Gold: Revisiting the Pac-12's top transfers in 2023
Back in mid-August, with the Pac-12 title game just a glint in his eyes, my esteemed Saturday Out West colleague Derek Peterson previewed the top transfers in the conference. As expected, some panned out, and some certainly didn’t.
What happened to the Arizona Dorian Singer? After lighting up the Pac-12 in 2022, he’s been but a ghost for the USC Trojans in 2023.
And how about Tez Johnson? He’s gone from a good receiver for the other Trojans — at Troy — to one of Bo Nix’s favorite targets up in Oregon.
You never really know how a player is going to take to a new town.
Here’s a look at our preseason ranking of the top 12 transfers in the Pac-12 for the 2023 season, and how they’ve fared …
12. WR Tez Johnson, Oregon
“Johnson was the highest-graded qualified wideout in college football last year, earning a 90.5 receiving grade from PFF. He was fourth among qualified receivers in yards per route run. I think Johnson can be this year’s Jacob Cowing.”
In hindsight: The next Jacob Cowing? Not bad, DP. Johnson has been a phenomenal complement to Troy Franklin, as the duo has nearly kept pace with Washington’s dynamic duo of Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk and far outpaced Arizona’s Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan. Johnson has totaled 8 touchdowns — as many as he had the last 2 years at Troy combined — which puts him in a tie for 4th in the league. And that’s with Franklin leading the conference with 11 scores. Johnson also has 725 yards, which is on pace to set a new career high.
11. QB DJ Uiagalelei, Oregon State
“Uiagalelei made 28 starts for the Tigers and threw for 5,681 yards and 36 touchdowns. He went 22-6 as a starter, but tossed 17 interceptions and completed 59.8% of his throws. Clemson was ready to move on to Cade Klubnik. Uiagalelei was ready for a fresh start. This could truly be a “best for both parties” kind of transfer.”
In hindsight: Speaking of parties, Oregon State can really celebrate the next 2 weeks if the Beavers pull off the improbable and take down Washington and Oregon en route to a Pac-12 title game appearance. That will take DJU taking his game to another level, though. Uiagalelei has been very good this year and even great at times, but he’s yet to break the 300-yard mark, and he’s averaging just 2 touchdown passes per game, though he’s only thrown 4 picks and none the past 5 weeks. It’s fair to say OSU fans may have expected more from the former 5-star QB, but Jonathan Smith’s run-heavy offense puts a governor in Uiagalelei’s usage.
10. RB Cameron Skattebo, Arizona State
“Consider me a big, big Cameron Skattebo guy. The former Sacramento State back and 2022 FCS All-American enters a tremendous situation at Arizona State. The Sun Devils have been regularly churning out elite tailbacks, and Kenny Dillingham’s last offense featured two runners that cleared 750 rushing yards.”
In hindsight: At this point, who among us is not a big, big Skattebo guy? The dude is just lovable, whether it’s watching him play running back or receiver or quarterback or mowing the lawn. Facing one of the league’s top defenses last week at UCLA, Skattebo threw for a touchdown and rushed for a touchdown, accounting for both scores in a 17-7 big-time upset. He combined for 192 rushing yards and 2 scores in ASU’s other 2 wins, and he has more than 700 rushing yards on the year. If the Sun Devils take some strides up front next year, he’s going to be really dangerous.
9. DB Evan Williams, Oregon
“His return helped key a 9-game winning streak to secure a Mountain West Championship. Despite the missed time, Williams had 66 tackles (3rd on Fresno State), 4 pass breakups and a sack. He had 90 tackles the year prior. Both years ended with Williams being selected as an All-Mountain West pick. Williams causes havoc, plays the run well, and should raise the floor in the Oregon secondary.”
In hindsight: Another great call by Derek. Williams has been terrific for the Ducks, leading the team in tackles (62) and fumble recoveries (2) and ranking 2nd in sacks (4.5) and 3rd in TFL (5.0). He came in and set the standard early for an Oregon defense that had looked great at times last year. He has helped fill the shoes of his older brother, Bennett, a star strong safety for the Ducks.
8. QB Shedeur Sanders, Colorado
“Sanders holds a career 68% completion rate and a strong 1.6% interception rate. He can make things happen with his legs when necessary, too. How does that translate to Power 5 football? If Colorado finds itself in a ton of shootouts (possible), how does Sanders handle things? Huge ceiling, but tons of variability here.”
In hindsight: Maybe Derek’s first whiff so far, as Sanders has been a standout for the Buffaloes — when he’s still standing. In all fairness, many expected the learning curve to be steeper for Deion’s son, but he’s defied all expectations this year. Except for his famous family’s. Sanders has an otherworldly 26 touchdowns and 3 interceptions — sorry, no one could’ve seen that coming — and he’s already topped 3,000 yards. He’s on the verge of breaking Colorado’s single-season records in both categories. (Sefo Liufau holds each with 3,200 passing yards and 28 TDs.) Sanders he been sacked almost 50 times? Sure. But he’s pretty darn good upright.
