The Pac-12 is one of the nation's top conferences for offense, so it should be no surprise that six of the top 10 players in Athlon's top 50 for 2012 check in on that side of the ball. USC's Matt Barkley is the frontrunner to win the Heisman, while receivers Robert Woods, Keenan Allen, Marqise Lee and Marquess Wilson are all All-American candidates. While the defense doesn't have as many players in the top 10, Utah's Star Lotulelei and USC's T.J. McDonald rank among the top six players.
Compiling the top 50 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings.
Here are five factors that contributed to the criteria for the rankings:
1. Projection on 2012 Performance
2. Importance to team
3. Positional importance
4. NFL Draft stock
5. Career performance
(Published August 14, 2012)
Athlon's Top 50 Pac-12 Players for 2012
1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
After throwing 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions over his final four games in 2011, the consensus was Barkley was gone to the NFL. Instead, he surprised a lot of folks with his decision to return for one more shot at a national title and has USC poised to play for the championship in January. Barkley enters 2012 with 9,054 yards and 80 touchdowns and is Athlon’s first-team All-American quarterback for 2012. The senior ranks third in school history with 9,013 career yards, and his 80 touchdown passes are fifth in Pac-12 history. The only missing pieces on Barkley’s resume? A Pac-12 title, national championship and Heisman. All three are certainly within reach in 2012.
2. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
When the guys who are trying to block you officially vote you as the best defensive lineman in the league, it’s pretty hard to argue. Lotulelei earned such an honor last year when he was given the Morris Trophy, the award given to the best D-Lineman in the Pac-12 as voted on by starting offensive linemen. His 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame has NFL written all over it, as Utah hopes its Star in the middle can lead what was the league’s top scoring defense last year. The senior from South Jordan, Utah is a first-team All-American and looks to build on his 9.0 tackles for a loss and 44 total tackles.
3. Robert Woods, WR, USC
One half of USC’s impressive receiver duo, Woods was one of eight players in the country to catch more than 100 passes -- and he was the only one to do so in 12 games thanks to USC’s bowl ban. Woods will get his chance to play in the postseason after accounting for 176 catches for 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns (15 last season) in his first two years at USC.
4. Keenan Allen, WR, California
Few players in the nation have as much raw physical talent and skill as Allen possesses. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound stud from Greensboro, N.C., flashed first-round NFL talent as only a sophomore last year by catching 82 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns. He is the half-brother of quarterback Zach Maynard and clearly has an unspoken rapport with Cal signal caller. Look for this to be Allen’s final year in a Golden Bear uniform.
5. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Even at Oregon, where speed and explosiveness runs aplenty, Thomas found a way to stand out as a freshman. The 5-foot-9, 173-pound running back from Los Angeles averaged a 16-yard gain every time he touched the ball. That was half a yard more than any other Ducks’ regular and twice as much as either LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner. Thomas scored 18 total touchdowns as a rookie (nine rushing, seven receiving, two on kickoff returns).
6. T.J. McDonald, S, USC
The USC legacy — his father Tim was a two-time All-American at USC from 1983-1986 — is a powerful hitter at the back end of the No. 1 team in the nation. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior has 23 career starts, 163 career tackles and six career interceptions. The Fresno (Calif.) Edison product is an Athlon Sports All-American and Thorpe Award candidate heading into his final season.
7. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State
Most Pac-12 fans are familiar with Wilson but expect to see him become a household name nationally after 2012. With Mike Leach’s pass-first attack coming to Pullman, the Cougars should be one of the top offenses in the nation. Wilson has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and caught 18 touchdown passes over the last two years. His best performance came against San Diego State in 2011, grabbing six passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. With Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Keenan Allen returning, it will be a battle to get first-team all-conference honors. However, there’s no question Wilson will have the stats to get in the mix for first-team All-Pac-12 and All-American honors.
8. Nickell Robey, CB, USC
An All-State second-team baseball player and district long jump champion, Robey faced no mystery of where he’d fit at USC. The junior has started every game in the secondary since he arrived on campus. Robey will make a bid at All-America status after recording 63 tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions last season (including one returned for a touchdown in the triple-overtime loss to Stanford).
