Spring look around the Pac-10
With spring practices getting started, our Pac-10 notebook addresses the big questions facing each team.
Which QBs have the inside track to the starting jobs at Oregon State and UCLA? Who will be Justin Forsett's sidekick at Cal? Which receiver is the talk of Washington State's spring camp? Our Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and much more.
While Arizona's new spread offense didn't inspire an angelic chorus celebrating a miraculous transformation of an anemic unit into a potent one, the results were generally encouraging this spring. Perhaps presaging things to come, the Wildcats threw 70 percent of the time in the spring game, with quarterback Willie Tuitama completing 24 of 39 for 292 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also led a pair of drives that resulted in field goals. Though the running game served mostly as a counterpunch, it did produce 5.6 yards per carry. Tailback Chris Jennings rushed for 39 yards and led all receivers with seven receptions, demonstrating that wideouts won't be the only featured weapons in the passing game. As for the receivers, Terrell Turner produced 72 yards on six receptions, while Anthony Johnson hauled in a 23-yard touchdown from Tuitama. On defense, redshirt freshman end Ricky Elmore recorded a pair of sacks, while sophomore linebacker Xavier Kelley registered a game-high 10 tackles. New kicker Jason Bondzio connected on 4 of 5 field goals.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Seven turnovers -- not exactly what new Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson wanted for his first spring game. Nor was a lackluster performance from quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who completed 14 of 26 passes for 190 yards with no touchdowns. What is encouraging is an experienced offensive line -- one that includes the return of Zach Krula, who has moved from guard to tackle after being granted a sixth year of eligibility -- did a good job opening holes for what might be one of the Pac-10's best (and mostly unknown) crew of tailbacks. Ryan Torain, who quietly rushed for 1,229 yards last year after winning the starting job at midseason, scored on runs of 6 and 35 yards. He's the lead dog, while versatile Keegan Herring offers a nice counterpunch. Toss in Dimitri Nance, who opened eyes with his receiving ability, and incoming JC transfer Jarrell Woods, and there's depth and a diversity of skill sets.
California Golden Bears
After two years as the Robin to Marshawn Lynch's Batman, California tailback Justin Forsett will step into top billing at tailback. But like Lynch, he needs a sidekick -- perhaps even more so, considering he's a 5-foot-8, 190-pound scatback, unlike the sometimes bruising Lynch. That role probably will fall to redshirt freshman James Montgomery, who's been solid this spring, showcasing good vision and speed and a sometimes physical running style. The competition for the backup quarterback slot behind Nate Longshore figures to continue well into fall camp, considering sophomore Kyle Reed and redshirt freshman Kevin Riley were both doing well before running into injury issues. The offensive line, which needs to replace tackle Andrew Cameron and guard Erik Robertson, is taking shape, despite the absences of injured starters Mike Gibson and Noris Malele. Gibson, out with a bum shoulder, will move from right to left tackle, while Mike Tepper and Brian De La Puente will be the front-runners at right tackle and guard, respectively. There could be further tinkering, though, such as moving All-Pac-10 center Alex Mack outside to tackle. And a couple of youngsters could get into the mix.
Oregon nation surely is breathing easier after last weekend's scrimmage. For one, the new offense appears to be getting untracked. And more important, quarterback Dennis Dixon is untracking it. A week after the offense looked completely out of sync, Dixon led a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the scrimmage, going 5-for-5 for 47 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jaison Williams. That may indicate that he's put his 2006 slide -- he hurled 12 interceptions in the final nine games -- behind him. Coach Mike Bellotti told The Oregonian that Dixon has surged ahead of the other quarterbacks, eliminating questions that his job was in jeopardy. Dixon appears to be thriving in the fast-paced, no-huddle attack. Another critical offensive issue this spring is replacing All-Pac-10 center Enoka Lucas. It appears that vacancy will be filled by Jeff Kendall, who's nearly 300 pounds after putting on 17 pounds since last season.
Oregon State Beavers
Much like their fine, feathered friends down the road -- the Ducks of Eugene -- Oregon State's spring football has been a tale of two scrimmages: the first messy offensively, the second fairly impressive. A week ago, Beavers quarterbacks went 14-for-42. This past weekend, though, they doubled their touchdown total to four in 87 plays and both Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao, who are battling for the starting job, threw well. To start the scrimmage, Canfield, the front-runner to win the job, led a 16-play, 70-yard drive, which was capped by an 8-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Brown (he's dropped the "Wheat" from "Wheat-Brown"). Canfield completed 6 of 12 throws for 65 yards. Moevao primarily used a 65-yard toss to freshman tight end Brady Camp to produce his own 70-yard scoring drive. Moevao completed 4 of 6 for 109 yards. In the first scrimmage, the pair completed just 7 of 22 for 60 yards. The offensive star of the scrimmage, however, was junior tailback Patrick Fuller. With starter Yvenson Bernard and backup Clinton Polk sitting out, Fuller took advantage, rushing for 95 yards on 13 carries, an effort that included runs of 36 and 24 yards.
