Pac-12: Vuna Tuihalamaka
To the notes.
Donald from Eugene writes: If the PAC10 actually does expand to 12 teams, the conventional wisdom is they would create North and South divisions. However, that would leave NW schools with the distinct possibility of not traveling to Southern California for two straight seasons thus killing recruiting (see Big12 North.) Wouldn't it make more sense to try the "AFC/NFC" split and put for instance UW, UO, Stan, UCLA, UA and CU in one division and the other six in the other? The teams would still play their traditional rival, it just would be out of division. That way every team will be assured of traveling to the Bay Area and SoCal on a regular basis.
Ted Miller: Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner.
I've been a bit surprised by how so many people have pooh-poohed the idea of Pac-10 expansion -- read: Colorado and Utah -- simply because of the supposedly calamitous results of a North-South split.
How will the Northwest schools survive without an annual visit to recruiting hotbeds in California [insert sob]!
As Donald notes: Fine, then forget the whole North-South thing and let's go with much more felicitously named "Ted" and "Donald" divisions.
My division is USC, Stanford, Washington State, Arizona State, Utah and Oregon State.
Donald's division is UCLA, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.
(Please, that was random. Don't read anything into which teams I selected).
Each Pac-12 team plays five divisional games as well as its traditional rival in the other division annually (we announce the first annual hate-fest between Utah vs. Colorado!). Each team then rotates two games among the other five teams in the other division.
Note how the Oregon-Washington rivalry gets preserved! And how we kept Jim Harbaugh and Lane Kiffin in the same division, which I am certain will be great fun.
That's eight conference games, which means teams then can load up on patsies for their four-game nonconference schedule -- if they wish -- which would mean more bowl-eligible teams and more seasons with two BCS bowl teams.
Sure, some conference hits and misses will provide an advantage. But that's how it is in every conference that doesn't play a round-robin schedule.
In a few years, media pundits would go, "Sheesh! The Pac-12 has 10 bowl-eligible teams! What a conference!"
What about losing the convenience -- and cost-effectiveness -- of regional travel provided by North-South divisions? Well, travel would remain mostly like it is now. So big deal.
By the way, though Donald and I are clearly brilliant, this has been done before. There's an obscure constellation in the college football universe know as the "Atlantic Coast Conference," which is broken up into the the "Heather" and "Dinich" divisions. Or they might be the "Atlantic" and "Coastal" divisions, I forget.
And, by the way, as a son of the South, I can tell you that there ain't no coast near Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Duke or Virginia.
Kevin from Phoenix writes: I have to take issue with the Spring Rankings. Arizona replaces 12 starters? I'd be curious to know what math you used to get 12 out of nine.
Ted Miller: OK.
Arizona's departing 2009 starters, per its depth chart.
Offense (5): WR Terrell Turner, OT Mike Diaz, OG Herman Hall, OT Adam Grant, HB Chris Gronkowski.
Defense (7): DT Earl Mitchell, NT Donald Horton, LB Sterling Lewis, LB Vuna Tuihalamaka, LB Xavier Kelly, FS Cam Nelson, CB Devin Ross.
The list doesn't including TE Rob Gronkowski because he sat out the entire season.
Kenny from Florence, Ariz., writes: I don't understand your logic in your spring power rankings. Putting USC, Oregon State, Cal, UW, & Stanford all above Arizona. Is it because of the Holiday Bowl performance? Ok well let's remember what happened during the Pac-10 conference season: Arizona beat USC in LA, Oregon St. in Corvallis, Stanford in Tucson.
Ted Miller: The Holiday Bowl performance was fairly yucky. But that's not why I rated Arizona seventh.
As you will note from above, the Wildcats lose three starting offensive linemen, three linebackers, both defensive tackles and two very good defensive backs.
And most of those guys weren't just starters -- they were mainstays (five second-team All-Pac-10 guys, including four on defense).
That's a lot to replace, particularly with two new coordinators. And keep in mind that the Wildcats will be using two pair of co-coordinators in 2010 after using just one guy in each role last year.
There may be a period of adjustment there.
It's perfectly reasonable to believe the Wildcats will plug-and-play and away they will go. But I will put them at No. 7 -- in a very deep Pac-10 -- until I see what those plugs might look like.
And I will be in Tucson during spring practices, so perhaps I will be impressed. I typically am when I watch a Mike Stoops team practice.
