A battle for the starting running back position has yielded some interesting stories. First, one of Mike Stoops' prized recruits, RB Derke Johnson, has left Tucson to return to his hometown in Texas. He had just been cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse, and fans were excited that the four-star running back would be practicing with the team. Alas, it didn't last very long. On the bright side, JUCO walk-on Chris Jennings has played extremely well of late, including 98 yards on 7 carries in a recent scrimmage. He is fighting to take playing time away from Chris Henry, who grabbed an early lead on the starting job. Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama remains the clear starter at quarterback in an offense where fans saw glimpses of big play potential late last season. However, at this point in time the NCAA Clearinghouse appears to be a bigger adversary than September 2nd opponent BYU. At least five players, including star recruits Gabe Long (DT) and Devin Ross (CB) are awaiting clearance.
Obviously, the big news in Tempe is Dirk Koetter's reversal on declaring a starting quarterback. Rampant internet rumor and innuendo leaves a lot unclear, and it may stay that way until Sam Keller shows up at another school (watch out for Nebraska) and speaks publicly on the matter. Rudy Carpenter was quite possibly the best back-up quarterback in the country as of a few days ago; the stage is a bit larger now. In other news, it appears that former Irish recruit and somewhat-fan favorite Travis Goethel (non-offer) will not redshirt. Another former Irish recruit, Kyle Caldwell, is finally healthy and has been enjoying a strong fall camp. He is likely to start at defensive end. Meanwhile, big name Northwestern transfer Loren Howard has been battling injuries. One last note: Carpenter isn't the only "Rudy" worth remembering on the Sun Devil roster. Speedy tailback Rudy Burgess, who had a strong sophomore season at tailback has been playing both wide receiver and cornerback during fall camp. He has really impressed, and his name could be called often when the Sun Devils open their season against Northern Arizona on August 31st.
Jeff Tedford is an offensive genius, but something crawled inside his head this past off-season and led him to believe that the spread option offense was the way to go in 2006. He visited Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer to discuss the intricacies of their offensive philosophies, and probably came away thinking about some hybrid version for his team. Tedford still hasn't settled on a quarterback (Nate Longshore vs. Joe Ayoob), although Longshore has been receiving more of the first team snaps in practice. On the other side of the football, Cal could field a very surprising defense. Tedford has quietly accumulated some talented recruits on defense, and many of those players are ready to live up to their hype. One such recruit is former Irish target Philip Mbakogu, who led the defense in tackles for loss last year (10). The pass rush will need to relieve stress on the secondary, which became a bit of a question mark when returning starter at cornerback and punt returner Tim Mixon went down with a torn ACL. Cal opens on the road at Tennessee on September 2nd.
Head coach Mike Bellotti doesn't care what talented, returning wide receiver James Finley (57 catches, 571 yards) did last year. He named Garren Strong the number one receiver in practice this week. Strong had just 13 catches last year, which was good for fourth among returning receivers. How other receivers like Finley, Cameron Colvin, and Jaison Williams respond remains to be seen. Of course, the Ducks may end up running the ball with a talented corps of running backs led by former Irish recruit Jonathan Stewart. Dennis Dixon has held off Brady Leaf at the quarterback position, and considering that the offensive coordinator is former BYU head coach Gary Crowton, don't be surprised if Oregon incorporates even more option plays and reverses into its running game. Defense has been the Ducks' Achilles heel in recent years, and losing Haloti Ngota in the middle of the defense may not make matters better. However, Oregon should have an athletic secondary, which is a must in the pass-happy Pac-10. It's led by former Concord DeLaSalle running back Jackie Bates, who is a starting cornerback. He is joined by former Irish recruit and Chicago native Kwame Ageyman at strong safety. The defense won't have a warm-up game, either, as the Ducks will be tested immediately in their home opener on September 2nd against Stanford.
Matt Moore has been having a very strong fall camp, which is what the Beavers need. They lost Mike Hass to graduation last year, and they're trying to replace his production with a more balanced trio of wide receivers: Sammie Stroughter, Ruben Jackson, and Anthony Wheat-Brown. While none of them have the name cache of Hass, the offense should still be prolific – with fewer turnovers. Moore is hitting the same development curve that saw Derek Anderson go from an interception-throwing machine to a legit NFL prospect. The bigger questions for Oregon State will be on defense. Starting corner Brandon Hughes will be out for at least two games after a vicious collision with a linebacker during practice. Meanwhile, the Beavers continue to search for a stronger pass rush and develop a less porous secondary. Hughes' injury certainly won't help. The Beavers open at home against Eastern Washington on August 31st.
