This week, teams around the nation moved from preseason camp mode and into game-week preparation.
We’re starting to see coaches name starting quarterbacks and settle on position battles.
Although questions are still out there before the season, some weigh more heavily than others. As the preseason winds down, we’re picking who we believe to be “pivotal players,” or in other words, key players who need to step up where their teams need them most.
Athlon Sports’ characteristics of a “pivotal player:”
• He plays for a conference or division contender.
• He plays at a position of weakness for his team.
• He’s an unestablished player with potential to solidify his team’s position of weakness.
We begin our look at pivotal players with the Pac-12 on our final day of the series.
PAC-12 PIVOTAL PLAYERS
Kevin Danser, OG, Stanford
New starting quarterback Josh Nunes will get most of the attention for replacing No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck, but the new starters on the offensive line shouldn’t be overlooked as the Cardinal rely even more heavily on the run game. Danser takes over the right guard spot held by David DeCastro, who was the key blocker up front on a run-heavy team. Danser saw his share of time as a backup last season, but he’s in his first season as a starter.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
UCLA has had the talent to compete in the Pac-12, but the Bruins haven’t been able to capitalize for a variety of reasons. The injury bug at quarterback hasn’t helped. Coach Jim L. Mora hopes the Bruins are ready to enter a new era with the redshirt freshman Hundley at quarterback. With a standout running back (Johnathan Franklin) and tight end (Joseph Fauria) and talented but young receivers, Hundley could be the missing piece in the Bruins’ offense.
J.P. Hurrell and Robert Mullins, LB, Cal
Cal quietly has led the Pac-10/12 in total defense in each of the last two seasons, and now the Bears must replace Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks at linebacker. Stepping into the two inside linebacker spots are Hurrell and Mullins, two seniors who are entering their first season as starters. The duo will be tested early against Nevada, a team that generally runs the ball well. Before September is over, the Bears will also play back-to-back road trips against Ohio State and USC.
Hau’oli Jamora, DE, Washington
The season-ending injury to Jamora was an early setback in a season full of setbacks for the Huskies’ defense in 2011. Jamora was expected to be one of Washington’s best defensive players before suffering a torn ACL in the fourth game of the season. A year earlier, Jamora was off to a promising start to his career with 49 tackles and eight tackles for a loss as a freshman. If healthy, Jamora will make up half of an impressive end tandem along with Josh Shirley, who had 8.5 sacks last season.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
It’s tough to pick anyone else on the Ducks’ roster who could be more pivotal to Oregon’s season. The pieces are in place for another Pac-12 title or more, but quarterback is an uncertainty. The redshirt freshman Mariota edged out the more experienced Bryan Bennett since he burst on the scene in the spring game. Mariota may be the best true dual-threat quarterback Oregon has had since Dennis Dixon -- but can the rookie outduel Matt Barkley?
David Rolf, TE, Utah
Rolf played defensive end and linebacker at Michigan State in 2008 and 2009 before transferring to Utah. The Utes moved him to tight end where he will start this season. It’s not that strange of a switch for the 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior, who played wide receiver in high school. After ranking last in the Pac-12 in passing last season, Utah will look to restore some balance to the offense. A healthy Jordan Wynn at quarterback will help, as will a deep group of tight ends led by Rolf.
George Uko, DT, USC
If there’s an Achilles’ heel to USC’s title aspirations, it may be the defensive line. Not only is it the thinnest position on the team, quality defensive line play has been the key to disrupting the Oregon offense. If USC needs to defeat the Ducks twice for a Pac-12 title (or national championship game appearance), Uko could be the key player. He started twice last season, making him a veteran by comparison to the rest of the linemen.
Previous pivotal players