Eventful offseason bears intriguing story lines
The best thing about 2010 spring practices in the Pac-10 is that it changed the subject. Almost.
Oregon's off-the-field problems, chiefly the fraternity theft that resulted in the season-long suspension of Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremiah Masoli? No, let's talk about the Ducks' new quarterback competition -- not why it exists, mind you -- or all the speed on the field.
The shocking departure of USC's living-legend coach, Pete Carroll, and the ensuing controversial hiring of Lane Kiffin away from Tennessee after a single season? No, let's talk about the Trojans' trying to regain their mojo and Matt Barkley 2.0 while watching YouTube videos of Dillon Baxter runs.
Two Oregon State defensive starters quitting the team for "family" reasons? No, let's watch big-armed Ryan Katz make his move for the starting quarterback job and wonder if Jacquizz Rodgers can become a Heisman Trophy candidate and question whether anyone can block Stephen Paea one-on-one.
Coaches on the hot seat at Washington State and Arizona State? Bah! Did you know that Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck might be the first two quarterbacks taken in the 2011 NFL draft?
UCLA has a new "pistol" -- check that: revolver -- offense and Arizona has four new coordinators. Kevin Riley is still California's quarterback and could make his 436th start -- plus or minus -- this fall.
After all the offseason distractions, spring practices revealed a Pac-10 that looks more wide open than it has since the turn of the century -- recall that most everyone thought that the conference was still USC and everyone else last preseason.
The Ducks looked like solid favorites for 2010 -- not to mention national title contenders -- before Masoli made one of the worst choices in recent memory. Now USC, Oregon State and, yes, Stanford also look like teams that could make a run.
And that shouldn't leave out a host of teams that could make a dark-horse charge. In fact, you could make an argument that nine teams saw enough encouraging work this spring to believe they have a shot to earn a bowl berth and, perhaps, to push into the top half of the conference.
Heck, even Washington State, winner of just three games over the past two seasons, looks much improved.
Of course, that's what spring is all about: generating optimism above all else. At this point, everybody's got a chance.
As far as star power, there's plenty: Locker and Luck, the Rodgers brothers -- let's not forget receiver James Rodgers is an All-American candidate -- and LaMichael James. There's got to be a Heisman Trophy candidate somewhere there, right?
Defense? Paea, Rahim Moore, Jurrell Casey, Mike Mohamed, Vontaze Burfict and Trevin Wade are All-American candidates. And watch out for Mason Foster, Armond Armstead, Shareece Wright, Cameron Jordan and Lawrence Guy.
Then there's the final looking-ahead question as spring comes to a close.
Did a team walk into the offseason looking like a national title contender?
Probably not. But that sort of negative talk doesn't belong in the spring. Save it for August.
What we learned this spring
What did we learn this spring in the Pac-10? Read on.
1. Reports of Oregon's demise are greatly exaggerated: Watching the Ducks practice this spring certainly made me think "what if?" As in: What if quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a Heisman Trophy candidate, had told himself it wouldn't be a good idea to steal stuff from a fraternity house? Some of you might recall that I not so long ago predicted that Oregon might end up in a BCS bowl game -- the BCS bowl game.
But Masoli wasn't the only reason expectations were so high. The Ducks are talented across the board and are still a top contender for the Pac-10 title. Of course, that's also the reason the "what if" is so meaningful (and surely painful for Ducks fans): Odds are good that the Ducks will take a step back with either Nate Costa or Darron Thomas at quarterback. It won't be a giant step back -- the over/under with this team only dropped from 10 wins to nine -- but it will be a step.
2. The hullabaloo over, now it's up to Kiffin to coach: There is no honeymoon at USC. The expectation is to play in the Rose Bowl every year. At least. While the NCAA may end up taking a hatchet to that, it's still up to controversial new coach Lane Kiffin to maintain the Trojans' tradition of excellence. If he does, that will take care of all -- or most -- of the howling about his big mouth and his inexplicably rapid rise through the coaching ranks.
