Pac-12: Paul Vassallo

With the transfer of the nation's second leading tackler, Arizona's glaring need at linebacker just got a boost.

Akron linebacker Brian Wagner will enroll at Arizona this week and will be immediately eligible due to an NCAA rule that allows athletes pursuing graduate degrees not offered at the former school to play right away.

Wagner, 22, averaged 13.36 tackles per game in 2011, and considering top tackler Luke Kuechly of Boston College is off to the NFL, Wagner will be the top returning tackler in FBS football.

Wagner, who earned first-team All-MAC honors, is taking advantage of the same transfer rule that was used by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.

Why is this a big get for Arizona? Because its top two tacklers, Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are graduating, and the Wildcats' top two returning linebackers -- sophomores Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins -- combined for four starts and 18 tackles last season, in large part due to the Wildcats using a base nickel formation much of the season. But when you toss in 2010 starter Jake Fischer, who is coming back from an ACL injury, you have four experienced guys for three spots.

And, yes, you can essentially pencil Wagner, 6-foot, 235 pounds, into the starting lineup.

From the Tucson Citizen:

He played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at Akron. Exactly where he fits into Arizona’s scheme is to be determined, Wagner said, with the Cats presumably running a 3-3-5, no matter who coach Rich Rodriguez eventually brings in as defensive coordinator.


As for that defensive coordinator, nothing yet -- I found this to be an interesting narrative on back-and-forth with West Virginia DC Jeff Casteel. Speculation that Penn State also might be a player with Casteel raised one of my eyebrows, though Casteel's 3-3-5 doesn't sound like a Penn State defense.

Spring wrap: Arizona

May, 9, 2011
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ARIZONA

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 4-5

Returning starters

Offense: 5, Defense: 5, punter/kicker: kicker

Top returners

QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, LB Paul Vassallo, DT Justin Washington, CB Trevin Wade

Key losses

C Colin Baxter, DE Brooks Reed, DE Ricky Elmore

2010 statistical leaders (*returning starter)

Rushing: Keola Antolin* (668)

Passing: Nick Foles* (3,191)

Receiving: Juron Criner* (1,233)

Tackles: Paul Vassallo* (102)

Sacks: Ricky Elmore (11)

Interceptions: Joseph Perkins, Adam Hall*, Shaquille Richardson* (2)

Spring answers

1. Set at QB: With starter Nick Foles and backups Matt Scott and Bryson Beirne, no team in the conference will be as comfortable at quarterback. Foles is a three-year starter and All-American candidate who likely will be a high NFL draft pick. The hope is to redshirt Scott so he can return in 2012 and compete for the starting job with Rutgers transfer Tom Savage, but if Scott is needed he can seamlessly step in. Toss in the veteran Beirne, and you have a troika that combined for 31 completions, 380 yards and four scores in a 60-play scrimmage.

2. Deep at receiver: This is without question the deepest corps of receivers in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation, starting with All-American candidate Juron Criner. Texas transfer Dan Buckner provides another big target, and David Douglas, David Roberts, Richard Morrison, Terrence Miller, Austin Hill, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton provide plenty of options for Foles. Yes, the Wildcats should be able to pass this fall.

3. Secondary not really an issue: Free safety Adam Hall is a budding star, so you can't write off his knee injury this spring, but the Wildcats are fairly stacked in the secondary. Robert Golden can move back to strong safety from cornerback, while Trevin Wade, Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson give the defense three strong options at cornerback. Marquis Flowers is a rising star at safety. Of course, it would be nice to get Hall back at some point this season.

Fall questions

1. Young on the offensive line: There was optimism about the five new offensive line starters this spring, but, heck, it's five new offensive line starters. That's not an easy thing in the Pac-12. It typically takes a young line time to develop chemistry, so it will be interesting to see how the process goes for the Cats. Redshirt freshman tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele looked solid, as did junior Trace Biskin and sophomore Chris Putton at the guards. Junior center Kyle Quinn is the only guy with a start to his credit (one, in the Alamo Bowl).

2. Help wanted at linebacker: The Wildcats welcomed back all three starting linebackers from 2010 until Jake Fisher went down late in the spring game with a knee injury. That brought up an issue: Sure, the starters were back but there was little to no depth behind them, particularly after two backups who were expected to return in 2011 quit the team. That means incoming freshmen will be thrown immediately into the mix: Rob Hankins, Hank Hobson and Domonique Petties.

3. Edge rush? The Wildcats are replacing three defensive ends who were selected in the NFL draft, including Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, multi-year starters who combined for 17.5 sacks last fall. Converted linebacker C.J. Parish was a breakout player this spring, and Mohammed Usman is solid. Still, just how good will the edge pressure be with this much inexperience?

Top returning tacklers in Pac-12

April, 20, 2011
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Tackling is important in football. We can all agree on that, right?

