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2006 Pac 10 Spring Lookaheads
Posted Feb 27, 2006

Before spring ball 2006, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each Pac 10 team.

By Pete Fiutak 

Arizona    Spring practice starts March 27, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Is the program finally ready to win under Mike Stoops? It's year three under Stoops with only six wins in the last two years to show for the rebuilding project making this a pivotal season. The defense has hardly resembled the Desert Swarm killer it was expected to be, and it hasn't been close to as good as the Oklahoma Ds that Stoops coached. However, he was starting from near-scratch in Tucson. Now he has most of his guys in place; this is his team so the turnaround has to start this year.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive line. How is that that Mike Bell and Gilbert Harris are considered NFL caliber backs, but Arizona only averaged 122 rushing yards per game? The line simply wasn't strong enough at opening up holes on a regular basis against anyone but UCLA, and now the key players on the right side, guard Kili Lefotu and tackle Tanner Bell, have to be replaced. If the line doesn't improve this off-season, neither will the Wildcats.
Spring attitude... Be sharper. Turnovers killed the Cats last year, and there weren't enough big plays from the defense to make up for the problems on offense. Arizona lost five games by a touchdown or less, so if all the little things are taken care of, and there's just a wee bit more production from both sides of the ball, a winning season is possible.

Arizona State    Spring practice starts March 20, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Is this the year the Dirk Koetter team finally, finally, finally lives up to its promise? After five years, the era can only be defined as a mild disappointment with 33 wins and few major victories of note. Any team with an offense that can hang 35 points on a whim should be more competitive in conference play, but the Sun Devils have been nothing more than an also-ran. Eventually, they'll have to play some defense.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker and defensive back. Somehow, ASU finished 116th in the nation in total defense with linebackers like Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams. The secondary was a nightmare despite having seniors in all the key spots. Help from the JUCO ranks should fill in some of the holes, but the pass defense has to allow fewer than 289 yards per game.
Spring attitude... This has to be the year. The quarterback situation is fantastic with Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter battling it out to see who one of the nation's top passers will be, and the rest of the offense should also be fine. The defense can't be much worse, so the hope has to be that ASU can simply outbomb teams. There can't any sulk fests like there were after the USC loss; the team has to get up for every game. That's up to the coaching staff.

California     Spring practice starts March 20, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Is the team really good or is it overhyped? Cal got on the national map two years ago after just missing in a loss to USC, but it hasn't really won a really, really big game since the overtime victory over the Trojans in 2003. Cal gets the respect, but last year was a disappointment mostly because of shaky quarterback play. With so many options to choose from this year from Steve Levy to Nate Longshore to Joe Ayoob, and a Heisman-caliber back in Marshawn Lynch, the offense will be good enough to challenge for the Pac 10 title. This has to be the year Cal shows it's a true national power.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. The quarterback situation will get all the press, but the real key to the season could be the development of the front line that loses heart-and-soul center Marvin Philip, tackle Ryan O'Callaghan and guard Aaron Merz. Center Alex Mack and guard Bryan Deemer have to be stars right away.
Spring attitude... The potential is there for a really, really big season. Cal starts off at Tennessee, and even though the Vols might still be hung over from last year, that would be a fantastic win to give the program a shot of confidence. The offense has too much firepower and the defense has too many returning playmakers to not shoot for the BCS. With all due respect to Oregon State and Arizona, Cal has two nasty road games after the trip to Knoxville playing at Washington State and at USC, so. 9-2 or 10-1 isn't completely out of the question.