The first impression is that Kiffin is running a tight ship with high standards for play and behavior. He also has kept his comments mostly tame, other than tweaking UCLA on national signing day. There's no question he's surrounded himself with an outstanding staff. Sure, there's a lot of huff-and-puff with Kiffin. But this spring suggested there's also coaching substance. The real measure, of course, will be this fall.
3. The Pac-10 is deep: The Pac-10 was deep in 2009. It appears deeper in 2010. After spring practices, it's fair to say only Washington State looks like a true long shot to earn a bowl berth. Every team has plenty of reasons for optimism. It's possible that Oregon, USC, Oregon State and Stanford will start the season as Top 25 teams. Arizona has experience and talent on offense. UCLA has two potential first-round NFL draft picks on its defense. California has a lot of guys back from a team that won eight games. Arizona State has hope at quarterback to go along with an impressive defense. Washington may be as good at the offensive skill positions as any team in the country. Even the Cougars should be more competitive this fall. While there might not be a national title contender here, it wouldn't be shocking if any of the top nine teams ended up ranked in the final Top 25.
4. Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks: It wasn't too long ago that we were wondering what the heck happened to the Pac-10 quarterback tradition. Well, simply put: It's back (even without Masoli). Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck may be the best two quarterbacks in the nation and could be top-10 NFL draft picks -- and one could go first overall. And don't be surprised if Arizona's Nick Foles or USC's Matt Barkley put up numbers that place them in the all-conference mix. Meanwhile, California (Kevin Riley), UCLA (Kevin Prince), and Washington State (Jeff Tuel) welcome back starters with experience. Each is plenty capable, if not yet consistent. Oregon State is breaking in a new starter, but the early returns on strong-armed sophomore Ryan Katz are uniformly positive.
The only true competitions heading into the summer are at Oregon (Costa vs. Thomas) and Arizona State (Brock Osweiler vs. Steven Threet) and neither situation should have fans wringing their hands with worry.
5. Questions on defense: They say "defense wins championships." While more than a few Pac-10 fans would point out that playing against unsophisticated offenses with caretaker quarterbacks helps a defense appear great, the fact is that USC dominated the Pac-10 from 2002 to '08 because of defense, and Oregon won the conference title last year with a defense that put up the best numbers versus conference foes. Just about every team has questions on defense, though a handful potentially could be quite stout.
Folks at Oregon gushed about their D this spring. There's lots of speed, but a lack of size may be an issue with the front seven. USC looks good on the line but is rebuilding its secondary and is thin at linebacker. Oregon State unexpectedly lost two returning starters, who quit the team. Arizona must replace seven starters. Arizona State is excited about its D but also lost seven starters. California and UCLA lost five and six starters, respectively, including their best players. Stanford and Washington must get better on defense to take another step up in the conference. And Washington State is crossing its fingers over two defensive tackles with academic issues. So there are a lot of questions on the mean side of the ball heading into the offseason.
Best of spring
Everyone loves "best of" lists. Here's one for the Pac-10 after spring practices concluded.
Best spring game performance, offense: USC senior fullback Stanley Havili caught three long touchdown passes -- 28, 33 and 50 yards -- in the Trojans' spring game.
Best spring game performance, offense II: With Jacquizz Rodgers chilling on the sidelines, Oregon State's backup running backs made a statement. Sophomore Jordan Jenkins rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries, while junior Ryan McCants had 74 yards on 24 attempts.
Best spring game performance, defense: UCLA defensive end Datone Jones had two sacks, recovered a fumble and, according to the L.A. Times, "spent a good portion of the evening in the backfield."
Best spring game performance, defense II: Washington State defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, a JC transfer, had two sacks and a tackle for a loss as the No. 1 defense dominated the No. 2 offense.
Best spring game performance by a kicker: UCLA's Kai Forbath, the defending Lou Groza Award winner, was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, making kicks of 44, 34, 51 and 57 yards.
