Pac-12 Football

Pac-12 Football: Ranking the Top 25 Players Heading into 2014

Andrew CoppensContributor IMay 26, 2014

Pac-12 Football: Ranking the Top 25 Players Heading into 2014

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    The college football season is less than 100 days away, and that means the long wait for our favorite sport is nearing its end. With spring football fully in the rearview mirror, it also means we have a clearer picture of players and teams. 

    With the knowledge gained this spring, there are a group of players who could have a large say in how the Pac-12 title race plays out. Those 25 players, regardless of position, have proved through their talent and production that they belong on this list.

    So, let's take a look at the 25 best players the Pac-12 has to offer heading in to the 2014 season. 

Honorable Mention

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    While there are 25 players who made the grade for us, there were a group of players who could be on this list by the end of the season. Here are four players who just missed out on this list but could be stars by December. 

    Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: Wilson was productive last season before suffering a concussion. He threw for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games, but he also struggled with accuracy at times, throwing 16 interceptions. 

    Sefo Liufau, QB, Colorado: Liufau was thrown to the fire in his freshman season, and he came out of it as a potential star. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns over eight games. This spring he looked even better, and the ability of Colorado to make a bowl game rests on his shoulders this year.

    Andrus Peat, OL, Stanford: Peat was a solid starter at left tackle for the Cardinals and came very close to being on this list thanks to his second-team All-Pac-12 performance last year. However, there are a few returning offensive linemen who are slightly ahead of him in experience and production. 

    Cody Kessler, QB, USC: Kessler appears to have the inside track to the starting quarterback position heading into 2014, and he looked a lot sharper this spring than last year. Add in the fact that he had an impressive 20-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completed just over 65 percent of his passes, and there's a potential star in the making. However, until he is announced the actual starter this fall, it's tough to say he's one of the top 25 players the Pac-12 has to offer. 

No. 25: Dres Anderson, WR, Utah

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    With names like Brandin Cooks, Josh Huff and Paul Richardson at the top of the Pac-12 receiver food chain in 2013, it's easy to see how Dres Anderson of Utah could be overlooked. 

    However, he leads all returning receivers in yards per game—averaging 83.5 yards per game. He also caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards in 2013, making him one of two returning receivers to have over 1,000 yards receiving. Anderson's 18.9 yards-per-catch average is second among returning receivers in the Pac-12 as well. 

    Anderson is a huge weapon for the Utes offense and one of the fastest receivers in the league as well. Look for him to emerge as one of the biggest names at the position, especially with Cooks, Huff and Richardson all off to the NFL. 

No. 24: Jonathan McKnight, CB, Arizona

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    Arizona's defense was one of the better pass defenses in the Pac-12 last year, and a big reason for that was cornerback Jonathan McKnight. The 5'11", 175-pound corner became someone teams purposely game planned around in 2013. 

    He had just two interceptions but was one of the league's best at breaking up passes, with eight pass breakups on the year. That total puts him fourth among returning defensive backs in the conference. He also had 10 passes defensed on the season, which was good for 11th in the conference. 

    What separates him from most corners in the league isn't just those impressive numbers, but also his ability to come up and play against the run. That ability is very key in the Arizona defensive scheme, allowing linebackers to be a bit more free in the middle of the field. 

    McKnight may not have gotten the attention that Arizona's offensive players did last season, but he may be the best player the Wildcats have heading in to 2014. 

No. 23: A.J. Tarpley, LB, Stanford

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    When Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov are around you at linebacker, it's easy to get lost in the mix. However, don't think for one second that A.J. Tarpley isn't on the same level. 

    His 93 tackles were actually second on the team in 2013, ranking ahead of Murphy and just behind Skov's team-best 109 tackles. 

    In 2014, Tarpley has the spotlight all to himself thanks to the graduations of Murphy and Skov. With those two players gone, Tarpley will take on a new role and must prove he can be as productive with new faces next to him. 

    Tarpley earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 last season, and with five of the seven first- and second-team All-Pac-12 players gone, he moves up the list of best linebackers in the conference pretty easily.

