2008 Spring Preview - Pac 10
UCLA RB Kahlil Bell
UCLA RB Kahlil Bell
Posted Mar 12, 2008

Is UCLA really going to turn the corner with a new coaching staff and Kahlil Bell returning this fall from a knee injury? As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Pac 10 team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

Pac 10 Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 
- 2007 Pac 10 Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Conference USA
2008 Pac 10 Insider Spring Questions & Answers

Arizona   Spring Practice Begins: March 8  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Ever since Mike Stoops’ ballyhooed arrival from Oklahoma, Arizona has yet to put it all together on the field.  Last year, for instance, the defense was crammed with returning starters, while the feeble offense was adapting to Sonny Dykes’ new wide-open passing attack.  This year, the roles have been reversed.  The offense welcomes back QB Willie Tuitama and most of his supporting cast, but the defense must be rebuilt with eight new starters.  Stoops needs to break through soon because Wildcats fans are quickly losing their patience with a 17-29 record and no bowl invitations over the last four seasons.
The big spring question is ... Is sophomore Nic Grigsby the answer at running back?  Despite rushing for 704 yards as a true freshman, Grigsby still left Stoops pining for a feature back that can add an element of balance to the spread offense.  The Wildcats were 114th nationally on the ground, failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the sixth year in-a-row.  Although the air will remain the preferred mode of transportation in Tucson, the spread can be so much more effective if defenses can be kept off balance with the threat of a decent running game.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback.  The Wildcats are hurting everywhere on defense, but none more than at cornerback, where starters Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot have run out of eligibility.  Cason, in particular, had a knack for completely shutting off one side of the field for opposing quarterbacks, a luxury that’ll be missed in the passer-friendly Pac-10.  In their place step Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley, who have just one career start between them.
Spring attitude... The quest to finally return to the postseason begins on March 8 for the Wildcats.  Sparked by a palpable sense of urgency engulfing the program, the offense will be looking to get tighter in Year 2 of Dykes’ system, while the defense is hoping to fill in the blanks on a unit that’s been decimated by graduation.

Arizona State   Spring Practice Begins: March 25  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... After serving notice to the nation with 10 wins in 2007, Dennis Erickson is hoping to serve up an equally impressive encore in 2008.  The nomadic head coach immediately put his stamp on the program and hasn’t let up, trouncing rival Arizona on the recruiting trail in February.  The Sun Devils have needs on both lines and in the secondary, which they believe will be addressed in the short term by a handful of junior college transfers.  Not one to pull back when things are going well, Erickson plans to put the pedal to the metal in Arizona State’s quest to become a perennial contender for a Pac-10 championship.  
The big spring question is ... What can be done in April so that the Sun Devils pass block better in September? Something has to change after a veteran offensive line allowed a ridiculous 55 sacks in 13 games last year.  Three long-time starters have graduated, but all things considered, that’s not such bad news.  Arizona State must do a better job of protecting its franchise player, QB Rudy Carpenter, so he has the time to locate a quality set of receivers that includes Michael Jones, Chris McGaha, and Kyle Williams.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back.  Out of Keegan Herring, Dimitri Nance, and Shaun DeWitty, the Sun Devils are hoping to find a go-to back that can complement the passing game and do a fair impression of the departed Ryan Torain.  Each player is experienced and offers something a little different to the offense, but Erickson would prefer to have a back that can carry the ball 20 times a game and catch the occasional pass out of the backfield. 
Spring attitude... Yeah, Arizona State started 8-0 last year and won 10 games, but when the schedule got tougher, it couldn’t meet the challenge.  This season, the Sun Devils are determined to build on 2007 by taking a step closer to USC’s grip on the Pac-10 title.  Steps one and two will be to revamp the offensive line and solidify the defense, respectively.    