Kai from Castro Valley, Calif., writes: If someone were to go back in time and tell the 2000 Ted Miller how much teams have changed (i.e. number of bowl appearances in 2000-2009 compared to 1990-1999), which team do you think you wouldn't believe changed this much? In other words which team had the most phenomenal change good or bad from the start to the end of the decade? (Personally it's WSU for me).
Ted Miller: If the 2000 me met the 2010 me he tell me to get to the gym and lay off the beef and bourbon.
There are so many surprises in the decade.
The biggest surprise would be Washington, the 11-1, 2000 Pac-10 champion, winning 12 games from 2004-2008.
The second biggest surprise would have the rise of USC under Pete Carroll -- "USC hired Pete Carroll?" the 2000 me would ask. "That surely was a colossal failure!"
The third biggest surprise would have been the rise of Washington State: 30 wins, three consecutive top-10 rankings from 2001-2003. And Mike Price leaving the Cougars for Alabama. And how that turned out.
The fourth biggest surprise would be Oregon State's sustained success. I mostly thought that 2000 was a brilliant flash of football serendipity. It wasn't.
Gordie from Pasadena, Calif., writes: Let's say the Pac-10 picks up Utah and Colorado, and the Big Ten picks up Missouri. So does that mean the Big 12 becomes the Big 10 and the Big Ten becomes the Big Twelve (since it already has eleven teams)?
Ted Miller: Ha! Nice.
Gary from Portland writes: Recruiting revealed, the layers peeled back like an onion.
Ted Miller: Hit that link: You will be amused.
Ethan from San Francisco writes: You win... I have no idea where your Thursday quote [above the "Pac-10 lunch links"] came from.
Ted Miller: Glad you asked because it comes from one of my all-time favorite novels: Don DeLillo's "Underworld."
It's a dense, 800-plus-page read, so it won't be everyone's favorite brew, but the first 60 pages are set around Bobby Thomson's home run -- "The shot heard round the world" -- to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers and win the New York Giants the 1951 National League Pennant.
Go to a bookstore and read those 60 pages. It's some of the best writing you will ever read.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Washington hasn't gotten many lucky bounces in recent years, but this might be a new era of Husky football.
Down 12 points with 4:22 left, the Huskies rallied for a touchdown, and then scored the winning points when a short pass from Arizona quarterback Nick Foles bounced off the foot of receiver Delashaun Dean and into the hands of linebacker Mason Foster, who dashed 37 yards for a score to cap the improbable 36-33 win.
Arizona dominated statistically. It out-gained the Huskies 461 yards to 256. It had a 19-minute advantage in time of possession. It ran 83 plays. The Huskies ran 47.
But Washington, which went 0-12 last, improved to 3-3 on the year and 2-1 in the Pac-10 because did something critical: it won.
Arizona, meanwhile, will surely rue a poor performance in the red zone -- it was stopped on fourth down, inches from the Huskies goal line, and too often kicked short field goals instead of scoring touchdowns after long drives.
And Arizona will regret a number of boneheaded mistakes, not the least of which was a personal foul penalty from linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka that helped the Huskies score a touchdown with 2:55 left and narrowed the gap to 33-28.
Still, the Wildcats seemed fairly comfortable when they took over with less than three minutes left, holding a 5-point lead and knowing they'd been piling up chunks of yards against the Huskies defense.
But Foles, who was on target much of the night, threw low and behind a diving Dean, and the ball bounced off his cleat -- perhaps an inch above the turf -- and right to Foster.
Yet there was still plenty of time -- 2:29 -- left for Arizona to either win or force overtime with a field goal.
Foles completed 39 of 53 passes for 384 yards with a touchdown, but the unflappable sophomore was flappable on the Wildcats final possession.
They drove to Huskies 38, but Foles held the ball too long -- he faced little pressure all evening -- on a second-and-short and took a sack. He then threw his second interception on a fourth-and-8 play.
Washington quarterback Jake Locker didn't put up spectacular numbers. He was 12 of 23 for 140 yards. But he threw three touchdown passes and ran 56 yards for another score, making the most of his opportunities to put points on the board. He ran for a season-high 92 yards.
If Arizona had won, it likely would have earned a national ranking.
Now, it falls in with six teams that have one conference loss.
