Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. After all, each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
The Pac-12 is loaded with potential breakout stars at some of the top title contenders in the conference. USC receiver JuJu Smith could vault into All-America consideration as quarterback Cody Kessler’s go-to target. Oregon defensive back/receiver Charles Nelson is also one of the top dual-threat players in the nation. Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici and running back Demario Richard should lead an explosive offense for coach Todd Graham.
Predicting the Pac-12's Breakout Players for 2015
Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State
Bercovici is no secret in the Pac-12 after a solid stint as Arizona State’s starting quarterback last season. After Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado, Bercovici threw for 488 yards against UCLA in a 62-27 loss and passed for 510 yards and five scores in a thrilling 38-34 win over USC. Bercovici has a strong arm and isn’t afraid to take chances downfield. He won’t have top receiver Jaelen Strong, but Bercovici could push for a spot among the Pac-12’s best at quarterback.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
DJ Calhoun/Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State
Arizona State’s linebacker unit should be among the best in the Pac-12. Coach Todd Graham and coordinator Keith Patterson should have no trouble finding four starters and capable backups this year, and the development of Calhoun and Sam can only add to the potential of this group. Both players enter their sophomore year on the rise, as Calhoun recorded 35 stops and two sacks last season, and Sam registered 16 tackles and a sack in 13 games.
Tevin Carter, S, Utah
Utah enters fall practice with a few question marks at cornerback, but the safety position should be a strength. Even though Carter enters 2015 with just four appearances in his Utah career, the senior is poised to be an impact player. Before a season-ending injury last year, Carter recorded 16 tackles (3.5 for a loss) and two interceptions. Carter should be a difference maker in the secondary for coordinator John Pease.
Related: Pac-12's 2015 All-Conference Team
Seth Collins, QB, Oregon State
Collins still has some work to do in order to win the starting job, but the future is bright at Oregon State with this freshman at the controls. In the Beavers’ spring game, Collins completed 12 of 22 passes for 208 yards and two scores and added 84 yards on the ground. Collins ranked as a three-star prospect in the 2015 signing class, and the dual-threat California native is expected to take the first snap for new coach Gary Andersen.
Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
UCLA’s pass rush needs a spark after recording only 29 sacks in 13 games last season. Could Hollins be the answer for new coordinator Tom Bradley? The Texas native led the team with nine sacks, with six of those coming over the final four games of 2014. Hollins recorded three sacks against Kansas State and one in the 38-20 win over rival USC. The junior’s ability to get to the quarterback should help UCLA create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage.
Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
Jones and fellow sophomore Budda Baker are two critical pieces in an improving Washington secondary. Although Baker is getting most of the preseason hype, Jones shouldn’t be overlooked. In 13 games as a true freshman last year, the California native recorded 61 tackles and two interceptions.
Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford
Kalambayi should be the next star linebacker for coach David Shaw. After a redshirt year in 2013, the North Carolina native played in all 13 games last season and finished with 32 tackles and 6.5 sacks. With A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters departing, there should be more snaps available for Kalambayi in 2015.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Alex Kelley, C, Colorado
With quarterback Sefo Liufau and receiver Nelson Spruce returning, Colorado’s offense should continue to improve after averaging 28.5 points per game in 2014. The line is also in good shape with the return of three starters, and Kelley could emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top centers in 2015. The California native started all 12 games for the Buffaloes in 2014 and earned a mentioned on the Rimington Award watch list for 2015.
Robert Lewis, WR, Washington State
Lewis didn’t post monster numbers last season, but he was a valuable security blanket for the Washington State passing attack. In 12 games, Lewis grabbed 41 receptions for 370 yards and two scores. After working as a backup to Rickey Galvin at the “H” position in 2014, the starting spot is expected to go to Lewis this fall. And it’s no secret: Starting receivers in Washington State’s offense usually post big numbers.
Related: Pac-12 Wild Card Players for 2015
Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Despite the departure of end Nate Orchard and tackle Sese Ianu, the Utes still have one of the Pac-12’s top defensive lines. A big reason why Utah ranks among the best in the league is the return of end Hunter Dimick, but Lotulelei is an unsung hero and key piece of the defensive front. As a freshman in 2014, the Utah native recorded 33 tackles (4.5 for a loss), four sacks and one forced fumble. Lotulelei should be an all-conference performer this season and is a tough matchup for opposing offensive linemen at 310 pounds.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s string of six consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher was snapped in 2014. But the Cardinal could reverse that trend with McCaffrey a bigger part of the offense in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McCaffrey rushed for 300 yards on 42 carries and caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two scores. McCaffrey is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top all-purpose players.
