2008 Pac-10 Preview Part I

In our first of two Pac-10 previews, we examine the 2008 prospects of the University of Arizona and the four Pac-10 California schools.

Arizona Wildcats

2008 Schedule: Idaho, Toledo, at New Mexico, at UCLA, Washington, at Stanford, California, USC, at Washington State, at Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State

2007: 5-7 (4-5)

Offense

After a couple of disastrous non-conference games early in the season, the Wildcats' offense got in gear and gave fans some reason to hope for 2008. Senior quarterback Willie Tuitama (pictured) had his best season to date last year and looks poised for another good year. Tuitama has one of the stronger arms for any signal caller in the Pac-10 and his increased completion percentage and improved touchdown to interception ratio suggest that his accuracy is improving as well.

Arizona's run game is led by sophomore Nic Grigsby. Grigsby was a pleasant surprise for a squad that needed a running back to step up after Chris Henry's unexpected departure for the NFL. However, at 5'10", 180 pounds Grigsby can not be counted on to carry the ball 250 plus times in one season and the Wildcats lack depth. Redshirt junior Xavier Smith looks to be Grigsby's primary backup. Smith came in with great expectations, but up to this point hasn't lived up to his accolades. If Smith can not get it done on a consistent basis, Arizona's struggles in short yardage situations are likely to continue.

In 2007, freshmen tight end Rob Gronkowski caught the eye of not only Wildcat fans but also the entire Pac-10. Gronkowski has the body of an NFL tight end and is a polished receiver for a true sophomore. He is a perfect compliment to what is one of the better groups of wide receivers in the country. Led by senior Mike Thomas, the group is primed and ready to put up some eye-popping numbers. Junior Terrell Turner and sophomore Delashaun Dean both proved their worth last year and Terrell Thomas provides a physical presence to this unit.

Under Mike Stoops Arizona has failed to produce a consistent and reliable offensive line, but in 2008 he has assembled perhaps his best front five to date. Eben Britton is the standout of the group, earning second team All Pac-10 honors in 2007 at right tackle. Joe Longacre and Blake Kerley bring plenty of starting experience to the table and will be counted on to contribute. The unit should do well, especially in pass blocking thanks to the multiple receiver sets and quick quarterback drops typical of the spread offense.

Defense

Mike and Mark Stoops certainly have their work cut out for them on this side of the ball. Arizona loses eight starters from last year's group including All-American cornerback Antoine Cason and the hard-hitting linebacker Spencer Larsen. However, the Arizona defense last year was surprisingly lackluster, surrendering 27 points a game. Getting some new faces in the lineup might be exactly what the doctor ordered.

The defensive line is facing a complete overhaul. All four starters from last year's team are gone and potentially their replacements have one start combined among them. Senior defensive end Johnathan Turner is the most experienced player in the entire unit, but he has yet to really come into his own. The defensive line is going to need to step up and surprise some people if the Wildcat defense is going to meet Stoops' expectations.

Ronnie Palmer looks to be the new leader at linebacker and although he has 25 plus starts he has yet to become the playmaker Arizona needs. Joining Palmer are Adrian McCovy and Xavier Kelley. McCovy is somewhat of an unknown commodity as injuries sidelined him for most of the 2007 campaign. Yet, he has the size and athleticism to be an impact player. Kelley is a bit undersized, but he has the speed to make up for what he lacks in stature.

The Wildcats secondary has the potential to be the team's best defensive unit and is led by playmaking senior safety Nate Ness. Ness had five interceptions in 2007 and will need to make a few more big plays to compensate for the loss of Cason. Devin Ross is one of the best athletes on the roster and looks to be the best option at cornerback. Senior Marquis Hundley and true freshmen Robert Golden will platoon opposite of Ross until a clear cut starter emerges.

