Devils Digest Pac-10 Preview

The Pac-10 may not be a favorite of Les Miles but those out west know that it's a highly competitive conference from top to bottom. As the long-awaited college football season is about to get underway, let's take a brief look at how the rest of the conference stacks up going into the 2007 campaign.

ARIZONA

Offensively, the ‘Cats will have a new look this season under Sonny Dykes, former Texas Tech offensive coordinator. More 3-step drops and quick strike passes may help keep junior quarterback Willie Tuitama healthy while the offensive line is still searching for more cohesion. Look for the signal-caller to throw to running back Chris Jennings out of the backfield more often, as well as involving receiver Mike Thomas in the open field so he can utilize his lateral quickness against defenders.

Perhaps the single biggest factor in keeping the defense from elite status is the lack of a pass rush up front. Head coach Mike Stoops is hoping that trend changes this year with three seniors on the defensive line, including All Pac-10 second-team defensive end Louis Holmes. The rest of the defense appears to be set just fine with only the strong safety spot in need of a new starter. Sophomore Cam Nelson has won that job and will flank senior Dominic Patrick. Arizona features one of the country's best tandems at cornerback in seniors Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. Cason intercepted 3 passes last season and is an All-American candidate this year.

Punter: Keenyn Crier, RS-Fr.

Place-kicker: Jason Bondzio, Jr.

Bondzio is one to watch with the reliable leg of Nick Folk gone.

UCLA

Head coach Karl Dorrell opted to go with Ben Olson as his starting quarterback this season instead of Patrick Cowan, a starter in 8 games last season. Olson started in 5 games last fall, throwing for 5 scores and 5 interceptions. Two senior receivers figure to be some of Olson's favorite targets. Marcus Everett caught 31 passes for 450 yards last season while Joe Cowan, a starter in 2005, returns from an injury that kept him out of action last fall. The offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters and should open some holes for running backs Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell. Markey, the Bruins' starter, only scored twice last season but is capable of ripping off chunks of yardage.

Second-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker engineered one of the best turnarounds in the country on defense last year. A big part of that was a vastly improved pass rush under defensive ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis. Although Hickman is gone, Davis returns and should provide another punch upfront with Nikola Dragovic. All three starting linebackers return led by Christian Taylor in the middle. Taylor was second in tackles last season with 83 stops. Nearly everyone returns in the secondary as well. Strong safety Chris Horton led the Bruins in tackles with 95 while Dennis Keyes chipped in another 79 stops at free safety. Two seniors also start at both cornerback spots in Trey Brown and Rodney Van. Brown intercepted 4 passes last season while reserve Alterraun Verner had a pair of interceptions as a true freshman.

Punter: Aaron Perez, Jr.

Place-kicker: Kai Forbath, Fr.

Forbath will resume kicking duties as Justin Medlock has moved on to the NFL ranks. The freshman reportedly has a strong leg.

USC

Quarterback John David Booty enters his senior campaign already on early Heisman Award lists. The signal-caller threw for over 3,300 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2006. Booty's numbers could slightly go down this season with the departure of receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton step into those two starting roles this year. Senior tight end Fred Davis is also an option in the passing game. Despite the transfer of Emmanuel Moody, the Trojans have a line of players waiting to see the field at running back. Chauncey Washington is a slight favorite to start if his health holds up but you can figure on some others getting a few carries as well. Candidates include C.J. Gable, Hershel Dennis, Desmond Reed, and any incoming freshmen that emerge.

What's not to like about this year's defense? 10 starters return and the defense is ripe with speed and experience. Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and defensive end Lawrence Jackson will likely be in the running for post-season accolades and awards. Both can stuff the run as well as harass opposing quarterbacks. The corps at linebacker is among the best around with Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers. The two combined for 163 tackles a year ago. Strong side linebacker Brian Cushing can also play as a hybrid up front. Pete Carroll has raved about his secondary being among the best he's had. Taylor Mays had a strong debut last fall as a true freshman. Mays finished with 62 stops and 3 interceptions. Senior Terrell Thomas was a second-team All Pac-10 selection last fall at corner.

Punter: Greg Woidneck, Jr.

Place-kicker: David Buehler, Jr.

Woidneck is the incumbent at punter while Buehler takes over for Mario Danelo, who was tragically killed in a January car accident.

