Spring Preview 2009 - Pac 10

Posted Mar 13, 2009

The Pac 10 has some big quarterback battles this spring, but there are also some impressive stars to get excited about this season from Cal's Jahvid Best (who'll be sitting out this spring), Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, and Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli. Just as spring ball gets underway, 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 

- 2009 Pac 10 - Did going 5-0 in bowls bring respect?
- 2009 Pac 10 Recruiting - What does it all mean?
2009 Early Lookaheads - Pac 10

- 2008 Pac 10 Lookbacks & Recaps
2008 CFN All-Pac 10 Team

Arizona   Begins: March 8  Game: April 12

The early spring buzz ... There’s pressure to win at every school, but after finally making it to the postseason, Arizona and head coach Mike Stoops will be breathing a little easier this spring. Sure, Willie Tuitama and Mike Thomas are gone from the offense, but this is Sonny Dykes’ third season as the offensive coordinator, so digesting the spread offense is one less hurdle to worry about. Plus, the combination of Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin gives the Wildcats their most dangerous threats out of the backfield in a long time.

The big spring question is ...  Who gets next under center? Most of the attention this spring will be on Tuitama’s successor, either sophomore Matt Scott or Michigan State transfer Nick Foles. Scott is the better athlete, and the perceived heir apparent since signing out of Centennial (Calif.) High School. Foles, however, has the stronger arm and is a more traditional pocket passer. He was one of the surprises of the scout team, turning this into a closer competition than anyone expected. Whoever gets the nod will be in a position to put up huge numbers right away.         

The most important position to watch is ... left tackle. The challenge for the next starting quarterback got much tougher once Eben Britton opted for the NFL Draft rather than returning for his senior year. That leaves a gaping hole on the left side of the line, where backside pressure was a rarity. The Wildcats are cautiously optimistic that Phillip Garcia can step in and help fill the void. The 6-7, 340-pounder sat out his first year out of junior college to rehab pre-existing injuries, and should be finally ready to roll this month.

Spring attitude... No retreat. With the hurdle of reaching a bowl game now cleared, Arizona has its sights set on scaling the Pac-10 hierarchy and getting a little closer to the league elite. Of greatest importance, the Wildcats cannot go backwards or give away any of the momentum it built last year. Even with a young hurler running Dykes’ system, the offense should be fine once Pac-10 play begins. If the defense can remain feisty, another eight-win season is possible in Tucson.

Arizona State   Begins: March 25  Game: April 19

The early spring buzz ... Dennis Erickson proved he can catch the nation napping with his 10-win debut in 2007. Now, he has to show that he can rebound after his Sun Devils qualified as a major disappointment with a 5-7 mark. No one doubts that Arizona State has talent, especially after back-to-back recruiting classes that were littered with premier players. However, Erickson and his staff must do their part to avoid the inconsistency that’s plagued this program for ages. Another losing season will completely erase whatever goodwill the coach accumulated in his first year.

The big spring question is ...  Is there anything this program can do to pass protect better? Boy, this is really becoming a literal sore spot in Tempe. For two years running, the Sun Devils have been among the nation’s worst teams in sacks allowed, stunting the production of QB Rudy Carpenter. Last year, Arizona State tried shorter drops and quicker passes to remedy the problem, but it still wasn’t enough. Worse yet, it’ll be breaking in a new starting quarterback and must replace top blocker Paul Fanaika. If the inexperienced passer doesn’t have a good feel for the rush, the sacks will be abundant for a third straight year.

The most important position to watch is ... quarterback. Nothing creates the drama in the spring like a good old-fashioned quarterback controversy. Battling it out to replace Carpenter will be a collection of divergent talents. The veteran is strong-armed senior Danny Sullivan, but he left the door open with a couple of sloppy efforts last October. Samson Szakacsy is the best athlete of the candidates. Chasen Stangel and Jack Elway are three-star recruits from 2007 and 2008, respectively. And 6-8, 235-pound Brock Osweiler is already on campus after signing with the program in February. This is a wide-open competition that’ll likely last deep through the summer.

