In a pass happy conference like the Pac 12 an experienced secondary is almost as important as returning experience at quarterback. Oregon has a lot of speed on offense but they also are able to match that speed over on the defensive side of the ball.
Arizona is simply loaded with some of the best young secondary talent in the conference. The names on the Wildcat roster may sound familiar because Washington finished second for a number of these kids. Stanford, Cal, and Washington all look slid going into camp.
Oregon - The Ducks are loaded in the secondary and the only thing that can hold this group back is a little more jail time. Cliff Harris is one of the best corners in the country. If he can stay out of a trouble for the rest of the year he could rate an All American mention. Harris will miss the LSU game while on disciplinary suspension. Anthony Gildon looked really good this spring and will start opposite Harris. Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill who could start for most of the teams in the conference are the backups. John Boyett will compete for conference honors. He can lay the lumber and track the ball. Eddie Pleasant is work in progress with a lot of upside.
Oregon led the Pac-10 in interceptions (21), pass defense efficiency (104.0) and gave up a league-best 5.8 yards per pass. Harris and free safety John Boyett were 1-2 in passes defended. Harris led the league in interceptions (6), Boyett was tied for second (5), and both returned one for a touchdown.
Arizona - The Wildcats are loaded with talent and experience at corner back. Trevin Wade, Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson are young an exciting group. These guys see a lot of different looks from a pass happy offense in practice. The Cats replace both safeties but Marquis Flowers and Robert Golden (recruits that UW coveted) have as much potential as anyone in the league. Adam Hall went down with a knee injury this spring which impacts the depth a bit at safety.
Perhaps the biggest news of the off season in the Arizona secondary was the surprising coaching changes. Head coach Mike Stoops, in a bold move, hired arguably the best in the business — former UA assistant Duane Akina — away from Texas. A few weeks later, in mid-February, Akina, citing family reasons, returned to the Longhorns when his old job became available again. Stoops then went from the veteran savvy of Akina to the rookie coaching of 25-year-old Ryan Walters, who served last season as a graduate assistant, working with the defensive backs. "I knew instantly he was going to be a rising star in this profession," Stoops said.
Stanford - SS Delano Howell is one of the leaders of this defense. He teams with Michael Thomas who like Howell received conference honors last season. Howell whose older brother was a linebacker at Washington is a probable draft choice next spring. Howell and Thomas one of the best safety tandems in the country. John Bademosi and Barry Browning are the corners. They both have experience but they need to elevate their games to the next level as starters this season.
The Cardinal made a quantum in pass defense a year ago. It’s up to this season’s rebuilt group to prove that the 2010 secondary was no one-hit wonder. The safeties are set with Howell and Thomas, leaving the cornerbacks to step up and gel before the opener. If they’re not up to the challenge, the pass defense is liable to suffer accordingly.
California - S Sean Cattouse and DJ Campbell are the starting safeties. Cattouse has the potential of playing his way into the NFL draft next spring. Campbell is a journeyman player who is getting his first shot at the the starting job. Steve Williams returns at corner with Marc Anthony earning the starting job this spring on the other side. Cal is a rising defensive power with plenty of youth ready to make an impact this season.
Can the Cal secondary prove that last season was no fluke and deliver an encore performance? The unit did an about-face from 2009, putting up a wall on the last line of defense. Conte and Hagan, though, leave sizable holes in the defensive backfield that must be filled by young Bears not accustomed to so much pressure and responsibility.
Washington - Quinton Richardson and Desmond Trufant return at corner. Both have plenty of experience and have had success at times in the conference. The coaches would like to see the tandem put together 12 straight solid games in a row this season. UW is still rebuilding the depth at CB behind them. Look for newcomers Marcus Peters and Antavius Sims to get immediate playing time in the rotation. Nick Fellner and Sean Parker are slated to line up at the safety positions. Fellner is a gamer and one of the leaders of the defense. The highly recruited Parker starts for the first time after getting his feet wet last season. Will Shamburger, Taz Stevenson, and Justin Glenn provide some talented depth.
There has been silence at cornerback for much of the spring. That's a welcome change to all the noise around the position the past few seasons. In fact, if you ask Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson, they have things quite under control. "We've got it locked down on the corners and it's just going to feed into the rest of the defense," Trufant said.
