 yards and didn't allow a sack in the loss to Baylor.
Freak: Our special position for De'Anthony Thomas, who scored TDs on runs of 91 and 64 yards in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. The Black Mamba also caught four passes for 34 yards and returned five kickoffs for 125 yards.

K: Giorgio Tavecchio, California: Tavecchio capped a strong senior season with a 47-yard field goal in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas.
RET: Rashad Ross, Arizona State: Ross returned the third-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a TD against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Defense
DL Josh Shirley, Washington
: While it's difficult to recognize anyone from the Huskies defense against Baylor, Shirley did sack Robert Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner, three times.
DL Trevor Guyton, California: Guyton had five tackles, with two coming for losses, and a sack in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DL Star Lotulelei, Utah: The Utes DT had six tackles and a fumble recovery and generally blew up the middle of the Georgia Tech line in the Utes' Sun Bowl victory. He was named Most Valuable Lineman.
LB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: Zumwalt had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and an interception in the Bruins' loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon: The Ducks LB had five tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, with a sack and a key interception in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win. He was named Defensive MVP.
LB Michael Clay, Oregon: The Ducks LB had 13 tackles, including two for a loss, and a critical fumble recovery in the Rose Bowl victory.
LB Mychal Kendricks, California: Kendricks had 10 tackles, including 1.5 for losses, in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DB Terrance Mitchell, Oregon: Mitchell had five tackles in the Rose Bowl, but his most important contribution was forcing a Wisconsin fumble on the Ducks 27-yard line with four minutes left in the game. Perhaps even more important than that, he inspired coach Chip Kelly to jump up and down in a wonderful -- and slightly goofy -- show of spontaneous emotion (search YouTube for "Chip Kelly jumping").
DB Clint Floyd, Arizona State: Floyd had seven tackles -- two for a loss -- and an interception in the Sun Devils' loss to Boise State.
DB John Boyett, Oregon: Boyett had a bowl-high 17 tackles and half a sack in the Ducks' win over Wisconsin.
DB Marc Anthony, California: Anthony had four tackles, one coming for a loss, and two pass breakups against Texas.

P Sean Sellwood, Utah: Sellwood averaged 49.5 yards on eight punts against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

Oregon ends 95 years of frustration

January, 2, 2012
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Lavasier Tuinei, Darron ThomasGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireOffensive MVP Lavsier Tuinei, left, QB Darron Thomas and the Ducks are Rose Bowl champions.

PASADENA, Calif. -- It takes a lot for a football program to tear up 95 years of frustration and cast it into the trash. It takes spectacular plays, smart plays, clutch plays, unexpected plays and opportunistic plays. It takes stars, supporting players and players you don't see coming.

It's easy to roll one's eyes when players and coaches talk about a "total team effort," but Oregon's 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin inspired no such eye-rolling, in large part because averted eyes might have missed a big moment.

Take Lavasier Tuinei. The Ducks senior receiver didn't have a 100-yard receiving game all season. Eight times, he caught three or fewer passes. But his season-high eight receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns earned him Offensive MVP honors.

Who had Tuinei in their Offensive MVP pool?

"For a senior, sometimes you get those moments, and he had a signature moment," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said.

Said Tuinei: "For the last week I've been here, I've been having dreams of making plays for this team and helping us win. What do you know: It came true."

Then take linebacker Kiko Alonso. Repeated instances of off-field trouble nearly cost him his career. He was suspended for the opener against LSU. But he earned Defensive MVP honors with 1.5 sacks, five tackles and a critical interception late in the third quarter.

Who had Alonso it their Defensive MVP pool?

"It is special how far Kiko has come," Kelly said.

Oh, the usual suspects showed up, too. Running back LaMichael James rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown, which propelled him to No. 2 all-time on the Pac-12's career rushing list -- 13th in NCAA history -- with 5,082 yards. QB Darron Thomas threw three TD passes to give him 33 for the season, an Oregon record. Super-fast guy freshman De'Anthony Thomas had just two carries, but they became touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards, thereby averaging a 77.5 per tote.

And let's not forget an offensive line that carved up the Wisconsin defensive front for 345 yards rushing -- 8.6 yards per carry.

But wait: We have more. Safety John Boyett tied a Rose Bowl record with 17 tackles, including 12 solo. Punter Jackson Rice averaged 46 yards on three punts. Freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell forced a critical fumble with four minutes left that was recovered by linebacker Michael Clay, who had 13 tackles, including two for a loss.

Getting the idea?

"When they had to make a play, they made it," Kelly said. "So many guys contributed to it, and it's truly a total-team win. We're just proud we can say we are Rose Bowl champions."