The top three tackles in the Pac-10 last season -- and four of the top five -- won't be back for Pac-12 play in 2011.

[+] EnlargeShayne Skov
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireStanford linebacker Shayne Skov figures to be one of the Pac-12's top tacklers next season.
So who has their top tackler back?

UCLA: Strong safety Tony Dye led the Bruins and ranked fourth in the conference with 96 tackles -- 8.0 per game -- last season.

Arizona: Linebacker Paul Vassallo led the Wildcats and ranked sixth in the conference with 102 tackles -- 7.8 per game -- in 2010.

Stanford: Linebacker Shayne Skov led the Cardinal and ranked eighth in the conference with 84 tackles -- 7.6 per game.

Arizona State: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the Sun Devils and ranked ninth in the conference with 90 tackles -- 7.5 per game.

USC: Safety T.J. McDonald led the Trojans and ranked 11th in the conference with 89 tackles -- 7.4 per game.

Washington State: Strong safety Deone Bucannon led the Cougars and ranked 15th in the conference with 83 tackles -- 6.9 per game.

Utah: Linebacker Chaz Walker led the Utes with 74 tackles or 5.7 per game.

So who is the leading returning tackler for the other five teams and who might lead in 2011?

California: Inside linebacker D.J. Holt is the Bears leading returning tackler with 7.2 tackles per game, but don't be surprised if a move inside for Mychal Kendricks makes him the Bears' leading tackler.

Colorado: Safety Ray Polk was the Buffaloes' second-leading tackler in 2010 with 6.0 per game, but if linebacker Jon Major is healthy all season -- he was the leading tackler through seven games before going down with a knee injury -- he could become a 100-tackle guy.

Oregon: Safety John Boyett ranked 23rd in the conference and second to Casey Matthews for the Ducks last season with 6.0 tackles per game (his 78 tackles were just one fewer than Matthews). Matthews' replacement at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, probably finishes with the most tackles for the Ducks, though.

Oregon State: Safety Lance Mitchell was the Beavers' third-leading tackler behind linebacker Dwight Roberson and fellow safety Suaesi Tuimaunei. The Beavers would prefer that a leader emerge from the on-going competition at middle linebacker, but weakside linebacker Michael Doctor, who's stepping in for Roberson, looks like a good candidate to lead.

Washington: Middle linebacker Cort Dennison ranked third on the Huskies and seventh in the conference with 7.7 tackles per game in 2010 behind linebacker Mason Foster, the Pac-10's leading tackler -- No. 2 in the nation -- with 12.5 stops per game and safety Nate Williams (8.1). If he stays healthy, it's likely he'll lead the Huskies in tackles, particularly with the lack of experience surrounding him at linebacker.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It's not difficult to come up with a fair explanation for Arizona's 7-1 start that devolved into a 0-5 finish. In the first eight games, the Wildcats played an easy schedule. They were better than teams such as Toledo, Washington State and UCLA. In the last five games, they played a brutal schedule. Their opponents went a combined 49-15, including two top-five (Stanford and Oregon) and one top-10 team (Oklahoma State).

Still, at 7-1 and ranked 13th with a win over Iowa, the Wildcats headed into a marquee showdown with Stanford on Nov. 6 believing they could play with anyone. Turns out they couldn't. And, considering the Cardinal, Ducks and Cowboys whipped up the Wildcats badly, well, a fair explanation only goes so far.

"It still exposes some things within your team," coach Mike Stoops said. "It told you when the going got tough, we didn't respond as well as we needed to."

[+] EnlargeStanford's Anthony Wilkerson
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIREDuring a five-game losing streak that began with a loss to Stanford, coach Mike Stoops said his Wildcats were exposed. "The physical part of it, we didn't respond well," he said.
And where the Wildcats most didn't respond clearly bothers Stoops.

"The physical part of it, we didn't respond well," he said. "We have to be more than just a finesse team. The physical matchup is what I didn't like."

Therein lies the challenge for the Wildcats as they leave spring practices behind and focus on offseason workouts. They must find five new starters on the offensive line -- the 2010 unit decidedly underachieved -- and they must replace the best defensive end combination in the Pac-10: Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore.

That suggests a need for some finesse due to physical losses. The defense is likely going to have to blitz more, while the offense -- which welcomes back quarterback Nick Foles and one of the best groups of receivers in the country -- is likely going to be pass-heavy.

Said Stoops, "We're going to have to throw to set up the run, I don't think there's any question about that."

Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who learned offense from spread savant Mike Leach after four years coaching at Texas Tech, talks about finding "different ways as coaches to scheme people to run the football," but he admits there's going to be a temptation to scrap the handoffs and throw 50 times a game.

"Absolutely. Especially because that's kind of the background where I came from," he said. "That's what I, at times, feel comfortable with. But at the same time you've got to take pressure off the quarterback by running the football."

