Bouncing around the Pac-10 with Ed Cunningham

Dawgman.com recently talked with former Husky and current broadcaster Ed Cunningham about the upcoming football season in the Pac-10.

Derek Johnson: I'm really looking forward to this season, so let's talk some football. And since it seems like another automatic Pac-10 championship for the Trojans, we might as well start with USC and get them out of the way.

Ed Cunningham: I'm going to be out at practice next week watching those guys. The questions are obviously on offense. Defensively, there are three defenses in the country better than everyone else—USC, LSU and Virginia Tech. Every USC linebacker has NFL potential, their defensive line is amazing and Sedrick Ellis is really tough in the middle. But, they have to replace two really good receivers. It's a bunch of young guys who have talent. But the question is, do they have the leadership skills of a Steve Smith, who departed for the NFL? I don't think there's any question that you've got to put USC at #1 in the country. I will just be curious to see how well their young guys do, including the incoming running back (Joe) McKnight, who has been looking great in camp. But I want to see the wrinkles, even though they have the talent to figure things out as they go along.

Johnson: And we move across town to UCLA.

Cunningham: UCLA is close to getting over the hump. The USC win was huge, but they went to the Emerald Bowl and got smashed by Florida State. I think that (head coach) Karl Dorrell has found his stride. I'm not sure that Karl had quite figured out how to handle the head coaching position, but I think he has figured it out now. They have done a good job recruiting head-to-head in Southern California against USC. His staff continuously turns over, which usually concerns me. It's not always a bad thing, of course, when assistants are moving on to jobs in the NFL. But he's got to get some consistency there.

Johnson: It's just like if you compare the UCLA teams of now to the UCLA teams in the Terry Donahue days—when you would look at them and think they are so loaded with talent, and then they go 7-5.

Cunningham: Yea, that's been the case. It goes back again to `What's the culture?' The culture is different at UCLA than it is at USC. I think USC has a different culture than anyone else in the Pac-10. But Karl Dorrell is figuring that out. I think that bringing in Dwayne Walker is a great move. He's a tough, hard-nosed defensive coach that brings some of the toughness that that program may have been lacking.

Johnson: Moving on to Arizona. Are they more hype than reality?

Cunningham: We'll see. They were just not very good on offense last year. They have some talented guys. The jury is still out on their quarterback Tuitama. They improved quite a bit on defense last year and they bring most of those guys back, so they should be pretty good. But so much depends on that offense.

Johnson: I have a two-pronged question about Arizona State for you. The first part is wondering your thoughts on how much impact last year's quarterback controversy impacted Coach Dirk Koetter's firing. I also want to know your take on incoming coach Dennis Erickson.

Cunningham: I think the QB controversy impacted them greatly. It was so hard to wrap by brain around what really went into his decision to go with Rudy Carpenter. I don't think (the team revolt) is the only thing that got Koetter fired, but it was certainly part of it. He lost his team. That's a really difficult thing to do. But all that is long gone now. I played for Dennis Erickson when I was with the Seahawks, and I competed against him in college when he was at Washington State. We also shared a national championship with him when he was at Miami. The guy can coach. There are obviously lots of things that people bring up—that he's been at a lot of jobs, and didn't do well in the NFL. But at Arizona State with their level of talent, the guy is going to make an impact. Dirk (Koetter) left a lot of talent there when he was let go. This is a team that will sneak up on people this year, and could contend with USC for the conference title.

Johnson: Let's now move up to Berkeley, and my favorite coach in the Pac-10—Jeff Tedford.

Cunningham: They got their quarterback Nate Longshore back late in the season last year and he played very well—and that's huge. DeSean Jackson is as exciting a player there is in college football. You get the ball in his hands in the open field, and he's dangerous.

Johnson: I read somewhere that for every seven times Jackson returned a punt last year, he scored a touchdown!

Cunningham: Yea, it's crazy. They get most of their offensive line back, so they will be good there. Defensively, they've got some things to do. They've only got five starters returning. They weren't bad last year, but they just weren't good. However, I think USC is too good for Cal to overtake them this year. The thing is that Tedford has brought Cal to a place where they need to win a conference championship to be considered `arrived.'

Johnson: Really?

Cunningham: They just haven't gotten over that hump yet. They need to beat SC and win the conference outright because the expectations are so high now. As it should be, because he is a wonderful coach.

Johnson: I agree partially but not totally. If Cal loses to USC in a close game, and wins all of their other games, and goes on to a BCS game and beats a great team by 17 points—that's arriving by my standards.

Cunningham: Yes, but I'm still a big believer in conference championships. We all get so hyper about national championships, but conference championships are really the mark of a team that has arrived. I understand what you're saying, it would be a great season, but I have a feeling that the backers at Cal have got to a point where they feel its time to start putting some rings on some fingers.

Johnson: I know that when you and I spoke once about a year ago, we talked about the assurances Tedford received down at Cal about renovating their facilities, and the possibility of their campus culture resisting that progress. Do you feel he is going to run into stumbling blocks?

