- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Who stole the show at Arizona's spring game? Which quarterback will win the Oregon job? What are USC's QB options after Mark Sanchez and John David Booty? Our Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
While most folks showed up to Arizona's spring game to see quarterback Willie Tuitama -- and a zipping 30-yard touchdown pass to Mike Thomas gave fans what they wanted -- the stars of the scrimmage were cornerback Antoine Cason and kicker Nick Folk. Cason, perhaps the best cover corner in the Pac-10, broke up two passes and grabbed an interception from backup quarterback Adam Austin that he returned 35 yards. Meanwhile, Folk booted a 62-yard field goal. Yeah, 62 yards.
While the Wildcats improving defense mostly dominated this spring, Chris Henry did move to the front of the tailback competition. Henry had a 9-yard touchdown run in the spring game and finished with 34 yards on 11 carries. Henry's biggest issue is holding onto the football. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales said Henry has problems when he tries to run over defenders, seeking contact that could knock the ball loose instead of avoiding it.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State might be closer to filling its two linebacker vacancies, but depth is an issue and the competitions certainly haven't been won this spring. Returning starter Robert James is a sure thing on the weak side, and Beau Manutai is expected to man the middle, barring any complications after spring ankle surgery that prematurely ended his spring. Chad Lindsey is the frontrunner on the strong side. Mike Nixon looks like a solid backup behind Manutai. But, after that, the pickings are slim. That means JC transfer Garrett Judah and four true freshman could push into the rotation.
Punting was a terrible problem for the Sun Devils last year, which is a big reason that coach Dirk Koetter decided to offer a full scholarship to incoming JC transfer Jonathan Johnson. Arizona State was second to last in the conference in net punting (29.7 yards per punt). If Johnson can win the job, that means Jesse Ainsworth can concentrate on field goals. Ainsworth took over for Chris McDonald last year. McDonald's big foot was canceled out by four blocks.
California Golden Bears
California's defense controlled the spring game, but it couldn't stop DeSean Jackson from making the first of what figures to be many star turns this year. Jackson transformed a short pass into a 70-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, and also returned a punt 57 yards for a score. Jackson, a sophomore, figures to be one of the most exciting players in the conference. The defense countered with its own fancy plays, particularly cornerback Tim Mixon's 85-yard interception return of an errant Kyle Reed toss.
Three of the five spots on the offensive line appear set: guard Erik Robertson, tackle Scott Smith and center Alex Mack, who had a very good spring. A number of candidates are in the mix for the other two spots, though tackle Mike Tepper and guard Kevin Bemoll might be the favorites. After the spring game, coach Jeff Tedford told reporters that Mack, linebacker Justin Moye and safety Bernard Hicks made the biggest impression during spring drills.
If Oregon played next weekend, Dennis Dixon would be the starting quarterback and he wouldn't alternate with Brady Leaf, as he did last year after starter Kellen Clemens was lost to injury. Though that could change, Dixon performed well passing and running while leading his team to a 26-17 victory in the spring game. Both quarterbacks had touchdown passes of over 30 yards, but Leaf threw three interceptions and his mobility is far behind Dixon's.
Fast risers on the roster after spring including cornerback Terrell Ward, receiver Derrick Jones and tight end Dante Rosario. Ward leads in the competition at right corner opposite Jackie Bates. Jones has outstanding speed, but is still in limbo about his eligibility after transferring from USC. Rosario started his career at fullback but has the athleticism to be a weapon as a receiver and blocker in a hybrid position within the spread offense. Kwame Agyeman is atop the depth chart at outside linebacker/strong safety, with A.J.Tuitele and Blair Phillips manning the inside spots, pending the return of Brent Haberly from ankle surgery.
Oregon State had two glaring -- glaring -- deficiencies last season: pass defense and quarterback Matt Moore. Both appear improved after spring practices concluded. Moore -- who tossed 19 interceptions with only 11 touchdowns -- appears to have a far better grasp of the offense. His life also should be easier because he's surrounded by an experienced offense, including tailback Yvenson Bernard, five returning starters on the offensive line and a solid if unspectacular receiving corps that has been fortified by the return from injury of tight end Joe Newton.
The secondary produced the nation's worst pass defense a year ago, yielding 300 yards per game and 31 touchdowns passes. It showed some spunk this spring. It also should benefit from improved play on the defensive line. The Beavers produced just 22 sacks, tied for last in the Pac-10. That lack of pressure didn't help the secondary. Spring showed that there appears to be capable depth on the line, with tackles Pernell Booth, Curtis Coker, Naymon Frank and Ben Siegert as well as ends Joe Lemma, Joe Rudulph, Dorian Smith and Jeff Van Orsow making it appear an eight-man rotation is possible.
The spring game is typically a half-empty/half-full affair but rarely to the extent it was at Stanford. The Cardinal offense scored eight touchdowns against its suspect defense, with four quarterbacks completing 36-of-42 passes for 401 yards. Starter Trent Edwards dominated, completing 17-of-20 for 203 yards with three touchdowns. Good for Edwards and the offense in its second year under quarterbacks guru Walt Harris. But that defense, led by coordinator A.J. Christoff, has issues, including whether its personnel is better suited for a new 4-3 or 3-4 front, which the team has used the past two years.
