Pac-12: Mike Breske

Mike Leach sat at the podium following Washington State’s disastrous defensive performance against Rutgers on Aug. 28 and spoke to the lack of expectations that are generally attached to the program he was hired to turn around.

He’s tired of the coddling.

“For too long around this university expectations have been too low, and I think we as coaches and we as players have to change that,” Leach said. “It’s not going to change from the outside. Everybody is going to have 20 pats on the back before they get back to their house.“

In the past six, seven years or so, that would have been true, but a close game against a Power 5 conference school during that span would likely have been defined as a step in the right direction. Maybe even success.

[+] EnlargeRutgers RB Paul James
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRutgers' offense dominated Washington State in the season opener.
The 41-38 loss was different. It was the single-most deflating loss for the Cougars since at least 2006, and probably longer. Leach’s assessment that those outside the program would shrug it off and carry on like it was just another loss is simply off base.

Unlike in years past, this season carried tangible expectations. Not expectations for signs of improvement, but legitimate expectations for a bowl berth and to be competitive each week in what is widely regarded as the country's second-best conference.

And that's a credit to Leach.

By taking Washington State to a bowl in just his second season, he made the Cougars relevant again. Before last week, it wouldn't have taken much of an imagination to expect a 5-1 start. At that point, the widely-held assumption was that the Rutgers game would essentially serve as an opening act for a nonconference schedule full of routs.

But after watching Rutgers pile up 496 total yards and generally dominate the line of scrimmage -- Leach called it "whipping our defensive line" -- finding six victories on the schedule isn't as easy a task. Not with that defense.

Reflecting on how that unit played Tuesday during the Pac-12 conference call, Leach spoke bluntly about defensive coordinator Mike Breske's game plan and adjustments.

“I think we were one-dimensional scheme-wise. ... I thought we could have thrown more stuff at ’em," Leach said. "I thought we got to a point where we were doing the same thing over and over again."

But not all is lost.

"No question [the problems are] fixable," he said. "I don’t think there’s any doubt about that."

That theory will be tested Friday night against Nevada -- and its Pistol offense -- in a game that will be televised on ESPN at 10:30 p.m. ET.

Nevada remains a bit of an unknown after beating FCS opponent Southern Utah 28-19 last week, but, regardless, figures to serve as an interesting barometer for the direction of WSU's season.

WSU got off to a slow start offensively last week, but after settling in, Connor Halliday looked like a quarterback destined for a 5,000-yard season. He hit receivers in stride and spread it around, coming up one drive short of at least partially masking the defensive liabilities.

The Cougars might chase 40 points per game this year, and they'll need every one.

Spring games primer

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
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Three more Pac-12 spring games are slated for Saturday. Here’s a look at what to watch in all three.

California

Where: Memorial Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: The Bears have a new defensive coordinator … again … so watching them adjust to Art Kaufman’s 4-3 vs. Andy Buh’s 4-3 will be of note. Though a depth chart was recently released, there are still a few positions up for grabs. There are some questions about the right side of the offensive line and backup quarterbacks can usually make an impression in the spring. The depth chart lists an “or” between Austin Hinder and Kyle Boehm, so expect those two to jockey for position behind incumbent starter Jared Goff. The event is free and there will be giveaways and kids’ activities. Click here for details.

UCLA

Where: StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: As has been the case with UCLA the last couple of years, youth and injuries make for some mixing and matching on the offensive line. This spring has proven no different, so look for the right tackle spot to be highly competitive beyond Saturday’s game. The running backs are intriguing as well. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone saidJordon James has evolved into the one-cut runner that he wants him to be, but Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and touted redshirt freshman Craig Lee will push for carries. Finding a suitable backup for Brett Hundley, be it Asiantii Woulard or Jerry Neuheisel, is also a top priority, and the spring game could create some separation. Note, tickets are $5 in advance, $10 day of (free for UCLA students and children 2 and younger). Parking is $15. Players will be available for autographs between 3 and 3:45. Click here for details.

Washington State

Where: Joe Albi Stadium, Spokane, Wash.
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: This is the fourth year the Cougars will be holding their spring game in Spokane. All reports are that quarterback Connor Halliday has shown a strong command of the offense and wide receiver Vince Mayle has been outstanding. However, the big question mark still lies in the secondary, where definitely three -- maybe four -- positions are still up for grabs. The spring depth chart has Charleston White and Daquawn Brown at the corner spots and Isaac Dotson and Taylor Taliulu as the safeties. But those won't be set in stone for a while. There are other position groups of interest, naturally. But defensive coordinator Mike Breske told the Pac-12 blog, while he likes his front seven, the back end of the defense, without question, has been the biggest point of emphasis this spring.
Washington State’s (very) youthful secondary is about to get a lesson in what defensive coordinator Mike Breske calls “sweat equity.” While some coaches opt to recruit a few junior college players as stop-gaps to fill holes, the Cougars’ staff believes in throwing youngsters into the fire to see who can play and who can’t.

And things are getting toasty in Pullman.

Taylor Taliulu, who started 10 games a year ago, seems to have a hold on the free safety job, but with three of the four starting spots up for grabs (both cornerback spots and strong safety), Washington State will present an intriguing defensive mix when the 2014 season rolls around. Though not senior-heavy, there is some experience in the front seven. Contrast that with a lot of inexperience in the secondary and you have a defensive coordinator who is both excited for the potential and cautious with his expectations.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Monroe
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWith inexperience in other areas, linebacker Darryl Monroe will have be one of Washington State's defensive anchors.
“It’s going to be an interesting group,” Breske said. “They’ll grow up together and hopefully we’ll see them get better week after week.”

