February 22, 2007

Inside spring drills: Pac-10 preview

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Sooner or later it has to happen.

Somebody eventually must end Southern California's unprecedented reign of Pac-10 dominance. USC overcame two conference losses last season and became the first team ever to win five consecutive Pac-10 titles.

Is this the year someone dethrones the Trojans? Don't count on it.

USC returns so much talent on both sides of the ball that the USC heads into spring practice as the consensus favorite to win the national championship.

Although the losses of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith will hurt USC's receiving corps, the Trojans welcome back Heisman Trophy candidate John David Booty to quarterback a potent offense.

USC isn't the only team with offensive playmakers.

California quarterback Nate Longshore and wide receiver DeSean Jackson could emerge as one of the nation's most dynamic passing combinations.

Oregon State running back Yvenson Bernard is one of the game's most underrated players. Arizona State's Ryan Torain quietly rushed for 1,229 yards last year, and Oregon's Jonathan Stewart eventually could develop into the conference's best running back of all.

But all those guys could struggle to score against a USC defense loaded with talent.

Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and Brian Cushing could give the Trojans a front seven that's second to none. USC also boasts a talented secondary that features Rivals.com freshman All-American Taylor Mays.

All that talent leaves USC as the team to beat.

The rest of the conference will be trying to do just that.

Here's a rundown of players and position battles to watch in the Pac-10, along with an early prediction of next fall's final standings.

Breakout Performers | Impact Newcomers | Position Battles | New Schemes | Best by Position

PAC-10: PROJECTED 2007 FINISH (With 2006 records)
1. Southern California (11-2, 7-2): The Trojans have a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in John David Booty, one of the nation's top returning offensive linemen in Sam Baker and one of the country's most talented defenses. They also have plenty of incentive after blowing a chance to play for the national title last year.
2. California (10-3, 7-2): DeSean Jackson gives the Golden Bears arguably the nation's most exciting player. Justin Forsett shouldn't have much trouble stepping in for star tailback Marshawn Lynch. The bigger question is how the Bears will replace All-America defensive players Desmond Bishop and Daymeion Hughes.
3. UCLA (7-6, 5-4): The middle of this conference is so balanced that you could put teams three through six in just about any order. We give a slight edge to UCLA because of a defense that held two of the nation's best offenses (USC and Notre Dame) in check last year.
4. Arizona State (7-6, 4-5): Dennis Erickson has won every place he has coached in college. Erickson's arrival and Rudy Carpenter's rejuvenation could help the Sun Devils have a big season.
5. Oregon (7-6, 4-5): If the Ducks can solve their quarterback problems, they have enough talent elsewhere to contend for second place. Oregon also needs more consistency and health from Jonathan Stewart, who has the ability to develop into one of the nation's top running backs.
6. Oregon State (10-4, 6-3): The conference's biggest surprise in 2006 returns plenty of upperclassmen, including All-America candidate Yvenson Bernard at running back. The Beavers' questions at quarterback kept us from rating them higher.
7. Arizona (6-6, 4-5): Arizona was supposed to be one of the nation's most improved teams last year, but a slow start prevented the Wildcats from living up to expectations. Perhaps a full season of health from quarterback Willie Tuitama will allow the Wildcats to make their move one year behind schedule.
8. Washington State (6-6, 4-5): The return of Alex Brink and a talented receiving corps should allow the Cougars to throw the ball against just about anyone. The question is whether Washington State can shore up a pass defense that ranked last in the Pac-10 a year ago.
9. Washington (5-7, 3-6): The biggest concern surrounding Washington is whether a first-year starting quarterback - perhaps redshirt freshman Jake Locker - can help the Huskies survive a brutal first-half schedule that includes games with Boise State, Ohio State, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Oregon.
10. Stanford (1-11, 1-8): The arrival of Jim Harbaugh provides at least some reason for optimism, but the Cardinal appear a few years away from even contending for a bowl bid.

