Pac-12: Quinton Richardson
Oregon State finished 3-9, the Beavers' worst record since going 3-8 in 1997, coach Mike Riley's first season. The Huskies fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and paid big bucks to lure Justin Wilcox away from Tennessee.
And in 2012 both made huge improvement on defense.
The Beavers ended up ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation, giving up just 20.6 points per game. That's a 10.2-point per game improvement.
Washington ended up fourth in the conference, surrendering a respectable 24.2 points per game, which was 11.2 points better per game.
Our, er, point? Units can make major improvements from one year to the next.
So who is poised to make a big jump this fall?
Well, the first question is can we glean anything from Oregon State and Washington?
Oregon State welcomed back eight starters, and that doesn't include space-eating, 354-pound tackle Castro Masaniai. Moreover, there was plenty of star power at all three levels: DE Scott Crichton, LB D.J. Alexander and CB Jordan Poyer.
The personnel losses didn't leave big questions. In fact, it seemed likely in the preseason that the Beavers' defense would be better, even if there's a minor application of hindsight there.
Washington welcomed back seven starters, but there were plenty of questions, starting with a new base 3-4 scheme. There was some veteran talent, topped by CB Desmond Trufant, and promising young players such as DT Danny Shelton, rush end Josh Shirley and LB Shaq Thompson, but dramatic improvement wasn't a certainty. The personnel losses -- DE Everrette Thompson, DT Alameda Ta’amu , LB Cort Dennison and CB Quinton Richardson -- were multiyear starters.
Yet the Huskies, probably in large part due to much better coaching under Wilcox and his rejiggered staff, were dramatically better.
And so we have the bottom five defenses from 2012:
Wow, Colorado ... 46 points per game. That was worst in the nation by nearly three points. I know Buff fans are tired of hearing this but, well, that can't get any worse.
California is transitioning to a 4-3 after being pretty successful with a 3-4 under Clancy Pendergast. The good news is solid talent at all three levels, though some of that talent has yet to live up to its formally big-time recruiting pedigree.
As we've previously touched on, UCLA needs to get better on defense if it wants to again become a national presence. Barr is a great place to start, seeing that he's on the short list for national defensive player of the year. That said: The entire secondary is being rebuilt.
Washington State is filling the biggest void -- Long was the Cougars' four-year sack leader -- but it has a better-than-you-think crew coming back next fall.
But if you were betting on improvement, the Wildcats might be the best place to start. The grounds for that is pretty straight-forward: Everyone is back, so you'd expect most of those guys to be better this fall, with the added bonus of some youthful reinforcements. Further, coordinator Jeff Casteel knows what he's doing. Year 2 with his 3-3-5 scheme is almost certainly going to be better.
The Wildcats' defense might even get a boost from its offense: With QB Matt Scott gone, the offense might lean more on the running game, topped by Ka'Deem Carey. It also might slow things down just a bit, though Rich Rodriguez isn't likely to huddle up and go pro style.
See the South Division here.
Defensive line: The Bears lost two starters -- end Cameron Jordan and noseguard Derrick Hill -- and you can never have too many D-linemen. This class is particularly strong in that area, with four of 18 commitments listed as D-linemen, including two tackles (Todd Barr, Viliami Moala) who are ESPNU 150 members.
Linebacker: The Bears lost two starters, including Mike Mohamed, and linebacker has been an inconsistent position the past couple of years in the 3-4. The Bears have commitments from two outside and one inside linebacker.
Running back: With the early but not unexpected departure of Shane Vereen, the Bears are uncertain at running back for the first time in the Jeff Tedford Era. Three running backs have already committed.
Receiver: The Ducks need to restock at receiver with the departures of Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis. They have three commitments from players listed as receivers and three others listed as "athletes" who could end up at the position. They could end up with as many as six in this class.
Defensive line: Three of four starting D-linemen from 2010 are gone. So far the class includes two tackles and two ends, but one of the four players listed as an outside linebacker also could end up as a rush end.
Linebacker: Two 0f three starters and a key backup need to be replaced, though there's solid, experienced depth. Five of the 23 commitments are listed at linebackers, a position that one of the "athletes" also could end up playing.
Defensive line: The Beavers lost their two best defensive linemen -- DT Stephen Paea and DE Gabe Miller -- from a group that didn't play terribly well in 2010. That's why they have 11 incoming D-linemen -- eight listed as ends -- including four JC transfers, two of whom are already enrolled.
Offensive line: The line struggled last year and three projected 2011 starters are seniors. It's time to restock and upgrade. The Beavers top recruit, Darryl Jackson, is a 6-foot-7 tackle and one of three commitments from O-linemen.
Receiver: The Beavers are solid at receiver for 2011, particularly with the return of James Rodgers, but they need to restock depth. Five already have committed.
Defensive backs: While Stanford welcomes back three of four starters in the defensive backfield, the secondary still is an area that needs an athletic and depth upgrade. Two safeties are among the Cardinal's 18 commitments. It would be ideal to add a cornerback or two.
Defensive line: Two of three starters are gone from the 2010 line, and end Matt Masifilo will be a senior. That's a good reason five of the committed players are D-linemen, including three tackles.
Receivers: Leading receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen are gone, and Chris Owusu will be a senior. Some of the players expected to step up last year didn't. At present, the Cardinal have one commitment from a receiver, though Jordan Richards could end up as a corner or receiver (and address a need, one way or the other).
