2011 Pre-Spring Preview
Units Needing A Facelift
Every school in America must deal with graduations, transfers, and early entries to some degree. It’s the nature of a system with eligibility limitations. A handful of programs, however, are reeling at the prospect of rebuilding from the ground up, cobbling together new units that have been torn apart by departures. While Oregon is still the favorite to win the Pac-12, what happens if the defense is unable to endure the graduations of so many pivotal players? And while Ohio State is gearing up for another run toward a BCS bowl game, it’ll be forced to adjust expectations if the reconfigured D doesn’t mesh between now and the Sept. 3 opener with Akron.
Everyone loses players. It’s a part of the game that every staff must navigate. However, when an entire unit takes a beating, it’s up to the coaches and the holdovers to limit the damage and make a smooth landing. An inability to do so in the offseason could have a lingering effect when the games count in the fall.
11.Boise State Receivers
The good news for the Bronco passing game? Kellen Moore is back in the saddle. The bad news? His two favorite targets are preparing for careers in the NFL. In Titus Young and Austin Pettis, Boise State is forced to replace two of its all-time great playmakers, a duo that combined for 433 career receptions and 64 touchdown catches. Subtracting those two from the equation is going to have an impact on the offense, but how much? While Moore’s leadership and accurate throws will make everyone around him better, a lot will depend on the growth of the next wave of pass-catchers. The backs and TE Kyle Efaw will always be factors, and senior WR Tyler Shoemaker should see a spike in his production. From the gaggle of youth pining for promotions, keep an eye on Geraldo Hiwat, a speedy playmaker with roots in the Netherlands.
10. West Virginia Back Eight
Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has his work cut out for him in 2011, especially as he remakes his last two lines of defense. West Virginia has parted with three senior linebackers and three talented defensive backs, including all-stars J.T. Thomas, Robert Sands, and Brandon Hogan. That group was instrumental to last season’s success, ranking third nationally in scoring defense and total defense. The line will be fine, especially on the outside, but the balance of the D must be rebuilt around LB Najee Goode, S Terence Garvin, and CB Keith Tandy. Veteran S Eain Smith will be asked to do more than just provide depth, and LB Doug Rigg, CB Brodrick Jenkins, and S Darwin Cook are some of last season’s first-year players who’ll be counted on to assume substantially bigger roles.
9. Iowa D-line
It’s a good thing DE Broderick Binns and DT Mike Daniels are back for their senior seasons because the Hawkeyes will need them to be the cornerstones up front. Iowa will have huge holes to fill now that Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug, and Christian Ballard have exhausted their eligibility. The program’s successful track record of developing quality linemen, on both sides of the ball, is going to be put to the test in 2011. Binns and Daniels have All-Big Ten ability, but their going to need more support from teammates who’ve been reserves leading up to this point. DE Lebron Daniel and DT Steve Bigach were Insight Bowl second-teamers, giving them an early edge to nab a starting spot in the offseason.
8. Wisconsin O-Line
It’s Wisconsin, where they retool in the trenches the way a pit crew changes tires. Still, you don’t get better by losing an Outland Trophy winner, a first team All-Big Ten left guard, and an honorable mention All-Big Ten right guard. Talented Ricky Wagner will slide up the line and replace All-American LT Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz will man the middle, and Kevin Zeitler should lock down a guard spot. That leaves the Badgers with openings at tackle and guard and not as much depth as last year’s Rose Bowl squad. At right tackle, disappointing veteran Josh Oglesby returns from injury looking to fend off Casey Dehn and Robert Burge. At left guard, it could be time for Travis Frederick, who started four games as a true freshman in 2009. There’ll be changes up front, but it’s not as if fans are pacing nervously yet in Madison.
7. Nevada Backfield
There are changes and then there are tectonic shifts. Reno is experiencing the latter. The Pack’s recent success came with a hefty price tag, the inevitable graduations of QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Vai Taua, two of the best to ever suit up for the program. That the pair ran out of eligibility at the same time is an unfortunate coincidence that could leave Nevada scrambling. Combined, they rushed for more than 8,000 yards and scored 113 times, so their shoes will be unusually difficult to fill. At least Chris Ault can hand the ball to a senior during the transition period if he chooses. Tyler Lantrip has been in the system for four years and knows the Pistol well. While he doesn’t have a higher ceiling than, say, redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo, he gives the Pack its best shot of keeping the momentum going. Last year’s backups Lampford Mark and Mike Ball will battle to replace Taua. Both had 100-yard games in 2009 and 2010, benefiting from Wolf Pack blowout wins.
