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Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Pac-10 Roundup: Huskies getting defensive

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

Huskies Expect Dramatic Defensive Improvement

SEATTLE -- At last, blame can finally be assessed for why Washington's defense stunk so badly last year, posting the worst numbers in school history.

And no, it's not because the Huskies dispatched coordinator Kent Baer.

Daniel Te'o-Nesheim

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Daniel Te'o-Nesheim registered 8.5 sacks for the Huskies in 2007.

"It was probably because of me," senior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim said. "If I just would have made a couple more stops here and there."

Balderdash. Te'o-Nesheim led the Huskies with 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. The only returning lineman with any significant experience is avoiding the question.

Again: How could a veteran unit be so terrible?

"Jeez. That's a hard one," he said. "You always want to be on a record-setting defense, but not in that sense. God, that hurt. But I've got two more years and this program is going to be good."

If so, the defense will have to dramatically improve. The bad news is the line lost three starters. That's also the good news, considering the Huskies surrendered a Pac-10-worst 446.4 yards per game a year ago.

The early returns have been encouraging under new coordinator Ed Donatell, who spent 12 of the previous 13 seasons coaching in the NFL. Despite squaring off against a veteran offensive line with four starters back, the defense held its own during a scrimmage over the weekend and showed an aggressiveness that was missing a year ago.

"They're more physical than I've seen here in a while," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said. "They gave us some tough blitz looks we weren't ready for."

Three of the line positions seem fairly set, with senior Darrion Jones at the end opposite Te'o-Nesheim and powerful junior Cameron Elisara lining up at one tackle.

The other tackle spot is up in the air. Before spring practices began, coaches moved underachieving, 280-pound tight end Johnie Kirton to tackle, and he was joined this past week by former defensive end De'Shon Matthews, a junior who tips the scales at only 253 pounds.

Three redshirt sophomores figure to contribute: tackles Tyrone Duncan and Nick Wood and 6-foot-7 end Kalani Aldrich. In the fall, three touted incoming freshmen could fight their way into the rotation: tackles Alameda Ta'amu and Craig Noble and end Everrette Thompson.

Another boost this week came a few yards from the line of scrimmage, when linebacker E.J. Savannah, the leading tackler in 2007, returned from a seven-practice suspension for falling short of team standards.

Te'o-Nesheim said he didn't feel overwhelmed by any massive scheme change, despite intimations that the Huskies will unveil an array of new fronts and stunts next fall. He said the biggest change is Donatell's hands-on approach.

"I talk to him a lot more, that's probably the biggest difference," he said.

The Huskies again face a brutal schedule in 2008, and expectations aren't terribly high, in large part because of issues on defense. But Te'o-Nesheim believes his crew might surprise some folks. Really, really surprise them.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "But I always think we're going to shut out everybody."

Bruin A QB Controversy?

In 2002, quarterback Ben Olson was the premier recruit in the country. In 2008, he may end up as UCLA's third quarterback or even transfer to a I-AA school.

Patrick Cowan

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Patrick Cowan threw four touchdown passes for the Bruins in 2007.

At least that's what's swirling after new Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel announced just a week into spring practices that fellow fifth-year senior Patrick Cowan has earned the right to lead the first-team offense.

Beyond that, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that unnamed sources said junior college transfer Kevin Craft is being groomed for the backup job ahead of Olson.

Neuheisel emphasized that the decision wasn't set in stone. And it's possible that the new staff, including offensive coordinator Norm Chow, is trying to rattle Olson, who's twice before beaten out Cowan for the starting job, to see how he responds.

Or perhaps the coaches just think Cowan is a better leader than Olson, who implied to the Daily News that he wasn't given a fair chance to win the job.

Both quarterbacks are injury-prone and coming off knee surgeries, and neither has been consistent when given an opportunity to play. So this competition might have a few more chapters.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.

No Good McKnight

The news at USC isn't about any movement in the quarterback competition -- Mark Sanchez still owns a clear edge over Mitch Mustain -- but rather it's that neither quarterback will benefit from the impressive athletic ability of all-purpose tailback Joe McKnight in the spring game Saturday.

McKnight is sitting out the final week of practices because he is academically ineligible after dropping a class, which left him with too few units this semester. USC officials instructed McKnight to drop the class to protect his GPA and his eligibility this fall.

With McKnight out, that means more touches for the other five members of the Trojans' talented, six-man logjam at tailback, which includes (in no particular order): Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Marc Tyler and Broderick Green.

Down On The Farm

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said his quarterback competition wouldn't be decided until a week to 10 days into fall camp, but it appears that experienced junior Tavita Pritchard remains the front-runner over sophomores Alex Loukas and Jason Forcier after spring practices concluded.

Still, it's not a slam dunk. Prichard, who started seven games a year ago, was the first pick of the White team in the draft system Harbaugh set up for the spring game and he saw the most action, but he only completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards as the Red team rolled 24-6.

Unlike Prichard, Forcier and Loukas both threw touchdown passes and interceptions. Forcier went 7-for-12 for 116 yards while Loukas connected on two of his four throws for 39 yards. Loukas, perhaps the best athlete of the threesome, also caught three passes and turned in a long run on a fake punt, though Harbaugh told reporters afterward the performance didn't presage a position change.

Life Of Riley

While California coach Jeff Tedford insists that Nate Longshore won't lose his quarterback competition with Kevin Riley because of a pectoral injury that knocked him out of spring practices, it certainly can't help.

Riley is already the fan favorite because he came off the bench and led the Bears to a comeback victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. He's more mobile than Longshore -- see his abortive run against Oregon State that started Cal's massive swoon last season -- and his extra time with the first-team offense could outshine what had been a solid spring for Longshore, who has 26 starts to his credit despite frequent injury woes.

Nonetheless, Longshore will have plenty of time to regain his footing. Tedford has said he's in no rush to name a starter, and he could hold off on the decision until the week of the Aug. 30 season opener against Michigan State.

Quick Hits

• USC junior cornerback Kevin Thomas, who redshirted last season because of a shoulder injury, has played well this spring. He's already emerged as the Trojans' third cornerback and could push starters Cary Harris and Shareece Wright.

• California is using a three-man front a lot this spring, and the starting unit appears to be ends Rulon Davis and Tyson Alualu flanking noseguard Mika Kane. A player to watch, though, is redshirt freshman defensive end Ernest Owusu, who showcased good pass-rushing skills in a weekend scrimmage.

• While it may just be issues on the offensive line, word on the street is the predicted demise of Oregon State's defense may be premature, despite a complete rebuilding of the front seven. Three productive linebackers need to be replaced, but a troika among Keaton Kristick, Bryant Cornell, Dwight Roberson, Keith Pankey and Isaiah Cook could turn out to be more than adequate.

• The breakout player of Oregon's spring practices thus far is bulldozing 235-pound running back LeGarrette Blount, a junior college transfer. He rushed for a team-high 68 yards on 11 carries in a weekend scrimmage and earned high praise from coach Mike Bellotti.

• Washington State may have found an intriguing complement to All-Pac-10 receiver Brandon Gibson in converted defensive back Michael Willis. Willis hauled in six receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown in the Cougars' scrimmage that concluded spring practices.