Ranking the Pac-12's Top 40 Players for 2011

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Stanford's Andrew Luck is back for another year on The Farm.

<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.</p>

By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 3,338 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT, 453 rush yards, 3 TD

Luck was the most efficient quarterback in the Pac-10 a season ago with a 170.16 QB rating – good for third nationally. He led the team to its first BCS Bowl victory when he ripped apart the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies 40-12 in the Orange Bowl. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Basically, the only thing Luck could have done better in 2010 was tackle LaMichael James, who rushed for 257 yards in the Cardinal’s only loss of the season.

Why he’s ranked 1st: Luck was slated to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft had he decided to come out last spring. But the best amateur football player in the nation is returning to Palo Alto to complete some unfinished business. No, I am not talking about his prestigious Stanford architecture degree either. Luck and the Cardinal, sans Jim Harbaugh, are the primary contender to Oregon’s conference supremacy. The Ducks travel to Stanford in Week 11.

2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 1,731 yds., 21 TDs, 17 rec., 208 yds., 3 TDs

James solidified his place as one of the top players in college football last year, finishing third in Heisman voting and setting an Oregon single-season record with 1,731 rushing yards. He collected numerous accolades last season, which included the Doak Walker Award (college football’s top running back) and first-team All-American and All-Pac-10 honors. James is not the biggest running back in college football, but he was a workhorse for Oregon, posting eight games of at least 25 carries. He rushed for a season-high 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Stanford. James was held under 100 yards only twice – at California and in the national title game against Auburn.

Why he’s ranked 2nd: A case can be made James is the top player in the Pac-12, but there’s no knock in being ranked behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Oregon may look to lighten James’ workload in 2011, especially with Kenjon Barner’s emergence and talented freshmen Lache Seastrunk and Tra Carson waiting in the wings. James led the nation in rushing yards last year and has a favorable schedule to do so once again this year. However, winning a national title would certainly mean more to James and the Ducks this season.

3. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford (JR)
Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the most physical teams in the nation. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and David DeCastro, Martin earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the Pac-10 in total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

Why he’s ranked 3rd: The Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 selection heads what is ranked as the No. 1 offensive line in the conference for 2011. If Andrew Luck is the best player in the nation, then one could argue that he who protects the most important player in the game is the second most important player in the game, right? Protecting Luck’s blindside is exactly what Martin will be doing again in 2011.

4. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State (JR)
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF

Burfict has turned in two solid years at Arizona State, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. He has tallied 159 tackles in his career, while forcing four fumbles and picking up two sacks. Burfict earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season. The junior is one of college football’s ferocious hitters, but needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. Burfict has collected some bad personal fouls during his career and if he can eliminate those mistakes, he could be one of the top defenders in college football.

Why he’s ranked 4th: High expectations surround Arizona State for 2011. With USC ineligible for the conference crown, the Sun Devils should have a shot to compete for the Pac-12 title. Burfict is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and will be expected to be a leader for the Arizona State defense. Burfict needs to eliminate the mental mistakes, but with another productive year, could leave early for the NFL Draft.

5. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 2,791 passing yards., 26 TDs, 12 INTs

Barkley came to USC as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Although he has been solid, the knock on Barkley has been his turnovers. Over the last two years, he has thrown 26 interceptions, which has to improve if he wants to take the next step in his development as an elite quarterback. An ankle injury at the end of last year hindered Barkley’s progress, as he only mustered 273 passing yards over the final three games.

Why he’s ranked 5th: If USC’s defense struggles once again in 2011, Barkley could be forced to win a lot of shootouts. The junior should show more progress this year, but will be throwing to a young group of receivers. If Barkley cuts down on the mistakes, he should edge Oregon’s Darron Thomas for the second spot on the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011.

6. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 2,881 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INT, 486 rush yards, 5 TDs

Entering the fall of 2010, Oregon fans were unsure of what they had under center with Darron Thomas. Everyone knows about Thomas after a 117-yard rushing effort against Stanford, a 288-yard, 4-TD passing game against USC and the first undefeated regular season in Oregon’s modern history. His 150.97 QB rating trailed only Andrew Luck in efficiency in the Pac-10.

