May 20, 2006

Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10

Miss Southern California's Reggie Bush and LenDale White pairing in the backfield already? Take at least a little consolation in the 2006 edition of the Pac-10.

At the end of spring practice, several other Pac-10 teams found one-two punches at running back.

Arizona State has a two-headed monster at quarterback with Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter, but the rest of the backfield also operates in pairs.

Sophomore Keegan Herring set a Sun Devils rookie record with 870 rushing yards, but the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Shaun DeWitty will be the bruiser complement to the 5-10 Herring.

With sophomores Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon has people thinking about the Maurice Morris-Onterrio Smith combo that carried the Ducks to the 2001 Pac-10 championship even though Stewart and Johnson combined for only 335 yards last year.

California came 1 yard shy of producing two 1,000-yard rushers in 2005. Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,246 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, and Justin Forsett ran for 999 yards and 7.6 yards per carry. Despite moving to a spread offense under new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar, the Bears figure to stick with what worked in recent years.

Even at Oregon State, where Yvenson Bernard rushed for more than 1,300 yards last season, junior college transfer Clinton Polk impressed during the spring.

At Southern California, where Bush and White made up the nation's best backfield a year ago, the situation isn't as rosy. Projected starting running back Hershel Dennis suffered a season-ended knee injury, but Chauncey Washington returned to the team after being academically ineligible the last two seasons.

