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August 13, 2008

WAC Rankings: Hawaii counting on defense

MORE: 2008 Western Athletic Conference Preview

The changing face of the Western Athletic Conference is evident from a look at our unit rankings.

Hawaii doesn't top any of our offensive rankings now that former Warriors coach June Jones has left for SMU. But you will find the Warriors dominating our defensive and special teams rankings.

The unit rankings also show just why we expect big seasons from Fresno State and Boise State.

Here are our Western Athletic Conference unit rankings entering the 2008 season:

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. FRESNO STATE
Quarterback Tom Brandstater is productive and makes few mistakes. Tailback Ryan Mathews is poised for a big year, and depth at tailback is excellent.
2. NEVADA
Tailback Luke Lippincott and quarterback Colin Kaepernick are a dynamic tandem.
3. BOISE STATE
The Broncos may be relying on redshirt freshman Kellen Moore at quarterback. But any backfield with tailback Ian Johnson has to be respected.
4. NEW MEXICO STATE
Quarterback Chase Holbrook completed 70 percent of his passes last season. The running game must improve.
5. LOUISIANA TECH
Taylor Bennett has experience as a starting quarterback in the ACC, and running back Patrick Jackson is a threat for 1,000 yards.
6. SAN JOSE STATE
Yonus Davis is coming back from an injury, and he exceeded 1,000 yards rushing in 2006. California transfer Kyle Reed is expected to start at quarterback.
7. HAWAII
There was some question about the Warriors even with Tyler Graunke stepping in at quarterback. With him suspended, who knows what to expect?
8. IDAHO
Running back Deonte' Jackson rushed for 1,175 yards in 2007, but quarterback Nathan Enderle has to dramatically improve a dismal freshman year.
9. UTAH STATE
No proven quarterback and only moderately productive running backs return.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT END
1. NEW MEXICO STATE
All-league candidate Chris Williams is one of three returning wide receivers who had at least 44 catches last season.
2. SAN JOSE STATE
Kevin Jurovich and David Richmond are among the nation's most productive receiving tandems.
3. BOISE STATE
Jeremy Childs gives the Broncos a big-play threat, but he has been suspended for the first game. Titus Young and Austin Pettis each surpassed 40 catches in '07.
4. FRESNO STATE
Tight end Bear Pascoe is a future NFL player. Marlon Moore is a reliable wide receiver.
5. LOUISIANA TECH
The trio of Anthony Harrison, Phillip Livas and Phillip Beck is solid, but a "wow" factor is needed.
6. HAWAII
The Warriors lost their top four receivers from '07. The next wave might be equally effective, but that can't be assumed.
7. NEVADA
Marko Mitchell and Mike McCoy combined for 85 catches and 12 TDs last season.
8. IDAHO
The Vandals return four receivers with more than 20 catches. But none had more than 30 catches.
9. UTAH STATE
The Aggies were last in the WAC in passing offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE
1. FRESNO STATE
The Bulldogs ran well and had exceptional pass protection in 2007, and four starting linemen return.
2. NEVADA
An experienced line fronts a unit that ranked 11th nationally in total offense.
3. BOISE STATE
The loss of All-America tackle Ryan Clady will hurt, but the Broncos always are solid up front. Guard Andrew Woodruff is a standout.
4. IDAHO
Even in last year's one-win debacle the Vandals ran well, and four starters return.
5. HAWAII
Center John Estes heads a list of three returning starters.
6. NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies typically post huge passing numbers. Even system quarterbacks need time to throw.
7. SAN JOSE STATE
The Spartans have a wealth of experience. Now, if they can avoid injuries ...
8. LOUISIANA TECH
The Bulldogs are counting on new starters at the tackle spots.
9. UTAH STATE
The Aggies had protection breakdowns last season. They had only marginal rushing success, too.

DEFENSIVE LINE
1. HAWAII
The Warriors can pressure the passer. They're solid against the run, too.
2. BOISE STATE
Ditto above.
3. FRESNO STATE
Jon Monga and Wilson Ramos return to a front that can apply pressure. The run defense needs an upgrade, though.
4. LOUISIANA TECH
Tackle D'Anthony Smith is a run stopper. End Kwame Jordan, who had 17.5 sacks in junior college last season, is the definition of an impact newcomer.
5. SAN JOSE STATE
No WAC defensive line is more experienced than the Spartan's. Still, they need to get better.
6. NEVADA
There are high expectations in Reno for sophomore end Kevin Basped.
7. NEW MEXICO STATE
End Rhyan Anderson who began his career at Miami is the most proven on a largely unproven three-man front.
8. IDAHO
Improving the pass rush is critical.
9. UTAH STATE
Two starters return up front, but the Aggies struggled in '07.

