But it won't just be Jason Gesser, Jerome Riley, and company cashing in on these wet-behind-the-ears cover units. With seven Pac-10 starting quarterbacks returning, along with 13 of the conferences top 15 receivers, pass defense looks to be a pivotal factor in the 2002 conference race.
The eight WSU conference opponents return only seven of their starting 16 cornerbacks from last year. With cornerbacks going at such a premium, Washington State is fortunate enough to have both starting cornerbacks - - Marcus Trufant and Jason David - - returning next season.
From the look of it, the Cougs should see some fairly green defensive backfields in their tougher games, and many of the veterans they will face have questionable track records. Here's a preview of the 2002 opponents and their situations in the secondary:
Game 1: Nevada. Their defense as a whole was atrocious last season, ranking 109th out of 116 Division 1 schools in passing yards allowed and surrendering 40 points per game. They return their entire secondary this year but they will have to improve considerably upon last season's four team interceptions to make opposing offenses respect them.
Game 2: Idaho. The Vandals pass defense was worse than Nevada's, finishing 112th nationally in passing yards allowed and giving up a devastating 45 points per game. To make matters worse, the secondary had but one (one?!) interception last season, leaving opposing quarterbacks very little to fear. The same group is back this year, less the starting strong safety. Coach Tom Cable will have to squeeze some life out of this crew if the Vandals are going to improve upon last season's lone win.
Game 3: Ohio State. Ohio State's pass defense was outstanding last season. They ranked second in the Big 10 and 23rd nationally in passing yards allowed. Fortunately, their best cornerback, Derek Ross, has graduated and they will be relying much more heavily on the play of All-American free safety Mike Doss. Cornerback is probably the weakest spot in their defense. Injuries did give their reserves some experience last season and they're an extremely athletic bunch, but for now they remain largely unproven. They should get some excellent experience against pass-heavy Texas Tech on opening week, but WSU is definitely coming in at the right time to catch the Buckeye defenders while they're still somewhat inexperienced.
Game 4: Montana State. Sure, the Bobcats are a Division 1-AA team, but they did lead the Big Sky in passing defense, surrendering only 174 yards per game.
Game 5: California. The not-so-Golden Bears ranked 9th in the Pac-10 and 110th in the nation for pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 9 yards per pass attempt against these poor guys. Nearly their entire secondary returns in 2002, which may be better news for the rest of the conference than for Cal.
Game 6: USC. The Trojans had an excellent pass defense last year, despite their difficulties elsewhere. All-American safety Troy Polamalu will be all the more vital this season as he is the only returning member of their secondary. Their three best cornerbacks are gone and their replacements are very unclear. USC started spring practice two weeks ago and appears focused on shoring up this position. Several wide receivers are being tried at cornerback along with some freshmen. They have the bodies to fill the slots, but the quality of play remains a question mark.
Game 7: Stanford. The Cardinal had an average pass defense last season, ranked sixth in the conference and 87th nationally. They lose their entire secondary from that squad. They too have discussed using freshman or switching some WRs over to corners to add some depth. Most likely Stanford will end up starting returning backups Gary Cobb, Stanley Wilson, or Leigh Torrence. Cobb has seen plenty of action, but has been injury plagued over his career and has a reputation of playing too soft on receivers. Torrance and Wilson are very athletic but have limited game experience. With numerous new faces and a new coach make Stanford another big question mark defensively.
Game 8: Arizona. The Wildcats ranked eighth in conference pass defense, and 104th nationally last season. They must replace one cornerback and one safety from their double eagle flex, a.k.a. Desert Swarm, a.k.a. Buddy Ryan's '85 Bears defense. The double eagle flex is by nature a do or die scenario, designed to overwhelm offensive lines and put extreme pressure on the QB. To be effective, it requires very athletic players, something the Wildcats have not had enough of lately. Regularly functioning with eight men in the box, the Wildcats are totally dependent on corners that can stick to their men like glue. Based on last year's numbers current talent level at that position is suspect and they have been too slow at the safety position to make up for it. They have one solid cornerback in Michael Jolivette, but the other position is up for grabs. Returning reserve David Hinton is trying to win the job and JC newcomer Luis Nunez is also a possibility. The strong safety position is also wide open. Their free safety, Jarvie Worcester, is a three-year starter but lacks the desired speed. Teams with multiple receiving targets were a nightmare for Arizona last season and should continue to be in 2002.