Rose Bowl champions: Oregon fans know that is not merely a statement of the glorious moment either. It's a statement that ripples through a program whose history isn't terribly impressive until Kenny Wheaton went the other way against Washington during an unlikely Rose Bowl run in 1994.

Yet, as the Ducks started to pile up winning seasons over the past two decades or so, built their program into respectability and, eventually, eclipsed the hated Huskies, there was always that potent tweak: "Yeah, yeah. How many Rose Bowls have you won?" The most effective bit of trash talk that could diminish the Oregon program -- and Kelly's superb tenure -- died in this thriller of a game. A third consecutive conference title didn't advance the program in a meaningful way without this as a confetti-covered capper.

Oregon can't win the big one? Oregon can't beat a top-10 nonconference foe? Oregon's offense gets solved by a highly-rated defense if it gets extra time to prepare?

"It feels good to not have to answer that question any more," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, whose offense gained 621 yards against a defense that was yielding just 293 per game.

All those tweaks and all the sometimes not-unreasonable criticism is wiped away because so many players showed up and did their jobs well.

"I think this kind of validates what we stand for," Kelly said. "This team is fearless. They're resilient. And they've got faith... They really stick together and believe in the guy to the right of them and to the left of them because they see what they do every day in practice."

And the run isn't over. The Ducks, even if James enters the NFL draft, as expected, will welcome back 32 of the 44 players on their two-deep depth chart, including both Thomases, Alonso, Clay, Mitchell and Boyett. They very likely will begin the 2012 season ranked in -- or at least very near -- the nation's top 5.

So, yeah, this team might be in Miami next January instead of returning to the Rose Bowl, though USC might have something to say about that.

But the present moment, the one that ripples backwards through 95 years in which scattered glory and success fell just short of ultimate satisfaction, is what Oregon is about right now. It should be savored. It should last until next preseason.

And Ducks fans surely should gloat that the rest of the Pac-12 just lost its best bit of trash talking.

Video: Oregon's Lavasier Tuinei

January, 2, 2012
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Oregon receiver Lavasier Tuinei, the Rose Bowl MVP, talks about his big game.

Halftime: Oregon 22, Stanford 16

November, 12, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- First-half thoughts from The Farm.

Stat of the half (or quarter): -1, total yards for the Oregon Ducks after the first quarter – though the Ducks held an 8-0 lead. The score came on Andrew Luck’s sixth interception of the season. Oregon turned it into a 4-yard touchdown pass from Darron Thomas to Lavasier Tuinei. The pass from David Paulson to Mike Garrity on the conversion surprised the Cardinal and the Ducks went up 8-0.

Best player: Even though Oregon is leading, Stanford wide receiver Griff Whalen has really established himself as the No. 1 receiver for the Cardinal over the past few games. He’s got six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Coming up big on the few third downs Stanford has completed.

Best call: Has to be the 2-point conversion. Gutty call on the road by Oregon coach Chip Kelly. If it failed, we’d all be hammering him for the bad decision. But it didn’t. And the fact that Stanford missed a PAT makes it look even more impressive. A very close second was the screen pass to De’Anthony Thomas on fourth-and-7. Stanford sold out on the blitz. Perfect call, and 41 yards later, the Ducks were up 22-9.

No James? No problem for Oregon

October, 13, 2011
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The facetious question was met with a laugh from Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson.

So, with Oregon running back LaMichael James almost certainly out with a dislocated elbow for Saturday's game against the Sun Devils, the Ducks' offense is likely hamstrung and lacking weapons, correct?

Hardy-har-har. Replied Erickson, "You name them, they've got them."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly was asked who would replace James and what would change with his offense. He listed his depth chart: Kenjon Barner and a pair of true freshmen, De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson.

[+] EnlargeKenjon Barner
AP Photo/Wily LowKenjon Barner will look to fill the void with LaMichael James out of the lineup.
As for changes, Kelly was his typical, expansive self: "Nothing changes."

Well, he could have just said, "Nothing."

He's mostly right. Sure, James is the nation's best game-breaking back. Sure, he's had more 20-yard runs in his career than any other back in college football. Sure, he is an outstanding return guy and has dramatically improved in the passing game.

But Barner, James' best buddy on the team, is a pretty good backup plan. He'd be the starter for, oh, about 110 teams in the nation.

"Very similar," Kelly said of Barner and James. "I've always felt they were 1 and 1A here. They are both explosive. They both can go the distance."

And, according to Oregon's top-of-the-line stopwatches, Barner and James, who both tip the scales at 195 pounds, are a push in terms of speed and quickness. Barner's electronically timed 40-yard dash is the equal of James', but Barner beat James in the shuttle run and vertical jump.