The Wildcats will play host to Stanford on Saturday in game of teams licking their wounds.
The Huskies will visit Arizona State with a chance to take another step toward a massive turnaround under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
California quarterback Kevin Riley, Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon and Stanford kick returner Chris Owusu have been named Pac-10 Players of the Week.
Riley, a junior from Portland, Ore., directed California to a 52-13 win over Maryland. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 298 yards and a career-high four touchdowns with no interceptions. His touchdown passes covered 3, 39, 42 and 15 yards. The Golden Bears offense piled up 542 yards of total offense (244 rushing, 298 passing) with no turnovers.
Nixon, a senior from Phoenix, had three interceptions, returning one of them 34 yards for a touchdown, in the Sun Devils' 50-3 win over Idaho State. The Arizona State defense limited Idaho State to four first downs, minus-5 yards rushing, 37 yards total offense and just 1-of-13 on third-down conversion attempts.
Owusu, a sophomore from Westlake Village, Calif., sparked Stanford in a 39-13 win at Washington State. Owusu returned three kickoffs for 143 yards (47.7-yard average), including an 85-yard return for a touchdown.
Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, Arizona running back Nic Grigsby, Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers and freshman quarterbacks Kevin Prince of UCLA and Matt Barkley of USC. Also nominated on defense were linebackers Vuna Tuihalamaka of Arizona and Chris Galippo of USC; safeties Rahim Moore of UCLA, Lance Mitchell of Oregon State and Delano Howell of Stanford; and end Cameron Jordan of California. Nominated for special teams play were kickers Alex Zendejas of Arizona, Thomas Weber of Arizona State, Justin Kahut of Oregon State and Vince D’Amato of California, punter Reid Forrest of Washington State and return man Terrence Austin of UCLA.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Just about every Pac-10 team feels good about its linebackers.
Not an easy position to rank.
- UCLA: Senior Reggie Carter was second-team All-Pac-10, up-and-coming sophomore Akeem Ayers and senior Kyle Bosworth man the two outside positions, while sophomore backup Steve Sloan started nine games last year.
- Oregon State: Keaton Kristick was second-team All-Pac-10, and the two-headed monster on the weakside -- Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey -- is back. Sophomore David Pa'aluhi -- a mixed martial arts fighter -- is promising in the middle.
- USC: Yes, USC gets the benefit of the doubt, despite three new starters. By season's end don't be surprised if Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith look like the conference's best unit.
- Oregon: Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews return, and Eddie Pleasant steps in for Jerome Boyd on the outside. There's good depth and good speed here.
- Arizona State: The Sun Devils have a lot of experience as well as young talent, but the starting crew of Travis Goethel, Gerald Munns and Mike Nixon doesn't possess top-end speed. And sophomore Shelly Lyons is hurt and the NCAA Clearinghouse hasn't yet cleared spectacular true freshman Vontaze Burfict.
- California: On the outside, Mike Mohamed and Eddie Young have plenty of experience. Inside, Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt are promising but green. The depth is solid.
- Arizona: The Wildcats are fast with Sterling Lewis, Xavier Kelly and Vuna Tuihalamaka, and Lewis and Kelly have starting experience. There's a pretty fair drop-off to the second unit.
- Stanford: Clinton Snyder will lead a solid crew that includes Will Powers and Chike Amajoyi. The uncertain status of Alex Debniak (knee) hurts.
- Washington: The Huskies have a solid triumvirate. E.J. Savannah returns after missing all of 2008 due to a suspension. He'll play outside opposite Mason Foster with Donald Butler in the middle. Depth is an issue.
- Washington State: Andy Mattingly's return on the strongside from defensive end should help. Jason Stripling is a senior on the weakside, but isn't terribly experienced -- he missed almost all of 2008 with a shoulder injury. JC transfer Alex Hoffman-Ellis will man the middle. He redshirted last year. It would help if undersized but quick Louis Bland was 100 percent because he would add much-needed speed.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
While Arizona's opener against Central Michigan isn't the marquee game of the week, it might be called the sneaky-interesting game of the week.
That's because it matches Chippewas star Dan LeFevour, one of the nation's top quarterbacks, against the Wildcats' no-name defense.
|Dan LeFevour has already passed for over 9,400 yards in his career.|
LeFevour, a senior leading a spread-option offense for a third consecutive season, piled up 3,376 yards of total offense last year and accounted for 27 touchdowns. He's a potent threat both running (592 yards) and passing (2,784 yards). Think Jake Locker but as a more refined passer.
