2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the Pac 10

Posted Feb 27, 2007

Could Washington State's Alex Brink be the Pac 10's best quarterback? Who'll handle the quarterback duties at Oregon State, UCLA and Stanford? Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Pac 10 team.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 Pac 10 Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - Pac 10

Arizona   Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... Oh, what might have been. After Chris Henry wowed the NFL combines with a 4.33 40, the best time among the running backs, it would've been interesting to have seen what the offense would've been like had the 233-pounder had come back for his senior season. Life goes on, and Arizona has to to use all the experience on both sides of the ball to finally turn the corner under head coach Mike Stoops.
The big spring question is ... Is there finally going to be any offense? Considering the attack had Henry, QB Willie Tuitama (for the most part), and a decent receiving corps, Arizona's offense was non-existent for long stretches of time. It occasionally exploded just enough to tease everyone into thinking it would finally breakout, but there wasn't any consistency. The new Sonny Dykes spread offense will try to change all that, but first, there has to be more production from ... 
The most important position to watch is ... All the offensive linemen. The Wildcat front five was abysmal in pass protection and didn't do nearly enough to open up holes for Henry. All the starters return so there should be far more cohesion than last year. Most importantly, they have to keep Tuitama healthy to finally let him reach his immense potential.
Spring attitude... Bowl game or bust. Enough of the playing around. This is year four under Stoops, and while Dick Tomey is rocking and rolling up in San Jose State, the Wildcats have been nothing more than also-rans. It's time for actual results in the win-loss column while becoming a player in the Pac 10 race.

Arizona State   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The fantastically disappointing Dirk Koetter era came to a close and the Dennis Erickson return to the Pac 10 begins. Is Erickson really the right man for the job? After all, it's been years since he's been remotely successful, and it's not like he was a hot prospect on the short list for many other openings. He knows the Pac 10 and should be able to make ASU more consistent in a big hurry, but the spotlight, and the heat, will be on from day one.
The big spring question is ... How will Erickson change things up? Expect a mix of offenses with a little spread here and a little West Coast there to provide a variety of looks. Despite the mediocre play of Idaho last year, Erickson is a good offensive mind who, when combining with offensive coordinator Rich Olson, should crank out the big numbers the Sun Devil fans are used to with a nice balance.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Rudy Carpenter played like he had the weight of the program on his shoulders last season, which he did after the former coaching staff's decision to go with him over Sam Keller. Wile he wasn't awful, and he improved as the year went on, he didn't play up to his 2005 standard. Under Erickson, he has to be the steady playmaker who makes the overall transition an easy one.
Spring attitude... It's time to be a factor in the Pac 10 race again. If nothing else, the Sun Devils should be explosive again, but that only matters if the wins follow. After years of appearing ready to make the next step under Koetter, Erickson needs to deliver. He appears to be in for the long haul with a recruiting class to build, not fill immediate holes, but that's what Idaho Vandal fans thought, too.

California  Spring Practice Begins: March 12  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... Is this Jeff Tedford's last season at Cal? Long talked about for NFL jobs, Tedford was thought about as a candidate for the San Diego Charger opening and appears on the verge of making the jump if the program doesn't drastically upgrade the facilities and/or he has one more big year. He has a team put together to make an honest run at USC and the Pac 10 title, but that might mean he goes out with a bang before getting the big payday.
The big spring question is ... Was the win over Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl the official moment when the program went from promising to elite? Long living off an overtime win over USC, and a few near misses, Cal got the tag of not being able to win the big games against the better teams. The Holiday Bowl was a big win and A&M was a top team, and the Bears won 45-10. With Tennessee coming to town for the opener on September 1st, the program has a shot at proving once and for all that it deserves to be mentioned among the best of the best.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. It's not like the Cal defensive front got into the backfield on a consistent basis, and it wasn't always a rock against the run, but the ends were solid for a D that didn't allow more than 24 points after the season opening loss to the Vols. Tackle Brandon Mebane is the irreplaceable loss, but ends Abu Ma'afala, Steve Kelly and Nu'u Tafisi will also be missed.
Spring attitude... Win the Pac 10. Yeah there's a ton of big replacements needed on the defensive front seven, not to mention the departure of top corner Daymeion Hughes, and the offense will miss Marshawn Lynch, even though Justin Forsett is a solid replacement, but the passing game will explode with, arguably, the nation's best receiving corps and Nate Longshore now a crusty veteran.

