Spring look around the Pac-10
Which Cal quarterback is challenging incumbent starter Nate Longshore? What are some of the unresolved issues at USC? Who's making a name for himself this spring at Arizona State? Our Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Arizona expects to have its deepest offensive line in years next fall, and that's good because the Wildcats won't break through offensively unless they figure out a way to consistently run the football. Some youngsters up front are making pushes. Redshirt freshman Adam Grant was recruited out of Washington's backyard in Puyallup as a 6-foot-6 tight end, but he's now challenging veteran tackle Peter Graniello. While Grant probably won't win this battle, his experience at tight end might make him a dual threat for bulked-up goal-line formations. Also, redshirt freshman Daniel Borg, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona a year ago, is challenging sophomore Joe Longacre at guard.
While the offensive linemen are battling, the tailbacks are stagnating. Junior Chris Henry hasn't separated himself from Xavier Smith or Terry Longbons, though their pecking order hasn't changed. That means incoming players Derke Robinson and Glyndon Bolasky won't have much ground to make up when they arrive for preseason practices in August.
With its best and most experienced receiver, Terry Richardson, suspended, Arizona State needed someone to step up, and that's exactly what sophomore Mike Jones did. Jones was the key reason backup quarterback Rudy Carpenter outplayed starter Sam Keller in the spring game last weekend. Jones, a 6-foot-3 Texan and former prep quarterback, hauled in seven receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He caught just four passes last year. His consistency this spring has not only earned him Carpenter's and the coaches' respect, it's also earned him the No. 1 spot at split end, ahead of converted tight end Jamaal Lewis.
Defensive end Loren Howard sat out spring practices while recovering from knee surgery, but coaches have their fingers crossed that he can become a critical contributor in the fall. He had 29½ tackles for loss and eight sacks over his freshman and sophomore seasons at Northwestern before injuries slowed his development. After ankle and knee surgeries, Howard decided to transfer. He underwent a second procedure on his knee just two months ago.
California's quarterback competition appears to be a case of deja vu: It's Nate Longshore and Joseph Ayoob, only this time Ayoob is mounting a real -- and surprising -- challenge. It appears that both redshirt freshman Kyle Reed and senior Steve Levy have fallen behind. Reed, with the best arm and good running ability, appeared to be an interesting dark horse candidate, but he's way behind in understanding the new spread-option offense. Longshore, the incumbent who was injured in the opener last year, clearly knows the offense, but Ayoob seems far more comfortable with the spread elements than he was with last year's scheme.
USC isn't the only Pac-10 program loaded at linebacker. Cal may be the Trojans' match. Junior Worrell Williams and former walk-on Justin Moye, also a junior, have been particularly impressive this spring. Williams is competing with Zach Follett at one outside position opposite Moye. Inside, it's Desmond Bishop and Greg Van Hoesen. Mickey Pimentel, who's injured, and Anthony Felder, a freshman All-American last year, also figure to be in the mix on the outside.
After somebody (who? us?) touted the potential of Oregon's running game -- and repeatedly noted some defensive issues up front -- the Ducks went out and couldn't run the ball for squat in a scrimmage last weekend. With tailback Jonathan Stewart sidelined with turf toe, his backfield mates produced just 28 yards on 20 carries, with the defensive line frequently hanging out in the backfield. That dominance was produced against an offensive line that returns all five starters. Results like that may increase competition, and junior college transfers Pat So'oalo and Fenuki Tupou, who combine for nearly 680 pounds, could mount challenges on the line.
The Ducks' defensive front, which lost two key starters, including Haloti Ngata -- a likely early first-round NFL draft pick -- dominated. With defensive end Darius Sanders sitting out, redshirt freshman Nick Reed recorded 2½ sacks, one of which resulted in a safety. Cole Linehan and David Faaeteete are manning the tackles, while Matt Toeaina has moved outside to end. The Ducks lost a pair of starting cornerbacks, but speedster Jackie Bates, who started seven games in his career, is a sure thing on one side. The other? Wide open. Walk-on Terrell Ward has pushed past Walter Thurmond III on the depth chart, with Bates' backup, Willie Glasper, also a possibility. It's also possible that a safety, perhaps sophomore Patrick Chung, could move over to cornerback.
Oregon State fans' spirits sunk last year when tight end Joe Newton went down with a season-ending leg injury, so they are understandably elated with his return to good health. But who will back up one of the conference's best tight ends? Jason Vandiver, the only other scholarship tight end, has been battling injuries. That's forced the coaches to insert James Otuhiva, who signed as a tight end but has been playing on the offensive line, into the TE position. Prep signee Gabe Miller might have helped this fall, but he ruptured his Achilles in a track meet.
Speaking of backups, while tailback Yvenson Bernard is draped in a no-contact jersey because coach Mike Riley doesn't want to risk injury, junior college transfer Clinton Polk has established himself as a legitimate No. 2 option. Polk originally signed for Dennis Erickson but didn't qualify academically. Another backup note: It appears that redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Canfield is well on his way to eclipsing junior Ryan Gunderson on the depth chart behind starter Matt Moore.