Southern Cal WR David Ausberry
1. California RB Justin Forsett: He has rushed for 1,625 yards the last two seasons as Marshawn Lynch's backup. Imagine the numbers Forsett might put up now that he finally has the starting job all to himself.
2. Southern California WR David Ausberry: The departures of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith virtually guarantee that some relatively unknown Southern California wide receiver will have a breakthrough season. We'll take a guess and go with Ausberry, who performed very well in practice last season. Don't forget about former five-star prospects Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton, who will compete with Ausberry for starting jobs.
3. Washington RB J.R. Hasty: This former four-star prospect might have cracked the Huskies' starting lineup last season if he hadn't been academically ineligible. Now that he's back on the field, don't be surprised if he emerges as Washington's leading rusher.
4. UCLA CB Al Verner: Even though he didn't start last year, Verner returned two interceptions for touchdowns as a nickel back and was named the Pac-10 co-freshman of the year along with Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd and USC safety Taylor Mays. He should continue to make big plays for many years to come.
5. Oregon State S Bryan Payton: Payton ranked fifth on his team with 50 tackles while playing nickel back for the Beavers. He should replace the departed Sabby Piscitelli as the playmaker in Oregon State's secondary.

Five impact newcomers
Washington QB Jake Locker
1. Washington QB Jake Locker: This redshirt freshman and former four-star prospect is the clear favorite to win the starting job now that his main competitor - Carl Bonnell - has undergone offseason shoulder surgery that will limit him in spring practice.
2. Southern California RB Joe McKnight: Southern California once again has plenty of talented young running backs competing for carries, but we figure the Trojans will find a way to get the ball to McKnight, rated by Rivals.com as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2007 recruiting class.
3. Arizona State DE Luis Vasquez: This four-star prospect collected 31 sacks as a junior-college standout the last two years. He should step in and immediately boost the Sun Devils' pass rush.
4. Washington State S Terry Mixon: This four-star junior college transfer could start immediately at safety for Washington State, which must replace three part-time or full-time starters in its defensive backfield.
5. California DT Derrick Hill: This four-star prospect and redshirt freshman is the favorite to replace Brandon Mebane, a three-year starter who earned Rivals.com third-team All-America honors last season.

Position battles to watch
Arizona: Wide receiver: The Wildcats figure to throw the ball more under new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, who formerly was the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech. But who's going to catch all those passes. The graduation of Syndric Steptoe leaves Mike Thomas as the only Arizona receiver who caught more than 26 passes last year. The pass-oriented offense could create more opportunities for Anthony Johnson, Terrell Turner, Terrell Reese and Delashaun Dean, among others.
Arizona State: Linebacker: The departures of Beau Manutai and Derron Ware force the Sun Devils to find two new starters in their linebacking corps. Former four-star prospect Travis Goethel is a good bet to earn one starting job. Gerald Munns, Mike Nixon and 2007 junior-college signee Morris Wooten also figure to compete for playing time.
California: Linebacker: Somebody is going to have the unenviable task of replacing Desmond Bishop, who collected a total of 215 tackles the last two seasons as the Bears' starting middle linebacker. Zack Follett will move over from the outside and is the favorite to win the job, but Greg Van Hoesen should offer plenty of competition.
Oregon: Quarterback: Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf shared the job last year and both struggled during the Ducks' late-season collapse. Dixon threw 14 interceptions with only 12 touchdown passes. Leaf threw three interceptions and only one touchdown pass in the Ducks' last three games. Oregon's hopes of returning to the national rankings depend on whether one of these guys can develop some consistency.
Oregon State: Quarterback: The Beavers have a veteran team that will be led by an untested quarterback. Sean Canfield went 28-for-45 as Matt Moore's backup last year and will have to hold off a challenge from former junior college player Lyle Moevao.
Southern California: Wide receiver: USC has no shortage of talented contenders to replace Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, who combined to catch 141 passes for 2,098 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The list of candidates includes former five-star prospects Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton plus former four-star prospect David Ausberry.
Stanford: Linebacker: The Cardinal must find someone to replace first-team all-Pac 10 linebacker Michael Okwo, who recorded a team-high 95 tackles as a senior last year despite missing two games with a broken thumb.
UCLA: Quarterback: Ben Olson started the first five games of the 2006 season before spraining his knee. Patrick Cowan took over from there and played better as the season progressed. Their competition for the starting job could be the most intriguing position battles in the conference.
Washington: Running back: Louis Rankin returns after rushing for a team-high 666 yards, but he could have a tough time remaining in the starting lineup. Former four-star prospect J.R. Hasty is expected to return after being academically ineligible last season. Washington also could get an immediate impact from one of the five running backs who signed with the Huskies last week.
Washington State: Secondary: The Cougars must replace both starting cornerbacks and first-team all-Pac-10 safety Eric Frampton from a team that ranked last in the conference in pass defense last year. No wonder Washington State's 2007 recruiting class included eight defensive backs.