9. John Boyett, S, Oregon
Playing for an underrated defense, Boyett’s status as one of the nation’s best safeties does not get much attention. Entering his fourth-season as a starter, Boyett has 276 career tackles. He fell one tackle short in 2010 of leading the Ducks in tackles in each of his three seasons on campus. Boyett is a touchdown-saving safety who also has nine career interceptions.
10. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With Robert Woods posting a record-setting season on the other side, it was easy to overlook Lee’s performance in 2011. As a true freshman, he finished with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Lee came on strong over the second half of the season, catching at least seven passes in each of the final five games. Woods is still USC’s No. 1 receiver, but Lee will see plenty of passes in his direction. Expect the sophomore to surpass last season’s totals, while pushing for All-American honors.
11. Keith Price, QB, Washington
Replacing Jake Locker was no easy task, but it didn’t take long for Price to emerge as one of the conference’s top quarterbacks last year. The California native threw for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, while adding three scores on the ground. Knee injuries limited Price in the second half of last season, but he will be 100 percent for the season opener. The Huskies still have question marks on defense, but Price’s emergence should allow Washington to push Stanford for second in the Pac-12 North.
12. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
The outside linebacker from Marietta, Ga., became an instant playmaker on on the Stanford defense the last three seasons, recording 46 tackles for a loss during that span. He led the Pac-12 last season with 2.1 tackles behind the line last season while forcing five fumbles. With Shayne Skov back, he and Thomas could be one of the nation’s best linebacker tandems.
13. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
The senior from Piedmont, Calif., has had an up and down career at Stanford. He has NFL potential, a savvy on-the-field toughness that has helped the Cardinal develop into a West Coast power. He has also dealt with major injuries on more than one occasion and an off-the-field issue. The DUI will cost him one game with a suspension this fall, but should he stay healthy, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder could be an All-American this fall.
14. Dion Jordan, DE/LB, Oregon
Athleticism and speed are two hallmarks of Oregon’s defense, so it was really no surprise when Jordan shifted from tight end to defensive end before the 2010 season. And after spending one year as a reserve, Jordan shined in his first full season as a starter in 2011, recording 42 tackles, 13 TFL and 7.5 sacks. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors and was named to the watchlists for the Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurski and Hendricks Award for 2012. Jordan is Oregon’s top rush end and should only get better with another offseason to refine his skills on defense.
15. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
The Astoria, Ore., cornerback is one of the most underrated players in the entire country. As a lockdown cover corner, few in the league can match the Oregon State Beaver who has returned an interception for a touchdown in two straight seasons. He also took a punt back for a score against UCLA last fall. His special teams prowess make Poyer one of the biggest impact players in all of the Pac-12.
16. Khaled Holmes, C, USC
With Matt Kalil moving onto the NFL, it’s up to Holmes to become the leader for USC’s offensive line. That shouldn’t be a problem for the California native, as he has started in each of the last two years and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Holmes made a seamless transition from guard to center in 2011 and should be one of the top linemen in college football this year.
17. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
Oregon isn’t panicking over the loss of running back LaMichael James, mainly because Barner has shown what he can do with the ball in his hands the last two seasons. Oregon’s run game didn’t miss a beat when Barner subbed for James. Barner has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and has scored 20 touchdowns in his career. Now it’s his turn to be the No. 1 running back.
18. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
As only a true freshman, the big-time prep star from Gig Harbor High School produced a season no Washington freshman tight end has ever posted. His 538 yards receiving were No. 2 all-time in UW history for a freshman of any position while ranking No. 3 all-time for any tight end of any age. He did all of that on 41 catches to go with six touchdowns. He has a chance to be the best player at his position nationally with continued development.
19. Michael Clay, LB, Oregon
Clay is one of the Pac-12’s most underrated players heading into 2012. Despite missing two games last season, he recorded 102 tackles, three sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. Despite his standout year, Clay didn’t even earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Expect that to change in 2012, as the San Jose native will be in the mix for first-team All-Pac-12 honors as the leader of Oregon’s linebacking corps.
20. John White, RB, Utah
The junior college transfer set a school record with 1,520 rushing yards in his first season on campus. With starting quarterback Jordan Wynn hurt, Utah relied on White to be a workhorse in the Utes’ first season in the Pac-12. White delivered as one of only seven quarterbacks in the country to top 300 carries. He also rushed for 15 touchdowns.
