Breakout players and the emergence of new faces are one of college football’s annual traditions. Players can go from a backup position into a starting role to earn all-conference honors or produce a big season. Incoming or redshirt freshmen can also make an impact in their first season on campus. Regardless of how players arrive on campus, it’s no secret a new wave of standouts will emerge next season.
With spring practice underway across the nation, this is the first opportunity for coaching staffs to get a look at how their team stacks up for 2016. Additionally, this is also the first chance for players to step up into the spotlight and emerge as a breakout candidate.
Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the Pac-12? Here are 15 names to watch this spring:
Pac-12's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016
Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
The offense is once again the clear strength for coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats must replace receiver Cayleb Jones, but quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are back to anchor the offense. Rodriguez must replace two starters up front, but Alsadek’s return is a bright spot for this group. After starting 11 games in 2014, Alsadek started 12 games at right guard last year. He should be the anchor for Arizona’s line in 2016.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Washington returns 17 starters from last year’s team and should be in the mix to win the Pac-12 title in 2016. Browning’s development is another reason to believe the Huskies are poised for a big step forward after finishing 7-6 in a rebuilding year. Browning started 12 games as a true freshman in 2015 and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns on 233 completions. He will be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks this fall.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
Paul Perkins jumped to the NFL after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the Bruins are still in great shape at running back. Jamabo was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on just 66 attempts. He should push for 1,000 yards this fall as UCLA’s go-to back.
Ronald Jones, RB, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack in 2016, and the Trojans should have one of the Pac-12’s top one-two punches in the backfield. Justin Davis returns after rushing for 902 yards last year and will be joined by a rising star in Ronald Jones. As a true freshman last season, Jones led USC with 987 yards and eight scores. The sophomore is one of the Pac-12’s most-talented runners and will take a big step forward in 2016.
Canton Kaumatule, DL, Oregon
New coordinator Brady Hoke plans on switching Oregon’s defense from a 3-4 look to a 4-3 approach. However, the Ducks need new standouts to emerge with the departure of six starters in the front seven. Kaumatule was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and played sparingly in eight games. The Hawaii native recorded only two tackles last year, but he’s expected to take on a bigger role up front in 2016.
Derek McCartney, DL/LB, Colorado
Colorado’s defense quietly showed marked improvement last season. The Buffaloes limited opponents to 5.7 yards per play in 2015, which marked a healthy decrease from the 6.55 total from 2014. McCartney has been a key cog in the front seven over the last two seasons and should push for All-Pac-12 honors in 2016. McCartney ranked second on the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks last year.
Darrien Molton, CB, Washington State
It’s not easy playing cornerback as a true freshman in any FBS league. However, the task is even tougher in the Pac-12 with the amount of high-powered offenses in the conference. Molton certainly wasn’t fazed by anything as a true freshman, as the California native started 11 games and recorded 44 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups.
Ryan Nall, RB, Oregon State
The Beavers ranked ninth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) in rushing offense last season. But there’s reason for optimism in 2016 after Nall’s late-season emergence. After recording only 19 carries through the first six games, Nall rushed for 122 yards on 20 carries against Colorado and finished the year by gashing Oregon for 174 yards on 19 attempts. The sophomore will be a bigger part of Oregon State’s ground game in 2016.
Kareem Orr, DB, Arizona State
Arizona State’s pass defense had its share of ups and downs last year. The Sun Devils surrendered 35 passing touchdowns in 2015 and must replace three full-time starters. But Orr’s return provides a solid foundation for coach Todd Graham to start the rebuilding process. As a true freshman last fall, Orr recorded 38 tackles, two pass breakups and six interceptions. Orr’s six interceptions were the most by any Pac-12 player in 2015.
Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon
For the second year in a row, the Ducks are tapping into the FCS graduate transfer ranks for an answer at quarterback. Vernon Adams was a huge addition for Oregon’s offense last season, and Prukop could have a similar impact. The Texas native earned first-team FCS All-America honors at Montana State in 2015 after throwing for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 797 yards and 11 scores. Prukop now inherits the controls of Oregon’s high-powered offense.
Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford
Stanford has developed its share of standouts at tight end in recent years, and all signs point to Schultz as the next star. After a redshirt season in 2014, Schultz backed up Austin Hooper in 2015 and caught 10 passes for 121 yards and one score. Hooper left early for the NFL, which leaves Schultz as the clear starter at tight end this fall.
Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith was an impact freshman for the Trojans last season but an ACL tear ended his year prematurely. In 10 games, Smith recorded 78 tackles (one for a loss), one sack, three pass breakups and three interceptions. All three of Smith’s interceptions came in a standout performance against Utah, and the California native was a first-team selection to Athlon Sports’ 2015 postseason all-freshman team. All signs point to Smith returning to full strength and performing at a high level in 2016.
Carlos Strickland/Melquise Stovall, WR, California
California’s receiving corps is facing a massive overhaul in 2016. The Golden Bears lose their top six statistical options from last season, with Chad Hansen (19 catches) the top returning receiver. While the receiving corps will be inexperienced for coach Sonny Dykes, there’s promising talent on the way. Strickland was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and used a redshirt year last fall. Stovall was an early enrollee and has already earned a starting spot on the team’s spring depth chart.
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
The line is arguably the biggest concern on defense for coach David Shaw. However, the question marks about this unit could be alleviated if Harrison Phillips returns at full strength from a knee injury, and Thomas emerges as an All-Pac-12 player. In his first year of snaps with the Cardinal, Thomas played in all 14 games and recorded 39 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks.
Joe Williams, RB, Utah
A strong offensive line and ground attack is critical for coach Kyle Whittingham with uncertainty at quarterback and receiver. Devontae Booker will be missed at running back, but Williams showed he was capable of handling 25-30 carries a game late last year. Williams rushed for 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games of 2015 and is slated to headline the Utes’ rushing attack next fall.