A key proponent of balance: Foles. All quarterbacks like to throw the ball, but the passing game is much easier when defenses have to respect the run.

"There's definitely a need for balance," Foles said. "People saw that in the national championship game with Oregon, one of the nation's most high-powered offenses. When you can't run the ball, it's tough. Passing is great but to be a great team you've got to be able to do both."

During the five-game losing streak, the Wildcats averaged 98 yards rushing. Not good.

On the other side of the ball, the run defense wasn't much better during the downturn. Oregon rushed for a whopping 389 yards, while Stanford and USC both went over 200.

That's the out-physical-ed part that irks Stoops.

The Wildcats also head into the 2011 season with significant changes on the staff, starting with the departures of one half of the coordinator tandems they used on both sides of the ball in 2010. That means the offense is up to Littrell and the defense belongs to Tim Kish. Stoops said the co-coordinator setup was more of a challenge on offense. The theme this spring was simplify.

"We were trying to mix and match too much last year," he said. "We got discombobulated, I think. We got exposed late in the year on some things. Seth has to grow into this position and have total control with Nick. We need to all be on the same page."

Stoops has built a winning program but taking the next step means that no portion of the schedule proves insurmountable. And, yes, that five-game losing streak still lingers in just about every Wildcats' head, coaches and players.

"We all have it in the back of our minds," linebacker Paul Vassallo said. "It's not talked about anymore. It's the 2011 season. But we're all hungry to get that first win, that's for sure."

Ah, but the scheduled does a reverse next fall. The Wildcats figure to get their first win -- and end the losing streak -- in the opener against Northern Arizona, but then look at the schedule: Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC on consecutive weekends. The Cowboys, Cardinal and Ducks each will be ranked in the preseason top-10, and it's still not easy to visit the Coliseum.

It won't be too difficult to come up with a fair explanation for a slow start. But those fair explanations have a shelf life. Stoops and his Wildcats don't want to give them anymore. And Wildcats fans don't want to hear them.

Video: Arizona LB Paul Vassallo

April, 15, 2011
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Ted Miller talks with Arizona linebacker Paul Vassallo.
On Friday, we looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver troikas -- so it also makes sense to also look at their defensive counterparts, the best threesomes from each of the three levels of defense: defensive line, linebacker and defensive back.

Here's the tally from last season, if you are interested.

1. Arizona State

DE Junior Onyeali, LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Omar Bolden

The Skinny: No question on No. 1 here. Onyeali was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Burfict is the nation's best inside linebacker. Bolden was unanimous first-team All-Pac-10.

2. Stanford

DE Matt Masifilo, LB Shayne Skov, SS Delano Howell

The Skinny: Masifilo, the lone returning starter on the Cardinal defensive line, was honorable mention All-Pac-10, as was Skov, who was playing as well as any linebacker in the conference over the final third of the season. Howell was second-team All-Pac-10.

3. California

DE Trevor Guyton, LB Mychal Kendricks, S Sean Cattouse

The Skinny: Guyton had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks despite being a part-time starter. Kendricks was second-team All-Pac-10. Cattouse earned honorable mention.

4. Oregon

DE Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, CB Cliff Harris

The Skinny: Two solid returning starters and a second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback who figures to be a preseason All-American after earning second-team honors from the Associated Press and Walter Camp Football Foundation in 2010.

5. Washington:

DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison, FS Nate Fellner

The Skinny: Ta'amu earned honorable mention All-Conference honors and seemed to find himself over the latter half of the season. Dennison had 93 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Fellner tied for second in the conference with five interceptions.

6. Arizona

DT Justin Washington, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade

The Skinny: Washington's numbers fell off when he got banged up, but he still had 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks as a redshirt freshman. Vassallo was honorable mention All-Conference. Wade had an off year last fall, but was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.

7. USC

DE Armond Armstead, LB Chris Galippo, FS T.J. McDonald

The Skinny: This actually could be one of the best threesomes in the conference, but Armstead and Galippo have injury issues and only put up middling numbers last fall. McDonald was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.

8. Washington State

DE Travis Long, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, SS Deone Bucannon

The Skinny: Long was honorable mention All-Conference, Bucannon, who started as a true freshman, and Hoffman-Ellis were the Cougars' top two tackles in 2010.

9. UCLA

DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, SS Tony Dye

The Skinny: A solid threesome that is down here more because it gets an "incomplete." Jones missed all of last season with a foot injury, but, if healthy, he's an All-Conference sort. Larimore was solid in seven games before suffering a shoulder injury. Dye led the Bruins in tackles and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10.

10. Colorado

NG Will Pericak, LB Jon Major, FS Ray Polk

The Skinny: Pericak earned honorable mention All-Big 12. Major was the Buffaloes leading tackler before he blew out his knee in Game 7 (a knee injury also killed the junior's true freshman season). Polk was the second-leading tackler.

