Spring look around the Pac-10
Will Nate Longshore be ready at Cal? Can Stanford improve its running game? Will QB Mark Sanchez claim the USC starting job? The Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Arizona's quarterback during spring practice last year was walk-on Adam Austin. Then-starter Richard Kovalcheck was injured. Current starter Willie Tuitama was still in high school. So was top receiver Mike Thomas. It figures that a lot more will get done this time around, particularly in the passing game. The top three receivers, Thomas, Syndric Steptoe and Anthony Johnson, are essentially set, with B.J. Dennard likely to push into the rotation. That means the Wildcats offense -- mostly anemic the past few seasons -- will have three more weeks of refinement at the skill positions than it did last year. With eight starters back, this unit has the potential to improve dramatically.
It's not easy to replace a four-year starter, but sophomore Brandon Tatum is the favorite to step in for All-Pac-10 safety Darrell Brooks. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Tatum mostly played on special teams last year. Helping his adjustment should be the presence of an experienced cornerback combination in Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.
The good news is Arizona State's green receiving corps will get even more time to work with a pair of experienced quarterbacks. The bad news is that's because senior Terry Richardson, the Sun Devils only experienced receiver, will miss spring practices while serving a suspension for violating unspecified team rules. The optimist's view is Richardson's time spent sitting in the corner means more reps for sophomores Mike Jones and Nate Kimbrough and redshirt freshmen Brandon Smith and Chris McGaha as well as converted tight end Jamaal Lewis, a senior.
Another position of concern is linebacker, where two of three starters must be replaced. Beau Manutai is expected to take over for Dale Robinson in the middle, but he will sit out the rest of spring practices with an ankle injury that might require surgery. To fortify the position, Derron Ware has been moved in from safety. Junior college transfer Garrett Judah is expected to immediately vie for a starting job, but he won't arrive until the fall.
One of the good stories coming out of spring practices is the re-emergence of California offensive tackle Mike Tepper. Tepper missed all of last season after being intentionally run over by a car full of jerks who were harassing a Cal volleyball player. Tepper tried to intercede and suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated tibia when the car backed over him, trapping his foot. He presently is listed as a first-team tackle and is showing no ill effects from the injury.
Another closely watched ankle belongs to quarterback Nate Longshore, who broke his in the 2005 season opener. While he's still limping, early reports are that Longshore is throwing well and appears to be well positioned to retain his starting job.
Besides interviewing candidates to replace secondary coach J.D. Williams, who bolted for Washington, coach Jeff Tedford also is jetting off to watch spring practices at Florida and West Virginia, two of the nation's best practitioners of the spread offense. Cal is incorporating elements of the spread into its offense this spring.
There are huge opportunities in Oregon's secondary. Not only did the Ducks lose both starting cornerbacks, Justin Phinisee and Aaron Gibson, and playmaking strong safety/outside linebacker Anthony Trucks, but starting safeties Patrick Chung (shoulder) and J.D. Nelson (knee) are sitting out with injuries after offseason surgeries. Junior Jackie Bates has experience and is the favorite at one corner, while Walter Thurmond presently tops the depth chart on the other side. JC transfers Matthew Harper and Jameel Dowling also could be in the mix at safety or corner. Junior Kwame Agyeman and seniors Jon Pope and Chris Vincent are competing to replace Trucks.
With Oregon's offensive line welcoming back all five starters -- not to mention the arrival of a pair of touted junior college transfers, Pat So'oalo and Fenuki Tupou -- sophomore Aaron Klovas has decided to transfer. Klovas, a former USA Today All-American, was once a major a recruiting coup for coach Mike Bellotti. Klovas was lured away from Bethel (Wash.) High School right under the noses of the hated Huskies. A major disappointment, Klovas never cracked the rotation. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.
Oregon State's biggest area of concern this spring is up-the-middle defense, which was their one area of strength last year. Both defensive tackles have departed as well as all-conference linebackers Trent Bray and Keith Ellison. Senior Ben Siegert figures to man one tackle. He's started 25 games throughout his career, though a shoulder injury held him back last year. Junior Curtis Coker, Naymon Frank, Pernell Booth, Jeff Kruskamp and William Vea are in the running opposite Siegert. Junior Andy Darkins like will man a linebacker spot but he's sitting out with a biceps injury. He and Derrick Doggett split time at weakside 'backer a year ago, but the coaches want both on the field and Darkins figures to eventually move inside. Junior Alan Darlin also could be a 260-pound presence in the middle.
While starting defensive ends Joe Lemma and Jeff Van Orsow are back, they could face challenges from JC transfer Dorian Smith as well as veteran Joe Rudulph Beavers coaches remain optimistic that receiver Marcel Love will regain his academic eligibility, which would provide a huge boost to the passing game. Love, who has been rehabilitating his academics at Linn-Benton Community College, caught 40 passes for 524 yards with four touchdowns in 2004.