John David Booty will be the starter for the Trojans at quarterback, although Mark Sanchez may play if Booty struggles. It also appears that highly rated high school safety Allen Bradford may win the starting tailback job. Considering that USC brought in four other running backs in last year's recruiting haul, it'll be interesting to see if any transfers result. Meanwhile, fullback Brandon Hancock's career-ending injury has allowed former Irish recruit Michael Coleman to play some snaps at fullback. He may end up staying there, especially with the crowd at tailback. Meanwhile, some fans are concerned that the Trojans are struggling to stop the run with their new 3-4 defense. Apparently the scout squad had some success running on them in the last scrimmage on Sunday in the Coliseum. There is a lot of young talent on the Trojans so it may take some time for them to gel. It also appears that former Irish recruit Cary Harris has locked down one of the starting corner positions. USC opens its season by traveling to Arkansas on September 2nd.
Whereas most defenses are ahead of the offense during fall camp, the opposite has occurred in Palo Alto. Quarterback Trent Edwards sliced and diced the Cardinal defense to shreds during the first two weeks of practices, and only in the latest scrimmage did the defense finally catch up to the offense. Wide receiver Evan Moore, who missed almost all of 2005 to injury, has played extremely well, and both Moore and former Irish recruit Mark Bradford are a dangerous pair of targets for Edwards. Anthony Kimble has moved to the top of the depth chart at running back. On defense, Stanford may have lost starting LB Michael Okwo for a few games to injury. Additionally, Brandon Harrison has been practicing at both cornerback and safety to help shore up what may turn out to be a problematic secondary. There is little experience back there save returning starter Nick Sanchez, who may not have locked down one of the starting positions yet. Stanford's defense will be tested early as they play Oregon on September 2nd.
Ben Olson will finally get his chance. He was named the starter this week by Karl Dorrell, although the talent that surrounds him isn't quite the same as that of the 2005 squad. No one on the Bruins' roster has demonstrated that they can replace even half of Marcedes Lewis's productivity, and although there are a bevy of talented backs (Chris Markey, Kahlil Bell, Derrick Williams), none seems to have the game-changing potential as Maurice Drew. There is a bright side, however. Despite losing returning starter Joe Cowan to a season-ending injury, UCLA does appear to have some talent at wide receiver, including former starter Junior Taylor (returning from injury, he missed 2005), Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell, Gavin Ketchum, and freshman Terrence Austin. On the defensive side of the ball, Kevin Brown returned to practice this week after nursing what was believed to be a high ankle sprain. Brown is an essential cog in UCLA's defense, especially considering their struggles to stop the run in recent years. UCLA's secondary should be very, very good. Utah will visit the Bruins at the Rose Bowl on September 2nd.
Not much news escapes a Willingham closed practice, but here are two sets of quotes. Compare and contrast.
From the Everett (WA) Herald article "Willingham raising the bar for his team":
"'These guys (the Huskies) are adjusting to a new landscape.' Willingham said he doesn't believe his team has figured out exactly what he expects of them, and hasn't achieved the level of consistency he expects. But he said that goal can be reached, and he expects it will be reached."
Meanwhile, in South Bend:
"I think they are more ready for it. There are fewer surprises. They know what gets me mad and they know when I am quiet, it usually is not a good thing. Because if I'm sitting there not saying anything, it certainly is not because I'm not paying attention. They're usually saying now, what is he thinking because he's not saying anything. But most of these guys have a better understanding of me and my personality and my way of doing things. And they know there are certain ways that Coach Weis and his staff are going to do business, and they're going to be non-negotiable."
Washington opens on September 2nd against San Jose State.
Alex Brink has been lighting it up at Cougar practices, and his two favorite receivers, Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus, have enjoyed a strong fall camp. Meanwhile, DeMaundray Woolridge appears to have fought off challengers Dwight Tardy, Kevin McCall, and Derrell Hutsona to start at running back. Nicks and bruises have nagged the Cougars' most experienced defenders, their three returning starters at linebacker. However, with five returning starters in the back seven, it's the two non-returning starters who are generating the most interest on defense: Tyron Brackenridge and Don Turner, who are slotted as the starting cornerbacks. How well these two play could determine Washington State's fate in the Pac-10. The Cougars face a big test on September 2nd when they travel to Auburn.
Next week we'll preview the first weekend of Pac-10 games.
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