Spring look around the Pac-10

Updated: March 23, 2006, 2:50 PM ET
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

Which Oregon State Beaver could have a breakout season? Who will replace three NFL-bound offensive linemen at USC? Why will new secondary coach J.D. Williams be an inspiration for Washington? The Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Arizona Wildcats

Arizona needs to get tougher on its offensive line. Talented sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama won't live up to his promise without protection and a good running game to slow down the pass-rush. The only sure thing on the line is junior tackle Peter Graniello, who was honorable mention All-Pac-10 last year. Tanner Bell, Adam Hawes, Joe Longacre and Erick Levitre have experience, but incoming JC All-American James Tretheway and redshirts Daniel Borg, Eben Britton and Blake Kerley could challenge for starting jobs.

Losing four scholarships for the 2006 season because of poor academics, per new NCAA rules, won't have much effect on the field. Many teams start the season with fewer than the maximum allotment of 85 scholarships -- typically, a top walk-on or two are ritualistically awarded scholarships at the end of preseason practices -- so the Wildcats shouldn't have much difficulty playing with 81. The program doesn't have to drop any incoming signees, and the team will have a full 85 scholarships in 2007. Of course, Arizona should be thoroughly embarrassed, regardless.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Last week, we wrote that versatile Rudy Burgess will play three positions this spring: tailback, receiver and cornerback. It appears cornerback will be his primary spot, at least initially, if the spring depth chart is to be believed. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior figures to see action on both sides of the ball, but the coaching staff apparently thinks the Sun Devils' depth is sufficient at tailback and receiver but the pass defense needs more athleticism.

Quarterback Sam Keller will participate in spring practices at about 90 percent, according to The Arizona Republic. Keller is coming back from a thumb injury that ended his season in late October. The Republic added that Keller, who tips the scales at 240 pounds -- 10 more than last season -- on his 6-foot-4 frame is one of 22 players who has posted double-digit weight gains because of weight-room work, not Big Mac snarfing.

Jamaal Lewis will make the transition this spring from an athletic tight end to a big receiver. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior has been moved outside because coaches are confident junior Zach Miller and redshirt freshman Jovon Williams can carry the load at tight end.

At least four projected Sun Devils starters will sit out this spring with injuries: senior guard Zach Krula, senior defensive end Loren Howard, senior defensive end Kyle Caldwell and senior cornerback Keno Walter-White.

California Golden Bears

California has to replace three starters from its offensive line, including Marvin Philip and Ryan O'Callaghan, who were first-team All-Pac-10 performers at center and tackle, respectively. Senior Scott Smith and sophomore Mike Tepper are the favorites at tackle, and returning starter Erik Robertson and former walk-on Brian De La Puente top the depth chart at guard. Alex Mack leads the race to replace Philip at center.

The Bears are counting on JC transfer Andrew Larson to replace Australian David Lonie at punter. Larson averaged 42.6 yards per punt for Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif., and crushed 17 of his 49 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Five key defensive players will skip spring practices with injuries: tackle Matt Malele, linebacker Mickey Pimentel, and ends Phillip Mbakogu, Fahim Abd Allah and Steve Kelly.

Oregon Ducks

Although Oregon gets a late start to spring football, it had better not get going late this fall. The Ducks probably have the toughest first five games of any team in the nation. Their season opener is not a directional school but instead a critical Pac-10 tilt with Stanford. Then, three of the next four are on the road: Fresno State, Arizona State and California, the latter two likely being Top 25 teams. The nonconference patsy sandwiched in there? Oklahoma, on Sept. 16.

Two reserve players have been booted for violating team rules: H-back Matt Bramow and defensive end Devlin Bayne. Bramow, a redshirt freshman, was arrested in October after an alleged hit-and-run accident. He was suspended from the team in December in connection with an alleged assault of another student and didn't travel with the team to the Holiday Bowl. Bayne, a sophomore from Nevada, hasn't played in two seasons. He was not allowed to report to the team this past fall until after the season opener, per terms of a previous team suspension.

Oregon State Beavers

Quick: Who was the Pac-10's third-leading rusher behind Jerome Harrison and Reggie Bush last year? LenDale White? Marshawn Lynch?

No, it was a guy named Yvenson Bernard, whose first name typically is mumbled by commentators unsure of the pronunciation (although sources say it's "evan-son.") Bernard, a 5-foot-9, 202-pound spark plug, rushed for 1,321 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago and hauled in 37 passes. Considering the Beavers welcome back all five offensive linemen for the first time since 1977, Bernard could have his name mispronounced by many this season because he could be the conference's breakout player.

Bernard will find the holes bigger, though, if the passing game improves. Although many are wondering how the program will do without superproductive Mike Hass, folks in Corvallis believe junior receiver Anthony Wheat-Brown, perhaps the best athlete on the team, is ready for his close-up. He was the second-leading receiver last year, with 40 receptions for 400 yards despite playing through injuries. At 6-foot-1, 223 pounds, Wheat-Brown has a linebacker build that likely will help him fight through physical coverages.

Stanford Cardinal

Stanford, which hired Doug Sams as its tackles and tight ends coach this week, has a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full situation on its offensive line. Of the 14 offensive linemen on the roster, seven have started games. That's the good news. The bad news is these guys were as soft as an overripe avocado in 2005. Consider: The Cardinal averaged an anemic 92 yards rushing per game last season, worst in the conference.