Why he’s ranked 6th: Despite some shaky decisions at the onset of the BCS National Championship game, Thomas went on to set a career high with 363 passing yards in the narrow three-point loss. Through the last eight games of the regular season, Thomas threw 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions in wins over Oregon State, Arizona, California, USC, Washington and UCLA. With a year of stellar production in a system that fits his skills perfectly, fans can expect more of the same from Thomas in 2011.

7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford (JR)
This is going to sound familiar: Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the nation's most physical offensive lines. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and Jonathan Martin, DeCastro earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the league in total, rushing, scoring and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

Why he’s ranked 7th: The 6-foot-5, 307-pound mauler is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American selection and returns to protect the most valuable commodity in college football, quarterback Andrew Luck. DeCastro and Martin will be asked to lead a group of new faces, along what should be the best offensive line in the conference.

8. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 33 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 PBU, 18.8 yards per punt return, 4 TDs

Harris was spectacular in his first year as a starter. He became one of the nation’s rising stars at corner, picking off six passes and leading all defensive backs 23 passes defended. Harris took one of his interceptions back for a score against Tennessee and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Why he’s ranked 8th: Harris could be the best cornerback in college football, but he’s not quite there yet. The Oregon defensive staff would like to see him be more consistent from week-to-week and there’s the off-the-field concern as well. Harris won’t play in the opener against LSU due to a traffic incident this summer and could miss another game or two. When Harris is on the field, there’s no question he is one of the top defenders in the Pac-12 and the nation’s top punt returner. Assuming Harris doesn’t miss more than one game, he should contend for a spot on the All-American team at the end of 2011.

9. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 82 receptions, 1,233 yards, 11 TDs

Criner emerged as one of the top receivers in college football last year. He posted career-bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Criner averaged 15 yards a catch and led all Pac-10 receivers in receptions and receiving yards per game.

Why he’s ranked 9th: Arizona is expected to throw more in 2011, which should give Criner an opportunity to improve upon last season’s statistics. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American and was named to the Biletnikoff Award watchlist. Expect Criner to be the top receiver in the Pac-12 and should garner plenty of interest from the NFL scouts for the 2012 draft.

10. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 84 total tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 FF

The heady leader of the defense actually led the Cardinal in sacks per game, finishing third in the league with 0.59 per contest. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Skov still finished second on the team in total sacks and tackles for a loss. His sophomore season was capped by a stellar performance in the Cardinal’s first ever BCS bowl win. Skov posted 12 total tackles (eight solos), four tackles for a loss and three sacks.

Why he’s ranked 10th: The team’s top returning tackler is back for his third year in Palo Alto as the leader of the defense. Skov’s play improved as the season went along and with Owen Marecic gone, more responsibility will be placed on the inside linebacker’s powerful shoulders. The easy first-team preseason all-conference pick landed a spot on Athlon’s preseason third-team All-American squad.

11. Chris Polk, RB, Washington (JR)
2010 stats: 1,415 yards, 9 TDs, 22 rec., 180 yards

Polk posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season for the Huskies in 2010. He finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing behind Heisman finalist LaMichael James and powered his way to an excellent finish, helping lead Washington to an upset bowl win over Nebraska. Polk averaged over 170 yards per game and scored five of his nine touchdowns in the four-game winning streak to end last season.

Why he's ranked 11th: The preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection also received national acclaim as an Athlon Sports third-team All-American. Polk has topped 100 yards in 10 of his last 18 games and was dominant at the end of the 2010 campaign. With Jake Locker moving from Seattle to Nashville, Polk and the running game will be the key to breaking in a new signal caller.

12. T.J. McDonald, S, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 89 total tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 1 sack, Blk kick

McDonald led the Trojans in the tackles a year ago and was second on the team with three interceptions as only a sophomore – and without playing the final game of the season. In a 34-33 win over Arizona State, McDonald posted arguably his best career game when he made 13 total tackles, including 10 solos, to go with a key blocked kick.

Why he’s ranked 12th: McDonald enters his second full season as the starter at safety and has to be a leader for the Trojans defense. This is a unit that struggled to tackle a year ago, so the talented junior will be asked to carry the load once again. He is poised for stardom as he was named an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. McDonald is the son of former NFL standout Tim McDonald.