"Dan's a great player," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "He deserves all those accolades. He's one of the best we'll see all year at the position."
Speaking of accolades, at what point does Arizona's defense start to get some?
Arizona welcomes back seven starters from a unit that ranked third in the Pac-10 in both scoring (21.3 points per game) and total defense (313 yards per game), and when you talk to different coaches across the conference, there is widespread admiration for the soundness of the Wildcats' scheme.
"They have had a really disciplined scheme for years," USC coach Pete Carroll said before playing Arizona last year. "They are basically a zone team and they mix their pressures nicely. A lot of zone pressure, not too much man to man pressure, but they just have a real good sense of playing zones and they fill up the field and make it look like the field is too small. There's not a lot of spaces and they break up the ball well and they position and anticipate beautifully. They are going to keep you in front of them. They are not going to give you any big plays which is a good idea in this conference. They are real disciplined at it. So they show real consistency and when their playmakers start to grow up in their system like they have had in the past, they are able to make a lot of things happen."
Carroll can BS with the best of them, but that is clearly a thoughtful, respectful answer.
And guess what? Those playmakers are growing into their system, which means it might not be a no-name defense for long. Defensive end Brooks Reed, safety Cam Nelson, cornerback Devin Ross, strong safety Robert Golden, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka each could become all-conference-type players.
But coordinator Mark Stoops isn't eager to celebrate individuals.
"We're not overwhelming at any one position, but we have good players across the board. We're pretty solid," he said. "But if you don't play within the system, for each other, with your hair on fire, you're very average. I don't care if you're Miami, Oklahoma or USC."
Mark Stoops made the point that the only time the defense got blown up in 2008 was the first half against Oregon when the Ducks scored 45 points.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "That was the only time last year that was pure frustration."
Number of Arizona adjustments at halftime? Zero. It was merely a case of reminding players to take care of their technique and responsibilities within the scheme.
After the break, Oregon scored only 10 points, and the Wildcats nearly came back from a 28-point halftime deficit before falling 55-45.
Central Michigan, which is breaking in three new starting offensive lineman, won't likely be able to run the ball consistently. LeFevour has two good receivers in Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson, so this likely will be a strength-on-strength matchup with the secondary, with LeFevour's scrambles also challenging the Wildcats.
The Chippewas are favored to win their third MAC title over the past four seasons, and LeFevour is looking to make a national statement.
This is far from a gimme for the Wildcats, who have blown nonconference games against inferior foes the past two seasons.
"They're not going to be awestruck by the environment," Mike Stoops said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona coach Mike Stoops is fit and relaxed and just a bit irritated.
All three speak to him being in a far better place as he enters his sixth season as Arizona's coach.
Fit? The former All-American safety at Iowa looks like he could suit up again. If the Pac-10 title were decided in a bar room brawl, Stoops might be your guy. The avid runner has been hitting the weight during the off-season and he is not above suggesting that a reporter might want to do the same.
Relaxed? Instead of getting his butt burned by the hot seat upon which he sat last year, he led the Wildcats to an impressive victory in their first bowl game since 1998.
Irritated? He's just a bit piqued at his Wildcats being picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10.
(The Pac-10 blog is on record, by the way, believing he has a point.)
His Wildcats were picked behind UCLA and Arizona State, teams they beat by identical 31-10 counts in 2008.
Arizona, which won eight games last year, has 14 starters back, UCLA 17 and Arizona State 15. The Sun Devils and Bruins combined for nine wins. Each will feature a quarterback making his first start this season.
Beyond that, the Wildcats largest margin of defeat was 10 points (Oregon). They lost two games by a combined three points
So why the diss?
"I don't know," Stoops said. "This is our best team."
Really? Stoops must replace quarterback Willie Tuitama, practically a four-year starter, receiver Mike Thomas, offensive tackle Eben Britton and four defensive starters.
The only player on his team someone in, say, Des Moines, Iowa might have heard of is tight end Rob Gronkowski.
So why is Stoops certain his team is being underrated?
"Our greatest strength is we don't have any really big weaknesses," he said. "We don't have any really big holes... We're pretty strong across the board."
In a conference with two fancypants secondaries getting national attention -- USC and California -- Stoops believes he's got a match.
