Pac-12: Nate Fellner
2011 conference record: 5-4 (3rd, North)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 0
QB Keith Price, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, WR Kasen Williams, S Sean Parker, CB Desmond Trufant, DT Danny Shelton, DE Josh Shirley
RB Chris Polk, OT Senio Kelemete, WR Jermaine Kearse, DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison
2011 statistical leaders (*returner)
Rushing: Chris Polk (1,488 yards)
Passing: Keith Price* (3,063 yards)
Receiving: Jermaine Kearse (699 yards)
Tackles: Cort Dennison (128)
Sacks: Josh Shirley* (8.5)
Interceptions: Sean Parker* (4)
1. For the defense: Coach Steve Sarkisian rebuilt his defensive staff around star coordinator Justin Wilcox, and the early returns are promising. And not just because of the coaches. There's more talent on defense than the Huskies showed during a terrible 2011 campaign. The chief task this spring, however, was blending in the new coaches -- five of them, including offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau -- with the players and Sarkisian's ways.
2. Secondary not an issue: The Huskies have some folks who can play -- and have played -- in the secondary, starting with cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Sean Parker. There's also Justin Glenn, Greg Ducre, Will Shamburger and Tre Watson, a transfer from Central Washington. Plus, touted safety Shaq Thompson arrives in the fall, and redshirt freshman Travis Feeney is promising.
3. Not unskilled: There was reason entering spring to fret about the skill positions, other than quarterback. The Huskies lost running back Chris Polk as well as receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. But, after spring, things seem at least solid. At tailback, it's probably going to be by committee with Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey, as well as junior-college transfer Antavius Sims and redshirt freshman Dezden Petty. And maybe Deontae Cooper comes back healthy? At receiver, James Johnson, Kasen Williams, Cody Bruns, who redshirted last season, and Kevin Smith (if healthy) give the Huskies a solid crew. Some redshirt freshmen and intriguing incoming players could also get into the mix.
1. Oooooo-Line? The Huskies should be welcoming back four starters, but guard Colin Porter was forced to retire due to injuries, and other guys were beat up this spring. If Colin Tanigawa, who missed all of spring with a knee injury, tackle Erik Kohler and center Drew Schaefer all come back healthy, then things should be OK. But that remains to be seen.
2. LB woes? It's still uncertain whether the Huskies will be primarily 3-4 of 4-3 on defense, so we don't know how things will shake out at linebacker. We do know that the Huskies were bad there last year. Three safeties -- Taz Stevenson, Nate Fellner and Evan Zeger -- moved to LB to bolster things, while John Timu, Princeton Fuimaono -- both returning starters -- Thomas Tutogi, Garret Gilliland and Jamaal Kearse are in the mix. Next to the offensive line, this is a position where fans should feel free to be concerned.
3. Backing up Price? Redshirt freshman Derrick Brown is No. 2 at present, mostly by default. But two touted freshmen arrive in the fall: Jeff Lindquist and Cyler Miles. Brown improved over the course of the spring, but the freshmen are good enough to challenge him immediately. And, keep in mind, the No. 2 QB isn't important until he becomes your most important player.
Read Part I here.
Tell me about your defensive philosophy: What are the first things you tell your guys that need to happen?
