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With nine of the 12 conference schools returning quarterbacks – and Arizona State returning a quarterback with plenty of experience – the “conference of quarterbacks” looks to be primed for a banner season. Led by Andrew Luck of Stanford, the Pac-12 offers a stable of throwers and multi-dimensional signal-callers from Arizona’s Nick Foles to Oregon Daron Thomas to Utah’s Jordan Wynn and beyond. Offense will get plenty of respect in the Pac-12, and there’s certainly enough defense to make people keep an eye on both sides of the ball as the conference continues to improve its speed and physicality defensively.
When the smoke clears, expect Oregon to again be the team to beat, with USC, Arizona and Stanford looking to toss a banana peel on the dance floor. Want a sleeper team? Look to Arizona State, which returns 19 starters from a 6-6 team, including playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Given the new 12-team conference and the split into six-team divisions – and a conference championship game -- the Pac-12 has certainly opened up new avenues of revenue for the league, particularly in what promises to be a very competitive season. At first blush, it would seem that there are 10 teams very capable of playing in a bowl game come December and January, with only Washington State and a very shaky California seemingly not of that caliber.
2010 Record: 7-6
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 53rd
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 41st
Base Offense: Multiple spread
Returning Starters: (5 -- offense) Nick Foles (QB), Keola Antolin (RB), Juron Criner (WR), David Douglas (WR) and David Roberts (WR). (7 – defense) Trevin Wade (CB), Robert Golden (CB), Adam Hall (FS), Paul Vassallo (LB), Derek Earls (LB), Jake Fisher (LB), Justin Washington (DT). Alex Zendejas (PK).
Significant losses: (6) Entire offensive line, Brooks Reed (DE), A.J. Simmons (TE), Lolomana Mikaele (DT)
Newcomer of Note:
Wide receiver Dan Buckner is eligible at last. The 6-4 Texas transfer looks like he’s going to win a spot opposite Criner, giving the Wildcats still more receiving options – big options – for defenses to contend with.
Lamar De Rego is another name to keep an eye on when he arrives in the fall. With the Cats losing their three-man defensive end rotation to the NFL draft, De Rego has a chance to be an impact guy right out of the gate.
Offensively, the skill positions have plenty of potential with Foles, Antolin, Criner and co. The issue will be finding an offensive line that can keep Foles upright and give Antolin and the running game room to make teams play the Wildcats honest. Expect this defense to be a top-25 group and make enough big plays to provide Foles and his mates opportunities to light up the scoreboard most nights – if the offensive line comes together. For the Wildcats, finding success in this year’s Pac-12 means the “big uglies” up front need to find their mojo out of the gate.
Arizona should be able to score with just about anyone in the Pac-12, the region and the nation. Foles looks like he’ll be a high NFL draft pick and Criner fought off injuries to post a big 2010. Without beating the O-line thing into the ground, the Wildcats have the defensive experience and playmakers to stay in every game, and the offensive skill people to do plenty of damage. This team will be good this season, and should contend for the South title.
Arizona State Sun Devils
2010 Record: 6-6
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 27th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 55th
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters: (10 -- offense) Entire offensive line, Gerell Robinson (WR), Aaron Pflugrad (WR), Trevor Kohl (TE), Cameron Marshall (RB), Mike Willie (WR). (9 – defense) James Brooks (DE), Jamaar Jarrott (DE), Vontaze Burfict (LB), Brandon Magee (LB), Colin Parker (LB), Omar Bolden (CB), Eddie Elder (S), Clint Floyd (S), Osahon Irabor (CB).
Significant losses: Steven Threet (QB), Lawrence Guy (DT), Thomas Weber (PK), Trevor Hankins (P)
Newcomer of Note:
Defensive tackle Will Sutton couldn’t get on the field a year ago while struggling with academic issues. Those have been taken care of and with Lawrence Guy gone; Sutton used a very impressive spring to position himself nicely in the Sun Devil defense.
Redshirt freshman corner Devan Spann may need to step up early as injuries hit the secondary in the spring. He showed he belonged in the spring.
If Dennis Erickson is going to lead this team to someplace special, the time is now. The 19 returning starters and plenty of other letter winners mean the Sun Devils have experience to weather most storms. Solid receivers and a potent running game, along with the return of the entire offensive line, mean the only missing ingredient is a quarterback.
Is Brock Osweiler that man? The job was essentially his by default after Steven Threet’s forced retirement, but Osweiler has experience and has had some success. If he gives the offense something that resembles good quarterback play, the state of Arizona could be a point-a-minute type of place. Defensively, if Vontaze Burfict can harness emotional meltdowns, he could have a special year for a defense that seems to have all the pieces in place to be special. The Sun Devils could very well be the sleeping giant in the Pac-12.