13. Matt Kalil, OT, USC (JR)
Kalil became the centerpiece of USC’s offensive line last year. He started all 13 games at left tackle, which was the first extensive action of his career, after serving as a backup for most of his freshman season. If the last name of Kalil sounds familiar to many Pac-12 fans, Matt’s brother, Ryan, starred at USC from 2003-06. Ryan Kalil earned All-American honors during his career at USC, and the Trojans certainly hope Matt can follow in his footsteps.

Why he’s ranked 13th: The biggest concern for USC’s offense will be its offensive line. Only two starters are back, but Kalil is one of them. The junior should get better in his second year as a starter and will likely emerge as one of the top linemen in the Pac-12. With Kalil protecting the blindside of quarterback Matt Barkley, USC’s offense should have one of the top passing attacks in the conference.

14. Robert Woods, WR, USC (SO)
2010 stats: 65 rec., 792 yards, 6 TDs, 50 rush yards, 971 KR yards, TD

As a true freshman, Woods led the Trojans in receptions per game (5.0) and yards per game (60.9). The talented youngster was the Athlon Sports National High School Player of the Year as a senior at Serra High School in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that the explosive receiver was named Pac-10 Offensive Freshman of the Year and earned Freshman All-American honors.

Why he’s ranked 14th: Woods enters his second season as one of the most dynamic and dangerous athletes in the nation. With Matt Barkley returning with another year, the explosive receiver should be in store for a huge encore performance as a sophomore.

15. Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington (SR)
2010 stats: 39 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks

Ta’amu has been a significant contributor throughout his three seasons at Washington, but emerged as a force over the second half of 2010. Ta’amu started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. He closed out the year with a dominating effort in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, registering one sack and recovering one fumble.

Why he’s ranked 15th: With Ta’amu and Hau’oli Jamora on the rise, Washington’s defensive line could be one of the best in the Pac-12. The Huskies need to get better against the run, but the talent is certainly in place to improve in 2011. If Ta’amu picks up where he left off in the Holiday Bowl, he should be one of the Pac-12’s top linemen.

16. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington (SR)
2010 stats: 63 rec., 1,005 yards, 12 TDs

Kearse established himself as one of the nation’s premier targets after a huge season with Jake Locker. Kearse posted massive performances in key wins over Oregon State (9 rec., 146 yards, 4 TDs), Syracuse (9 rec., 179 yards, 3 TDs) and Washington State (6 rec., 178 yards, 2 TDs). The 6-foot-2, 205 pounder caught at least six passes in six games last season and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Why he’s ranked 16th: Kearse has scored at least one touchdown in 10 of his last 18 games and has a tendency to explode in important spots. He has totaled 20 trips to paydirt over the last two seasons, so no matter who is playing quarterback (likely Keith Price), fans can bet he will be looking No. 15’s way early and often.

17. Mychal Kendricks, LB, California (SR)
2010 stats: 66 tackles, 15 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT

California was quietly one of the top defenses in the Pac-10 last season. The Golden Bears ranked first in total and pass defense, while finishing third in scoring defense. Kendricks was one of the leaders for last season’s unit, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors. He ranked fourth on the team in tackles and finished second in the conference with 8.5 sacks. 

Why he’s ranked 17th: Kendricks is moving to inside linebacker this year, which could affect his sack totals. However, the senior is California’s top defender and a key cog in its 3-4 scheme. Kendricks won’t get national respect like Stanford’s Shayne Skov or Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict, but expect to find him on the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011.

18. John Boyett, S, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 78 total tackles, 5 INT, TD, 9 PD

Boyett cemented himself as one of the nation’s best safeties early in 2010. In the fourth game of the season, he made 11 tackles and returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown in a 10-point win over Arizona State. He finished third in the league in interceptions and finished second on the team in tackles and helped lead the Ducks to its first undefeated regular season in the modern football era.

Why he’s ranked 18th: Boyett returns to what should be the Pac-12’s best secondary. If Cliff Harris is in the lineup, it has a chance to be one of the nation’s best units. The undersized veteran enters his third season as a first-team preseason all-conference pick as well as claiming preseason second-team All-American honors.