6. Florida O-line
As inconsistent as the Florida blockers were last fall, the situation could get even worse in 2011. From that erratic group, four starters were seniors, Mike Pouncey, Carl Johnson, Maurice Hurt, and Marcus Gilbert. And although none earned all-star honors, all were invited to the NFL Combine and hope to have budding pro careers. Besides T Xavier Nixon and guards James Wilson and Jon Halapio, the Gators will be painfully light on blockers with starting experience. Sam Robey is the favorite at center, and Nick Alajajian, Christopher Guido, Jonotthan Harrison, Kyle Koehne, and William Steinmann saw field time in 2010, but that’s hardly comforting. Making matters worse, Will Muschamp’s first recruiting class doesn’t include any linemen capable of starting immediately.
If the Horned Frogs have any hope of returning to a BCS bowl game for a third straight year, it’ll need to find answers on offense, especially along the line. Four starters have graduated, including first team All-Mountain West C Jake Kirkpatrick and LT Marcus Cannon. The new anchors will be seniors Kyle Dooley and Jeff Olson, who started games at guard and tackle, respectively, a year ago. After them, though, there’ll be plenty of question marks and fresh faces. Fortunately for TCU, none of last season’s second-teamers down the stretch were seniors. While the competition will be fierce right through the summer, C James Fry, guards Ty Horn and Spencer Thompson, and tackles James Dunbar and John Woolridge have the early edge to win starting assignments.
4.Oregon Front Seven
The unsung hero of last year’s perfect regular season, the Duck D exceed all expectations. Repeating that performance could take a miracle from coordinator Nick Aliotti. Oregon is moving forward without five key cogs from last year’s front seven, DE Kenny Rowe, tackles Brandon Bair and Zac Clark, and linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. All five earned a minimum of honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors and are eyeing careers on Sundays. With the returns of Josh Kaddu, Boseko Lokombo, and Michael Clay, Oregon should be able to craft another productive corps of linebackers. Piecing together a front four, though, figures to be a whole lot trickier. All eyes will be on Brandon Hanna, Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli, and Dion Jordan, who’ll be surrounding the lone returning starter, DE Terrell Turner.
3. Ohio State Defensive Back Seven
It’s a good thing that the Buckeyes’ early-season suspensions are centered on offense. The D can ill-afford any more defections. All but two starters from the back seven, LB Andrew Sweat and S Orhian Johnson, have graduated from the program. In Columbus, that means a whole new set of stars are set to emerge from the far reaches of the depth chart. At linebacker, Sweat will be joined by Dorian Bell, Storm Klein, Jon Newsome, and Etienne Sabino. Sabino is the former five-star recruit from the 2008 class, who redshirted a year ago after failing to win a job. The chief concern in the secondary will be replacing corners Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence, who helped Ohio State to a No. 4 ranking in pass efficiency defense. Dominic Clarke, Corey Brown, and Travis Howard will be battling for a bigger spotlight beginning in the spring.
2. Arizona O-line
At least in the early going, QB Nick Foles might want to consider thicker pads in 2011. They’ll come in handy as the Wildcats break in five new starters along the line. Just like that, a veteran unit has evaporated, highlighted by All-Pac-10 second teamers Colin Baxter at center and Adam Grant at left tackle. Seasoned backup Jack Julsing has also run out of eligibility, which further complicates the unit’s depth. In fact, only two returning linemen, Chase Gorham and Kyle Quinn, appeared in more than five games in 2010. Quinn actually started the Alamo Bowl in place of Baxter, a role he’s expected to reprise this fall. On the interior, Vaughn Dotsy is experienced and Chris Putton worked his way up to second team. Tackle is a riddle that might look to the latest recruiting class for answers.
The early departure of Cam Newton to the NFL isn’t the only reason Auburn is facing an uphill climb to repeat as national champion. Not even close. Ted Roof’s defense, which struggled during the regular season, has lost seven players who started the BCS title game versus Oregon, three linemen, two linebackers, and a pair of defensive backs. Key backups, like DT Mike Blanc and DE Michael Goggans, have also graduated. The rebuilt unit will be constructed around a handful of holdovers, LB Daren Bates, CB Neiko Thorpe, and S Mike McNeil. Oh, and S Aairon Savage was given a sixth year from the NCAA, a nice boost to the secondary. It’ll be up to a swarm of young kids and former JUCOs to keep the D from plummeting, which means instant opportunities for the likes of LB Eltoro Freeman, DE Corey Lemonier, and DT Jeffrey Whitaker.