Pac-12: Conrad Obi

No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.

Polls reaction: What you think, what I think.

May, 15, 2011
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On Thursday and Friday, we took the pulse of the Pac-12 with a series of polls, and thousands of you responded.

Democracy rocks!

Here's how you voted, and my reaction.

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireRick Neuheisel brought in Mike Johnson and Jim Mastro to tweak the Pistol offense into its current incarnation.
Which is the biggest can't miss game in the Pac-12?
53 percent LSU vs. Oregon
32 percent Oregon at Stanford

Comment: Concur. I understand the idea that the Stanford-Oregon game is the favorite to decide the Pac-12's top team, but the LSU-Oregon game will have significant national ramifications that figure to ripple throughout the season. Of course, same could eventually be said for Ducks-Cardinal, but we know RIGHT NOW that the Oregon-LSU game will match top-10 teams. We don't know what everything will look like on Nov. 12, when the Ducks visit Stanford.

Which team will be the biggest disappointment?
27 percent Arizona State
24 percent Washington

Comment: Interesting. Lots of Sun Devils doubters out there, and more than a few apparently don't believe the Huskies have actually turned the proverbial corner. Thought one of the North favorites -- Oregon and Stanford -- might have garnered more attention. Of the five choices, Oregon ended up last, so folks are pretty confident that the Ducks won't disappoint.

Which team will be the biggest surprise?
33 percent Utah
20 percent Washington State

Comment: Concur. While some believe that the Utes contending for the Pac-12 South Division title will be a surprise, a corresponding group believes that's just what's going to happen. The Cougars will be picked to finish last by just about everyone, but this is the first time in a while many will pause before doing so. And might even change their minds.

Who will win the Pac-12?
54 percent Oregon
27 percent Stanford

Comment: Not a surprise. Mildly surprised it wasn't a little closer between these two. But, then again, Oregon fans are very, er, active in support of their team.

Which Pac-12 coach needs to win the most?
46 percent UCLA's Rick Neuheisel
20 percent USC's Lane Kiffin

Comment: Don't agree. I'd rank Washington State's Paul Wulff No. 1 and Neuheisel No. 2. And I'd be very surprised if Kiffin isn't back in 2012. His numbers here probably included a few Tennessee fans, no?

Who is the offensive player of the year?
41 percent Stanford QB Andrew Luck
33 percent Oregon RB LaMichael James

Comment: Yep. Two returning Heisman Trophy finalists makes this obvious. At least in the preseason.

Who is the defensive player of the year?
42 percent Oregon CB Cliff Harris
28 percent Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict

Comment: As an added bonus for participating in this poll, Burfict will be visiting everyone who didn't vote for him. We'll post what happens on YouTube. By the way, Vontaze, you got my vote.

Who will be the conference's biggest impact player?
36 percent Stanford QB Andrew Luck
35 percent Oregon QB Darron Thomas

Comment: Concur. Luck is the best player in the nation. Thomas, even more than James, likely will decide just how good the Ducks' offense will be in 2011.

Who will be the conference's most improved player?
39 percent Oregon State QB Ryan Katz
24 percent Alameda Ta'amu

Comment: Reasonable choices. Katz's improvement might hinge on his supporting cast -- as in, if he gets receiver James Rodgers back at full speed after a knee injury, Katz will "improve" more. My vote, however, would go for Colorado defensive tackle Conrad Obi, who could go from career disappointment to All-Conference and NFL draft pick if he keeps his eye on the prize.

Toughest player to replace?
44 percent Washington QB Jake Locker
36 percent Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers

Comment: I'd have voted for Rodgers. Locker just didn't have a good 2010 season, and, in large part, the Huskies started "replacing" him when they began leaning on running back Chris Polk. Rodgers, whom everyone knows I highly esteem, was such a versatile player -- run, receive, block, lead -- that you know in advance the Beavers won't really replace him.
Every season coaches talk about being young. But eventually those young starters and contributors become veteran players. And sometimes breakout stars.

Even more dramatic: Sometimes players go from star to superstar -- see Oregon running back LaMichael James -- who went from all-conference to unanimous All-American, Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist.

So who do you think will make the biggest jump in 2011?

It's impossible to predict, but we've got five candidates.

Oregon State QB Ryan Katz will be in his second year as a starter, so he should make a jump. A lot depends on his supporting cast, particularly the health of his top targets: James Rodgers, Jordan Bishop and TE Joe Halahuni.