When scanning the side-by-side statistical comparisons from Washington State’s defense in 2013 vs. 2012, it’s clear the Cougars got better … mostly.

Aside from reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- the most obvious sign of improvement (after all, this game is about wins) -- the Cougars improved in average points allowed last year, though not by much: 32.5 points per game in 2013 to 33.7 in 2012. Not exactly a huge jump. The Cougars also had more interceptions, but fewer sacks; more first downs allowed, but significantly better third-down defense.

“I think it was a roller-coaster year for us,” Breske said. “We showed some good signs, and then again, I don’t think we played to our ability.”

Stats rarely paint a complete picture. For example, the Cougars gave up more passing and rushing yards in 2013 than they did in 2012. But when it mattered most -- inside the red zone -- Washington State’s defense buckled down and was one of the best in the Pac-12. The Cougars tied for third with Oregon in red-zone defense behind USC and Stanford. In 2012, the Cougars were last in the league.

“That’s our emphasis,” Breske said. “We win with field goals, we lose with touchdowns. We’re not wrapped up in total yards and passing and that type of deal. Tackles for a loss, sacks, takeaways, explosive plays, those are the major things. We want to get off the field, get our ‘O’ on the field and watch a little Air Raid.”

Last season the Cougars forced 30 turnovers -- the most since 2006 and second in the conference. They were still minus-5 in turnover ratio, 10th in the league, but that comes in large part to 24 interceptions from the offense. They also posted their first shutout since 2003.

While there’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary, the front seven returns a group that got quality reps in 2013. Linebackers Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen are back after posting 94 and 60 tackles, respectively. Xavier Cooper returns his team-high five sacks from last season and Tana Pritchard pitched in 4.5 tackles for a loss.

“It’s great experience when you compare it to what we have on the back end,” Breske said. “We’re still not where we need to be in our numbers. For whatever reason, guys leave or quit and you never really have that full complement. Twenty years ago, a guy came, he stayed and he’d contribute to whatever degree. Nowadays, my jersey isn’t getting dirty, I’m out of here.”

During the 15 spring practices, Breske said the Cougars will be putting an extra emphasis on tackling. Missed tackles, more than anything, is what led to the extra yards allowed in 2013.

“Good tackling lends itself to cutting down those stats,” he said. “We have to do a better job of the first man there making a play. When you look at the cut-ups, you can see we just need to take one more step. That’s a huge focus for us this spring and an area we really need to improve.”

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 North

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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So far, only three Pac-12 teams retained their 2013 offensive and defensive coordinators: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

Here's a look at who's in, who's out and what it means, starting in the North Division:

California

Out: Defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who will be reassigned as a position coach, probably linebackers, if he remains in Berkeley. Coach Sonny Dykes also fired defensive tackles coach Barry Sacks and defensive backs coach Randy Stewart.

In: Art Kaufman, whose defense at Cincinnati ranked ninth in the nation last season.

Thoughts: Kaufman, 55, takes over perhaps the worst defense in Cal history, a unit that was injury-ravaged but also was often unsound and seemingly uninspired, allowing an eye-popping 46 points per game in 2013. The good news: If the injury issues resolve themselves with the healthy return of talented players such as defensive end Brennan Scarlett, safety Avery Sebastian, defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil and cornerback Stefan McClure, the improvement could be dramatic. Dykes also hired Greg Burns to coach the secondary. He was at USC from 2002-05 and Arizona State from 2008 -11. He spent last season at UMass.

Oregon

Out: Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired.

In: Don Pellum was promoted from linebackers coach.

Thoughts: The promotion of the 51-year-0ld Pellum stuck with the "Oregon Way" of promoting from within, though there was mutual interest between coach Mark Helfrich and former USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pellum won't have to rework much with the Ducks' hybrid 3-4 scheme. As noted here, since 2009, "the Ducks have finished no lower than third in the Pac-12 in yards-per-play allowed. That includes leading the conference in 2009, 2010 and, yes, 2013, when the Ducks finished seventh nationally by that metric." The Ducks did falter a few times last season, most notably against Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State, and often had trouble against physical running games as well as on third down. Helfrich did make a quasi-outside hire when he brought in Erik Chinander to take over the Ducks' outside linebackers, which Aliotti coached. Chinander, 34, is a former Oregon graduate assistant who worked under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles last season.

Oregon State

Out: Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants.

In: John Garrett, who was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He was on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys from 2007-12, where his brother Jason Garrett is the head coach.

Thoughts: Garrett, who last coached in college at Virginia from 2004-06, shows that coach Mike Riley remains married to a pro-style scheme. Garrett will also coach quarterbacks and tight ends, but it has not yet been determined who will call plays -- Riley has done so for the past two seasons. Garrett and Riley have known each other since 1991, when Garrett played receiver for Riley's San Antonio Riders of the World Football League. The good news for Garrett is the Beavers are strong at QB (Sean Mannion) and deep at tight end. The bigger questions are making the running game more consistent and replacing WR Brandin Cooks' production.

Stanford

Out: Defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who became the head coach at Vanderbilt.

In: Lance Anderson was promoted from outside linebackers coach, a position he will continue to coach.

Thoughts: Another promotion from within that will ensure the Pac-12's best defense has schematic continuity. Anderson has been at Stanford for seven seasons. He coached DTs from 2007-09. He was also the recruiting coordinator from 2007-11. The Cardinal also hired Peter Hansen as inside linebackers coach. He replaces David Kotulski, who was named Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator under Mason. That was another move that maintains continuity, as Hansen spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Stanford as a defensive assistant before following Vic Fangio and Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers.

