by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.
Keenan Allen, WR, California – Quarterback play is a big question mark in Berkeley this year. Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard is expected to start under center, but needs to prove he can be the answer for coach Jeff Tedford. If the quarterback play stabilizes, Allen should easily improve upon last year’s numbers. Allen ranked as the 26th player coming out of high school by Athlon Sports and made an immediate impact last season. He caught 46 passes for 490 yards and five scores, while adding 136 yards and a score on the ground. Allen is the half brother of Maynard, so the two should have a pretty good rapport on the field in 2011.
Brian Blechen, LB, Utah – Blechen shined as a true freshman at strong safety last year, collecting 67 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Despite his breakout season, the Utah coaching staff moved him from safety to linebacker, where he will patrol one of the outside spots. Blechen is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-Pac-12 selection and could emerge as the leader for Utah’s defense in 2011.
Michael Clay, LB, Oregon – The Ducks suffered some significant losses in the linebacking corps, with Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger finishing their eligibility last season. Josh Kaddu is the lone returning starter in this group, but Clay collected 42 tackles and recovered a fumble in a reserve role last year. The junior is expected to man the weakside spot in the linebacking corps and could push for the team lead in tackles. Although Oregon has some losses to fill, there is experience and talent ready to play.
Zach Ertz/Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford – With Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen no longer catching passes on The Farm, the Cardinal need new weapons to emerge for quarterback Andrew Luck. Chris Owusu is expected to be Stanford’s No. 1 receiver, but the offense may turn to more tight ends if the wideouts don’t step up. Coby Fleener averaged 15.5 yards per reception last year and is the likely starter at tight end. However, Ertz and Toilolo are expected to also see significant snaps. Ertz caught 16 passes for 190 yards and five touchdowns last year, while Toilolo missed nearly all of 2010 with a knee injury. If the receivers struggle early on, expect to see three tight ends used frequently for Stanford this year.
Cyrus Hobbi/Aundrey Walker, OL, USC – Outside of left tackle Matt Kalil and center Khaled Holmes, USC is largely unsettled up front. Hobbi and Walker were two of the Trojans’ top recruits on the offensive line and have been impressive in fall practice. Although it’s dangerous to rely on true freshmen on the line, Hobbi and Walker have the talent to play right away.
Josh Huff, WR, Oregon –With Jeff Maehl and Drew Davis out of eligibility in Eugene, the Ducks need to find some new playmakers. Lavasier Tuinei is the team’s top returning receiver by catches, posting 36 receptions for 396 yards and two scores last season. Although finding new receivers are a concern, tight end David Paulson should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Huff caught 19 passes for 303 yards and three scores last season and added 214 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The sophomore is a terrific athlete, but still needs to hone his receiver skills. With the top two statistical options from last year departing, look for Huff to become one of the favorite options for quarterback Darron Thomas.
Hau’oli Jamora, DE, Washington – With two starters back and some young players getting valuable experience last season, the Huskies could develop into one of the Pac-12’s top defensive lines. Jamora got stronger as the year went on and finished with 49 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. He closed out the season on a high note, registering one sack and three tackles for a loss against Nebraska. The sophomore will move into a full-time role this year and is expected to improve upon last season’s numbers. Jamora is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection.
Datone Jones, DE, UCLA – Jones was poised for a breakout campaign last year, but suffered a foot injury in fall camp and was lost for the year. The junior should be one of UCLA’s top pass rushers in 2011, after registering four sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in 2009. Assuming he suffers no setbacks in fall camp, Jones should be one of the Pac-12’s top defensive linemen this year.
Harvey Langi, RB, Utah – With the departures of Eddie Wide, Matt Asiata and Sausan Shakerin, the Utes are practically starting over at running back. Junior college transfer John White, Langi and Utah rugby standout Thretton Palamo are in the mix for playing time. Langi ranked as the No. 29 running back in the 2011 recruiting class by Athlon Sports and opened fall practice with a slight lead on White and Palamo. The Utes have a solid offensive line returning, so Langi could push for 1,000 yards if he gets 200-250 carries.
Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State – The Sun Devils showed significant improvement on offense last year and should continue that momentum going into 2011. Marshall shared the workload with Deantre Lewis last year, but led the team with 787 yards and nine scores. Lewis’ status for 2011 is uncertain, as he recovers from a gunshot wound to his leg. If Lewis is sidelined for all of this season, look for Marshall to shoulder most of the workload in the Arizona State backfield, likely approaching 200 carries. After rushing for 787 yards and nine scores last year, the junior should easily surpass those totals in 2011.
