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June 9, 2009

Whispers: Post-spring Pac-10 questions

Spring practice is finished across the nation, but not every question was answered. Every school has one big, vexing query that hangs over its program.

This is part five of a series examining the biggest question each "Big Six" squad faces.

This week, we look at the Pac-10.

Arizona: Will the new quarterback produce? Sophomores Matt Scott and Nick Foles, who began his career at Michigan State, are the candidates to replace Willie Tuitama. Both are capable of running the offense and both are more mobile than Tuitama. Don't be shocked if offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes cooks up some schemes that get each on the field for an attack that was 60 percent pass, 40 percent run last season, yet still produced a 1,000-yard rusher in Nicolas Grigsby.

Arizona State: Will the offensive line hold up? Former guard Shawn Lauvao emerged at left tackle and Garth Gerhart brother of Stanford running back Toby Gerhart took command at center, but there still are worries. Three potential starters tackle Matt Hustad (knee), guard Zach Schlink (knee) and guard Adam Tello (back) missed spring drills.

California: Are there any linebackers in the house? There is some concern about how a few new offensive coaches will impact the attack, as Andy Ludwig arrives from Utah to coordinate the offense and Steve Marshall comes from the Cleveland Browns to coach the line. But an overhauled linebacking corps is a bigger issue, as three of the four starters Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder are gone.

Oregon: Will the offensive line come together? The line lost three starters, including two who were NFL picks. Further muddling the picture as the Ducks move into the offseason was that two prospective replacements missed spring drills. If that isn't enough of a worry, the kicking was horrendous in the spring game.

Oregon State: Will a rebuilt defense stand strong? Defense has been the program's calling card, with coordinator Mark Banker doing a tremendous job. The Beavers return just three starters from last season, and the biggest worry is an overhauled secondary that will break in two new corners and a new starter at safety.

Stanford: Will the pass defense improve? No doubt, many wonder how new starting quarterback Andrew Luck, a redshirt freshman, will perform. But pass defense is more of an issue. The Cardinal finished ninth in the Pac-10 last season in pass defense and eighth in pass efficiency defense, major reasons Stanford's defense finished seventh overall in the conference. It would help if some playmakers emerge in the back seven. Linebacker Clinton Snyder is a key performer, but he missed the first half of spring drills recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the season finale against California.

UCLA: Is Kevin Prince the answer at quarterback? Rick Neuheisel obviously thinks so, having named the redshirt freshman the starter exiting spring drills. Prince beat incumbent Kevin Craft and true freshman Richard Brehaut for the post. Knowing he's the starter will allow Prince to assume a leadership role this summer during informal workouts. But Prince's success will be tied to a line that remains a work in progress. How fast will the incoming freshmen be able to help? The Bruins have six linemen who started at least five games in 2008, but two missed spring drills because of injuries and several freshmen and junior college transfers will have a chance to earn starting spots.

USC: How will new play-caller Jeremy Bates use tailback Joe McKnight? Bates was the Denver Broncos quarterback coach last season, and he was hired for the same role at USC, where he will call the plays. McKnight was bothered by injuries in the spring, so Bates didn't get to see much of him. It also will be interesting to see how Bates and the other coaches use Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler; each excelled in the spring and both figure into the tailback rotation.

Washington: Will the blockers pave the way? The coaches are worried that there are no players on the roster who ever have kicked or punted in a game at Washington. But the offensive line is a bigger worry. The unit didn't excel last fall, and three starters from that group are gone. The new staff put an emphasis on improving the fitness and speed of the linemen. Keep an eye on the right side of the line, which will feature former defensive tackle Senio Kelemete at guard and redshirt freshman Drew Schaefer at tackle. Former right tackle Cody Habben now is the left tackle, former left tackle Ben Ossai is the left guard and former right guard Ryan Tolar is the center. It's time to worry.

Washington State: Is the no-huddle offense ready to take off for the Cougars? Paul Wulff had to dump the scheme early last season because the players were ill-equipped to run it. The offense made strides in the spring, but more work must be done along the line. Washington State needs more depth and better health.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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