Spring look around the Pac-10
What position will Rudy Burgess play at Arizona State? Will Cal have the Pac-10's best defense in 2006? Will Hershel Dennis secure the USC tailback position during spring practice? The Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
• Arizona welcomes back nine starters on defense, and the best two are senior end Marcus Smith and junior cornerback Antoine Cason. Both have posted good offseasons in the weight room. Smith, who sat out all but two games last year due to injury, is now carrying 281 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame (up more than 20 pounds). The 6-foot Cason, second-team All-Pac-10 last year, has bulked up to 182 pounds, up 10 from last year.
• Former Wyoming and Houston head coach Dana Dimel joined Mike Stoops' staff in January as the Wildcats tight ends coach. Dimel replaces Josh Heupel, who joined Mike's brother, Bob, at Oklahoma, where Heupel won the 2000 national title as the Sooners quarterback. Dimel will work with senior Brad Wood, sophomore Travis Bell and a pair of touted incoming freshmen.
Arizona State Sun Devils
• Van Malone's tenure as Arizona State's running backs coach lasted just a few weeks and included zero practices after he was poached by Texas A&M. Coach Dirk Koetter, fresh off signing a two-year extension that will pay him roughly $1 million annually, turned to John Wrenn, a highly successful Arizona high school football coach. Wrenn, 54, led Hamilton High to consecutive 5A football titles and two other runner-up finishes over the past five seasons. Wrenn's transition to Division I-A should be eased by the return of the Sun Devils' top two rushers, Keegan Herring and Rudy Burgess, as well as the arrival of junior college transfer Ryan Torain and incoming freshmen Dimitri Nance and Rodney Glass.
Burgess, though, may end up being Rudy Three-Ways this fall. The multitalented Burgess won't spend all his time at tailback, a position he switched to from receiver mostly because the Sun Devils were out of bodies. Burgess not only will split his time between the backfield and receiver but also could experiment with some repetitions on defense as a cornerback.
• The Sun Devils' spring game is scheduled for April 15, and that's good timing because that means the coaches and team won't have to deal with questions about former tailback Loren Wade's murder trial, which begins two days later. Wade is accused of shooting former Sun Devil Brandon Falkner outside a Scottsdale nightclub a year ago, allegedly in a fit of jealousy. Falkner's father, B. Lee Falkner, recently filed negligence lawsuits against the school, the Arizona Board of Regents, Koetter and former athletic director Gene Smith -- now at Ohio State.
California Golden Bears
• California figures to have the best defensive front seven in the Pac-10 next fall. Why? Tons of talent and depth. Of the 14 members on the two-deep depth chart heading into the Las Vegas Bowl, only one -- starting linebacker Ryan Foltz -- is gone. And he'll likely be seamlessly replaced by Mickey Pimentel, who captured Pac-10 Player of the Week honors after recording 2½ sacks in the Big Game against Stanford. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is an All-American candidate, while the linebackers, led by Desmond Bishop and Anthony Felder -- a starter as a freshman -- could be the equal of any in the conference, even USC.
• There are two big holes on defense. Though it may have seemed that rover Donnie McCleskey and free safety Harrison Smith had become permanent starters, both (finally) are gone. Thomas DeCoud is the front-runner to replace Smith, but the picture at rover isn't so clear.
• Oregon's recruiting class didn't receive much national attention, but with eight of the 22 signees coming from the junior college ranks -- the most in coach Mike Bellotti's 11-year tenure -- it's possible no Pac-10 team will receive more of an impact from first-year players. For example, it's almost a done deal that Brandon Bair will replace the departed Tim Day as the Ducks' starting tight end this fall. Bair (6-foot-7, 238 pounds) committed to the Ducks in 2003 but opted to go on a two-year Mormon mission. While not the pure athlete Day was, Bair is touted as a strong blocker, despite his lean build. Bair will participate in spring drills.
• The Pac-10 is just like a big coaching family. Oregon has hired Robin Pflugrad as its new receivers coach. Pflugrad, a native of Eugene, was Washington State's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. The Ducks raided the Cougars staff because Dan Ferrigno bolted Oregon for the same position at California with Bears coach Jeff Tedford, who used to be Bellotti's offensive coordinator. It's like a game of musical chairs, only without the music.
Oregon State Beavers
• Oregon State fans are hardly in love with No. 1 quarterback Matt Moore or backup Ryan Gunderson. Many are pining for touted redshirt freshman Sean Canfield. While it's unlikely that Canfield will unseat Moore, that doesn't mean Canfield can't make a statement this spring. The 6-4 lefty, who graduated from high school early in order to participate in spring practice last year, has bulked up to 230 pounds and there are murmurs that the future is now.
