|No. 6 UCLA Bruins|
Tying Cal for the “most difficult to predict” award will be the UCLA Bruins. So long Buffet Bob, we hardly knew ye. And thinking back to the last couple visits UCLA made to Corvallis, Good Frickin Riddance.
The thing that keeps haunting me when I look at UCLA is that up until USC’s last couple years, they ruled the Pac 10 (and sometimes the nation) in recruiting classes. Tons of talent goes into Westwood, and a lot of NFL-caliber athletes come from UCLA. Toledo didn’t necessarily utilize all that talent too effectively, but Toledo is gone and a host of new coaches have come to La-La land to get UCLA back on track, led by new Head Coach Karl Dorrell. The offense will be less gimmicky and the defensive system will be changed as well, which always leads to growing pains. Lucky for Dorrell he has a ton of talent to work with.
And how Dorrell takes all this talent and puts it together in his first-ever head coaching gig after coaching wide receivers for the Denver Broncos will be key to this season. I think I’m actually glad that our conference miss is UCLA.
The Bruins would have returned 8 players on offense and looked really, really strong for their new HC had Tab Perry not been a bonehead and flunked out prior to the start of fall camp. Losing Perry hurts doubly as he was a dangerous return man in a big way. They still return a lot of talent, led by Tyler Ebell at RB. Call him Tinkerbell, Mighty Mouse, whatever you want to, but Ebell can flat out play. At just 5-8 and 171 pounds, you have to wonder how the Soph running back can possibly stand up to the punishment of a season in the Pac 10. All I can think is that there’s a guy named Warrick Dunn in the NFL with a lot of the same qualities and he seems to do OK. UCLA has quality depth at RB with Manuel White at fullback and Akil Harris providing a quality backup to Ebell. White, a 6-3 247 Jr is a bruiser who has the skill and speed to play tailback as well as fullback, and Harris, a 6-0 213 Sr was the starter at the beginning of the year before giving way to Ebell. Talent abounds at running back for UCLA, and the group as a whole may be the best in the Pac 10. The offensive line is lead by 6-3 305 Jr Eyoseff Efseaff at G, and lists three returning starters. The starting 5 look quite solid but depth is an issue for the Bruins and they will need to stay healthy. Despite technically losing starter Cory Paus to graduation, the Bruins may well be better off this year without the fragile Paus. Drew Olson, 6-2 223 So, is the heir apparent, and I thought he played exceptionally well as a freshman last year, as did the guy pushing him for the job, 6-4 188 So Matt Moore. Moore has a cannon but his size raises some durability issues and Olson appears to make better decisions, so I would have to give the edge to Olson. Craig Bragg, a 6-2 191 Jr is the go-to guy at wide receiver, but keep your eye on Junior Taylor, a 6-2 187 So. The kid has jets and is a legitimate deep threat. Mike Seidman is (finally) gone as TE, but my guess is that 6-6 250 former super blue-chip Marcedes Lewis will cause a couple opposing DC’s to stock up on their Rolaids.
On to the defense.. again, talent abounds. The Bruins return 7 starters including three of the four in the secondary. The star of the secondary last year was Ricky Manning Jr, who has graduated, and Matt Ware appears to be next in line as the diamond of the back four. A physical specimen at 6-3 and 201, the Jr CB can run and hit. If he develops his technique as a cover guy, look out. Ben Emmanuel, a 6-3 205 Jr FS is a guy who has a nose for the ball and 6-1 200 So SS Jarrad Page had an outstanding season last year as a true freshman. It won’t be easy to rack up the passing yards on UCLA this year.. are you listening, Andrew Walter? Ucla has Arizona State’s number this year, take that to the bank. The linebackers are in the Oregon State mold, fast and athletic, which should ease the loss of star Marcus Reese. Featuring returning starters Brandon Chillar, a 6-3 233 Sr, and 6-4 229 So Spencer Havner, this is one of the best groups in the Pac 10 this year. Havner racked up an amazing 96 tackles as a freshman and Chillar is the type of LB that is skilled enough to drop into coverage and fast enough to play sideline to sideline. The defensive line is the Achilles Heel of this defense. They’re an undersized group with 2 returning starters who will have trouble with big offensive lines and a powerful rushing attack. Luckily Ucla doesn’t have to face Oregon State this year. The star of the DL is future All-American DT Rodney Leisle, a 6-3 291 Sr who will face a lot of double teams this year. Dave Ball was a 2nd Team All Conference player last year, and his brother Mat will start on the opposite defensive end. Yes, that’s right, a big pair of Balls will be on the Ucla defensive line this year.
Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I’ll go wash my mouth out with soap now.
Both Mat and Dave Ball go about 6-6 and 275, and both are seniors this season, so the defensive ends are pretty good sized and that will help with the smaller DT’s, as Senior Ryan Boschetti comes in at 6-4 and 291.