Best competition heading into fall, offense: Nate Costa vs. Darron Thomas to be Oregon's quarterback.
Best competition heading into the fall, defense: Chris Galippo vs. Devon Kennard to be USC's middle linebacker.
Best "who's the best" competition: Let the debate begin between Washington QB Jake Locker and Stanford QB Andrew Luck. Wait. It already has.
Best new marketing campaign: Stanford's new "What's your deal?" ticket plan is a homage to the prickly exchange between Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh and USC's Pete Carroll after Stanford ran up the score on the Trojans. Funny, methinks.
Best new playmaker: USC's true freshman running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation with a spectacular run during a scrimmage, and his other spectacular runs have made it clear he isn't a one-hit wonder. The Reggie Bush comparisons have already begun.
Best impression of dear old dad: Freshman quarterback Nick Montana capped an 80-yard drive with a short touchdown pass on the final play to give his team the win in Washington's spring game. You may recall that Nick's dad, Joe, was a fairly good NFL quarterback with a penchant for the dramatic -- and noticing John Candy in the stands.
Best position change: Oregon switched Dion Jordan from tight end to defensive end, where his athleticism suggests he can become a dangerous pass-rusher. Jordan was going nowhere at tight end. He may end up in the NFL as a defensive end.
Best performance by a backup quarterback: Senior Mitch Mustain, the most written-about QB to never start a game for USC, passed for five touchdowns and 299 yards in the Trojans' spring game. Quarterback controversy? Naaaa. Might Mustain become the next Matt Cassel? Maybe.
Best comeback by a quarterback: Many were ready to crown Michigan transfer Steven Threet as Arizona State's starting quarterback, but sophomore Brock Osweiler was more consistent much of the spring and could end up running the Sun Devils' offense in the fall.
Best refusal to go away: No player in the Pac-10 has been more analyzed -- criticized -- than California quarterback Kevin Riley. Well, Riley again held on to the starting job this spring and heads into his senior year trying to put a successful cap on a career that has featured just a bit of everything.
Best physical freak of nature: Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea is not only the strongest college football player, he may be the strongest football player in the nation.
Best new acquisition: Arizona State has "adopted" Kyle Oden, 3, who has a pediatric brain tumor and is nearly blind in one eye.
Pac-10 BCS contenders
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Arizona: Nine starters -- including plenty of talented skill players -- return to Arizona's offense. How's the defense shaping up? For more on the Wildcats, click here.
Arizona State: After losing seven starters from an impressive defense, could the Sun Devils be even better on that side of the ball in 2010? For more on ASU, click here.
Oregon: It would be an understatement to say it's been a tumultuous offseason. How has Oregon responded? For more on the Ducks, click here.
Oregon State: Everything starts with the Rodgers brothers, but Jacquizz and James aren't OSU's only offensive weapons. For more on the Beavers, click here.
Southern California: The Lane Kiffin era begins in Los Angeles. Can he bring USC back to the Pac-10 summit? For more on the Trojans, click here.
Washington State: Can Washington State climb out of the Pac-10's basement after a winless league record in 2009? For more on the Cougars, click here.
Pac-10 games to watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
The post-spring power rankings do not match the pre-spring power rankings.
Why? After all, no games were played.
Well, it's an extremely complicated process that's difficult to explain unless you are familiar with the jargon of sportswriting and theoretical physics. In layman's terms, a supersymmetry exists between bosons and fermions as viewed through a prism of the spring football action principle -- the Nambu-Goto action or the Polyakov action or the Masolian action -- which describes how footballs move through space and time.
Or, I just changed my mind. For now. (Still think Nos. 4-8 are a toss-up).