California  Spring Practice Begins: March 17  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Has Cal peaked under Jeff Tedford?  It’s a question the Bears will try to dismiss this spring, while attempting to eliminate the stench of last year’s putrid 2-6 finish to the season.  Cal is in the awkward position of fending off allegations it’s an underachiever, an odd assertion about a program that was 1-10 earlier this decade.  It’s also facing a rare dearth of experience at the skill positions following the departures of RB Justin Forsett, WRs DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan, and TE Craig Stevens.  Considering how well Tedford has recruited at these spots in recent years, any drop-off in production will be short-lived.
The big spring question is ... Is Cal about to get embroiled in an old-fashioned quarterback controversy?  It might be unavoidable considering the inconsistent play of incumbent Nate Longshore and how well sophomore Kevin Riley played in the Armed Forces Bowl.  The job remains Longshore’s to lose, but if the more mobile Riley continues to mature, it’ll be hard for Tedford and new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to keep him out of the lineup this fall.
The most important position to watch is ... The left side of the offensive line.  The backs and receivers are going to be green no matter what, but it may not be noticeable if the Bears can adequately replace LT Mike Gibson and LG Brian De La Puente.  Cal is set on the right side and with All-American Alex Mack at center, meaning the rest of the offense will benefit dramatically if the left side of the front wall can be rebuilt on the fly.
Spring attitude...
 This spring will be Cal’s first chance to recapture the swagger it had after starting 5-0 last October and coming within a hair of rising to No. 1 in the country.  Most of the program’s equity and goodwill have been squandered, making the road back to national respect a long one.  For a change, the defense, led by a terrific trio of linebackers, might have to carry the Bears until the offense finds its rhythm.      

Oregon  Spring Practice Begins: April 2  Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... As hard as it is to imagine, Oregon might spend part of 2008 leaning on the defense as the offense adjusts to new starters at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.  While the defense boasts all-leaguers at every level, the offense will be without All-Pac 10 QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart, and still has consistency issues at wide receiver.  What does all this mean?  After doing a great job in his Duck debut a year ago, second-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly will have to be even more innovative this fall.
The big spring question is ... Who’ll get the ball from Mike Bellotti on opening day?  Dixon is gone, as is his backup Brady Leaf, leaving Oregon in a precarious position at quarterback.  Although it’s doubtful a starter will be named at the end of April, we should know more about the competition involving sophomores Justin Roper, Nate Costa, and Cody Kempt, and BYU transfer Cade Cooper.  Although Roper was peerless in the Ducks’ Sun Bowl rout of South Florida, Costa was actually higher on the depth chart before suffering an ACL injury.   
The most important position to watch is ... Running back.  With Stewart headed to the NFL and Jeremiah Johnson still recovering from a serious knee injury, the Ducks need to build depth in the backfield, especially with the uncertainty at quarterback.  Oregon was unstoppable on the ground last year, but in April, the load will be shouldered by little-used Andre Crenshaw and LaGarrette Blount, a heralded 230-pound transfer from East Mississippi Junior College.  
Spring attitude... There’s no debate that Oregon has slipped from the heights of last season, but how far will depend on the development of the backfield between now and the Aug. 30 visit from Washington.  For now, Duck fans can take solace from an underrated and opportunistic defense that’s led by one of the Pac-10’s best defensive backfields.  Oregon is teetering on the lip of the league’s first division, a tenuous position that’s subject to change over the next six months.             

Oregon State  Spring Practice Begins: March 31  Game: May 3
The early spring buzz ... The Beavers were clearly built for last year, making this a likely rebuilding season for Mike Riley and the program.  Although Oregon State has confounded experts more than once this decade, it’ll need pleasant surprises just about everywhere on the depth chart in order to even approach last year’s nine-win season.  The front seven of the defense has been completely gutted by graduation, and the offense no longer has RB Yvenson Bernard to compensate for a dicey situation at quarterback.  There is hope, however, that star receiver and returner extraordinaire Sammie Stroughter will be granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.
The big spring question is ... Is there a viable option at quarterback to run the Beaver offense? Juniors Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao were bad and worse, respectively, in 2007, combining for 11 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.  Canfield is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, leaving just a pair of scholarship quarterbacks in camp, Moevao and true freshman Ryan Katz.  If Canfield is slow to bounce back from a torn labrum, Katz will go from a potential redshirt to a potential starter in his debut in Corvallis.   
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker.  There’s no easy solution to replacing Derrick Doggett, Alan Darlin, and Joey LaRocque, each of whom ended last season on the All-Pac-10 Second Team.  The Beavers are excited about their replacements, Isaiah Cook, Bryant Cornell, and Keaton Kristick, but having to insert all three into the lineup in the same year could leave Oregon State vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball.
Spring attitude... After winning 19 games and back-to-back bowl games, Oregon State will have to work overtime just to get to the postseason in 2008.  Even the kicking game is no longer a sure thing since Alexis Serna graduated after four terrific years as the starter.  With trips to Penn State and Utah to go along with a rugged Pac-10 schedule, the Beavers will hover around the .500 mark for the first time in three years.   