21. David Yankey, OL, Stanford
The redshirt sophomore from Roswell, Ga., has big shoes to fill now that Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro have moved on. But the cupboard isn't bare with big Yankey leading the way. This unit was No. 17 nationally in rushing (trailing only Oregon inside the league) and seventh nationally in protecting the quarterback. Yankey should only be that much better in his second full season on the field.
22. Dion Bailey, LB, USC
As only a freshman, Bailey proved to be an invaluable member of the Trojan defense. He posted 81 tackles, a pair of sacks and a pair of interceptions en route to freshman All-American honors. Now, as a sophomore, Bailey has Butkus Award potential and the chance to lead the his team to a national championship.
23. Travis Long, DE/LB, Washington State
Long has quietly been one of the Pac-12’s most underrated defenders over the last three years. The Spokane native recorded 10 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss from 2010-11 and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Long has played his first three years on the line but is expected to move into a hybrid rush end/linebacker spot. With the Cougars switching to a 3-4, the senior will be counted upon to be the team’s top pass rusher, while continuing to help stuff the run off the edge.
24. Silas Redd, RB, USC
Redd’s decision to transfer to USC alleviated a major concern about the offense. Although Curtis McNeal had a solid 2011 season, the Trojans needed more depth at the position, and Redd is one of the top 15-20 backs in the nation. In two years with Penn State, he recorded 1,678 yards and nine touchdowns. Redd posted six 100-yard efforts last season, including 164 in the 34-24 win over Northwestern. Redd won’t see 250 carries, but having an every-down back is a key pickup for USC’s offense.
25. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
With Andrew Luck gone to the NFL, more of the focus of the offense will be on Taylor. There’s no reason to think Taylor’s not up to the challenge. He’s topped 220 carries in each of the last two seasons, rushing for a combined 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns. The Stanford offense has been more or less a power-run game even with Luck at quarterback, so Taylor should be ready for what’s coming.
26. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State
The injury bug bit Tuel last season, as he played in only three games and completed 29 of 45 throws for 276 yards and one score. The California native suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener but returned later in the year, only to miss the final five games with a leg injury. Tuel has flown under the radar in his career, as most expected him to emerge as an all-conference candidate last season, especially after throwing for 2,780 yards and 18 scores in 2010. With Mike Leach arriving in Pullman, the Cougars should have one of the nation’s top passing threats. If Tuel can stay healthy, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns is easily within reach.
27. Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State
Marshall was essentially a one-man show at running back last season, carrying 230 times. No other Sun Devil running back topped 13 attempts. Marshall delivered with 1,050 yards and 18 touchdowns, tied with LaMichael James for the post in the Pac-12.
28. David Bakhtiari, OL, Colorado
The junior left tackle is one of the few veteran, Pac-12-caliber players for Colorado, earning coaches’ second-team all-conference last season. Bakhtiari is entering his third season a starter.
29. Wes Horton, DE, USC
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound senior will be counted on by Lane Kiffin to lead the Trojan defensive line in 2012. This might be the key area of concern for a USC run at a national title and Horton will have to build on his four-sack third season.
30. Kevin Graf, OL, USC
Protecting Matt Barkley might be considered the single most important charge of any unit in the nation. The former top 100 recruit turned All-Pac-12 junior is the most accomplished of the bunch and will be asked to lead in Matt Kalil's absence. The Agoura Hills, Calif., native is the third Graf to call Heritage Hall home — his brother and father both played at USC.
31. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford
The big defensive lineman was named Stanford's most outstanding sophomore last fall after starting 12 games and registering 35 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Hailing from Mequon, Wisc., Gardner will be asked to rush the passer and keep offensive linemen off of the very talented Cardinal linebackers this fall.
32. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Crichton was one of the Pac-12’s top breakout players last season, recording 74 tackles, six sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and six forced fumbles – as a redshirt freshman. The Beavers need another big season from Crichton, especially since the defense was the worst in the Pac-12 against the run. The sophomore is only scratching the surface of his potential and should build upon his standout freshman campaign.
33. Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
In a league stacked with future NFL stars at wide receiver, it is easy for Wheaton to get overlooked. With a freshman quarterback throwing the ball, the dynamic athlete caught 73 passes for 986 yards to go with 190 yards rushing. It would not be going out on a limb to suggest Wheaton reaches paydirt more than the one touchdown he scored last fall.