Washington

Out: Steve Sarkisian brought most of his staff from Washington to USC, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, but not offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who was not retained by new Huskies coach Chris Petersen

In: Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski

Thoughts: Smith, the overachieving former Oregon State QB, is a real up-and-comer. Petersen trusts him enough to give him play-calling duties, even though he was not the offensive coordinator last year at Boise State. He'll also coach quarterbacks, so he'll play a central role in determining who wins the starting job this fall. Before joining Petersen at Boise State, Smith spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Montana. Kwiatkowski spent the previous four seasons coordinating the Boise State defense. He was the defensive line coach before being elevated to defensive coordinator in 2010, when he replaced Wilcox. The Broncos led the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences in total defense and scoring defense in each of his first three seasons and were third and second, respectively, in 2013.

Washington State

No change: Head coach Mike Leach is his own offensive coordinator and Mike Breske is back to coordinate the Cougars defense, which was disappointing in 2013, slightly lagging behind its 2012 numbers.

Pac-12 assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
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We’re four weeks into the season and the Pac-12 has (mostly) made short work of its nonconference foes. Now the fun starts. League play kicks off conference-wide this week. But before we look forward, the ESPN blogosphere is looking back at some of the best and worst through the first four weeks of each conference.

Best game: In terms of excitement, it’s tough to beat an overtime shootout. And that’s what happened when Oregon State traveled to Utah in Week 3. After building a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter, it looked like the Beavers would cruise. But Travis Wilson would lead the Utes back and they’d eventually grab a 38-37 lead. The teams swapped touchdowns in the closing three minutes to force overtime, where the Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection gave the Beavers a 51-48 victory.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBrandin Cooks leads the nation in catches, receiving touchdowns and first-down receptions. Yeah, that's good enough to get our best player vote.
Best player: For as shaky as Oregon State’s defense has been, its offense has been sensational. So we’re going to give the nod to Cooks, who has 10 more receptions than anyone else in FBS football. Through four games he leads the nation in catches (43), receiving touchdowns (7) and first-down receptions (23). Mannion gets honorable mention, since someone has to throw the ball. But Cooks is head-and-shoulders above the rest of nation’s receivers right now. Another honorable mention to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who has emerged over the last nine or so games as one of the country’s elite running backs.

Best performance: How about the Washington State defense -- that’s right, defense -- for its performance in the 10-7 win at USC. Damante Horton nabs a pair of interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six. Daquawn Brown makes his first career start and has a team-high 11 tackles and two pass breakups. Toni Pole blocks a kick, the front seven gets 7.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. You can say USC’s offensive inefficiency played a role. And you’d be right. But give credit where it’s due. Mike Breske had the boys ready to go and the Cougs came to town and pushed their way to a win.

Best surprise: Though his team has played in only two games so far this season, it’s hard not to feel good about the comeback of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson -- and really the rebirth of the Buffs under Mike MacIntyre. Richardson has 417 yards in just two games, which puts him eighth in the country. Had Colorado played its game against Fresno State (which was postponed due to flooding), it’s likely we’d see Richardson toward the top with Cooks. As for the Buffs in general, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. They still have a long way to go. But you can definitely see an air of confidence about this team that’s been lacking the last couple of seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Head’s: Oregon State's defense. Tails: USC's offense. Go ahead and flip. Either way, you're right. Both have been disappointing. Anytime a BCS conference team loses to an FCS team, it’s disappointing. Anytime one of the country’s proudest football institutions is averaging 22 points per game through four games, it’s disappointing. Anytime a team -- once ranked in the top 25 (I guess that actually applies to both schools) -- is allowing an average of more than 35 points per game, it’s disappointing. Both teams are 3-1. And probably counting their blessings that (1) USC's defense has been that good and (2) Oregon State's offense has been that good.

Tuesday mailbag: Scorned USC fans

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
9:00
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Really? No one wants to talk about Oregon State's bounce back over Hawaii?

Mark in San Diego writes: A week ago the Pac-12 blog had a “defense of Kiffin” in the mailbag. The person writing basically equivocated hating lane with not supporting USC. And you both seemed to agree and pat him on the head. I am writing today to assure you there is nothing further from the truth. In fact, I hate Lane Kiffin BECAUSE I am a USC fan. Lane is an embarrassment to the university and the way he conducts himself does not represent the standards held by the community. He has: A) walked out on the media in the middle of questions B) tried to be cheat by making players switch jerseys and C) tried to cheat by deflating footballs. On top of all of that, he doesn’t even win! Last year he took the number one team in the country and tanked us out of the Top 25; we even lost our bowl game! This year, he started out conference play by losing to the conference doormat. “Loser-Lane” Kiffin has taken our players’ talent and flushed it down the toilet.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Jae C. HongLane Kiffin's handling of the quarterback situation and the offense has fans rightfully upset.
Kevin Gemmell: First off, it would have been impossible for both of us to “pat him on the head” because that was Ted’s mailbag. He can only speak for one half of the Pac-12 blog. I wrote a column last week that was a quasi-defense of USC, not necessarily Kiffin. But in the wake of Saturday’s loss, that all goes out the window.

The quarterback situation has spilled over onto the defensive side of the ball and weakened what has been an impressive defensive showing so far. And that's very unfortunate. If you hold a Mike Leach offense without an offensive touchdown, you’ve done something right.

As noted, the quarterback play has been terrible for USC. The offensive line play hasn't been great, either. Washington State out-muscled the Trojans. Plain and simple. Let it be noted that that's a clear testament to what Mike Breske has done with the Cougs.

The examples you offer from last year are valid, and very unbecoming of a storied program like USC. Whether he was directly involved in the ball deflating can’t be proved, but it happened under his watch, so he’s at fault by default. (You forgot the part where he lied about his vote in the coaches poll).

