It's hard to say how much defenses had to do with our senior Cal quarterback playing so inconsistently last season. A lot of people would like to say it's all in Riley's head, but I think we have to give credit to opposing defenses too--it's not as if all of them just sit back and wait for the quarterback to throw them the ball.
So I ranked the toughest pass defenses we'd face next season, clustered them into tiers and labelled them by interceptor jets. Why interceptors? For the novelty, I guess.
Third Tier: The Komets
12. UC Davis: Heh.
11. Nevada: Yes, worse than Wazzu. It doesn’t sound possible until you see the stats: 87th in completion % allowed, 95th in interceptions, 118th in Passing YPA allowed, 118th in passer rating given up,
119th in Passing YPG allowed, 119th in TD alllowed.
Their strong safety Corbin Louks is a transferred Utah quarterback who they decided to switch to safety. Isiah Frey and Doyle Miller return as the starting corners down the stretch; they were at best serviceable in the same way a Denny's Grand Slam at 2 AM is serviceable.
If Riley doesn’t do some damage against these guys, adjust your expectations for the rest of the season.
The Cougars played five freshmen last season in the secondary and should improve--in fact, the entire secondary returns, and should have a chance to improve upon their ghastly showings last season when they allowed 67% of their passes completed and nearly 275 passing yards a game.
However, they’re probably still a year away from challenging anyone defensively.
9. Furd: This was not a good pass defense unit last year. This isn’t a good pass defense unit this year.
The new 3-4 aside, unless the Cardinal make quantum leaps in pass rushing ability (only 58 TFL and 13 sacks), Riley should have about the same amount of success he had for most of the game against a secondary that was famous for blowing coverages, blowing assignments, poor technique and all the other things that occur when you finish in the bottom tier in every pass defense category (and their game against Cal was one of their BETTER performances).
Strong safety Delano Howell is probably their best guy, but the corner play needs to make drastic improvements. Richard Sherman is a converted receiver and still hasn’t adapted to corner skills, and Corey Gatewood has been injured a lot (missed 18 of 24 games).
How bad does it look for the Cardinal secondary? Alex Loukas auditioned at free safety. Alex Loukas is Andrew Luck’s backup.
Second Tier: The Saabs
8. Washington: Yeah, Riley had a terrible game in Seattle last season. He’s not in Seattle this year and Washington’s defense just isn’t going to give him the trouble they did last season; most of the damage was self-inflicted or due to defense. With Desmond Traufunt likely to be the next big thing at corner, at least one quarter of the field will be locked down.
The problem is the rest of the field. So many senior linebackers have departed (including Donald Butler) that it’s not likely the team will improve much in intermediate coverage. With both the Husky pass rush downgrading (both Daniel Te’o Neshim and Donald Butler depart--http://www.cfbstats.com/2009/team/756/tackleforloss/index.html) and the Cal pass protection upgrading, it’s hard to see Riley not having a fine Senior Day.
7. UCLA: The Bruins lose a lot of NFL-capable talent (defensive tackle Brian Price, linebackers Reggie Carter and Kyle Bosworth, and defensive back Alterraun Verner). Despite all the great recruiting Rick Neuhiesel’s crew has done as of late, the impact probably won’t be felt until next season.
Riley has generally had his way with the Bruins last year, picking on the corners including Verner. Aaron Hester (who replaces Verner) has the measurables but lacks the experience, and vice-versa for Sheldon Price. The UCLA’s safeties (led by Rahim Moore) have the potential to be the best in the conference, but the rest of the units will either fall off or see little improvement. Linebacker Akeem Ayers won’t be enough with both Bosworth and Carter departing.
In other words, the Bruins 2010 defense will mirror their 2009 unit. They’ll be capable, but might not have enough horses to stop good quarterback play.
6. Colorado: You might be surprised the Buffs are this high, but their pass defense wasn’t too bad last season, and they should only be better. Dan Hawkins’s teams haven’t played very well, but they have acquitted themselves alright in the passing game. Two senior corners return in Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown. They play a lot of nickel formation with five defensive backs and will probably put hardhitting freshman Parker Orms back there to key in on any passes Riley telegraphs over the middle.
The big question passing-wise will be the linebacking corps. All three projected starting linebackers were at best spot starters last season and will probably be relied upon to stop the tight end and passes down the middle of the field. If they can hold their responsibilities and the corners can lock up their receivers, the onus will fall on the running game to break the Bears out.
5. Oregon State: A unit that kind of struggled last season, especially in the red zone, they should be in better shape this season. All four likely defensive back starters this season (one senior, three juniors) played significant time or started in 2009. James Dockery should be their best player. Cornerback Brandon Hardin and the underrated safeties Lance Mitchell and Cameron Collins should all do their parts.
However, they do have a weakness--linebacker. Both Keaton Kristick and David Pa'aluhi depart, leaving two sophomores Devin Unga and Tony Wilson to take over. Unga had 12 tackles last season, and Wilson hasn’t had any experience at all. The middle of the field will be there though.
First Tier: The Spitfires
4. Arizona State: The word here is ‘fierce’. This is a young defense, and they’ll have their hiccups, but there’s so much raw talent on the back eight of the ball, spearheaded by Vontaze Burfict at linebacker. Omar Bolden returns from injury and will look to regain his freshman All-American form.
There are lots of questions here, but if the team coalesces, they could be a very scary unit to deal with. Many single-digit games are probably in their future. It isn’t out of the question for this team to win this games solely on their defensive effort, although Riley could take advantage of their aggressiveness like he did last year in the 4th quarter in Tempe.
3. Arizona: The Wildcats lose all their linebackers, but their secondary should be as good as ever. Trevin Wade earned second team All Pac-10 honors as a sophomore and should have his side of the field hammered down. Joe Perkins is a solid safety, but could have his own struggles holding off the talented Adam Hall (Arizona’s best recruit from the 2009 class). If Marcus Benjamin can hold the other side, then the Wildcats will have solid pass coverage on all four sides of the field.
Riley played okay last year against the Cats although he threw two interceptions, one which was particularly ill-conceived. This is the game where we find out if Riley can master the short/intermediate passing game, because it’s unlikely he’ll be able to throw deep that often in the desert.
2. USC: Figures the Trojans can lose almost their entire starting secondary (Taylor Mays, Kevin Thomas, Josh Pinkard) and still have plenty of good players to throw around back there. It’s a very green secondary other than Shareece Wright. But the linebacking corps (Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan, Malcolm Smith, with Devon Kennard lurking) returns, which will make it very tough for any team to beat them in the interior.
Riley beat himself more than USC beat him last year, but he should have a better chance to showcase his talents this season. It’s not clear who the other corner will be alongside Wright (take your pick of Deveron Carr, LeQuan Lewis and Osahon Irabor). Still, while they might not be experienced, they’ll be talented, and you discount the Trojans at your own peril.
1. Oregon: The Ducks linebackers (Josh Kadu, Spencer Paysinger, Casey Matthews) all return. The surplus at linebacker is so nice, Eddie Pleasant moves from linebacker to team up with John Boyett to form what could be the strongest safety combo in the conference (not to mention Marvin Johnson and Javes Lewis backing them up).
So the question is the corners. Talmadge Jackson is solid, but he’s still more of a safety than a corner. The other starting corner is true freshman Terrance Mitchell. Will defenses pick on Mitchell most of the season? And how will Riley handle having to throw to the flats over and over?
Nevertheless, this is the deepest Pac-10 defense top to bottom, and it should be Riley’s most formidable challenge to pass into next season.