11. Utah

DE Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

The Skinny: Honestly don't know how to rank the Utes here. Shelby and Walker are returning starters -- Walker earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. Black was the top backup cornerback last season. But Star Lotulelei might be the Utes' best defensive lineman, and Brian Blechen has moved from strong safety, where he was very good, to linebacker. How highly do the Utes think of him? They list him as an All-American candidate.

12. Oregon State

DE Dominic Glover, LB Rueben Robinson, S Lance Mitchell

The Skinny: Three returning starters, but none of them even earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Mitchell was the Beavers' third-leading tackler, Glover had 2.5 sacks, and Robinson split time with Tony Wilson.

Pac-12 recruiting needs: South Division

January, 27, 2011
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National signing day is now less than a week away. Time to take a final look at recruiting needs for the Pac-12, starting with the South Division.

Arizona Insider

Defensive end: The Wildcats lost two All-Conference starters, Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, as well as No. 3 defensive end D'Aundre Reed. They have commitments from four players listed as DEs, but are any ready to play in 2011?

Linebacker: Last year, the Wildcats were replacing all three starters, so this was a dire need. And JC transfers Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls did a solid job stepping in. The issues here is depth and the future: Coach Mike Stoops doesn't want to be in the same position as 2010 when he had no experience at the position.

Running back: This position is mostly set for 2011, though an explosive newcomer could earn playing time because this has not proven to be a durable position for the Wildcats. Two of the top-four commitments so far are running backs.

Arizona State Insider

Linebacker: The Sun Devils might have the best group of linebackers in the Pac-12 next fall, but Brandon Magee, Shelley Lyons, Oliver Aaron and Colin Parker are seniors and likely preseason All-American Vontaze Burfict is probably headed for the first round of the NFL draft in 2012. So the Sun Devils need young linebackers who can pick up some seasoning before getting thrown into action. They've gotten commitments from two so far and would like to add a third.

Quarterback: Steven Threet is a senior, Brock Osweiler a junior and Samson Szakacsy left the program. The Sun Devils want to sign two and have commitments from two, but Michael Eubank is exploring his options, with Utah, particularly, making a push.

Punter: It appears this need -- Trevor Hankins is gone -- will be filled by JC All-American Josh Hubner.

Colorado Insider

Speed: When new coach Jon Embree watched film of the Buffaloes, he found this lacking, regardless of position. And overall team speed will be more important in the Pac-10 than the Big 12. The Buffaloes were an elite team in terms of team speed during the glory years of 1988-96.

Cornerbacks: The Buffaloes not only lost two starting cornerbacks, they lost two guys -- Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown -- who are expected to be early NFL draft picks. And six of the other seven CBs listed on the 2010 depth chart, which includes a nickelback, will be seniors next fall. Two of 13 commitments so far are corners.

Wide Receivers: The Buffaloes lose all-time receptions and touchdowns leader Scotty McKnight and at present have only three receivers on scholarship, one of whom is a senior. Only one commitment is from a receiver thus far.

UCLA Insider

Offensive line: Four starters from 2010 graduated as well as top backup Micah Kia (left tackle Sean Sheller is appealing to NCAA for sixth year of eligibility; center Kai Maiava miss 2010 with a fractured ankle). The Bruins would like to sign five and have commitments from three so far.

Quarterback: The Bruins have their man here: Brett Hundley is already enrolled in school, attending classes and participating in off-season workouts.

Defensive line: The Bruins want to sign three D-linemen. End Sam Tai is already enrolled in school, attending classes and participating in offseason workouts.

USC Insider

Linemen: The Trojans need to stock up on linemen on both sides of the ball; as we all know they are playing an interesting numbers games with NCAA sanctions. So far, so good, but not done. The Trojans have commitments (or have already signed) six defensive linemen (including five ends) and four offensive linemen.

Linebackers: It's odd that USC is weak at linebacker but it is, particularly in terms of depth. Four commitments are LBs and a few others could end up there.

Numbers: USC is stocking up for whatever the NCAA ultimately rules on the Trojans appeal of NCAA sanctions. That's why it used scholarships for a kicker, punter and long-snapper: Secure those positions for the longterm so limited scholarships going forward can be used for bigger needs. That also means athletes -- defensive backs, receivers and running backs -- who have options in terms of where they end up.

Utah Insider

Running back: With two seniors who split the rushing load -- Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata -- gone, the Utes need running backs, and four of their 19 commitments are listed as such.

Pass catchers: The Utes must replace four of their top five receivers from 2010, which included Wide and Asiata. They've got commitments from three and are in the hunt for at least one more. Also, the class has no tight end as of yet.

Quarterback: The Utes had a commitment from quarterback Derrick Brown Insider out of Murrieta, Calif., but he switched to Washington, so there are presently no QBs in the class. Jordan Wynn will be a junior next fall, but there is no experience behind him.