Personally, I like Kiffin. He’s invited me into his office, and we’ve had a lot of frank and productive conversations. As Ted noted in his Kiffin column yesterday -- a must-read for USC and non-USC fans alike -- the Pac-12 blog takes no joy in hot-seat talk. That being said, his handling of the quarterback situation has been a disaster. His handling of the offense has been a disaster. The first couple of bubble-screens I expected to be set-ups for down-the-field shots later in the game. But those shots never came. You have every right to be frustrated with the team and Kiffin. It’s all on him.


SJ in Eugene, Ore. writes: Still drinking the USC Kool-Aid? Seems like you would have had enough by now, or maybe just too much to see reality?

Kevin Gemmell: Let’s specify which Kool-Aid. Did I think Washington State was going to win on the road in L.A. for the first time since 2000? No. So hats off to the Cougs. (9-1 again this week, grrrrr). In the preseason predictions I had USC third behind ASU and UCLA. If it’s drinking the Kool-Aid to pick them third, then yes, I drank. From what I’ve seen from so far, USC is vulnerable to every team in the Pac-12.

Now that Kiffin has picked his guy, we'll see if there is any improvement. No more 50-50 splitting reps in practice. I still think they can finish third in the division. Anything above that would be unexpected.


Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: I never get any of my comments/questions answered by you guys, so I'm hoping that this one will make the headlines. I believe USC's loss to Wazzu was a glimpse of how USC's season is going to turn out. Without a proven QB, it's tough to win football games (see Kevin Craft and the Neuheisel era). With all that said, are you thoroughly convinced that the monopoly in L.A. is officially over?

Kevin Gemmell: It’s refreshing to get a take on USC from a non-partisan observer. Bruin ... is that French? You aren't the headliner, but you're the third question. Will that do?

As for the monopoly question, it’s all a matter of perception. And the perception of USC is downright awful right now. Look at what a potential USC-recruit who attended Saturday’s game told our Erik McKinney:
“It was kind of a letdown,” said an in-state ESPN 300 recruit who wished to remain anonymous. “It's really thrown me off of them. I think everybody thought the play calling could have been better. That game shouldn't have ended like that. You could hear it in the crowd -- the "Fire Kiffin" chants -- it's that noticeable when the crowd is saying it. Probably people who don't even really understand football are noticing that they're running that bubble screen that many times."

Short answer, yes. UCLA is the dominant team in Los Angeles right now. It is ranked and has national credibility -- which it can add to this weekend against Nebraska. USC will always be a brand name. But right now, that brand is stained.


[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireBrett Hundley wasn't tested against Nevada, but his performance was noteworthy nonetheless.
Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, For the record, before you get too worked up by UCLA, hear all the facts. Granted, [Brett] Hundley's special, but Nevada ranked 95th last year in total defense, returned only five starters, and implemented a new defense. And that defense? The Tampa 2, led by their new DC, Scottie Hazelton, the same guy who coached USC's linebackers last year. We all know how well the Tampa 2 worked out last year for USC, so now add less talented personnel and newness and what do you have left? Just keeping it real. Really, you guys generally do a good job, but the blind spots can be a killer. Full picture my man, full picture.

Kevin Gemmell: I hear you. And in my UCLA running backs story last week, I stipulated that Nevada wasn’t exactly a defensive powerhouse. But consider the alternative?

What if Hundley had struggled? What if he didn’t look poised in the pocket and threw a couple of picks and looked indecisive?

It’s the ultimate chicken-or-egg question. Is Hundley that good? Or is Nevada’s defense that bad? I think we can lean toward "Hundley is that good," because UCLA blew out a team it was supposed to blow out. All he can do in a game like that is play spectacular or lose credibility. I'm pretty sure he didn't lose any credibility. Good players/teams beat who they are supposed to beat.


Derrick in Omaha writes: Same question as last week: As an Oregon fan, should I be worried? The blowout scores look good, but dropped passes, penalties, getting stopped on third and fourth downs, not getting the other team off the field etc. Too picky, or legit concerns?

Kevin Gemmell: Yes to both. Yes, too picky, because Oregon has set such an incredibly high standard for offensive efficiency over the last few years that any deviation from that feels like either an anomaly or a step backwards.

However, keep this in mind: Through two games this year, Oregon has six three-and-out drives. Through two games last year, it had seven. Through two games this year, it has 23 plays of 20 yards or more. Last year it had 12 through two games. So the offense is actually more explosive and efficient through the first two games than it was last season. Does that take a little of the stress off?

Now, yes to the legit concerns, as well, because the drops and the missed tackles were uncharacteristic. Ted and I get a lot of guff for calling Austin Seferian-Jenkins the best tight end in the country. “Best,” of course, is a very subjective word. Colt Lyerla, for example, is asked to do different things for his team than ASJ. But you don’t expect those kind of drops out of him. I still think those are the top two tight ends in the country. But those are plays he needs to make. Because tougher defenses loom.

I also thought the Ducks could do a better job in the power run game. Obviously, their perimeter speed is unmatched. And when they hit the corners, good night. But they are going to see some tough fronts in the Pac-12, and if the edges aren’t there, they are going to have to find a way to be more efficient running through the interior gaps.

So take this win for what it was -- their first road game of the season that involved traveling across the country. I hope the rest of the country -- which is usually sleeping when Oregon is playing -- got a good look at all the Ducks have to offer. Because it’s impressive. And when BCS decision-making time comes around (the outcome of future games pending), hopefully what the Ducks put on display will still be fresh in the minds of voters.