Two redshirt freshmen are making an impression on Stanford's defensive line. End Matt Kopa rotates in behind Gustav Rydstedt, who is still searching for his rhythm while recovering from a knee injury. Kopa has made a number of plays, while touted nose tackle Ekom Udofia looks poised to fill the big shoes of Babatunde Oshinowo.
Cornerback remains a question, but junior Thaddeus Chase Jr. won't be the answer. Chase switched from receiver to corner at the beginning of spring, but now he's been moved to safety. Nick Sanchez is set at one corner, but competition remains heated opposite him. While Mark Bradford and Evan Moore give quarterback Trent Edwards two A-list receivers, there's a lack of depth behind them. Junior Mike Miller and senior Marcus McCutcheon, who caught all of three passes last year, were running with the second team, though that was due in part to junior Nate Wilcox-Fogel being banged up. Expect tight end Patrick Danahy to see more balls coming his way this year. By the way, early reports are Edwards is showing no ill effects from the shoulder problems that riddled him last year.
UCLA's defensive line should show significant improvement next fall -- if it gets and stays healthy. The first order is a successful return of tackle Kevin Brown, who broke his leg last fall. Joining Brown as a budding star is Kenneth Lombard, who probably posted the best spring of any defensive lineman. Lombard can play end or tackle. While Brown didn't make it completely back from injury, Chris Horton did. Horton moved from free to strong safety and earned a spot atop the depth chart, lining up beside free safety Dennis Keyes.
UCLA was done with spring practice for weeks, so coaches have turned their attention to recruiting, with good results, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Nate Chandler, a 6-5, 225-pound tight end out of San Diego, became the fifth high school junior to give the Bruins an oral commitment for the 2007 class. UCLA figures to have no more than 15 available scholarships, so the Bruins are already a third of the way toward filling out their class.
USC released it's post-spring depth chart, and it's clear that much remains unresolved well beyond the marquee quarterback competition between injured John David Booty, who remains atop the depth chart, and Mark Sanchez. Four positions listed co-starters: left guard (sophomore Jeff Byers and junior Matt Spanos), defensive end (sophomore Kyle Moore and junior Jeff Schweiger), middle linebacker (sophomore Rey Maualuga and senior Oscar Lua) and cornerback (sophomore Cary Harris and junior Terrell Thomas). Josh Pinkard and Kevin Ellison were listed as the starting safeties, but they figure to be challenged by highly touted incoming freshmen Taylor Mays and Allen Bradford, as well as Antwine Perez, who graduated high school early to participate in spring practices.
One player who wasn't hurt and wasn't sharing a first-team perch was linebacker Dallas Sartz. The 6-5, 240-pound fifth-year senior suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 2 against Arkansas last season. A two-year starter, he overcame competition from sophomore Brian Cushing, who also is recovering from shoulder surgery. Because of stunning depth at the position, it's possible that Sartz -- or another linebacker -- might play a hybrid role at times -- either as an extra defensive lineman or defensive back.
Washington offensive line coach Mike Denbrock returned to practices this week after struggling with a flare-up of Crohn's disease (a digestive tract disorder), and it's not a moment too soon because the Huskies' line has been sliced and diced for 2½ weeks. The Huskies lost four starters -- senior guard Stanley Daniels is the only incumbent -- but senior center Clay Walker has 19 career starts to his credit. Juniors Juan Garcia and Chad Macklin appear entrenched on the right side at guard and tackle, respectively. The competition at left tackle between sophomore Nathan Flowers and surprising redshirt freshman Ben Ossai remains unresolved and figures to continue well into preseason practices. The players are touting significant improvement since the April 9 scrimmage, when they surrendered six sacks and produced few running lanes. That may be put to the test during the spring game on Saturday.
The spring game also will be a good time for a backup quarterback to emerge. While Isaiah Stanback is the clear No. 1, last season's No. 2, Oregon transfer Johnny DuRocher, has regressed, while Carl Bonnell, whose commitment has been repeatedly questioned, has shown dramatic improvement. Also of note are the emergence of a former and current walk-on: At tight end, Michael Gottlieb, who earned his scholarship in 2004, is challenging Robert Lewis for the starting job, while receiver Alex Mercier has earned repetitions with the No. 1 offense in three-and four-receiver sets.
Washington State's offense awoke in its final spring scrimmage, with quarterback Alex Brink and receiver Jason Hill -- an All-American candidate -- providing much of the fireworks with a 55-yard touchdown connection. But the Cougars will emerge from spring practices with a lot of questions, many of which weren't helped by a bevy of injuries. Primary among these: center, tailback, punter and a second cornerback.
While Tyron Brackenridge has settled in at the right corner, neither senior Don Turner nor sophomore Courtney Williams distinguished themselves, which might inspire some position changes. Senior Josh Duin is being challenged by redshirt freshman Kenny Alfred at center, while Darryl Blunt owns a slight lead over fellow sophomore Fritz Brayton in replacing Kyle Basler at punter. Two players made big moves. Sophomore Andy Roof asserted himself as the starting right guard, while junior Jed Collins, who's dabbled unsuccessfully at running back and linebacker, played himself into the mix at tight end, where he is listed as a backup to talented but oft-injured senior Cody Boyd.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.