19. Delano Howell, S, Stanford (SR)
2010 stats: 60 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBU

Howell started his Stanford career at running back, but has made a seamless and successful transition to safety. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2009, after registering 78 tackles and two interceptions. Howell stepped up his play in 2010, picking off five passes and earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Why he’s ranked 19th: With three starters back, Stanford should have one of the top pass defenses in the Pac-12. Howell and Michael Thomas form one of the top safety combinations in college football and both should be in contention for All-Pac-12 honors at the end of the year. Howell is one of the leaders for Stanford’s defense and even with a new coordinator, shouldn’t suffer in terms of production or playmaking ability.

20. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 3,191 yds., 20 TDs, 10 INTs

With Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and Darron Thomas in the same conference, Foles doesn’t get much attention. Over the last two years, he has thrown for 5,677 yards and 39 scores. Foles has three 400-yard games in his career and has earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in each of the last two seasons. He also led the Pac-10 with an average of 290.1 passing yards per game last year. 

Why he’s ranked 20th: Foles is on the radar for NFL scouts and could be selected in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft with another solid year. Arizona is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line, and with the concerns about establishing a consistent rushing attack, Foles could throw 40-50 passes a game. With a shift in focus to more of a pass-first offense, look for the senior to easily shatter last season’s totals – 3,191 yards and 20 touchdowns – especially with one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning to Tucson.

21. Ryan Miller, OG, Colorado (SR)
An Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American, Miller helps lead the Buffaloes into a new era of football on the West Coast. Miller will be called upon to help lead the way on offense with star left tackle Nate Solder now in the NFL.

22. Hau’oli Jamora, DE, Washington (SO)
Jamora came on strong over the second half of last year, finishing with four tackles and a sack in the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. He finished 2010 with 49 stops and one forced fumble. Expect Jamora to only get better as a sophomore this year and his continued improvement should help Washington’s defensive line emerge as one of the best in the Pac-12.

23. Rodney Stewart, RB, Colorado (SR)
Stewart is one of college football’s most underrated running backs. In three seasons in Boulder, he has rushed for 2,744 yards and 21 scores. If he can muster 1,197 yards this year, he will become Colorado’s all-time leading rusher. Expect the Buffaloes to lean heavily on Stewart in 2011.

24. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford (JR)
Thomas returns to the Cardinal defense after leading the team in sacks (7.5) and finishing second in tackles with 70 total stops. He posted his best game in a 38-0 shutout of Oregon State, recording 9 tackles, 3.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks.

25. Justin Washington, DT, Arizona (SO)
Washington was a nice surprise as a true freshman for the Wildcats last year, collecting 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Arizona has to rebuild its defensive line in 2011, as three new starters will be stepping in around Washington. With the turnover on the front four, it’s up to the sophomore to become a leader for the Arizona defense.

26. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (JR)
The two-year starter is an honor student and has an outstanding NFL pedigree. After 48 tackles and one interception, Trufant returns to lead what should be a solid Washington secondary.

27. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (SO)
Wilson was one of the top true freshmen in the Pac-10 last season, catching 55 passes for 1,006 yards and six scores. He averaged 18.3 yards per catch and should remain the go-to target for quarterback Jeff Tuel. With Washington State struggling to escape the cellar of the conference, Wilson won’t get much credit nationally, but he’s a rising star in the Pac-12.

28. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford (JR)
Taylor took over as the bulk carrier in Week 4 against Notre Dame and didn’t look back. He rattled off seven 100-yard games in his last 10 contests of 2010. He scored 14 touchdowns in the last nine games of last season as well.

29. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA (JR)
Franklin helped lead the power rushing attack that ultimately began the demise of Texas last year. He rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown in Austin and followed that up with 216 yards against Wazzu.

30. David Paulson, TE, Oregon (SR)
The big tight end returns as the team’s leading receiver in catches, yards and touchdowns. He is the elder statesman of a totally new-look collection of pass catchers for Oregon.

31. Ryan Katz, QB, Oregon State (JR)
32. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State (JR)
33. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California (SR)
34. Datone Jones, DE, UCLA (JR)
35. Tony Dye, S, UCLA (SR)
36. Junior Onyeali, DE, Arizona State (SO)
37. Nickell Robey, CB, USC (SO)
38. Tony Bergstrom, OT, Utah (SR)
39. Sean Westgate, LB, UCLA (SR)
40. Nick Perry, DE, USC (JR)

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