Seven players who could determine the North and South champions
USC is used to having prolific quarterbacks. Stanford is used to big-time tight ends. UCLA is used to productive running backs. And Oregon State can usually count on its defensive tackle position to hold its own.
In 2013, all four of those positions are in question. Key players at those position groups could help determine if their teams win their division or more.
In our ongoing series of pivotal players we took a look at four key players from those schools, plus three others who are in Pac-12 contention.
As a refresher, our criteria for pivotal players is:
1. He plays for a conference or division contender.
2. He is an unproven commodity in some way.
3. He plays at a position his team needs to perform in order to win a division or conference title.
We’ve looked at pivotal players for contenders in the ACC, the American, Big 12 and SEC, and now we turn our eye to the Pac-12.
Tyson Coleman, LB, Oregon
The biggest question on the Ducks' defense is replacing inside linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. Coleman appeared slated to start on the outside at one point, but necessity forced him to move to the inside. His teammates voted him the most improved player last year as a redshirt freshman, but the inside presents new challenges, especially considering some of Oregon’s top opponents this season — Washington, Stanford and Oregon — should all have above-average run games.
Luke Kaumatule, TE, Stanford
Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are gone, and beyond that, the top returning receiver Ty Montgomery averaged only 8.2 yards per catch on 26 receptions. Kaumatule played nine game last season, but didn’t catch a pass. Still, the 6-7, 260-pound Hawaiian is already on the Mackey Award watch list, thanks to Stanford’s recent reputation. Kaumatule played defensive end and wide receiver in high school, and now he’s expected to be one of the breakout players in Stanford’s passing game.
Edwin Delva, DT, Oregon State
Any one of four defensive tackles could be Oregon State’s pivotal player after starters Andrew Seumalo and Castro Masaniai left. For this spot, though, we’ll pick Delva, the junior college transfer originally from Miami. His fellow JUCO transfer slated to start, Siale Hautau, missed part of the spring with a broken hand. Good thing the Beavers’ new defensive tackle tandem faces only one top-40 rushing team (San Diego State) in the first seven games.
Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
Let’s assume returning starting quarterback Keith Price will be better this season with more stability on the offensive line. The next major question in defensive tackle, particularly against the run. Shelton is a returning starter at tackle, but he hasn’t shown much consistency. The junior accounted for four tackles for a loss last season, half of them coming against USC.
Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
Arizona State’s wide receivers were barely a factor last season. Only one wide receiver was among the Sun Devils’ top four pass-catchers, and Rashad Ross is gone. That has to gnaw at Todd Graham, who’d like to run a more dynamic pass offense. Graham signed five receivers, but two junior college transfers — Strong and Joe Morris — need to contribute immediately if Arizona State is going to win the Pac-12 South.
Max Wittek or Cody Kessler, QB, USC
Few times in the last decade has USC had a legitimate quarterback competition. If Lane Kiffin has an inkling of which quarterback he’ll start, he’s not telling anyone. Wittek was Matt Barkley’s backup last year and started in his place late in the season, but Kessler outperformed Wittek during the spring. Someone will need to get the ball to elite receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor if the Trojans are going to have a chance at the division.
Malcolm Jones, RB, UCLA
Jones is the most interesting name in a group of running backs looking to replace Johnathan Franklin. Jones signed under Rick Neuheisel, left the program under Jim L. Mora and returned as a walk-on later in the season. In losses last season, UCLA averaged 3.7 yards per carry (down from 4.8 in wins) and 118 yards per game (down from 231.2 in wins).