Barner had 228 all-purpose yards at Tennessee last season, including an 80-yard punt return for a TD. He eclipsed 100 yards rushing twice last season on his way to 551 yards, despite missing two games with a concussion.

So, he's good.

And Thomas looks like a budding star. The multipurpose threat is the Ducks' leading receiver and has accounted for six TDs, four receiving. He averages 7.6 yards per rush and 16.8 yards per reception.

Carson, meanwhile, is the 227-pounder who offers the power element, a la former Duck RB LeGarrette Blount.

"They have got so much depth," Erickson said. "You take Barner, you take De’Anthony Thomas -- who we tried to recruit -- and they’re something special. They’re solid in all areas. They’re not going to try to change anything. They do what they do and they’ve got depth to do it, so you don’t treat it any different whether he plays or whether he doesn’t."

Still, it's hard not to turn more focus to Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas. He's been fairly efficient this season -- 15 TD passes, just two interceptions -- but his 208 yards passing per game ranks 10th in the Pac-12, and he's been far less of a running threat than last season (see: just 18 carries for 100 yards).

"Darron has done a really good job for us, managing the game, taking what the defense gives him," Kelly said. "He's been very efficient with the ball."

Kelly, who's not one to give in to reporters' questions, actually admitted that, yes, Thomas is running less this season due to play calling. (Sure, that's a "duh" admission, but it feels notable for reporters who regularly hear Kelly quibble over every detail: "No, Ted, the sky isn't really blue. That's about Rayleigh scattering -- light waves from the sun passing through our atmosphere.")

Part of that is Thomas taking what the defense gives him. Kelly said Thomas has been making the proper reads in the Ducks' diverse option game. But Kelly also said that he's called fewer zone-read plays this season.

Still, Thomas has shown in the past that he can run the ball well, and that forces a defense to account for him. The Sun Devils' defensive coaches surely asked themselves whether Thomas might be more of a factor in the running game with James out.

"For us to be successful, he has to be a viable running threat," Kelly said. "When defenses have forced him to run, he's done a good job with it."

Of course, the Sun Devils will focus first on containing the Ducks' running game, which they mostly stymied last season. That means Thomas, the passer, likely will need to make plays, and that receivers Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff, as well as De'Anthony Thomas, will need to step up.

Might this be a coming out party for the Ducks' passing game, which has been prolific just once this season, when Thomas passed for 295 yards and six TDs (although on just 19 attempts) against Nevada?

That's the thing about the Ducks: You don't know. Their offense can beat you a lot of ways, even without the nation's best running back.

"You try to make them earn it and keep the big plays down," Erickson said. "You run to the football and tackle."

In other words, nothing changes.
It's good to receive, but it's really cool when your team welcomes back a 1,000-yard receiver.

After previously looking at top returning passers, rushers and tacklers, we move on to receivers.

Three teams welcome back receivers who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.

1. Juron Criner, Arizona (1,233 yards): Even with an outstanding supporting cast -- including Texas transfer Dan Buckner -- Criner will be the go-to guy and almost assuredly a 1,000-yard receiver again in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJuron Criner
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJuron Criner already topped 1,000 yards last season and will likely do so again as the top receiver in Arizona.
2. Marquess Wilson, Washington State (1,006): Wilson's situation is not unlike Criner's with a good quarterback plus good supporting crew of receivers likely meaning a big season.

3. Jermaine Kearse, Washington (1,005): Much like Criner and Wilson, Kearse has a good supporting cast. Unlike Criner and Wilson, Kearse won't have a proven quarterback throwing his way. Plus, with running back Chris Polk returning, the Huskies likely will be run-first.

Five other teams welcome back their leading receiver. A couple of these could reach the 1,000-yard benchmark under the right circumstances.

Robert Woods, USC (786 yards): If Woods stays healthy, the chances of him not eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving are close to zero.

Marvin Jones, California (765): Jones will have to share the ball with rising star Keenan Allen. And who the heck is going to throw to him? (And if Zach Maynard wins the quarterback job, he's Allen's half-brother).

Markus Wheaton, Oregon State (675): If James Rodgers returns, Wheaton is the Beavers No. 2 receiver. If Rodgers doesn't return -- at least not early in the season -- Wheaton could become a breakout player in the conference.

DeVonte Christopher, Utah (660): Jereme Brooks caught more passes but Christopher was the big-play guy, with six touchdowns and a 16.9 yards average per reception. If Jordan Wynn comes back healthy, Christopher will be his top target. Of course, new offensive coordinator Norm Chow is a run-first guy.

