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
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
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
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.'
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
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
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 email@example.com
His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com
Bouncing around the Pac-10 with Ed Cunningham
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