In a conference where everybody is touting their linebackers, Stoops believes his three are as athletic as any troika in the conference -- and junior middle linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka looks like a potential star.
He thinks defensive end Brooks Reed is underrated, despite recording eight sacks last year. He likes the rest of his D-line, which is returns intact and is deeper than it was a year ago.
He's fired up about his three tailbacks. Things are good at receiver. He gushes about his offensive line.
"I'm really pleased with our ability to play physically and protect," he said.
And if the quarterback doesn't, as Stoops said, "Go crazy," this team should meet or exceed last year's performance.
It might seem that Stoops is mustering a motivational angle, and not just for his team.
Stoops clearly likes maintaining an edge. While no one relishes job insecurity, last year provided him an obvious one.
"Things were defined last year -- that almost made it easier, if that makes sense," he said. "We knew we had to win. They gave us ample time. We knew we were close. Clearing that mental obstacle for our team was huge."
Making the next step as a program won't be easy. As hard as it is to go from three to eight wins, it's not any easier to go from eight to 10.
"Until you do it, you are always going to wonder [if you can]," he said.
It's still a work in progress in Tucson. Stoops wants his team to play loose and confident but also be able to set its collective jaw during the waning moments of close games so they don't slip away.
Eighth-place? It seems like Stoops believes his team is a play or two away from finishing in the top-third of the Pac-10.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
First in a series on grounds for optimism and worry.
Biggest reason for hope -- Seven starters back from the Pac-10's No. 3 scoring defense.
All four starters are back on the defensive line, including junior Brooks Reed, who finished eighth in the Pac-10 with eight sacks a year ago. The secondary is led by second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Devin Ross, and coaches were raving about middle linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka this spring. Moreover, after five recruiting classes, coach Mike Stoops has the sort of players who fit into his system. The only concern here is a lack of depth at linebacker.
Biggest reason for concern -- Uncertainty at quarterback
While Matt Scott and Nick Foles, both sophomores, were mostly solid during spring practices, it's impossible not to wonder how whoever wins the job will react when the games are real and the screws tighten. Neither has seen any significant action. With good skill receivers -- not to mention All-American tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the real issue is how well the rookie starter will deliver the ball under pressure.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Every team enters spring practices with at least a couple of personnel questions, even those with their starting lineup returning nearly intact.
Sometimes those questions don't get answered. Other times they do.
Such as ...
Arizona: The Wildcats lost two of their three starting linebackers, but coach Mike Stoops said he believes they will be better at the position in 2009, with junior Vuna Tuihalamaka making a special impression in the middle this spring.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost middle linebacker Morris Wooten, but the LB position looks like it could run six-deep in 2009, particularly with the expected arrival of super-recruit Vontaze Burfict in the fall. The return of former starter Gerald Munns, who left the team for personal reasons, helps as does the emergence of young players whose speed upgrades are intriguing.
California: Not to get stuck on a linebacker theme, but most previews of the Bears will raise questions about them losing three longtime starters at linebacker. Hanging around this spring, however, you get the feeling this position will be fine. In fact, a couple of touted incoming JC transfers will make the fall competition intense. Look for Mike Mohamed and Mychal Kendricks to make a play for All-Conference honors.
Oregon: The Ducks lost three of four starting defensive linemen, including end Nick Reed, so this seemed like as big a question mark as the offensive line entering spring. Apparently not, at least according to coach Chip Kelly. Will Tukuafu should emerge from Reed's shadow as one of the conference's best ends, and tackle Brandon Bair and end Kenny Rowe stepped up. There's still competition at one tackle, but the Ducks' recruiting class included six defensive linemen, at least a couple of whom figure to see action.
Oregon State: The Beavers lost receivers Sammie Stroughter and Shane Morales, but by the end of spring that didn't seem like a problem, even with James Rodgers sitting out with a shoulder injury. Junior Darrell Catchings broke through and redshirt freshman Jordan Bishop lived up to high expectations and others flashed potential.
Stanford: The passing game -- on offense and defense -- has been a problem for Stanford. For the offense, redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck was just short of spectacular this spring. For the defense, the insertion of Delano Howell at strong safety and Michael Thomas at cornerback upgrades the secondary's athleticism.