Justin Wilcox: The first thing is you've got to develop an identity. The great thing is, from the core values Steve Sarkisian has implemented here in terms of the competitiveness, the toughness, the work ethic, those things have been ingrained in these kids. How they train, how they work, how they prepare. That is paramount to being a successful program. From our side of the ball, on top of everything Coach Sark stands for, the toughness and competing that we're going to emphasize to these kids, the big thing on defense, especially this day and age, is the execution. Effort and toughness -- you have to have those. They are non-negotiable. Unfortunately, they won't win you games. You can play with the greatest effort and the greatest toughness, but if you don't execute at a high level, you're going to play bad defense. What we need to focus on is being able to execute at a high level, down-in, down-out, up-tempo, for four quarters, even when we are tired. That's just conditioning your mind, conditioning your body. That's what we're focusing on. The scheme is important. There's no doubt. But how you execute the scheme is even more important. That's what we're focusing on this spring, getting good at what we do. There are a lot of different defenses, a lot of different ways to do things. Throughout the country, everybody's got a little bit different wrinkle. But at the end of the day, if you're a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team or a quarters team or a three-deep team, you've got to be good at what you're doing. That's what our focus is going to be. We've got to find out a little bit who we are in terms of personnel and what we think we can be good at. We're always going to be fundamentally driven. We've got to be great tacklers; we've got to be great at taking on blocks; and we've got to be great at covering people. That's what defensive football is. Whatever scheme we play, whatever coverages we play, it always goes back to tackling, taking on blocks and covering people. Those are the things that we're going to work on day-in, and day-out. You could have 800 defenses, and they could be the greatest defenses on the board, make the most sense and cover everything, but if you are not good at what you're doing, you're just flailing in the wind -- a jack of all trades, master of none. We need to find our identity of what we are going to be schematically, and then play better football. I know that sounds kind of boring but that's the truth. It's going to be fundamentals for us. And it's going to be execution.
Give me a CliffsNotes version of your scheme. It seems more teams are using 3-4, odd-front looks, and that's more your reputations, too, but you also seem kind of flexible.
JW: Yeah, that's fair to say. We're a little more 3-4, under-front, odd-front in our base downs. We've got to play more nickel and possibly some dime, depending on our personnel, because we will see a fair amount of 11-personnel, 10-personnel -- meaning one-back stuff. So we will practice that the first day, nickel and some dime, so we can try to get our best coverage matchups, which will give you more flexibility with what you can do, coverage-wise, when you have another DB out there. We need to find out, personnel-wise, throughout the spring, who we are. Who can we put the stress on? Who are the guys on our defense who we can say: This guy can win the one-on-one battles. And if we need to help protect another position, that we've got to build it around that. We'll install our base coverages out of our base group, our nickel coverages and all of our blitzes and fire zones, and then we'll kind of hone it in on what we think we'll be good at. You're going to do the scheme part of it, but we really need to practice the fundamentals and get good at it -- playing three-deep, playing quarters, playing press, taking on blocks and tackling. All those fundamental things that sometimes can get loose if you are not careful.
What have you seen on film from the guys you've got coming back: Did anything stand out?
JW: I'm excited. There's some good young talent. There are some edge player -- the Josh Shirleys, Hau'oli Jamora, [Andrew] Hudson -- those guys who are more edge-type guys. We've got some young defensive ends who we think have a chance, guys who haven't played a lot. There's a young noseguard who has flashed, Danny Shelton. You probably know about him. We've got to continue to develop our defensive ends and continue to develop in recruiting in terms of size and length. At linebacker, it's going to be very competitive there. We've got some guys who we might move around in terms of changing positions, to try to give us a little bit more flexibility at those spots. The secondary, there are some good young players. Obviously, you've got [cornerback] Desmond Trufant coming back. That's a big deal for us and we're excited for him. There will be some competition at corner. Greg Ducre, Marcus Peters, some freshmen who redshirted. At safety, you've got Sean Parker and some guys who played last year, Nate Fellner and Justin Glenn. There's a redshirt freshman who has flashed some, Travis Feeney. I'm trying not to miss anybody. The other thing is we'll play a lot of nickel, so developing that nickel position, and possibly a dime, because we have some of those body types. Again, we're trying to find out who are the best guys and who do we think gives us the best chance to win. If you get so rigid on, 'We're a 4-3 team, so we're going to play 4-3 no matter what,' but what if your fifth DB is better than your third LB, then you're kind of spinning your wheels and not playing with your best guys. We want our best guys out there.
How much can a defense improve from one year to the next? Do fans need to be patient, or do you feel like this defense can put up much better numbers than in 2011?