Steven Mitchell/Isaac Whitney, WR, USC
Even though JuJu Smith is mentioned later in this column, Mitchell and Whitney are both deserving of a spot. Mitchell caught seven passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns last season and continued his development with a huge spring. Whitney was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for coach Steve Sarkisian and ranked as the No. 33 junior college prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
DaVonte’ Neal, CB, Arizona
Considering the depth and talent at receiver for Arizona, Neal is making the switch from the offense to defense to see an increased role in 2015. Neal played in 13 games for the Wildcats last season and recorded 27 receptions. Playing cornerback in the offensive-minded Pac-12 won’t be easy, but Neal is too talented to sit on the bench and should transition well to the defensive side.
Charles Nelson, DB/WR, Oregon
There’s no doubt Nelson is poised to see a bigger role for Oregon in 2015. However, where Nelson plays the majority of snaps is uncertain. The two-way threat will see time at defensive back or receiver this season or could be utilized on both sides of the ball in any contest. Nelson caught 23 passes for 327 yards and five touchdowns last season and scored twice on punt return touchdowns.
Hardy Nickerson, LB, California
Identifying breakout players for California is a challenge, as the offense is largely set and the defense enters the fall with a handful of positions up for grabs. Michael Barton has already established himself as one of the leading candidates for All-Pac-12 honors at linebacker, but Nickerson is due for his best season at California. In 12 games last year, Nickerson recorded 69 tackles and one interception. It’s no secret the Golden Bears have to improve on defense. With Nickerson improving, along with Barton returning at linebacker, this unit should be a strength for coordinator Art Kaufman.
Peyton Pelluer, LB, Washington State
New coordinator Alex Grinch is tasked with improving a defense that allowed 38.6 points a game in 2014. Grinch plans on making a few tweaks to the scheme and a handful of positions are up for grabs. Pelluer had a solid debut in 2014, playing in all 12 games for the Cougars and recording 39 stops (5.5 for a loss) and one sack. The Washington native started the final five games at middle linebacker last year and should be a key cog in Grinch’s revamped defense.
Dante Pettis, WR, Washington
With John Ross out for the year due to injury, Washington will be relying on Pettis to take on an increased role in the receiving corps. Pettis grabbed 17 receptions for 259 yards and one score last year and should easily see those numbers increase in 2015.
Elijah Qualls, DT, Washington
Washington’s front seven needs an overhaul after the departures of linebacker Shaq Thompson, rush end Hau’oli Kikaha and tackle Danny Shelton. Qualls played sparingly as a backup last season, recording 13 tackles (two for a loss) in 14 games. The No. 116 recruit in the 2013 signing class has a lot of untapped potential and needs to have a big season to replace some of the production lost by Kikaha, Shelton and Thompson.
Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Just how high is Arizona State on Richard and fellow sophomore Kalen Ballage at running back? The coaching staff moved senior D.J. Foster out to receiver for the 2015 season. There was a huge need at receiver with the loss of Jaelen Strong, but there’s plenty of confidence in the available options at running back for coach Todd Graham. Richard averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 84 attempts last year, finishing 2014 with 478 rushing yards and four scores.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
Erick Dargan departs after leading the team with 95 stops in 2014, but the Ducks have a capable replacement in Robinson ready to emerge in 2015. As a backup to Dargan last season, Robinson played in all 15 games and recorded 36 tackles. The sophomore is penciled in as one of the starters at safety and has the talent to push for All-Pac-12 honors.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen still needs to win the job, but it’s hard to imagine the true freshman sitting for long this season. The California native was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and the No. 1 ranked quarterback by the 247Sports Composite. Rosen enrolled in time for spring practice and is expected to take the first snap of the year in UCLA’s opener against Virginia. If Rosen is as good as advertised, the concerns about the quarterback spot after losing Brett Hundley will dissipate.
JuJu Smith, WR, USC
It’s a bit of a stretch to consider Smith here since he grabbed 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns last year. However, expect Smith to go from all-conference contender to a potential All-American receiver in 2015. The sophomore should be quarterback Cody Kessler’s No. 1 target this fall.
Freddie Tagaloa, OT, Arizona
Arizona must replace three starters from last year’s solid offensive line. Tagaloa is a name to watch as one of the replacements, as the California transfer is penciled in as the new starter at left tackle. Tagaloa started seven games at California from 2012-13 and sat out 2014 as a result of NCAA transfer rules. The 6-foot-8 tackle could be an all-conference candidate in 2015.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
The defensive line is the biggest concern for coordinator Lance Anderson. Needless to say, the Cardinal will be asking a lot from Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett, as well as Thomas after a redshirt season. The Texas native was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class, and the 6-foot-3 end should be an impact performer for the Cardinal in a position of need in 2015.
Bright Ugwoegbu, LB, Oregon State
Oregon State’s defense is desperately looking for new standouts to emerge with just two returning starters set for 2015. Ugwoegbu redshirted last season and was regarded for his work with the scout team defense. The Texas native should be able to build off a strong spring and find a starting spot in Oregon State’s linebacking corps in 2015.