LINEBACKERS
1. HAWAII
Adam Leonard and Solomon Elimimian are the best pair of linebackers in the WAC.
2. BOISE STATE
Kyle Gingg, Dallas Dobbs and Tim Brady each had more than 55 tackles a year ago.
3. NEVADA
If Josh Mauga stays healthy, linebacker will be a major strength for the Wolf Pack.
4. FRESNO STATE
Losing top tackler Marcus Riley hurts, but Ben Jacobs and Quaadir Brown have been productive as starters.
5. UTAH STATE
Middle linebacker Jake Hutton and two other returning starters give the Aggies an opportunity to be significantly better.
6. LOUISIANA TECH
All-WAC linebacker Quin Harris is active. His presence will help a couple of inexperienced new starters.
7. NEW MEXICO STATE
Three starters return, and they could benefit from new coordinator Joe Lee Dunn's blitz packages.
8. SAN JOSE STATE
Middle linebacker Justin Cole is due a breakout year, but there are too many questions on the flanks.
9. IDAHO
The top returning tackler among linebackers Joseph Dickson had only 34 stops in a backup role last season.

SECONDARY
1. HAWAII
Free safety Desmond Thomas is the only returning starter, but cornerbacks Ryan Mouton and Jameel Dowling may emerge as the WAC's best set.
2. BOISE STATE
The Broncos led the WAC in pass defense last season, and two starters are back. Cornerback Kyle Wilson has all-conference ability.
3. FRESNO STATE
Three-fourths of the secondary returns from the WAC's third-ranked pass defense.
4. SAN JOSE STATE
Cornerback Christopher Owens has earned All-WAC status. Newcomer Coye Francies might do it, too.
5. UTAH STATE
The entire secondary returns intact.
6. LOUISIANA TECH
The Bulldogs need to get better. The return of All-WAC free safety Antonio Baker certainly makes that a realistic ambition.
7. NEVADA
The Wolf Pack was tough against the pass in '07. But strong safety Uche Anyanwu is the lone returning starter in the secondary.
8. IDAHO
SS Shiloh Keo is a standout, but the Vandals still had problems against the pass last season.
9. NEW MEXICO STATE
Free safety Derrick Richardson is a sure tackler, and cornerback Davon House is coming off a productive freshman season.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. HAWAII
Kicker Daniel Kelly can convert from 50-plus, punter Tim Grasso is serviceable and Malcolm Lane is dangerous on returns. The Warriors have been good on kickoff coverage, too.
2. IDAHO
Kicker Tino Amancio and punter T.J. Conley are among the WAC's top returnees at their positions, while Shiloh Keo is exciting on punt returns.
3. BOISE STATE
Kyle Brotzman is the WAC's most accurate kicker, and the Broncos have excellent coverage units. They need someone to step up on returns, though.
4. FRESNO STATE
A.J. Jefferson averaged more than 35 yards on kickoff returns and scored two TDs. The coverage teams are always good, but the Bulldogs have a new kicker and punter.
5. LOUISIANA TECH
Punter Chris Keagle is the WAC's best. Phillip Beck averaged more than 17 yards on punt returns.
6. NEVADA
Kicker Brett Jaekle converted 76 percent of his field-goal attempts last season. The coverage teams have been solid, but the return game is largely mundane.
7. NEW MEXICO STATE
Chris Williams is a big-play threat on punt returns. The Aggies are counting on newcomers, but there are high expectations for kicker Kyle Hughes - who can hit from 50 yards and beyond.
8. UTAH STATE
Kicker Peter Caldwell can hit from long distance, but has accuracy issues. The loss of return man Kevin Robinson will hurt.
9. SAN JOSE STATE
The Spartans need to replace their return specialist and need kicker Jared Strubeck to improve his 50 percent accuracy.

COACHING STAFF
1. BOISE STATE
The Broncos are 23-3 in two seasons under their present regime.
2. FRESNO STATE
Pat Hill has guided the Bulldogs to eight winning records in the past nine seasons.
3. NEVADA
Chris Ault has won eight conference championships in his career.
4. SAN JOSE STATE
Dick Tomey is one of five Division I-A head coaches to win at least nine games at three universities. He's done it at Hawaii, Arizona and San Jose State.
5. HAWAII
Greg McMackin, who took over after June Jones left for SMU, served as Hawaii's defensive coordinator in 1999 and 2007. The Warriors won WAC championships in each of those years.
6. LOUISIANA TECH
In one season under Derek Dooley, Tech had a three-win improvement in conference play. Quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo has tutored three quarterbacks who are on NFL rosters.
7. NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies accumulate impressive offensive stats under Hal Mumme, but few victories. Maybe new defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunnwill help with that.
8. IDAHO
Former Washington State defensive coordinator Robb Akey's first team at Idaho managed just one victory.
9. UTAH STATE
In three seasons under Brent Guy, Utah State has managed just six wins.

MORE: 2008 Western Athletic Conference Preview

Olin Buchanan is a senior national football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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