Arizona State lost receiver T.J. Simpson this spring, but Gerell Robinson stepped up and more than filled the void. The Sun Devils like to pass, and Robinson figures to be the top target.

Conrad Obi was an afterthought at Colorado before the this spring, but the talented but previously underachieving defensive tackle dominated this spring. He could work his way into the 2012 NFL draft.

USC cornerback Nickell Robey got picked on early in the 2010 season, but that won't happened in 2011. He improved dramatically last fall and he turned in an outstanding spring for the Trojans.

As for Washington's Alameda Ta'amu, he's a 330 pounder who's more than a big body in the middle of the Huskies D-line. He's an often dominant playmaker.

But who makes the biggest jump in 2011?

Pac-12 spring superlatives

May, 9, 2011
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Everyone loves "best of" lists. Here's one for the Pac-12 after spring practices concluded.

Best performance by an offense: Noel Mazzone's crew saved its best for last. Arizona State's offense gained 601 yards in the spring game: 446 yards passing and 155 yards rushing. Junior quarterback Brock Osweiler completed 17 of 22 passes for 237 yards and five touchdowns.

Best performance by a defense: Utah's "Red" defense held the "White" offense to 106 total yards in a 7-0 "Red" victory.

Best performance by a defense II: The Oregon "Green" limited the "White" to 164 total yards, including only 63 rushing yards on 31 attempts, in a 16-0 Green win.

Best QB troika: Arizona's three senior quarterbacks -- Nick Foles, Matt Scott and Bryson Beirne -- combined to complete 31 of 42 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats' spring game. Foles (11-16-133), Scott (11-14-134) and Beirne (8-9-115) found a total of 13 different receivers in 60 plays.

Best QB-TE connection: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Zach Ertz connected six times for 56 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game.

Best "Jake Locker-who?" moment: In Washington's spring game, QB Keith Price completed 20 of 28 passes for 212 yards with three TDs and no INTs, while also rushing for 53 yards and a TD on just five carries.

Best catch: In a scrimmage on April 14, UCLA WR Nelson Rosario made a leaping one-handed catch in the end zone over perfectly-positioned CB Sheldon Price for a 30-yard touchdown.

Best performance by a redshirt freshman tight end: Oregon State's Connor Hamlett had 11 receptions for 153 yards in the spring game.

Best run: In California's spring game, running back Isi Sofele dashed for a 65-yard TD run where he dove into the end zone just outracing safety Vachel Samuels.

Best run II: Oregon RB LaMichael James sprinted for a 67-yard touchdown run on his third and final carry of the spring game.

Best run III: Washington State RB Logwone Mitz broke off a 70-yard run down the left sideline for his first score of the Cougars spring game.

Best crowd: Oregon played its spring game in front of a conference spring game record crowd of 43,468.

Best performance by a walk-on: Colorado's sophomore walk-on running back Josh Ford rushed 17 times for 164 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown in the Buffaloes spring game.

Best performance by a backup QB: While starter Ryan Katz was out with a wrist injury, Cody Vaz cemented his status as the backup with a consistent strong performance all spring.

Best newbies: Arizona got a likely starter at receiver in Texas transfer Dan Buckner. Arizona State's big-armed trued freshman quarterback Mike Bercovici might end up as the Sun Devils backup QB. One of Cal's starting linebackers is likely to be grayshirt freshmen Cecil Whiteside and Chris McCain. Oregon freshman TE Colt Lyerla lived up to his recruiting hype and looks like he'll be in the rotation in 2011. JC transfer defensive end Rusty Fernando is on track to win a starting job at Oregon State. UCLA true freshman QB Brett Hundley is still in the race to start. Utah's three candidates to start at running back are newbies: JC transfer John White, freshman Harvey Langi and walk-on Thretton Palamo. Washington freshman TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is listed as an "Or" for the starting spot with redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson. Washington State JC transfer Ian Knight finished spring No. 1 at DE.

Most international interest: Speaking of Utah's Thretton Palamo, he's best known as an international rugby star. A first-year sophomore who walked on this spring, he was the youngest player ever at age 19 to play in the Rugby World Cup. He played rugby for the Samoan national team in 2007 (his father captained Samoa’s national team as a teenager) and then switched to the U.S. National Team. He also played professionally for the French team Biarritz Olympique.

Best "you've never heard of me but you will": Colorado DT Conrad Obi had just four tackles last year and has played just 100 snaps in his career, but the 310-pound fifth-year senior was selected as the Buffaloes Most Improved Player this spring. In the three scrimmages, he had 20 tackles (17 solo, six for losses, two sacks), four third-down stops and four tackles for zero yards (so 10 of the 20 were at or behind the line of scrimmage). Oh, and he also forced fumble.

