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Pac-12 Wild Card Players in 2016


New faces abound in Pac-12 football in 2016. The Conference of Champions lost more than half of its starting quarterbacks, including the NFL's No. 1 overall pick, Jared Goff; star defensive players like UCLA's Myles Jack and Utah's Gionni Paul; and a host of assistant coaches.

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Change around the league promises an unpredictable and wide-open year in the Pac-12.

Related: Pac-12 Football 2016 Predictions

As Utah's rise to 10 wins proves, or Washington State contending for the North division title late into the season, the unexpected can be anticipated in the Pac-12. All it takes is for the right players to step up into more prominent roles.

Pac-12 North

Cal Golden Bears

Offense: Chad Hansen, Wide Receiver

With Cal's top six pass catchers of a season ago gone, as well as No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jared Goff, the Golden Bear passing attack is going to look much different. The new face on the receiving side could be Hansen, whose star began to rise late in the 2015 campaign.

Former Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin told the San Francisco Chronicle"[Hansen]'s going to be a really good player before he leaves here." That proved prophetic, with Hansen's two best games — five catches for 51 yards against Stanford, and four for 91 against Arizona State — coming at the end of the regular season.

Defense: James Looney, Defensive Tackle 

Cal's front seven is thin in terms of proven playmakers. The Golden Bears need several players along the line and at linebacker to step up, and Looney may be the most ready to emerge.

Looney transferred in from Wake Forest, looking to make an immediate impact. He moved from end, where he played for the Demon Deacons, to the interior of Cal's line and showed promise.

Looney's development will go a long way to Cal improving upon a run defense that ranked No. 106 nationally a season ago.

Oregon Ducks

Offense: Dakota Prukop, Quarterback 

Prukop, who came to Oregon as a graduate transfer, played in an offshoot of the scheme Chip Kelly brought to Eugene nearly a decade ago, with former Montana State offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey putting his own spin on the hurry-up, no-huddle spread.

Prukop should then, in theory, acclimate to the Ducks offense just fine. He's vying to replace another Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) transfer, Vernon Adams, who was terrific when available in 2015.

Defense: Malik Lovette, Cornerback 

Oregon was miserable against the pass in 2015 — 126th in the nation, to be exact.

Desperate for solutions, the Ducks coaching staff moved players around, including wide receivers Charles Nelson and Lovette to defensive backs. Both are major wild cards in an Oregon defense undergoing further change this offseason, with the addition of former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator.

The speedy Lovette could grow into the kind of playmaker Oregon defenses have built around at corner in the past.

Oregon State Beavers

Offense: Darell Garretson, Quarterback 

Utah State transfer Garretson has two unenviable duties: First, he must find a way to lead a team coming off a 2-10 finish, bereft of a single conference win.

Second, Garretson replaces Oregon State's leading passer and rusher of a season, Seth Collins. Collins announced his intent to transfer from Oregon State in January, but later returned to the Beavers as a wide receiver.

Garretson at least has some experience with the latter dilemma, having filled in for an injured Chuckie Keeton at Utah State twice. Garretson was originally a recruit of Gary Andersen at USU, and reunited with the coach in Corvallis last year when Andersen took the Oregon State job after two seasons at Wisconsin.

Defense: Kalani Vakameilalo, Defensive Tackle 

Oregon State struggled mightily against the run, giving up more than 5.1 yards per carry in 2015. The play of Vakameilalo along the interior, however, offered some hope for improvement in 2016.

Vakameilalo has the size to plug rushing gaps at 6-foot-3 and around 320 pounds, and he also used to size to get into backfields last season, producing a couple of sacks and three tackles for a loss.

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Stanford Cardinal

Offense: Bryce Love, Running Back 

Christian McCaffrey stole the show for the Stanford offense last season, and the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up — and former Athlon Sports Wild Card — had plenty of backup.

Teammate Remound Wright actually ended the season leading the Cardinal in rushing touchdowns, complementing McCaffrey on short-yardage and goal-line packages. Love may not be used in the same fashion, but the youngster does offer a change-of-pace look that should keep defenses honest against McCaffrey.

