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February 28, 2008
Finding a new starting quarterback seems to be the spring theme in the Pac-10.
There also are two new coaches, with both taking over at their alma maters.
Read about these topics and more in our Spring Preview for the Pac-10.
Rick Neuheisel, UCLA: Neuheisel's exile from college football ended as the former Washington and Colorado coach returned to his alma mater. Neuheisel's arrival paid immediate dividends as he signed the nation's No. 13 recruiting class, the highest-ranked class for UCLA since 2002. He retained a rising star at defensive coordinator in DeWayne Walker and brought offensive coordinator Norm Chow back to Los Angeles. Neuheisel comes with baggage, though. He left Colorado on probation for recruiting violations, and his tenure at Washington also was embroiled in controversy, with several of his players running afoul of the law.
Paul Wulff, Washington State: The Cougars, 20-26 overall and 11-23 in the Pac-10 in Bill Doba's final four seasons, look to rebuild under one of their own. A four-year starter at center for the Cougars in the late 1980s, Wulff comes to Washington State from Division I-AA Eastern Washington. Wulff spent 15 seasons at Eastern Washington, including an eight-year run as coach (53-40). Wulff, a three-time Big Sky Coach of the Year, brings a no-huddle offense with elements of the spread option. Now, he just needs to find the players to run it.
Biggest position battles this spring
Arizona: Cornerback. Antoine Cason, a four-year starter and Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back in 2007, was the linchpin to Mike Stoops' defense the past four seasons. Fellow starting corner Wilrey Fontenot also is gone. Backups Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley return, but expect them to be under pressure from redshirt freshman Trevin Wade and sophomore Mike Turner.
Arizona State: Center. Mike Pollak was the Sun Devils' top lineman on a unit that struggled. Replacing him will be untested options in seldom-used backup Thomas Altieri and redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart. Gerhart's brother, Toby, is a running back at Stanford.
Cal: Quarterback. Rising senior Nate Longshore already has won the starting job three times, including his injury-shortened 2005 season. He'll have to win it a fourth time. Longshore completed 57 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the final seven games of the season before being relieved by Kevin Riley in the Armed Forces Bowl. Riley passed for 269 yards and three touchdowns in the comeback to put pressure on Longshore in the race to earn the starting job.
Oregon: Quarterback. The Ducks lost three consecutive games after losing Dennis Dixon to a torn ACL. Now, they'll have to prepare for a whole season without him. Justin Roper shocked USF with 180 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 56-21 Sun Bowl rout. Nathan Costa was the heir apparent to Dixon, but he will miss most of spring after tearing knee ligaments in November. True freshmen Derron Thomas and Chris Harper will join the competition as early enrollees.
Oregon State: Defensive tackle. The Beavers lost every starter in their front seven, but defensive tackle is especially thin. Oregon State enters spring with only one defensive tackle, senior Pernnell Booth, who has seen significant game action. Mitchel Hunt and Sioeli Nau are the other top candidates, but they have not seen the field.
Stanford: Running back. Stanford ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing a year ago, when the tailbacks struggled with injuries all season. Anthony Kimble led the team with 509 yards and eight touchdowns but missed five games. Toby Gerhart, who ran for 140 yards in his only game last season, will be limited in spring practice because he is a member of the baseball team as well.
UCLA: Quarterback. Expect this competition to continue into the fall, as it has the past two seasons. Once again, UCLA is waiting for one of its quarterbacks to heal. Patrick Cowan is questionable for spring ball after knee surgery. Ben Olson has started each of the past two seasons before succumbing to injuries. Junior college transfer Kevin Craft, who began his career at San Diego State and was California's junior college player of the year in 2007, also will be in camp. The quarterbacks will have the fortune of working with one of the best position coaches in the game in Chow.
USC: Quarterback. UCLA's cross-town rival has its own quarterback competition after the departure of John David Booty. In contention for the job are two five-star prospects with much to prove. Mark Sanchez started three games last season with mixed results. Mitch Mustain is eligible after transferring from Arkansas, where he went 8-0 as a true freshman starter in 2006.