Conrad Obi, DT, Colorado – Obi has played in 22 career games, but has made only five tackles. However, the senior is coming off a strong spring and was selected by the Colorado coaching staff as the most improved player. If Obi picks up where he left off in the spring, the Buffaloes should be in good shape up front, especially with three starters returning. Getting consistent pressure from the defensive line is crucial for Colorado, as the secondary could be among the worst in the Pac-12.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State – Osweiler has only two starts under his belt, but big things are expected from him and Arizona State’s offense this season. Osweiler started the season finale against Arizona last year and threw for 267 yards and one score. He also threw for 380 yards and four touchdowns in relief of Steven Threet one week before. Although he checks in at 6-foot-8, Osweiler is athletic and can make plays with his legs outside of the pocket. The offensive line has been a source of concern for years in Tempe, but looks to be one of the best in the conference in 2011. Although Osweiler is light on experience, look for the junior to have a breakout campaign.
Isi Sofele, RB, California – Only once in the last nine years has California failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. With Shane Vereen departing to the NFL, it’s up to Sofele to continue that streak. He rushed for 338 yards last year and caught five passes for 28 yards. Sofele posted 82 yards and a score as a freshman in 2009. The biggest knock on Sofele will be his durability. The junior checks in at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds and has never posted a full season of work in two years in Berkeley. Coach Jeff Tedford expects true freshman Brendan Bigelow to compete for carries, but the job is expected to fall to Sofele.
William Sutton, DT, Arizona State – With Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola departing, the Sun Devils will need to retool the interior of the defensive line. Sutton was expected to contribute last season, but was ruled academically ineligible. As a freshman in 2009, he collected 17 tackles, picked up one sack and forced a fumble. If Sutton is able to solidify the middle, with Junior Onyeali and Jamaar Jarrett coming off the edge, the Sun Devils should have a formidable front four.
Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington – Just like teammate Hau’oli Jamora, Ta’amu got better as the season progressed. Ta’amu posted a dominant effort in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, registering two tackles, a sack and a 14-yard fumble return. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Huskies should possess one of the Pac-12’s top defensive lines in 2011, especially with Ta’amu and Jamora’s continued improvement.
Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State – The Cougars have struggled to produce in the win column over the last three seasons, but that could change in 2011. Tuel threw for 2,780 yards and 18 scores last season, while also adding 199 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He closed out the year with a big performance in the Apple Cup, throwing for 298 yards and three scores in a narrow 35-28 defeat. Washington State should be improved this season, which should allow Tuel to gain more national recognition. The Cougars also have an underrated group of receivers returning, including likely All-Pac-12 selection Marquess Wilson. With Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Oregon’s Darron Thomas, USC’s Matt Barkley and Arizona’s Nick Foles returning, it’s easy to overlook Tuel in the Pac-12 quarterback pecking order. However, the junior should continue to show improvement, while trying to lead the Cougars out of the basement in the Pac-12 North.
Justin Washington, DT, Arizona – The Wildcats ranked as the one of the best defenses in the Pac-10 last season, limiting opponents to 22.7 points per game. The bad news? Only five starters are back and safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer are questionable to play this year, after suffering torn ACLs in spring practice. Washington is expected to be the leader on the defensive front, especially with four key contributors gone from last year. The sophomore needs some help to emerge around him, but Washington should continue to build on a strong freshman campaign and continue to develop as one of the Pac-12’s top linemen.
Robert Woods, WR, USC – Woods is already a household name to many Pac-12 fans. However, the national scene may not be as familiar with Woods, but should be by the end of 2011. The sophomore caught 65 passes for 792 yards and six touchdowns last year. He also averaged 25.6 yards per return and took one for a touchdown. Woods was named the 2010 Pac-10 Offensive Freshman of the Year and earned first-team all-conference honors as a kick returner. With Ronald Johnson out of eligibility in Los Angeles, it’s up to Woods to become the go-to guy for quarterback Matt Barkley. The sophomore is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American as an all-purpose player.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State – With James Rodgers sidelined for much of last season with a knee injury, Wheaton emerged as the No. 1 target for quarterback Ryan Katz. He finished the year with 55 receptions for 675 yards and four scores. One of Wheaton’s best performances of last year came against Oregon, catching 10 balls for 137 yards and a touchdown. Although Rodgers is expected to return, there is no guarantee he will be ready for a full complement of snaps. With quarterback Ryan Katz only getting better, expect Wheaton to build off a solid sophomore campaign in 2011.