    Look for 2014 to be the year the nation starts to realize what many in the conference already know—Tarpley is one heck of a linebacker. 

No. 22: Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State

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    Nobody threw or completed more passes in the Pac-12 than Washington State's Connor Halliday did in 2013. However, he was also very productive with those opportunities—completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns. 

    What keeps him from climbing higher on this list are the interception numbers, though, as he threw a Pac-12-worst 22 of them on the season. 

    Halliday possesses a big arm and the right kind of mobility to get the job done in Mike Leach's Air-Raid offense. What needs to happen in Halliday's final season in Pullman, Washington, is much better decision-making, especially when under pressure.

    Too often last season, Halliday would try too hard to make a play happen when one wasn't there. As long as he becomes smarter under pressure, Halliday could be in for a banner season in his final go-round for the Cougars. 

No. 21: Hayes Pullard, LB, USC

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    USC made a bowl game because of its defensive prowess, and a big part of that impressive defensive performance last season was linebacker Hayes Pullard. His decision to come back for a final year not only bucked a trend of USC underclassmen leaving for the NFL, but set up the defense for success in 2014 as well. 

    Pullard has led the Trojans in tackles two of the last three years, tallying 94 tackles last season alone. He also added 5.5 tackles for loss and an interception to the mix in 2013. 

    More than his production, it's the leadership he shows that matters most. Coaches bragged about his ability to get everyone on the same page this spring, adjusting quickly to the new defensive scheme in place. 

    That combination of respect and production makes him one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12, yet few outside of the Pac-12 recognize his name because of his unassuming personality. 

No. 20: Jared Goff, QB, California

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    Jared Goff's first season in college football will be one he won't soon forget, and most of it for reasons he'd like to forget. Cal gave up 35 sacks.

    Yet, despite the struggles he faced, it is very clear that there is a lot of talent to work with. Goff threw for a school-record 3,508 yards and became just the second quarterback in Pac-12 history to throw for more than 450 yards in three games during a single season. He threw for a single-game-record 504 yards against Washington State, while adding 450 yards in his first game and 485 yards against Northwestern. 

    It's that production that makes Goff such an intriguing talent going forward in his career. However, he needs help around him if he's really going to blossom. There was a disconnect between the gaudy yardage and production in the form of points, with Goff only putting up 18 touchdowns and throwing 10 interceptions.

    Goff's first season was full of potential, and with some better talent and experience around him he could become a star this season.  

No. 19: Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford

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    Following in the footsteps of a guy like Andrew Luck isn't easy, but Kevin Hogan has turned the position into his own and kept the Cardinal in the BCS picture over the last two seasons. 

    What is most impressive is Hogan's ability to make smart decisions in the biggest games. In 2013, Hogan led the Cardinal to wins over ranked Pac-12 opponents Arizona, Washington, UCLA and Oregon. Hogan also appears to have Oregon's number, winning both games against the Ducks in his two years as a starter.

    He also had a big increase in his overall passing numbers in year two as a starter, throwing for 2,635 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013.

    What separates him from the likes of Halliday and Goff is his ability to also get things done with his feet. Last season Hogan ran for 347 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per game and scoring two rushing touchdowns. 

    This will be year three as a starter for Hogan, and if the improvement keeps happening, it could be another trip to the Rose Bowl for the Cardinal. 

No. 18: Su'a Cravens, S, USC

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    As much as the experienced players got the headlines in 2013, there were a few fresh faces who made an impact as well. One of those was true freshman safety Su'a Cravens of USC. 

    The Trojans safety rose quickly throughout the fall and ended up the season as an unquestioned starter and budding star as well. He recorded 53 tackles, which was eighth on the USC defense, while also nabbing four interceptions and forcing two fumbles in 

    What makes him elite isn't just the numbers, but the fact that he was a physically imposing and intimidating player in year one at the college level.

    As we head in to the 2014 season, Cravens could become one of the biggest stars on defense in the Pac-12that's how talented this kid is. 

No. 17: Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon

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    De'Anthony Thomas may have gotten the bulk of the attention as a rusher for Oregon last season, but Thomas Tyner may actually have been the most talented of the entire stable of running backs. 