Carlos in Skoura, Morocco writes: Hi Kevin, I'm hearing and reading a fair amount about Oregon's performance against Virginia showing there is lots of room for improvement. While there are certainly areas to improve, it seems people are discounting the quality of the opponent. Virginia is a pretty good team that could easily make a bowl game. Getting a few three and outs or getting stopped on a couple fourth downs is to be expected when your opponent has the athletes, ability, and coaching of a team like Virginia, is it not? On an unrelated note, why is everyone so weirded out by Eminem's interview during the Michigan game? He was just being funny. Where's everyone's sense of humor?

Kevin Gemmell: I think that stems from the fact that Oregon shouldn’t be perceived as a team that struggles against “a pretty good team that could make a bowl game.” It was only the second game of the year -- and their first game against a team with a pulse. I definitely think there is room to improve, but as noted above, I’m not all that worried about it. I think Lyerla's drops were pretty uncharacteristic. I think some of the missed open-field tackles can be fixed with film study and practice. It’s little details that can be easily corrected, not major issues. If we're still talking about the little details in six weeks, then it's a cause for concern, because it's the little details that determine close games.

I had no problem with the interview -- aside from the spacey look on his face for the first half. Though it was Brent Musburger doing the talking, in my mind I kept hearing Casey Kasem talk about how this song was going to be shooting to the top of the charts.


George in Phoenix writes: Love the comment about Tenn being ranked in top 10. They're 2-0 in the SEC, so of course. Keep up the good work Kevin. By the way, did you catch Fla/Mia? 2 most inept offenses I've seen in a while (and no it wasn't because of great D)...until WSU/USC game of course.

Kevin Gemmell: Thanks, George. We’ve been known on the Pac-12 blog to crack the occasional joke at the expense of our friends in the South. Then again, all they have to do is show off their seven-straight national championships. That usually shuts us up.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
Taking only a cursory glance at Washington State's 2013 defense, you might only see the loss of four-year sacks leader Travis Long and the 33.7 points per game the Cougars surrendered last year, and therefore your most generous reaction probably would be, "Neh."

But, moving beyond a superficial impression, a closer look yields plenty of "Hmm." And perhaps some, "Maybe."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsSafety Deone Bucannon will lead a more experienced Cougars defense against Pac-12 teams in 2013.
Sure, Long is gone and he'll be hard to replace, but eight players are back from a better-than-you-think 2012 unit and there's a lot more depth -- and competition -- heading into fall camp than a year ago.

This unit will be experienced and physically capable. There's veteran star power with safety Deone Bucannon, and there's up-and-coming talent in middle linebacker Darryl Monroe and tackle Xavier Cooper. There's size and speed on all three levels.

Instead of being tricky and taking chances out of outmanned necessity, the Cougs' defense in 2013 has the potential to just line up and play. That should help stem the tide of explosion plays it yielded last fall.

In fact, the primary goal during spring practices was to keep the scheme basic so guys could play fast and build confidence. Last year, there was a getting-to-know-you feel with new coach Mike Leach and new defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

"This spring, we just hit it running," Breske said. "We had a tremendous spring."

The truth -- and it feels weird asserting it -- is that the Cougs' defense looked worse than it was last year because Leach's offense was so underwhelming. Washington State averaged 20.4 points per game, which ranked 11th in the conference, and it was 10th in time of possession.

It's one thing to rank low in time of possession when you're Oregon or Arizona, averaging 49.5 and 38.2 points per game, as those two did. It's another thing when your lack of possession time is due to not making first downs and touchdowns.

The first question in 2013 is replacing Long. That's not going to happen with one guy. While Logan Mayes is the frontrunner to take over at "buck" linebacker, there's a reason he was one of five guys listed there on the post spring depth chart. Breske said Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan had "great springs," adding, "There's going to be a lot of competition there."

There's also plenty of competition at linebacker. While Monroe, the unit's chief vocal leader, is set in the middle, Cyrus Coen and Eric Oertel are battling on the strong side and Justin Sagote and Tana Pritchard are doing the same on the weakside.

That's good news. It means Breske has four guys he thinks can play.

"We've got a solid two-deep at 'backer," he said. "I wish it was three-deep."

But Breske is most happy with his defensive line, where Cooper, NT Ioane Gauta and end Matthew Bock front a solid two-deep.

"Our D-line was most impressive coming out of spring ball and will be going into fall camp in terms of changing their bodies, their explosiveness," he said. "We've got much better depth in the D-line than we did a year ago."

As for the secondary, Bucannon leads a veteran unit: All four starters figure to be seniors, though Casey Locker is battling sophomore Taylor Taliulu at strong safety. Cornerbacks Damante Horton, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington are all experienced, though redshirt freshman Rahmel Dockery could get into the mix.

Turning up the pressure remains Breske's chief goal -- the Cougars grabbed 15 interceptions and recorded 92 tackles for a loss in 2012 -- but without the offsetting explosion plays.

When asked if he saw the potential for dramatic improvement, Breske said, "You hit it right on the head."

So perhaps the Cougs' defense merits more than a preseason, "Neh."

Proving grounds: Pac-12 North

July, 10, 2013
7/10/13
12:00
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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 one, leaving many to wonder if they were one-year wonders. Still others have to bounce back from 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 2013. Here are six players with something to prove from the Pac-12 North. This is last year's Proving Grounds post. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the South.

Khairi Fortt, OLB, California: He's yet to play a down for the Bears since transferring from Penn State -- a move that had less to do with the NCAA sanctions facing the Nittany Lions and more to do with his desire for a larger role in the defense. He appeared in every game for Penn State his sophomore year and is well-versed in the 4-3 -- the new base defensive alignment for the Bears this year under Andy Buh. New head coach Sonny Dykes called Fortt a potentially impactful player who needs to be more consistent. The Bears have some defensive stability with guys like Nick Forbes and Deandre Coleman. If Fortt can elevate his play and prove to be an upper-level linebacker, the Bears could have a sneaky-good defense.