Quarterback: Jake Locker is gone and only two scholarship quarterbacks are presently on the roster: sophomore Keith Price and redshirt freshman Nick Montana. The Huskies lured Derrick Brown away from his Utah commitment, and would like to sign one more, with Florida prospect Jacoby Brissett being a dark-horse possibility.
Linebacker: The Huskies lost two quality senior starters in Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa, and middle linebacker Cort Dennison is a senior. The depth is young and uncertain. JC transfer Thomas Tugoti should immediately compete for playing time, and he is just one of five incoming linebackers.
Cornerback: Both starters are back, but Quinton Richardson is a senior and Desmond Trufant is a junior and there isn't much reliable depth behind them. Only one committed player is listed as a cornerback.
Offensive line: It's not just that two starters must be replaced this season and two projected 2011 starters are seniors. The Cougars gave up 51 sacks last year and ranked last in the Pac-10 in rushing with 91 yards per game. Three O-linemen are committed, and two already are enrolled.
Defensive line: Two D-linemen and a top backup need to be replaced, and the Cougars only had 23 sacks and surrendered 220 yards rushing per game, with both numbers ranking last in the Pac-10. Seven of 23 current commitments are D-linemen.
Running back: While the Cougars lost top running back prospect Bishop Sankey to rival Washington, there are two running backs still in the class for a position that offers the possibility of immediate playing time.
The Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (31.2 points per game) and seventh in total defense (401.2 yards per game). Both totals are worse than 2009. The Huskies did play better down the stretch, but that that might have been a function of less competition: UCLA, California and Washington State.
Will a Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl rematch provide an opportunity to make an opposite statement? We checked in with Holt to get his take.
What's your overall feeling on how the defense played this season?
Nick Holt: We got better as the season went on, more confident in what we were trying to do. Our problems started when we got some guys hurt upfront, losing two starters on the defensive line [DT Cameron Elisara and DE Talia Crichton]. We didn't have a lot of depth going into the season. That was one of our worries going into the season -- hey, we've got to stay healthy for us to be a solid defense, not a great defense. We couldn't lose anybody. Sure enough, we lose two defensive starters by mid-October. But anyway, we got better as we went back and re-focused on some of the simple calls we have. We just started doing some of the ordinary stuff a lot better. Getting off blocks. Tackling. Stuff that we thought we were good at, or better than we have been. It really started quite honestly with Nebraska. We just didn't do the fundamentals very well [in that game]. We got distracted. Maybe guys were trying too hard. Throughout the course of the year, we just went back to teaching and coaching, the ordinary things. And we just got better. Nothing flashy. We're really not that flashy. We just played solid tough defense, at times.
The defense played better over the final three games: Who were some guys who took a step forward over those final three games?
NH: Well, the last four or five games of the season, I think our corners, our two starting corners [Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson], played really solid football. Tackling and playing the ball, those two guys come to mind. I think a couple of in the defensive line in played better as the season went on. Everrette Thompson was more consistent and more physical. And I think our true freshman, [defensive end] Hau'oli Jamora, we always thought he would be a good player, and he's not huge, but he was very effective. And then [defensive tackle] Semisi Tokolahi, he played the last four or five games and gave us some added girth inside. He was really solid for us. Unfortunately, he got hurt in Washington State, broke his leg, so he won't be able to play in the bowl game. Those guys come to mind. [Linebacker] Mason Foster, week-in and week out, played well. The same with [strong safety] Nate Williams.
The Nebraska game on Sept. 18: What went wrong?
NH: Number one, we didn't play very well up front, especially our front four. We just weren't aggressive. We got knocked off the ball. We played soft, quite honestly. When that happens, it doesn't matter what you do with the linebackers and defensive backs. They can't cover up that stuff. When you are letting a team basically run an inside zone play for eight, nine or 10 yards a pop, and you are not stopping it with your base defenses, something is up, something is wrong. That game opened our eyes. We've got to get back to being physical. We just got distracted with maybe all the option stuff, trying to do too much. We lost the emphasis of good fundamentals. Number two, we didn't tackle very well. At all. We let some runs get out on us with some arm tackles. We gave away a lot of explosion plays where we had guys there on the line of scrimmage, and we just didn't make the tackle. We lost our leverage, or missed a tackle. Number three, we didn't play very well on third down. We had a couple of third and longs, and they ran some rudimentary things, and we missed tackles. Some slants and some other things. We had guys out there. But that's just the way it is right now in our program. We didn't do some of the fundamental football stuff in that game very well. We really had to go back and teach some stuff, get back to the fundamentals.
You guys bounced back pretty well, though, after a bye, winning at USC.
NH: We didn't lose patience with our kids. We just coached them up and coached them up, and they got better. And in the future we will be a lot better if we keep recruiting well.
What's your feeling on your guys' mindset for a rematch with Nebraska?
NH: I think they're motivated to play well. I think they are excited about the opportunity to just be in a bowl game and finishing the season strong. I think they would be motivated regardless of who they're playing. But we are playing Nebraska, and I think their focus is, hey, we didn't play very well the first time. They got after our butts a little bit. We need to play better. We need to make this a better football game than in was in September. I think that's the mindset.
What's the first priority for slowing down the Cornhuskers this time around?
NH: You've got to stop their running backs first, really. They have all these trick plays and stuff, but looking back on it, I think their running backs -- No. 10 and No. 22 [Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead] -- are really good football players. Their offensive line is good. So you got to stop the two running backs first and then you've got to contain the quarterback. You can't let him get 80 yards on a run or run 60 yards for a touchdown. He might get a couple of yards here and there, but you've got contain him, contain plays with him scrambling, or busting the line with a quarterback run. And then no gimmick-type plays. They do have some nice gimmicks. They get in the wildcat formation and the running back throws long balls for touchdowns and things like that. They are a run team, but because they are so effective running the ball, their play-action is really good. Guys get open.