Defense: Quenton Meeks, Cornerback 

It's hard to leave a longer lasting impact than the one Meeks had on Stanford's Rose Bowl defeat of Iowa. His 66-yard pick-six has a place in the Granddaddy of 'Em All's highlight reels for decades to come.

But on days beyond Jan. 1, the sophomore Meeks should leave an impression in other ways. Meeks could grow into being the most dangerous playmaker in the Stanford secondary. Just ask C.J. Beathard.

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Washington Huskies

Offense: Brayden Lenius, Wide Receiver

Lenius is the kind of player one cannot help but project stardom for based on first look. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Lenius looks like he could be just as comfortable flushing alley-oop dunks for Lorenzo Romar's basketball team as he is lining up at receiver for Chris Petersen.

With quarterback Jake Browning now having a season under his belt and gaining invaluable experience on the job, expect the Husky passing game to make more use of Lenius this year. He caught 26 passes for a little more than 300 yards with three touchdowns a season ago, but his ceiling allows for much more.

Defense: Keishawn Bierria, Linebacker

Bierria showed off flashes of pure brilliance a season ago. With Washington replacing Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney in the linebacker corps, 2016 is time for Bierria to do all season long.

Bierria helped rattle quarterback Cody Kessler in Washington's stunning win at USC, getting into the backfield for two tackles for a loss, though his best game was in the Huskies' Apple Cup romp over Washington State, when he made eight tackles and forced a fumble.

Feeney set a high bar as the Huskies' premier pass rusher at outside linebacker. Bierria has the ability to meet his former teammate's standard.

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Washington State Cougars

Offense: Keith Harrington, Running Back 

Given the reputation of head coach Mike Leach's pass-happy offense, one might not expect the No. 3 running back to be a potential difference-maker. Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow led the Cougars with 610 and 347 yards last season, respectively.

However, Harrington developed into a weapon over the course of his freshman campaign, and he could be a force for the Cougars in 2016. Harrington was a reliable pass-catching option out of the backfield, grabbing 43 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. That's a quality that plays well in the Washington State offense, and should get Harrington more looks as a sophomore.

Defense: Daniel Ekuale, Defensive Line

Washington State boasted one of the nation's most aggressive defenses in 2015, finishing 10th nationally with 102 tackles for  a loss. Ekuale contributed five to the tally. In 2016, expect more from Ekuale.

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Ekuale is some of a hybrid, able to play on the interior or on the edge as an end. This was a role Leonard Williams mastered at USC from 2012-14, and Ekuale can mold into his own niche on the Palouse.

Combined with breakout star Hercules Mata’afa, the Cougars boast one of the more intriguing defensive lines in all of college football.

Pac-12 South

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Arizona Wildcats

Offense: Orlando Bradford, Running Back 

Nick Wilson, Arizona's breakout star in 2014, dealt with injury throughout last season disappointing campaign. To keep Wilson in the lineup and productive, expect the Wildcats to introduce a more balanced rushing attack — which means more touches for Bradford.

Bradford saw some duty in his freshman season, carrying 47 times with three touchdowns. Expect a much heavier workload for him in 2016 as a regular change-of-pace — almost a Noel Devine to Wilson's Steve Slaton.

Defense: DeAndre' Miller, Linebacker 

Injury ravaged Arizona's defense throughout 2015, particularly at linebacker. With 11 games to his credit, Miller was among the Wildcats' more consistent players in the linebacker corps with eight tackles for a loss and two sacks.

With new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates introducing a more aggressive approach, Miller could be Arizona's breakout pass rusher off the edge in the season to come.

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Arizona State Sun Devils

Offense: Kalen Ballage, Running Back 

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham obviously knows Ballage is a unique talent, evidenced in attempts to use him a variety of ways. Ballage saw time at linebacker, contributing in his own way to the en vogue use of two-way players seen with Myles Jack and Shaq Thompson previously.

Ballage also has been used as a pass catcher with some regularity. However, his best work is done at running back. Arizona State has a feature back in Demario Richard, but Ballage's role as a ball carrier could pick up next season with the Sun Devils breaking in a quarterback lacking game experience.

