Jacob Eason's highly anticipated debut at Washington could make or break the Huskies' repeat title bid
The annual unpredictability of the Pac-12 football race promises that every year, usually around Halloween, someone will do their best Charlie Day impression screaming, wild card!
The participants in the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game offer some examples of what constitutes a wild card. Utah rallied after a slew of injuries to win the South for the first time, thanks in part to the play of quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Armand Shyne. Washington, meanwhile, reintegrated a previously injured Hunter Bryant into the lineup at tight end for the stretch run. It paid off big time.
Wild cards can come in the form of players coming off injury, promising reserves, transfers, freshmen — really, what makes them wild is their unpredictability. That, and their significance to a team's success.
Offense: Christopher Brown, RB
Two-time leading rusher Patrick Laird is gone from a Cal offense that suffered from disappearing stretches in 2018. The Golden Bears top two returning ball carriers are quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, neither of whom gained a foothold as the clear No. 1 a season ago. That leaves a heavy onus on sophomore Brown to produce.
Brown scored a touchdown and averaged four yards per carry in limited touches (37) a season ago. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Brown's a big, physical back who could be relied upon as a workhorse while Cal irons out its quarterback situation.
Defense: Kuony Deng, LB
Key to Cal's surprising stout defense in 2018 was the play of its linebacker corps. Standout Evan Weaver returns to anchor the unit, but the departures of Alex Funches and Jordan Kunaszyk leave big holes. Look for Deng to help fill a gap.
Deng was ranked the No. 1 junior college linebacker prospect of 2019, coming off a 2018 season at Independence College (of "Last Chance U" fame) where he recorded 48 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
Offense: Juwan Johnson, WR
Oregon returns one of the most veteran lineups in the Pac-12 this coming season, but the early departure of wide receiver Dillon Mitchell for the NFL leaves at least one considerable space to fill. Johnson just might provide the answer.
The Penn State graduate transfer won't be asked to replicate the 75 catches, 10 touchdowns or nearly 1,200 yards for which Mitchell was responsible in 2018. At 6-foot-5, the lengthy Johnson is a much different style of receiver. With 701 yards worth of receptions in 2017, however, he demonstrated his value as a possession target. He'll also be a prominent red-zone target for quarterback Justin Herbert.
Defense: La'Mar Winston, LB
Applying heavy pressure in the backfield is central to Oregon's defense. With Jalen Jelks gone, Winston will have an opportunity to carry that mantle. A rising senior, Winston appeared in 12 games a season ago and racked up 4.5 tackles for a loss. As a presumptive starter, he could be due for a breakout campaign playing in the same unit as Troy Dye and helping alleviate Jordon Scott of blockers.
Offense: Nathan Eldridge, C
Oregon State needs offensive line help in 2019: enter Eldridge. The transfer from Arizona earned second-team All-Pac-12 recognition from the Associated Press in 2017, and honorable mention as voted by the coaches. His experience will be invaluable for an offense that ranked worst in the Pac-12 for sacks allowed a season ago.
Defense: David Morris, S
Injuries sidelined Morris for much of 2018. How he bounces back in 2019 should be vital for an Oregon State defense that needs all hands on deck to improve. Morris emerged as a freshman in 2017, standing out during an otherwise dismal season for the Beavers with 75 tackles and an interception.
Offense: Cameron Scarlett, RB
Despite returning 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, Stanford finished a staggering No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing yardage. Love's on-and-off availability amid an ankle injury prevented Scarlett from ever really taking over as the No. 1 rushing option. As a fifth-year senior in 2019, it should be Scarlett's opportunity to show what he can do.
Scarlett averaged more than four yards per carry each of the last two seasons and scored a total of 16 touchdowns. He's proven to be a dependable goal-line option, but the Cardinal need him to emerge as an every-down back to buoy the offense.
Defense: Thomas Booker, DE
Booker stepped up in the latter half of Stanford's 2018 season. The then-freshman defensive end recorded three of his four tackles for a loss on Oct. 27 or later, against noteworthy opponents Washington State, Washington, and in the Sun Bowl against Pitt.
Booker has the makeup of Stanford's next game-changing pass rusher, in a vein similar to Trent Murphy and Solomon Thomas.