Special teams should be a strength for the Wildcats in 2008. Sophomore Keenyn Crier was the best punter in the Pac-10 as a freshmen and kicker Jason Bondzio quickly made Wildcat fans forget about Nick Folk. Mike Thomas and Devin Ross, two of team's best athletes, figure to see a majority of touches in the return game.

Overview

If there was ever a year for Mike Stoops to lead his team and desperate fan base to a bowl game, this is the year. Tuitama should be able to put up gaudy numbers in a system that calls for it and he has an excellent group of receivers at his disposal. The schedule is also favorable with non-conference opponents that should be a cakewalk and some of Arizona's toughest Pac-10 games are at home. A lot remains to be seen with the Wildcats though. Will Nic Grigsby be able to carry the load all season? Will the brand new defensive line hold up? Will the secondary be able to overcome the loss of both starting cornerbacks? If they can positively answer some of these questions, the Wildcats will likely go to their first bowl in a decade. If not, Coach Stoops is going to have a few questions to answer himself.

California Golden Bears

2008 Schedule: Michigan State, at Washington State, at Maryland, Colorado State, Arizona State, at Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, at USC, at Oregon State, Stanford, Washington

2007: 7-6 (3-6)

Offense

Cal head coach Jeff Tedford has a big decision to make in the next couple of weeks. Should he go with his senior quarterback that nearly got him to a BCS game in 2006 but struggled last season or should he go with the young, unproven arm that played lights out in the team's last game of 2007? The question draws a mixed response depending on the audience and it would appear at this point that senior Nate Longshore does indeed have a slight advantage over sophomore Kevin Riley. It should not be hard for fans of the Pac-10 to remember the last time a head coach let a quarterback battle go on this long without naming a starter and the undesirable results that ensued. In 2006, former Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter faced essentially the exact same dilemma and his indecision may have ultimately led to his firing just four months after. While Longshore does appear to be the safe bet, Riley is growing a big following and it seems no matter what Tedford's decision that some of the Bear fans will not approve.

Sophomore running back Jahvid Best has all the tools to be an All-Pac 10 caliber player, but he faces a big obstacle. The speedy California native suffered a serious hip injury last year and is still recovering from surgery. Coaches are confident that Best will be fully recovered by the beginning of the season, but if he is not ready sophomore Tracy Slocum looks to inherit a bulk of the carries. Do not sleep on Arizona product Covaughn DeBoskie. The Chandler Hamilton star was heavily recruited and has the skills to make an impact as a freshman.

Wide receiver is a position undergoing a complete makeover. Gone to the NFL are names like Lavelle Hawkins, DeSean Jackson, and Robert Jordan and replacing them are a cast of unknowns such as sophomore Jeremy Ross and freshmen Michael Calvin. A player to keep an eye on as the season progresses is Nyan Boateng, a junior transfer from the University of Florida. Boateng is a talented athlete with the right build to be a successful receiver; time will tell just how well he fits in with the offense.

Not only did the Bears lose almost every impact receiver from last year's squad, they also lost their best tight end, Craig Stevens. Replacing Stevens is junior Cameron Morrah. Hopes for Morrah around Berkeley are high after he showed some promise last year in a limited playing time grabbing thirteen balls for 155 yards and a touchdown.

Offensive line may be the only area on offense that does not have coach Tedford worried. Led by All-American senior center Alex Mack, the Bears' offensive line has four projected seniors in the starting line up. Left tackle Mike Tepper is an imposing individual standing at 6'7" and should not have any problems moving from the right side of the line to the left side. Seniors Noris Malele and Chet Tofolio and sophomore Mark Boskovich comprise the rest of an offensive line that should fare well in 2008.

Defense

After a year in which their defensive linemen recorded a meager ten sacks, Cal looks to be weak up front yet again. However, there should be a growing sense of comfort and familiarity among the linemen as only one member from 2007 was lost. Tyson Alualu might be the most impressive player on the line. He excels in the run defense and made some noise rushing the passer last year as well. Manning the other end spot is senior Rulon Davis. Mika Kane is back for another year at defensive tackle and joining him is sophomore Derrick Hill who came in as one of the most sought after defensive tackle recruits in the country in 2006.