Best "graduate-a-semester-early-from-high-school-enroll-in-the-spring-earn-a-starting-job-by-default": USC fullback Soma Vainuku went from high school to Stanley Havili's replacement the first week of spring practices.

Best buzz, non-football division: Arizona State's "It's Time" campaign created plenty of a national buzz in advance of the April 12 launch of the rebrand, which included a new logo. The Sun Devils joined Oregon as the most fashion-forward Pac-12 team.

Best "Thank you for Starbucks" decision: USC starting all weekday spring practices at 7:25 a.m.

They said it (best quotes of spring)
Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton on QB Andrew Luck:
"He was able to complete 70 percent of his passes last year. Our goal is for him to complete 100 percent of his passes."

California coach Jeff Tedford on falling short of expectations in Berkeley:
"Eight wins is not what they want. And that's because that's where we put the standard. I get that now."

Washington State coach Paul Wulff on turning things around in Pullman:
"As those things start to grow and age -- like a fine wine -- your team is going to start winning football games. I think this team is going to win football games and I think we can compete for a bowl game, without question."

Arizona State receiver Gerell Robinson on the Sun Devils new logo:
"It's different. I like it. It's more aggressive. Sparky had a smile on his face."

USC coach Lane Kiffin on where the Trojans stand:
"There's too many questions. I think it would be a little tough to say this team is better than last year."

Arizona coach Mike Stoops on his receivers:
"I think he gives us the two best outside receivers maybe in the country. Having [Dan] Buckner and [Juron] Criner on opposite sides is going to create problems for people."

UCLA Rick Neuheisel on potentially being fired:
"If it were to happen that they were to replace me, I'm confident I would find another job. It wouldn't be the end of the world. I don't think my kids would starve. But I'm adamantly wanting to be here because this is my school and I believe we're closing in on where we want to go."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on whether he feels any sentiment for the Mountain West Conference:
"Not really. I'm not a sentimental guy so there's really no emotional ties or anything of that nature. I can say the Mountain West was very good for us. It was a good run."

Colorado coach Jon Embree on what his team needs to do to win:
"We've got to attack. We can't just sit back. I'm an honest person. We are not good enough to just line up and say we're going to beat you. From a talent standpoint, we're not at that elite level yet."

Spring breakout players

May, 3, 2011
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ESPN.com's Bruce Feldman looks at 10 "breakout" players this spring, and two from the Pac-12 made his list: Arizona State DT Will Sutton and Washington DE Josh Shirley.

To be brief: I concur. Good choices.

Here's Feldman's take.
5. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils have gotten way more than their share of talent from Southern California's Centennial High, and Sutton appears ready to be the next product of that program to make an impact. ASU staffers I know have gushed about the 6-2, 285-pounder's potential for a while. He missed the 2010 season due to academic issues, but the word is he's ready to be a force now. In fact, Sutton, a very quick, very explosive sophomore, may more than make up for the loss of Lawrence Guy to the NFL.

10. Josh Shirley, DE/OLB, Washington Huskies

The Huskies were sixth in the Pac-10 in sacks last season. Expect the speedy 225-pound Shirley to help address that. He flashed big-play potential for what appears to be a much-improved defensive line.

A handful I'd add: Washington State WR Kristoff Williams, Stanford TE Zach Ertz, Arizona DE C.J. Parrish, UCLA RB Jordan James, Colorado DT Conrad Obi, California OLB Dave Wilkerson, Oregon State OLB Michael Doctor, USC RB Curtis McNeal, Utah DE Joe Kruger and Oregon DE Dion Jordan (who was supposed to breakout in 2010 but apparently waited a year).

Yes, I wanted to make sure everyone got their breakout player.

Pac-12 NFL prospects in 2012?

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is over, which means it's time to look at who the Pac-12's top senior prospects in 2012 likely will be.

First of all, plenty of top non-seniors from the conference might -- or are likely to -- enter the draft, including Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oregon RB LaMichael James, Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict and USC QB Matt Barkley. Those four range from sure to likely first-round draft picks.

But this list includes only players in their final year of eligibility. And some might rate a bit of a reach as NFL prospects.

