Record-setting running backs leave big holes for two Pac-12 teams to fill
The Pac-12 looks like an early winner of the NFL draft early entrant pool, with fewer than a dozen underclassmen declaring. The retention of several talented, draft-eligible players offers hope that the conference will bounce back from a pedestrian 2018.
Still, those who are leaving were impact players not easily replaced. This extends both to the early entrants, and the outgoing seniors.
(Note: players listed in alphabetical order)
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford
Stanford's run game sputtered through much of 2018, leaving much of the offensive responsibility on the passing attack. Quarterback K.J. Costello's job was made much easier with Arcega-Whiteside to target.
Arcega-Whiteside was outstanding in 2018, building on the highlight-reel plays he sprinkled into the previous two campaigns. In 2018, he established himself as both a big-play receiver and reliable possession target. His departure is perhaps the most significant hit any team takes heading into the 2019 offseason.
Andre Dillard, OT, Washington State
Washington State's outstanding offensive line play set the foundation for the program's rise from the cellar to Pac-12 North contention in 2015, '16 and '17. But after the 2017 campaign, the loss of standouts Cody O'Connell and Cole Madison left some question marks.
Dillard answered those questions resoundingly. Dillard helped keep the Washington State offense humming along at 37.5 points per game, and was integral to the Cougars yielding just 13 sacks; eighth-fewest in the nation. The first-team All-Pac-12 performer is gaining traction on draft projections, now widely considered a first-round selection.
Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Washington employed a deep rotation of running backs in 2018, with Salvon Ahmed, Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew all seeing meaningful carries. But in his fourth year as the Huskies starting tailback, Gaskin continued to churn out yards at a record-setting pace.
Gaskin leaves having completed his fourth 1,000-yard campaign, set the Washington program records for rushing yards and touchdowns, and led the Huskies to two Pac-12 titles. While the rotation of backs still in Seattle is formidable, Gaskin leaves a huge hole to fill.
N'Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
The ultra-talented Harry seems like a slam dunk for the first round of the NFL draft. Harry boasts all the measurables scouts seek in a pro possession receiver, and he combines it with a college highlight reel packed with jaw-dropping plays made from a variety of positions.
Harry's versatility will leave Arizona State using multiple players to replicate just a portion of his contribution. Harry went over the top of overmatched cornerbacks, beat safeties in foot races on the deep ball, blocked effectively, and lined up as effectively in the slot as he did on the perimeter.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
David Shaw doesn't have to imagine how difficult replacing Love will be. Shaw's Cardinal experienced it firsthand in 2018, with an ankle injury hampering the 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up much of the campaign.
Love — who seamlessly stepped in for another Heisman runner-up, Christian McCaffrey — rushed for 739 yards and six touchdowns in 2018. Not bad numbers, all things considered, but the gravity of Stanford replacing him lies not in Love's stats. The Cardinal finished 2018 ranked No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing, ahead only of Washington State's pass-happy air-raid attack. Take away Love's 739 from those paltry numbers, and this could be a worrisome offseason.
Kaleb McGary, OT, Washington
Trey Adams garnered a lion's share of praise as the cornerstone of Washington's offensive line heading into the 2017 campaign, but McGary ended it the unit's breakout star. Draft buzz for McGary started to pick up at the end of last season, and carried over into 2018. Back surgery that kept the one-time first-round projected Adams on the sidelines for much of the year left McGary as the prominent name among the Huskies' front five.
Gardner Minshew, QB, Washington State
Minshew leaves Washington State after playing just one season on the Palouse; but what a season it was. Minshew flirted with Heisman contention down the stretch of a memorable 2018, leading the nation in passing with 367.6 yards per game and 4,779 yards in total. More significantly, Minshew was a driving force in Washington State winning a program-record 11 games.
Mike Leach's coaching career is defined by one quarterback pupil after another emerging in his pass-happy offense. However, Minshew proved to be on another level in a few key phases.
Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
At least one mock draft has Murphy as the first Pac-12 representative selected in the 2019 draft. That's not that suprising when you consider Murphy helped lock down a pair of first-round-caliber talents in Stanford's J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Arizona State's N'Keal Harry.
Murphy's legacy at Washington includes winning Most Valuable Player of the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game. He stepped into a secondary that was already cultivating an impressive reputation, with standouts like Super Bowl-bound Marcus Peters, Sidney Jones, Kevin King, and Budda Baker. Murphy took it to another level with his stellar play in 2018, contributing to Washington's nation-leading pass defense.
Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith was not the most ballyhooed of USC's 2015 signees coming in. But after an outstanding spring and summer as a freshman, he earned his way into a special number and starting position right out of the gate. For four years, Smith served as a leader for the Trojans' defense — both statistically, and vocally.
Smith was USC's top tackler from 2016-18, finishing second only to Su'a Cravens in '15. His excellent run-pursuit defense is challenging enough to duplicate on its own, but Smith also demonstrated a unique ability to disrupt pass attempts in his neighborhood. His presence gave USC something of a nickel-and-a-half look in passing downs.
Caleb Wilson, TE, UCLA
The conference that produced Tony Gonzalez, Marcedes Lewis and Rob Gronkowski offers perhaps the next elite pass-catching tight end in Wilson. Those are lofty standards to hold Wilson to, but his play at UCLA in 2018 was on par with anything his Pac predecessors accomplished.
He finished the season as UCLA's leading pass catcher, just below 1,000 yards. Wilson's a versatile weapon that even offensive guru Chip Kelly will be hard-pressed to replace.