Ucla is the runner up for the nomination of “most likely to prove that OA is a know-nothing windbag” this year. It’s impossible to tell whether the Bruins can take all that talent and beat the daylights out of some people, or will follow the conventional wisdom that first-year coaches struggle.
|No. 5 Washingon State Cougars|
I’m just going to sit on the fence with the Cougs this year. Looking at Pac 10 predictions across the board, the Cougars are supposed to finish anywhere from the bottom 3 in the conference to the top 3.
Mike Price, the dean of the Pac 10, is gone and.. ahem.. “enjoying” some vacation time right now. Err.. no, I’m not going to make any “Roll Tide” or stripper or “Destiny” jokes here, so just keep moving. Nothing to see here. Just move along.
Defensive Coordinator Bill Doba has taken over the Head Coaching duties and that should make for an interesting season, as Washington State’s persona over the past decade or so has been defined by Price’s high-powered offenses, lead by some truly stellar quarterbacks. Will the Cougars take on a more defensive bent now that a defensive guy is in charge? Only time will tell.
Truth be told, I could just as easily have put Washington State in my top 4. And I would have, if they would just quit making me look like an ass every year when I predict that this will be the year that they put the hurt on the Huskies in the Apple Cup. But in retaliation, I have demoted Wazzu to number 5 in my countdown this year, even though I predicted them #1 last year. (Gratuitous self-pat on the back inserted here, please).
On offense, Washington State returns 6 starters but loses their star player, heart, and catalyst in Jason Gesser. Gesser was a fearless warrior who played much bigger than his size and much higher in skill level than he had any business doing. Attempting to fill his shoes will be 6-5 235 Sr Matt Kegel. Kegel possesses all the physical tools that Gesser did not, and has shined in practice.. but not so much so when the lights come on. He should be a very serviceable player this year, and if he produces some of that intangible leadership quality that Gesser brought to the table, even just a little, then Wazzu will be good on the offensive side of the ball. At running back, former transfer Jermaine Green will carry the rock. At 5-10 and 220, the senior tailback has all the tools. He’s big, he’s got breakaway speed, and good moves and vision. What he’s lacked so far is durability. Jonathan Smith is a capable backup, and I would hazard a guess that the 5-10 190 Sr will split time with Green in the backfield. 5-10 205 So Allen Thompson is the fastest of the bunch and may also see significant time at tailback as well. Blocking for the trio up front will be two returning starters, including my pick for the best offensive lineman in the Pac 10, 6-8 329 Jr Tackle Calvin Armstrong. Armstrong is a tremendous pass blocker and can handle even the nastiest defensive end without help most of the time. Joining him is 6-7 289 Sr Billy Knotts at G. With 3 new starters, I would expect Washington State’s offensive line to undergo some growing pains and if they gel quickly, Wazzu will put the hurt to some people. The receiving corps is lead by the OUTSTANDING Devard Darling. Originally a Florida State player who transferred to Washington State after his brother’s training-related death, Darling is big (6-3 206), physical, fast, and has great hands. He’s the complete package, and the junior wideout is just getting started. Seniors Sammy Moore and Scott Lunde will round out the group and provide a very solid set of wide receivers, but you don’t lose two guys like Jerome Riley and Mike Bush without any fall off. Lucky for Kegel, he has a star TE like Troy Bienemann, a 6-4 244 So with sure hands and good athleticism to help out as well. The offense will likely be very mercurial this year, hot at times and sputtering at others.
Defensively, the Cougars look menacing. Boasting again a powerful defensive line despite the loss of Outland Trophy winner Rien Long, Wazzu returns 8 starters. Starting with the deep, deep, deep defensive line, there are two returning starters and they are 6-3 222 Sr Isaac Brown at DE and 6-4 284 Sr Jeremy Williams at tackle. Brown is more like a linebacker pushed into the DE slot, and serves primarily as pass rush function.. his size makes him somewhat of a liability against the run, but his speed and pass rush instincts demand that he start at end. Williams is the leader of the group and will be depended on to fill the hole left by Rien Long. I would be remiss not to mention 6-5 318 Sr Tai Tupai and 6-3 230 Sr DD Anchonlu. Achonlu played extensively last year, racking up starter-like numbers in a reserve role and will be a big part of this line’s success as a unit. Their liability may well be against the run without freakish Long, where large offensive lines would wear them down… were it not for the depth this group has. The linebackers are lead by 6-0 235 So Will Derting, who popped eyes with his propensity to grab errant passes early on last year. He’s absolutely stellar in dropping into coverage and flows well through traffic. The secondary will have to replace All-Everything Marcus Trufant but return 3 starters including Jason David, a 5-8 190 Sr who will be very successful this year provided he can keep his face from meeting teammate’s fists.