Q&A: Arizona D-coordinator Tim Kish

December, 23, 2010
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Arizona started 7-1 and its defense ranked among the nation's best. Then the Wildcats lost their final four games, and the defense struggled mightily, particularly against the run.

The Wildcats, nonetheless, ended up in the Valero Alamo Bowl, where they will take on No. 14 Oklahoma State, which only ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense, with 537.6 yards per game.

The Cowboys will be the third top-10 offense the Wildcats have faced this year.

Moreover, Arizona just lost a pair of defensive coaches to Colorado: co-coordinator Greg Brown and defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo. Joe Salave'a is already on board taking over the defensive line, but the secondary will be mostly supervised by head coach Mike Stoops heading into the bowl game.

Further, Stoops has announced that Tim Kish, who shared the coordinator duties with Brown this year, will be the solo defensive coordinator in 2011.

So it seemed like a good time to check in with Kish as he gets ready for the Cowboys potent attack and prepares for the future in Tucson.

So co-coordinator Greg Brown is gone: How does that change your job heading into the Alamo Bowl?

Tim Kish: It just requires me to do a little bit more prep work than I would do normally. But everybody is pitching in. Coach Stoops is pitching in, Ryan Walters, our graduate assistant who helped Greg with the back end is doing an awesome job right now. We are just all rallying around each other and making sure we dot our 'Is' and cross our 'Ts' in our game preparation.

There won't be any "co" with the defense next year. Coach Stoops has said you'll be the coordinator alone. How do you feel about running the defense next year?

TK: It really isn't going to change a whole lot from what we've done here in the past. We'll continue to use our base package, which we've had our previous six years with Mike's brother Mark. The thing we did this year is experiment a little bit with more man coverage and some man-pressures and things we hadn't done previously. We're going to continue to grow but we aren't going to ask our guys to do things that they are not capable of. The key to any good defense is adapting to your personnel. As that progresses, we'll progress.

Were there any challenges specific to being a co-coordinator that you won't face now?

TK: To be honest, I couldn't have had a better co-coordinator to work with. There were no egos. Greg and I kind of plotted out how we were going to handle game preparation each week. Obviously, we overlapped each other in a lot of things we did, so it was an ideal situation for both of us, I felt. It's just unfortunate it only lasted one year. Now you've got to go back and kind of reorganize your thought process. But it's not going to change dramatically. It just puts a little more onus on me being more involved in the full picture, especially in the passing game. I look forward to that challenge.

Let's talk about this season: What's your overall feeling on how the defense played?

TK: I felt like we started strong out of the gate. We were playing with some good momentum. We had some teams there at the latter part of the season that we probably didn't match up as well with as we did earlier in the season. There's no excuses, though. We just didn't play as well. We didn't have that energy and enthusiasm that I thought we played with in the first two-thirds of the season. Part of that was the types of offenses we were facing. But there are no excuses on this end. We knew what we were getting ourselves into. We didn't respond the way I expected us to respond at the end of the season.

What went wrong with the run defense late in the season?

TK: I don't know if I can point the finger at any one thing. For whatever reason, we weren't playing as physically as we were early in the season. Everybody wears down; everybody gets bumps and bruises. Those are no excuses for anything that went wrong with the run defense. We just weren't getting downhill as well at the second level, fitting our gaps. We weren't holding onto the double-teams and the scoop blocks as well as we did early in the season. It was a combination of a lot of things. We didn't tackle very well. We missed a lot of tackles at the end of the season. There were a lot of things we have to take a good, hard look at in the offseason and see what we need to do to shore up. We know we want to get bigger and more physical up front. We're not a huge team up front, and yet we have got to be in position where we can control those gaps with our front-seven. It's just something we are going to have to take a good hard look at and evaluate and critique and see what we can do to help that situation next year.

Who exceeded your expectations this season?

TK: I expected the ends [Brooks Reed & Ricky Elmore] to play well and they did. D'Aundre Reed was the biggest surprise of the three [ends] up front. At the end of the season, we were actually starting him as one of the top two guys [ahead of Elmore]. All three of those guys were as advertised. We knew what we were getting out of them over the course of the year. I think [DT] Justin Washington had his moments in there as a freshman D-lineman in there. He played well at times but he wore down a little bit there and got nicked up at the end of the season and didn't play as well. Mana Mikaele up front at nose guard had a pretty consistent year. I was pleased with his effort all year long. Obviously, with the three linebackers, the unknown was across the board. But I think Paul Vassallo exceeded my expectations, all of our expectations, because he was as much a defensive end as he was a linebacker in junior college. He was the most consistent at linebacker. Jake Fischer adds a good dose of athletic ability and flexibility in there. Derek Earls was fairly steady as well. From that standpoint, I was fairly pleased with that group. In the back end, to be honest it was the young guys who garnered the attention. [CB] Shaquille Richardson had some really good moments in there, but he's still learning. Jonathan McKnight is going to be a hell of a corner. He's just coming into his own. And so is [SS] Marquis Flowers. The future bodes pretty well for that back end right now.