UCLA - When Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price were recruited Bruin fans expected big things. These guys are built like prototypical NFL cornerbacks but they haven't played up to the level expected. Depth behind them is still shallow as we start year four of the Neu regime. Safeties Tony Dye and Dietrich Riley are as talented as any duo in the conference. This could be a breakout type year for this unit because the talent is there.
"The secondary is another area of our team where there will plenty of competition for playing time. Tony has improved each year in the program. At corner, Sheldon and Aaron each seemed to make more plays as the season unfolded. Veterans like Courtney, Dalton and Andrew along with youngsters like Dietrich, Alex and Stan, Brandon, Anthony and Tevin will continue to push for playing time. Everyone will earn their spot on the field in competitive environment.
USC - Safety T.J. McDonald is the leader of the USC secondary. He is a great talent and he will be playing on Sunday's in the not too distant future. Drew McAllister will start at the other spot if he can stay healthy. Nickell Robey and either Torin Harris or Tony Burnett will man the other side. On paper this looks like a great group but they gave up a whopping 30 touchdowns last season! You have to figure that the defense will start to come around in year two of Monte Kiffin.
"This is a group that must improve upon a disappointing season last year. Our secondary gave up way too many big plays. We must get better in all aspects of our play. I believe we’ll get very productive showings out of T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey in 2011."
Arizona State - This group would be ranked quite a bit higher if Omar Bolden hadn't have gone down with a season ending knee inury during spring practice. Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor are the projected starters with Devan Spann and Alden Darby right behind them. Clint Floyd, Eddie Elder and Keelan Johnson return at safety. All three have experience but overall this isn't a group that impressed anyone very much last season.
"CB Devin Spann is a talented young guy and probably would have played for us last year had he not had that sickness," requiring thyroid surgery in June, Dennis Erickson said. "We've always thought he was talented and now he's stepping up."
Compared to the reconstruction job ahead on the defensive line and at linebacker, this is a solid area for head coach Mike Riley and position coach Keith Heyward - who is now in charge of cornerbacks AND safeties after the team's coaching shake-up. ... Hardin and Mitchell were starters and Poyer - also a gifted return man - played extensively.
Washington State - The Cougars seemed to click better over the last quarter of the season. Safeties Deone Bucannon and Tyree Toomer where a big part of that. Nolan Washington returns and he is developing into a dependable cornerback. Either Damante Horton or Daniel Simmons will line up on the other side. Safety has solid depth while the cornerback position still could use some help.
The secondary certainly had its fair share of issues last year, especially as injuries plagued the unit throughout the bulk of the season. But it also had some moments that made you think it could be a strength of the team real soon -- especially as the season wore on and the younger guys gained experience. In fact, I'd argue that despite its youth, the secondary possesses the talent to be the second best unit this fall behind the wide receivers.
Utah - The Utes lose all four starters from a defensive backfield that was torched over the second half of last season. Conroy Black and Ryan Lacy should be the starting corners. Reggie Topps and Wykie Freeman will ack them up. Terrell Reese and Damian Payne are competing at free safety. Michael Walker is ahead of Quade Chappuis at strong safety.
No unit is saddled with more uncertainty than the secondary, which is virtually starting from scratch. The Utes lose a plethora of quality performers, SS Brian Blechen to the linebacker corps and FS Justin Taplin-Ross, CB Lamar Chapman, and all-star CB Brandon Burton to the lure of the NFL. Making matters even more unsettling, the 2010 edition failed to even approach its potential, getting torched for 14 touchdown passes over the final five games. There’s a worry around Salt Lake City that the situation could get worse before it gets better.
Colorado - Could there have been anyone worse than Washington State in pass defense last season? Well say hello to the Colorado Buffalo's who gave up 27 TD passes. Opponents completed a whopping 68% of their passes against them last season. Parker Orms and and Arthur Jaffee are the safeties. Ray Polk and Anthony Perkins line up at corner. This has the making a real bad unit which could get picked apart all season in the Pac 12.
Pass defense could be the weakest link of the entire program this fall. Not only is there so much uncertainty at key positions, but the Buffs are coming off a season in which they yielded 27 touchdown passes and picked off just seven over the final 11 games. Moving from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 isn’t going to make life any easier on this beleaguered unit.