Linebacker is unquestionably Cal's strongest unit on the team. With three seniors slated to start, if for the Cal defense will be as good as it needs to be the linebackers will have to play to their full potential. Zack Follett (pictured) is the best of the bunch and has recorded a total of eleven sacks in the past two years. Follett will take a majority of his snaps outside, but has the versatility to play inside as well. Anthony Felder started to live up to this potential last year and looks ready to be an all conference player. Third year starter Worrell Williams will once again man the middle.

Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson highlights a group of talented defensive backs. Thompson has been a contributor for the Cal defense since his freshman year and he has the attitude and swagger needed to make up for his relative lack of height. Filling in at the other cornerback spot will most likely be sophomore Chris Conte. Conte was solid during his freshmen year and standing at 6'3", is invaluable to the secondary. Senior Bernard Hicks and junior Marcus Ezeff will be the safeties. Ezeff showed a lot of promise and potential as a sophomore but did miss four games due to injury.

Special teams could be a headache for the Golden Bears. Dynamic return man DeSean Jackson is gone and kicker Jordan Kay was an unimpressive thirteen of twenty kicking field goals last year, becoming inconsistent from thirty to fifty yards out. Cal also lost a quality punter in Andrew Larson, however freshmen Bryan Anger should do well replacing him.

Overview:

While some are expecting Cal to rebound gracefully from last year's meltdown, there are one too many holes to expect a top three finish in the conference or a premier bowl game. The quarterback controversy will only have a negative effect on the team and generally teams with so little experience and production returning at wide receiver struggle in the Pac-10. Combine both those factors with a weak defensive line and a tough schedule that includes a four-game stretch with UCLA and Oregon at home followed by road dates with USC and Oregon State, and the outlook for 2008 does not seem so bright.

Stanford Cardinal

2008 Schedule: Oregon State, at Arizona State, at TCU, San Jose State, at Washington, at Notre Dame, Arizona, at UCLA, Washington State, at Oregon, USC, at California

2007: 4-8 (3-6)

Offense

Stanford is another team facing somewhat of a quarterback controversy, as Coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to name a starter and the competition is ever fiercer than their archrival. At first glance it would appear as if junior Tavita Pritchard has the inside track to the starting job, considering he's the most experienced signal caller on the team. However, Pritchard can not rest on his laurels. Michigan transfer Jason Forcier, sophomore Alex Loukas and even freshmen Andrew Luck are all in the mix. Pritchard led Stanford to its improbable victory over USC at the Coliseum, but he struggled after that game and never regained his form. The sooner Harbaugh can resolve the situation the better, but this looks to be a position battle that will last all the way through summer fall camp.

The running back situation is more settled. Senior Anthony Kimble (pictured) is back for another year and backing him is a cast of ball carriers with solid potential. Jeremy Stewart played well when called upon last season, Tyrone McGraw has speed to burn and Toby Gerhart rushed for over one hundred yards in the one game he played. Both Kimble and Gerhart spent a significant amount of time on the bench thanks to injuries in 2007, but if the two stay healthy they could prove to be an effective tandem.

Junior Richard Sherman leads a group of relatively inexperienced wide receivers. Sherman has the ability and size to be one of the Pac-10's best receivers. He contributed in both his first two years and now that he is the number one option look for a break out year. Outside of Sherman is a bunch of unproven players. Doug Baldwin is the frontrunner to join Sherman in the starting lineup. Baldwin had a relatively successful freshmen season and is one of the quicker receivers on the roster. Tight end is a more stable position for the Cardinal as they return Jim Dray, Austin Gunder and Ben Ladner.