• As usual, Oregon State stocked up with junior college talent on signing day. Considering how weak the Beavers' pass defense was last year -- particularly their inexperienced corners -- it seems like JC transfer Coye Francies will immediately be in the mix for playing time at corner. Still, word on the street is that sophomore corner Keenan Lewis, who took a lot of flak from fans, dedicated himself to conditioning this offseason and is noticeably bigger.
• Stanford coach Walt Harris is supposed to be an offensive whiz and quarterbacks guru. He's got one of the Pac-10's most talented and experienced quarterbacks in Trent Edwards. Edwards should have solid help at receiver with the return of Evan Moore, who was injured most of last season, and Mark Bradford. What's the point? Stanford, with little talent on the line and at tailback, will have to score a bunch of points next year through the air to win, because the defense is expected to be terrible. The D has to replace its entire front, and a perusal of the roster doesn't yield much room for optimism. Stiff academic rules prevent the Cardinal from solving immediate problems with junior college players, as Bay Area rival California frequently does. While spring practices should be an adventure on defense, the passing game needs to look sharp.
• Stanford might stink on the field but it shines in the classroom. According to the NCAA, the football program was one of five Division I-A teams honored for its performance in the Academic Progress Rate, the recently adopted measure of a team's academic success. The other football teams honored were: Auburn, Boston College, Duke and Navy.
• UCLA played its spring game at Drake Stadium over the weekend, and sophomore quarterback Ben Olson appears to be finding his rhythm. He completed 12-of-18 for 120 yards with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Joe Cowan. Olson, who also ran for a score, played exclusively with the first-team offense, leaving little doubt that the offense is his. Cowan's brother, Patrick, last year's No. 3 quarterback, was 9-of-21 for 141 yards with two touchdowns and appears entrenched as the backup.
• The defense got strong efforts from linebackers Christian Taylor, Kyle Bosworth and Reggie Carter, with each registering six tackles. Defensive end William Snead had a pair of sacks, and strong safety Chris Horton appears poised to replace four-year starter Jarrad Page. Horton missed last season with a broken wrist.
• While competitions at quarterback, tailback and linebacker will be sexier, one of USC's biggest areas of concern is special teams. The Trojans ranked 115th in the nation last year in net punting, mostly because opponents averaged 17 yards per punt return. Two returns went for touchdowns. They also ranked seventh in the Pac-10 in kickoff coverage and punt returns, the latter number a shock considering Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was fielding punts. Those are big reasons coach Pete Carroll hired Al Everest to manage the special teams. Everest brings an NFL background. He was the league's Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2002.
• Senior tailback Hershel Dennis felt like a forgotten man last year while he sat out after tearing knee ligaments before the 2005 Orange Bowl. He'll see lots of action this spring, mostly because his backfield mates won't be around to compete with him. Junior Desmond Reed (knee) and sophomore Michael Coleman (hip) are still recovering from offseason surgeries, while talented, mercurial junior Chauncey Washington is still academically ineligible. While a troika of talented freshmen will arrive for fall practices, Dennis has an opportunity to sink his fangs into the starting job by proving he can regain his 2003 form.
• It will be interesting to see what happens at tight end for Washington. The Huskies used to be a tight-end factory, but the position was a nonfactor in '05. Robert Lewis emerged as the starter and caught 14 passes, while Johnie Kirton, one of the program's more intriguing athletes, faded down the stretch. Kirton, who signed as a massive 280-pound tailback, needs to be on the field. If he doesn't have the hands to play tight end, perhaps he should get a look on the defensive line? As it is, the Huskies didn't successfully recruit a tight end this winter, so the position is terribly thin.
• Washington already lost its top receiver, Chris Chambers, who opted to transfer. Now another wideout who previously bolted the program is taking shots at his old team. Bobby Whithorne played two seasons with the Huskies before leaving (though his former coaches hardly tried to change his mind). He's now a walk-on at UCLA and has caught his new program's attention. "From top to bottom this is a better program, and I want to win a championship. That's why I came here," Whithorne told the Los Angeles Daily News. "This is a much better experience."
Washington State Cougars
Receiver Finas Rabb will be an intriguing player for Washington State this spring. The 6-6, 205-pound JC transfer didn't play high school football, and he arrived at Santa Anna College as a basketball player. But in only his second season of football, he earned second-team all-conference honors, hauling in 27 receptions for 421 yards with six touchdowns. With Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus back, the Cougars are already solid at receiver. But Rabb could offer a big target in the red zone.
• Washington State students -- 65 percent -- voted in favor of a $25 semester fee to cover the renovation of Martin Stadium. The $79 million project will improve concessions, bathrooms and stadium access. Private donations as well as a $5 ticket fee also will help cover the costs.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.