7. OL Emmanuel Pregnon, USC
“Pencil Pregnon in as a starter on the remade USC offensive line, a group that needs to protect the best quarterback in the country. Plenty of pressure, but Pregnon was viewed as one of the top offensive linemen to enter the transfer portal this cycle and, so far, has looked the part in preseason workouts for the Trojans.”
In hindsight: Pregnon, who arrived from Wyoming, has gotten plenty of action for the Trojans this year on both sides of the line, but he hasn’t made quite the impact USC expected — or needed. The Trojans haven’t been bad up front, but they haven’t been especially good, with Caleb Williams often running for his life.
6. OL Ajani Cornelius, Oregon
“Four of the Ducks’ top 5 linemen from that group are gone. Cornelius and Co. have big shoes to fill, but the 6-5 tackle is more than capable of holding up his end of the bargain.”
In hindsight: Aside from some penalty issues, the Rhode Island transfer has done a fine job on Oregon’s rebuilt offensive line. When you lose the kind of talent the Ducks did up front this year, you always wonder how a team will progress, but the Ducks have been airtight up front. For the first half of the year, Cornelius rated as one of the top-graded linemen in the conference.
5. WR J. Michael Sturdivant, UCLA
“Sturdivant seems likely to start at the X spot for UCLA and word out of Westwood is that he’s been one of the best players on the field in offseason training. His ceiling is a little unclear given the uncertainty at the quarterback spot, but make no mistake, the 6-3 Texas native is an elite receiver.”
In hindsight: With UCLA’s myriad quarterback issues, Sturdivant hasn’t put up the numbers many projected when he transferred after 1 terrific season at Cal. He started off hot as the sun, catching 5 passes for 136 yards and a score in Week 1, but he’s been cold as ice lately with just 21 yards on 5 catches in his last 3 games.
4. DL Bear Alexander, USC
“The decision to enter the transfer portal was surprising, but the move to USC made a ton of sense for Alexander. He wanted an opportunity to play, and USC should force-feed him as many snaps as he can handle. The Trojans needed to bulk up their defensive front this offseason, and Alexander certainly helps to accomplish that goal.”
In hindsight: The Georgia transfer has been as advertised for a defense that has, unfortunately, been as advertised as well. It’s hard to blame the former Bulldog for his entire unit’s struggles, especially as Alexander has maybe been USC’s best defensive player. But that’s like celebrating the world’s healthiest chili cheeseburger. He needed to hit another gear for the Trojans to take a step.
3. WR Dorian Singer, USC
“Singer stands 6-foot but plays bigger. The catch radius is insane. Caleb Williams simply has to get it near Singer to give him a chance. His highlight tape from last season was filled with some of the best catches made by anyone all year — including one made right in front of Williams. USC has no shortage of options at wideout once again this fall, but Singer might be the most explosive.”
In hindsight: The Arizona transfer has been quite silent this year, almost shockingly so. Was he Jordan Addison, the Trojans’ big wide receiver pickup in 2022? No, never. But this? Just 276 yards? Three scores? One catch in 3 different games, including the past 2? He has seemingly fallen out of favor in the last month, but he never really seemed to be in favor with Caleb Williams all that much. What a strange turn.
2. DL Jordan Burch, Oregon
“He finished last season with 56 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 3 pass breakups. He also led the South Carolina defense with 40 quarterback pressures, which were the 6th-most among SEC defenders. And that’s where Burch makes perfect sense for the Ducks. Oregon needed to improve its pass-rush this offseason. Burch has length, power, and quickness. He has a chance to be an absolute force under coach Dan Lanning.”
In hindsight: Like Williams, Burch has made an immediate impact with the Ducks. He has 27 tackles, including 3 sacks and 7.5 TFL, best on the team. But it’s what he hasn’t done that has been more impressive. On an Oregon defensive line that has come along splendidly this year, Burch has been sound and disciplined. You can’t ask for more.
1. DB/WR Travis Hunter, Colorado
“CU expects Hunter to play both ways once again this fall, and the Buffs think Hunter can be one of the best players in college football. I’m curious how he holds up as a corner and receiver at the Power 5 level, especially in a conference where he’ll be tested by opposing quarterbacks every week. If he can play both sides of the ball at a strong level, Hunter has game-breaking ability.”
In hindsight: It was easy then, it was easy now. What can you say about Hunter that hasn’t already been said? Although he’s been banged up, and even amidst Colorado’s drastic regression, Hunter has been spectacular. His season-opening performance against TCU will go down as one of the best single games this season. Maybe ever.