The Pac-12 is definitely losing some star power early to the NFL, but the bigger news is the one player that decided to stay in school. Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love is returning to Stanford even though the running back probably would have been a first-round pick in April’s draft.
Besides Love, Washington running back Myles Gaskin and USC linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin also decided to forgo the draft. However, the Trojans are losing their starting quarterback, as is crosstown rival UCLA, and some of the conference’s top defenders are off to the NFL too.
The end result is some pretty big holes to fill around the Pac-12. Who will teams turn to fill these?
Gone: Sam Darnold, QB
The preseason Heisman favorite struggled with turnovers at times, including 13 interceptions, but he also helped lead the Trojans to a Pac-12 title and spot in the Cotton Bowl. Darnold averaged more than 300 yards of total offense per game this past season and figures to be one of the most talked about names during the upcoming draft process. He also will likely hear his named called early when the first round commences on April 26.
Head coach Clay Helton may not know who his starting quarterback is until fall camp. Matt Fink has the most experience, but that’s not saying much considering he attempted a total of nine passes this past season. Jack Sears redshirted last year and should get plenty of opportunities to stake his claim during spring practice, and USC also has JT Daniels, the Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) product who reclassified from 2019 and instead will enroll early. Daniels is the No. 2 pro-style quarterback prospect this cycle, according to 247Sports.
Gone: Josh Rosen, QB
To no one’s surprise, Rosen also declared early for the draft. Although Rosen missed two games because of injury, he still led the Pac-12 and was second in the nation in passing at 341.5 yards per game.
Devon Modster appeared in five games and started two in place of an injured Rosen, including the Cactus Bowl. For the season, Modster completed 51 of 79 passes (64.6 percent) for 671 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The question is will the rising redshirt sophomore be new head coach Chip Kelly’s guy for Week 1 against Cincinnati? Kelly will have other options, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class, according to 247Sports, and K.J. Carta-Samuels, a graduate transfer from Washington, are set to join the Bruins no later than this summer.
3. Washington State
Gone: Hercules Mata’afa, DT
Simply put, Mata’afa was one of the nation’s top defenders this past season, as he racked up the accolades while making a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage. The consensus All-American led the Pac-12 in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (22.5) even though he’s a bit undersized (6-2, 252) for his position.
In: Nnamdi Oguayo, rising redshirt junior
Washington State will struggle to replace Mata’afa, a task that’s made even more difficult by the departures of fellow defensive tackles Daniel Ekuale and Garrett McBroom as well as rush ends Frankie Luvu and Dylan Hanser. That’s 21 of the team’s 37 total sacks from this past season. Oguayo (4.0 sacks, 7. TFL), who made six starts at defensive end, may make the most sense considering he is similar to Mata’afa in terms of size (6-3, 237). Nick Begg, a rising redshirt senior who played in all 13 games, is a possibility as well. But let’s face it, there’s no quick, easy fix here for the Cougars.
Gone: Vita Vea, DL
Vea may not have stuffed the stat sheet, but his presence and impact on the Huskies’ defense is unmistakable. The Pac-12’s defensive lineman and defensive player of the year, Vea’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle of Washington’s defense.
In: Jaylen Johnson, rising redshirt senior
The Huskies received some good news with Greg Gaines deciding to return. He’ll anchor Washington’s defensive front. Johnson, who started one game this past season and finished with 3.5 sacks, will likely get the other primary defensive line spot. In all but one game, the Huskies started five defensive backs and just two linemen. Other candidates include Jared Pulu, a rising junior, and Shane Bowman, who will be a redshirt senior.
Gone: Ronald Jones II, RB
Jones was named first-team All-Pac-12 after rushing for 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns. He finished his career fifth on the Trojans’ all-time rushing list with 3,619 yards, averaging an impressive 6.1 yards per carry across three seasons.
In: Stephen Carr, rising sophomore
Considered by some outlets the top recruit in USC’s 2017 class, Carr (right) finished second on the team with 363 rushing yards and three touchdowns while seeing limited carries in 10 games as a true freshman. He should see more work this fall, but Aca’Cedric Ware (247 yards, TD) and Vavae Malepeai (261) also will factor into the backfield mix.
Gone: Harrison Phillips, DT
Phillips was more than just the Cardinal’s primary disruptor behind the line of scrimmage. Not only did he finish second in the Pac-12 with 16.5 tackles for a loss, he also was sixth in total tackles with 102, which was the most by any defensive lineman in the nation. He has bounced back in a big way since tearing his ACL in 2015 and could be a first-round pick in April.
In: Michael Williams, rising redshirt sophomore
In his first action for the Cardinal, Williams played in all 13 games and started in place of Phillips against Oregon. The Fort Worth native has some big shoes to fill up front for Stanford’s defense.
Gone: Isaiah Oliver, CB
Oliver certainly did his part for the Buffaloes’ secondary in his only season as the full-time starter. He tied for second in the Pac-12 with 13 pass breakups and recorded two interceptions. He also made his mark as a punt returner, averaging 10.5 yards per return with a touchdown in 2016.
In: Dante Wigley, rising redshirt junior
The transfer from Holmes (Miss.) Community College emerged as a key member of the secondary in his first season with the Buffaloes. He made six starts at cornerback, finishing in the top 10 on the team in tackles and also was credited with six pass breakups. Wigley will likely pair with rising redshirt sophomore Trey Udoffia, who made eight starts this past season, to form Colorado’s primary cornerback tandem in 2018.
Gone: Rasheem Green, DL
Green emerged as one of the nation’s top pass rushers, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors for his efforts. One of just seven players from a Power Five conference team with double-digit sacks, Green (10.0) finished just a half sack behind Hercules Mata’afa for the Pac-12 lead. He also led the Trojans with 12.5 tackles for a loss.
In: Malik Dorton, rising redshirt senior
USC still has Christian Rector (7.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL in 2017) at defensive end but will need someone to fill Green’s spot on the other edge. Dorton backed up both Green and Rector this past season, making three starts along the way. Dorton finished with 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble while playing in all 14 games for the Pac-12 champs.
Gone: Justin Reid, S
The Cardinal are taking a hit in the secondary with the early departures of both Reid, a first-team All-Pac-12 honoree this past season, and cornerback Quenton Meeks, who was named to the second team. Reid tied for the conference lead with five interceptions and was second on the team with 99 tackles.
In: Ben Edwards, rising senior
Edwards made five starts at strong safety this past season in games where Reid opened as the nickel back. He recorded two interceptions in 13 games and should get the first crack at starting alongside fellow senior Frank Buncom in 2018.
Gone: Jordan Lasley, WR
Lasley played in just nine games due to injury, but racked up 1,264 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in those contests. That was the most in the Pac-12 and landed him ninth in all of the FBS. He averaged a ridiculous 18.3 yards per reception on his 69 catches.
In: Bryan Addison, incoming freshman
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly won’t just be breaking in a new quarterback for 2018. Besides losing Lasley, Darren Andrews also departs, meaning almost half of the Bruins’ receiving yards (2,037 of 4,478) and more than half of their touchdown catches (19 of 31) are gone with them. Help could come in the form of a familiar name. Bryan Addison is the younger brother of former Oregon running back Bralon, who played for Kelly in 2012. Bryan Addison is a four-star recruit from Junipero Serra in the San Francisco area and stands 6-foot-5. Other possibilities include rising junior Theo Howard, who was third on the team in catches (56), receiving yards (594) and touchdown receptions (four), and senior Christian Pabico, who started one game this past season and finished with 280 yards and a score.