Spring attitude... This is a prove-it year for Arizona State, which regressed in 2008 and was exposed by tougher opponents in the 10-win season of 2007. If the Sun Devils remain on a sideways trajectory, it could become the beginning of a disturbing trend. Flush with returning starters and star potential, the defense might have to carry this program until the offense develops a new quarterback and steady playmakers. 

California  Begins: March 17  Game: April 19

The early spring buzz ... Is everyone judging Cal too harshly because it hasn’t been to a Rose Bowl in more than half a century? Let’s not forget that this is the same program that’s responded to a 1-10 season in 2001 with seven straight seasons over .500. Jeff Tedford has done a wonderful job at Berkeley, but there is a feeling of unfinished business as the program struggles to get over the hump with a BCS bowl invitation. There’ll be fresh faces on Tedford’s offensive staff after line coach Jim Michalczik and coordinator Frank Cignetti left for new jobs. Replacing Cignetti will be well-traveled Andy Ludwig, who was with Utah last year and had accepted a job with Kansas State earlier this year.

The big spring question is ...  Is Tedford done flip-flopping quarterbacks after last season’s debacle? Neither Kevin Riley nor Nate Longshore flourished a year ago, and the indecision at the position became a distraction for both players and the rest of the offense. Riley is back for his junior year, but Longshore has exhausted his eligibility. Now what? In an ideal world, Riley flourishes under the guidance of Ludwig, putting the top spot in a choke hold. If he can’t, Brock Mansion or Beau Sweeney could create another unsettling quarterback controversy.  

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. The Bears run out of a 3-4 set these days, which means top linebackers are at a premium. Gone from last season are Zack Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder, who all earned some kind of All-Pac-10 recognition. Mike Mohamed is the veteran, but he’ll be looking for company in March and April. His likely companions in the starting lineup will come from a group that includes Devin Bishop, Eddie Young, D.J. Holt, Charles Johnson, and Mychal Kendricks. While there’ll be a drop-off, Cal is hoping it’s not as precipitous as most expect. 

Spring attitude... There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Cal is about to get off the eight or nine-win carousel, especially with RB Jahvid Best back to electrify the conference. Still, to get past that threshold and actually challenge USC, the Bears must find a groove in the passing game and replace dominating C Alex Mack. Even with the losses at linebacker, Bob Gregory’s defense has enough talent on the front and back ends to form one of the league’s best units.

Oregon  Begins: April 2  Game: April 26

The early spring buzz ... Chip Kelly has already been designated as the replacement for Mike Bellotti, but when will he take over? The whispers are getting louder that the transition could take place before the start of spring practice, sending Bellotti to the athletic director’s office after 14 seasons as the Oregon head coach. If, as expected, the baton changes hands in March, it would send a ripple effect throughout the Pac-10 and the nation. Not only is Bellotti the longest tenured coach in the league, but the Ducks could enter the season with a top 10 ranking and a rookie at the helm.

The big spring question is ...  Will LeGarrette Blount practice? Blount is supposed to be the centerpiece of the Ducks’ vaunted ground game, but he was placed on indefinite suspension by Bellotti for “a failure to fulfill team obligations”. That’s code for missing winter workout sessions, and not related to academics. Since grades aren’t the problem, he fully expects to be in pads in April, which should elicit a deep sigh of relief out of Eugene. If there’s any change in plans, it’ll mean more reps for junior Remene Alston and senior Andre Crenshaw.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Uncertainty on the inside is about the only thing that might slow this offense down in 2009. The Ducks will be without four starters from a year ago, including a pair, Max Unger and Fenuki Tupou, who were at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Look for Oregon to build the unit around Bo Thran, C.E. Kaiser, and Jordan Holmes, who each started games as sophomores a year ago. After that trio, it’ll be up to Mark Asper and a handful of other freshmen that got most of their reps on the scout team last year.