Expect Osweiler to be a good quarterback and the Sun Devils to be a team that no one wants to deal with as the season progresses. The offense has all the pieces, which should make Osweiler’s job easier, but it’s going to be the defense which defines this team. With nine starters back and enough playmakers to make a defensive coordinator’s eye glaze over, the Sun Devil defenders have the chance to win the field position battle more often, providing good down-and-distance opportunities for this offense. Here’s your sleeper team in the Pac-12.
2010 Record: 5-7
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 84th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 91st
Base Offense: Pro style
Returning Starters: (9 – offense) Tyler Hanson (QB), Ethan Adkins, Mike Itis, Ryan Miller and David Bakhtiari (OL), Toney Clemons (WR), Paul Richardson (WR), Ryan Deehan (TE), Rodney Stewart (RB). (8 – defense) Josh Hartigan (DE), Curtis Cunningham (DT), Will Pericak (NT), Jon Major (LB), Anthony Perkins (S), Terrel Smith (DB), Travis Sandersfeld (DB), Ray Polk Jr. (FS). Zach Grossnickle (P)
Significant losses: Scotty McKnight (WR), Nate Solder (LT), B.J Beatty (LB), Aric Goodman (PK).
Newcomer of Note:
Daniel Munyer came off a redshirt freshman year and immediately took hold of the starting center spot for the Buffs. He was able to hold onto the job throughout spring practice and will be counted on to help Colorado develop a running game with “an edge,” the way coach Embree wants it.
Though second on the depth chart at the WILL spot, redshirt freshman Lowell Williams had a big-time spring and could very well be the playmaker this team is looking for.
There’s a lot back on defense, which could be good or bad, depending on your instincts regarding their improvement. Simply put, the Buffs defense has to get better and help this offense a little more often. There are enough returning parts to think the defense will be better, but with a new coaching regime on hand, it’s hard to speculate. Offensively, nine returning starters and a determination to run the ball hard should take some pressure off quarterback Tyler Hansen and increase the workload of running back Rodney Stewart, who was a quiet stalwart offensively a year ago. It’s time for Michigan transfer Toney Clemons to show a little more at wide receiver and step up alongside stud Paul Richardson. Clemons flashes big-play ability in practice and this past spring, but has yet to deliver consistently – though shoddy quarterback play could be a big part of that. Expect better production from the passing game in 2011.
Final Analysis :
Stewart is a gem who gets overshadowed a bit by some other backs out west, but he’s primed for a big-time season. First-year coach Jon Embree has already moved some people out as he tries to instill a much more physical, hard core, old school mentality in his team. It’s hard not to like the to-the-point Embree and his pointed attempts to get his team in the right frame of mind. The growing pains will be tough, but there’s plenty to build around. Expect the defense to be better than 91st this season and that should trigger some better offensive opportunities for an offense that had to work hard to score points a year ago.
2010 Record: 4-8
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 104th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 85th
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters: (7 – offense) Taylor Embree (WR), Nelson Rosario (WR), Cory Harkey (TE), Sean Sheller (OT), Mike Harris (RT), Richard Brehaut (QB), Johnathan Franklin (RB). (8 – defense) Nate Chandler (DT), Damien Holmes (DE), Sean Westgate (LB), Patrick Larimore (LB), Owamgbe Odighizuwa (DE), Aaron Hester (CB), Sheldon Price (CB), Tony Dye (S). Jeff Locke (P).
Significant losses: Morrell Presley (WR), Ryan Taylor (C), Akeem Ayers (LB), Rahim Moore (S), Kai Forbath (PK)
Newcomer of Note:
He’s a few slots down the depth chart, but freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has caused a buzz around the Bruins this spring. An early enrollee, Hundley showed enough promise to make fans around the program go “mmm.” Given the way Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut alternately get injured or play poorly, the future could be very soon for the youngster under center.
Oooh, the nails are dragging across the blackboard of coach Rick Neuheisel’s future for the Bruins. While the defense has eight starters back, losing playmakers like Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore can’t be understated. However, the big bugaboo for the Bruins has been, and continues to be, porous quarterback play. The Bruin quarterbacks do two things well – play crappy and get hurt. Whether it’s Richard Brehaut, Kevin Prince or freshman Brett Hundley, this team (and Neuheisel) needs a quarterback who can stay upright, can complete passes at a decent percentage and make a big play once in a while. The jury is definitely out on whether that quarterback exists on the roster at this point.
Things are getting hot Bruin land – a 4-8 record again simply won’t cut it with UCLA faithful. The Bruins have some talent on both sides of the ball, but have been tormented by a poor offense for too many years. The quarterbacks have to stay healthy and play well, the defense needs to find some new playmakers and running back Johnathan Franklin (or someone else) needs to make teams pay with the running game. After so much tumult offensively, look for the Bruins to be players in the Pac-12 race early on before fading. They’ll land a bowl and a 7-5 record.