Oregon    Spring practice starts April 4, Spring Game: April 29
The big spring question is ... Was last year a fluke or is Oregon really a ten-win team again? A little of both. Oregon's best win last year was over ... Arizona State? Cal? Fresno State? There were only four wins over bowl teams and no dominating performance over a good team to get anyone outside of Eugene screaming about seeing the Ducks in the BCS. Even so, there's a ton of good talent returning on both sides of the ball led by what should be one of the Pac 10's best offensive lines and a talented collection of skill players. 
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. The Ducks can patch the holes in the back seven, but finding comparable replacements for Haloti Ngata, Devan Long and Darius Sanders off the league's number one defense won't be done. David Faaeteete has the unenviable task of trying to fill in for Ngata, while Nick Reed and Victor Filipe will get the first look on the end.
Spring attitude... Feel disrespected. That "no one loves us" whine didn't work for the Holiday Bowl, but it could serve as motivation going into the season with Oregon likely to be ranked around third in the Pac 10 preseason pecking order. The offense should be able to hang punch for punch with anyone in America, and it'll have plenty of chances to show what it can do on a national scale in games against Oklahoma, at Arizona State, at Cal and at USC.

Oregon State    Spring practice starts April 3, Spring Game: April 29
The big spring question is ... Will Oregon State ever have a quarterback who doesn't throw a bazillion interceptions? After the Derek Anderson era it would be hard to imagine a quarterback could throw more interceptions, but Matt Moore managed to throw 19 picks with only 11 touchdown passes. Yeah, six of those interceptions came against Arizona in bad conditions, but four of his touchdown passes came against Portland State in the opener. At some point, the Beavers must get more efficient production out of the passing game and not just throw for a ton of yards.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. Trent Brey and Keith Ellison formed the best linebacking tandem no one knew about, and now their 215 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss from last year are gone. Oregon State has been a bit of a linebacker factory over the years, but replacing these two won't be easy.
Spring attitude... It might not take too much tweaking to be really good. The pass defense can't be any worse than last year when it finished 117th in the nation, the team finished last in the Pac 10 in passing efficiency, and 115th in the country in turnover margin. Even so, the Beavers went 5-6 with bad losses to Arizona and Stanford by a total of five points. Considering they get so many returning starters on both sides of the ball, it shouldn't be too hard to improve enough to become a bowl team again. 

Stanford     Spring practice starts April 7, Spring Game: April 29
The big spring question is ... Just how close is Stanford to being good under Walt Harris? Picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Pac 10 by just about everyone last year, the Cardinal looked to be destined for the basement after an all-timer loss to UC Davis in the second game of the season. Things quickly turned around and Harris led the way to a 5-6 season with heartbreaking losses to UCLA and Notre Dame. Essentially, Stanford was three defensive stops away from going an impressive 8-3 and has reasons to hope for a bowl game in 2006 as long as it can pull off a few road upsets.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. Babatunde Oshinowo was a rare, at least for Stanford, 320-pound space-eater who was the perfect anchor for the defense. The Cardinal wasn't exactly a rock on D, but it wasn't bad compared to the rest of the Pac 10 and Oshinowo was the main reason. In the 3-4, Stanford needs to find a new player for the nose this spring.
Spring attitude... Don't set the expectations too high. The return of QB Trent Edwards and WR Evan Moore from injury later on this off-season should help the offense shine, but the defense will always have to battle. The schedule is brutal with seven road games (but the San Jose State date could be considered a home date) with games at UCLA, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Cal, who all went to bowl games last year, along with a trip to Washington. If that wasn't enough, Stanford has to host USC and bowl-winner Navy.

UCLA    Spring practice starts February 23, Spring Game March 11
The big spring question is ... What can UCLA do to be better before the fourth quarter and can the D be better against the run? The Bruins showed a freakish knack of stinking it up early and then looking fantastic in crunch time with late wins over Washington, Cal, Washington State and Stanford. However, QB Drew Olson, RB Maurice Drew, and TE Marcedes Lewis, three of the key players in the comebacks, are gone. The run defense was 118th in the nation with star linebackers Spencer Havner, Wesley Walker and Justin London in the mix, and now they're gone.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Ben Olson is absolutely, positively the starting quarterback, but the 6-5, 227-pound 23-year-old has huge shoes to fill replacing Drew Olson. All Drew did was finish fifth in the nation in passing efficiency only throwing three interceptions before the Sun Bowl when he tossed three picks against Northwestern. Ben, the nation's top recruit for BYU a few years ago, has to prove he can be far more accurate and consistent than he was last spring. In his first practice, the coaching staff was more than pleased with his decision making ability.
Spring attitude... Toughen up. The defense has been too awful for too long, and there's no way the offense can pick up the slack in every game like it did last year. New defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker has already cranked up the intensity several notches this spring, but this isn't a star-studded D. Ten wins might be a lot to ask for again with the season-opener against Utah and a road trip to Notre Dame, but there's no reason to not be in the Pac 10 title race up until the final two games at Arizona State and at home against USC. If the defense continues to be lousy, UCLA won't win at Oregon or Cal and won't have any shot against the Sun Devils or Trojans.