JW: It's hard for me to get into all that. I could stand on a soap box and say, 'We're going to do this, this and this,' but really it's going to be a product of what we accomplish this spring, in our offseason workouts and fall camp. As long as we are playing as well as we can possibly play, that's what I care about. The stats are what they are, as long as we are playing up to our capability that's what I am focused on. I don't think any of us are very patient. We want to play good defense. That's why we are here. That's what we spend our time trying to do. That's a multi-level question. For me to sit here and say, 'We're going to be here, here and here,' I have a hard time doing that.
Speaking of patience, your name is starting to pop up on lists of hot coaching candidates: How patient are you about getting a chance to be a head coach?
JW: I appreciate you saying that, but to be honest I never have thought that way. I've really not thought that way about moving jobs. I don't spend time getting involved in that part of it. All I really care about, for me, is that we are playing as good as we can play and we are coaching them as good as we can coach them and we're doing whatever is best for us for our team to be successful. That is really all that consumes me. I think once you start worrying about things that are out of your control, you are wasting time. All that drives my professional life is how we are going to play better, how are we going to improve, how are we going to coaching them better, how are we going to teach them better, how can we practice better.
Anyone else eager to end the worst offseason in the history of college football and start talking about games again?
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To the notes.
Roger from Oregon writes: I am a high school student in Oregon. It has really been bothering me how many columnists are calling out Darron Thomas and his leadership. I know that he has been in the car on three separate occasions were citations, as well as marijuana were involved. How does this make him a bad leader? At my school, a high school not a university, smoking weed is commonplace. While I don't smoke, most of my friends and about 75% of male athletes do, yet they are still able to be leaders on the football field, basketball court, etc. Maybe weed is taboo for all these old journalists, but in my opinion Darron Thomas is a leader (have you seen him stay in the pocket and take a big hit). His toughness and incredible play make him a leader on the field, I honestly don't care how he spends his time off the field (as long as nobody gets hurt).
Ted Miller: Here's the chief problem with marijuana and high-profile people smoking it: It's against the law, so getting caught with it brings bad publicity.
For a sports team, that could mean said team loses a player to suspension, which would make the team worse than before the player passed the dutchie on the left hand side. So players on a team that smoke the wacky weed, put their team at risk of being less good. Some, including me, would call that selfish.
Does it makes sense that one can legally purchase grain alcohol but not marijuana? Do people lose arguments when they are asked to explain why marijuana is illegal? These are questions the Pac-12 blog will not answer because they lead us on tangents away from the football field.
But I will write on leadership. It's more than taking charge of the huddle. It's more than showing infectious poise when the pressure is on. Or popping up with a confident smirk after a hard hit. We've seen all that from Thomas and we surely will see more of it.
But let's imagine a couple of scenarios.
We are in a car with Thomas and safety Eddie Pleasant in 2008. Pleasant decides to race his car with someone. Instead of what actually happened, this happens.
Thomas: Slow down. This is stupid.
Pleasant: Don't be lame!
Thomas: Being lame is us getting arrested and letting our teammates, coaches and fans down. And racing a car on public roads is a stupid thing immature people do. It's low-rent. So cut the crap before I whup you.
Now we are watching Thomas as he's about to get into a car with cornerback Cliff Harris in June.
Thomas: Cliff. Cliff, look at me.
Thomas: Cliff, you do a lot of stupid things. When I am with you, you will not do stupid things. I am not demented enough to think of all the potential stupid things you might do on our drive back to Eugene. But my singular task at this moment in time is to make sure you don't get us in trouble. That means: No speeding. That means: No substances that could get us in trouble will pass within 25 feet of this car.
Thomas: Cliff. Cliff, look at me. I am not asking you. I am not presenting an opinion. I am telling you how this ride will be. Nothing means more to me than beating LSU and making Coach Kelly and the Duck nation proud. I particularly want to do more interviews with the Pac-12 blog.
Harris: Yeah, he's cool!