What's the No. 1 off-season priority to get better in 2011?
NH: Recruiting. But that being said, our linemen in our program -- defensive linemen and offensive lineman -- need to get bigger and stronger and faster. Our front seven on defense -- linebackers and defensive line -- we need to get bigger and stronger and faster. We're getting there. But that's why we are where we are right now. Our interior guys, whether it's on offense or defense, we need to get more physical, we need to get bigger. We're getting there, but we're playing some young guys. Those young guys should be redshirting, but we don't have that luxury. The weight room is huge for us this year.
How close are you guys talent-wise -- one recruiting class, two more recruiting classes -- to being where you want to be?
NH: I think we have some talented guys, especially on offense. Our running backs and our receivers are as good as there are. But we're a ways away at the non-glamor positions. But those non-glamor positions are where you win championships: up front. Our guys are battling. But we're not there. Our guys are making progress. How long? Hopefully, it's not long, but quite honestly it's a process -- it's another two or three years before you're really good up front.
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.
And, for the first time in Pac-10 blog history, no one earns a "Great shape" tag.
Only one cornerback who earned All-Pac-honors is back: Arizona's second-teamer Trevin Wade. Only one other returning corner, Washington's Desmond Trufant, even earned honorable mention.
Three teams welcome back both starting corners from 2009: Oregon, Stanford and Washington. But the Ducks have moved Javes Lewis to rover, and a pair of true freshmen -- Terrance Mitchell and Avery Patterson -- are battling for the starting job opposite Talmadge Jackson. Stanford and Washington? They ranked eighth and ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense last season.
USC and Arizona State are replacing both starting cornerbacks, but both actually look fairly strong at the position with plenty of returning experience and athleticism.
A number of teams might end up pretty good at the position. But no one looks like a sure-thing during the preseason. (Heck, we thought California was a sure thing in 2009 and things didn't exactly go according to plan).
So how do things stack up?
- No one.
- Arizona: Wade is an All-American candidate, and Marcus Benjamin showed he can play with a good performance against USC in 2009. And Mike Stoops always has good cornerbacks, so we won't dwell on the questionable depth.
- Oregon: Probably not a lot of worry here for the Ducks. Injuries in 2009 earned young players experience, and Oregon did rank third in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency defense. Still, it remains uncertain who will start opposite Jackson, with the freshmen outplaying the more experienced Cliff Harris and Anthony Gildon during the spring.
- Arizona State: On the one hand, both starters are gone from a unit that ranked second in the conference in pass efficiency defense. On the other, Omar Bolden would have been a starter if he didn't get hurt, and Deveron Carr, Osahon Irabor and LeQuan Lewis give the Sun Devils a nice mix of talent and experience.
- USC: Shareece Wright was academically ineligible last season, but he might end up first-team All-Pac-10. He might, in fact, be the conference's best cover cornerback. Torin Harris and T.J. Bryant are battling for the other spot in a secondary replacing all four 2009 starters.
- Washington: Trufant is an up-and-comer, Quinton Richardson is experienced, and backups Vonzell McDowell and Adam Long have starting experience, so the Huskies should be much improved here in 2010. The operative word, though, is "should."
- UCLA: It isn't easy to replace an Alterraun Verner. Sheldon Price returns at left cornerback after a good freshman season as a starter, and Aaron Hester has potential on the opposite side. Undersized junior Courtney Viney is an experienced third option.
- Oregon State: James Dockery is solid and new starter Brandon Hardin is big -- 6-2, 215 pounds. There's respectable depth. But the Beavers gave up 23 touchdown passes in 2009, tied for the most in the conference. Of course, the Beavers cornerbacks suffered last season because of an anemic pass rush. That might change in 2010.
- Stanford: If the Cardinal is going to take another step forward, it must get better in pass coverage. Three players who started last seaon are back: Richard Sherman (who's a sure-thing at left corner), Corey Gatewood and Johnson Bademosi. But opponents completed 63 percent of their passes with 23 touchdowns against those guys. Might redshirt freshman Terrence Brown make a move?
- California: Syd'Quan Thompson is gone; is Darian Hagan back? As in the 2008 version, not the one who lost his job and got buried on the depth chart in 2009. After being touted as one of the best secondaries in the country, the Bears finished 111th in the nation in pass defense in 2009. Bryant Nnabufie, who started four games in 2009, is listed No. 1 opposite Hagan, but Josh Hill (a five-game starter) and Marc Anthony and redshirt freshman Steve Williams are in the mix.
- Washington State: The Cougars feel pretty good about junior Aire Justin and sophomore Daniel Simmons, who was the defense's best cover corner before he got hurt midway through last season. But it's hard to ignore that the Cougars ranked 112th in the nation in pass efficiency defense with opponents completing nearly 67 percent -- 67 percent! -- of their passes.
Therefore, it seems like a reasonable moment to look back and review some recruiting hits and misses. (And, yes, we did this last summer with the 2006 class, which you can review here -- Ducks fans should get a kick out of it).
As for the 2007 rankings, USC ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. Oregon, at No. 23, was the only other Pac-10 team in the Scouts Inc., top-25.
