Pac-12: strong and weak

Strong & weak: Washington State

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
1:28
PM ET
The final entry of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Washington State

Strong: Experience

Why it's a strength: Yep, this is a bit of a cop-out. But it's also honest. It's premature to rate any specific area on the Cougars a strength based on their ranking last in the Pac-10 in every major statistical category in 2009. Thought about listing receiver here because everybody is back. But would leading receiver Jared Karsetter be the No. 1 guy for any other conference team? No. There's also some intriguing depth on the defensive line, led by sophomore end Travis Long and touted incoming tackle/end Brandon Rankin. But Rankin, a JC transfer, still has to prove himself vs. Pac-10 offensive lines, and it's hard to forget the Cougars surrendered 236 yards rushing per game in 2009, which ranked 117th in the nation. But Coug fans can hang their hope on this: Not only are 19 starters from the Apple Cup depth chart back, almost the entire two-deep is back. Those young guys who got pushed around the last two seasons should be saltier in terms of experience and, hopefully, they will have used the weight room and track to recreate themselves as athletes.

Weak: Offensive line

Why it's a weakness: The O-line only loses one starter: second-team All-Pac-10 center Kenny Alfred. But he was the best lineman -- by a long stretch -- and the group's leader. On the plus side, seven players with starting experience are back, and the hope is those guys used their off-season to get bigger and stronger and quicker. But here's the problem: Washington State didn't block anyone last year. The Cougars ranked 118th in the nation in rushing (70.7 yards per game) and their 53 sacks surrendered ranked 119th (out of 120). Pause on that sack number for a moment. Fifty-three sacks is 22 more than any other conference team surrendered. In fact, that differential -- 22 sacks -- is more than four teams surrendered all season. And each of those teams played in a 13th game. Or how about this: Stanford surrendered a conference-low seven sacks for minus-38 yards. The Cougars surrendered 318 yards on sacks. The Cougars won't be competitive again until they get better up front.

Strong & weak: Washington

March, 11, 2010
3/11/10
11:19
AM ET
The ninth of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Washington

Strong: Jake Locker

Why it's a strength: Well, when you have a senior quarterback who is the potential top pick in the 2011 NFL draft you might feel fairly good about things. Locker rushed for 388 yards and seven touchdowns last fall and completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,800 yards and 21 scores. Those numbers almost certainly will go up in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian. But it's even more than that. Locker's supporting cast was young and promising in 2009, so it could take a big step toward fulfilling star potential in 2010. Locker doesn't have to run all the time because sophomore running back Chris Polk rushed for 1,113 yards. Receivers? Everyone is back, including the Pac-10's No. 4 receiver, Jermaine Kearse, and its seventh, Devin Aguilar. They combined to catch 13 TD passes in 2009. Moreover, receiver James Johnson and tight end Kavario Middleton appear poised for breakthroughs. If the line, which is thin but returns four starters, holds up, Locker and the Huskies should be able to score a lot of points.

Weak: Defensive end

Why it's a weakness: The Huskies lose both starting defensive ends, most particularly Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, the Husky career sacks leader who finished second in the Pac-10 with 11 sacks and earned second-team all-conference honors. The backups combined for four sacks: sophomore Talia Crichton, junior Kalani Aldrich and sophomore Andru Pulu. Moreover, Pulu is presently suspended for a violation of team rules and Aldrich has been troubled with knee problems. It's possible some guys will get shifted around, including Everrette Thompson, who played inside at tackle last year. And it's likely some of the incoming players will get an early shot to contribute (maybe Darius Waters?)

Strong & weak: USC

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
9:35
AM ET
The eighth of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

USC

Strong: Front seven

Why it's a strength: USC listed 24 front-seven players on its 2009 defensive depth chart, and just four are not returning: end Everson Griffen, tackle Averell Spicer and linebackers Nick Garratt and Uona Kaveinga. Only Griffen was a starter. That sort of experience is certainly a strength, one that in past years might have struck fear into future opponents. The Trojans, however, were not dominant up front last year, ranking fifth in the Pac-10 against the run. Still, despite a sub-par year by USC's standards, the defense still ranked first in the conference in scoring (19.8 points per game). Moreover, 16 of these returning front-seven players were freshmen or sophomores last fall. There should be significant improvement with new coordinator Monte Kiffin and fiery defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Players like junior tackle Jurrell Casey, sophomore linebacker Devon Kennard, sophomore end Nick Perry and junior tackle/end Armond Armstead could take a step toward stardom.

Weak: The secondary

Why it's a weakness: The Trojans are replacing all four starters -- multi-year starters at that -- including free safety Taylor Mays. That's four of the top seven tacklers. Moreover, the leader to replace Mays, Drew McAllister, will miss the spring due to hip surgery. Of course, the Trojans are hardly devoid of talent, particularly with the return of cornerback Shareece Wright. Wright, widely regarded as the team's best cover corner, would have started last year but he was academically ineligible. And there are plenty of promising youngsters on the depth chart who have already seen action, including corners T.J. Bryant and Brian Baucham and safety T.J.McDonald. Still, this is a unit in transition that will face an outstanding crew of experienced Pac-10 quarterbacks.

