With the exception of Washington quarterback Jake Locker and Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea, the Pac-10, however, appears relatively weak -- at least in terms of senior NFL prospects.
Here are my preseason thoughts based on watching last year's film on every team in the conference.
- Considering the sanctions levied by the NCAA and the relatively weak senior talent, Lane Kiffin is going to have his hands full at USC attempting to replace Pete Carroll. Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley looks like a future first round prospect and, of course, quarterback is the game's most critical position. The difference in talent between USC's second string and some of the other top schools in the Pac-10 (Oregon, for example) had always been an underrated component in the Trojans' success. Sure, USC boasted first round talent at nearly every position on the field at one time or another, but it was their depth at every position that really stood out. When USC sent a Reggie Bush or Sedrick Ellis to the NFL, they had a Joe McKnight or Fili Moala there to pick up the slack. That, however, doesn't appear to be the case this year. One of the more intriguing USC athletes this season who could break out is senior outside linebacker Michael Morgan, a 6-4, 230 pounder with obvious athleticism. Playing time has been tough to come by considering the talent USC had at linebacker, but Morgan, like many of USC's highly rated young talent, flashes on film, but appears to be a better athlete than football player. Let me put it this way -- I'm being asked to write a Pac-10 preview soon. In the article I'll feature the top ten senior prospects in the conference. USC has more of those players than any other school -- but I wouldn't rate any of them (RBs Allen Bradford, CJ Gable, WR Ronald Johnson, C Kristopher O'Dowd, Morgan) as a top 50 prospect. Cornerback Shareece Wright may end up the highest drafted senior Trojan -- as he's a talented player -- but he's missed virtually the past two years due to injury and academic suspension. Stanley Havili is my top-rated fullback in the country, but where has USC gone if their top-rated prospect plays fullback...?
- The face of the conference -- and perhaps the Heisman race -- is clearly Locker. Possessing a combination of arm strength, running ability and guts that have led to comparisons to John Elway, Locker simply needs to continue to develop the intricacies of the position to earn his place as NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior prospect. Locker isn't there yet, but he is capable of making the "wow" play that can't be coached. I don't actually expect Locker to win the Heisman. He's got too many things working against him -- not the least of which is a porous offensive line that will be sorely tested against Nebraska in September. But Locker is the conference's best player. And folks, it ain't even close.
- One of the more underrated prospects in the Pac-10 is California defensive end Cameron Jordan. With Cal playing in the 3-4, Jordan (6-4, 285) didn't rack up the numbers last year (43 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks) to warrant a great deal of national acclaim -- especially considering the attention that his teammate Tyson Alualu earned. Jordan, however, is a good athlete and possesses good strength at the point of attack, which makes him an ideal fit for this scheme. If Jordan played in the Big 12 or SEC, he'd be earning a great deal more attention. In fact, I'd rate Jordan as a very similar prospect to South Carolina's Cliff Matthews, who is earning some All-American hype.
- There is bound to be a great deal of attention this season on Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, considering the success of his older brother Clay Jr. with the Green Bay Packers and, of course, the earlier success of father (Clay) and uncle (Bruce Mathews). Unless Casey is able to duplicate the remarkable one-year turnaround of his older brother (who came to USC as a walk-on and turned himself into a first round pick), the lack of attention -- at least from NFL scouts -- may be surprising. Voted a Second-team All-Pac-10 choice last year with 81 tackles, Matthews breaks down well in space, but doesn't fight through blocks well enough yet to play inside and lacks the straight-line speed to beat backs to the edge. Oregon, which has often historically relied on athleticism rather than size and strength on the defensive line, is surprisingly stout up front. Senior defensive lineman Brandon Bair flashed some intriguing pass rush ability given his size (6-6, 268) and the fact that Oregon often lined him up inside, but he's older than most prospects given the fact that he took two years off for an LDS mission prior to playing for the Ducks.
- I typically reserve judgement on players until they are at least entering their senior season. However, with all of the attention surrounding the underclassmen quarterbacks I posted some thoughts on Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and thus, here are my thoughts after having time to scout Stanford's Andrew Luck. Some of the areas in which concerned me about Mallett (footwork, ability to read defenses) I found Luck to be surprisingly effective given his lack of experience. He certainly has the arm-strength and accuracy scouts are looking for and he has a terrific coach in Jim Harbaugh. If Luck is able to string together another season like 2009, he is a definite first round prospect and quite possibly competes with Locker, Ponder and Mallett (among others) to be the first passer selected. That said, Luck had the great fortune of playing second fiddle to Toby Gerhart last year. He's an extremely talented player, but don't count me among the shocked if there is a bit of a sophomore slump this season as defenses focus more on stopping the passing game.