34. Kiko Alonso, LB, Oregon
After a standout performance in the Rose Bowl (five tackles, one interception, 1.5 sacks), Alonso is primed for a breakout season as one of Oregon’s top defenders. The senior recorded 46 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions last year but should be a full-time starter for the first time in his career this season.
35. Joseph Fauria, TE, UCLA
The nephew of NFL veteran tight end Christian Fauria, Joseph Fauria caught 39 passes for 481 yards with six touchdowns last season. He’ll be a top target for new Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley in the new “Y” position.
36. Levine Toiolo, TE, Stanford
Stanford’s three-tight end attack is down to two with juniors Zach Ertz and Toilolo. Though Toilolo was the third of the tree, he finished 348 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
37. John Fullington, OL, Washington State
The junior to be made a quick impact after converting from tight end in his first year. He played in all 12 games as a freshman before starting all 12 games last fall at left guard. He earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention and now is a veteran on what could be the nation's most improved offense.
38. Taylor Hart, DL, Oregon
Hart was impressive in his first year as a starter, recording 44 stops, three tackles for a loss and two sacks. The Ducks like to rotate a lot of players on the line, but the junior should be one of the stalwarts in 2012. Hart earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year but should be in the mix for first or second-team accolades this season.
39. Hayes Pullard, LB, USC
Often overlooked because of Bailey's first-year success, this talented tackler had his own breakout freshman campaign last fall. The 6-foot-1, 235 pound linebacker from Inglewood posted 81 tackles of his own as well as 6.5 TFL and 4.0 sacks.
40. Carson York, OL, Oregon
York has been a stabilizing force on Oregon’s offensive line, starting 36 career games. However, his status for the season opener is in doubt, as he suffered a serious knee injury in the bowl win over Wisconsin. If healthy, York should be one of the best linemen in the conference.
41. Brian Blechen, S, Utah
Blechen improved upon his standout freshman season as a sophomore, recording 78 tackles with two sacks, nine tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and three interceptions.
42. Sean Parker, S, Washington
The Huskies’ defense struggled, but Parker was among the standouts after recording 91 tackles and four interceptions last season.
43. Drew Schaefer, C, Washington
Schaefer is a versatile three-year starter who blocked for Chris Polk’s two most productive seasons.
44. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
The younger brother of former Washington State star Marcus Trufant has been a solid contributor his entire career. While he may never reach the star status of his older sibling, Desmond should only build upon a season in which he posted 64 tackles and 14 pass breakups.
45. Isi Sofele, RB, California
Yet another productive running back under Jeff Tedford, Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, his first as the primary running back. His 252 carries was the third-most in the Pac-12.
46. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
Although the Bruins will have a new offense, don’t expect Franklin’s role to change much in 2012. The Los Angeles native rushed for 1,127 yards as a sophomore in 2010, while recording 976 yards and five scores last season. Expect Franklin to see more carries in 2012, especially with Brett Hundley taking over under center and Derrick Coleman expiring his eligibility at the end of last year.
47. Kasen Williams, WR, Washington
With Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar expiring their eligibility at the end of 2011, the Huskies are looking for a new go-to target. Williams should be Keith Price’s preferred receiver in 2012, especially after catching 36 passes for 427 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman last year.
48. Xavier Su’a Filo, OL, UCLA
After two years away from football on his LDS Mission, Su'a Filo returns to UCLA with the potential to change the direction of the Bruins offense. With talented skill players, the offensive line could be the difference between in gaining bowl eligibility — and finally keeping a Bruin QB healthy.
49. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
In a bit of a surprise, Mannion passed Ryan Katz as Oregon State's No. 1 quarterback early in the 2011 season. He had his share of ups and downs last year, throwing for 3,328 yards and 16 touchdowns. However, Mannion also tossed 18 picks. Expect Mannion to be better as a sophomore and should lead Oregon State back into bowl contention.
50. Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
This special freshman is a once in a decade type of prospect and it won't take long for wide receivers and running backs to take note of the massive safety. He should start right away and will be a force in run support as well as a head hunter in the passing game.
Team Breakdown of Athlon's Top 50 Players in the Pac-12 for 2012
Arizona - 0
Arizona State - 1
California - 2
Colorado - 1
Oregon - 8
Oregon State - 4
Stanford - 6
UCLA - 3
USC - 11
Utah - 3
Washington - 7
Washington State - 4
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