Scout.com ranked USC No. 2 in the nation, Oregon ninth, and California 12th. The rest of the Pac-10 went, in order, Washington (29th in nation), UCLA (36th), Arizona State (38), Oregon State (40), Stanford (43), Arizona (49) and Washington State (54).
Here's an overview.
ESPNU top 150 players: 2 (DE Apaiata Tuihalamaka, TE Rob Gronkowski)
How many are expected to start in 2010: Four (RB Nic Grigsby, CB Trevin Wade, WR William Wright, K Alex Zendejas)
Misses: Tuihalamaka, QB Bryson Beirne,
Verdict: Obviously, the biggest catch of this class, Gronkowski, is gone. Otherwise, a lot of these guys qualify for the "where are they now?" file.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0.
How many are expected to start in 2010: Five (C Garth Gerhart, WR Kerry Taylor, CB Omar Bolden, DE James Brooks, OG Matt Hustad)
Misses: OL Po'u Palelei, LB Oliver Aaron
Verdict: This is a decent class, particularly when you factor in the contribution of the since-departed JC signees, such as LB Morris Wooten and DE Luis Vasquez. And there are several non-starters who will contribute this year.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0
How many are expected to start in 2010: 10 (OT Matt Summers-Gavin, P Bryan Anger, LB D.J. Holt, WR Alex Lagemann, OT Mitchell Schwartz, S Sean Cattouse, S Chris Conte, OG Justin Cheadle, DE Cameron Jordan, RB Shane Vereen).
Misses: QB Brock Mansion, CB D.J. Campbell
Verdict: Obviously, ESPN.com's Scouts Inc., missed with its evaluation of this solid recruiting class, particularly when you consider RB Jahvid Best, WR Nyan Boateng and LB Devin Bishop were significant contributors before their tenures were done. Jordan and Vereen obviously were well underrated. And there were 21 running backs better than Best?
ESPNU top 150 players: 1 (DE Kenny Rowe)
How many are expected to start in 2010: 10 (Rowe, WR D.J. Davis, LB Casey Matthews, CB Talmadge Jackson, OG Carson York, TE David Paulson, OG Mark Asper, WR Jeff Maehl, S Eddie Pleasant, DE Terrell Turner).
Misses: DT Myles Wade, S Malachi Lewis
Verdict: When you toss in DE Will Tukuafu, WR Aaron Pflugrad (a starter who transferred to Arizona State) and WR Terence Scott, this is a good, if not great, class. Three or four of these guys should be All-Conference players.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0
How many are expected to start in 2010: Eight (HB Joe Halahuni, S Cameron Collins, WR Darrell Catchings, CB Brandon Hardin, FB Will Darkins, DE Taylor Henry, LB Keith Pankey, WR James Rodgers)
Misses: CB David Ross, RB Reggie Dunn
Verdict: We don't have the time to go back and retrace the maneuvers that are part of managing a 35-man recruiting class (each class can only include a maximum of 25 members, but there are lots of ways to fudge numbers). Obviously, there are the Beavers typical crew of so-called diamonds in the rough -- hello, James Rodgers -- but here's a guess that coach Mike Riley winces over some of these names. Certainly not a lot of production from the six JC guys.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0.
How many are expected to start in 2010: Six (P David Green, CB Corey Gatewood, LB/FB Owen Marecic, TE Coby Fleenor, DE Thomas Keiser, DE Matt Masifilo)
Misses: QB L. D. Crow, S Sean Wiser
Verdict: An interesting class considering that six of the eight lowest rated players are on the Cardinal's preseason two-deep depth chart, including three starters. In terms of skill positions -- see the two QBs -- this class doesn't measure up.
ESPNU top 150 players: 2 (QB Chris Forcier, RB Raymond Carter)
How many are expected to start in 2010: Five (LB Akeem Ayers, LB Glenn Love, LB Steve Sloan, DT Nate Chandler, OT Mike Harris)
Misses: Forcier, Carter
Verdict: This is a very small but highly productive class collected by former coach Karl Dorrell -- note that it includes DT Brian Price, who bolted early for the NFL. The only busts were the two highest rated players, Forcier and Carter, and JC LB Mike Schmitt. The other eight members are either on the two-deep or, in Price's case, already in the NFL.
ESPNU top 150 players: 10 (RB Joe McKnight, LB Chris Galippo, RB Marc Tyler, S Marshall Jones, DE Everson Griffen, QB Aaron Corp, WR Ronald Johnson, OT Martin Coleman, DT DaJohn Harris, C Kris O'Dowd)
How many are expected to start in 2010: Four (LB Chris Galippo, WR Ronald Johnson, C Kristofer O'Dowd, LB Malcolm Smith)
Misses: S Marshall Jones, OT Martin Coleman
Verdict: Obviously, this class, ranked No. 1 in the nation, was overrated, even when you factor in that McKnight, Griffen and Damian Williams already are in the NFL, and NT Christian Tupou would be a second-year starter if he didn't blow out his knee this spring. Lots of guys who never contributed or left the program.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0
How many are expected to start in 2010: Eight (WR Devin Aguilar, LB Alvin Logan, LB Cort Dennison, SS Nate Williams, LB Mason Foster, CB Quinton Richardson, DE Kalani Aldrich, K Erik Folk)
Misses: DE Emeka Iweka, DT Nick Wood
Verdict: You read the names of the seven highest-rated players in this class and you have one reaction: Terrible. But then you see six defensive starters among the lower rated guys. Still, the Huskies defense is a huge question mark. How it performs this year will tell you how this class should be rated.