Arizona (3-8, 2-6))
The most important thing: D-line should catch up to secondary.
Josh Gershon of GOAZCats.com: "While the secondary, led by cornerback Antoine Cason, was among the best in the conference last season, the improvement of the defensive line could make this defense special. Third-year coach Mike Stoops was known for his defense while at Oklahoma, and he now has his players in place, especially when the Wildcats add defensive end Louis Holmes, the No. 1 junior college recruit in the country."
Player to watch: Defensive end Jonathan Turner
Gershon: "While all attention is focused on Holmes, Turner had an impressive spring. After ending last season at 250 pounds, he is up to 270 and has not lost any quickness. He has the ability to pose problems for opposing teams and could wind up being a major part of the Wildcats' defensive line."
Arizona State (7-5, 4-4)
The most important thing: Run game can be relied upon.
Chris Karpman, ASUDevils.com: "The Sun Devils return five offensive line starters, and running back Keegan Herring is fresh off a season where he set a school rushing record for first-year players. Herring appears stronger and more comfortable this spring. The game appears to have slowed down for him. Another good sign for the Arizona State running game is the emergence of sophomore Shaun DeWitty. Having gained more than 15 pounds since arriving on campus last year, DeWitty, at 6-2 and 216 pounds, is a bigger back option that hasn't been an available in recent years."
Player to watch: Safety Josh Barrett
Karpman: "Barrett has been one of the team's most gifted athletes, but chronic shoulder problems have limited his contributions. Multiple surgeries and rehabilitation have put Barrett, who stands at 6-2 and weighs 220 pounds, in the best physical shape of his career. His performance in spring ball reflected that. Barrett is one of the fastest players on the roster. He's playing with great anticipation and feels comfortable playing and hitting at full speed. He'll look good playing next to safety Zach Catanese, the leading returning tackler in the conference."
California (8-4, 4-4)
The most important thing: Spread offense installed, taking hold.
A.W. Prince of BearTerritory.net: "Despite an offense that ranked in the top 30 nationally the past two seasons, California coach Jeff Tedford showed in the offseason he was open to integrating some of the principles from the spread offense. With All-American running back candidate Marshawn Lynch still expected to get 250-plus touches, it will be interesting to see how much of the scheme the Bears use. Cal ranked in the top 10 nationally in rush offense the last two seasons, so abandoning what has worked so well is not likely."
Player to watch: Offensive guard Erik Robertson
Prince: "Robertson, a senior, will be the only returning starter on the offensive line. Three of the four departed players were drafted and all were All-Pac-10 at some point. The Bears have ranked in the top 10 in rushing offense the last two seasons thanks to Robertson and the other linemen."
Oregon (10-2, 7-1)
The most important thing: Johnson and Stewart provide options in run game.
David Fox of Rivals.com: "While breaking in their new spread offense, the Ducks averaged only 134.3 rushing yards per game for their lowest mark in a decade. Sophomores Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, who ended the spring as co-starters, will make sure Oregon avoids that mark this year. Stewart rushed 10 times for 74 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Johnson rushed 11 times for 45 yards while leading both teams with 79 receiving yards on five catches. Sophomore Terrell Jackson proved the Ducks will have depth at the position as well."
Player to watch: Quarterback Dennis Dixon
Fox: "Dixon was half of the platoon to replace the injured Kellen Clemens last year over the final four games. The junior is poised to take sole possession of the starting job after competing with Brady Leaf during the spring. In his second year in offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's spread offense and with an improved run game, Dixon could flourish in his first season as a full-time starter."
Oregon State (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: After changes, linebackers will anchor defense.
Angie Machado of BeaverBlitz.com: "At the beginning of spring drills, the Beavers were breaking in three new starters at linebacker along with the move of Greg Newhouse to his familiar role of coaching that position. After 15 days of practice, the linebackers look to be the strongest area on the Beavers defense with newcomer Joey LaRocque joining Alan Darlin and Derrick Doggett in the starting rotation. Also impressive this spring were sophomores Bryant Cornell and Isaiah Cook, who give the Beavers depth at the position."
Player to watch: Tight end Joe Newton
Machado: "Newton is back after a season-ending injury last year kept him out the entire season. With Newton in the lineup, look for the Beavers red zone offense, which was last in the Pac-10, to improve. Newton caught 56 passes for 687 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2004 and could be one of the top tight ends in the conference if he's healthy."
Southern California (12-1, 8-0)
The most important thing: Replacing the backfield got that much tougher..
Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com: "The Trojans offense was decimated with eight players taken in the NFL draft. The backfield lost two Heisman winners along with tailback LenDale White and fullback David Kirtman. John David Booty, the heir apparent at quarterback, practiced one time in the spring before injuring his back. Tailback Hershel Dennis also saw limited practice time before suffering a season-ending knee injury and leaving a void at his position."
Player to watch: Linebacker Keith Rivers
Abraham: "With a lack of quality defensive tackles the Trojans are playing with a version of the 3-4 defense. Rivers, an outside linebacker, played some rush end in the past, and his versatility is allowing coach Pete Carroll to modify his defense to suit his personnel."
Stanford (5-6, 4-4)
The most important thing: O-line makes strides after dismal 2005.
David Fox of Rivals.com: "Returning all five starters on the offensive line is normally an asset. That's not so when you're Stanford, which gave up a Pac-10-worst 42 sacks and had the nation's 110th-ranked run game. Only center Tim Mattran was assured of a starting spot at the end of spring. The competition seemed to pay off during the spring game when the line helped the Cardinal's four running backs to a combined 222 yards and four touchdowns and gave quarterback Trent Edwards and his backups plenty of time in the pocket. The progress bittersweet, however, as the defensive front lost its two best players to the NFL draft."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Evan Moore
Fox: "The senior was Stanford's top receiver in 2004 with 616 receiving yards and six touchdowns, but he missed all but one game last season with a hip injury. When he returned in the spring, the 6-7, 235-pound Moore gave Edwards a big target in the passing game. Moore's return to form will give the Cardinal a top option at a position in dire need of depth."
UCLA (10-2, 6-2)
The most important thing: Improved mentality could pay dividends for defense.
Rick Kimbrel, BruinBlitz.com: "UCLA learned attitude on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive tempo was at a much higher pace. Players were more physical and tough. If they play to potential, the Bruins could have one of the most improved defenses in Division-I, which will be needed after UCLA finished 108th in the country in scoring defense and 113th in total defense. During the spring, the Bruins practiced with passion and never stopped hustling."
Player to watch: Quarterback Ben Olson
Kimbrel: "If Olson gets past the thinking into the realm of knowing, he's going to be special. He was one of the top national recruits in the class of 2002 but spent that season redshirting at BYU and 2003-04 on a Mormon mission. After a long wait, the job is Olson's to take."
Washington (2-9, 1-7)
The most important thing: Despite losses, the offensive line will recover.
Paul Hood of Huskydigest.com: "The offensive line took a hit, losing four starters off last year's team, but the good news is the new blood coming in did a respectable job protecting senior quarterback Isaiah Stanback. Stanback is bigger and stronger as well, and more experienced with a new self-confidence. With a talented group of receivers a few of whom have opened Coach Tyrone Willingham's eyes and earned his praise for their work habits and toughness the Huskies should be much improved this year."
Player to watch: Running back J.R. Hasty
Hood: "Willingham talked about Hasty week in and week out last season during the running backs' redshirt year. Now third on the depth chart, Hasty has all the tools for a big-time college career at tailback. He's fast, shifty, strong, and has great instincts. He could move up the depth chart quickly."
Washington State (4-7, 1-7)
The most important thing: QB Brink is comfortable with his role.
Pat Pearce of CougZone.com: "Without Josh Swogger looming over his shoulder, Alex Brink looked more comfortable as the starting quarterback. In 2005, after Brink was named the surprise starter in August, every slipup or bad decision by Brink meant second-guessing of his spot on the first team. This applied both to fans and to players after all, the team had elected Swogger a team captain prior to the season. With Swogger transferring to Montana for his senior season, Brink was visibly more relaxed and confident behind center."
Player to watch: Offensive guard Andy Roof
Pearce: "Roof steps in as the new starter at right guard and right away looked like he belonged. If Roof can play during the season with the potential he showed in spring, the Cougars should have another strong offensive line and strong running game for 2006."
What We Learned from Spring Practice Series
Big Ten: Growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame Big 12: Rest of the conference now chasing Texas
Big East: Several teams facing QB questions ACC: Looking to rebuild in the trenches
Pac-10: Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10 SEC: New faces all around the SEC




 

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