Teams with new schemes
1. Arizona offense: New offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes comes over from Texas Tech with plans to install a spread offense. Arizona figures to utilize the fullback and tight end more than Texas Tech does, but you still should expect to see the Wildcats throw the ball more often than usual.
2. Arizona State offense: New coach Dennis Erickson and offensive coordinator Rich Olson will implement a spread attack that also features some elements of the West Coast offense. The Sun Devils should be lining up in shotgun formation and including more four- and five-receiver sets than before.
3. California offense: Former offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar left after one year to become offensive coordinator at Minnesota. The departure of Dunbar - a proponent of the spread offense - could cause California to emphasize the running game and utilize the fullback more often.
4. Stanford defense: New defensive coordinator Scott Shafer comes over from Western Michigan, where his attacking defense led the nation in sacks per game last year. Look for the Cardinal to employ an aggressive defense that emphasizes getting to the quarterback.
5. Oregon offense: Former offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has left to take the offensive coordinator job at Louisiana State. Crowton's replacement is Chip Kelly, the former offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. The Ducks plan to continue using the spread option under Kelly, but they might make some alterations to the scheme. Kelly regularly ran a no-huddle offense at New Hampshire, so perhaps Oregon occasionally will go to a no-huddle attack this fall.

Best by position
Defensive linemen
1. John David Booty, USC
2. Nate Longshore, California
3. Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State
4. Alex Brink, Washington State
5. Willie Tuitama, Arizona

1. Sedrick Ellis, Southern California
2. Bruce Davis, UCLA
3. Lawrence Jackson, Southern California
4. Louis Holmes, Arizona
5. Jeff Van Orsow, Oregon State
Running backs
1. Yvenson Bernard, Oregon State
2. Jonathan Stewart, Oregon
3. Justin Forsett, California
4. Ryan Torain, Arizona State
5. Chris Markey, UCLA

1. Rey Maualuga, Southern California
2. Keith Rivers, Southern California
3. Derrick Doggett, Oregon State
4. Brian Cushing, Southern California
5. Spencer Larsen, Arizona
Defensive backs
1. DeSean Jackson, California
2. Jaison Williams, Oregon
3. Sammie Stroughter, Oregon State
4. Brandon Gibson, Washington State
5. Mike Thomas, Arizona

1. Antoine Cason, Arizona
2. Terrell Thomas, Southern California
3. Chris Horton, UCLA
4. Patrick Chung, Oregon
5. Josh Barrett, Arizona State
Tight ends
1. Fred Davis, Southern California
2. Craig Stevens, California
3. Logan Paulsen, UCLA
4. Brent Miller, Arizona State
5. Jim Dray, Stanford

1. Alexis Serna, Oregon State
2. Tom Schneider, California
3. Kai Forbath, UCLA
4. David Green, Stanford
5. Loren Langley, Washington State
Offensive linemen
1. Sam Baker, Southern California
2. Jeremy Perry, Oregon State
3. Alex Mack, California
4. Max Unger, Oregon
5. Shannon Tevaga, UCLA

1. Andrew Larson, California
2. Aaron Perez, UCLA
3. Jonathan Johnson, Arizona State
4. Darryl Blunt, Washington State
5. Kyle Loomis, Oregon State


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