Washington: Wide receiver. The Huskies top four receivers were seniors last season, meaning D'Andre Goodwin (six catches, 29 yards) is the leading returning receiver. Spring will be critical for Jake Locker to find new targets in the passing game. Four-star freshman Chris Polk enrolled early. Devin Aguilar and Anthony Boyles are eligible after delaying enrollment for a year. Redshirt freshman Alvin Logan also will be available.
Washington State: Quarterback. For the first time in 40 games, the Cougars will have a starting quarterback not named Alex Brink, the school's career leading passer. Brink's seldom-used backup, Gary Rogers, will compete for the role, as will Kansas State transfer Kevin Lopina. The starter will run Wulff's new no-huddle attack.
Five players who should emerge this spring
1. USC TB Joe McKnight: The No. 2 overall player in the class of 2007 struggled to find his footing early as a true freshman, but he started to show flashes of his potential during the second half of the season. With a new quarterback and the departure of senior tailback Chauncey Washington, look for more to be put on the shoulders of the dynamic McKnight. He should easily surpass his 540 rushing yards and three touchdowns from last season.
2. Stanford DE Pannel Egboh: Egboh plays in relative obscurity in Stanford, but he was impossible for USC to ignore during Stanford's upset of the Trojans. Against USC, he had 2.5 tackles for a loss, a sack and a blocked kick. As a senior, he could emerge into an all-conference player.
3. Oregon State WR James Rodgers: Rodgers, who is 5 feet 7, was a major contributor running the ball on fly sweeps last season. He finished second on the team with 586 rushing yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. As a bonus, Rodgers' brother, Parade All-American running back Jacquizz Rodgers, signed with the Beavers in February.
4. Arizona TB Nicolas Grigsby: Because of Arizona's pass-first scheme, Grigsby doesn't need to put the Arizona offense on his back. But he could be a guy who keeps defenses honest. After rushing for 704 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman, Grigsby will look to become Arizona's first 1,000-yard back since 2001.
5. Washington LB Donald Butler: Butler, who will be a junior in the fall, was off to a good start in 2007 with 52 tackles in the first eight games before a knee injury cut his season short. If he's healthy, he should help improve a run defense and total defense that ranked last in the Pac-10.
Five impact newcomers this spring
1. USC QB Mitch Mustain and WR Damian Williams: USC doesn't need any help getting top talent, but the Trojans added two touted prospects as transfers from Arkansas after the 2006 season. Williams, a freshman All-SEC selection, will try to boost a wide receiver unit that could not find consistent production in 2007. Mustain will compete for the starting quarterback job with Sanchez.
2. California WR Nyan Boateng: The long wait for Boateng may be over - finally. Boateng, who was part of Urban Meyer's first signing class at Florida in 2005, has caught only four passes since the end of his junior year of high school in 2003. Cal needs a quick fix at wide receiver after losing its top three from last season.
3. Oregon State RB Ryan McCants: Oregon State has been blessed with several good tailbacks this decade. The Beavers' past three starters each have topped 3,600 yards, with Ken Simonton eclipsing 5,000. The Beavers have high hopes for McCants, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt freshman. With that size, McCants is more reminiscent of former Beavers star Steven Jackson than Yvenson Bernard (5-9) and Simonton (5-8).
4. Arizona State CB Terell Carr and OT Tom Njunge: The Sun Devils hope they filled holes with these teammates from Pasadena (Calif.) City Community College. Carr could earn a starting spot alongside rising star Omar Bolden at cornerback, while coaches will look to Njunge to improve a line that allowed the most sacks in the Pac-10 last season.
5. UCLA LB Akeem Ayers: Ayers redshirted last year as a freshman after a knee injury cut into his season. Once healthy, he impressed on the scout team. He could help fill the pass-rushing void left by the departure of Bruce Davis, who had 24.5 sacks in the past two seasons.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.