We spent a lot of time talking about quarterbacks this spring in the Pac-10, most particularly USC’s quarterback competition — did ya hear, Aaron Corp’s No. 1 but this freshman Matt Barkley looks like the bees’ knees!
The other general theme isn’t new: After reviewing the tea leaves on the table, does any team have the karmic — and talent — potential to unseat USC from the top of the Pac-10?
The answer? Maybe.
What we learned. Or developed a hunch about.
1. Oregon State’s quarterback situation is … interesting: You have two starting quarterbacks who are seniors. One is going to sit. No other way to describe it. Lyle Moevao threw for 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last year but he sat out spring practices with a shoulder injury, which is exactly what happened to Sean Canfield last year before he lost his starting job. By the way, Canfield went 3-0 — two starts — subbing for Moevao in 2008. Though he struggled in the spring game with three interceptions, Canfield played well enough throughout that he probably owns a slight lead heading into the offseason.
2. USC’s defense may not be as good as 2008, but it’s probably as good as anyone else: The 2008 USC defense had more future NFL players on it than any other unit in the nation. And the 2009 version might not be any different, though there’s clearly youth and inexperience to fret about from the Trojans’ perspective. Still, start with perhaps the best secondary in the nation, led by safeties Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard. Then consider the breakout spring of end Everson Griffen, who could win the Pac-10 sack title if he remains focused. Further, word is the three new linebackers might not match the NFL-ready standard of Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, but Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo and Michael Morgan are faster. Toss in some impressive youngsters up front, and it’s hard to imagine this crew not ranking among the nation’s top 10 in just about every category.
3. The conference of … running backs: The Pac-10 might feature the best collection of running backs in the nation. Five 1,000-yard rushers are schedule to return, including California’s Jahvid Best, the conference’s top Heisman Trophy candidate, and Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, who won the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award as a true freshman. Toss in Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount, a potential first-day NFL draft pick in 2010, and Stanford’s Toby Gerhart and Arizona’s Nic Grigsby, not to mention the six-deep stable of runners at USC, and the battle for first-team Pac-10 might be more arduous than All-American.
4. But can anyone block? Three teams that ran the ball well last year — Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State — lost three starting offensive linemen, including early-round NFL draft picks. Four others — Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State — were just lousy up front last fall. Even Stanford and California, which should be fairly stout, lost their best blockers from 2008. The conference’s only sure thing up front is USC, which welcomes back its entire starting five, including All-American center Kristopher O’Dowd. Moreover, the teams that entered spring with questions on the line didn’t get many answers three weeks later. O-line play might be the most critical issue facing the conference in 2009, even more so than at quarterback.
5. Sarkisian and Kelly bring new energy: Steve Sarkisian and Chip Kelly inherited completely different situations, but both made a mark by upping the intensity of practices. Sarkisian, of course, took over a lifeless program that Tyrone Willingham ran into the ground (uncharitable, but inarguable). He opened up practices and practically begged boosters and old Huskies greats to come visit. He also increased the tempo and energy level of practices — heck, everything around the team — which might do more than anything to get the Huskies a handful of wins next fall. Meanwhile, Kelly took over for one of the best coaches in the nation, Mike Bellotti, and brought a little East Coast volume to Ducks practices. He’s not completely renovating the Ducks, who finished in the nation’s top 10 last year, but he’s going to add his own coat of paint — which at Oregon, as you known, probably will be a fairly loud shade.