The Pac-12 is known for its high-scoring offenses and dynamic skill players, and with the likes of Oregon running back Royce Freeman, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster returning, this league is going to have its share of fireworks on offense once again. However, the Pac-12 has a solid group of playmakers returning on defense, including Washington defensive backs Budda Baker (safety) and Sidney Jones (cornerback).
With the season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the best players in the nation within each conference. Here’s a look at the top 35 players in the Pac-12 for 2016:
Ranking the Pac-12's Top 35 Players for 2016
35. Hercules Mata’afa, DL, Washington State
Mata'afa is a rising star and is slated to anchor the Washington State defensive front after recording seven sacks as a freshman in 2015.
34. Johnny Caspers, OL, Stanford
Stanford’s offensive line must replace three starters, but there’s a solid foundation in place with Caspers and Casey Tucker returning. Caspers has played in 41 games and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year.
33. Randall Goforth, S, UCLA
UCLA’s secondary returns three starters and regains cornerback Fabian Moreau from injury, making this unit one of the stingiest in the Pac-12. Goforth recorded 70 tackles, broke up six passes and intercepted two last year.
32. Chris Borrayo, OL, California
California’s offensive line is quietly one of the best in the Pac-12. Borrayo is the headliner for coach Sonny Dykes and enters 2016 with 29 career starts under his belt.
31. Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
If Wilson returns to full strength after missing a chunk of time due to injuries last year, he should easily exceed this ranking in December. After rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 scores in 2014, Wilson was limited to 725 yards and eight touchdowns last fall.
30. Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah
The Utes boast one of the nation’s best defensive end tandems with the return of Dimick and Kylie Fitts. Dimick missed six games due to injury last year but ranked second on the team with 10 sacks in 2014.
29. Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon
The Ducks are loaded with talent and potential gamebreakers in the receiving corps. Carrington leads the way in this unit for coach Mark Helfrich after averaging 19.03 yards per reception in seven games last year.
28. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Richard had an impressive debut in his first year as the go-to back for Arizona State. He led the team with 1,104 yards and seven scores and was a major factor in the passing attack with 31 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
27. Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith is recovering from a season-ending knee injury but is on track to return to full strength for the opener against Alabama. In 10 games last year, Smith recorded 78 stops, three interceptions and three pass breakups.
26. Davis Webb, QB, California
Jared Goff leaves big shoes to fill, but coach Sonny Dykes landed an impact replacement with the addition of Webb as a graduate transfer from Texas Tech. Webb threw for 5,557 yards and 46 touchdowns in three years with the Red Raiders.
25. Ronald Jones, RB, USC
Justin Davis is going to see his share of carries for this offense, but Jones is poised for a breakout campaign in 2016. He led the team as a true freshman with 987 yards and eight touchdowns last season, averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per rush.
Related: USC Football 2016 Schedule Analysis
24. Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon
Crosby will be counted upon to clear the way for running back Royce Freeman early and often in 2016. The athletic junior has started 21 games over the last two years.
23. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
Victor paced the standout Washington defense with 95 stops last year, while also accumulating two forced fumbles and nine tackles for a loss.
22. Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
Awuzie might be the Pac-12’s most underrated player. The San Jose native anchored a much-improved Colorado defense in 2015, racking up 84 stops (12 for a loss), seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
21. Charles Nelson, All-Purpose, Oregon
Put Nelson on offense, defense or special teams and one thing is certain: He’s going to make plays. Nelson is one of the nation’s top all-purpose players and is slated to move to a full-time role on offense after splitting time on both sides of the ball in 2015.
20. Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State
Fiso lived around the line of scrimmage last year, finishing second among Pac-12 defenders with 20 tackles for a loss. He also generated 4.5 sacks and led the Sun Devils with 99 stops.
19. Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
Stanford’s defense is counting on a big season from Thomas to anchor a revamped defensive line. The sophomore should be up to the task, as he recorded 10.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 14 games last year. It’s a bit of a projection to rank Thomas here, but we think he’s due for a big season.
18. Marcus Williams, S, Utah
This 6-foot-1 safety covers a lot of ground on the back end of the Utes’ defense and was a big reason why Utah limited conference foes to just 13 passing scores in 2015. Williams started all 13 games last fall, recording 66 tackles, defended 10 passes and led the team with five interceptions.
17. Kylie Fitts, DL, Utah
“Sack Lake City” is in good hands with Fitts and Hunter Dimick anchoring the edges in 2016. Fitts wreaked havoc around the line of scrimmage last season, leading the Utes with seven sacks and recording eight tackles for a loss. He also forced four fumbles and broke up 10 passes.