De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR/KR/PR/AP, Oregon: When it comes to delivering "SportsCenter" highlights, Thomas has nothing to prove. No question, he's one of the most explosive players in the country and certainly one of the most exciting to watch. But his burden of proof comes from a different place. During his tenure in Eugene, the Ducks relied on LaMichael James in 2011 and Kenjon Barner in 2012 to carry the bulk of the running game, with Thomas providing a change-of-OMG-did-you-see-that? But with two of the most prolific runners in school history departed, it's finally Thomas' turn to shoulder more of the workload. True, Byron Marshall will get his carries, and we're all excited to see what Thomas Tyner brings to the table. But Thomas was the workhorse this spring, and if Marshall and Tyner are slow to develop, the burden of carrying the running game falls on Thomas' frame. Like many, I'm eager to see what he does while consistently getting 15-plus carries per game. He's only had five double-digit-carry games in his career and three 100-yard rushing games -- two of which came on a combined nine carries (Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl after the 2011 season and Fresno State in 2012).

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Rob HoltJunior linebacker James Vaughters gets his chance to live up to the recruiting hype at Stanford.
Obum Gwacham or Richard Mullaney, WRs, Oregon State: Someone at Oregon State earlier in the week told me this: One of these guys has to step up for the Beavers' offense to function properly. So, by definition, if one of them doesn't step up, the offense will function improperly. Not what you want when you have a quarterback competition going on. At 6-foot-5, 227 pounds, Gwacham has tantalizing measurables. But he's had also had a case of the dropsies. Mullaney has the hands, but not the same speed as the last guy to occupy this position, Markus Wheaton. Brandin Cooks was the benefactor of Wheaton's success last year. And while a case can be made that it's Cooks who has something to prove -- to show he can be a legitimate No. 1 without Wheaton -- there is only so much he can do on his own. He needs someone else to step up opposite him. Kevin Cummings will continue to work in the slot and underneath, but the Beavers must have a second outside threat if Cooks is going to improve upon his already-impressive numbers from last season.

James Vaughters, OLB, Stanford: Vaughters was used judiciously in his freshman year in 2011. Even when Shayne Skov went down for the season -- and many thought it would be Vaughter's chance to step up -- he was still used on a limited basis while Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley filled that void. Last year Vaughters moved to the inside, but Tarpley proved to be more productive alongside Skov. With Chase Thomas gone, Vaughters figures to be the primary guy filling that spot. Outside is a more natural position for him, and with Trent Murphy on the other side, it should provide Vaughters plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills. He has all the tools to be an elite player and was considered the jewel of the 2011 recruiting class. He's in a position to excel. And if he can, he makes one of the nation's best defenses that much better.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: Obvious? Yeah. But so much of Washington's success rides on the play of its once-budding slinger. If you read the intro, Price certainly qualifies as a guy with something to prove. His 2011 season was spectacular. In a year when Andrew Luck shined and Matt Barkley appeared to be a sure-fire first-round pick, Price looked like he was on pace to have that sort of collegiate career. But he regressed in 2012. It wasn't all his fault. There were injuries across the offensive line that certainly were major contributing factors. But at the same time, Price is the quarterback, and part of his job is taking the praise and the heat. As a result, he forced way too many plays and didn't trust the offense. He needs to rely more on his playmakers instead of "trying to play hero." His words, not mine. The pieces appear to be in place for him to succeed in 2013. He's got a 1,000-yard rusher, an elite tight end, good receivers and a healthy line. Time to step up and put the seven-win jokes to bed.

Logan Mayes, LB, Washington State: Maybe it's too much to ask of Mayes ... to step in and fill the void of the departed Travis Long, who was quietly one of the Pac-12's elite defensive players the past couple of seasons. Maybe it's not. Maybe Mayes is good enough to be the team's premier defensive player in the "buck" linebacker spot. To be fair, it probably won't be all Mayes. Expect a healthy rotation of Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio as well. But no doubt, that position is of great importance to what coordinator Mike Breske wants to do on defense -- and filling the hole vacated by Long is a top priority. Mayes played pretty well in the Apple Cup in Long's absence, posting five tackles and a pair of hits on the aforementioned Price. People forget that Washington State was one of the best teams in the nation last season at generating sacks and tackles for loss (11th nationally in sacks, seventh in TFLs), so maintaining that high level will be a priority.
All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Player series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.

Washington State: S Deone Bucannon

2012 production: Had a team high 106 tackles with three tackles for a loss, one sack and he hauled in four interceptions while also forcing a fumble.

Why Bucannon is so important: As noted in Washington State's "One Good Thing" video, the Cougars are silly with wide receivers. And since that is their primary method of offense, finding just one among a corps of many is difficult simply because of the nature of the offense Washington State likes to run.

So trying to single out the most important player from the wide receivers would be tough.

Defensively, Logan Mayes takes over the buck linebacker position for the departed Travis Long -- and the extremely high expectations that come with it. I also think defensive tackle Ioane Gauta, who has cut about 20 pounds this off season, quietly had a very good season last year. There were some improvements on defense -- especially in the way of sacks and tackles for a loss -- so either of them could certainly qualify.

But Bucannon fills this space because, like most safeties, he'll be called upon to be the leader of the defense. He was the only Washington State player (not counting special teams) to earn all-league accolades above honorable mention, landing on the second-team defense. He was Washington State's first player since 2006 to have more than 100 tackles in a season and his 106 stops were fifth in the conference.