Stanford    Spring Practice Begins: Feb 26  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... From the moment Jim Harbaugh stepped foot on the Farm, he’s had a positive impact on a program that was pining for a new direction.  From beating USC and Cal in 2007 to improving the talent level on Signing Day earlier this month, Harbaugh has gradually been building momentum at Stanford, a trend he plans to continue this spring.  The Cardinal is still lagging behind the Pac-10 elite in many key areas, but there’s a sense around Palo Alto that the gap will be narrowed a little further during this upcoming season.   
The big spring question is ... How much will defensive coordinator Scott Shafer be missed?  Very quietly, Shafer did an outstanding job with the Cardinal D in 2007, molding it into an attacking, disruptive unit.  He was so good that Rich Rodriguez took notice, luring him to Ann Arbor to be Michigan’s defensive coordinator.  Shafer’s successor will be long-time NFL assistant Ron Lynn, who’ll be inheriting a surprisingly talented defense that’s led by DE Pannel Egboh, LBs Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor, and S Bo McNally.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback.  Yeah, Tavita Pritchard threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the upset of USC, but he didn’t do much else the rest of the way to padlock the starting job.  As T.C. Ostrander exhausts his eligibility, Michigan transfer Jason Forcier becomes available to the Cardinal after sitting out last season.  Oh, and keep an eye in the summer on Andrew Luck, a five-star recruit that Harbaugh hand-picked to someday be the franchise at Stanford.  
Spring attitude... Stanford may be far from storming the Pac-10 gates, but the positive buzz surrounding the program is palpable.  With a little luck and more progress from the offense, the Cardinal is poised to add a win or two to last year’s 4-8 record, making a serious challenge for bowl eligibility late in the season. 

UCLA   Spring Practice Begins: April 3  Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... At the three most influential coaching positions on a staff, the Bruins have gone from Karl Dorrell, Jay Norvell, and DeWayne Walker to Rick Neuheisel, Norm Chow, and DeWayne Walker.  That’s what you call a major trade-up, but how will it impact the Bruins in the immediate future?  Although the trio has created a stir around Westwood and some mild concern at Troy, the reality is that UCLA has a ton of holes to fill in 2008, especially along the offensive line and on defense.  The excitement surrounding Neuheisel & Co. may be well-found, but the real dividends probably won’t start coming until 2009.
The big spring question is ... Can Chow do for the UCLA quarterbacks what he did for the USC quarterbacks earlier this decade?  The long-time offensive coordinator has the indisputable track record as a quarterback guru, which explains why so many onlookers expect either Ben Olson or Patrick Cowan to finish his career with a flurry.  Olson, in particular, hasn’t come close to fulfilling all of his potential, falling prey to injuries in 2007, but has the natural gifts needed to be the next quarterback in Chow’s long line of success stories.
The most important position to watch is ... The secondary.  The Bruin defense was built for 2007, which makes 2008 a rebuilding year with as many as eight new starters entering the lineup.  The secondary took the biggest hit, losing corners Trey Brown and Rodney Van, and safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes.  In a league known for its prolific passing games, UCLA desperately needs young cornerbacks, like Alterraun Verner and Courtney Viney, to perform beyond their experience.  
Spring attitude... Although the Bruins aren’t likely to soar past last year’s six-win season, that alone won’t squelch the enthusiasm that’s followed the hiring of Neuheisel.  UCLA will begin breaking out of its decade-long malaise, building a foundation for the future by establishing a power running game and breaking in a slew of fresh faces on both sides of the ball.