Thomas: Yes, he is. But focus Cliff. Focus. Do you hear me? Speed limit, no illicit substances. Right?
Harris: Gosh, good idea. I can't wait to pick off Jordan Jefferson.
Thomas: Yes, I can't believe Les Miles thought he would be a great quarterback but saw me as just an athlete. Going make that fool eat grass.
Harris: Yeah! By the way, I just finished "Gravity's Rainbow." You were right. It was Pynchon's densest novel, but very rewarding to a patient read.
Now, if Thomas, however he might have accomplished it, had convinced Harris not to drive 118 mph nor allowed anyone to smoke weed in that car, would Ducks fans be celebrating his leadership?
No, because they wouldn't know about it. This embarrassing story wouldn't exist.
And Oregon's chances of beating LSU and winning a national title would be better.
Nick from San Luis Obispo, Calif., writes: Whats your take on the whole players being paid idea? All the ex coaches were on today saying how its a wonderful idea to give players a cost of living expense of $3,000 to $4,000 depending on the school. They also said that this should only be for sports that bring in the money. (men's football and basketball)My reaction is how is this far? Not all schools can afford to give scholarship athletes extra $ giving the ones who can an unfair advantage in recruiting. Also what about all the other sports? Isn't the whole idea of giving extra money to a athlete is so they can live comfortably? (extra spending money for clothes and other food then the cafe) Why is it that only football and basketball players need extra money?
Ted Miller: I agree with a lot of athletic directors: Scholarships should cover full cost of attendance. And I also believe they should be given to every scholarship athlete. Why? Because you can't do it any other way and still be in compliance with Title IX.
You are correct, though. Most schools outside of AQ conferences would be hard-pressed to pay that added expense. That's an issue.
As for why football and men's basketball players believe they should be paid and other college athletes should not? Well, that reasoning is simple. Football and men's basketball make millions every year. And every other sport runs a deficit, many substantial deficits.
Pat from So. Cal writes: In my effort to get any type of response Teddy I've decided to ask you one question everyday until I make the mailbag. For my SECOND question, on this inaugural day of questioning: do you think the university presidents at the largest, most influential schools, across conferences, will get together at some point and begin the process of detaching themselves from the NCAA??? The system doesn't work and we can all yell until we're red in the face but the simple fact remains, there needs to be some sort of governance going on in college REVENUE PRODUCING SPORTS, and it's clear the NCAA has failed its member institutions and that they aren't the right organization.
Ted Miller: There is an undercurrent of feeling that the big football conferences might break away from the NCAA, particularly when we get further consolidation in "super-conferences," which seems inevitable.
That's one reason the NCAA is talking massive reform. We shall see.
What should the NCAA do? Here are a few ideas:
- Full cost of attendance scholarships.
- Assigning an NCAA staffer -- not a university employee -- to each school to act as a head of compliance. If something happens that doesn't cross his desk, it's a major violation.
- A rule that the NCAA's marketing budget shall not exceed what it spends on enforcement. More investigators with good salaries, fewer "We're the NCAA and we're awesome!" commercials.
- An outside team of legal experts -- unaffiliated with universities -- to man an Infractions Committee.
- A streamlining of rules, eliminating many of the piddly, secondary violations.
- An outline of specific consequences for breaking specific rules.
- An understanding that relying on precedent is critical to fairness (that you can't just randomly, say, hammer USC because you're tired of reading about how dominant it is).
Ben from Salt Lake City writes: Can we think about a possible future for a minute? Let's pretend that Utah somehow goes undefeated this year and wins the BCS National Championship game. Then let's assume that next year, both Utah and TCU go undefeated and play each other in the BCS National Championship game. If that ridiculously crazy scenario were to happen, do you think that the media that clings to the idea that the "week in and week out of Non-AQ's is too weak to get them to the NC Game" would go out the window? Do you think it would validate other top Non-AQ teams that have proven themselves like Boise State or BYU? Or do you think that the 100+ year old bias of college football is protected no matter what happens?