But maybe more importantly, he's grown up. After a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver last year, he was tagged as a dirty player. Fair or not, he told me in March he's learned from his mistakes.
It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned.

That's an important step because the Cougars played a lot of youngsters last year (and probably will again this year) and they'll be looking to Bucannon for guidance and how to act on and off the field. As they move into Year 2 of Mike Breske's defense, veterans take on even greater importance.

On several occasions last year, head coach Mike Leach said what the Cougars did in practice during the week needed to translate onto the field on Saturdays. Bucannon was one of those players who listened. He's a hitter -- and his play can inspire a team that is looking for a little inspiration.
Like many, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon fell prey to the belief that by simply setting foot on campus, new head coach Mike Leach was going to instantly make the Cougars better. After all, Leach's hiring was deemed by many as the most significant in college football last season. Though, that was before the Cougars went 3-9.

It still might be. But Bucannon and his teammates realize it's less to do with Leach and more to do with themselves.

"I think we were blinded by how much success he's had in the past and we just assumed we would automatically win games because it's Coach Leach and he has a great system," Bucannon said. "But it's up to us to work that system. Football isn't about systems. It's about players and how much effort they put into it. The system complements the players. We can't put the system first. We thought it would be magic and we'd win games. But we have to put in the work."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesWashington State is expecting big things this season from safety Deone Bucannon.
With the Cougars opening spring ball Thursday, Bucannon is now looked to as the unquestioned leader of the defense, taking the crown from the departed Travis Long. The second-team all-conference safety, who was fourth in the league in total tackles last year (106) and tied for fifth in the league in interceptions, is ready to put the defense on his shoulders entering Year 2 of Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme.

“Really looking forward to seeing Deone [pronounced DAY-own] this spring," Breske said. "He will have 15 practices to compete and get better each time out. This spring will be an opportunity for him to develop and showcase his leadership, both vocally and by example.

"Deone is one of our best competitors, he loves to compete and wants to win every play. Every day, he will be out there to get better.”

Bucannon is a hitter. And hitters hit. But as the rules of college football continue to shift more toward player safety, hitters have to constantly tiptoe the line between being aggressive and being tagged as dirty players. Unfortunately for Bucannon, he picked up the dirty tag last season when he planted a late hit on an Eastern Washington receiver. He owned up to the mistake and served a half-game suspension. But the label stuck with him all last year -- and he's hoping to strip it to regain his reputation in 2013.

"If you knew me or talked to me, I'm not what a lot of people said I was," Bucannon said. "I love this game and I would never disrespect the game or another person. I enjoy going 100 percent on the field. It's tough adapting to the new rules right off the bat. I need to control when to hit the player because that's part of the game. Ask any safety that's played college football and they'll say the same thing. It's tough because you're trying to come with the aggressiveness you need as a defensive player, but you have to be conscious that you are playing within the rules. Things are moving fast and you don't have much time to decide where to hit someone. But it's something I learned."

Those are the kind of acts of leadership he'll need to display as WSU moves to Year 2 under Leach & Co. As the only non-specialist on the Cougars to earn all-conference honors (Andrew Furney was second-team kicker), Bucannon has the staff looking for him to do things the right way on and off the field.

The senior has appeared in every game since his freshman season and has ridden the highs and (mostly) lows of the program. But he continues to believe that the Cougars are on the verge of breaking through. He points to last year's come-from-behind win in the Apple Cup as proof of what this team is capable of.

"I remember not one person on the sideline thought we were going to lose that game even when we were trailing in the fourth quarter," he said. "If we can go into every game with that kind of confidence, we can compete with anybody. When we play together and aren't worried about the other team's jerseys, we can beat any team in the country.

"But it was also just one win and we can't live in the past. It was a nice way to end the season, but we need to learn from it and move on and try to win more games next year."

Lunch links: Oregon vs. the SEC

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
2:30
PM ET
You just better start sniffin' your own rank subjugation jack 'cause it's just you against your tattered libido, the bank and the mortician, forever man and it wouldn't be luck if you could get out of life alive.
 
You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.
 
Sure, Mike Leach would love to cruise around the old stomping grounds when he brings his Washington State Cougars to Provo, Utah to kickoff the 2012 season versus BYU. It might be nice to swing by the old King Henry Apartments where he met his wife when he was a student in the early 80s.

But Leach is going home for business, not pleasure.

"I have great memories there," Leach said. "I met my wife there. It's a great spot. But once the game starts your attention is kind of confined to the field and your sideline ... once it comes to the coaching part, you are occupied with your players and the opponent."

There's been a lot of attention on Leach this offseason. He takes over a program that has won just seven games over the last three seasons (four of them last year) and hasn't been to a bowl game since 2003. By bringing in Leach, Washington State sent out a warning shot to the rest of the conference that it was committed to football and serious about being a major player in the Pac-12.

That starts Thursday, when Washington State opens on ESPN at 7:15 p.m. PT as a nearly two-touchdown underdog.

Naturally, this game presents some mildly amusing confusion when you match the Cougars versus the Cougars. But the similarities between the teams go further than just the mascot.

"I think the argument can certainly be made that offensively -- we may look more BYU than BYU does if you reflect on the LaVell Edwards days," Leach said. " There are plays out there we're running that we got -- and maybe we don't run it exactly -- that we got from the Golden Age back then at BYU when LaVell Edwards was there and we run it just like they did back then except maybe we've adjusted this route or that route."

Leach frequently talks about his time as a student at BYU and how what the Cougars were doing offensively influenced much of what he does now with this high-powered Air Raid offense. He recalls early in his coaching career hanging out at BYU spring practices with Roger French and Norm Chow and watching the way BYU would spread the ball around on offense.