2010 Record: 8-5
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 37th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 63rd
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters: (6 – offense) Rhett Ellison (TE), Marc Tyler (RB), Matt Barkley (QB), Khaled Holmes (OL), Matt Kalil (OL), Robert Woods (WR). (7 – defense) Armond Armstead (DE), Chris Galippo (LB), DaJohn Harris (DT), Devon Kennard (LB), T. J. McDonald (S), Nick Perry (DE), Nickell Robey (CB), Jawanza Starling (S).
Significant losses: Stanley Havili (FB), Ronald Johnson (WR), Tyron Smith (OT), Kristofer O’Dowd (C), Jurrell Casey (DT), Shareece Wright (CB), Joe Houston (PK).
Newcomer of Note:
In a crowded backfield, perhaps redshirt junior Curtis McNeal, who has seen very little action so far in his career, will get his chance. McNeal was the leading rusher in the spring game and scored a couple of times. Perhaps most important, the 5-7, 180-pounder, demonstrated a big-play ability that the Trojans are looking for. He’s still got some of the ladder to climb, but he definitely turned some heads in the spring and thrust himself into the rotation.
Marquis Simmons didn’t do much a year ago, but this sophomore is pushing for playing time after demonstrating plenty of playmaking ability at linebacker in the spring. After spring drills, he sat tentatively atop the depth chart at strong side linebacker.
Despite the sanctions, USC still has as much physical talent in its two-deep as any other team in the Pac-12. The Trojans must find a reliable running back to keep defenses honest and give quarterback Matt Barkley the chance to show his talents. Marc Tyler keeps getting into trouble, so perhaps someone else in the stable will step forward. Between Barkley, any of the four- and five-star running backs and receiver Robert Woods, there’s plenty to like offensively. The defense needs to get better. Ranking in the bottom half of the defensive standings simply makes no sense for a program with this caliber of athletes. Expect the Trojans to get back to their brand of defensive football – and the corresponding early round NFL draft choices it produces. With seven starters back and plenty of youngsters who saw playing time a year ago, 2011 looks like a season for a defensive rebound.
An 8-5 record simply doesn’t cut it in the Trojan world view. Lane Kiffin now has had a year to get things under control and it would be folly to not expect a major improvement. The Trojans were also-rans in the league race a year ago, but that’s probably a luxury the rest of the league won’t have again. Expect big things from Barkley and this defense and pencil USC into the race for the Pac-12 title. They may not win it, but they’ll have a say in who does.
2010 Record: 10-3
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 23rd
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 24th
Base Offense: Spread
Returning Starters: (7 – offense) John Cullen (LT), Tevita Stevens (OL), Tony Bergstrom (OL), Jordan Wynn (QB), Kendrick Moeai (TE), Luke Matthews (WR), DeVonte Christopher (WR). (5 – defense) Derrick Shelby (DE), Dave Kruger (NT), Matt Martinez (LB), Chaz Walker (LB), Brian Blechen (LB). Sean Sellwood (P).
Significant losses: Matt Asiata (RB), Eddie Wide (RB), Jereme Brooks (WR), Christian Cox (DE), Chad Manis (LB), Lamar Chapman (CB), Joe Phillips (PK).
Newcomer of Note:
Quarterback Tyler Shreve may have won the backup job, but with Jordan Wynn’s penchant for getting hurt, the true freshman may be a “heartbeat” from major minutes under center this fall. Shreve threw for a touchdown in the spring game and showed enough elusiveness in the pocket and on the edge to make defenses squirm a bit.
With very experienced and productive running backs out the door, the Utes may have found a youngster who could make a difference. True freshman Harvey Langi drew repeated praise from coach Kyle Whittingham during the spring and figures to be in the mix come fall. He had 63 yards on 10 carries in the spring game.
Jordan Wynn can be a very effective quarterback when he’s healthy and that needs to happen this year. With both running backs gone, the offense essentially falls into Wynn’s lap in 2011. He’s got some nice weapons at receiver and tight end, as well as an offensive line that has 60 percent returning. The question is, can he make the leap up the quarterbacking effectiveness ladder this season? Defensively, the line and secondary need some work, but with all three starting linebackers back in the fold, expect Utah to be a top-20 defense in 2011. They tend to be a no-name, hard-working group, but they create turnovers and favorable field position situations more often than most people realize.
What will make Jordan Wynn a better quarterback is a running game that resembles what Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide delivered a year ago. Right now, Wynn is an injury-prone decent quarterback who was protected by a very good running game in 2010. It’s his offense now. Time to blossom, time to bloom, and time to step up the game.