Best returning player on every Pac-12 team
Pac-12 media days are taking place this week and some of the storylines besides the conference’s seven new starting quarterbacks, predictions and the Mike Leach interview will be the key players returning in the conference.
The Pac-12 continues to roll out talented players every year. 32 Pac-12 players were selected in the 2016 NFL draft — four in the first round including No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. There are plenty of exceptional players coming back to their teams in 2016. Here’s the best returning player on every team in the Pac-12 this year:
Arizona: Anu Solomon, QB
Solomon’s 25 career starts (second only to Sefo Liufau’s 29) make him one of the more veteran signal callers in the Pac-12. He is a consistent player who didn’t grade negatively as a passer in a single game last season. Solomon’s adjusted completion percentage of 72.0 ranks No. 9 among returning Power-5 quarterbacks.
Arizona State: Demario Richard, RB
Richard is one half of arguably the best backfield duo in the conference and his teammate Kalen Ballage was up for consideration as well but Richard slightly edges out Ballage in most categories. Richard is a difficult running back to bring down and his 46 forced missed tackles on rushing plays ranks No. 4 among returning Pac-12 running backs.
Cal: Khalfani Muhammad, RB
The strength of the Cal team is the returning running backs Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammad. Muhammad is a dual-threat who can hurt a defense running or catching the ball. His 1.30 yards per route run ranks No. 7 among returning Pac-12 running backs. Muhammed didn’t allow a sack, hit or hurry on 36 pass block snaps in 2015 for a 100 percent pass-blocking efficiency rating which ties him at No. 1 among returning Power-5 running backs.
Colorado: Chidobe Awuzie, CB
Awuzie is a versatile, physical and productive defensive back. He graded positively in coverage (+9.5), in run support (+4.9) and as a a pass rusher (+4.6) and his +18.0 overall grade ranks No. 3 among returning FBS cornerbacks. Awuzie has the coverage ability to play slot corner or outside and the physicality and tackling ability to play either safety position. Awuzie will hear his name called in the 2017 NFL draft.
Oregon: Royce Freeman, RB
Freeman is a big power back who defenders bounce off of or miss entirely and his 1067 yards rushing after contact ranks No. 2 among all returning running backs in FBS after only LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Freeman’s 80 forced missed tackles on rushing plays ranks No. 2 among returning Power-5 running backs and his 1844 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns both rank No. 3 among returning Power-5 running backs.
Oregon State: Jordan Villamin, WR
Villamin’s production was down in 2015 due to instability and inexperience at the quarterback position at Oregon State. His most impressive numbers right now are his 6-4 height and his 240-pound weight but he should be poised for a breakout year with new quarterback Darell Garretson at the helm of the Beavers’ offense. Villamin’s 1.92 yards per route run ranks No. 23 among returning Power 5 wide receivers and No. 5 among the Pac-12 but expect a big increase in production in 2016.
Stanford: Christian McCaffrey, RB
Of course Christian McCaffrey is the best player on Stanford, as he is the best player in all of college football. McCaffrey’s 2014 rushing yards in 2015 is the most of any returning running back in FBS. His 45 catches and 3.20 yards per route run both rank No. 1 among returning running backs in the Power-5. Stanford’s best player not named McCaffrey is defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
UCLA: Josh Rosen, QB
Rosen threw for 3671 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman but should throw less often in 2016 with the new offense the Bruins have installed. Rosen’s 69.0 completion percentage on passes thrown under 2.5 seconds or less ranks No. 10 among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. The Bruins open the 2016 season on the road against Texas A&M so Rosen will be tested immediately.
USC: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
Smith-Schuster makes plays and his 1454 receiving yards and 3.39 yards per route run both rank No. 1 among returning Power-5 wide receivers. Smith-Schuster also makes players around him better and in 2015 the QB rating when targeting Smith-Schuster was 123.1 which ranks No. 3 among returning Power-5 wide receivers. He will be counted on heavily to help the Trojans transition to a new starting quarterback.
Utah: Lowell Lotulelei, DT
If the name and school look familiar it is because Lowell is the younger brother of Star the former Ute and current Carolina Panther. Lowell is a dominant run defender much like his older brother and his +14.3 run defense grade ranks No. 3 among returning Pac-12 defensive linemen. Lotulelei’s 8.2 run stop percentage ranks No. 6 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles and No. 1 in the Pac-12.
Washington: Jake Browning, QB
The starting quarterback on the PFF All-freshmen team. Browning displayed poise beyond his years as shown by his 66.7 adjusted completion percentage when under pressure which ties him at No. 2 among returning FBS quarterbacks. His 50.0 adjusted completion percentage on deep passes targeted 20 yards or more downfield ranks No. 6 among returning FBS quarterbacks. Browning is a key piece in a team ready to compete for a Pac-12 title.
Washington State: Luke Falk, QB
Falk helped the Cougars pullout some huge Pac-12 road wins in 2015. Falk’s 78.7 adjusted completion percentage ranks No.1 among returning FBS quarterbacks. His 69.1 adjusted completion percentage when under pressure also ranks No. 1 among returning FBS quarterbacks. Falk will get to throw all over the field again in Coach Leach’s offense and should emerge as a top-10 quarterback in 2016.