USC   Spring practice starts March 21, Spring Game April 14
The big spring question is ... Can USC continue to maintain the same high level without Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White? On pure talent, the answer might be yes. The recruiting train hasn't slowed down a lick with another brilliant class coming in this year to provide even more help. The receiving corps is the best in the nation with Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, and top recruit Vidal Hazelton sure to keep the offensive numbers rolling. That's also why ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Don't just assume John David Booty is the next Heisman winner in the progression after Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Mark Sanchez was one of the nation's top recruits last year and while he's the number two man going into spring ball, don't be shocked if he gives Booty a run for the starting gig.
Spring attitude... Don't be Miami. The similarities are eerie. Miami had the "greatest team of all-time" in 2001 and then lost an all-timer national title game to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The year after without QB Ken Dorsey and several other stars, the Canes slipped a bit. USC had the "greatest team of all-time" the last two years, but capped off last season with the loss to Texas in the tremendous Rose Bowl. It's hard to to stay that good for several years in a row, and there will be plenty of landmines this year. It's easy to forget how close USC was to losing to Notre Dame and Fresno State last year, and several teams in 2004, and now this team appears to be a little bit worse. You don't win all the close games three years in a row, and road trips to Arkansas, Washington State and UCLA, along with home dates with Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame, all have upset potential.

The big spring question is ... Is Ty Willingham going to be able to turn things around in his second year? The Huskies weren't as awful as they were in 2004, but 2-9 is still 2-9. Willingham's first priority has to be to strengthen the defense after spending last year looking for more consistency on offense. No, Washington isn't going to contend for the Pac 10 title, but a six win season is very possible with the right breaks.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is Isaiah Stanback ready to take another step up and become more of a playmaker? Speed isn't a question considering Stanback is one of the school's star 60-meter sprinters, and he made nice strides as a passer throwing for 2,136 yards with nine touchdown passes and six interceptions. Willingham hand-picked his quarterback of the future by recruiting Jake Locker, but he's hopefully not needed until next year.
Spring attitude... It's time to be better. This is Washington. It wasn't all that long ago when the program was a yearly battler for the Pac 10 title and was a national superpower. Willingham can coach, and the resources and facilities are there to succeed. This year has to be a major stepping stone to next year, but confidence only comes with wins.

Washington State   Spring practice starts March 21, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... How much dwelling will there be on all the close calls? Everyone around Wazzu likes to fire out how many close losses there were last year with an unbelievable five by four points or fewer. So, a few good breaks here and there means the team could've finished 9-2, right? Maybe, but the Cougars also put themselves in a position to lose with lousy defense and no pass defense whatsoever. You don't lose that many close games by accident, and they have to figure out how to be better when games are on the line. 
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. Running back is also a big question mark after losing Mr. 100-yard game Jerome Harrison, but cornerback is the biggest issue losing starters Wally Dada and Alex Teems. While that might be a big issue for most teams, Washington State might be better by losing them after finishing 115th in the nation in pass defense. Even so, it'll be a battle all spring to find corners who can cover someone.
Spring attitude... Be this year's surprise team. Most of the key players return on defense and enough good skill players come back on offense to be one of the league's top sleepers. The Cougars could be even more of an afterthought after a likely opening day loss at Auburn, but the Pac 10 schedule isn't bad with USC, Cal and Oregon coming to Pullman and the toughest league road games at UCLA and Arizona State. There's no excuse not to get back to a bowl.


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