Biggest reason for hope for every Pac-12 team
Every team in the country has at least one reason for optimism heading into 2016 -- here are our picks for each Pac-12 program.
Biggest reason for hope for every Pac-12 team
The offseason is the time for optimism, and as cliche reminds us, every team starts the season at 0-0. This week we’re taking a look at one reason for hope for every Power-5 program — starting with the SEC and ACC, and making our way to the Pac-12 today:
UCLA: Josh Rosen is an NFL-caliber quarterback right now, and a future first round pick
UCLA appears to be prepping Rosen to be a high draft pick when he leaves as there seems to be a program-wide effort to make sure he operates in more of an NFL-style offense and making NFL reads. Head coach Jim Mora clearly realizes he has a NFL-caliber QB for the next two years and is changing the offense with new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu. The new Bruins’ offense is all about protecting Rosen by having him throw less by running more out-of-two-back sets. There will a lot more snaps from under center than last year, which should make Rosen’s draft evaluation easier for NFL teams. Rosen’s 2015 passing grade of +14.0 ranks No.19 among returning FBS quarterbacks. He should see a drop in production with less throws but could see an increase in his grade per attempt due to the play-action passing game creating bigger throws for him downfield.
Stanford: Heisman favorite Christian McCaffrey is still on the team
Christian McCaffrey is the most dynamic playmaker in college football, was the No.1 graded running back in the nation (+49.1) by a wide margin and is our early pick for the Heisman Trophy. McCaffrey is very quick and elusive with tremendous acceleration which makes him equally at home running routes out of the slot (led all FBS running backs with 3.2 yards per route run in 2015) and returning punts in addition to running the ball. He should continue to be the focal point of the Cardinal offense, one of the biggest playmakers in the country and the top candidate for the Heisman (if sportswriters around the country can stay up a little bit later at night to watch him),
Washington: The Huskies’ defense has NFL-caliber talent on all three levels
Nose tackle Elijah Qualls is a massive man who moves quickly up and down the line of scrimmage and has the No.5 overall grade among returning Pac-12 interior defensive linemen. Linebacker Azeem Victor is an athletic tackling machine on the second level of their defense and his run stop percentage ranked No.14 among returning FBS inside linebackers. Sidney Jones, No.2 grade among returning Pac-12 cornerbacks, and Budda Baker, No.3 grade among Pac-12 safeties, provide the Huskies with outstanding coverage ability in the secondary. Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and John Ross are talented young offensive players but the Huskies’ defense is arguably the best in the Pac-12.
USC: JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the best playmaking wide receivers in the country
Cody Kessler’s replacement as the the Trojans starting quarterback will have a big-time playmaker in Smith-Schuster. He finished No.7 among returning FBS wide receivers in yards per route run and he has the size, strength and speed that NFL teams will look for in a featured wide receiver. With the high number of underclassmen wide receivers that enter the draft each year it wouldn’t be a stretch to view this as potentially Smith-Schuster’s last season as a Trojan. In 2015 the USC QB rating when throwing at Smith-Schuster was 123.1, so having a playmaker like Smith-Schuster will make the transition to a new starting quarterback easier for everyone.
Washington State: Luke Falk played very well last season, but with little national attention
Falk has NFL ability and is one of the better quarterbacks in the country. Falk ranks No.1 in accuracy percentage among returning FBS quarterbacks. While the Cougars’ offense does feature plenty of short passes, Falk ranked No.14 among returning FBS quarterbacks in deep passing, showing he is also accurate downfield. Falk also showed his resiliency by completing 69.1 percent of his passes under pressure last season, which ranks No.1 among returning FBS quarterbacks. Falk has the talented wide receiver duo of Gabe Marks and River Cracraft to target. The Cougars’ should have one of the more entertaining offenses in the country in 2016.
Oregon: The Ducks have the deepest tight end group in the country
Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt both have NFL potential. Pharaoh Brown is the most talented of all the Ducks’ tight ends and he is returning from injury. The Ducks will likely run a lot of offensive plays out of two tight end personnel groupings to try and get their best players on the field together. Baylis was No. 24 in slot performance in 2015 among returning FBS tight ends. Pharaoh Brown missed last season with an injury but was No.4 in the country in tight end slot performance in 2014. Look for the tight ends to be targeted heavily in the Ducks offense including designed screens and red-zone play action.
