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Spring football: USC's QB battle, more burning Pac-10 questions

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh laughs at your silly seasonal designations. Harbaugh needs no vernal equinox. Spring sprang in Palo Alto on Feb. 24.

That's when the Cardinal took the field for the first day of spring practice, tying Miami for the earliest start of the year. Harbaugh had good reason to thumb his nose at the Weather Channel Industrial Complex. He has devised a schedule that will stretch to the spring game on April 13 and that includes a three-week break after practice No. 8 that will allow players to study for exams (Week 1), take their tests (Week 2) and then blow off some academic steam at Mexican resorts that sell margaritas by the drum (Week 3).

"The philosophy is to get the best team possible to training camp, so it's the model of an NFL minicamp type of setup," Harbaugh said in an interview with the program's official Web site. "There are a lot of bonuses for us. No. 1, you feel like the trajectory of practice is always going upward. You don't get to practice 10 or 11 and have things kind of level out."

Like Harbaugh, we don't need the earth's poles to form a 180-degree angle before we begin asking questions about spring football. The games don't count until September, but the 2009 season begins now.

We all know Pete Carroll would prefer to still have Mark Sanchez under center, but Sanchez ignored his coach's advice and declared for the NFL draft. But since this is USC, the cupboard isn't exactly bare. This spring, Aaron Corp (Rivals.com's No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2007), Mitch Mustain (No. 2 quarterback in the class of 2006), Garrett Green (No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2006) and Matt Barkley (No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2009) will all compete for the job. They'll have to impress offensive coordinator John Morton, who spent the past two seasons as USC's receivers coach, as well as first-year quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates.

The USC quarterback race hasn't been this wide-open since 2003, when Matt Leinart beat out a future millionaire named Matt Cassel. Mustain, who led Arkansas to eight wins in 2006, has the most experience. Of course, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones deserve much of the credit for those wins. Corp finished last season as Sanchez's backup, so he may have a leg up in the competition. Green seems like the odd man out, especially considering the hype surrounding Barkley, a four-year starter at Leinart's alma mater, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). Given that "always compete" is one of Carroll's mantras, it seems unlikely the staff will squelch the competition before August. So unless one of the quarterbacks seriously distances himself from the pack, don't expect to know the identity of USC's starter for a few months.

The Pac-10 quarterback derby extends beyond USC, however. At Stanford, two-year incumbent Tavita Pritchard must ward off challenges from redshirt freshman Andrew Luck and junior Alex Loukas. Meanwhile at Arizona State, Danny Sullivan, Chasen Stangel, Samson Szakacsy and Jack Elway (yes, of the Denver Elways) will compete to replace Rudy Carpenter, who started 43 consecutive games for the Sun Devils.

Not for a while. USC fans flooded my inbox after National Signing Day when I dared suggest UCLA's head-to-head success against the Trojans on the recruiting trail this year portended brighter days for the Bruins. Those fans failed to notice the caveat; Rick Neuheisel's newest recruits won't mature for a while. He still has to play with most of the group that went 4-8 last season and closed with a 28-7 loss to USC. Still, there is reason to hope in Westwood. Safety Rahim Moore started as a true freshman and earned honorable mention All Pac-10. Meanwhile, 2009 signees Morrell Presley and Richard Brehaut will participate in spring practice. Presley is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound tight end/receiver hybrid who might find a place in Norm Chow's offense early. Brehaut, meanwhile, is a blue-chip quarterback from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

That could be up to first-year Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian, the former USC offensive coordinator, takes over a program that went 0-for-2008 and devolved into a national laughingstock during Tyrone Willingham's final season. The first step, Sarkisian has said, is to instill confidence and toughness in his players. He said everyone will start with a "clean slate," including quarterback Jake Locker. The Tim Tebow of the Pacific Northwest missed most of last season with a shattered thumb, but Sarkisian said last month Locker is throwing again.

Meanwhile, in Pullman, coach Paul Wulff suspended quarterback Marshall Lobbestael late last month after Lobbestael was arrested on an underage drinking charge. According to Washington State's student paper, The Daily Evergreen, police found Lobbestael passed out in a Dodge pickup in front of the police station. Wulff later told Cougfan.com the report wasn't entirely accurate and gave a somewhat more plausible reason to explain why his best quarterback was asleep in a pickup truck in the parking lot of the police station. It's unclear how long Lobbestael's suspension will last, but Wulff can empathize. He's suspended for the Cougars' first three preseason practices as part of his punishment for NCAA rules violations that occurred during his tenure at Eastern Washington.

The Beavers have some issues heading into spring practice. Quarterback Lyle Moevao will miss the spring after undergoing arm surgery this week that could require anywhere from six weeks to four months rehabilitation. That means senior Sean Canfield, who missed last year's spring practice following surgery on his throwing shoulder, will take all the first-team snaps, which could spark a quarterback competition come August. Meanwhile, the Beavers must find replacements for three offensive line starters and all four secondary spots. The good news? The Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz) seem to have recovered from their respective injuries. Receiver James (collarbone) may play some this spring, while tailback Quizz (shoulder) will be limited. Meanwhile, Oregon State coach Mike Riley tipped off The Oregonian that he may install a Wildcat formation. The Wild Quizz? Sounds exciting.

That would be Arizona. The Wildcats return 14 starters from a team that went 8-5 and closed the season with a win over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The only catch? They must find a new quarterback this spring. Sophomore Matt Scott, Willie Tuitama's backup in 2008, will compete with Michigan State transfer Nick Foles. Neither quarterback should have trouble getting the ball to Rob Gronkowski, the Pac-10's best tight end last year. On defense, Arizona returns its entire front four. Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who moved from fullback last spring, and defensive end Brooks Reed, who led the team with eight sacks last season, should provide stability for a defense that must replace two linebackers and two defensive backs.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle?ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player?Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT?Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White?Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle?SEC:Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach?THE REST:What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?

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