CALIFORNIA

The Cal offense could be one of the nation's best in 2008. They are loaded just about everywhere. Despite losing two starters on the line, Mike Tepper and Brian De La Puente shouldn't skip too much of a beat thanks to previous experience behind injured starters. Justin Forsett, a senior, replaces Marshawn Lynch at running back and should give the Bears another 1,000 yard rusher this season. Junior signal-caller Nate Longshore can be streaky at times but is more than capable of leading this potent offense. Longshore threw for 24 touchdowns last fall. DeSean Jackson is no longer a West Coast secret as he's being touted for several awards in 2007. Jackson headlines a deep receiving corps along with Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. All three accounted for 18 scores a year ago.

Graduation took a toll on defense with the Bears losing their top three tacklers from a year ago. You'd think losing Desmond Bishop, the Pac-10 leader in tackles, would leave a huge hole at linebacker but that doesn't appear to be the case in Berkeley this season. Zack Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder will man the three linebacker spots and bring with them both experience and talent. Lott Trophy award winner Daymeion Hughes is gone, which leaves some large shoes for freshman Darian Hagan to fill. The good news is that safeties Bernard Hicks and Thomas DeCoud have experience under their belts, as does corner Syd'Quan Thompson. Thompson started out slow last year after replacing injured Tim Mixon but the staff was encouraged with his progress later on in the season. The key to the Bear defense appears to be the defensive line, however. If they can find production up front after losing 3 starters, the defense should be solid once again. If not, it may be a mixed bag. Matthew Malele returns at one tackle spot but the pass rush will be under close watch with Rulon Davis at defensive end.

Punter: Andrew Larson, Sr.

Place-kicker: Tom Schneider, Sr.

Both Larson and Schneider should be up for conference honors this season as seniors.

STANFORD

Former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh has stepped in as the new skipper in Palo Alto with his work cut out for him. Harbaugh is hoping that his infectious energy can carry over onto the field while resurrecting the talent over the course of the next few years. You can expect to see several incoming freshman play this season. Quarterback Trent Edwards has moved on to the NFL but senior T.C. Ostrander comes in with experience as the new starter this season. Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, both seniors, are two very capable options at receiver if they can remain healthy. Richard Sherman had a nice outing as a true freshman last season with 34 receptions and 3 scores. The ground game needs improvement in order for the offense to turn the corner, however. Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble figure to split carries again if things don't see a marked improvement. Gerhart and Kimble combined to rush for 845 yards last season.

The defense will be switching to a 4-3 base under the new staff, which should be a step in the right direction in correcting what has been a porous run defense. Udeme Udofia has moved from linebacker to defensive end and adds experience up front. Younger brother Ekom Udofia will now line up at defensive tackle. The two combined for 82 stops last season. The crew at linebacker figures to have a lot to prove in shoring up run defense and losing starter Michael Okwo. Sophomore Fred Campbell is penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker. Two new starters will be featured at the safety spots while Tim Sims and Wopamo Osaisai return as starters at both corner positions. Osaisai is capable of making plays if he can get better pass rush help up front.

Punter: Jay Ottoveggio, Sr.

Place-kicker: Aaron Zagory, Jr.

Both specialists back for another year should help ease any major special teams concerns outside of the coverage units.

OREGON STATE The race to replace departed quarterback Matt Moore could best be described as "To Be Continued". With their first game only a week away, head coach Mike Riley was forced to make a decision between Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao but is opting to play both signal-callers against Utah. Starting split end and punt return extraordinaire Sammie Stroughter recently took a leave of absence but may be in the process of rejoining his teammates. Chris Johnson, a junior, would take over for Stroughter should that be the case. Johnson caught only 4 passes last season. The rest of the offense appears to be in fine shape with Yvenson Bernard back at tailback and an offensive line that is among the best in the Pac-10. Bernard rushed for 1,307 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago.

Oregon State's defense will again be anchored by a strong linebacker unit. Three seniors, Derrick Doggett, Alan Darlin, and Joey LaRocque combined for 252 tackles last season and are one of the conference's top trios. The defensive line returns Dorian Smith, who notched 9 sacks as a reserve last fall, and Jeff Van Orsow at the two end spots. Curtis Coker has convinced head coach Mike Riley to give him a look at fullback in addition to his duties at defensive tackle. The depth at cornerback took a slight hit when top back-up Coye Francies was dismissed from the team a few weeks ago. Daniel Drayton is penciled in at strong safety, which is the only real question mark in the secondary with the departure of first-team All Pac-10 player Sabby Piscitelli.

Punter: Alexis Serna, Sr.

Place-kicker: Alexis Serna, Sr.

Serna, one of the nation's best field goal kickers, has assumed punting duties due to returner Kyle Loomis quitting the team a month ago.