The early spring buzz ... Who is Chip Kelly and will he finally get the Oregon offense to reach its potential? It's not like the Ducks were awful under Gary Crowton, who left to take over the LSU offensive coordinator's job, but it was a big disappointment late in the year scoring ten points or fewer than three of the final four losses. Kelly comes from New Hampshire where his teams put up big offensive numbers, especially through the air, and should be able to blend with the current talent to help the Ducks finally start getting more points out of all the yards.
The big spring question is ...
And the starting quarterback will be ... ? Dennis Dixon had his moments before deciding to throw the ball to the other team way too often, but Brady Leaf didn't set the world on fire when he got his shot. Under Kelly, the offense should be a bit quicker, a bit more up-tempo, and at a faster pace, which fits Dixon a bit better, but it'll highlight the passing game a bit more, which fits Leaf a bit better. One thing is for sure; the coaching staff has to decide on one quarterback, go with him, and live with the decision. One of the two has to know he can make a mistake without getting yanked.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. Oh sure, the national spotlight will focus the quarterback situation, but the bigger issue might be getting to the passer after losing Darius Sanders, and linebacker Blair Phillips, and their 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. Nick Reed is a promising playmaker who should fill in the hole left by Sanders, but if he doesn't, the Ducks will have to manufacture pressure from everywhere else.
Spring attitude... This is the team. The 10-2 squad of 2005 was certainly fine, but this year's squad should be the monster that Duck fans truly have been waiting for with as much experience as anyone in the conference, and the type of skill players who can match up with anyone in the nation. If the abysmal four-game slide to end last year can be put in the past, and the turnovers stop, Oregon might not just be the sleeper in the Pac 10 race, it could be the dark-horse for the whole ball of wax.

Oregon State  Spring Practice Begins: April 2  Game: April 28
The early spring buzz ... The loss of special teams coach Bruce Read to the Dallas Cowboys might fly under the radar on a national scale, but it'll be big for a team that has dreams of being a major player in the Pac 10 race. Under Read, Alexis Serna, back for what seems like his 14th year with the Beavers, has turned into an elite kicker, and the return game became special. This spring has to show that there's no slip in the production.
The big spring question is ... Will the offensive line be better? Four starters return to a group that struggled way too much in pass protection and didn't do enough for the ground game that had talents in Yvenson Bernard and Clinton Polk to work behind. If the offensive front five comes together this spring and becomes a positive, Oregon State's offense might be unstoppable.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Sean Canfield, your table is ready. Matt Moore went from unreliable starter to efficient playmaker spreading out the production throughout the receiving corps. Canfield is bigger, has a better arm, and knows the system, but the left-hander will have to battle with JUCO transfer Lyle Moevao for the right to run the high-octane attack.
Spring attitude... There's no need to take a backseat to anyone. After a strong ten-win season, and with eight starters returning on defense, seven on offense, and top playmakers like Bernard and WR Sammie Strougher, the Beavers will be a tough out for all the projected Pac 10 favorites. Anything less than another double-digit victory campaign will be a big disappointment.

Stanford    Spring Practice Begins: April 4  Game: April 28
The early spring buzz ... Jim Harbaugh, by name recognition more than anything else, has brought an excitement to the program not seen in a long while. Beyond his pedigree as a Michigan great and marginal NFL star, he turned into a whale of a D-IAA coach going 29-6 at San Diego over the last three years highlighted by a fantastic 11-1 campaign last season. The general consensus seems to be that he's a rising superstar who might not be on The Farm for all that long if he's the real deal. But for all the promise and potential ...   
The big spring question is ...
Will Harbaugh's coaching translate to the D-I level? That remains to be seen over time as Harbaugh and his staff need time to recruit and to pick up the pieces after last year's disaster, but the offense should explode if it's half as effective as it was at it was in San Diego when it led the nation in total offense (494 yards per game), passing offense (293 yards per game) and scoring (42.8 points per game). His attack is balanced, and his defense was nasty finishing 12th overall and second against the run.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Even with the job wide open, and a few other options to give a look to, T.C. Ostrander has the job almost by default because of his experience. Don't be stunned if one of the star recruits, Kellin Kiilsgaard or L.D. Crow, takes over in a big hurry come this fall if no one goes lights out in spring ball. Harbaugh is looking for the quarterback who does the best job of leading and provides the biggest spark.
Spring attitude... Patience, patience, patience. It doesn't help the rebuilding process that the Pac 10 is as good this year as it's been in a long, long time. The talent level is still not even remotely close to the other nine teams in the conference, and it's going to take a little while before Harbaugh can work his magic, so while the coaching staff isn't going to accept any excuses, this is a stepping-stone season.

UCLA   Spring Practice Begins: April 5  Game: April 27
The early spring buzz ...
It might have taken four years and a whole bunch of rocky moments along the way, but Karl Dorrell and his staff proved last year that the program can do more than just compete with USC. The 7-6 record might be seen as a bit of a disappointment coming off a ten-win campaign, but the schedule was brutal after the first month. Now there's an excitement around the program that hasn't been there in almost a decade.
The big spring question is ... Will the two sides of the ball finally come together? UCLA's offense cranked out yards by the truckload in 2005, but the defense didn't show up. The D was one of the best in the Pac 10 last year, but the offense was ho-hum. With ten starters back on both sides of the ball, there's no reason it shouldn't all come together for the most complete team yet under Karl Dorrell (as long as an adequate replacement can be found for PK Justin Medlock).
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. For yet another year, Ben Olson will go into the spring as the next-big-thing college quarterback, and for yet another year, he'll have to battle tooth and nail for his job. Junior Pat Cowan, who was the main man over the final nine games of last year after Olson was hurt, will get every shot for the No. 1 gig and needs to prove he's a better decision maker in the passing game to get it. Mobility-wise, Cowan is far better than Olson, but Olson has the potential to be a special passer.
Spring attitude... Will the consistency finally be there? How could a team that dominated USC, and until the final minute, Notre Dame, defensively get rolled by Washington State and Washington and give up 44 to a mediocre Florida State offense? The talent is in place on both sides of the ball to be a top ten team and a true contender for the Pac 10 title, but the Bruins have to win all the games they're supposed to. Consistency comes through effective execution, and that starts in spring ball.

