Ten things we learned this spring (cont.)
6. The Pac-10 is overloaded with elite quarterbacks
Remember a couple of years ago when the Big 12 had a different quarterback atop the Heisman race seemingly every week? This year's Pac-10 boasts a similarly loaded crop of signal-callers. Early 2011 draft projections list a pair of West Coast QBs, Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck (a third-year sophomore), as potential No. 1 picks. USC's Barkley, who could well assume that spot in 2012, had a torrid spring, completing 41-of-67 passes for 537 yards and eight touchdowns in three scrimmages. Arizona's Nick Foles, who had some big games as a sophomore (until he had to face Nebraska's D in the Holiday Bowl), gives coach Mike Stoops enough confidence to proclaim that the Wildcats should "score points in bunches." Cal's Kevin Riley, UCLA's Kevin Prince and Washington State's Jeff Tuel return as well.
But there's just as much intrigue about some of the new guys -- mainly Oregon's Darron Thomas and Nate Costa, who are fighting to replace the suspended Jeremiah Masoli. Both delivered big plays in Saturday's spring game. Oregon State sophomore Ryan Katz has been drawing rave reviews for his arm strength since the day he stepped on campus. And if nothing else, Arizona State sophomore Brock Osweiler (who appears to hold an edge over Michigan transfer Steven Threet) will be the biggest quarterback in the conference -- he's 6-8.
7. LSU is ready to run again
It's hard to believe only two football seasons have passed since Les Miles and the Tigers won a BCS championship, mostly because their past two editions have veered so far from their former identity. In short, LSU's offense has stunk, with its rushing game slipping from 11th nationally in 2007 (214.1 yards per game) all the way to 90th last season (122.8). Miles said, "We put a premium on running the football" this spring, and it showed in LSU's Purple and White game, with junior Stevan Ridley and explosive redshirt freshman Michael Ford combining for 243 yards on 32 carries.
With Florida and Alabama both replacing a slew of standouts from last season's division-winning squads, LSU has a chance to make a run back to the top of the SEC standings, but it could just as easily finish fourth in its own division. Arkansas, Auburn and even Mississippi State all figure to be improved as well. If LSU can run the ball and play defense as expected, it should be in the mix with Alabama, but quarterback Jordan Jefferson, now a junior, needs to improve as well. He'll have a new weapon to play with in sophomore Russell Shepard, who moved from quarterback to receiver this spring.
8. The Utes are reloading
TCU may be the Mountain West's reigning darling, but it would be silly not to keep tabs on a program that's produced two undefeated seasons and BCS bowl wins over the past six years and which, in a "down" year last season, went 10-3 and beat Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. The star of that game, and the Utes' presumptive star of the future, was rising sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn. Coach Kyle Whittingham spent the spring searching for Wynn's next set of receiving targets and found a couple in freshmen Fatu Moala and Griffin McNabb. Highly touted juco defensive lineman James Aiono made a big impression as well.
Things are a little more uncertain at Utah's archrival, BYU, where all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga recently withdrew from school due to a violation of BYU's honor code (he will appeal to the dean of students to be reinstated) and a trio of untested quarterbacks are still vying to replace departed star Max Hall. True freshman Jake Heaps garnered the most buzz, but coach Bronco Mendenhall deemed it "too close to call" between Heaps and junior Riley Nelson. The Cougs should be solid regardless (they've won at least 10 games for four straight seasons), but if forced to pick the prime challenger to Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs, go with the Utes.
9. The Big East is wide open ... again
While fans, media and administrators have spent the past couple of months speculating about another potential raid on the Big East's membership, the league's coaches and players have gone about their usual business of putting together solid and chronically overlooked football teams. Another set of mass turnover in the head coaching ranks -- Cincinnati (Butch Jones), Louisville (Charlie Strong) and South Florida (Skip Holtz) all have new leaders -- has made it even more difficult than usual to handicap the field.
Once again, Pittsburgh appears the most talented on paper, with studs like receiver Jonathan Baldwin and defensive end Greg Romeus, but fans didn't get to see much of new quarterback Tino Sunseri's purported upside in a watered-down spring game. Very similarly, West Virginia returns a ton of experience but will be breaking in a young quarterback (Geno Smith). Connecticut and Rutgers remain perpetual dark horses. But it would be unwise to discount two-time defending champ Cincinnati. Quarterback Zach Collaros, a 75-percent passer in four starts last season, went a mere 18-of-20 for 218 yards in the Bearcats' spring game.
10. Georgia can't afford for Aaron Murray to fail
What began as a quarterback derby in Athens has devolved into a quarterback panic. Redshirt freshman Murray, ranked only behind USC's Barkley and Texas' Garrett Gilbert in Rivals.com's 2009 quarterback rankings, will take over the reins this fall just as Georgia fans always imagined. But the Tampa native didn't exactly wow observers this spring. In fact, classmate Zach Mettenberger finished spring on even footing, if not slightly ahead of Murray. But in a stunning development, coach Mark Richt dismissed Mettenberger from the program for an unspecified violation of team rules. (Mettenberger was arrested on alcohol charges on March 7 while on spring break, but was not dismissed until April 18.)
Making matters worse, the school confirmed this week that Murray's other one-time competitor, junior Logan Gray, is "weighing his options" -- i.e., considering a transfer -- which would indicate he's been told he has no shot of starting. If so, the Dawgs' sole remaining scholarship quarterback will be incoming freshman Hutson Mason. So the pressure is clearly on Murray to not only excel, but stay healthy. Georgia boasts a 2011 first-round receiver in A.J. Green, but needs someone to get him the ball.
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