Ranking top 10 returning players in Pac-12

USC QB Cody Kessler is among the best returning players in the Pac-12 heading into 2015, writes Steve Palazzolo. Here's our top 10 ranking.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Ranking top 10 returning players in Pac-12

Even with the Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, graduating to the NFL, the Pac-12 still has a number of top-notch players returning, especially on the defensive side of the ball. In a conference littered with playmakers and unique offensive schemes, Pac-12 defenders are put into a bind as much as any conference in America.

This list of the top-10 returning Pac-12 players for 2015 features a couple of quarterbacks, some two-way stars, and a few under-the-radar defensive players to keep an eye on.

  1. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona

It’s hard to watch an Arizona game without seeing Wright flying around the field. He did it all for the Wildcats, from his 90.6 run grade and 61 run stops that ranked second in the nation to his 83.3 grade in coverage, and he was deserving of PFF All-American status. Wright was also extremely productive as a pass-rusher, notching 14 sacks, seven hits, and 27 hurries on his 255 pass rushes and recording an 85.0 grade. Few linebackers were capable of taking over games in all phases as Wright did a year ago, with the Arizona State and Boise State games as proof of his dominance.

  1. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

Jack put himself on the map as a true freshman in 2013 on the strength of his impressive two-way performance that saw him excel at running back as well as linebacker. He played both ways again in 2014, picking up 113 yards on 28 carries including 90 yards after contact, but it was his play at linebacker that puts him No. 2 on this list. He was the nation’s best coverage linebacker at 91.5, and strong against the run at 79.0. His seven passes defensed tied for second among linebackers and he was one of the country’s surest tacklers, missing only one out of every 18.6 attempts, good for eighth in the FBS. Whether Jack sees more time on offense or not, he returns as one of the best linebackers in the country with his offensive output an added bonus.

  1. Cody Kessler, QB, USC

After a modest start, Kessler became one of the best quarterbacks in the nation last season. His 99.1 passing grade was best in the FBS, and he was No. 1 in accuracy percentage as well at 80.3 percent. He showed well under pressure as well with a 71.0 percent accuracy percentage that ranked second, while his deep-ball accuracy percentage of 56.9 percent also came in second in the nation. Kessler took over the Washington State, Cal, and Notre Dame games late in the season, firmly establishing himself as an All-American and Heisman candidate heading into 2015.

  1. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon

Even with 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead playing on the other side, Buckner was the most productive Oregon lineman last season. Few 3-4 defensive ends in the country played the run as well as Buckner (87.5 grade), and he was no slouch as a pass-rusher, either (84.6). He picked up six sacks, six hits, and 32 hurries on his 550 rushes. Buckner was also a workhorse, as his 972 snaps ranked second in the nation among all interior defensive linemen. Even with Armstead out of the mix, Oregon is in good hands with Buckner’s all-around ability leading the charge.

  1. Su’a Cravens, S/LB, USC

Initially listed as a strong safety, Cravens is really an outside linebacker and a force around the line of scrimmage. Versatile against both the run and the pass, he also played over the slot on 184 of his 882 snaps. He was targeted only 33 times, surrendering 19 catches (57.6 percent) for 149 yards to go with three interceptions and five passes defensed for an excellent coverage grade of 91.2. Cravens’ work against the run was equally proficient, as he notched 25 stops and a 91.3 grade. While he didn’t rush the passer often, Cravens reached the quarterback for 15 pressures on his 73 blitzes, including five sacks. As he heads into his junior season, Cravens takes over as the leader of the USC defense as its best player.

  1. Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA

One of the best run-stoppers in the nation a year ago, Clark ranked eighth against the run among interior defensive linemen while playing the fourth-most snaps at the position with 868. He’s really adept at reading blocks in the run game, usually finding himself in position to finish the play or re-direct the running back. He’s not a great pass-rusher, as he failed to notch a sack while picking up only two hits and 15 hurries on 457 rushes last season, but his work in the run game makes up for it and makes him a key cog on a loaded UCLA defense.

  1. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Freeman stepped right into Oregon’s explosive offense as a true freshman and produced a rushing grade of 82.6, which ranked 11th in the nation and best in the Pac-12. He also tied for second in the conference by forcing 44 missed tackles, and led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. With Mariota gone to the NFL, expect him to carry a bigger workload than last year’s 252 carries as a perfect fit in Oregon’s spread attack. He’ll join the conversation to be considered the nation’s best running back despite a loaded group that is returning.

  1. Jared Goff, QB, California

Goff made the most of a challenging situation at Cal, as he was playing behind one of the nation’s worst offensive lines yet still graded at 87.6. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and he did have some poor games, but overall, he elevated Cal’s offense while showing toughness in the face of pressure all season. His 35 touchdown passes ranked third behind Mariota and Kessler and his ratio of BTTs (Big-Time Throws) to TWPs (Turnover-Worthy Plays) tied with Kessler for eighth in the country at 2.00. With improved offensive line play and most of his receiving corps returning, Goff should be set up for a monster junior season.

  1. Adoree Jackson, CB/WR, USC

Jackson stepped right into the starting lineup for USC as a true freshman and wasted no time in establishing himself as their best cover man (83.1 coverage grade). He gave up 50 receptions on 88 targets (56.8 percent) for 518 yards while deflecting nine passes to rank fourth in the Pac-12. He added strong work against the run as well. Like Myles Jack, Jackson contributed some on offense, with explosive results. Though he was in on only 43 total snaps, he caught nine of his 10 targets for 124 yards and three touchdowns with 95 yards coming after the catch. That experiment should result in even more offensive snaps for Jackson as a sophomore as he establishes himself as one of the Pac-12’s most versatile players.

  1. Deon Hollins, OLB, UCLA

Another under-the-radar star on the UCLA defense, Hollins was the second-best edge rusher in the Pac-12 last season, grading at 87.4 with nine sacks, 10 hits and 39 hurries on his 330 rushes. He doesn’t have the classic edge-rushing frame you’d expect (listed at 6-0, 235 pounds), but it still didn’t stop him from making a positive impact in nearly every game a year ago. He’s less adept against the run (72.3), and his nine penalties led all Pac-12 edge rushers, but his production as a pass-rusher earns him a spot on this list.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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