I like Washington State’s defense a lot and am hearing rumbling of a more ball-control oriented offense, which should only make the defense that much stronger. Derting and David will garner their share of turnovers and if the offense gets up to speed earlier than expected, they may survive the hellish schedule that includes Colorado and Notre Dame on the road, plus ornery New Mexico. Another player worth mentioning is WSU’s tremendous Soph punter, Kyle Basler. He will definitely be a star over the next 3 years, and maybe even on Sundays. He’s that good.
|No. 4 Washington Huskies|
Yeah, yeah.. I know. Lots of pundits are picking the Huskies to finish in the top 2 in the conference. Two Heisman Trophy caliber players on offense, but there are an awful lot of questions for this Husky team. I just don’t see them finishing in the top 3.. and it’s not just because of the lack of a running game or a defense that seems to be getting softer and softer the farther away from DJ and Lambright the Huskies get. It certainly has to do with the distraction that Rick Neuheisel has caused and the change over to Gilbertson.
Say what you like about Skippy, there is one thing he was always able to do: Motivate. Kids loved to play for Rick, and talk all you want about how he won with somebody else’s recruits, somebody else’s team, his record speaks for itself.
Now I’m not going to bash Gilby and his record as a head coach because I think that he got caught in a bad situation at Cal and just plain didn’t have the talent to win right away and wasn’t given long enough to put things back together. Gilby may turn out to be a better coach in terms of doing all the little things that it takes to prepare your team to win, and that may bear out. But I think he’s stuck in another bad situation with the Huskies, with no running game and a defense that needs to regain it’s bonecrusher mentality. That may happen under Coach Gilby, who is after all a Don James protégé.
But not this year. Not that quick.
The offense returns 8 starters, which is a good thing. The offensive line accounts for 3 of those starters, but this is a unit that gave up a rather troubling 37 sacks last year, and didn’t open up a lot of holes for the running game. There’s not a lot of depth in this group either, with injuries and defections plaguing the reserve corps. OT Khalif Barnes, 6-6 302 Jr, will need to lead his unit this year and become a productive group if the Huskies are to challenge for the league title. At QB 6-4 216 Sr Cody Pickett is my pick (no pun intended) for the best signal caller in the Pac 10. He spent last year behind a so-so offensive line and got sacked 37 times, yet still managed to set a couple of Pac 10 passing records. True, he does have the best WR in the conference with the brilliant, dazzling Reggie Williams on the other end of a pass. The 6-4, 220 SR burst on the scene as a true freshman and has been shredding Pac 10 defenses ever since. He’s fast, fluid, can be physical and get up to a jump ball, runs good routes and possesses unbelievable body control and hands. It looks like 6-0 220 SR Rich Alexis will continue to provide the rushing for the Huskies, and he can be a serviceable back if the OL can open up some holes. Zach Tuiasosopo, a 6-2 245 Jr, will perform fullback duties as long as he can keep from walking around smashing car windows with his fists.. and his head. Something tells me he watched “The Program” some time that week on TBS. Wonder if he’ll paint the skull on his face and go lay down in traffic for an encore.
On defense, the Huskies bring 7 returning starters and should perform better against the pass with the emergence of Derrick Johnson and the return of Roc Alexander at corner. The 6-0 185 Jr Johnson garnered my vote for the best corner in the conference, and was one of just 3 returning Pac 10 first teamers on defense (Richard Siegler and Matt Grootegoed are the other two). Alexander, a 6-0 190 Sr who must have had parents who figured he would be a strong safety, missed most of the year last season with a shoulder injury. He appears to be back up to speed and brings size and experience to the Husky secondary. 6-2 220 Sr Greg Carrothers makes the move from safety to outside linebacker where he can probably actually cover somebody. The star of the defense is undoubtedly 6-3 210 Sr Marquis Cooper, coming off of a fine 100 tackle season. He’s fast, athletic, and a sure tackler and will assume Ben Mahdavi’s role as the leader of the linebackers and probably the defense. The defensive line will be a weak point and coupled with the loss of Mahdavi, the Huskies will likely have more trouble with the run this year. 6-3 270 Jr DE Josh Miller was the leader of the DL and he’s out for the year with herniated discs in his back. Ouch. That leaves the lone returning starter of the group as 6-4 285 Sr DT Terry Johnson. Johnson will command plenty of double teams this year, as he’s a quick, athletic guy who can really give a slower offensive lineman headaches.
Special teams may not be all that special for the Huskies this year.. it appears that the boys in purple and gold are letting their kicking game ride on a pair of true freshman. Ruh roh, Raggy. The kicking game should be.. uh.. adventurous this year for U Dub. Charles (E.T.) Fredrick returns as both an electrifying return man and a guy who will happily hose down your locker for free if you’re lucky enough to be a teammate.
Final thought on the Huskies.. man, they are going to be interesting to watch this year.