    After all, he did finish ahead of Thomas in the rushing totals last year, racking up 711 yards on 115 carries. He averaged 6.18 yards per carry and finished second on the team with nine touchdowns to his name. 

    Thomas, who's game is very similar to Tyner's, is off to the NFL, and that means an increased role for Tyner this season. With Marcus Mariota back at quarterback and No. 1 running back Byron Marshall back, the Ducks have one of the most dangerous one-two-three punches in the running game the nation over. 

    Let's see how he handles even more responsibility in the run game this season, but don't be surprised to see him become the leading rusher if everything goes well. His ability to break long runs (he had seven of 20-plus yards in 2013) is a thing of beauty, and it could be what puts him on top of the Ducks rushing totals in 2014. 

No. 16: Jamil Douglas, OL, Arizona State

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    Arizona State had one of the best overall offenses in the Pac-12 last season, ranking No. 2 in scoring offense and No. 5 in total offense. One huge part of that puzzle was offensive tackle Jamil Douglas. 

    He started every game in 2013, running his consecutive starts streak to 27. It was that consistency and the career-best years for running back Marion Grice and quarterback Taylor Kelly that helped put him on the All-Pac-12 second team. 

    With all but one member of the first team gone in 2014, Douglas is an easy choice to make that move up the ladder. 

No. 15: Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA

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    UCLA found itself a few stars in first-year starters last season, and one of the best in that group was cornerback Fabian Moreau. He finished last season with 52 tackles, four passes broken up and one forced fumble. 

    While those were good numbers, it was the flash of shutdown corner that has him on this list. Moreau is physical and unafraid to get in the mix with receivers off the line of scrimmage, and it was that ability that made him an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick last year.

    He also showed great improvement this spring, earning him the spring breakout player award on the UCLA team from ESPN.com. He appears to be adding some leadership traits to his already-impressive on-field production. 

No. 14: D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State

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    Senior running back Marion Grice may have gotten all the attention early on, but by the end of 2013, it was D.J. Foster who was stealing the show and proving he could be in for one heck of a year in 2014. 

    With Grice out injured late in the season, Foster put up 318 yards and had four of his six rushing touchdowns. He had over 100 yards in two of the three final contests, his only two 100-yard games of the season. 

    However, what makes Foster so dangerous isn't just his ability to run with the ball in his hands. Instead, he is just as deadly in the pass game, racking up 63 receptions (second on the team) for 653 yards and four touchdowns. 

    There may not be a better combo back in the Pac-12 than Foster, and in 2014, it will be his chance to shine alone in the backfield. 

No. 13: Jordan Richards, S, Stanford

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    Deone Bucannon may have led the Pac-12 in tackles as a safety, but he's off to the NFL and that means 2014 is all about Jordan Richards as the best safety in the Pac-12. 

    After recording 68 tackles, three interceptions and four tackles for loss, Richards was named honorable mention All-Pac-12. He was a major cog in a defense that gave up just 2.9 yards a carry and just eight touchdowns on the season. 

    Without Richards in the fold, Stanford's pass defense could've been in some serious trouble. As it was, the Cardinal finished the year No. 8 in pass defense in the Pac-12. Considering all the talent that Stanford lost to the NFL this offseason, keeping a stalwart like Richards will be key to the chances of three major bowl appearances in a row.

No. 12: Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon

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    Only four running backs in the Pac-12 went for over 1,000 yards rushing last season, but Byron Marshall is the only one of the bunch back for another go in 2014. He barely skated over that line, going for 1,038 yards in 2013. 

    With Marshall the question isn't about his talent, but rather about how many opportunities he will get to showcase his skills. Sure, he was able to average over six yards per carry and score a team-best 14 touchdowns, but he only got 168 carries last year. 

    When you've got a fully healthy Mariota at quarterback and an up-and-coming back in Tyner, the odds are against Marshall going for 1,000 yards once again. Even if he doesn't, Marshall is still the best running back the Pac-12 has to offer heading in to the 2014 season. 

No. 11: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State

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    If 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns was a debut, the Pac-12 better be on red alert for Arizona State's Jaelen Strong over the next year or two. 