Taylor Embree, UCLA (409): It's unlikely the Bruins passing game will improve so much it produces a 1,000-yard receiver. And if it did, that likely would be Nelson Rosario.

And here are four candidates from the remaining conference teams.

Gerell Robinson, Arizona State (387 yards): The Sun Devils spread the ball around. Eight players caught at least 21 passes last year; six of them were between 21 and 29 receptions. Robinson or Mike Willie are the top candidates to reach 1,000 yards.

Paul Richardson, Colorado (514): Richardson is poised for a breakout season as a true sophomore. While quarterback Tyler Hansen has never put up big numbers, he's a senior running a pro-style offense as opposed to the spread of previous years.

Josh Huff, Oregon (303): The Ducks lost their top two receivers, including 1,000-yard receiver Jeff Maehl. Lavasier Tuinei was the third-leading receiver in terms of receptions in 2010, but he's more of a tall, possession-type guy (see a scant 11 yards per reception). Hard to say who will lead the Ducks receivers in 2011. Tight end David Paulson is even a possibility.

Chris Owusu, Stanford: If Owusu stays healthy, he's one of the conference's best threats downfield and therefore a candidate to reach the 1,000-yard mark. His quarterback is pretty good, too. The question is will Stanford still be as potent running the football. If so, the Cardinal will prioritize balance, which means run to set up the pass.

Pac-12 three-headed monsters

March, 25, 2011
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Last summer, we took a look at "three-headed monsters" -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver in the conference.

Seems reasonable that we revisit the idea this spring. (And we may revisit our revisitation this summer, when some position battles begin to clear up).

Ranking these isn't easy. The challenge is priority and value. What if a team is, say, outstanding at running back and receiver but inexperienced at quarterback? How does that measure up with a team that is merely good but also experienced at all three positions?

The only "pure" three-headed monsters in the Pac-12 are Arizona and USC, in that the Wildcats and Trojans welcome back their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

USC
QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

California, Utah and Washington get "incompletes" because we have no idea who will be the starter at at least one position, though the Utes and Huskies are pretty strong at two of the spots. This summer, after spring practices have possibly created a pecking order, we'll likely be able to include them in our overall ranking.

Utah
QB Jordan Wynn, RB ?, WR DeVonte Christopher

Washington
QB ?, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse

California
QB ?, RB Isi Sofele, WR Marvin Jones

So, of those nine remaining, here's our ranking:

1. Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Chris Owusu

The skinny: Luck is the best QB in the country. Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 TDs in 2010. Owusu, when healthy, is the Cardinal's most dangerous receiver.

2. Oregon
QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei

The skinny: James is the best RB in the country. Thomas is one of the nation's best QBs. Tuinei is a big target who caught 36 passes last year. You could flip the Cardinal and Ducks here and probably not get much argument from neutral observers. (Neutral observers, Ducks fans).

3. Arizona
QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

The skinny: Foles and Criner are the best pass-catch combination on the list. Antolin struggled to stay healthy but he rushed for 668 yards last year.

4. USC
QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

The skinny: It's possible Barkley and Woods will challenge Foles and Criner for best pass-catch combination this fall -- Woods, after all, was a true freshman in 2010. Tyler struggles to stay healthy but rushed for 913 yards and nine TDs in 2010.

5. Washington State
QB Jeff Tuel, RB Logwone Mitz, WR Marquess Wilson

The skinny: Lookie here! The Cougs on a list! Wilson ranked second in the conference as a true freshman with 83.8 yards receiving per game, averaging a strong 18.3 yards per catch. Folks who pay attention know Tuel can play. Mitz was the Cougars' second-leading rusher.

6. Colorado
QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Paul Richardson

The skinny: Hansen is experienced -- 16 starts --and has looked good at times. Stewart rushed for 1,318 yards last season. Richardson, a UCLA transfer, caught 34 passes for 514 yards with six TDs as a true freshman and looks like a budding star.

7. Oregon State
QB Ryan Katz, RB Ryan McCants, WR Markus Wheaton

The skinny: The Beavers would look even better here if WR James Rodgers were certain to be healthy. He and Wheaton are a strong combo. Katz flashed plenty of ability last year. The issue is running back: McCants is merely the first in line to replace Jacquizz Rodgers.

8. Arizona State
QB Brock Osweiler, RB Cameron Marshall, WR Mike Willie

The skinny: This is a solid threesome that lacks star-power. Osweiler was outstanding at the end of the year when he replace an injured -- and now retired -- Steven Threet. Marshall led the Sun Devils with 787 yards rushing and nine TDs. Willie was the second-leading receiver with 36 receptions for 442 yards with six TDs.