USC   Spring Practice Begins: March 25  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... If there’s one program that’s equipped to handle wholesale changes on both sides of the ball, it’s USC, a school that never rebuilds under Pete Carroll.  That said, it’s inevitable that the Trojans will be a little more vulnerable than in recent years after losing a bunch of starters and team leaders to graduation.  Vulnerable enough to lose a grip on the Pac-10 title for the first time since 2001?  Probably not, considering the talent gap between the Trojans and the league’s next best team remains as wide as its been in years.       
The big spring question is ... Mark or Mitch? The battle between Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustain to replace John David Booty at quarterback will be one of the most watched national storylines of the entire spring.  While Sanchez was considered for years to be the logical heir apparent, Mustain has done nothing but impress the coaching staff since transferring from Arkansas.  Although the competition and the resulting media attention might be a massive nuisance for the coaching staff, it’s also going to push both quarterbacks to be at the top of their games. 
The most important position to watch is ... Nose tackle.  Because of the position he played, Sedrick Ellis probably never got as much publicity as he deserved, but those close to the program understand how much he’ll be missed.  The catalyst of the Trojan front, he drew so much attention that it made everyone around him better.  In Ellis’ place will step either junior Averell Spicer or redshirt freshman Christian Tupou, who’ll have massive shoes to fill in 2008.    
Spring attitude... Although a lot of the faces will be different, the goals will be the same, namely to win the Pac-10 championship and contend for a national title.  The Trojans’ toughest game of the year against Ohio State will come at home and on two weeks rest, so the schedule provides the potential for a seventh straight BCS bowl game and 10-win season.  

Washington  Spring Practice Begins: April 3  Game: April 22
The early spring buzz ... After four consecutive losing seasons, there’s an unmistakable sense of urgency to win right now at Washington.  If, however, that’s to come to fruition in 2008, youth will need to be served on a roster that’ll be littered with underclassmen throughout the two-deep.  The face of the Huskies, QB Jake Locker, is only a sophomore, and freshmen will be needed to bolster the depth on both lines and at wide receiver, where five seniors were lost from last year’s 4-9 team.  It figures to be a precarious position for Tyrone Willingham, who’ll be leaning on a slew of untested kids to help fortify his tenuous job security.
The big spring question is ... How much has Locker grown as a passer since his freshman year?  Like it or not, the sophomore will have an inordinate impact on the Huskies fortunes in 2008.  As he goes, so goes Washington, meaning he’ll have to move closer to becoming a complete quarterback after laying a sturdy foundation in 2007.  Nearly a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, Locker was just eighth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes.  
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line.  The Huskies are staring at a crisis on the defensive line after losing five seniors to graduation, including starting tackles Jordan Reffett and Wilson Afoa, and top pass rusher Greyson Gunheim.  The onus falls on unproven players, such as junior DT Cam Elisara and junior DE De’Shon Matthews, to prevent Washington from getting dominated at the point of attack.  Even DT Craig Noble, a headliner from this latest recruiting class, will get every opportunity to contribute right away.
Spring attitude... With so much at stake in Seattle this season, it’s the worst possible time for the program to be reshuffling the depth chart and inserting a bunch of new starters into the lineup.  Washington, however, has no other choice.  Unless Locker can hoist the entire team on his shoulders, an unlikely scenario, the Huskies are looking down the barrel of another disappointing season.  

Washington State   Spring Practice Begins: March 17  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Sensing that things had gotten stale under Bill Doba, Washington State turned to former player Paul Wulff, who’ll be bringing a new energy and a new playbook back to the Palouse.  The Cougars will spend much of March and April learning the new no-huddle spread offense and making the switch on defense from the 3-4 to the 4-3.  Hired on Dec. 11, Wulff got off to slow start with this recruiting class, so much-needed enforcements on defense and at wide receiver are not likely to come from many of February’s signees.
The big spring question is ... Who’ll be Wulff’s first quarterback?  Senior Gary Rogers was Alex Brink’s long-time backup and easily has the most experience, but with a new staff in Pullman, everyone is starting from square one.  That’s great news for juniors Kevin Lopina and Cole Morgan, redshirt freshman Marshall Lobbestael, and true freshman J.T. Levenseller.  Lobbestael, in particular, could climb the depth chart in a hurry in April if he shows a knack for picking up the offense quickly.      
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line.  Wulff has already started putting out APBs for quality defensive linemen.  Not only does the shift to a four-man front mandate a need for more bodies, but last year’s starting ends, Ropati Pitoitua and Aaron Johnson, are out of eligibility, and the Cougs’ best tackle, A’I Ahmu is currently on suspension for a misdemeanor alcohol offense.  As it stands now, Wazzu is going to have an awful rough time stopping opposing running games in 2008.   
Spring attitude... Naturally, the Cougars would like to surprise everyone and end their four-year bowl drought, but 2008 is more likely to be about setting the table for 2009.  With so much change taking place at a school that won just five games last year and loses its all-time leading passer, Washington State will contend for the Pac-10 basement this season.  If a quarterback of the future emerges and depth is built along both lines, Wulff’s debut at his alma mater will be a success.