UCLA: The secondary began spring needing two new starters, but a handful of guys stepped up to complement cornerback Alterraun Verner and free safety Rahim Moore. While Aaron Hester and Glenn Love are the favorites to start at corner and strong safety, respectively, sophomores Courtney Viney and Tony Dye and redshirt freshman E.J. Woods will get extended looks in the fall.
USC: Lose three elite linebackers? Find three more. Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo and Michael Morgan might not have the experience or pedigree of their predecessors, but they are faster and may end up being nearly as good.
Washington: A lot was made of how well quarterback Jake Locker adjusted to a pro-style offense this spring -- and rightfully so -- but that pro-style passing attack needs targets, so perhaps that part of the pass-catch equation is being undersold. D'Andre Goodwin, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar give the Huskies three respectable receivers, and tight ends Kavario Middleton and Chris Izbicki are solid.
Washington State: One area where the Cougars have quality starters and quality depth is running back, with Dwight Tardy stepping up to the challenge of California transfer James Montgomery this spring, and Logwone Mitz and 220-pound Marcus Richmond adding depth.
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
Arizona finishes spring practices Wednesday, and coach Mike Stoops doesn't see many holes heading into the summer.
Sure, the Wildcats are replacing some good players, such as quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas, linebacker Ronnie Palmer and left tackle Eben Britton. But Stoops seems confident he's got guys who can step up and get to another bowl game.
Or maybe more than just any bowl game.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|Arizona coach Mike Stoops says he feels good about his overall depth heading into the 2009 season.|
The Wildcats started early and now will be the first to finish spring practices. It seemed like a good time to check in with Stoops and see how things looked in Tucson.
First question has to be about the quarterbacks: How do Matt Scott and Nick Foles stack up with one practice left this spring?
Mike Stoops: They both have done some really good things. I think we can win at this level with both players. We don't feel like we're in any need to name a starter at this point. I can probably see both guys playing. Whether we did that in a constant way, I don't think that would be it. But I could see, early on, us playing both to see how they perform in games. It's not something we would like to do, but they are a little bit different styles of quarterback. Matt gives you that ability to run and create plays with his feet. Nick is a more prototypical, drop-back quarterback. They're different but I think both of them could give us a chance to win. We're very pleased with their growth. They still have a lot of work to do. We probably won't name a starter until seven to 10 days before our first game against Central Michigan. And it's possible both could play in that game.
Biggest position change before practices began was Robert Golden from cornerback to strong safety: How did that play out?
MS: That's been probably one of the best moves we've made. We now can get our best four or five DBs on the field at the same time. And it's really been an easy transition for him. He seems very comfortable. He's been easy to coach. We've been very pleased with that move. It puts Trevin Wade, who led our team in interceptions last year -- and he only played 100 and something snaps -- on the field. Robert had corner ability, corner speed, but he gives us great versatility to cover the field now, which you have to do vs. these spread offenses.
Any other guys change positions during the spring?
MS: Nope. That was the biggest move for us.
Tell us about some guys who really improved their stock this spring, guys when went from backups to potential starters.
MS: We feel like our offensive guards played really well, Conan Amituanai and Mike Diaz. Diaz -- you asked about a personnel change -- Diaz could move from left guard to left tackle. He has the range to play tackle. And that gives Conan, who has really stood out with his development and his attitude and confidence, a chance. He's a 320-pound guy who can really play physically. [Guard] Vaughn Dotsy is another guy I'm pleased with, played last year as a true freshman. Our line has a chance to be very athletic and physical. Other guys: Greg Nwoko, our third running back, has had a great spring -- he's a freshman from outside of Austin, Texas. I feel good about our overall depth, but our biggest concern might be depth at linebacker.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
And finally there were linebackers. Or a lack thereof.
All three first-team All-Pac-10 linebackers are gone. USC and California both lost three starting linebackers from elite units.
The only team that welcomes back an intact crew is Washington, which is a mixed blessing when a defense is among the worst in the nation the previous season.
That said: No one is completely rebuilding.
Each linebacker unit, other than USC, has at least one starter back, and the Trojans crew has seen significant playing time and is probably as talented as any in the Pac-10.
- UCLA: This is a position of strength for UCLA, with a lot of experience and athletic ability, led by middle linebacker and leading tackler Reggie Carter, who was second-team All-Pac-10 a year ago. Akeem Ayers and Kyle Bosworth man the two outside positions, while Steve Sloan started nine games last year.