Offense: Jacob Eason, QB
The prodigal son returns — after a redshirt year. The Washington native left Georgia to join Chris Petersen's program a year ago, biding his time behind fourth-year starter Jake Browning. With the redshirt lifted, anticipation for Eason's Washington debut is sky-high. Should the projected NFL draft pick live up to his bill, watch out: The Huskies just might repeat as Pac-12 champions.
Defense: Brandon McKinney, S
Behind the guidance of co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, the Washington secondary was perhaps the best in college football a season ago. Of no surprise, the NFL agreed, and playmakers Taylor Rapp and Myles Bryant left early for the pros. Also gone are graduating seniors Jordan Miller and JoJo McIntosh.
Among those tasked with carrying on the lofty standard is McKinney. The safety made the start in the Rose Bowl Game against Ohio State, setting himself up to take over as one of the unit's leaders in 2019.
Offense: Max Borghi, RB
The importance of the running back in Mike Leach's wide-receiver dependent, high-volume passing offense is often overlooked. However, James Williams was a vital contributor to the Cougars' record-setting 11-win campaign. His production as a ball carrier, receiver and in pass protection rendered him arguably the most important Cougar behind breakout star Gardner Minshew.
While Minshew's departure may be the more high-profile offseason storyline to watch, Borghi taking over for Williams is just as significant. Borghi was a significant contributor a season ago, catching 53 passes (with four touchdowns) and rushing for eight scores. He's not as big as Williams, so if he blocks as effectively will be something to watch. But his ceiling as both a rusher and catcher out of the backfield is high.
Defense: Justus Rogers, LB
Though much of the attention during Washington State's 11-win 2018 was lavished on the offense, the program maintained a high level of excellence on defense under Tracy Claeys. Claeys replaced Alex Grinch, now at Oklahoma after a one-year stint with Ohio State, and the former Minnesota Golden Gophers coach introduced a unique look reliant on shifts and stunts. Veteran linebacker Peyton Pelluer was a standout last year; Rogers is primed to take over his role alongside Jahad Woods and Karson Block.
Offense: Khalil Tate, QB
An entrenched starting quarterback who set records might not fit the typical mold of what one would consider an x-factor player, but Tate's two seasons as Arizona's starter demonstrate why he's the clear wild card to the Wildcats. Arizona ascended into the Top 25 and in contention for the Pac-12 South title during Tate's breathtaking October 2017, but struggled down the stretch after he sustained a nagging injury.
Likewise, after first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone introduced a new offense, Tate's production fell off commensurate with an ankle injury. He missed an Oct. 20 game at UCLA, but came back with two of his best passing performances and helped Arizona get back to bowl contention. With an offseason to recover, and some of last year's hype dissipated, Tate could be a dark-horse Heisman contender. And with a healthy, productive Tate, the Wildcats are dangerous.
Defense: Justin Belknap, DE
Depth on the defensive line has been a recurring issue for Arizona dating back several years. Marcel Yates got creative in 2018, moving 335-pound tackle P.J. Johnson to end — a move that was made necessary when Belknap was lost to injury for the year in Week 3. Arizona needs a healthy Belknap disrupting opposing quarterbacks off the edge effectively to maximize the defense's potential. UA returns capable rushers in P.J. Brown and Tony Fields, as well as standout linebacker Colin Schooler, but a consistent presence on the line is key.
Offense: Frank Darby, WR
The most dangerous wide receiver in the Pac-12 a season ago, N'Keal Harry, is now a New England Patriot. Replacing him isn't a one-man job, but Darby can help shoulder the load. A big-play threat a season ago, Darby averaged better than 20 yards per reception.
He's a speedster with dependable hands who Arizona State's next quarterback will be able to lean on in one-on-one coverage situations.
Defense: Jermayne Lole, DE
A bevy of players graduating off the 2017 starting defense shrouded last season in some uncertainty, but a corps of youngsters rose to the challenge. One of the new faces — Lole — will get to take on a bigger role as a sophomore. If Lole's production jumps in 2019, watch out for the Sun Devils front seven.
