USC Trojans: Michael Clay

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.


Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 3

February, 25, 2013
Our countdown of the top 25 players in the 2012 season continues.

You can see the preseason top 25 here.

No. 3: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

2012 numbers: Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards with 14 touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 106 yards. And returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD.

Preseason ranking: No. 9

Making the case for Lee: It's pretty simple: Lee, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound true sophomore, was a unanimous All-American because he was the best receiver in the nation this season. Some might argue he was the best overall player in the nation. He ranked second in the nation in both receptions per game (9.08) and receiving yards per game (132.38). His 345 yards receiving at Arizona set a Pac-12 record and also were the fifth-most in FBS history. Lee produced three of the top four receiving games in the conference this year -- the Arizona performance, 197 yards versus Hawaii and 192 yards at Utah. Five times he went over 150 yards receiving. It wasn't like teams didn't know he was coming. He was a 1,000-yard receiver as a true freshman. Further, the Trojans other top receiving target, Robert Woods, was a unanimous All-American the year before. You'd think Lee would have had to share the ball more. Yet Lee was so difficult to stop, so tempting to target, that it's possible -- probable perhaps -- that the Trojans strangely inconsistent offense this year looked to Lee too often. That, however, isn't Lee's fault. Lee posted a spectacular season that wasn't appreciated enough because his team was so massively disappointing overall.

No. 4: Matt Scott, QB, Arizona
No. 5: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 6: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 7: Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
No. 8: Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
No. 9: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
No. 10: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
No. 11: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 12: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 13: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
No. 14: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 15: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 16: Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 17: Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
No. 18: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 19: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 20: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
No. 21: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 22: Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
No. 23: Michael Clay, LB, Oregon
No. 24: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 25: Reggie Dunn, KR, Utah

First look: Oregon

October, 29, 2012
USC Trojans (6-2 overall, 4-2 Pac-12 South) vs Oregon Ducks (8-0 overall, 5-0 Pac-12 North)

Date: Saturday, Nov. 3

Location: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Time: 4:00 p.m. PT


Radio: ESPNLA710 (pre-game show starts at 10:30 a.m. PT)

Scouting Oregon: Three-time defending Pac-12 champion Oregon, under fourth-year head coach Chip Kelly, continues to steamroll through its schedule, including a 70-14 home win over Colorado last Saturday to up its winning streak to 11. UO has won 12 straight road games.

The Ducks’ high-octane offense, which has scored 30-plus points in 21 consecutive games (and 42-plus in the past 11 games), leads the nation in scoring offense (53.4, first in Pac-12) and is third in rushing offense (330.6, first in Pac-12), seventh in total offense (540.1, second in Pac-12) and 24th in passing efficiency (150.4, third in Pac-12).

Redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota (133-of-194, 68.6%, 1,483 yds, 18 TD, 5 int, plus 57 carries, 378 yds, 6.6 yards per carry, 3 TD and 1 rec, 2 yds, 2.0 avg, 1 TD), who is 17th nationally in passing efficiency (158.2, third in Pac-12), superbly directs the UO offense. Senior RB Kenjon Barner (141 carries, 974 yds, 6.9 avg, 14 TD, plus 13 rec, 158 yds, 12.2 avg, 1 TD rec), the nation’s No. 10 rusher (121.8, second in Pac-12) and scorer (11.3 points per game, first in Pac-12) who is approaching the 1,000-yard rushing barrier this season, and multi-purpose sophomore RB De'Anthony Thomas (58 carries, 499 yds, 8.6 avg, 7 TD, plus 24 rec, 218 yds, 9.1 avg, 3 TD and 12 PR, 220 yds, 18.3 avg, 1 TD and 6 KOR, 88 yds, 14.7 avg) -- who is third nationally in punt returns (18.3, first in Pac-12) -- are dangerous whenever they touch the ball. Top pass catchers include freshman WR Bralon Addison (19 rec, 226 yds, 11.9 avg, 3 TD, plus 3 KOR, 46 yds, 15.3 avg), junior WR Daryle Hawkins (16 rec, 134 yds, 8.4 avg, 2 TD), soph WR Keanon Lowe (13 rec, 133 yds, 10.2 avg) and soph TE Colt Lyerla (12 rec, 189 yds, 15.8 avg, 4 TD).

The Ducks defense is 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense (104.2, second in Pac-12), tied for 15th in tackles for loss (7.4, third in Pac-12), 16th in sacks (2.9, fifth in Pac-12), 23rd in turnover margin (+0.8, third in Pac-12) and 24th in scoring defense (19.4, third in Pac-12). Top tacklers are senior LBs Michael Clay (43 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2 sack, 1 dfl, 1 FR, 1 FF) and Kiko Alonso (42 tackles, 8 for loss, 1 sack, 2 int, 2 dfl, 1 FR, 1 FF), junior SS Avery Patterson (35 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 3 int, 2 dfl, 1 FR) and Brian Jackson (32 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 5 dfl, 2 FR) and senior DE Dion Jordan (33 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 5 sack, 1 dfl, 2 FF), who made the 2011 All-Pac-12 first team.

– courtesy USC Sports Information

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 23, 2012
One fantastic upset, one cool, calm quarterback performance and three defensive standouts highlight this week’s helmet stickers.