Tell me about Oklahoma State's offense.

TK: The All-American wide receiver doesn't drop a ball [Justin Blackmon]. He catches anything within 10 feet of him. He's just smooth. He looks so natural out there running routes. He has a great knack for finding grass and sitting down in the zone and beating man coverage. And the quarterback [Brandon Weeden] has played consistently all year long for them. They are real solid up front -- three juniors, a sophomore and a redshirt freshman starting for them up front. They know how to zone block. They know how to pass protect. It's hard to get to [the QB] because they are not doing a lot of five-step drop. They're getting the ball quickly out of the quarterback's hands. Those two other receivers complement Blackmon because they're steady. I don't know if people call them possession receivers but I know they run good routes and catch the ball as well. Then once you look at all that, they've got a bevy of running backs -- they can throw any one of three at you -- and they can pound the ball on you. We're expecting them to try to run the ball early and then play-action pass us like they do everybody else. We can't give up a lot of after-contact yardage, whether it's in the passing game or run game. So we've concentrated on trying to shore up our tackling.

You guys lost your final four games. What do you think the guys mindset is after the disappointing finish?

TK: We've put that behind us. No question about it, we laid an egg last year at the Holiday Bowl last year. These kids have a lot of pride. You can say, 'What if, what if, what if,' but that's not what we do. We have to learn from our mistakes. We certainly didn't finish the season the way we wanted to. Could we have won a couple of those games? Absolutely. But that didn't happen. Our mindset is totally on Oklahoma State and getting prepared as well as we can for this bowl game, playing hard for 60 minutes.

Pac-10 Players of the Week

October, 25, 2010
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Arizona quarterback Matt Scott, Arizona linebacker Paul Vassallo and California kick returner Keenan Allen have been named Pac-10 Players of the Week.

Scott, a junior from Corona, Calif., making his first start of the season in place of injured Nick Foles, completed 18 of 22 pass for a career-high 233 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions (Arizona’s first interception-free game of the season). He also rushed seven times for 65 yards in leading Arizona to a 44-14 win against Washington. In the first half, he completed 14 of 16 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 51 yards in leading the Wildcats to 30 points and 356 yards of total offense.

Vassallo, a junior from Reno, Nev., recorded a game-high 14 tackles, including nine solo stops and his second career sack in Arizona’s 44-14 win against Washington. The 14 tackles were the most by a Wildcat since Xavier Kelley’s 15 tackles against BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl. Arizona’s defense limited Washington to 290 yards (98 rushing, 192 passing), and posted four sacks. The team’s 3.57 sacks per game average ranks second in the nation.

Allen, a freshman from Greensboro, N.C., returned two kicks for 100 yards, including a long of 61 yards. He also added a career-high six receptions for 40 yards and one touchdown (his team-leading fifth touchdown reception of the season) on his way to 140 all-purpose yards. In limited duty as a kick returner, he’s averaging 28.6 yards on five returns this season.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were wide receiver Marvin Jones of California, quarterback Darron Thomas of Oregon, and running back Stepfan Taylor of Stanford. Also nominated on defense were defensive back Sean Cattouse of California, safety John Boyett of Oregon, and linebacker Owen Marecic of Stanford.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

October, 25, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

[+] EnlargeMatt Scott
Chris Morrison/US PresswireMatt Scott performed well, completing 18-of-22 with two touchdowns, while filling in for an injured Nick Foles.
Team of the week: When starting quarterback Nick Foles went down with a knee injury, Arizona had reason for concern. How would backup Matt Scott handle a second tour as a starter? Very well, in fact. Scott completed 18-of-22 for 233 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions and rushed for 65 yards in the Wildcats 44-14 win. But don't forget a defense that held the Huskies to 290 total yards.

Best game: There were no exciting games this past weekend, but Oregon's 60-13 stomping of UCLA on Thursday night certainly sent out a message to the country that the Ducks are a legitimate national title contender.

Biggest play: Arizona only led Washington 17-14 midway through the second quarter when Wildcats running back Keola Antolin exploded for a 78-yard touchdown run. The play seemed to break the Huskies' back.

Offensive standout: Oregon QB Darron Thomas completed 22-of-31 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and rushed for 48 yards on five carries. And he had no negative yardage.

Defensive standout: Arizona linebacker Paul Vassallo had 14 tackles -- nine solo -- and a sack in the Wildcats blowout win over Washington.

Special teams standout: California safety Chris Conte blocked an Arizona State punt and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.

Smiley face: Oregon and Arizona both made strong statements with complete performances in all three phases.

