The Pac-12 is a league in transition for 2016, as most preseason polls have the conference on the outside of the College Football Playoff picture. While the overall team strength for several of the usual challengers for the league title is unsettled, there’s no shortage of individual talent. The quarterback position is solid with the return of UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk, and two of the nation’s top running backs – Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oregon’s Royce Freeman – reside in the Pac-12. USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson ranks as the top defensive player entering spring practice, but Washington’s Budda Baker isn’t far behind.
As spring practice begins around the Pac-12, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the Pac-12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
Pac-12's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
10 to Watch on Offense: Chad Wheeler, OL, USC; Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon; Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona; Chris Borrayo, OL, California; Jordan Villamin/Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State; Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA; Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona; John Ross, WR/DB, Washington; Davis Webb, QB, Colorado; Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon
10 to Watch on Defense: Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford; Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford; Iman Marshall, DB, USC; Shalom Luani, DB, Washington State; Keishawn Bierria, LB, Washington; Fabian Moreau, DB, UCLA; Randall Goforth, DB, UCLA; Jaleel Wadood, DB, UCLA; Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State; Cameron Smith, LB, USC
25. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Richard was projected by Athlon Sports to have a breakout year in 2015, and the California native certainly delivered. In his first full season as the starter for Arizona State, Richard rushed for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 303 yards and three scores.
24. Charles Nelson, WR/DB/RS, Oregon
Nelson is one of college football’s top all-around threats, as he’s capable of seeing significant snaps on offense, defense and special teams. In 12 appearances on offense last year, Nelson recorded 115 rushing yards and one touchdown and 17 receptions for 270 yards and three scores. Nelson became a key contributor in the secondary over the last half of the season, starting the final six games and finishing 2015 with 47 tackles, two picks and four pass breakups. He also averaged 26.5 yards on kickoff returns and took one for a touchdown against Arizona State.
23. Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah
Fitts should be the next star defensive end in “Sack Lake City”. After sitting out 2014 as a transfer from UCLA, Fitts played in all 13 games for the Utes and recorded seven sacks, 41 tackles (eight for a loss) and four forced fumbles. He also defended 10 passes.
22. Chidobe Awuzie, DB, Colorado
Awuzie is certainly a known commodity to most around the Pac-12, but the California native deserves more attention on the national level. New coordinator Jim Leavitt helped the Buffaloes take a step forward on defense last season, with Awuzie delivering plenty of big plays in the secondary. He recorded 90 tackles (12 for a loss), four sacks, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
21. Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon
New play-caller Matt Lubick inherits a few challenges in his first season, namely finding a replacement for quarterback Vernon Adams and three new starters in the trenches. Crosby is one of the answers for Lubick, as the Nevada native has started 21 games over the last two seasons for the Ducks.
20. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
The Huskies entered 2015 with a revamped linebacking corps, but this unit emerged as a strength behind Victor, Travis Feeney, Keishawn Bierria and Cory Littleton. With Feeney expiring his eligibility, the focus of the unit shifts to Victor, who led the team with 95 tackles (nine for a loss) and recorded 1.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles last year.
19. Ronald Jones, RB, USC
Jones is poised for a breakout season after recording 987 yards and eight scores as a freshman in 2015. Justin Davis will handle a share of the carries, but Jones should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark next fall.
18. J.J. Dielman, OT, Utah
Dielman anchors a standout offensive line for coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utah native has started every game over the last two seasons and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year.
17. Marcus Williams, S, Utah
Utah’s secondary led the Pac-12 in interceptions (22) last year, with Williams one of the top ball-hawks in the conference. The California native ranked second in the Pac-12 with five interceptions and also added 66 tackles and five pass breakups in 13 games.
16. Conor McDermott, OT, UCLA
UCLA’s offensive line will have a couple of new faces stepping into starting roles, but the blindside of quarterback Josh Rosen is protected with McDermott’s return to UCLA. He started 12 games and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
15. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
After throwing for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman last season, the Huskies have high expectations for Browning in 2016. If Browning takes a step forward in his development (as most expect), Washington will challenge for the Pac-12 North title.
14. Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Lotulelei isn’t going to make a huge contribution to the stat sheet in some games, but his impact goes beyond the box score. The 6-foot-2, 302-pound tackle plugs the interior of the line for coach Kyle Whittingham and helped the Utes lead the Pac-12 in run defense last season.
13. Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State
Todd Graham isn’t afraid to be aggressive on defense, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have players like Fiso capable of getting to the quarterback and creating havoc on a regular basis. In 13 games last year, Fiso ranked second on the team with 20 tackles for a loss, generated 4.5 sacks and recorded 99 tackles.
12. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Gaskin emerged as Washington’s go-to back in early October and finished the season on a tear by recording 181 yards on 26 attempts against Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Gaskin finished his true freshman campaign with 1,302 rushing yards and 14 scores. Even bigger things are expected from Gaskin in 2016.
11. Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
Marks took a redshirt year in 2014 and displayed no rust in his return to the high-powered Washington State offense. The California native paced the Cougar receiving corps with 104 catches for 1,192 yards and 15 scores.
10. Zach Banner, OT, USC
Banner is regarded as one of the top offensive line prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, and the Washington native anchors a USC group that should be one of – if not the best – line in the Pac-12 next season. Banner has 26 career starts for the Trojans.
9. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
Budda Baker is the headliner in Washington’s secondary, but Jones is quietly one of the nation’s top cover corners. Jones recorded 45 stops, four interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season and was a big reason why the Huskies limited opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks to just nine touchdown passes in league games.
8. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Losing Vanderdoes to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the year was a huge setback for UCLA’s defensive front. The Bruins finished eighth in the Pac-12 against the run and only generated 28 sacks. All signs point to a return to full strength by Vanderdoes for the 2016 opener, and the California native should make an instant impact in the trenches. He recorded 50 tackles and started 12 games with the Bruins in 2014.
7. Budda Baker, S, Washington
With eight starters returning in 2016, Washington’s defense should be the best in the Pac-12. Baker is one of the stars for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and is among the top safeties in college football. The Washington native was limited early in the season with an ankle injury but still recorded 49 tackles (1.5 for a loss), two interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2015.
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
It’s a close call between Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk for the top spot among quarterbacks on this list. Rosen has the edge in overall talent, but the Bruins open spring practice with a few holes to fill at receiver and on the offensive line. Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall.
5. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
As mentioned above, it’s a coin flip between Rosen and Falk for the top quarterback spot among Pac-12 signal-callers. The edge for now goes to Falk after throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 scores in his first full year as the starter.
4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Smith-Schuster has a strong claim as the nation’s top returning receiver in 2016. As a sophomore last year, Smith-Schuster grabbed 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. Adapting to a new quarterback – likely Max Browne – is the top offseason priority for Smith-Schuster.
3. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is spending time this spring honing his track and field skills to pursue a spot in the 2016 Olympics. However, Jackson is slated to return to Los Angeles in time for next season’s opener and should resume his role as a three-way threat for coach Clay Helton. Jackson is a lockdown corner on defense (35 tackles, 8 PBU), a big-play option at receiver (15.3 yards per catch in 2015) and a threat to score on returns (two punt returns last year).
2. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Christian McCaffrey garnered most of the attention (and rightfully so) at running back among Pac-12 performers, but Freeman wasn’t far behind on the stat sheet. In 13 games, Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 scores. Additionally, his 6.5 yards per carry average was the highest by a Pac-12 starting running back and eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 contests.
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey enjoyed a breakout campaign last year, and there’s even more pressure on the Colorado native with a new quarterback taking over and just two returning starters on the offensive line. McCaffrey played in all 14 games for the Cardinal in 2015 and set a new FBS record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) in a season. He also finished second to Alabama running back Derrick Henry in Heisman Trophy voting.