There is plenty of the experience on the offensive line for Stanford in 2008, but it remains to be seen if that experience will pay off or not. Stanford's front five struggled mightily at times in Harbaugh's first season and they will have to replace Tim Mattran, the team's best linemen and center from 2007. Projected starting left tackle Allen Smith suffered a serious knee injury in the winter and his status for the season is unknown. His replacement would be senior Ben Muth. Muth has plenty of experience, but his pass protection has been sub par. Interior lineman Alex Fletcher is the standout of the group and will move from guard to center to replace Mattran.

Defense

Seniors Ekom Udofia and Pannel Egboh lead what should be a dangerous defensive line. Egboh had six sacks in 2007 and both players should push for All Pac-10 honors. Stanford could run into some problems on the inside of the line. Besides Udofia, no one has proven that they can be consistently good against the rest of the Pac-10. Hopes are high for redshirt freshmen Matt Masifilo, and if he is able to lock down the other defensive tackle spot Stanford will be in good shape.

Clinton Snyder may be the best-kept secret in the west. The junior linebacker played at a high level his sophomore year putting up some impressive numbers along the way. His eight sacks was a team high and he will look to add to that total. Another senior, Pat Maynor, deserves much more preseason notoriety than he is getting. A rotation of a couple other linebackers including Chike Amajoyi and Nick Macaluso will get the rest of the available playing time. This unit has a chance to be one of the better linebacker corps in the Pac-10 and could surprise a lot of people.

Both starting cornerbacks from the 2007 squad are gone and filling in for them will be Wopamo Osaisai and Kris Evans. Both players received considerable playing time last season, but neither have been full-time starters and the depth behind them is unproven. At safety, Stanford returns both starters from last year in juniors Bo McNally and Austin Yancy. McNally is the clear the leader of the secondary after stepping up and taking charge in 2007. He far outplayed the attention he gets and it seems to be a common theme for these Stanford players to get overlooked by college football pundits.

Cardinal fans might not recognize the guys on special teams this year. Kicker Derek Belch and punter Jay Ottovegio are both gone and replacing them is talented freshmen David Green. Doug Baldwin and any of the team's running backs should contend for the role of returners.

Overview

Jim Harbaugh has been impressive so far in his tenure with Stanford. He has approached the job with a hard working attitude and infectious enthusiasm and it is paying off both on the field and with recruits. The Cardinal probably will not go to a bowl this year and their record will be forgettable. However, expect Harbaugh to continue to make strides with this team and have them primed and ready for a post-season appearance in 2009.

UCLA

2008 Schedule: Tennessee, at BYU, Arizona, Fresno State, Washington State, at Oregon, Stanford, at California, Oregon State, at Washington, at Arizona State, USC

2007: 6-7 (5-4)

Offense:

Senior quarterback Ben Olson (pictured) has the starting job all to himself after the leading candidate for the job, Pat Cowan, tore his ACL in the spring. Olson has been a disappointment since coming to Westwood as one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the nation. He has the chance to make amends for all of that with a solid senior season. Now under the tutelage of offensive mastermind Norm Chow and former UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel, Olson has a better chance than ever of realizing his potential. The Bruins followers are finally hoping the game of musical chairs at quarterback has come to an end.

With the departure of Chris Markey, senior running back Khalil Bell looks to be the heir apparent. Bell has been effective over the last couple of years but has never been asked to carry the team on his back for a full season. Assisting Bell in the backfield will be a couple of unfamiliar faces. Juniors Chane Moline and Trevor Theriot will fight for some playing time and if healthy Raymond Carter should be able to win himself a few carries as well. However, true freshmen Aundre Dean is good enough and has a great chance to make his presence known in his first season. Do not be surprised to see Dean getting double-digit touches a game.