Lole made three sacks as a reserve in 2018 and deflected four passes. He's an intimidating combination of size at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds, and speed coming off the line. Although playing a different position at end, his agility and frame are reminiscent of former Sun Devils standout Will Sutton.
Offense: Alex Fontenot, RB
Phillip Lindsay left Colorado one of the most decorated and celebrated Buffaloes ever to suit up. The addition of Virginia Tech grad transfer Travon McMillian — combined with the efforts of dual-threat quarterback Steven Montez and jack-of-all-trades Laviska Shenault — kept Colorado's ground game moving.
Fontenot worked his way into a multifaceted running rotation as a freshman last season. He'll take on a bigger role in 2019. With Montez returning as starting quarterback, and Shenault returning from injury, the talented youngster won't be expected to shoulder an overwhelming responsibility. But with the Buffs returning a strong corps of receivers, he'll have to improve upon his 3.9 yards per carry to keep defenses honest.
Defense: Jalen Sami, DT
Sami goes 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds. That's a lot for opposing offensive lines to try to block, and a seamless replacement in the middle for Javier Edwards.
The Edwards comparison should be one that gives Colorado faithful optimism about the 2019 defense. For any issues Colorado faced a season ago, that presence in the interior keyed a defense that held opponents below four yards per carry. Sami's a similar sized and skilled tackle who should flourish under Mel Tucker's new-look approach.
Offense: Devin Asiasi, TE
Dating back to his days at Oregon, Chip Kelly's proven adept at integrating tight ends into the offense in unique ways. UCLA's primary receiving option in 2018 was tight end Caleb Wilson. While Asiasi will not be expected to match Wilson's lofty production, the Michigan transfer showed off some adept hands late in the season for the Bruins. He caught a touchdown pass in the win over Arizona and snagged six catches all down the stretch of 2018.
Defense: Elijah Gates, CB
UCLA's boasted some of the most impressive secondary talent in the Pac-12 over recent years, and the 2019 unit is no exception. Gates worked his way into the rotation midway through 2018 and shined. If he can build off his debut season play, Gates may be destined to be UCLA's next standout corner. He broke up five passes and snagged an interception, but is capable of more as a sophomore.
Offense: JT Daniels, QB
Daniels became USC's first true freshman starting quarterback since Matt Barkley; and, like Barkley, Daniels' learning curve in Year 1 was steep. The former 5-star prospect arguably faced an even more unenviable situation, quarterbacking a USC team that finished below .500 and out of the postseason. With Graham Harrell coming on as offensive coordinator and introducing a new scheme, there's not even a guarantee Daniels starts in 2019. That alone makes his status a particularly high-stakes wild card.
Defense: Isaac Taylor-Stuart, CB
In a season during which USC struggled to generate takeaways, a healthy Taylor-Stuart in the secondary might have helped. The high 4-star addition last year sustained an ankle injury early on that forced his redshirt for the final two months. He's back in 2019, giving the Trojans a logical replacement to Iman Marshall.
Like Marshall, Taylor-Stuart offers unique size (6-2, 205) at the position without sacrificing playmaking ability.
Offense: Tyler Huntley, QB
The wild card in play with Huntley on the field is quite apparent heading into 2019. When Huntley was behind center and playing at 100 percent last season, the Utah offense looked the best it has since the Urban Meyer era — and produced the stats to back that up. After Huntley suffered a season-ending injury, the Utes' place atop the conference standings were rattled in a loss to Arizona State, with backup Jason Shelley slow to catch up.
Shelley's talented, and he acquitted himself well in late-season wins over Oregon and BYU, but Huntley has quickly developed into the most important Utah quarterback since Brian Johnson. His return, combined with that of running back Zack Moss, just might put Utah in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.
Defense: Manny Bowen, LB
The Utah defense is one of the most veteran and talented in college football, but not without some holes to fill. The loss of linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen left two big voids that transfers will help fill. One is former UCLA 5-star recruit Mique Juarez; the other is Bowen, ready to make his Utes debut after transferring from Penn State.
Bowen was solid for the Nittany Lions in 2017, racking up 51 tackles; 3.5 tackles for a loss; and 1.5 sacks. Matching Hansen's productivity on the outside may be a tall order, but Bowen's presence ensures minimal drop-off (if any).