ESPNU top 150 players: 0
How many are expected to start in 2010: Five (CB Aire Justin, WR Daniel Blackledge, C Andrew Roxas, OG B.J. Guerra, SS Chima Nwachukwu)
Misses: WR Deon Ford
Verdict: Not much should be expected from Bill Doba's final recruiting class, and this one doesn't deliver much sizzle. A couple of solid hits, though, including a couple of departed JC transfers.
2009 overall record: 5-7
2009 conference record: 4-5 (seventh)
Offense: 9, Defense: 7, punter/kicker: 2
Top returners: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Polk, OT Senio Kelemete, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Devin Aguilar, LB Mason Foster, CB Desmond Trufant
Key losses: FB Paul Homer, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB Donald Butler
2009 statistical leaders (*returning starter)
Rushing: Chris Polk* (1,189)
Passing: Jake Locker* (2,800)
Receiving: Jermaine Kearse* (866)
Tackles: Donald Butler (94)
Sacks: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (11)
Interceptions: Mason Foster* (3)
1. There's depth at tailback: While sophomore Chris Polk, who rushed for 1,113 yards last year, sat out because he's still recovering from shoulder surgery, backups shined, starting with a pair of true freshmen who enrolled early: Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier. Toss in impressive efforts in the spring game from Johri Fogerson and Demitrius Bronson, and there are five tailbacks competing for touches.
2. The interior D-line should be tough: Senior Cameron Elisara saw time at end and tackle, which allowed Alameda Ta'amu, Tyrone Duncan and Semisi Tokolahi to show what they can do. Senior De'Shon Matthews and touted incoming freshman Sione Potoa'e also could be in the mix. Being able to rotate four or five reliable tackles is a luxury the Huskies defense hasn't had in recent years.
3. Uncertainty in the secondary is a good thing: Nate Williams will start at strong safety, and Desmond Trufant, who missed spring with a sports hernia, is almost certainly going to be one cornerback. After that, though, things are uncertain. The good news is that's about competition, not a lack of capable players. Redshirt freshman free safety Will Shamburger was one of the spring stars, while Quinton Richardson, Vonzell McDowell, Adam Long and Anthony Boyles are in the mix at corner.
1. Will the injured ends mend? The Huskies defense needs ends Everrette Thompson (torn Achilles) and Kalani Aldrich (knee) to be healthy in 2010. Both sat out spring practices with worrisome injuries. Both are expected back but it remains to be seen whether they will be 100 percent (or even close to it). Even though Elisara showed that he could play end, if needed, and Talia Crichton had a good spring, there's just not enough depth at the spot to be a top-level defense without them. It's possible a true freshman will see action here.
2. SAM I am? Mason Foster is an all-conference candidate on the weakside and Cort Dennison is solid in the middle. But who's the SAM -- strongside -- linebacker? Two former safeties, Alvin Logan and Victor Aiyewa, are candidates, though Aiyewa saw little action this spring due to a shoulder injury, as well as Matt Houston.
3. Who backs up Locker? After junior Ronnie Fouch opted to transfer, there are only two scholarship quarterbacks after Locker: true freshman Nick Montana and redshirt freshman Keith Price. Coach Steve Sarkisian has repeatedly said he's in no rush -- and not worried -- about his backup spot. Of course, the screws tighten a bit if Locker gets hurt.
- After years of planning, former Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski's dream is about to come true.
- Arizona State's QB competition won't be resolved this spring.
- Former California defensive lineman Tyson Alualu is climbing draft boards.
- Oregon's QB competition continues to be tight. The lawyer, Melinda Grier, who tried to keep Oregon business -- including the Mike Bellotti golden parachute debacle -- a secret from the media is apparently about to be canned.
- With Mike Riley away, things get a little chippy at Oregon State practice. Ryan McCants is (finally!) breaking through at running back.
- Stanford's new marketing campaign: "What's your deal?" Brilliant!
- Projecting UCLA's depth chart on defense and offense. Practice time has changed Thursday.
- After watching film, USC coach Lane Kiffin still thought his running game was horrible. Some thoughts on Reggie Bush's decision to settle rather than testify.
- Washington cornerback Quinton Richardson is fighting to win back a starting job.
- Former Washington State defensive end Cory Mackay, who suffered a spinal injury in a car accident, continues to hope he will walk again.
- Projecting the NFL draft positions of Bay Area prospects.
- Quarterback Jake Locker may play some baseball with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this summer but a schedule has not been set. Sarkisian said it won't interfere with his football work.
- Players who won't practice due to injury include running back Chris Polk (shoulder), offensive tackle Cody Habben (shoulder), defensive end Kalani Aldrich (knee), Everrette Thompson (Achilles), safety Victor Aiyewa (shoulder).
- Running back Brandon Yakaboski (knee), cornerback Desmond Trufant (groin) and Justin Glenn (leg) will be limited.
- Defensive end Andru Pulu is still suspended indefinitely and is not on the roster.
- Tight end Dorson Boyce has moved to fullback.
- Marquis Persley has moved from cornerback to safety.
- Drew Schaefer has moved from tackle to center. Ryan Tolar from center to guard.
- The starting offensive line as of Monday: Schaefer, Senio Kelemete at left tackle, Tolar at left guard, Mykenna Ikehara at right guard and Skyler Fancher at right tackle
- Linebacker Alvin Logan could see action as a defensive end. Sarkisian said the lack of depth at end due to injuries and suspensions means that some other players, including defensive tackles, could see time at end.