Ted Miller: Are you asking if a pattern is established of non-AQ teams going undefeated and winning national championships, will that win over the media?
That said: This is Boise State's schedule. This is LSU's schedule.
Anyone saying that an unbeaten Boise State team in 2011 should play for the national championship over a once-beaten LSU team would -- and should -- get laughed out of the room.
Let's not give Boise State or TCU a free pass, either. Both programs are outstanding and worthy of elite rankings, but they also both work the angles to manufacture great records. Neither has adopted the old Bobby Bowden at Florida State "anywhere, anytime" scheduling philosophy.
If either said "we'll go anywhere to play and won't insist on a home-and-home series," we'd see them be able to schedule two or three high-quality games with AQ conferences foes every year.
And, I suspect, we'd see fewer undefeated seasons.
By the way, Utah is now a member of the Pac-12 family. It's in the club, drinking single malt in the beach-front penthouse with UCLA Oregon, Stanford and the rest of the gang.
Rob from San Jose writes: I am wondering how I missed your Post-spring Power Rankings. I thought for sure Cal would be ahead of UCLA; Cal beat UCLA in 2010 and it was not close. Cal has a proven defense (even with three good starters gone), but you think UCLA's defense "will arrive". Could you do a pre-season opener power rankings to see what has changed. ASU has had some bad luck with injuries and some schools have had academic ineligibility concerns. Since Cal's Maynard is QB, Sofele and Deboskie-Johnson have established 1-2 at RB; I am wondering where Cal would rank now?
Ted Miller: And UCLA beat Oregon State, which beat Cal 35-7. Those same Beavers also beat USC 36-7 and USC beat Cal 48-14.
So Cal gets crushed by UCLA if you selectively use the transitive property.
I got to watch UCLA practice this spring and came away impressed, at least with the defense. Cal had closed practices, so I didn't get to see the Bears. Further, most of what I read wasn't terribly good about the Bears in the spring -- injuries and poor execution.
You do make a good point: Cal fans should feel better today about quarterback and running back.
Still, I sort of have a hunch about the Bruins -- one that, if they lose at Houston to open the season, I will quickly disavow.
Peter from Salt Lake City writes: A little disappointed in your all pro pac-12 team to see an exclusion of Utes other than Jordan Gross. Steve Smith, Paul Soliai(franchise tag), Sean Smith, Eric Weddle(highest paid safety in the league), and Sione Pouha certainly could have been considered. However, Weddle and Soliai definitely should have been on the list.
Ted Miller: Peter, my honest answer is that I am not as familiar with Utah's past players as I am with the old Pac-10 guys.
Further, as I wrote: "... I racked my brain for exactly 17 minutes and came up with an All-Pac-12 NFL team (Pac-12 fans, I did this quickly, so feel free to chime in your opinions)."
I was being slack and didn't want to spend hours researching the "perfect" guy at every position. But you are correct: Weddle and Soliai would have been good names on the list.
Ben from Centerville, Utah writes: As a lifelong fan of the Utes, I have greatly enjoyed your blog and anticipate reading it from here on out. Question for you: I can't take the suspense. I anticipate that no Utes will make the top 25 list. Is that right? Are there REALLY no Utes in the top 25? I find it difficult to believe.
Ted Miller: No, no player from Utah nor Oregon State made the top-25. From Utah, I considered offensive tackle Tony Bergstrom, quarterback Jordan Wynn and linebacker Chaz Walker.
With 12 teams, a 25-player list is pretty select. My typical reply to a query like this -- and there are lots of them -- is not to ask who from Utah you believe should be on the list but who you would knock off.
And, yes, there probably is some bias against Utah due to playing a Mountain West schedule last season. Wynn's numbers are comparable to Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel, but Tuel put up his numbers against a far tougher schedule (nonconference game with Oklahoma State, too). And the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Tuel is probably a better NFL prospect due to superior arm strength.