    That performance earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors, as well as being named to Phil Steele's first-team All-Pac-12. 

    Strong became quarterback Taylor Kelly's favorite receiver last year, and only Bryce Treggs of California has more receptions among returning players. What separates Strong from a lot of other quality receivers in the league is his ability to not only burn you with speed, but also knowing how to use his size to his advantage in the right moments. 

    At 6'4" and 205 pounds, Strong is one of the more physically gifted receivers in the Pac-12. The secret is out on Strong in 2014, so it will be on him to show he's more than a one-hit wonder this year. Strong should be one of the more intriguing players to watch out West this season. 

No. 10: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon

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    Ifo Ekpre-Olomu surprised a lot of people by not following the heard of underclassmen out the door around the Pac-12 following last season. But by staying in school for his final season of eligibility, Ekpre-Olomu became one of the most interesting names to watch on the defensive side of the ball in 2014. 

    Not only is he a shutdown corner, but the man is a physical beast as well. The 5'10", 190-pounder can flat-out lay the wood as a hitter on the outside. 

    What is most impressive is the varied skill set he has heading in to his final season in a Ducks uniform. Not only did Ekpre-Olomu have 84 tackles, he also nabbed three interceptions, had five tackles for loss and broke up six passes on the year. 

    There may not be a more complete all-around defensive player in the Pac-12 this season.

No. 9: Nelson Agholor, WR, USC

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    The 2014 season could be all about the breakout stars in the Pac-12, and there may not be a player with more potential to do just that than USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor. 

    Last year he may have taken a back seat to the Marqise Lee show, but by no means was he second fiddle to the star wideout. Agholor had 56 receptions for 918 yards and six touchdowns, with the yardage and touchdowns being the most of any receiver on the Trojans last season. 

    Now, the challenge is to become the go-to receiver when the spotlight and defensive attention will be completely focused on him and him alone. Agholor has progressed from an interesting prospect to someone who uses speed and great route running to become a top target. 

    Look for 2014 to be the year Agholor becomes the "next" big player at wide receiver from USC. 

No. 8: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon

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    A center in the top 10? Anyone who has seen Oregon Ducks center Hroniss Grasu command the line of scrimmage knows just how rare of a talent he is. Not only do the Ducks rarely make bad mistakes along the line, but they also happen to be the true driving force behind the high-flying offense. 

    Grasu's biggest asset isn't his brain or his command of the offense, but it is his pure athletic ability for a man of his size (6'3", 297 lbs). Oftentimes (see picture above), Grasu is the one doing the pulling and blocking on the edge for the running backs or Mariota. That's a rare trait for a center, as they tend to stay home in the middle more often than not. 

    That isn't the case for Grasu, who's play earned him first-team All-Pac-12 honors the last two years and SI.com first-team All-American honors last year. He also was one of six finalists for the Rimington Trophy, given to the best center in the country. 

    Expect him to be a front-runner for this season's trophy, and to be a front-runner for All-American honors as well. 

No. 7: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

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    The two-way player is largely dead these days, but don't tell that to UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. Not only did he break out as a linebacker who started all 13 games for the Bruins, but Jack managed to be the team's fourth-leading rusher (267 yards). 

    He also pounded away on teams near the goal line, recording seven touchdowns—which was good for second on the team. 

    Defense is where Jack is likely to concentrate barring a major, major catastrophe at running back in 2014. That's perfectly fine, as Jack proved adept at that position too, recording 76 tackles, seven tackles for loss and one sack. 

    Jack made headlines because of his two-way play last season, but expect him to be making the same amount of noise nationally with his play as a linebacker in his sophomore season. 

No. 6: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State

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    For all the talk of Mariota, Brett Hundley and the crazy numbers going up in Pullman, it was actually Oregon State's Sean Mannion who led the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2013. He threw for 4,662 yards and had 37 touchdowns to his name, which was also most in the Pac-12. 

    It was a huge jump from a sophomore season that had many questioning if he could be the guy heading in to 2013. Those questions were answered quickly, but what holds Mannion back from being one of the top two or three quarterbacks is the number of interceptions thrown. 