- Players who have left the program: quarterback Ronnie Fouch, running backs Willie Griffin and Curtis Shaw, linebacker Kurt Mangum, cornerback Matt Mosley and receiver Vince Taylor.
- Four freshmen will participate this spring: linebacker Victor Burnett, running back Jesse Callier, running back Deontae Cooper and quarterback Nick Montana.
- The priority is adding depth on the offensive and defensive line.
- Sarkisian said he's interested to see how receiver D'Andre Goodwin and tight end Chris Izbicki perform. Goodwin was the Huskies best receiver in 2008 but fell behind other players in 2009. Izbicki is fighting for touches behind Kavario Middleton.
- He also said that there should be plenty of competition in the secondary between cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, Adam Long, Quinton Richardson, Vonzell McDowell and converted receiver Anthony Boyles.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
As a UCLA observer wryly noted, ESPN.com has Bruins cornerback Alterraun Verner as a first-team All-American, while the Pac-10 blog had California's Syd'Quan Thompson and Oregon's Walter Thurmond III as the first-team All-Pac-10 corners.
Yes, there were coin flips involved. There are a lot of good cornerbacks in this conference.
Fact is, the guy who deserves to gripe the most is Arizona's underrated Devin Ross, who was second-team All-Pac-10 a year ago yet seems to be operating in the shadows.
- California: Might be the best pair in the nation. Two accomplished, full-time starting cornerbacks from 2008 -- senior Thompson (first-team All-Pac-10) and junior Darian Hagan -- return from a statistically impressive pass defense (24 Ints vs. 12 TD passes).
- USC: There are questions here -- is Shareece Wright going to be: 1. healthy; 2. eligible -- but even if Josh Pinkard has to move from safety back to corner, the Trojans are strong here based on pure athleticism.
- Arizona: We've mentioned Ross, but Trevin Wade, who steps in for the departed Marquis Hundley, tied Hundley for the team lead with four interceptions in 2008.
- UCLA: Verner is as good as anybody in the country, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Aaron Hester.
- Oregon: Coach Chip Kelly tells anyone who will listen that Thurmond is the Ducks best player. Talmadge Jackson and Willie Glasper are 1A and 1B veterans on the opposite side.
- Arizona State: Omar Bolden expects to bounce back after a sub-par 2008 season. A troublesome back has returning starter Terell Carr now listed as second-team, with former walk-on Pierre Singfield now No. 1. Safety Clint Floyd might even see action at corner.
- Oregon State: The Beavers are replacing both cornerbacks but a strong preseason from Tim Clark and James Dockery ended a lot of hand-wringing over the issue. There's also solid depth.
- Washington State: The Cougars pass defense wasn't that bad last year, but that might have been because the run defense was horrible. Things are not completely set here. Brandon Jones will start if his ankle is OK, while Aire Justin is the frontrunner opposite him.
- Stanford: Richard Sherman and Corey Gatewood should upgrade the Cardinal's pass defense, but Sherman was a receiver in 2008 and Gatewood was injured. And Stanford was terrible against the pass last year.
- Washington: Speaking of terrible against the pass... the Huskies allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes and surrendered 24 TD passes with just seven interceptions in 2008. Quinton Richardson will man one side while the uncertain health of redshirt freshman Justin Glenn means true freshman Desmond Trufant or junior Vonzell McDowell will start on the other side.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Eighth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Up next: Oregon
Just because Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is a chill dude doesn't mean he can't hold a grudge.
That became abundantly clear when he took a spread option keeper and smashed his shoulder into the chin of Boise State safety Jeron Johnson. It appeared that Masoli, who was knocked out of last year's upset loss to the Broncos on what some described as a cheap shot, had no interest in juking Johnson, who left the game with a broken jaw.
Call it revenge on the blue turf, but Boise State is no match for the enraged Ducks, who roll up 574 yards of offense in a 56-28 win.
"Guess our offensive line is going to be OK," Ducks coach Chip Kelly quips afterwards.
The Ducks don't let up, breaking the 50-point barrier in wins over Purdue and Utah. Masoli's newfound proficiency of as a passer starts to generate Heisman Trophy buzz.
"I always knew he could be a proficient passer," Kelly said. "It's not newfound."
[A Pac-10 blogger notes to himself that it's eerie that Kelly seems to be participating in a fantasy post about the Ducks].
"Why is it eerie?" Kelly asks.
[Voices ... in ... my... head. Quiet!].
Oregon ascends to No. 5 in the national rankings, and a visit from No. 8 California brings ESPN's College GameDay to Eugene.
Lee Corso dons the Duckhead. Kirk Herbstreit taps the Bears.
"It's fair to say the winner of this game will send a player to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony," Chris Fowler says about Masoli and Cal's Jahvid Best.
Cal's defense is a different animal. It bottles up Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Bears lead 17-10 at the half, a 76-yard run from Best being the difference.
With 3:05 left, the Bears lead 24-20. From the Oregon 47, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley does a play-action fake to Best and launches a bomb.
But Ducks safety T.J. Ward doesn't bite on the fake, and he outleaps Marvin Jones for the interception.
Masoli takes over at the Oregon 5-yard line. He connects with Jamere Holland for 15 yards. He finds Ed Dickson for 26. He scrambles for 18. A screen to Blount goes for 12 to the Cal 34.
But Jeff Maehl can't haul in a tough ball over the middle, Blount drops a short pass in the flat and a scramble nets only two yards.