Defense: JoJo Wicker, Defensive Tackle 

Graham's defense functions by way of a tenacious pass rush, with blitzes coming from all sides. That includes up the middle, where Wicker made a splash in his freshman campaign with 7.5 tackles for a loss.

Wicker's already proven himself a capable playmaker in the Sun Devil defense. The wild card factor with him is if he can be a Will Sutton type. Sutton won the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013, absolutely dominating with a fearsome approach up the gut.

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Colorado Buffaloes

Offense: Sean Irwin, Tight End 

Before coming to Colorado, head coach Mike MacIntyre had a surprise Top 25 team at San Jose State, which thrived with a multifaceted approach in the passing game. One of the key components to that Spartan attack was tight end Ryan Otten.

MacIntyre's Buff teams have yet to showcase an outstanding, pass-catching tight end in a similar mold, but Irwin showed the potential to be just that kind of player in 2016. He had 15 grabs for 248 yards a season ago, and offers a different look from a speedy corps of wide receivers — comparable to Otten's role for San Jose State in 2012.

Defense: Rick Gamboa, Linebacker 

Gamboa already made a splash for the Colorado defense in 2015, jumping into the starting lineup just a few weeks into the first season of his college career.

After racking up 78 tackles and breaking up three passes, Gamboa laid the foundation to develop into Colorado's central figure on defense. The Buffs will need him to excel against the run, an area in which Colorado struggled collectively last season, allowing more than five yards per carry.

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UCLA Bruins

Offense: Kenny Walker, Wide Receiver 

The departures of Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Paul Perkins leaves a lot of receptions unaccounted for heading into 2016. Look for Walker to pick up a healthy portion of the slack.

Bruins head coach Jim Mora said in April he expects Walker to be one of the biggest surprises in all of college football, say nothing of just the UCLA offense.

Defense: Jayon Brown, Linebacker 

Asked in what phase Brown has improved since his arrival at UCLA, Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, "Everything."

"Jayon's had an outstanding spring," Bradley said in April. "We ask a lot of Jayon, to do a lot of different things, and he does it for us."

UCLA has an impressive run of standout linebackers going in Mora's tenure, and Bradley came to Westwood from Penn State — dubbed Linebacker U. With such tutelage, Brown may be the guy to break out as UCLA's next star linebacker.

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USC Trojans

Offense: Darreus Rogers, Wide Receiver 

USC brings back one of the best — if not the best — wide receiver in college football, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster will need some sidekicks around him to step up if he's to perform at his peak, and Rogers is the perfect option to play Robin to Smith-Schuster's Batman.

At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Rogers has the size to out-muscle many defensive backs. He can function as a dependable possession receiver, but he also has the foot speed to break off long routes, as well.

Defense: Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Defensive Tackle

USC came into the offseason in desperate need of defensive line help, and got some earlier this month in the form of Tu'ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah.

Tui'kolovatu didn't rack up monster stats in his time at Utah, and he won't be expected to fill the box score at USC. His role is commanding blockers and plugging holes so that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can work his magic with a scheme that relies heavily on aggressive blitzing off the edges.

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Utah Utes

Offense: Caleb Repp, Wide Receiver

Repp had not played tight end coming into his freshman year at Utah, but head coach Kyle Whittingham told the Salt Lake Tribune he was "natural" at the position.

His natural ability translated into a pair of touchdowns — which also accounted for his total number of receptions on the year.

Utah returns a pair of productive tight ends in Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley, so the position does not exactly have a ton more opportunities in the coming year. However, despite his "natural" acclimation to tight end, Repp should see more touches moving back to wide receiver.

His proven ability in red-zone situations makes him an intriguing option lined up wide in the fall.

Defense: Chase Hansen, Safety 

The Utah coaching staff's decision to move Hansen from quarterback to safety last season paid immediate dividends. Hansen made 11 tackles and forced a fumble in a win over Washington, shortly before sustaining an injury that cost him the remainder of the year and spring ball.

Without spring practices to continue working at safety, Hansen will have to get up to speed at his new position again quickly. He's already proven able to do so once, however.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.