Strong & weak: UCLA

March, 9, 2010
3/09/10
9:11
AM ET
The seventh of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

UCLA

Strong: Safety

Why it's a strength: Junior free safety Rahim Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions last year and is a potential preseason All-American. So the Bruins should feel pretty good about that spot. Junior strong safety Tony Dye ranked fourth on the defense with 73 tackles, while his backup, junior Glenn Love, saw plenty of action and finished with 27 tackles. While life for the safeties might be a little bit more difficult without cornerback Alterraun Verner, the Bruins probably have the best returning crew at the position in the conference.

Weak: Defensive front seven

Why it's a weakness: The Bruins not only lost five starters from their front seven, they lost five quality starters, including stalwarts like defensive tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and the Bosworth brothers, end Korey and linebacker Kyle. What's more, the depth is questionable and/or inexperienced, particularly at defensive tackle. While any team would be glad to welcome back players like end Datone Jones or outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, the Bruins will be young up front and that typically is a reason to worry.

Strong & weak: Oregon State

March, 8, 2010
3/08/10
9:33
AM ET
The sixth of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Oregon State

Strong: The Rodgers brothers

Why it's a strength: Well, would you be interested in welcoming back a pair of first-team All-conference playmakers who combined for 330 yards per game and 32 touchdowns in 2009? Of course you would. These two are the biggest reasons the Beavers figure to be in the mix in the top-third of the conference again in 2010, even with a new quarterback running the offense. Jacquizz Rodgers ranked third in the conference with 1,440 yards rushing last year and was second in receptions per game with six. James Rodgers ranked second in the conference in receiving yards with 79.5 per game and was an ever-present threat on the fly sweep. He also ranked third in punt returns.

Weak: Linebacker

Why it's a weakness: The Beavers knew they'd be without Keaton Kristick, who's off to the NFL, but the offseason also saw them lose starting middle linebacker David Pa'aluhi -- he quit to join the military -- and Keith Pankey, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon during a running drill in February and may be out for the season. Dwight Roberson will return at one outside spot -- he platooned with Pankey the past two seasons -- but the depth is questionable and young. The Unga brothers, Devin and Kevin, both sophomores, Walker Vave, Tony Wilson, Keo Camat, Rueben Robinson and newcomer Michael Doctor will battle to fill the voids. While nearly everyone is back on the defensive line and in the secondary, the Beavers now will be inexperienced at linebacker.

Strong & weak: Oregon

March, 5, 2010
3/05/10
10:00
AM ET
The fifth of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Oregon

Strong: The backfield

Why it's a strength: First, throw out all the off-field problems. Those will take care of themselves, and obviously negative conclusions for the Ducks would put a dent in this analysis. But as it stands, the Ducks are as good as any team in the nation with their quarterback-running back situation. Jeremiah Masoli is a potential Heisman Trophy candidate as a dual-threat quarterback in his third season as a starter, while LaMichael James became one of the premier home run threats in the nation as a redshirt freshman running back. Those two should be masterful next fall running the spread-option. Moreover, there's solid depth at the positions. Masoli's backups, Nate Costa and Darron Thomas, both have seen quality game action. Behind James is Kenjon Barner, a star of the Rose Bowl, not to mention a pair of outstanding incoming freshmen in Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams.

Weak: The defensive line

Why it's a weakness: While coach Chip Kelly is quick to reject the notion that this is a potential weakness, that doesn't change the fact that the Ducks lose only four position players from their 2009 starting lineup but two -- stalwart end Will Tukuafu and tackle Blake Ferras -- come from the D-line. They also lost backup tackle Simi Toeaina. End Kenny Rowe, one of the conference's best pass rushers, and steady tackle Brandon Bair return. Ends Terrell Turner and Taylor Hart and tackles Anthony Anderson, Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi as well as 6-foot-7 JC transfer Isaac Remington are candidates to work themselves into a rotation that Kelly wants to run eight-deep. There's certainly potential to match or even eclipse last year's production up front, but the replacements still need to prove they are up to the task.

Strong & weak: California

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
10:39
AM ET
The fourth of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

California

Strong: Offensive line

Why it's a strength: There isn't an area of the 2010 Bears that will blow you away, but the offensive line welcomes back five guys who've started at least seven games, as well as a couple of quality backups, though it was a hit when veteran guard Mark Boskovich opted to graduate instead of use his final year of eligibility. Donovan Edwards (seven starts) is the most likely candidate to fill a void at one of the tackle spots. The health of talented guard Matt Summers-Gavin is an issue after a shoulder injury and concussion limited him to eight starts in 2009. As a group, the Bears were better run-blockers (third in the Pac-10 in rushing) than pass-blockers (31 sacks surrendered) in 2010. The latter often improves with experience and continuity. If the unit stays healthy, it could be one of the stronger crews in the conference.