Arizona: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, CB Trevin Wade

Arizona State: CB Omar Bolden, DE James Brooks, C Garth Gerhart

California: S Sean Cattouse, TE Anthony Miller, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, OT Mitchell Schwartz, P Bryan Anger

Colorado: OG Ryan Miller, RB Rodney Stewart, DT Conrad Obi, TE Ryan Deehan

Oregon: TE David Paulson, SS Eddie Pleasant, OT Mark Asper, LB Josh Kaddu

Oregon State: S Lance Mitchell, WR James Rodgers, FB-TE Joe Halahuni

Stanford: WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleenor, S Delano Howell

UCLA: S Tony Dye, FB Derrick Coleman, TE Cory Harkey

USC: LB Chris Galippo, DE Armond Armstead, TE Rhett Ellison, RB Marc Tyler

Utah: OT Tony Bergstrom, LB Chaz Walker, OT John Cullen

Washington: DT Alameda Ta'amu, WR Jermaine Kearse, OT Senio Kelemete, K Erik Folk

Washington State: DT Brandon Rankin, OG B.J. Guerra, WR Jared Karstetter
BOULDER, Colo. -- Colorado's practice went well over two and a half hours Tuesday. There was plenty of hitting and suffice it to say that new coach Jon Embree leads an animated, vocal staff.

Some observations.
  • There seems to be little question that Tyler Hansen will be the starting quarterback. He didn't have a great practice, but even then his command and presence stood out. Redshirt freshman Nick Hirschman seemed to lead in the battle with JC transfer Brent Burnette for the backup job.
  • Two defensive players who stood out haven't done so previously in their careers: senior defensive tackle Conrad Obi and junior linebacker Douglas Rippy. Both pass the eyeball test and, more important, both have been consistently making plays. Obi, in particular, is intriguing: Athletic 310-pound defensive tackles are really, really nice to have.
  • The offense ran better than it passed. Running back Rodney Stewart and company will benefit from a pro-style scheme that uses a fullback. Of course, seeing that the Buffaloes didn't use a fullback last year, the fullback candidates converted from other positions, including Tyler Ahles, who was in the rotation at linebacker last fall.
  • Embree said before spring he would emphasize special teams and he's clearly following through, though that doesn't mean the special teams were consistently good.
  • UCLA fans probably won't want to watch Colorado's offense this year: Sophomore receiver Paul Richardson, who transferred from UCLA after an off-field incident, appears poised for a breakout season. He's clearly the Buffaloes best receiver.
  • Junior Ray Polk may have the inside track at safety, where he'd start beside senior Anthony Perkins, who's out with a knee injury. Cornerback still seems unclear among a gaggle of candidates, including senior Jonathan Hawkins, sophomore Deji Olatoye, junior Makiri Pugh and sophomore Jered Bell.

Looking back at 2007 recruiting

January, 31, 2011
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Recruiting is an inexact science -- just ask any coach. Recruiting rankings are the same.

ESPN Recruiting went back and reviewed its 2007 rankings and found it had plenty of hits and plenty of misses.

Right USC?

Recall that the Trojans had the nation's No. 1 class, featuring four top-20 players and eight in the top-50. Some of the names will inspire a "who?" from those who don't follow recruiting closely.

Oregon and Stanford, which earned the Pac-10's two BCS bowl berths this season, only had one player on the 2007 ESPNU 150: Oregon's Kenny Rowe. Rowe was also the only member of the ESPNU 150 from 2007 to earn first- or second-team All-Pac-10 honors this year, though a couple, such as Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski, are already in the NFL.

You can start your review of the ESPNU 150 from 2007 here.

Here's a re-ranking of the top-10 of the recruiting rankings.

And here's a "best of" from the ESPNU 150.

For quick reference, here are the Pac-12 players who made the list.

Top 25
1. Joe McKnight, RB, USC
2. Chris Galippo, LB, USC
3. Marc Tyler, RB, USC
18. Marshall Jones, S, USC

25-50
31. Everson Griffen, DE, USC
33. Aaron Corp, QB, USC
43. Dominique Herald, S, USC
47. Ronald Johnson, WR, USC

51-75
68. Martin Coleman, OT, USC
70. Apaiata Tuihalamaka, DE, Arizona
71. Ryan Miller, OT, Colorado

76-100
None

101-125
104. Conrad Obi, DE, Colorado
107. DaJohn Harris, DT, USC
111. Kenny Rowe, DE, Oregon
116. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Arizona
122. Kristofer O'Dowd, C, USC

126-150
133. Chris Forcier, QB, UCLA
135. Raymond Carter, RB, UCLA

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