  1. Jordan Webb, QB, Colorado: Welcome to the helmet stickers, Buffs. No team has received more grief in the past few weeks than the Buffs. But Webb threw for 345 yards on 29-of-42 passing with two touchdowns and an interception. He also scored the game-winning touchdown -- a 4-yard run with nine seconds left to shock the Washington State Cougars 35-34 and give Colorado its first victory of the season.
  2. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: A strong, efficient performance from ASU’s first-year starter in guiding the Sun Devils to a 37-7 win over Utah. Kelly finished 19-of-26 for a career-high 326 yards and three touchdown passes. He also rushed seven times for 19 yards.
  3. Oregon's defense: What the heck. Give 'em all a helmet sticker. The unit forced five turnovers and shut out an Arizona team that was averaging 46.3 points and more than 600 yards per game. Michael Clay led all Ducks with 13 tackles -- including two for loss -- and he also forced a fumble.
  4. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State: This was another game in which offensive players could have been awarded helmet stickers (Markus Wheaton, Brandin Cooks, Sean Mannion), but it was the defense that was so impressive in shutting down UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, the nation’s leading rushing heading into this game. Crichton had six tackles, including three tackles for a loss, and he recorded both of Oregon State’s sacks.
  5. Morgan Breslin, DE, USC: Breslin tallied six tackles, 4.5 for loss and three sacks in USC’s 27-9 victory over Cal. Breslin became the first Trojan to get three sacks in one game since Rey Maualuga did it in the 2008 Rose Bowl against Illinois.

Pac-12 teams getting defensive

August, 22, 2012
T.J. McDonald, Star Lotulelei, Shayne SkovUS PresswireThe Pac-12 boasts some of the best defensive talent in the country: USC safety T.J. McDonald, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.
In the depths of their offices, some of the best offensive minds in college football are grinding.

Chip Kelly is pondering how to get 10 more plays per game out of his offense.

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are re-re-revolutionizing their attacks.

David Shaw is trying to figure out how to get nine offensive linemen, five tight ends and three fullbacks on the field at once.

Lane Kiffin has more offensive toys than an FAO Schwarz display.

"Option, option spread, I, heavy-I, pistol, triple-backs, full house, triple tights; it's something new every week," said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. "It makes every week pretty interesting."

The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the conference of offenses. And they are only getting better. Prior to 1990, only twice has a team led the conference with a scoring average of more than 40 points. Since 1990, it's happened nine times -- including USC's conference best of 49.1 points per game in 2005.

That means being a defensive player in the Pac-12 is awfully difficult.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham says his defense must be able to adapt to the different offenses in the Pac-12.
"You get Andrew Luck one week and then Matt Barkley the next," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "The preparation is on a whole other level compared to other conferences. There are great quarterbacks and great receivers and running backs. But the culture of this conference has changed. They've forced defenses to get better."

As the spread offense became chic and more teams were stretching defenses, they were forced to respond in kind. Gone are the days of everyone lining up in a base 4-3 and slugging it out. Now defenses are evolving into multiple fronts, exotic and disguised coverages and zone blitzes.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham should know. He and UCLA coach Jim Mora are the only head coaches in the conference with a defensive background.

"We're definitely the minority," Whittingham said with a laugh. "It's a broad spectrum. Defensively, in this day and age, you have to be able to defend it all anyways. When the spread became en vogue 10-12 years ago it caught on like wildfire. Now almost everyone has a version of it. You have to be equipped to deal with whatever you come across week in and week out and have a scheme that is flexible enough and adaptable enough that you can cover all of your bases.

"Things go in cycles. The spread becomes en vogue and takes a while for the defense to catch up. Then the zone blitz was giving offenses fits and the offenses had to catch up to that. I think everything in football is cyclical and if offense has the upper hand right now, it won't be too further down the road where that role is reversed."

And that time might be coming sooner than later. Utah, California, USC, Oregon and Stanford all have defenses that are very good and bordering on elite. But the numbers don't always add up because in this conference, you are going to give up yards and you are going to give up points.

"Part of it is innovation," Shaw said. "Part of it is Chip Kelly and Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. The thing is, you can use the word 'spread' offense for half the teams in our conference, but they are all different. You can say 'pro-style' offense, which is what you would say about us and USC, but they are so different. The hard part of playing defense in our conference is every single week, you are playing against something you didn't see the week before.

"Cal has a pro-style offense. But their passing is different than our pass game and their running is different than our running game. And theirs is different from USC's. You are going to play a nine-game conference schedule and every single offense you play is going to be completely different. Defensive coordinators -- and we've got a really good group in this conference -- defensive coordinators and players have to flush a lot of what you watched the week before and study film hard the next week because you're going to see a different animal."

The conference also has the players to back up the defensive hype. Stanford linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are projected as two of the best at their positions. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the best defensive tackle in the nation and McDonald is a returning All-American.

And while perception might never really change nationally since the conference keeps chugging out A-list offensive players, Washington quarterback Keith Price says he's seen the difference.

"The difference between us and some of those other conferences is the defensive linemen," Price said. "We've always had good skill players. They say the trenches is what separates the SEC from the other conferences. But you can see now that our conference is starting to get there. When you look at teams like Cal and Utah, their defensive lines are really tough."