- Oregon State: Keaton Kristick, second-team All-Pac-10, leads another solid corps of Beavers linebackers from the strongside. Middle linebacker Bryant Cornell is gone, but he only ranked fifth on the team in tackles. Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey are back on the weakside, while David Pa'aluhi is slated to replace Cornell.
- USC: Sure, all three starters are gone, but we just can't pull the trigger and downgrade the Trojans. The general feeling that Chris Galippo inside with Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan on the flanks will be as physically talented as any crew in the conference. Each saw significant action last year and recorded double-digit tackles, with Morgan leading the way with 24, including five for a loss.
- Arizona State: Lost second-leading tackler Morris Wooten but the Sun Devils get everyone else back, including Gerald Munns, who left the team early last season due to personal issues. Moreover, young players such as Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee will push for playing time.
- Arizona: Lost leading tackler and leader Ronnie Palmer in the middle, but Sterling Lewis (five starts) and Xavier Kelly (eight starts) are back and Vuna Tuihalamaka, who is slated to replace Palmer, saw a lot of action in 2008.
- Stanford: Pat Maynor is gone, but Clinton Snyder leads an experienced crew that includes Chike Amajoyi, Will Powers and Nick Macaluso.
- California: Lost three of its four starting linebackers, but both Eddie Young and Mike Mohamed started games last year, with Mohamed ranking third on the team in tackles.
- Oregon: Jerome Boyd is gone but second-leading tackler Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews are back. Eddie Pleasant likely steps in for Boyd.
- Washington: Because the Huskies defense was so bad last year, it's hard to rank them in good shape just because all three starters are back. But the addition of 2007 leading tackler E.J. Savannah, who was suspended by former coach Tyrone Willingham, makes this an area of least concern on a team with many concerns.
- Washington State: It might seem like we're picking on the Cougars by leaving them alone down here but here's the situation. WSU lost its best defensive player and leading tackler, middle linebacker Greg Trent, from the nation's worst rushing defense (248 yards per game). Undersized weakside linebacker Louis Bland, who had nine tackles for a loss in 2008, is back, and word is Andy Mattingly might move back to linebacker from end. If that happens, the position upgrades substantially.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
TUCSON, Ariz. -- First things first: Arizona's first spring practice Wednesday afternoon will be open.
When a reporter asked coach Mike Stoops after his pre-spring meet-and-greet with reporters whether practice would be open, he replied, "Yeah, sure. Whatever."
He then added he'd close things when reporters started annoying him again.
Anyway, how about this new, mellow Mike Stoops, eh? Bowl victories and new contracts sometimes have that effect.
- The pre-spring depth chart stacks the offensive line, which lost three starters, like this: left tackle Phillip Garcia, guard Mike Diaz, center Colin Baxter, right guard Vaughn Dotsy and tackle Adam Grant. As far as former starting center Blake Kerley, he's sitting out while recovering from a knee injury suffered last fall, and Stoops implied that he'll have a tough time dislodging any of the interior three. Stoops seemed particularly high on Dotsy, a sophomore. Grant is good to go after knee surgery, while Garcia will be limited this spring for the same reason. "This line can be every bit as productive as we had a year ago," Stoops said.
- Three JC transfers will participate in spring practices: offensive linemen Shane Zink and Jack Julsing and cornerback Marcus Benjamin. Benjamin will battle Trevin Wade to start at one corner, while Zink and Julsing likely will provide depth on the line.
- Former starting receiver Terrell Reese, who was suspended indefinitely last year, has been given the boot. Running backs Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons and defensive tackle Hans Philipp also won't be back in 2009.
- Stoops has high hopes for his defense, which welcomes back seven starters: "This is the best group that we have had coming back," he said. "This defense will be the most athletic we've had ... We have the potential to be a great defense."
- Two linebacker spots need to be filled. The first unit on the depth chart has Sterling Lewis on the strong side, with Vuna Tuihalamaka in the middle and Xavier Kelly on the weak side. Lewis started five games last year; Kelly eight. Tuihalamaka played in 13 games and recorded 23 tackles.
- The general theme with the quarterback competition between Matt Scott and Nick Foles was this: The runner, Scott, has a better arm than he gets credit for, and the same can be said for the mobility of the pocket passer, Foles.