Pac-12: Mark Mueller
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
If we are to believe the Pac-10 will continue to be a high-flying passing conference -- last year's downturn was clearly just an anomaly, right? -- teams will continue to need outstanding cornerbacks to slow down the track meet.
So where do things stand as we enter spring practices?
- California: The Bears are the only Pac-10 team that has two accomplished, full-time starting cornerbacks from 2008 -- senior Syd'Quan Thompson (first-team All-Pac-10) and junior Darian Hagan -- returning from a statistically impressive pass defense (24 Ints vs. 12 TD passes).
- USC: While the Trojans defense lost starting cornerback Cary Harris, three players with starting experience at the position return, including, Shareece Wright, who was the best of the lot before he got hurt and sat out the season. Oh, and the Trojans had the best pass defense in the nation in 2008, see just six TD passes surrendered. [Ed. note: As folks pointed out below, I screwed up and forgot that Josh Pinkard was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. My bad.]
- Arizona State: The Sun Devils just make the cut here. They not only welcome back three corners with starting experience, they get all six players back from their season-ending three-deep depth chart. And ASU ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency defense. That said, Omar Bolden didn't play up to expectations last year, and this figures to be a competitive spot during spring.
- Arizona: The Wildcats are nearly in "great shape." They lose starter Marquis Hundley -- recall his endzone INT that iced the Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU -- but sophomore Robert Golden is a star talent who should start opposite Devin Ross, who was second-team All-Pac-10. The Wildcats ranked third in the conference in pass efficiency defense in 2008.
- UCLA: Second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Alterraun Verner is back, but Michael Norris is gone. Redshirt freshman Aaron Hester is the favorite to start, but the competition for the vacancy figures to endure into the fall when a number of touted athletes arrive.
- Oregon: Jairus Byrd, first-team All-Pac-10, opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, but Walter Thurmond III is back and backups Willie Glasper, a senior, and junior Talmadge Jackson III saw significant action in 2008. A curiosity: The Ducks had a lot of talent in the secondary last year but gave up 270 yards passing per game and 25 total TD passes, both numbers being worst in the conference.
- Washington State: This may seem charitable because the Cougars ranked ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense last year, but both starters -- junior Romeo Pellum and sophomore Tyrone Justin -- are back, and California transfer Brandon Jones should challenge one or the other for a starting spot.
- Oregon State: The Beavers lose both starters, Brandon Hughes (second-team All-Pac-10) and Keenan Lewis (honorable mention), but they aren't desperate. Senior Tim Clark has started six games in his career, and junior James Dockery, who missed last season with a knee injury, figure to step in, though some young players, such as redshirt freshman Keynan Parker, might make a move.
- Stanford: Wopamo Osaisai is gone, while Kris Evans returns, but competition is wide open, with Michael Thomas, Mark Mueller, Corey Gatewood and Quinn Evans each trying to earn a starting spot. The Cardinal needs to get more athletic in the back-half after intercepting just seven passes a year ago.
- Washington: Both starters are back, but Washington ranked 115th in the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2008. Opponents completed 67 percent of their passes and threw 24 touchdown passes. The Huskies only grabbed seven interceptions. Of course, with little pass rush up front, corners Matt Mosely and Quinton Richardson often found themselves in coverage a long, long time.