Weak: Secondary

Why it's a weakness: The Bears must replace two starters, including two-time first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, and experienced backup safety Marcus Ezeff from a crew that ranked ninth in the conference in pass defense (267 yards per game) and seventh in pass efficiency defense -- and was a huge disappointment in 2009. There are some interesting possibilities at safety, where Sean Cattouse, Chris Moncrease, Chris Conte and Vachel Samuels will compete (and touted incoming freshman Keenan Allen, though primarily a receiver, might be in the mix, too). Cornerback, however, is a question. Darian Hagan fell out of favor as a junior, while Bryant Nnabuife and Josh Hill often were picked on opposite Thompson. Samuels might be an option at corner. Opponents completed nearly 64 percent of their passes against the Bears in 2009 and threw 20 TD passes, which ranked seventh in the conference.

Strong & weak: Arizona State

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
9:14
AM ET
The third of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Arizona State

Strong: Defensive front seven

Why it's a strength: The Sun Devils take some significant hits on defense, losing seven starters, including five of their top six tacklers, but the young talent coming back is impressive, particularly up front. Start with the defensive line. Sure, end Dexter Davis is gone, but he's the only departure on the three-deep. And here's a guess that tackles Lawrence Guy, William Sutton and Corey Adams take a step forward in 2010. Linebackers Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel must be replaced, but rising star Vontaze Burfict returns inside and Gerald Munns, Brandon McGee and Shelly Lyons have experience. Count on this: The Sun Devils, owners of the conference's No. 1 rush defense in 2009, won't be easy to run against again next fall.

Weak: Offense

Why it's a weakness: It will not be a pattern of this feature to indict an entire side of the ball, but the Sun Devils have huge issues on offense for a third consecutive season. Last year, they ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in scoring and ninth in total offense. And only four starters are back this spring. Ouch. Skill positions? There's uncertainty at quarterback. The top two receivers are gone, as is starting tailback Dimitri Nance. The line? Three starters need to be replaced, including the unit's leader in 2009, tackle Shawn Lauvao. Answers may be found this spring. Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler will battle at quarterback, while Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad will immediately bolster the receiving corps. Injuries the past two seasons mean lots of returning guys on the line have experience. And there are plenty of choices at tailback. Still, there's a lot of uncertainty here.

Strong & weak: Arizona

March, 2, 2010
3/02/10
9:00
AM ET
The second of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Arizona.

Strong: Offensive skill positions.

Why it's a strength: The Wildcats welcome back just about all their top skill guys -- their top-two quarterbacks (Nick Foles and Matt Scott), top three rushers (Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko) and five of their top six receivers (Juron Criner, Delashaun Dean, Bug Wright, David Douglas and David Roberts). The only loss is 2009's leading receiver Terrell Turner. Even the early departure of TE Rob Gronkowski is eased by the fact that he didn't play in a single game last year.

Weak: Up the middle defense.

Why it's a weakness: It's a weakness because the Wildcats must replace both defensive tackles, all three linebackers and free safety Cam Nelson. Moreover, they head into spring without a lot of obvious answers at those position, seeing that the defense's top four tacklers and five of the top six are all gone. Lolomana Mikaele was listed as the backup at both DTs positions at the end of last year, but he finished with just 12 tackles. Two junior college transfers, linebackers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are expected to earn starting positions. Toss in new co-coordinators -- though Tim Kish was promoted from linebackers coach -- and there are a lot of questions on this side of the ball.

Strong & weak: Stanford

March, 1, 2010
3/01/10
6:13
PM ET
The first of a 10-part series that looks at where Pac-10 teams are strongest and weakest as they begin spring practices.

Up first: Stanford (Which leads things off because it starts spring practice Monday afternoon).

Strong: The passing game.

Why it's a strength: Stanford welcomes back sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who's apparently good-to-go this spring after finger surgery knocked him out of the Sun Bowl, and his top three receivers: Ryan Whalen, Chris Owusu and tight end Coby Fleener. Luck led the conference in passing efficiency in 2009 and he'll be the offensive point man with the graduation of running back Toby Gerhart. The speedy Owusu, in particular, could be set for a breakthrough.

Weak: The secondary.

Why it's a weakness: The good news is three of four starters and much of the depth is back in the secondary. The bad news is that secondary surrendered 23 touchdown passes in 2009 -- tied for most in the conference -- and ranked eighth overall in the conference against the pass. Oklahoma's Landry Jones passed for 418 yards and three scores in the Sun Bowl. The Cardinal need to upgrade their athleticism in the back half, which might mean the three returning starters shouldn't feel safe. What might help: Stanford only recorded 21 sacks last year. Expect defensive ends Thomas Keiser, a junior, and sophomore Chase Thomas, who was rushed into service when Erik Lorig got hurt, to take another step forward this spring, which should make life less stressful for the defensive backs.

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