9. UCLA
QB Richard Brehaut/Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Taylor Embree

The skinny: The Bruins maybe should have been left off this list with the "incompletes" because we don't know what will happen at QB. But Prince and Brehaut have plenty of starting experience, Franklin rushed for 1,167 yards and eight TDs -- let's not recall the fumbling issues -- and Embree has finished first or second on the Bruins in catches and receiving yards in each of his first three seasons.

Best & worst of the bowl season

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
9:00
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Taking a look at the best and the worst of the Pac-10 bowl season.

Best defensive performance (team): Washington held Nebraska to just seven points and 189 yards in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. In their meeting on Sept. 18, Nebraska scored 56 points on 533 total yards.

Best defensive performance (player): Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov had a game-high 12 tackles and three sacks in the Discover Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech.

[+] EnlargeMason Foster
Patrick Green/Icon SMIMason Foster's 12 tackles and two sacks helped Washington beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
Best defensive performance (player) II: Washington linebacker Mason Foster had a game-high 12 tackles with two sacks and a pass breakup in the Huskies win over Nebraska.

Best offensive performance (team): Stanford rolled up 534 total yards -- 281 passing, 247 rushing -- in its 40-12 win over Virginia Tech.

Best offensive performance (player): Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.

Best offensive performance (player) II: Washington's Chris Polk rushed for 177 yards and a touchdown against what was supposed to be a rugged Cornhuskers defense.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl caught nine passes for 133 yards in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game against Auburn. He had an 81-yard reception and a leaping catch on a 2-point play that tied the game late in the fourth quarter.

Worst offensive performance: Arizona scored just 10 points against a mediocre Oklahoma State defense. The problem was more sloppiness -- four turnovers, eight penalties -- than anything else.

Worst defensive performance: None. Now isn't that strange? Arizona would seem like a possibility, but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense gained only 312 total yards, even though they scored 36 points. Oregon gave up a bunch of yards, but held Auburn to 22 points -- 21 below the Tigers' season average. Meanwhile, Washington dominated Nebraska, and Stanford held Virginia Tech to 12 points and 288 yards.

Best cheap shot: Arizona safety Adam Hall flattened Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon away from the ball in the Alamo Bowl. It appeared that Blackmon's showboating after a 71-yard touchdown pass didn't amuse Hall.

Worst performance by a future Pac-12 member: Utah, which will join the conference in 2011, got pounded 26-3 by Boise State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos outgained the Utes 543 yards to 200. The Utes had three fumbles.

Best goodbye: It's been a tough year for Huskies quarterback Jake Locker, but he led the Huskies to a four-game winning streak to end the season -- including their first bowl game since 2002 and their first postseason win since 2000.

Biggest disappointment: The Oregon offensive line couldn't handle the Auburn defensive front, most particularly defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Of course, Fairley is fairly good.

Best catch: At a full sprint, Oregon wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei tipped the ball to himself over his right shoulder in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn and went 43 yards to the Tigers 3-yard line. Ducks fans: Don't think about what happened over the next four plays.

Best quote: When Luck was asked how he reacted to a Cardinal offensive lineman catching a deflected pass in the end zone for a safety, he said (sounding very Stanford-y): "Football can be a very funny game. No point in getting emotionally hijacked over it."

Best quote II: Polk on how Washington dominated Nebraska: "We just ran right at 'em. We knew we could win if we ran the way we know how to run. They couldn't stop it. We whupped a team that didn't respect us."

Auburn gets the big stop

January, 10, 2011
1/10/11
11:11
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon got a big play on a fake punt. It got a big play on a great catch from Lavasier Tuinei. It got a first-and-goal situation that could have reversed the momentum.

But Auburn stoned the Ducks on four plays, including a fourth-and-1 stop of Kenjon Barner.

That was vintage Chip Kelly, taking chances, getting big plays. Everything but the fourth-down stop.

Again, Oregon D needs to step up with the Tigers pinned deep.

Pac-10 links: Harbaugh a 49ers candidate?

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
2:30
PM ET
A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre” and, in a shield, the World State's Motto: “Community, Identity, Stability”.

James OK, but Ducks lose a WR

November, 21, 2010
11/21/10
5:40
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Oregon running back LaMichael James, who was on crutches after the Ducks win at California on Nov. 13, was not listed on the team's injury report during practice Sunday, so he appears good to go for the Ducks game with Arizona on Friday.

Receiver Lavasier Tuinei may be another story. He suffered a shoulder injury at Cal, and had his arm in a sling and didn't practice Sunday. His 33 receptions are second on the team.

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