Per carry average? 2.6 yards, sans cloud of dust. The linemen opened holes for just eight rushing touchdowns. As for pass-blocking, they gave up 42 sacks. All those numbers are without peer at the bottom of the conference (the sack number, perhaps spurred by the embarrassing rushing numbers, was an astounding seven sacks worse than the ninth-place team). These woeful stats go a long way toward explaining why only fifth-year senior center Tim Mattran is penciled in as a starter. Sams, by the way, replaces John McDonell, who jumped ship for Purdue. Sams recently was fired as the head coach at Northern Michigan.

Although it's not a headlining question, Stanford will have a new kicker for the first time in four years. Senior Derek Belch and Aaron Zagory are competing to replace four-year starter Michael Sgroi. Neither has kicked against a Pac-10 foe.

UCLA Bruins

Considering four key defensive linemen were either limited or out of action, it's premature to pass judgment this spring on UCLA's defense, which must improve if the Bruins are to remain in the top third of the Pac-10. While Kevin Brown, Brigham Harwell, Nikola Dragovic and Justin Hickman were mostly or entirely inactive up front, the green linebacking corps -- there will be three new starters this fall -- produced a solid effort, particularly Christian Taylor and Eric McNeal. Freshman Reggie Carter also could jump into the picture next fall.

Perhaps the defensive karma is improving, even during worrisome moments. In the waning minutes of the Bruins' penultimate practice last week, defensive end Bruce Davis went down screaming with what appeared to be a knee injury. It turned out to be a bone bruise, which is painful but not an issue for the fall or even for summer workouts (you know, the voluntary ones).

This has nothing to do with football but everything to do with college, so it's worth saluting: Twenty-seven Bruins were on the director's honor roll (3.00 GPA) for the fall quarter. And, yes, that's a high number. How many fraternities had nearly a third of their members on the honor roll?

USC Trojans

USC must replace not just three offensive linemen but three linemen expected to be NFL draft picks. Don't expect a dramatic, calamitous tumble into mediocrity up front, however. You might have heard this before: There's talent at USC. Start with sophomore Jeff Byers taking over for Taitusi Lutui at left guard. Byers probably would have been the starter last year until he was sidelined with a pesky hip problem. Chilo Rachal is expected to replace Fred Matua at right guard, although it remains to be seen whether Rachal can replace garrulous Matua as the designated media darling. Senior Kyle Williams owns the most tenuous elevation. He steps in for Winston Justice, a likely first-round draft pick, at right tackle. Trojans coaches fortified interior depth by moving Travis Draper from the defensive line to offensive guard. Draper and guard Drew Radovich will see only limited action because of hip injuries.

With Hershel Dennis as the only healthy tailback -- and he's coming back from a knee injury -- coaches are moving some bodies around to lighten his load. Talented but mercurial junior receiver Whitney Lewis will work at tailback, as will talented but oft-injured fullback Brandon Hancock. With Hancock splitting time, linebacker Ryan Powdrell will work at fullback.

The USC secondary is in flux, needing to replace three starters. Josh Pinkard, who started six games at cornerback last year, will work primarily at safety, with Kevin Thomas, Cary Harris, Mozique McCurtis and Terrell Thomas competing at cornerback. However, Terrell Thomas (knee) is one of five players expected to either sit out or be limited this spring. The others are linebackers Dallas Sartz (shoulder) and Brian Cushing (shoulder) and safeties Kevin Ellison (knee) and Will Harris (ankle).

Washington Huskies

If anyone can inspire Washington's lackluster secondary, it should be new position coach J.D. Williams, and that has little to do with Williams' NFL pedigree. Williams is the older brother of Curtis Williams, the former Huskies strong safety who was paralyzed in a game against Stanford in 2000 and died 31 months later because of complications from those injuries. Washington, which went on to win the Rose Bowl and finish No. 3 in the nation after Williams was hurt, dedicated the season to him and "25" -- his jersey number -- is painted on the turf at Husky Stadium. The elder Williams coached California's secondary the past four seasons. He played at Fresno State and played in the NFL from 1990 to 1996. He replaces Steven Wilks, who was hired by the Chicago Bears last month. The Huskies gave up 24 touchdown passes last year and allowed opponents to complete a mind-boggling 66.8 percent of their passes.

The Huskies got a head start on their 2007 recruiting class with an oral commitment from Emeka Iweka, who has spurned a basketball scholarship from Oregon State so he can play football in his hometown. Iweka, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound two-sport star at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, could play defensive end or tight end. He has played only two seasons of football.

Washington State Cougars

Washington State lost both starting cornerbacks from 2005 -- Wally Dada and Alex Teems -- but that might not be such a big deal considering the Cougars ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in pass defense and surrendered 27 touchdown passes. Seniors Tyron Brackenridge (sat out last year with academic woes) and Don Turner are the front-runners to take over at corner, but sophomores Courtney Williams and Ian Bell could emerge. Senior Lorenzo Bursey won't be in the mix because he has moved to receiver. Another issue in the secondary: Strong safety Eric Frampton, the team's leading tackler last fall, will miss spring practice with a knee injury. That means sophomore Michael Willis and junior Christian Bass will get opportunities to show their stuff.

Joining Frampton on the sidelines with injuries are four other key contributors: tight end Cody Boyd (heel) and defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua (leg) are out, and tight end Jesse Taylor (shoulder) and receiver Chris Jordan (knee) will participate in limited, noncontact work only.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ted Miller | email

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