Spring look around the Pac-10
With spring practices getting started, our Pac-10 notebook addresses the big questions facing each team.
Why is USC's Pete Carroll upset with new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh? What can UCLA fans expect from running back Chris Markey? Why is Arizona State optimistic about its receivers? Our Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
There's no doubt this spring that Willie Tuitama, despite concussion issues a year ago, is Arizona's starting quarterback. It also doesn't appear that there isn't any doubt that redshirt freshman Tyler Lyon will be Tuitama's backup, even though Kris Heavner owns extensive starting experience. Lyon was a touted prospect out of quarterback factory Hart High School in Newhall, Calif., and coach Mike Stoops wants him to learn the Wildcats' new spread offense as quickly as possible. Lyon completed 12 of 16 passes for 68 yards with an interception in a weekend scrimmage. The running game, as Stoops promised, wasn't abandoned either. Xavier Smith led all backs with 89 of the Wildcats' 185 yards rushing. While the starting defense appears set, there's developing depth on the line. Tackle Lolomana Mikaele had a sack in the scrimmage, while ends Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed have impressed.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter clearly suffered through a sophomore slump last year, but it wasn't all his fault. The Sun Devils were particularly inconsistent at receiver, which isn't good in a pass-happy offense. The early returns from spring practices provide reason for hope as two new faces are turning heads, particularly Kyle Williams, who caught five passes for 173 yards with touchdowns of 50 and 70 yards in a scrimmage over the weekend. Also, sophomore Brandon Smith, who ran a team-best 4.3 40 before spring drills began, has impressed. Smith only caught six passes last year but a 62-yard touchdown reception against Washington State indicated he has big-play ability -- much like Williams. Toss in the pure speed of Rodney Glass (also a running back) and the athleticism of Rudy Burgess and the Sun Devils prospects at receiver are looking up, even with Burgess, Mike Jones and Nate Kimbrough nursing injuries.
California Golden Bears
Spread guru Mike Dunbar bolted for Minnesota after one season as California's offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik was promoted to replace him. But head coach Jeff Tedford will call the plays, as he did his first four seasons in Berkeley, and that probably warms the cockles of Bears' fans hearts. Although the results were generally good last year when Cal added some spread wrinkles -- like using the shotgun formation -- the offense struggled the final three games of the regular season against Arizona, USC and Stanford. The Bears had too much talent to score a combined three touchdowns in those games. Despite losing Desmond Bishop, Cal's linebacking corps appears solid. Zach Follet will take over for Bishop in the middle, while Anthony Felder appears ready to regain his sometimes spectacular freshman form after an injury-plagued sophomore season.
Oregon started spring practices this week with many questions on defense, but one area that appears fairly solid is the Ducks' secondary. Both starting cornerbacks, rising sophomores Jairus Byrd -- the Pac-10 co-Freshman of the Year -- and Walter Thurmond III are back, as is corner Jackie Bates, who started the season opener before injuring an ankle. Also, Patrick Chung, the Ducks' leading returning tackler, is back at rover. He was second to Byrd (five interceptions) with four picks. Several key Ducks will be limited or sit out spring practices due to injuries, including defensive tackles Jeremy Gibbs, Simi Toeaina and Cole Linehan, and offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz and Max Unger.
Oregon State Beavers
Two Oregon State starters will sit out spring practices, which began this week, with injuries. Junior offensive guard Jeremy Perry, a first-team All-Pac-10 selection in 2006, is rehabilitating after knee surgery, while defensive end Jeff Van Orsow is nursing a stress fracture in his leg. The Beavers will have a new special teams coach this spring. Coach Mike Riley has hired former Alabama assistant Dave Ungerer, who worked under Jeff Tedford at California in 2002 before spending four seasons in Tuscaloosa with Mike Shula. Ungerer replaces Bruce Read, who took over as the Dallas Cowboys' special teams coach.
The buzz has been generally good about new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, but he clearly inserted his foot -- and perhaps entire leg -- into his mouth last week. Harbaugh was quoted as saying that USC coach Pete Carroll would remain only one more season at USC. Harbaugh was talking about the lack of coaching continuity at Stanford when he said of Carroll, "He's only got one more year, though. He'll be there one more year. That's what I've heard. I heard it inside the staff." When contacted by the LA Times, Harbaugh said he got his information "from multiple people secondhand, from people that have talked to people on the SC staff." Carroll was unhappy. "If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right," Carroll told the Times. "And if he has any questions about it he should call me." Stanford pays a visit to USC on Oct. 6, and Carroll is known to have a very long memory concerning slights.
Tailback Chris Markey became the first UCLA player to lead his team in rushing (1,107 yards) and receiving (35 receptions) since Kermit Alexander in 1962. Yet the 5-foot-11, 204-pound senior is mostly unknown outside of LA. That may change this year. With 13 of 14 players listed on the offensive line depth chart from last season returning -- the only loss is starting center Robert Chai -- the Bruins should be able to open holes for Markey, who enters his final season with 3,454 all-purpose yards, which ranks 10th on the Bruins all-time list. Chris Joseph, who started 13 games at guard last year, will open spring practices at center. Nikola Dragovic will get first crack at replacing defensive end Justin Hickman, but coaches are curious about UC Davis transfer Tom Blake, who redshirted a year ago.
The last thing most folks remember about USC linebacker Brian Cushing is his 2½ sacks against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Big things are expected from him in 2007 as he moves back to strongside linebacker after playing a hybrid position last season. But his spring likely ended last week when he suffered a hamstring injury, the Trojans most significant injury thus far. With Cushing out, versatile senior Thomas Williams and junior Clay Matthews Jr., will see action. Redshirt freshman receiver Jamere Holland, who sat out last year with a shoulder injury, made a number of plays running and catching in a scrimmage over the weekend, earning a spot on a long list of young receivers fighting to replace Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Patrick Turner and David Ausberry also caught long touchdown passes from backup quarterback Mark Sanchez. The scrimmage featured some struggles with the center-quarterback exchange. Sophomore Nick Howell is replacing Trojans standby Ryan Kalil at center. Coach Pete Carroll told the LA Times that Howell may have been distracted by All-American nose tackle Sedrick Ellis.
Washington must fill holes at linebacker and in the secondary this spring, but the Huskies defensive line is as deep as it has been in years with all four starters returning as well as an intriguing group of backups. A defensive line that can provide an up-front push and pressure on the quarterback can make things much easier for the Huskies' green linebackers and defensive backs. It's time for senior end Greyson Gunheim, who led the team with six sacks, to break through. Sophomore end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who had 10 tackles for a loss, should be bigger and stronger this fall. Also Caesar Rayford, a great athlete who also has struggled to put on size, will get a look, particularly as a pass rusher, as will Darrion Jones. Inside, tackles Wilson Afoa, Jordan Reffett and Erick Lobos are back. None of this troika is a spectacular athlete but each plays hard. A more intriguing athlete is redshirt freshman Cameron Elisara, who could challenge for a starting job.
Washington State Cougars
Washington State needs to replace three fourths of its secondary and two linebackers. So far this spring, the voids at linebacker appear easier to remedy, with both Cory Evans and Andy Mattingly playing well. Meanwhile, veteran cornerbacks Brian Williams and Ryan Kensok haven't impressed. It's possible that both starting corners will be first-year Cougars, with junior-college transfer Devin Giles and freshman Chima Nwachukwu arriving this fall. Head coach Bill Doba didn't like his special teams play last year, so he's involved more of his assistants in the preparation. He assigned Leon Burtnett punt protection, Ken Greene punt returns, Greg Peterson kickoff return and Mike Walker kickoff coverage.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.