Stanford had the worst rushing offense in the Pac-10 last year, averaging 2.6 per carry and scoring just eight touchdowns on the ground. For comparison, USC had 46 rushing touchdowns and eight other Pac-10 teams had 15 or more. So it's not such great news that the team's top two rushers, Anthony Kimble and Jason Evans, are back. Kimble led the Cardinal with 248 yards. Three Pac-10 teams averaged 212 or more yards per game. While quarterback Trent Edwards and a talented, veteran group of receivers should be able to move the ball through the air, Edwards got hit too much last year in large part because defenses didn't respect Stanford's running game.
The strength of the defense might be at inside linebacker, where Michael Okwo and Mike Silva return. Okwo has all-conference potential if he stays healthy. Outside linebacker is a bit of a question mark, with three players in the mix: Senior Emmanuel Awofadeju, junior Austin Gunder, a converted tight end, and sophomore Clinton Snyder.
New UCLA offensive line coach Jim Colletto, who must replace three starters, wasn't eager to show his cards at the conclusion of spring practices. He told reporters in Los Angeles that only junior guard Shannon Tevega, a potential all-conference performer with 18 starts to his credit, is guaranteed a first-team spot. Part of that vagueness is due to the absence of center Robert Chai and guard Chris Joseph, who sat out with injuries. Brian Abraham, who started nine games last year, figures to be one tackle. Tackle Aleksey Lanis and guard P.J. Irvin played well this spring and could be in the mix, as is sophomore tackle Nick Ekbatani.
One player who didn't have a good spring -- or winter, for that matter -- is kicker Justin Medlock. On April 10, he faces a pretrial hearing in Los Angeles Super Court on two felony counts resulting from a December DUI arrest. A member of the Bruins women's golf team was injured in the accident. Medlock is under indefinite suspension and his status with the team is tenuous, at best. One of the conference's best kickers, he connected on 13 of 17 field goals last year and has booted 42 field goals in his career.
You have to feel for USC quarterback John David Booty. He sat behind Matt Leinart for three years. He paid his dues. This was supposed to be his spring, his time to shine. But last Friday the fourth-year junior had back surgery. He'll be out of commission for eight to 12 weeks but should be ready for fall practices. At that point, however, he might no longer be the favorite to be the Trojans starting quarterback. Redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez, who one veteran Pac-10 coach said is the best quarterback recruit he's ever seen, has done nothing but impress since Booty went down. Sanchez appears to combine Leinart's poise and leadership ability with Carson Palmer's physical tools. Nonetheless, coach Pete Carroll told LA reporters that he won't name a starter until fall camp. This will be the first time during Carroll's tenure at USC that he didn't designate a starting quarterback at the end of spring practices.
There's a lot of competition on defense. Talented sophomore Rey Maualuga is pushing Oscar Lua at middle linebacker; sophomore linebacker Kaluka Maiava has impressed; and junior Chris Barrett, after four position changes, has earned raves at defensive tackle. On the other hand, on offense, senior tailback Hershel Dennis found his way into Carroll's doghouse with a hamstring injury he suffered while running on the beach. Dennis, a former starter who gave way to Reggie Bush and LenDale White and then sat out last year with a knee injury, was the Trojans' only healthy tailback.
Jordan White-Frisbee looked like a budding star two years ago, earning a starting spot as a true freshman on Washington's defensive line. But a foot injury sidelined him all of last year, and there was talk of him moving to the offensive line. He's still not at full speed, but he will remain on defense for the time being. Coach Tyrone Willingham said he is hopeful that White-Frisbee will see full-contact work before the end of spring.
The Huskies must replace four starters on the offensive line, and it doesn't help that line coach Mike Denbrock isn't overseeing the effort this spring due to an undisclosed illness. It's unclear when he will return. In his absence, former Huskies center Kyle Benn, who served as a graduate assistant last year, will coach the line.
Shelton Sampson, who quit the team last year when the coaches moved him from tailback to cornerback, has returned. And he's agreed to play corner. Sampson, who has great speed, could work his way into a the mix at a position that was a decided weakness a year ago.
The injury bug won't leave Washington State alone. The latest to go down is projected starting center Dan Rowlands, though his shoulder injury doesn't appear serious. He's the third offensive lineman to get nicked. Starting safety Eric Frampton (knee) and defensive tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu (foot) both had surgery last week. Others nursing injuries include linebacker Jason Stripling (shoulder), cornerback Tyron Brackenridge (hamstring), receiver Lorenzo Bursey (foot) and tight end Cody Boyd (heel).
The defense, terrible a year ago, dominated a scrimmage Saturday, racking up six sacks and an interception while surrendering just one touchdown -- a 2-yard pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Arkelon Hall to tight end Jed Collins. Collins has moved to tight end after playing running back and linebacker the past two years, and he may be needed if the oft-injured Boyd can't get healthy. Hall is battling for the No. 3 quarterback job with Cole Morgan behind starter Alex Brink and backup Gary Rogers. Brink completed just 4 of 12 passes for 37 yards in the scrimmage. While the offense generally struggled, tailback DeMaundray Woolridge appears to be Jerome Harrison's heir. He rushed for 35 yards on nine carries.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.