Spring attitude... The way Oregon finished last season, scoring 107 points in season-ending wins over Oregon State and Oklahoma State, you get the sense it’s building toward something special in 2009. There’s obvious firepower on offense, especially if QB Jeremiah Masoli keeps performing like a superhero, and the defense always finds a way to be opportunistic. The schedule is dotted with red-letter games, but be sure to circle Halloween. USC visits Autzen Stadium that day in a game that could decide the Rose Bowl participant.  

Oregon State  Begins: March 31  Game: May 3

The early spring buzz ... Go ahead and overlook Oregon State. You’re wasting your time. Since Mike Riley returned to Corvallis, the Beavers have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, quietly winning 28 games and three bowl games in three years. Last season was going to be a sure-fire rebuilding year, right? Nope. In fact, the program came within a victory of winning the conference and facing Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Yeah, there are holes on both sides of scrimmage, but there were even more in 2008. And as long as the program keeps extending Riley’s contract, there’ll be optimism that the Beavers can blow past preseason forecasts.  

The big spring question is ...  How healthy are the Rodgers brothers? It was obvious late last year that the Beavers are a completely different team when James and Jacquizz are not at full strength. James suffered a broken collarbone last November, and is not expected to go through any contact drills in April. Why risk further injury? Ditto Quizz, who sat out the final two games with a shoulder injury. Neither player is very big, so the staff wants to limit their hits to the fall instead of the spring. These two have to be healthy for 12 games in order for Oregon State to reach its full potential.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive back. The Beavers have done a nice job of rebuilding on the fly, but this will be a tall order. The defense has parted ways with four starters, all of whom earned All-Pac-10 recognition. That means it’ll be an especially important spring for last year’s backups, such as corners Tim Clark, James Dockery, and Brandon Hardin, and safeties Cameron Collins, Lance Mitchell, and Suaesi Tuimaunei. Hardin, Collins and Mitchell got plenty of reps as freshmen, representing the future for the program in the secondary.

Spring attitude... Riley and his staff have the patent on the blueprint for winning with less in Corvallis. Although there will be a lot of new faces in the lineup again, there’s no reason to believe the Beavers can’t win eight or nine times, including another bowl game. All bets are off, however, if either James or Quizz Rodgers goes on the shelf for an extended period of time. QB Lyle Moevao will be exposed as less than ordinary without these two dangerous weapons.

Stanford    Begins: Feb 26  Game: April 12

The early spring buzz ... By assembling a top 20 recruiting class in February, Jim Harbaugh dispatched a statement that he expects more than just a bowl invitation down the road for his Cardinal. He plans to eventually win a Pac-10 championship and play in the Rose Bowl. Stanford continues to build momentum on and away from the field, creating a positive vibe around the program. Harbaugh wants to keep that train on the tracks with a spring camp that’ll be broken into two separate sections. Other than losing offensive line coach Chris Dalman, the staff remained intact during the offseason.

The big spring question is ...  Is this the year that someone unseats Tavita Pritchard at quarterback? Not many starters across the country have been less efficient than him over the last two years, so he’s obviously ripe for the picking. Over that time, he’s thrown 15 touchdown passes to 22 interceptions, hardly acceptable for a former NFL hurler, like Harbaugh. Looking to capitalize on the need for change are last year’s backup Alex Loukas and redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, the gem of the 2008 recruiting class. It’s still Pritchard’s job to lose, but his hold on that job isn’t what it used to be now that Luck is in the picture.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive backfield. You think the Cardinal is serious about getting better in the secondary after finishing ninth in Pac-10 pass defense? In order to provide a hand to the holdovers, the staff is moving two offensive skill position players to the other side of the ball. Delano Howell, the team’s Freshman of the Year as a running back is now listed as the starting strong safety, moving Bo McNally to free safety. Richard Sherman, who has 81 career receptions, will be a cornerback once he returns from injury. If these two athletes can bolster the secondary, the entire program will benefit.