Game 9: Arizona State. The Sun Devils ranked seventh in the Pac-10 and 96th nationwide in pass defense. The switch to a two-linebacker formation left them exposed to the pass and Pac-10 teams averaged 280 yards passing and 39 points per game against them. It is another defense dependent on outstanding cornerbacks and they just weren't up to the task last year. Except for the loss of starter Tommy Townsend, the same corners will get another chance in 2002, with Lamar Baker the best of the group. As of now it looks like the other corner could be a weak point. ASU regularly runs three safeties in passing situations. Free safety Al Williams is a very solid three-year starter and Jason Shivers was a freshman All-American last year. The other safety spot is open right now. Look for the Sun Devil defense as a whole to be improved next year.
Game 10: Oregon. Statistically speaking, the Ducks ranked dead last in passing yards allowed in the Pac-10 and an amazing 111th nationally. That statistic is fairly misrepresentative of the Duck defense, however. Oregon had a lot of confidence in their cornerbacks and invited teams to pass against them. Their corners were fairly comfortable facing receivers one-on-one and that freed up the linebackers considerably. When evaluated on a yards-per-pass-attempt basis, the Duck's defense ranked fifth in the conference, and surrendered only 15 touchdowns through the air during the 2001 campaign. Their top two cornerbacks are gone now and the Ducks will have to re-evaluate whether or not a similar defensive strategy will backfire in 2002. The number three corner, Steven Moore, appears ready to step in but the other slot is clearly undecided. The Ducks have a huge advantage however, in that the rest of the defense is essentially intact and cornerbacks can be focused on during spring practice. They also have a very easy four game September home stand that will allow plenty of time for player development.
Game 11: UCLA. The 2001 Bruin defense was the only consistent bright spot on a team that utterly imploded offensively. They return six defensive starters, two of those in the secondary. The Bruins must replace two talented safeties, including Marques Anderson. Both of the starting cornerbacks, Matt Ware and Ricky Manning, are returning but there are indications that Ware will move to the free safety spot. If that happens there are numerous athletic, but inexperienced candidates to replace him at cornerback. Overall, the secondary is not the chief area of concern for the Bruins, who have much bigger questions to answer on offense.
Game 12: Washington. While the Huskies only allowed 210 passing yards per game - - about average for Pac-10 teams - - their opponents averaged an impressive 8.31 yards per pass attempt, which ranks their pass defense 107th nationally in that category. This was partly the fault of injuries to their cornerbacks and also due to lack of pressure on opposing QBs. They lose five defensive starters, including one cornerback, but have a pretty good idea of who their cornerbacks will be next year. Derrick Johnson is coming back after being injured last year, as is Roc Alexander and nickel-back Chris Massey. While the inexperience showed at times last season, next year's secondary should be well seasoned by the Apple Cup. Free safety is still a question mark but the line is likely to be the biggest defensive concern for the Huskies this spring. The UW pass defense is one of the few that should be improved, unless injuries continue to hurt their capacity to show nickel and dime coverages.
Game 13: Hawaii. The warriors ranked 95th for pass defense in terms of yards per game, but their 6.91 yards-per-attempt was only slightly below the national average. Like Oregon, they have had a lot of confidence in their cornerbacks to handle one-on-one coverage, a big gamble in a pass-happy conference. Both starting cornerbacks are returning next fall but they lose their safeties. Two strong candidates will need to emerge this spring if the defense is to remain consistent.