There might be a battle at backup quarterback, with redshirt freshman Tavita Pritchard challenging veteran T.C. Ostrander. Both put up good numbers in the scrimmage, but Harris has been singing Pritchard's praises at Ostrander's expense. Meanwhile, at tailback, Anthony Kimble appears to have a lead over Jason Evans, Xxavier Carter (yeah, two Xs) and Ray Jones. Jones was cited along with receiver Kelton Lynn as the most improved offensive players of the spring. Defensive tackle Michael Macellari and cornerback Tim Sims were named the most improved defensive players.
With Marcedes Lewis off to the NFL as a first-round draft choice, UCLA is looking for a tight end, though replacing Lewis' team-leading 58 receptions for 741 yards with 10 touchdowns doesn't seem likely. At the end of spring, senior J.J. Hair, who has been known mostly for his blocking, topped the depth chart. He caught only two passes a year ago. Behind him were two sophomores Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya. Paulsen caught only six passes a year ago. Moya showed some playmaking ability by hauling in 10 receptions, including touchdown rumbles of 48 and 58 yards. A dark horse candidate is redshirt freshman Adam Heater. Moya is the shortest of the bunch at 6-foot-3, while the others are listed at 6-5.
Coach Karl Dorrell has gone out of his way to not declare Ben Olson his No. 1 quarterback. Few believe Olson won't be the starter, but Dorrell clearly doesn't want Olson to become complacent in his competition with Patrick Cowan, who played well during the spring. Dorrell also probably wants Olson to assert himself during the offseason, particularly as he throws with the Bruins receivers during summer workouts. These impromptu sessions are often when timing is developed. But, more important, Olson, as a 23-year-old sophomore who returned from a two-year Mormon mission a year ago, needs to win over his younger teammates.
Talk about a bad few weeks for USC. Forget the falling stock of the former Trojans in the NFL draft, the program has been buffeted by legal and NCAA issues of late that affect the current players, too. What does it mean for next year? The investigations into former tailback Reggie Bush's (his family, at least) and current receiver Dwayne Jarrett's housing arrangements could result in NCAA sanctions, and Jarrett could face some sort of suspension. That could hurt, particularly with tough nonconference games at Arkansas and against Nebraska to start the season. But the bigger issue is quarterback Mark Sanchez's arrest for an alleged sexual assault. It remains to be seen how far that goes, but the potential loss of Sanchez could prove crushing if John David Booty's back continues to give him problems after surgery this spring.
If neither are available, the drop-off is precipitous because Rocky Hinds opted to transfer to UNLV last summer. Behind Booty and Sanchez on the depth chart are junior Michael McDonald – one career pass – and junior walk-on Tom Harwood. Prep All-American Garrett Green arrives in the fall, but it's unlikely he could fight his way into the mix.
There are two words that would describe Washington's pass defense last year: freaking terrible. It yielded 24 touchdown passes and opposing quarterbacks completed 67 percent of their passes. Yet, after the April 22 spring game, it appears there's reasonable hope for improvement, due in large part to the inspired move of Dashon Goldson from safety to cornerback. Goldson, perhaps the Huskies' best all-around athlete, had an interception and a pass defense in the spring game, and his solid, 6-foot-2 frame means he can go mano-a-mano with the big, physical receivers that litter the conference. Roy Lewis turned in a solid spring at the other corner, and safety C.J. Wallace is a potential all-conference performer. The competition to take over Goldson's free safety spot remains wide open between Mesphin Forrester and Chris Hemphill, and incoming JC transfer Ashley Palmer likely will be in the mix.
Two players who were cast aside a year ago find themselves atop the depth chart at the end of spring: tailback Kenny James and kicker Michael Braunstein. James was injured, out of shape and mostly forgotten a year ago after rushing for over 1,200 yards his first two seasons. Louis Rankin took over the starting job, which then fell to James Sims. But James is back in front of Rankin after he rededicated himself to conditioning. Braunstein, a junior, arrived as a highly-recruited kicker but has converted just three field goals as a career backup. He was leading Ryan Perkins in the kicking competition this spring, and then Perkins suffered an knee injury in the spring game.
Washington State Cougars
The talk around Washington State this spring were areas of concern, like cornerback, tailback, a couple of offensive line vacancies and tight end. Those competitions likely will continue into the fall. But the biggest thing that could hold the Cougars back in 2006 is its biggest bugaboo the past two seasons: injuries. This team lacks depth, but its starting 22 is bowl quality. If WSU can stay healthy, no other team in the Pac-10 is poised for more improvement.
If oft-injured but talented defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua is 100 percent, the front seven looks particularly salty. End Mkristo Bruce, who had 10 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss last year, is an NFL prospect. The only departure up front was end Adam Braidwood, and Matt Mullennix appears to have earned his coaches' faith after a solid spring. The three-man linebacking corps combined for 203 tackles last season. That troika -- seniors Scott Davis and Steve Dildine and sophomore Greg Trent -- could be more aggressive, considering it produced only nine tackles for a loss.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.