16. J.J. Dielman, OL, Utah
Dielman has started 26 consecutive games for the Utah offensive line and should push for first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016. Dielman has spent his career at tackle, but he’s slated to move to center this fall.
15. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Not only was Gaskin one of the nation’s top freshmen performers on offense last year, he also emerged as one of the Pac-12’s best running backs. On 227 carries, Gaskin recorded 1,302 yards and added 14 rushing scores. He finished the year by reaching 100 rushing yards in seven out of Washington’s last nine games.
14. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning showed glimpses of his ability as a true freshman last fall and is due for a breakout year in 2016. Browning started 12 games for the Huskies in 2015 and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 scores. With a full offseason to work as the starter, combined with the return of playmaker John Ross from injury at receiver, Browning should take a significant step forward in his development.
13. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Vanderdoes suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener. His presence was clearly missed by UCLA’s defensive front, as the Bruins surrendered 198.5 yards per game on the ground. Vanderdoes is back at full strength and poised to build off his promising 2014 campaign (5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks).
12. Conor McDermott, OL, UCLA
Keeping quarterback Josh Rosen healthy and upright in the pocket is priority No. 1 for UCLA’s offensive line. McDermott is the anchor for this unit and one of the nation’s top linemen. The Tennessee native has started 19 games at left tackle and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2015.
11. Gabe Marks, Washington State
After taking a redshirt year in 2014, Marks announced his return to the field in a big way last season. Marks led all Pac-12 receivers with 104 receptions and tacked on 1,192 receiving yards and 15 scores. He’s the go-to target for quarterback Luke Falk and one of the nation’s best overall receivers.
10. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is not only one of the Pac-12’s best all-around athletes, but he’s also one of the league’s top playmakers. Jackson scored twice on punt returns and ranked second on the team with 414 receiving yards last season. The scary thought for Pac-12 coaches? That’s not Jackson’s primary role. He’s an emerging star at cornerback, recording eight pass breakups and one interception in 14 games last year.
9. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
Budda Baker is the headliner for Washington’s secondary, but Jones is also among the nation’s best at his position. The California native has played in 26 games since stepping onto campus and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after a standout 2015 season. Jones defended 14 passes and intercepted four throws last year.
8. Budda Baker, S, Washington
Baker battled an ankle injury early in the 2015 season but still finished the year with first-team All-Pac-12 honors. In 12 appearances last season, Baker recorded 49 stops, nine passes defended and two interceptions. The junior’s coverage skills are a big reason why Washington allowed only 11 passing scores in 2015. Look for Baker’s junior season to be the best of his career in Seattle.
7. Zach Banner, OL, USC
All of the pieces are in place for USC’s offensive line to rank among the nation’s best in 2016. Banner is the anchor for the Trojans’ front five, as the Washington native enters this fall with 27 overall starts. He’s a candidate for first-team All-America honors.
6. Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah
At 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds, Lotulelei is the perfect option to anchor the interior of Utah’s defensive line. The Utah native isn’t going to post huge stats (five tackles for a loss in 2015) but his ability to hold the point of attack and wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage is a big reason why Utah’s line is the best in the Pac-12.
5. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk is the catalyst for Washington State’s high-powered offense. In his first full year under center, Falk passed for 4,561 yards and 38 scores and guided the Cougars’ attack to an average of 389.2 passing yards per game (ranked No. 1 nationally).
4. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen delivered a standout freshman campaign in 2015 and is just scratching the surface of his potential at UCLA. Rosen started all 13 games and threw for 3,669 yards and 23 scores last fall and is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in 2016.
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Smith-Schuster is the nation’s top returning receiver for 2016 and should help to ease the transition of new quarterback Max Browne into the starting lineup. Smith-Schuster dominated opposing defensive backs last year, grabbing 89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 scores. He also tied for third nationally with six receptions of 50 yards or more.
2. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Despite rushing for 1,836 yards and 17 scores last year, Freeman flew largely under the national radar. The junior should get his credit nationally in 2016, as Freeman is one of the nation’s best running backs and an Athlon Sports second-team All-American. Freeman’s 6.49 yards per-carry average was the highest mark of any Pac-12 starting running back last fall, while his nine runs of 30 yards or more ranked first in the conference.
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
After setting the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) and a new school mark for rushing yards (2,019) last year, the bar is set high for McCaffrey in 2016. High expectations won’t be a problem for McCaffrey, as the junior is a big reason why Stanford will remain in the mix for the Pac-12 title despite key personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. McCaffrey is college football’s best all-around player for 2016.