Spring attitude... Keep moving forward. Now that Stanford is headed in the right direction under Harbaugh, it plans to maintain that trend beginning this spring. After coming so close a year ago, the Cardinal has its sights fixed on a bowl game, which would be tangible proof of their progress and another shiny recruiting hook for Harbaugh. The next month ought to be about improving the passing game, so RB Toby Gerhart doesn’t have to carry the offense on his broad shoulders.

UCLA  Begins: April 3  Game: April 26

The early spring buzz ... The Bruins haven’t played a game in three months, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been big wins in Westwood. There’s a spark of excitement around the program that can be traced to a dynamite recruiting class that was second to only USC in the Pac-10. Rick Neuheisel showed that he’s still got it, attracting a haul of talent for both sides of the ball. UCLA didn’t have the bodies to compete a year ago. This group begins to address that shortcoming. The only sour note of the offseason came when popular defensive coordinator left the program for the head job at New Mexico State.

The big spring question is ...  How will the situation at quarterback shake out? From the moment spring camp broke, this position was a disaster in 2008. Kevin Craft filled in after Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan suffered season-ending injuries, looking every bit like a third-stringer. He’s got the clear edge in experience, but after that, he’s going to be vulnerable to the young passers that have been signed over the last couple of years. Chris Forcier was a four-star recruit from Karl Dorrell’s last class, and Kevin Prince and Nick Crissman were three-star players in Neuheisel’s first one.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. And it’s not even close. This unit was a mess, typifying the Bruins’ season-long problems on offense. It couldn’t pass protect or create any space for the backs. The encouraging news is that UCLA used a ton of young players, so they’ll presumably be better with that year of experience. Linemen, like Jeff Baca and Mike Harris, were starting at the end of their rookie seasons, and Micah Kia and Nick Ekbatani will be senior starters at guard. In all, nine guys that started games are back, which is a decent foundation to build around.

Spring attitude... Improve. Neuheisel and his staff are still in the honeymoon phase, so there’s hardly pressure to guide the Bruins to some kind of overnight transformation. That said, signs of progress, especially on offense are expected after going a rather ugly 4-8 a year ago. If UCLA can sneak into the postseason, while mixing in some of that young talent, it’ll be a nice building block toward a breakout season in 2010.

USC   Begins: March 25  Game: April 19

The early spring buzz ... Does the spring buzz ever really fluctuate at USC? It hasn’t since Pete Carroll arrived at the beginning of the decade. It’s the same old story around Troy. The Trojans lose a truckload of talent to the NFL, insert a bunch of new stars into the two-deep, and prepare for yet another Pac-10 championship. This time around, they not only parted ways with a bunch of really gifted players, but also both coordinators, Steve Sarkisian and Nick Holt, to Washington. The focus this spring will be to retool a defense that lost nine starters, and try to contain a quarterback battle that’s liable to become a major distraction.

The big spring question is ...  Will the situation at quarterback be any clearer in April than it is in March? Last spring, we had Mark Sanchez vs. Mitch Mustain. This spring, it’s Mitch Mustain vs. Aaron Corp, with Garrett Green and incoming freshman Matt Barkley playing the wild card role. For those who’ve forgotten, Mustain is the Arkansas kid, who started for the Hogs as a true freshman before deciding to head west. Corp is the former blue-chipper from the class of 2007, who actually passed Mustain on the depth chart at times in 2008. Both were considered five-star, can’t-miss prospects coming out of high school, which will only amp up the interest in this competition.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. Although the Trojans won’t be hurting at the position, you certainly don’t get better by losing Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Kaluka Maiava to the NFL Draft. It’s time for senior Luthur Brown to live up to the hype that made him one of the nation’s most coveted defensive players of 2005. He’ll get that chance this fall. So, too, will Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan, and Uona Kaveinga, who’ve been watching and waiting until it was their time to crack the starting lineup.

Spring attitude... While many of the faces will be new, USC expects nothing less than another Pac-10 championship and a run at a BCS title. Expecting those kinds of results permeates throughout this program and its fan base. This spring will be about creating competition for spots on the depth chart and getting the new coordinators comfortable with their new assignments. Carroll will be keeping a close on the quarterback derby, making sure it doesn’t blossom into a circus. 