1. USC: The Trojans move up to the top spot not just because Oregon moved down when the Ducks lost starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to a season-long suspension, though that's the biggest reason. USC will have the best defensive line in the Pac-10, the value of which can't be underestimated, and the hunch here is that Lane Kiffin and Matt Barkley are going to make beautiful music together. (Talked to a big Tennessee fan over the weekend who, while not a big fan of Kiffin -- surprise! -- acknowledged that his transforming quarterback Jonathan Crompton into a fifth-round NFL draft pick was a minor miracle).
2. Oregon: Oregon takes a step back without Masoli, but the Ducks weren't widely seen as national title contenders just because of him. Nine other starters are back on offense and eight on defense and if you watched the Ducks practice this spring, it was hard not to be impressed. These guys look like the fastest team in the conference.
3. Oregon State: The Beavers were rated No. 3 before two defensive starters quit the team: Linebacker David Pa'aluhi and end Matt LaGrone. Considering Oregon State is one of just three teams in the conference breaking in a new quarterback, they seemed ripe for a demotion. But sophomore QB Ryan Katz was so impressive this spring, the Beavers hold steady.
4. Stanford: The Cardinal make the big jump all the way from sixth. Why? We ranked them sixth because we obsessed over what was missing (namely Toby Gerhart) and what was questionable (the defense). They are now fourth because of what is there -- quarterback Andrew Luck, a good offensive line and solid receivers -- and the impression that the defense will take a significant step forward with new coordinator Vic Fangio's new 3-4 look.
5. California: Considering the Bears were the only Pac-10 team with nearly all spring practices closed to the media, it's hard to form an impression other than one based on the pluses and minuses from the 2009 depth chart. And that impression remains: There are enough quality pieces here to believe a consistent senior season from quarterback Kevin Riley would make the Bears a Top 25 team.
6. Washington: It's tempting to move the Huskies up just because of Year 2 of the Steve Sarkisian-Jake Locker combination. But we're holding off until we hear reports that defensive ends Kalani Aldrich and Everette Thompson are back and running at 100 percent after sitting out the spring with worrisome injuries.
7. Arizona: The Wildcats have plenty of talent on offense but the defense is replacing seven starters. Moreover, while reviews of the new four coordinator system -- co-coordinators on both sides of the ball -- were positive, it remains worthy of a raised eyebrow, at least until it is properly measured by actual game-day stress.
8. UCLA: The new revolver offense, a knockoff of Nevada's "pistol," got mixed reviews, but the rebuilding defense probably looked better than expected. Questions about the offensive line remain, and it's fair to believe that line will be the reason the Bruins either climb into the conference's top half or remain in the bottom five.
9. Arizona State:There were encouraging signs of offensive improvement, even though the quarterback competition between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and sophomore Brock Osweiler, who appeared to lead as spring ended, wasn't resolved. It didn't help, however, that guard Jon Hargis, a starter the previous two seasons, blew out his knee and won't be available in 2010.
10. Washington State: Coach Paul Wulff called it the Cougars' best spring since he arrived. Every account notes that the Cougars will be physically superior to the previous two teams that won just three games in the past two seasons. Depth is clearly better. On the downside, it wasn't good that Toby Turpin got kicked out of school and that Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo are struggling to remain academically eligible. Those are three of the Cougars' top four defensive tackles.
Best Spring Quotes
1. Lane Kiffin, who was a USC assistant from 2001-06, on Trojans he inherited: "It's not what it was when we left here."
2. UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow on whether the Bruins' offense will break through in 2010: "I have no idea, but we have to be better or you'll be talking to somebody else next year."
3. Oregon State coach Mike Riley on the Beavers' offense: "Athletically, it's as good as we've ever been."
4. Oregon quarterback Nate Costa on redundant questions about suspended quarterback Jeremiah Masoli: "I'm not tired of answering the questions. If there is someone who should answer the questions, it should probably be me. The public has a right to know what we are thinking and our thoughts on this whole process. So I'm happy to answer those questions."
5. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian on leading the Huskies to a 5-7 finish in his first season: "I've never been congratulated so much for a five-win season."