OREGON

Head coach Mike Bellotti made a few changes this off-season. Most notably was the promise of a one-quarterback system and the hire of new offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly. Dennis Dixon was named the starting quarterback but opted to play minor league baseball over the summer, much to the chagrin of Bellotti. An increase in confidence for Dixon and a no-huddle offense could lead to a career year for the senior as he is surrounded by several weapons once again. Jaison Williams and Brian Paysinger are two capable targets through the air, with Williams being one of the top receivers in the conference. Running back Jonathan Stewart is a dangerous threat in the backfield and figures to be an even bigger part of the offense with Kelly pledging to feature the backfield a little more. Stewart found the end zone 10 times last season, as did Jeremiah Johnson.

The development of the front seven figures to be the determining factor of the defensive fortunes this year. Depth is a genuine concern, especially at defensive end with the departure of Dexter Manley II and Victor Filipe. Both were expected to see snaps behind starters Nick Reed and junior college transfer Will Tukuafu. Team MVP Blair Phillips needs to be replaced at linebacker. Senior A.J. Tuitele brings experience with him on the weak-side, however. The secondary should be in good shape with two play-makers at cornerback in sophomores Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond. Rover Patrick Chung is the top returning tackler on the team and grabbed 4 interceptions last season.

Punter: Josh Syria, Jr.

Place-kicker: Daniel Padilla, Fr.

The Ducks will feature two new specialists this season. Padilla appears to have a leg-up on sophomore Morgan Flint as the season opener is less than a week away.

WASHINGTON

Head coach Tyrone Willingham is firmly in the corner of redshirt freshman Jake Locker after naming him the starting quarterback in the spring. Carl Bonnell, a senior with experience, will back-up the heralded frosh QB. Locker has reportedly already gained the confidence of many of his teammates in the huddle, including his offensive line. Senior Louis Rankin will likely share carries at running back with sophomore J.R. Hasty. Anthony Russo is slated to play in the season opener at Syracuse despite a broken finger. Russo and Marcel Reece give Locker two senior options at receiver with Reece appearing as a breakout candidate this season after paring his weight down and a better understanding of the playbook.

The recent news of E.J. Savannah's clearance to return to the team was well received in Seattle as the weak-side linebacker figures to be a big part of the defense's future. Savannah will team with another emerging sophomore, Donald Butler, at linebacker. Three starters return along the defensive line, including seniors Greyson Gunheim and Wilson Afoa. Gunheim led the team in sacks last year with 6. Only three defensive backs that saw action last year return, and with playable depth already a concern, the secondary looks like it may struggle this season. Mesphin Forrester, a junior, will likely start at strong safety but the cornerback spot opposite starter Roy Lewis is arguably the biggest concern. Former UCLA Bruin Byron Davenport was penciled in there but a hamstring injury has limited him in camp. True freshman Vonzell McDowell is currently battling walk-on Cory Nicol at that corner spot.

Punter: Jared Ballman, Jr.

Place-kicker: Jared Ballman, Jr.

Ballman is still battling with sophomore Ryan Perkins for duties as Perkins is making his way back from a knee injury.

WASHINGTON STATE

Alex Brink is back under center and brings a wealth of experience behind him. The senior is on pace to surpass Jason Gesser as the school's top passer this season. Despite losing the talent of Jason Hill, Brink will have an experienced trio of receivers to throw the ball to in Brandon Gibson, Michael Bumpus, and Charles Dillon. Gibson led all receivers last year with 731 yards on 49 receptions while Bumpus and Dillon combined for 75 catches. Dwight Tardy will start at running back after rushing for 667 yards last season in a crowded backfield. That may not be an issue this season with Derrell Hutsona and DeMaundray Woolridge no longer with the team, although Chris Ivory will likely get a few snaps.

Head Coach Bill Doba will call the plays on defense once again. The biggest concern for Doba's defense appears to be the secondary. Hussain Abdullah is the lone returning starter at free safety. Freshman Chima Nwachukwu and Devin Giles, a junior college transfer, are penciled in to start at the two corner spots but the competition is ongoing. Another JC transfer, Terry Mixon, has been slowed by injuries in his quest to grab the starting spot at strong safety. Three seniors will grab much of the workload along the defensive line as long as lingering injuries aren't a concern. Aaron Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, and Lance Broadus are all capable starters. Middle linebacker Greg Trent is the top returning tackler with 77 stops last season.

Punter: Darryl Blunt, Jr.

Place-kicker: Romeen Abdollmohammadi, Sr.

Abdollmohammadi was 3-3 in field goal attempts last season after taking over for senior Loren Langley.

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