Washington  Begins: April 3  Game: April 22

The early spring buzz ... Hope springs eternal this time of year. In the case of Washington football, that has more to do with a coaching change than a change of season. Steve Sarkisian replaced Tyrone Willingham a few months ago, bringing a fresh outlook and new energy to the Pacific Northwest. He’s worked hard to assemble a staff of experienced assistants, but took an unexpected hit when offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik bolted to the Oakland Raiders after less than two months on the job. Sarkisian responded by promoting Doug Nussmeier, who’d spent last season at Fresno State.

The big spring question is ...  What can be expected from QB Jake Locker? For those who forgot, Locker injured his thumb in the fourth game of the season and never got back on the field. The Husky offense suffered accordingly. He’s expected to be back to 100% by the start of spring, and ready to resume his maturation process. Locker, more than anyone else on this roster, is going to benefit from working with Sarkisian and Nussmeier day-in and day-out. To become a complete player, especially in this pro-style offense, he’ll need better coaching than he got from the Willingham regime.  

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. In the putrid 0-12 season, no area of the team was more miserable than the pass defense, which yielded 24 touchdown passes and had just seven picks. Hope can be found in CB Quinton Richardson and FS Nate Williams, the team’s most improved defender of 2008. After that pair of returning starters, however, the Huskies will need a ton of help. Corners Vonzell McDowell, Matt Mosley, and Marquis Persley, and safeties Tripper Johnson and Victor Aiyewa will be first in line for jobs after lettering a year ago.

Spring attitude... No one, not even the ever-positive Sarkisian and Holt, is expecting an overnight transformation in Seattle. There’s just too much work to do on both sides of the ball. Progress will be measured modestly, much like it was in David Cutcliffe’s first year at Duke. If Sarkisian and his staff can improve the Huskies’ fundamentals, generate some excitement around the program, and win a few games, it’ll qualify as a solid foundation for 2010 and beyond.  

Washington State  Begins: March 17  Game: April 12

The early spring buzz ... After delivering one of the worst seasons in Pac-10 history, Wazzu is taking the only-way-is-up mindset into spring. Not only is second-year head coach Paul Wulff trying to bounce back from a 2-11 debacle, but he was recently slapped with NCAA sanctions, stemming from his days at Eastern Washington. While his sins were not egregious, the situation certainly hasn’t boosted his approval rating in the region. It’ll be back to basics this spring for the talent-starved Cougars, which didn’t have a single player on the All-Pac-10 first or second team a year ago.

The big spring question is ...  Is anyone in Pullman worthy of being called an FBS quarterback? Four different players took turns behind center in 2008, combining for a ridiculous six touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. Gary Rogers ended his pursuit of a sixth year of eligibility, leaving Kevin Lopina, Marshall Lobbestael, and J.T. Levenseller as the contenders. Lopina finished the year with zero touchdown passes and 11 picks on 153 attempts. Lobbestael is trying to make his way back from major knee surgery and a February suspension related to being arrested. Levenseller is the only one of the three with no starting experience. This does not look like it’ll have a happy ending.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive backfield. The Cougars have a help wanted sign outside Martin Stadium after failing to pick off a pass in the final eight games of 2008. Most of last year’s letterwinners are back, which isn’t exactly positive news considering the results. Chima Nwachukwu exhibits potential at safety, and five other underclassmen got reps, led by CB Romeo Pellum and S Tyree Toomer. It’s not much, but it’s a start for a beleaguered group that’s searching for something positive to rally around.

Spring attitude... Go ahead and nominate Wulff for Pac-10 Coach of the Year if Washington State is even mathematically alive for bowl eligibility in November. The program just doesn’t have much talent relative to the rest of the league. Heck, even winless Washington has more young players capable of emerging into something special. At Eastern Washington, Wulff had one of the most potent offenses in the FCS. Before he even thinks about lighting up the scoreboard in Pullman, however, he has to mine something positive out of the mess at quarterback.