Without question, Stanford's only offensive weapon a year ago was quarterback Trent Edwards, who spent most of his star-crossed career just trying to stay healthy. With Edwards expected to be selected in this weekend's NFL draft, the difficult and lonely job falls to fifth-year senior T.C. Ostrander, who's seen plenty of action during his career in large part because Edwards often found defensive ends flying through his ear holes. Ostrander hasn't been particularly impressive when he's played, but new coach Jim Harbaugh has said he's pleased with him. That's good, because Harbaugh operates as his own quarterbacks coach and has already made an impression with his obsessive eye for nuances of technique. Make no mistake: This is Harbaugh's offense. The former NFL quarterback will play a primary role in developing the game plan and will call the plays on Saturday. He and Ostrander figure to be connected at the hip. With huge questions on the Cardinal defense, they best master their tango quickly. Senior Derek Belch has passed Aaron Zagory in the kicking competition. Zagory was inconsistent last year, connecting on 8 of 13 field goals with a long of 37 yards.
UCLA coach Karl Dorrell has said he wants to know who his starting quarterback will be at the conclusion of spring practices. If you want to bet money on the competition between Ben Olson and Pat Cowan, we suggest the safe money is on Olson. Cowan started as the underdog and needed to clearly outplay the more talented Olson. He hasn't. In fact, Olson has been far sharper of late with just a week of practices and a spring game to go. In a scrimmage Saturday, Olson went 4-for-9 for 28 yards with two touchdowns, while Cowan was 2-for-8 for 40 yards with a 33-yard touchdown pass. Olson also was sharper in red zone work, according to The Los Angeles Times, tossing a pair of TD passes while Cowan had none. Sophomore Micah Kia has emerged as the favorite to win the left tackle position, the only void on the Bruins' offensive line. With tailbacks Chris Markey and Derrick Williams sitting out with injuries, Kahlil Bell has played well. Bell needed a good spring. He fell out of favor last year, missing four games with an ankle injury and then incurring a two-game suspension to conclude the season.
Here's poetic justice (or injustice, depending on whether you find yourself riding with or falling underneath the USC juggernaut): Mostly due to an outbreak of injuries -- none terribly worrisome -- the Trojans finished spring practices with a lack of depth at tailback. Fullback Stanley Havili led all rushers in the final scrimmage with 110 yards on 12 carries. Come August, however, a 10-deep and ridiculously glittering array of stars will scrap and claw for playing time. That list, perhaps surprisingly, includes Hershel Dennis, the previously forgotten man -- he was last seen starting ahead of Reggie Bush and LenDale White four years ago -- whose solid effort this spring raised at least a few eyebrows. Dennis earned a sixth year of eligibility after missing the previous two seasons due to injuries. Nonetheless, if a pecking order were to be established, Chauncey Washington and C.J. Gable likely would get the first nod, though more than a few USC fans are curious about what incoming freshman Joe McKnight -- aka, the next Bush -- can do. Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton finished spring as the top two receivers, with David Ausberry and Travon Patterson providing depth.
While Washington linebacker E.J. Savannah sat out Saturday's scrimmage with a stinger, he has been one of the big stories of spring after he surpassed Chris Stevens on the depth chart in the competition to replace Scott White. Savannah is a more complete, consistent linebacker. And, at 230 pounds, he's a lot bigger than the 210-pound Stevens. Stevens is a better fit as a speedy, situational player, particularly in passing situations. Offensive coaches have gone out of their way to not establish a pecking order at tight end, listing Michael Gottlieb, Johnie Kirton and Robert Lewis as co-starters. None of the three is a standout as both a blocker and receiver, though the 270-pound Kirton clearly has the most ability of the group.
Washington State Cougars
While most preseason reviews of Washington State will bemoan the departure of receiver Jason Hill, the Cougars receiving corps might be better in 2007. The name creating buzz isn't Michael Bumpus, either. It's junior Brandon Gibson, who had an 89-yard kickoff return and hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass in the spring game. Toss in Charles Dillon and the Cougs might have the second-best group of receivers in the conference behind California. It doesn't hurt either that quarterback Alex Brink is a three-year starter and four of five starters are back on the offensive line. There are uncertainties at tailback and huge questions on defense, but the Cougars should be able to pass on just about anyone next fall. While the secondary was the primary issue entering spring, the defensive line also is a source of concern. Defensive end Lance Broadus could miss a few games after undergoing shoulder surgery, and there continue to be questions about whether tackles Fevaea'i Ahmu (foot) and Aaron Johnson (back) will be able to play full-time.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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