Frowny face: Arizona State played its worst game of the season at California and now its bowl hopes are dimming. The same for Washington, which continued its pattern of playing great one weekend, bad the next.

Thought of the week: While most of the national attention will be on Oregon's visit to USC, California's trip to Oregon State is also interesting. Will the Beavers, who have only one Pac-10 loss, be a factor in the conference race, even without James Rodgers? Can Cal win a game on the road? The winner will climb the pecking order in the conference.

Question of the week: Can Oregon do what Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma could not -- hold onto the No. 1 ranking in the major polls while playing a ranked foe on the road?

Arizona can't handle prosperity

October, 10, 2010
10/10/10
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- There is only one certainty from Arizona's 29-27 loss to Oregon State: The Wildcats won't go undefeated in 2010. That puts them in the same boat with Alabama. That's one way to look at things.

Another way to look at it? There they go again.

Just when it seemed like the ninth-ranked Wildcats were ready to take a major step forward -- beating then-No. 9 Iowa, riding a high national ranking -- they take a step back.

"Tonight was a tough night in a lot of ways," coach Mike Stoops said. "When you look at the entire game, we just weren't there."

The feeling entering the game was the Wildcats were on the cusp of a potentially special season. It still might turn out special. Only not as special as it could have been. The first loss is often the hardest, but it's even harder when it comes at home to a two-loss team, and when it feels like a lot of football was played badly.

"I don't think it's a wake-up call," linebacker Paul Vassallo said. "It's disappointing with two weeks of prep."

Vassallo is a JC transfer, so he hasn't been around the program long. But it's good he's not leaning on the idea of this team needing a "wake-up call." The Arizona program is awake. It's just sometimes confounding -- see Vassallo's noting of how the Wildcats played after getting two weeks to prepare for the Beavers.

It's hard to put much blame on Nick Foles and the offense, which gained 541 yards, including 311 in the second half. Foles passed for 440 yards and three touchdowns and led scoring drives of 57, 66, 66 and 80 yards.

Special teams weren't special. Kicker Alex Zendejas missed a 37-yard field goal just before halftime and had a PAT blocked. Struggling punter Keenyn Crier blasted a beautiful 47-yard punt in the fourth quarter -- only he blasted it into the end zone for a touchback instead of pinning the Beavers deep in their own territory. Oregon State then drove for the decisive TD.

And that was telling -- yielding a 10-play, 80-yard, nearly five-minute drive when the screws were tightening . Ultimately, the predominant blame falls on the unit that had been so dominant this year: the defense.

The Wildcats entered the game ranked among the nation's leaders in nearly every major defensive statistical category. The Beavers had been struggling on offense. But the Wildcats gave up 486 yards, including 393 yards passing to the Beavers, who were 10-of-15 on third-down plays.

"We played sloppy tonight," end Ricky Elmore said after the game.

And, considering the Wildcats visit Washington State next weekend, it probably cost them a 7-0 start and all that might have brought -- such as a potential top-five ranking.

Of course, a top-five ranking eight weeks into the season isn't really all that great. It doesn't include a trophy or a bowl invitation. It's always about how you finish.

"I don't really know if we just lost our edge or took for granted what we had or what, but it's going to be a very long season," Stoops said.

That's good, because Saturday was a long and mostly unpleasant night for the Wildcats; the first time that's been the case this season.

Pac-10 lunch links: Is Cal's Mohamed healthy?

September, 16, 2010
9/16/10
2:30
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You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.

Pac-10 players of the week

September, 7, 2010
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Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, Oregon State safety Lance Mitchell and Oregon punt returner Cliff Harris have been named Pac-10 Players of the Week.

Barner, a sophomore from Riverside, Calif., carried the ball 17 times for a career-high 147 yards and four touchdowns covering 1, 25, 10 and 41 yards. He also added one reception for 60 yards and a touchdown in Oregon’s 72-0 win over New Mexico. He posted 225 all-purpose yards in the game’s first 21 minutes and nine seconds before taking the bench for the remainder of the game. Barner’s five TDs tied a school record and he currently leads the nation in scoring (30.0 points per game). Oregon rolled up a school record 720 yards in the victory.

Mitchell, a junior from Pasadena, Calif., collected a career-high 18 tackles, the eighth most in Oregon State history, in the 30-21 loss to TCU. He also added his second career interception which set up the Beavers’ first touchdown of the game.

Harris, a sophomore from Fresno, Calif., set a school record, and matched a Pac-10 record, with two punt returns for touchdowns that covered 61 and 64 yards, respectively. The two other times that was accomplished in the Pac-10 was in 1965 by Mike Garrett, USC vs. California; and 1954 by Sam Brown, UCLA vs. Stanford.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were wide receiver Juron Criner of Arizona, running back Cameron Marshall of Arizona State, wide receiver Keenan Allen of California, quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford and quarterback Matt Barkley of USC. Also nominated on defense were linebackers Paul Vassallo of Arizona, Colin Parker of Arizona State, Mike Mohamed of California, Casey Matthews of Oregon and Max Bergen of Stanford. Also nominated for special teams play were kickers Thomas Weber of Arizona State, Kai Forbath of UCLA and Nico Grasu of Washington State, and punt returners Jeremy Ross of California and Ronald Johnson of USC.