It's fourth and 8 with 0:55 left. Masoli sets up to pass, but Bears end Cameron Jordan is on him. Masoli stiff arms Jordan, and starts to backpedal. Jordan is joined by Mike Mohamed in pursuit of Masoli, who reverses field and starts directing receivers downfield.
There's room to run. Masoli tucks and makes a break, but just short of the line of scrimmage, he stops and lobs the ball into the corner of the endzone.
Dickson leaps, but the ball is tipped away by safety Brett Johnson.
And into the hands of Rory Cavaille. Touchdown.
"Oregon might be the best team in the nation," Herbstreit says after the game.
The Ducks roll through Washington State, UCLA and Washington.
No. 2 USC heads to town to take on the No. 3 Ducks. It's billed as the biggest game in Autzen Stadium history. GameDay comes back to Eugene. It's impossible to get a seat at Beppe & Gianni's Trattoria.
But this is not the Ducks day. The Trojans have the offense to match and their defense is fast enough to keep up with the Ducks. USC wins 38-28.
"We should have won this game," Kelly said. "Why didn't we win this game?"
[Must ignore him... how does he do that? We knew he was a control freak but this is a little much.]
Predictions of a hangover prove overstated. The Ducks roll through their final four games, including a 40-28 win over Oregon State.
With USC playing Florida for the national title, it appears Oregon will head to the Rose Bowl to face Ohio State. But by some complicated BCS machinations that everyone agrees would make your head explode if they were explained, the Ducks head south to play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Masoli finishes third in the Heisman Trophy race.
"Neh," he says. "No big deal. I ate at Le Bernardin and hung out with Thomas Pynchon and the the Kings of Leon. That was cool."
Oregon, which has thrived on balance much of the year, throws only four passes but rushes for 388 yards against the Bulldogs in a 48-21 victory.
After USC beats Florida in the BCS title game, Oregon finishes No. 2 in both polls.
Boise State doesn't lose on the blue turf, and the Broncos season-opening 38-35 victory over Oregon becomes the foundation of an unbeaten season and another BCS bowl berth.
The Ducks rebuilt offensive line plays fairly well, but it surrenders three sacks. The defense, however, is clearly a work in progress, with Boise quarterback Kellen Moore throwing three touchdown passes and the Broncos rushing for 190 yards.
Oregon whips Purdue and outlasts Utah, but quarterback Jeremiah Masoli suffers a concussion in the fourth quarter.
Nate Costa is the surprised starter the following week against California, but he goes down in the second quarter. With a thumb injury.
Darron Thomas comes off the bench and plays well, but the Bears roll 40-24 on 173 yards and two touchdowns from Jahvid Best.
The Ducks whip Washington State and UCLA, Masoli returning to action against the Bruins.
Then they head to Husky Stadium. The Ducks have owned rival Washington of late, winning five in a row in the series.
Huskies quarterback Jake Locker passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns and rushes for 98 yards another score, but the key play comes when it seems like Oregon is driving late for the victory.
From the Huskies 8-yard line, Masoli throws the ball to his left into the flat toward the endzone pylon, but Washington cornerback Quinton Richardson snags the ball and sprints down the sideline.
"Quinton Richardson's gonna score!" screams Huskies play-by-play man Bob Rondeau.
Huskies win 31-20.
Richardson's 97-yard interception return for a game-clinching touchdown becomes known as "The Pick," and it will be played repeatedly in Husky Stadium whenever Oregon visits in the future.
The Ducks seem lethargic while losing 35-17 to USC, but they bounce back with wins over Stanford, Arizona State and, in double-overtime, at Arizona.
The stakes in the Civil War are mostly pride. Oregon State appears headed to the Holiday Bowl in any event, while Oregon could end up in the Sun Bowl with a victory.
Yet the Beavers clearly have revenge on their minds for the disaster of 2008. They pound the Ducks defense with Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed for 159 yards and three scores, and Masoli and company never find their rhythm in a 35-20 defeat.
Oregon then beats Boston College in the Emerald Bowl and finishes 8-5.
Three days later, Nike files for bankruptcy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Some of these guys will be familiar. Some of these guys will become familiar.
A guess at rising stars on both sides of the ball coming out of spring practices for every Pac-10 team.
Offense: William "Bug" Wright, WR, So.: If he stays focused, he can be a playmaker in the slot.
Defense: Vuna Tuihalamaka, LB, Jr.: Coach Mike Stoops gushed about him after spring practices.
Offense: Garth Gerhart, C, So.: Toby Gerhart's brother beat out a returning starter to anchor the middle of the Sun Devils' line.
Defense: James Brooks, DE, So.: With tackle Lawrence Guy and opposite end Dexter Davis distracting offensive lines, Brooks should get chances to make plays.
Offense: Mitchell Schwartz, OT, So.: The general feeling is Schwartz could play his way into a first-day pick in the NFL draft.
Defense: Mychal Kendricks, LB, So.: Talent meets opportunity -- will Kendricks take advantage?
Offense: Jamere Holland, WR, Jr.: He's always been fast, but he broke out because he started doing what his coaches told him to do.
Defense: Brandon Bair, DT, Jr.: Singled out by coach Chip Kelly for his play this spring.
Offense: Jordan Bishop, WR, Fr.: Coaches have been gushing about Bishop for a while now, and he didn't let up this spring.
Defense: David Pa'aluhi, LB, So.: Rare a sophomore breaks through at linebacker for the Beavers, but Pa'aluhi did for a reason.
Offense: Andrew Luck, QB, Fr.: His "hello" moment was 352 yards passing and five touchdowns in the spring game.