Put it this way: Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year Junior Onyeali is not on the list. Two players who had five interceptions last season, safeties Nate Fellner of Washington and John Boyett of Oregon, are not on the list. Colorado guard Ryan Miller, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, is not on the list.
A lot of really good players are not on the list. Just the way one person's opinion worked out.
And, by the way, the list almost certainly will be much different when we re-do it after the season.
Huy Tran from Eugene writes: If you ever compile a list of your favorite "pump-up" videos throughout the Pac-12 this season, please consider ours. I know there's a million out there, but we've worked long and tirelessly and thought you'd might enjoy it (from an unbiased view, of course).
Ted Miller: Does anyone at Oregon not make football videos?
It's about something that has been doing a perhaps surprisingly good job making Locker's life difficult the past few weeks: The Washington defense.
I know. No way. The Huskies lost their two best defensive players -- linebacker Donald Butler and end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- to the NFL from a unit that ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in total defense (389.5 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (26.7 ppg).
But the Huskies defense has consistently hinted during fall camp that it's not going to be the weakling counterpart to what should be an explosive offense.
"They've caused us some problems on offense," said coach Steve Sarkisian, who calls the offensive plays. "They've caused turnovers. They've gotten after the quarterback."
Foster, a senior and all-conference candidate, said the young guys who were forced into action last year are in far better physical condition. Along those lines, Sarkisian noted that junior noseguard Alameda Ta'amu is no longer just a massive mound of inert space filler -- who at his best is merely hard to move. After dropping 30 pounds to 330, he's a guy who can get into the backfield and make plays.
The secondary also appears significantly improved with corners Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson and safeties Nate Fellner, Nate Williams and Will Shamburger. The apparent successful return of end Everrette Thompson from a torn Achilles should bolster the pass rush.
But it's not just about maturing physically, getting healthy and conditioning better. A year ago, coordinator Nick Holt was only that slightly menacing guy who was always barking at them about not understanding what it takes to play great defense. Now the defensive guys and Holt are playing the same tune, one that probably sounds a bit like Rage Against the Machine.
"They've got a real mentality right now," Sarkisian said. "What I like most about it is they've really adopted Nick's personality. They are aggressive. They are tough. They are smart."
Of course, this also merely could be preseason optimism (or maybe the Huskies offense won't be all that potent). The unit certainly will be tested at BYU on Saturday. Sure, the Cougars only have 11 starters back and are replacing quarterback Max Hall. But they have won 43 games over the past four seasons: They are fairly close to the proverbial "reload not rebuild" category.
While there may be some sentiment about the trip for Sarkisian -- he was BYU's quarterback in 1995-96 -- the Huskies players probably don't look too fondly at the Cougars. In their 2008 game in Seattle, Locker scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown in the waning moments -- pending the PAT -- but he was flagged for a celebration penalty after flicking the ball into the air.
Just about everyone thought the penalty ridiculous, at least outside of Provo. Of course, barely anyone would remember the call if the Huskies hadn't blown the extra point and subsequently lost 28-27.
That was about as close to respectability as the Huskies would come during an 0-12 season that ended the Tyrone Willingham Era and brought in Sarkisian.
Moreover, one of BYU's quarterbacks -- it appears two will play versus the Huskies -- is true freshman Jake Heaps, a product of Washington State powerhouse Skyline High School. He picked BYU over Washington last winter, and there are just a few whispers that some of the Huskies might be eager to make him feel like he made a mistake.
"I didn't even really know he was from around here until a couple weeks ago," Foster said. "That's going to make it a little more exciting -- a big-time recruit from the state of Washington that went to another school and will play as a true freshman. It's going to be fun to get a couple of hits on him."
The Huskies -- suddenly -- have high expectations. Only two years removed from an 0-12 season, they are thinking about more than just earning their first bowl berth since 2002.
"It's a total turnaround," Foster said. "No more losing every game. The mindset is different. We're really looking forward to coming out in competing at the top of the conference this year."
A total turnaround likely would make Locker a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
But that's not going to happen if the defense can't make stops.