What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 1

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
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There's a full slate of 10 nonconference games this week, so there's a lot to watch.

1. How will Katz react when the lights go on at Cowboys Stadium? Oregon State's Ryan Katz has done everything well since he quickly took control of the quarterback job during spring practices. He's got the arm, head and athletic ability to become an All-Conference QB. But no one really knows how he will react to the big-stage pressure of his first career start. Many great QBs played like a squirrel darting across a highway in their first start. Others did just fine.

2. Time for Locker to step up: It's no longer about Jake Locker's extraordinary potential, which has NFL scouts salivating. Now it's about Locker performing. It's about him becoming the QB he is projected to be but hasn't yet been. That means completing 60-65 percent of his passes with few mistakes and converting big play after big play with both his arm and his feet. The visions of Locker now need to match the reality of him. Otherwise, a season of great hope for the Huskies won't get out of the starting gate.

3. Is Prince ready? what about his line? UCLA QB Kevin Prince has missed almost all of fall camp with a back problem. Sure, he's a returning starter, but the Bruins are adopting -- at least parts of -- a new "pistol" offense, which he inconsistently ran during the spring. You would think Prince, at the very least, will be a bit rusty at Kansas State. Also, it won't help much that the line he played behind in the spring doesn't look much like the makeshift unit that will be protecting him Saturday.

4. USC can make a statement: Everybody is curious how motivated the Trojans will be in 2010 when they aren't eligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. If they deliver an angry beatdown at Hawaii, some of that curiosity will be answered. And it wouldn't hurt Lane Kiffin for his squad to be sharp in his first game as head coach.

5. Oregon QB Darron Thomas needs to get his starters legs under him: Oregon is going to whip New Mexico, no matter how Thomas does in his first start at quarterback. But Thomas needs to push through those inevitable first-game jitters and find a comfort level on the big stage. Because next weekend he's going to be playing at Tennessee in front of 105,000 folks who will be slightly less supportive than the crowd Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

6. Can Oregon State get pressure on TCU QB Andy Dalton? While much of the pre-game attention with the Beavers showdown with TCU is focused on how Katz will react to the Horned Frogs' relentless blitzes, the Beavers own pass rush is almost as big a question. Recall that last year Oregon State, typically an attacking defense, struggled to get much pressure on opposing QBs, registering just 17 sacks, which ranked ninth in the conference and was just four more than poor ole Washington State. The hope is tackle Stephen Paea will be such a distraction inside that ends Gabe Miller and Taylor Henry will be able to beat one-on-one blocks with their athletic ability. But if the Beavers can't get to the underrated Dalton, it could be a long evening.

7. Are Arizona's three new LBs still thinking too much? The chatter started in spring and lasted through much of fall camp: The Wildcats new linebackers were thinking too much and therefore not playing with the right amount of aggressiveness. And then when they attacked, they often made the wrong fit or ended up in the wrong place. Toledo plays well at home and runs a productive spread offense. They will challenge Derek Earls, Jake Fischer and Paul Vassallo, who are each making their first career start. The Rockets will try to confuse them and get them out of position. There's inevitably going to be a growth process for the new LBs. The question is how slowly that process will progress.

8. How much better is Washington State? Few folks believe the Cougars are going to win many games this season, but there are good reasons for cautious optimism, starting with a more experienced -- and healthier -- lineup. It's certainly not helpful, however, to open at Oklahoma State, even if the Cowboys are rebuilding. Still, if the Cougs make this one competitive heading into the second half, they likely will have already exceeded some expectations. The key here is for WSU to walk away from Stillwater thinking, "We can win some games this year." Conversely, a blowout loss could prove catastrophic to the program's fragile confidence.

9. Will anyone produce a Heisman moment? Locker at BYU? Jacquizz Rodgers versus TCU in his home state? Will Arizona's Nick Foles or USC's Matt Barkley roll up big numbers? There are many potential Heisman Trophy candidates in the conference in 2010. Will any make a statement with a SportsCenter performance in week one?

10. Cal, Stanford and Arizona State just need to avoid injuries, not embarrass themselves: All three take on FCS foes -- UC Davis, Sacramento State and Portland State, respectively -- which means they are going to win easily (or become national laughingstocks). The key thing is to start fast and then get the starters safely to the bench.

Video: On the spot players -- Week 1

September, 1, 2010
9/01/10
5:45
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Ted Miller looks at the Pac-10 players who are on the spot in Week 1.

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