UCLA has a couple wide receivers capable of earning all-conference honors if they can steer clear from the injury bug. Senior Marcus Everett is not getting much attention after spending most of 2007 sidelined with an injury but he could end up being one of the conference's most productive receivers. Sophomore Dominique Johnson showed how talented he is last year, but was not always able to showcase it thanks to the quarterback carousel. At 6'3", 210 pounds he has all the makings of a star receiver. Another tall receiver, Gavin Ketchum, should see considerable amounts of time as he poses a great mismatch threat to opposing defenses. Logan Paulsen was hard to stop at tight end in 2007 and the big pass catcher should prove to be tough to cover yet again.

If there is one area on offense for Bruins fans to be seriously concerned about it is the offensive line. Three starters from the 2007 squad and offensive tackle Aleksey Lanis retired from football because of chronic knee problems. The depth is thin and the starters are not proven, but that is not to say there is no talent on the UCLA offensive line. Micah Kia and Sean Sheller will man the left and right tackle positions, respectively, and should do so with success. Nick Ekbatani, Scott Glicksberg, Micah Reed and Darius Savage round out the rest of an offensive line that is just hoping not to get in the way of what should be a dangerous offense.

Defense

On the defensive line, replacing Bruce Davis is going to be a whale of a task. To compensate for the loss of Davis, defensive coordinator Dewayne Walker will trot out Tom Blake and Korey Bosworth. The interior of the line is anchored by sophomore Brian Price. He has a unique body for a defensive end, measuring in at 6'1", and showed great promise as a freshman. If the line hopes to be truly successful, it will need a good season out of Brigham Harwell. Harwell is a talented tackle with a high ceiling, but is a bit of an unknown after missing most of 2007 with a knee injury. If injuries occur at defensive end, things may get ugly, as depth there is rather thin.

At linebacker, Kyle Bosworth, Reggie Carter, and John Hale should prove to be a quality group. Reggie Carter is the unquestionable star of the defense with the NFL likely in his future. Carter started to come into his own in 2007. He plays hard and has exceptional range. Bosworth is another hard nose linebacker that plays with good intensity. If Hale can not get it done on the outside, look for Joshua Edwards or freshmen Akem Ayers and Steve Sloan to take some playing time away from him. Depth is a serious concern at this spot as well.

Similar to the defensive line, UCLA will have plenty of new faces in the secondary. Alterraun Verner emerged as a dangerous cornerback in 2007 and joining him at the other corner spot will be undersized senior Michael Norris. There are plenty of big receivers in the Pac-10 and at 5'9" with only one career start to his name, offensive coordinators will be keen on the idea of picking on Norris until he establishes himself. Bret Lockett is a big, physical safety that should make his share of highlight reel hits, but the effectiveness of his counterpart, junior Aaron Ware, remains to be seen. Expectations for Ware are high, considering he has been a career special teams player up to this point.

Kicking should not be a problem this year, as the Bruins return one of the best kickers in the west in Kai Forbath. Third year punter Aaron Perez should handle his job seamlessly again. However, the return game is a little less clear. Dynamic kick return man Matt Slater is gone to the NFL and UCLA expects to replace him with Christian Ramirez.

Overview

Many have made the comparison of this current UCLA squad to last year's Arizona State team, and the association does carry some validity. UCLA is coming off a disappointing season with a new head coach that is a proven winner, as was Arizona State. However, that is where the similarities stop. The Sun Devils had a schedule that worked in their favor and a quarterback that was experienced and battled tested. UCLA has neither of these luxuries. In fact, their schedule might be one of the toughest in the entire NCAA. Non-conference games with the likes of Tennessee, BYU and Fresno State are a tall order prior to an always-tough Pac-10 schedule, including road games at Arizona State, Cal, and Oregon. Make no mistake, the Bruins will be a better team in 2008, but their schedule just might not let their record reflect that improvement.