    Last season, Mannion threw 15 interceptions and has totaled 46 interceptions in his three years as a member of the Oregon State football team. 

    In order for Mannion to be considered truly elite, cutting those interception numbers down to single digits would really help matters. 

No. 5: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

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    Quarterbacks rule the day in the Pac-12 as we head in to 2014, and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly proved to be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks the conference had to offer in 2013. 

    Kelly was No. 4 in the conference in passing yards (3,625) and touchdowns (28), while also ranking No. 3 among returning quarterbacks in rushing (608 yards). It's hard to get much more all-around than that. 

    Add in the second-team All-Pac-12 honors and you have a quarterback with the ability to challenge Mariota as the best overall quarterback in the conference. What Kelly needs to top the list could be as simple as a Pac-12 South title and a major bowl game. 

No. 4: Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford

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    TONY AVELAR/Associated Press

    For as many top quarterbacks the Pac-12 has, there are some equally good pass-catchers. None are better than Stanford's 6'2", 215-pound senior Ty Montgomery heading in to 2014, though. 

    Last season, he had 61 receptions for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, which was third in the Pac-12. Those are all good numbers, but what makes him the top receiver in the conference aren't the raw numbers but rather the raw skills he possesses. 

    There isn't another wide receiver in the Pac-12 as physically dominant as Montgomery, and that's a good thing considering the constant double-teams he saw and will see in the future. 

    For Montgomery, the key to bigger numbers may be having other receivers step up to the plate. Last season, no other receiving target for the Cardinal had more than 28 receptions. Having another target poise a bigger threat can help free him of constant double coverage. 

No. 3: Leonard Williams, DE, USC

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    USC has turned out plenty of NFL defensive linemen in its history, but defensive end Leonard Williams appears to be in line to be one of the highest rated by NFL scouts in years.

    Turning out 73 tackles, five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore has a way of turning up the attention. Doing it as an encore to a freshman season of 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks just proved it wasn't a flash in the pan. 

    There isn't a more feared defensive player in the Pac-12 than Williams, and one more season like the last two and the top 10 of the NFL draft is a likely landing spot. 

No. 2: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

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    UCLA has gotten the best of crosstown rival USC over last few years, and Hundley has had a lot to do with that. The problem is, most see Hundley as strictly a running quarterback with an arm that is used when needed.

    The truth is, he's better as a passer than a runner—and that should scare plenty of opponents coming in to 2014. Last year, Hundley topped the 3,000-yard mark passing, completed 66.8 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdown passes. He added another 11 touchdowns rushing and had 748 yards rushing as well. 

    Besides his ability to throw a great deep ball and use his feet to his advantage, Hundley has a knack for pretty good decision-making. Last season, he was one of just five starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12 to throw single-digit interceptions (nine). 

    About the only thing that holds him back at this point is that he's had trouble in big games outside of the USC matchup. Last season, he lost to three ranked Pac-12 opponents and holds an overall record of 3-6 against ranked teams. If that changes this season, it could be Hundley standing at the top of the chart at season's end. 

No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    If not for a knee injury against Stanford, we could easily be talking about the Heisman Trophy winner from 2013 right now. However, there's little doubt that Mariota is the best all-around quarterback and player in the Pac-12 after deciding to stay in school over the NFL. 

    Last season, Mariota threw 3,665 yards while completing 63.5 percent of his passes and throwing for 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions—all of that in 386 attempts. He also rushed for 715 yards and added nine touchdowns on the ground. 

    Entering this season, Mariota has the third-best quarterback rating among returning players from 2013. He topped the Pac-12 with a 167.66 rating last year. 

    All those stats are nice, but watching Mariota play the game tells us all we need to see. The guy is a special talent with the ball in his hands, and Oregon's offense wouldn't be the same without him.

    College football gets him for one more season, and we all better enjoy the ride because it could be a while before another quarterback like that comes to Eugene, Oregon.

     

    *All stats courtesy CFBstats.com.

    *Andy Coppens is a national College Football Featured Columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndyOnCFB

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