"Football-wise, it's very hard to imagine what football would be like without LaVell Edwards," Leach said. "And then also football in America, what it would be like without LaVell Edwards. I'm not the only person LaVell Edwards influenced on throwing the football ... It influenced me directly and specifically and it's the core of a lot of things we do offensively."

And offensively, Washington State should be just fine. The Cougars boast NFL talent at quarterback (Jeff Tuel) and wide receiver (Marquess Wilson) and Tuel has a bevy of options behind Wilson. Leach inherited a team that was geared toward a spread passing attack already, so transitioning to his style went smoothly in the spring and fall.

"I thought it went efficiently, I expected it to," Leach said. "Some of our guys have emerged and stepped up in a quicker fashion than I expected. It did install quickly and things went pretty well for us."

At question is whether WSU's shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under Mike Breske can get up to speed quick enough and keep opponents off the scoreboard. Plus, Leach expects to play more freshmen than he'd prefer. How many?

"Quite a few," he said. "I think by some accounts an alarming number."

We'll know a lot more about the new-look Washington State team following Thursday night's game. And as for BYU's current coach, Bronco Mendenhall? Leach said they are casual acquaintances.

"He's a really good surfer," Leach said. "... I've seen all his football stuff. We've watched 13 games worth to the point where we're really not interested in seeing blue Cougars. We're only interested in seeing red Cougars. Bronco is an interesting guy and he does a lot of interesting things. But I'd be more interested about talking to him about surfing than football at this point."
Did you know that Oregon running back Kenjon Barner was recruited as a DB? That position switch has worked out, eh?

Every season, players are moved from one position to another. Sometimes the move is the player's idea. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes he likes the switch. Sometimes he doesn't.

And position switches often don't yield much. But sometimes they do.

So which Pac-12 position switch seems like a "Eureka!" moment this preseason. Here are a couple of ideas.

Kevin Gemmell: This is an intriguing question. Back when spring started, I probably would have said USC's Tre Madden switching from linebacker to running back. As it turns out, Madden got hurt, the Trojans got Silas Redd and all is well once again in the USC backfield.

[+] EnlargeTravis Long
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaTravis Long will be playing a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position this season.
UCLA's Joseph Fauria and Washington State's Andrei Lintz are also fascinating cases. Both now have "wide receiver" titles and more receiving responsibilities. I'm on record as saying both will flourish in their "new" roles. But they are essentially still just hybrid tight ends.

But it's Lintz's teammate, defensive end-turned linebacker Travis Long that strikes me as possibly the most impactful position change in the entire conference.

Washington State had a run defense that was marginal at best last year -- ranking seventh in the conference while yielding 157.2 yards per game. Long ranked in the top five in the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss, racking up an average of one per game last season.

So it stands to reason that you take WSU's best run-stopper, especially now that Alex Hoffman-Ellis is gone, and you unleash him and let him do what he does best.

At 6-4, 243 pounds, Long had good size as a 4-3 defensive end, but was probably on the smaller side of the spectrum. He relied on his speed to make plays in the backfield, and he was good at it. But now that speed is going to serve him better as WSU's "buck" linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, which is essentially a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

The Cougars will get the best of both worlds out of Long. He'll have his hand down a few times, hand up a few times, but still be able to use that burst and explosiveness to make plays. Think of how Stanford uses Chase Thomas and you'll start to get an idea of what Long is capable of.

The move should create a spike in Long's tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks. But he also has pretty good ball instincts, having deflected three balls as a defensive end. Put that to use a couple of yards off the line and you have a guy who can be an impact player in both the rush and pass defense.

Talking with Washington State defensive coordinator Mike Breske, he told me they plan to be very "multiple" with Long. Meaning they'll move him all over the field. Inside, outside, hand up, hand down and short of being a nickel back, Long will have his fingerprints all over this defense.

Washington State is going to score points. That's a foregone conclusion with the quarterback and receivers they have running Mike Leach's system. At question is if the defense in the new 3-4 look can slow down teams enough. While there will be growing pains, the move is a good one for Long and great one for the Cougars.

Ted Miller: I'm going to cheat by naming two guys. But since it's two guys making the same switch, it's not so bad. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Both Arizona senior Taimi Tutogi and Utah junior Thretton Palamo are running backs who have switched to defense, though Tutogi is still playing RB/FB, so he could go both ways.

They are similar in dimensions. Palamo, a former elite rugby player, is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. Tutogi is 6-1, 260. So these guys are stocky and built low to the ground and, as former running backs, obviously have above average speed.

Both figure mostly to be pass-rush specialists, using their speed and power to slip around lumbering offensive tackles on the edge.

Arizona's situation is a bit more desperate in terms of pass rush. Last year, the Wildcats finished with a measly 10 sacks, which ranked last in the Pac-12 and 116th in the nation. Making matters worse, they are replacing both starting defensive ends from 2011, C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman.

You might say good riddance, but keep in mind that no one on the roster was good enough to unseat them. Parish led the Wildcats with, gulp, three sacks.

Utah had a solid pass rush last year, recording 30 sacks, which ranked fifth in the conference. But its leading sack man, Derrick Shelby, is off to the NFL -- and playing well in the Miami Dolphins camp. While Joe Kruger has moved into Shelby's spot and has a good shot to match his production, Nate Fakahafua is unproven on the left side. That's who Palamo is backing up.

The early results with both have been promising, though we won't really know their roll and production until the games begin.

It's unlikely either one of these guys is going to become the primary starter. But here's a guess that one -- or both -- is going to bolster a pass rush this fall.

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