USC Trojans

2008 Schedule: at Virginia, Ohio State, at Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State, at Washington State, at Arizona, Washington, California, at Stanford, Notre Dame, at UCLA

2007: 11-2 (7-2)

Offense:

At this point, almost every college football fan knows Mark Sanchez's name. The Trojans' quarterback waited two years behind John David Booty and finally secured his starting job after beating out Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain in a heated spring ball competition. Expectations in Los Angeles for Sanchez are sky high. In three starts last season, Sanchez was a bag of mixed goods but he did show flashes of brilliance. In those three games against Arizona, Notre Dame and Oregon, Sanchez threw for 642 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions while completing sixty percent of his passes.

Although most of the attention given to USC this past off-season has centered on Sanchez, the real highlight of the Trojans' offense is their running backs. The three backs expected to get the most play in 2008 are C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson, and Joe McKnight. Johnson and McKnight rushed for a combined 1,213 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007 and are poised to put up more ludicrous numbers this year.

Quite possibly the biggest hit the Trojans took was losing senior tight end Fred Davis to the NFL. In 2007, Davis was the most reliable and dangerous weapon the passing offense had. He had a penchant for picking up the first on third downs and was tough to bring down once he got moving (just ask Troy Nolan). Highly touted 2006 recruit Anthony McCoy will usurp Davis and redshirt freshmen Rhett Ellison will also get some playing time.

2008 will be the year for several USC wide receivers to prove that they were worth the hype. The talent at the position is undeniable and the overall height of the group will be enough to win some battles. Patrick Turner (pictured) and Vidal Hazelton will be the two receivers seeing the most time. Hazelton might be the stand out of the group in 2008 with his combination of size, speed and elusiveness. David Ausberry, Ronald Johnson, and Damian Williams (another Arkansas transfer) will vie for playing time and round out an impressive, at least on paper, group of receivers.

While the offensive line only returns one starter from 2007, senior left guard Jeff Byers, the group should not hold the Trojans' offense back. Kris O'Dowd earned considerable playing time as a true freshmen last year and appears well on his way to All American honors. At left tackle, Charles Brown looks to be the favorite for the job. Brown started one game last year against Idaho and has the size and athletic ability to be a top tackle in the conference.

Defense:

With three players, all from the defensive side of the ball, going on in the first round of the NFL Draft this past April, one would assume that this would be a down years for the Trojans' D. However, Coach Pete Carroll caught a break when linebackers Brian Cushing and Ray Maualuga and defensive tackle Fili Moala all decided to return for their senior seasons.

Complimenting Moala on the line is sophomore defensive end Everson Griffen. Originally from Arizona, Griffen saw significant playing time as a freshmen and looks to be one of the conferences top defensive performers in 2008. Opposite of Griffen will likely be senior end Kyle Moore who has the size and speed to cause problems for opposing offenses.

No team in the country has a better set of linebackers than the Trojans. Although he does not possess top end speed, Maualuga will again be one of the conference's best linebackers. Cushing was bothered by injuries last year, but when he played he was a force. A rotation of Kaluka Maiava and Luthur Brown should prove to be effective and productive throughout the year at the weakside linebacker spot.

In the secondary, the Trojans have even more All-American and All-Conference worthy players. Junior free safety/rover Taylor Mays and senior safety Kevin Ellison combine for the conference's best safety tandem. Cary Harris returns for his third year of starting at cornerback and Shareece Wright has the onus of replacing Terrell Thomas.

Special teams should only work in the favor of USC this year. Both kicker David Buehler and punter Greg Woidneck return after quality seasons and the punt and kick return games will assuredly produce a couple of game breaking plays with athletes like Joe McKnight handling the ball.

Overview

Eleven victories and a Rose Bowl win should sound like a dream season to almost anyone, but for USC 2007 was largely a disappointment. An inexplicable home loss to Stanford prevented the Trojans from playing in their first national championship in two years. But fans are not worried, and why would they? 2008 has all the makings of a championship season. The talent is enviable, the schedule sets up nicely with all three of their toughest games at home (Arizona State, Ohio State, and Oregon), and Pete Carroll certainly knows what it takes to guide a team to a national championship.


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