USC   Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
The Trojans will be just about everyone's preseason number one team. Oh sure, some publications will get wacky and try to come up with someone different just to stand out, but USC has the nation's best returning team with the best defense yet under Pete Carroll and John David Booty leading a talented, but inexperienced, offense. Don't forget that USC went 11-2 and came within a hair of playing for the national title despite fighting through several injuries. If everyone stays healthy, the Trojans might be a slam-dunk to be in their third national title game in four years.
The big spring question is ... Will all of the off-the-field rumors and allegations be the program's undoing? From the Reggie Bush issues and the talk of improper recruiting practices to get top runner Joe McKnight, the heat is only going to be turned up as the program will come under more and more scrutiny. Throw in the persistent rumors about when (not if) Carroll will find the right NFL coaching fit and this is the nation's most interesting rumor-and-speculation team, along with being the best one on the field.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Everyone will be talking about the receivers after losing Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, but Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton and others will be more than fine. USC has at least five backs that would start for about 100 other teams. Now one has to prove worthy of starting for this one. The real key to the team is the running game that fell off the map last year after losing Ryan Powdrell and Emmanuel Moody to injury. It was running back by committee, and until McKnight hits campus, it still might be with a who's who of top former prep prospects battling it out for time.
Spring attitude... Stay the course. The coaching staff has the mentality and the even keel to get through adversity and to remain college football's elite of the elite program. It helps when you can pick and choose from all the top high school prospects and replace NFL talent with more NFL talent. Along with Florida and LSU, this is the most well-stocked and talented team in America, and this spring will be a big one to sort out the elite prospects from the merely great ones.

Washington  Spring Practice Begins: April 9  Game: April 28
The early spring buzz ...
What was all that talk about Ty Willingham not being able to recruit? After getting canned at Notre Dame partly because there was a sense he couldn't bring in the top talents, he and his staff came up with what many believe to be one of the Pac 10's best hauls of talent. Considering the Huskies have done a relatively decent job over the last few years in the recruiting game, the talent should be in place to finally turn things around. But ...
The big spring question is ... Is this really the year things are going to be different? After one of the nation's better programs fell off the map, Willingham has slowly started to make progress going 2-9 in 2005 and 5-7 last year losing three games by seven points of fewer. How does UW start winning all the tight games and make more noise in the Pac 10? Stop turning the ball over, play better pass defense and get more consistency out of the offense.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back. It's hard to win in the Pac 10 if you can't slow down the pass. The secondary gave up over 240 yards per game and got picked apart short, medium and deep. With three starters gone, there's a lot of work to do. Combine the holes that need patching in the secondary with the loss of Tahj Bomar and Scott White from the linebacking corps, and the defensive back seven will be the focus this spring.
Spring attitude... Get to a bowl. After not coming up with a winning season in four years and failing to win a bowl game since the 2001 Rose Bowl, long-suffering Dawg fans are desperate to finally be back among the living. Despite what Irish fans might have you believe, Willingham is an excellent coach who's been in worse situations (Stanford) and succeeded. Expect a good year as long as the team can survive the first six weeks (at Syracuse, Boise State, Ohio State, at UCLA, USC, at Arizona State, Oregon).

Washington State   Spring Practice Begins: March 22  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
While it might be a bit much to suggest head coach Bill Doba is on the hot seat after failing to get to a bowl game in his three years, he certainly can't afford a total disaster. With the talent returning on offense, and just enough of a defense to not be abysmal, the expectations will be relatively high. If nothing else, the offense should be explosive.
The big spring question is ... Has the team figured out how to return a kick? The Cougars aren't going to threaten USC, UCLA or Cal for the Pac 10 title, and they have to do all the little things right to finish in the top five in a strong year for the conference. That means tightening up the league's worst pass defense, keeping the turnovers to a minimum, and getting much, much more out of the special teams after averaging a league-low 17.52 yards per kickoff return and 5.47 yards per punt return.
The most important position to watch is ... Outside linebacker. Greg Trent finished second on the team in tackles making 77 from his spot in the middle, but SS Eric Frampton (100 stops), DE Mkristo Bruce (67) and outside linebackers Scott Davis (66) and Steve Dildine (70) are gone leaving a big void in production. Andy Mattingly, Cory Evans and Alex Hamill will get the first looks on the outside, and they need to shine right away so the defense can focus more on improving the secondary.
Spring attitude... Win every close game. With ten losses in the last three years by eight points or fewer, the Cougars have been on the doorstep to being really good, but haven't gone through. It'll be tempting to rely on Alex Brink and the passing game to try to outbomb everyone, but there's talent in place to balance the offense and do far more defensively.



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