Cunningham: He got so many assurances about upgrades and that was a big part of him re-upping. I have a hard time believing that they won't get something done. Especially in California, and even more so in a place like Berkeley, you're always going to have to deal with outside influences and people's concern about the impact on the environment—which you should. What they're proposing would impact a beautiful part of their campus.

Johnson: Well, that's true, but you know as well as I that there are certain groups that are going to stir up trouble regardless of what project is proposed. They oppose just for the sake of being contrary.

Cunningham: Berkeley is an interesting place, because it's truly an "academics first" place. So anything that takes the focus off of academics, people are going to automatically push back on. I don't think that will ever change at Cal, and I hope it doesn't. I wish there were more places like that around the country. There are some places where if it weren't for the football team, people wouldn't even know that the university exists. So I welcome that type of challenge. People who are saying, "Is that too much? Are we too focused on one specific thing on this campus versus trying to make the university experience as a whole better for everyone?" To be honest Derek, I think we've lost our way a bit—with everyone wondering who has got the best weight rooms and indoor practice facilities, and all that.

Johnson: I'll agree with that. Moving back to football, let's talk about Stanford's new headline-making coach Jim Harbaugh.

Cunningham: He just seems to want to get himself embroiled in controversy, doesn't he? Frankly, I think that's good. Having some type of firebrand down there is a good thing. Just like Cal, Stanford struggles with identity. It's a school that is proud of its academics, which it should be. Sometimes it's difficult to balance that and get top-level kids to go there. The conversation with Stanford begins and ends with Jim Harbaugh. What he did at San Diego was amazing. Does that translate into Division I-A Pac-10 football? Who knows? He's got a great background, and a lot of passion for football. It's a wait and see situation.

Johnson: Scooting north to Oregon State, it looks like their offensive line is going to be really powerful this year.

Cunningham: I had the good fortune of doing the Oregon State game in Hawaii last year (for TV). I got to know a few guys on the offensive line. While they were doing their walk-through I sat with them and chatted a bit. It's not only a talented group of guys-- it's also a good group of guys. They work very hard. Jeremy Perry (an Outland Trophy candidate) is as good an offensive lineman as there is in the league, at left guard. Obviously, losing your quarterback (Matt Moore) doesn't help, but (running back) Yvenson Bernard is a very productive back. Oregon State, along with Arizona State, is a team that - if things fall properly - can win the conference.

Johnson: Setting our sights on the Oregon Ducks, they have the turntable quarterback duo in Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf.

Cunningham: It may sound like a cliché, but it sounds like a cliché because it's true: If you're rotating quarterbacks, it's usually because one of them hasn't separated from the other. Obviously, they are two totally different guys. But we'll see what happens. They have a new offensive coordinator. But it's Bellotti's system, so that's probably the way he wants it… They have some winnable games, but if you're an Oregon fan, you really have to hope that one of those QBs steps up.

Johnson: Regarding the Washington State Cougars, I had a great time talking recently with their former Coach Jim Walden (which will be an upcoming Dawgman article). He said he thought that Alex Brink was a vastly underrated quarterback, and that it's a shame that he doesn't have a better supporting cast around him.

Cunningham: I like Alex a lot. I got to see the Cougars early last year when we did the Auburn-Washington State game. Even though the score got out of hand, the Cougars competed pretty hard for the first three quarters of that game. I had seen Alex a few years ago, when I did one of their games. I have always been impressed with him. One guy I like whom I want to see get more involved, is (receiver) Michael Bumpus. He is very good in the open field. Coach Doba is taking over the reins on defense, but they lost a lot of guys on that side of the ball. Brink will lead them to some good things on offense, but who knows what they will be like defensively.

Johnson: And finally, we set our sights upon our beloved Washington Huskies.

Cunningham: I was lucky enough to go out to spring ball this year. From a general point of view, I was really impressed with what I saw. It's hard to put into words, but the only way to describe how a lively pads practice should feel like, is that it should feel like a fight is going to break out at any second, but never does. Because guys are going so hard, that someone may get angry and throw a punch. I know that may sound a little caveman-esque, but I had that feeling watching the Huskies practice.

As far as Jake Locker, I think he will go through many of the same things that Mark Brunell went through, except hopefully not the injury part. If you remember back, Mark was such a phenomenal athlete. He was one of the fastest guys on the team, one of the strongest guys on the team. He was a natural leader. Guys liked him and wanted to play hard for him. But he wasn't a polished quarterback when he started his first year.

Locker is also a phenomenal athlete. He seems to have command, and guys seem to want to play hard for him. I just wonder during the first year, if it's 3rd and 8 and he needs to stand in the pocket and hit that slant, can he do it? A lot people think that's an easy throw, but (it's not always the case). 3rd and 8 is one of the most critical situations for a quarterback. I don't think he is there yet. My hope is that (the UW coaches) take advantage of his athleticism, get him out of the pocket and throw on the run. I hope they find a way to use his talents while he learns what it takes to be a great quarterback.

Johnson: It will be fun to watch.
Ed Cunningham has co-written and produced a documentary film that debuts in Seattle on August 17th. Check out the details at www.billyvssteve.com
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net

His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com

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