Defense: Delano Howell, SS, So.: An athlete and a tough guy, Howell provides two ingredients the Cardinal secondary needs.
Offense: Morrell Presley, TE, Fr.: Needs to hit the weight room but he's a pass-catching talent.
Defense: Datone Jones, DE, So.: Don't be surprised if he leads the Bruins in sacks this year.
Offense: Curtis McNeal, RB, Fr.: You have to do something special to distinguish yourself among the Trojans' running backs. McNeal did this spring.
Defense: Malcolm Smith, LB, Jr.: Everybody loved the way he played this spring.
Offense: Chris Polk, RB, Fr.: A season-ending injury in 2008 may have been the best thing that happened to Polk, who seemed to find his stride during spring.
Defense: Quinton Richardson, CB, So.: Defensive coordinator Nick Holt singled him out after the spring game, and the Huskies secondary needs him to come through.
Offense: Zack Williams, OG, Jr.: He's got a little nasty to him, something that was missing from a line that got pushed around last year.
Defense: Louis Bland, LB, So.: He's undersized but fast and instinctive -- his run blitzes might have won the Apple Cup for the Cougars. Will his game take another step forward?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
If we are to believe the Pac-10 will continue to be a high-flying passing conference -- last year's downturn was clearly just an anomaly, right? -- teams will continue to need outstanding cornerbacks to slow down the track meet.
So where do things stand as we enter spring practices?
- California: The Bears are the only Pac-10 team that has two accomplished, full-time starting cornerbacks from 2008 -- senior Syd'Quan Thompson (first-team All-Pac-10) and junior Darian Hagan -- returning from a statistically impressive pass defense (24 Ints vs. 12 TD passes).
- USC: While the Trojans defense lost starting cornerback Cary Harris, three players with starting experience at the position return, including, Shareece Wright, who was the best of the lot before he got hurt and sat out the season. Oh, and the Trojans had the best pass defense in the nation in 2008, see just six TD passes surrendered. [Ed. note: As folks pointed out below, I screwed up and forgot that Josh Pinkard was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. My bad.]
- Arizona State: The Sun Devils just make the cut here. They not only welcome back three corners with starting experience, they get all six players back from their season-ending three-deep depth chart. And ASU ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency defense. That said, Omar Bolden didn't play up to expectations last year, and this figures to be a competitive spot during spring.
- Arizona: The Wildcats are nearly in "great shape." They lose starter Marquis Hundley -- recall his endzone INT that iced the Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU -- but sophomore Robert Golden is a star talent who should start opposite Devin Ross, who was second-team All-Pac-10. The Wildcats ranked third in the conference in pass efficiency defense in 2008.
- UCLA: Second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Alterraun Verner is back, but Michael Norris is gone. Redshirt freshman Aaron Hester is the favorite to start, but the competition for the vacancy figures to endure into the fall when a number of touted athletes arrive.
- Oregon: Jairus Byrd, first-team All-Pac-10, opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, but Walter Thurmond III is back and backups Willie Glasper, a senior, and junior Talmadge Jackson III saw significant action in 2008. A curiosity: The Ducks had a lot of talent in the secondary last year but gave up 270 yards passing per game and 25 total TD passes, both numbers being worst in the conference.
- Washington State: This may seem charitable because the Cougars ranked ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense last year, but both starters -- junior Romeo Pellum and sophomore Tyrone Justin -- are back, and California transfer Brandon Jones should challenge one or the other for a starting spot.
- Oregon State: The Beavers lose both starters, Brandon Hughes (second-team All-Pac-10) and Keenan Lewis (honorable mention), but they aren't desperate. Senior Tim Clark has started six games in his career, and junior James Dockery, who missed last season with a knee injury, figure to step in, though some young players, such as redshirt freshman Keynan Parker, might make a move.
- Stanford: Wopamo Osaisai is gone, while Kris Evans returns, but competition is wide open, with Michael Thomas, Mark Mueller, Corey Gatewood and Quinn Evans each trying to earn a starting spot. The Cardinal needs to get more athletic in the back-half after intercepting just seven passes a year ago.
- Washington: Both starters are back, but Washington ranked 115th in the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2008. Opponents completed 67 percent of their passes and threw 24 touchdown passes. The Huskies only grabbed seven interceptions. Of course, with little pass rush up front, corners Matt Mosely and Quinton Richardson often found themselves in coverage a long, long time.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
EUGENE, Ore. -- From the Autzen Stadium press box:
For better and worse, Washington's best play -- just like in 2007 -- is Jake Locker running the ball, even though it's clear his passing accuracy is better than 2007.
After foundering in the first quarter, the Huskies offense found it's rhythm in the second, with Locker playing drums and bass. And, for all intents and purposes, singing lead.
First, the Huskies got on the board with a 35-yard field goal, a drive keyed by two Locker completions of 16 yards.
But the Huskies offense's best work came on its next possession, which started with a Quinton Richardson interception.
Locker ran 17 yards on a third-and-7. He then went for 11 yards on a third-and-11. Those drive-saving runs allowed the Huskies to narrow the gap to 14-10 with 3:17 before the break.
The Ducks then, as promised, put in backup QB Jeremiah Masoli -- it's probably not accurate to view Roper stepping aside as a response to his interception.
Masoli drove the Ducks to the Huskies 37, but missed on a couple of passes and the Ducks turned the ball over on downs.
Observation for the Oregon coaches: Jeremiah Johnson rushed 7 times for 77 yards in the first half. He might be a guy you'd want to get touches.