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Pac-10: A run for the roses

Media Day: Running back could be the key position in the conference, one local could be leading way

Posted: July 29, 2010 10:48 p.m.
Updated: July 30, 2010 4:55 a.m.

PASADENA - Between conference expansion and player dismissals, program sanctions and scholarship releases, Pac-10 football has been all over the headlines this offseason.

It sure seemed nice for the coaches and players to get back to talking football again.

"It's fun," said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly at Thursday's West Coast Media Day. "But that's all part of the territory."

As the Pac-10 prepares to add Utah in 2011 and Colorado sometime after, the conference is beginning an aggressive campaign to promote itself across the country.

Conference officials joined coaches and players in New York City earlier in the week for an East Coast Media Day before Thursday's session on the Rose Bowl field.

And it's on the field - not through the air - where the 2010 conference title will likely be won.

Oregon won the Pac-10 last season behind breakout freshman LaMichael James, who finished seventh in the nation with 1,546 yards on the ground.

Two other Pac-10 running backs finished in the top 11 in the country last season in rushing yards, including Stanford's Toby Gerhart, who led the nation with 1,871 yards.

Gerhart has since graduated, but there's no shortage of talented runners in the conference, including James, Oregon State junior Jacquizz Rodgers and Washington sophomore Chris Polk.

"You've got running backs like Jacquizz Rodgers and (Polk) and (USC's) Allen Bradford and all these good guys, James from Oregon," said UCLA safety Rahim Moore. "... If you go out there and outhit the guys and just fight, then you'll be good. But a lot of people don't understand, our running game (in the Pac-10) is good."

The conference's best back could be Valencia High graduate Shane Vereen, who now takes over the starting spot at the University of California, Berkeley.

Vereen led the team in rushing last season with 952 yards and 12 touchdowns despite being No. 2 on the depth chart behind Jahvid Best, who missed the last four games with a concussion.

Best was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions last April, leaving the job in Vereen's capable hands.

"He did a great job for us last year, both in the backup role behind Jahvid and when he took over," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. "He was really instrumental in our victories over Arizona and Stanford. ... From my understanding he's had a great summer, and I think he's very excited to be the lead back now."

Vereen is one of four Santa Clarita Valley products suiting up in the Pac-10 this season. Stanford will start Hart graduate Delano Howell at safety for the second straight season, while fellow Hart graduate Patrick Larimore is a reserve linebacker for UCLA and Saugus graduate Ramsen Golpashin is a backup offensive lineman for Oregon.

Not everyone in the conference will rely on the rushing attack, however. Arizona again will employ a spread offense led by junior quarterback Nick Foles, while Stanford will have to replace Gerhart.

The Cardinal will benefit from returning sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions as a freshman.

Still, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said reloading the rushing attack will be key.

"It's a critical, critical job for us as a football team to replace the production that Toby Gerhart gave us," he said, "and we've got some highly spirited, motivated youngsters that want that playing time, and nothing motivates guys like playing time."

Something that might motivate teams is the downturn in USC's program. The Trojans lost 30 scholarships and received a two-year bowl ban as part of punishment for improper benefits given to former USC star Reggie Bush. The program also released top recruit Seantrel Henderson from his scholarship earlier this month after the NCAA handed down its sanctions.

While the Trojans are still arguably the most talented team in the conference, USC seems much more vulnerable than earlier in the decade, especially in the wake of stunningly one-sided losses to Oregon and Stanford in 2009.

"When you get the confidence going around the team, you can do amazing things if everybody buys into it," Foles said. "(USC is) still a great team, even with all these things going on."

Whatever the perception may be, first-year head coach Lane Kiffin isn't worried about it.

"I don't worry about that because we have extremely high expectations, regardless of everything, for our players and our team," Kiffin said. "I do feel it a little bit from (the players), that maybe it's helping them."

USC is hardly the only school in the conference that has endured off-field issues. Oregon has to replace quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was dismissed from the team in early June after being cited for marijuana possession and driving infractions, which came after he plead guilty to burglary last winter and was suspended the entire 2010 season.

UCLA dismissed three freshmen in late June after they were arrested on suspicion of felony theft. That group included linebacker Josh Shirley, who was expected to compete for a starting spot right away.

But in a lot of ways, Thursday marked the end of the offseason transgressions and restored the focus to football.

"You can't pick and choose what you like," Kelly said, "so if it happens, you deal with it and you move on."



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