Utah: The Utah front-seven is still big, strong, and the identity of Utes’ football
The Utes’ offense lost considerable firepower with the departures of Travis Wilson and Devontae Booker. Their quarterback situation is still unclear which means the always big and physical Utes’ front-seven will be the key to their success now more than ever. Lowell Lotulei’s +14.3 run defense grade ranks No.3 among returning Pac-12 interior defensive linemen. Kylie Fitts’s +19.3 pass rush grade and Hunter Dimick’s +7.3 ranks No.1 and No.3 respectively among returning Pac-12 edge defenders. Junior college transfer Kendall Huey looks like the could be their most productive pass rusher this season and looks like he could quickly emerge as one of the better edge rushers in the conference.
Arizona State: Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are one of the best running back duos in the nation
Both Ballage and Richard have NFL-caliber talent. They are both powerful runners who weigh over 220 pounds each. They both also have some shiftiness to them and can be used in the pass game out of the backfield. Richard was the most productive of the two last year and should see the most snaps. Richard ranks in the top-10 among returning Pac-12 running backs in elusive rating, breakaway percentage, and yards per route run. Ballage is a home-run threat and his breakaway percentage of 41.6 ranks No.5 in the Pac-12 among returning running backs. With Mike Bercovici gone there is no clear starter at quarterback, but giving the ball to Ballage and Richard will make that an easier transition for the Sun Devils’ new QB.
Arizona: Anu Solomon is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12
Solomon’s 2015 PFF quarterback rating of 95.17 ranks No. 8 among all returning FBS quarterbacks and No.1 among returning Pac-12 quarterbacks. Solomon gives Arizona a reliable field general and a chance to win every week. Running back Nick Wilson and wide receiver Samajie Grant are Solomon’s best offensive weapons. Wide receiver Trey Griffey should see a big increase in production this season with his size catching the eye of NFL teams. Griffey has a legitimate possibility of making the backend of an NFL roster as a WR5/special-teams contributor. With Griffey, Grant and Wilson the tools to succeed are there for Anu Solomon.
Cal: Khalfani Muhammed will make big plays for the rebuilding Cal offense
Muhammed flashed last year when he subbed in for Daniel Lasco. He is very fast and elusive. Muhammed’s 51.2 breakaway percentage ranks No.1 among returning Pac-12 running backs and he forced 29 missed tackles last season. Muhammed finished No.17 in breakaway percentage and No.16 in elusive rating among returning FBS running backs. Muhammed is also an excellent pass protector who finished last season without allowing a single QB pressure and earning a 100 percent pass-blocking efficiency rating, so he should be able to greatly help out Cal’s new starting quarterback.
Oregon State: The offense will be much improved
Utah State transfer Darell Garretson will be taking over the starting quarterback duties. Garretson is an upgrade at the position for the Beavers and should provide some consistency right away. He’ll have weapons to throw the ball to in emerging H-back Noah Togiai, shifty wide receiver Victor Bolden, and a big-play target in Jordan Villamin. Villamin is a big, strong, split-end type receiver at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He is one of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12 and excels at winning vertically downfield. Villamin led the Beavers in receiving last season and was No. 5 among returning Pac-12 wide receivers in yards per route run with 1.92. Villamin should benefit tremendously from more consistent quarterback play and should see an increase in production.
Colorado: Sefo Liufau’s foot is healing
The story of the entire Colorado Buffaloes season hinges on whether or not senior QB Sefo Liufau’s left foot will have healed fast enough for him to play by the fall. Liufau ranked No. 11 in deep passing accuracy among returning FBS quarterbacks, and has the No. 5 overall grade among returning Pac-12 quarterbacks. Liufau missed all of spring practices as he recovered from Lisfranc surgery and he does have a redshirt season available to him if he can’t play this season. A healthy Liufau would be a tremendous boost to the Buffaloes’ season as they would be returning a veteran quarterback while several other conference teams find themselves trying to adapt to new starting quarterbacks.