Way-too-early power ranking of the 10 best returning players across the Pac-12
Well, this surely won’t ruffle any feathers. But it’s the offseason so let’s get controversial.
The Pac-12 has talent, and quite a good deal of it. So let’s rank that talent, with an attempt to be equitable across the league and not just focus in on the high-profile quarterbacks or gaudiest stat lines.
We’ll start with…
- Utah RB Tavion Thomas: Thomas had 21 rushing scores in 2021, tying Myles Gaskin and Tyler Gaffney for the most by a Pac-12 runner in a season since Ka’Deem Carey had 23 in 2012. With 14 of those 21 scores coming from within 10 yards of the end zone, can that kind of season be replicable? He’s still the leading rusher from the best team in the conference, and if he does more of the same in 2022 then he will have deserved to be higher.
- Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward: The former FCS quarterback was No. 1 in my transfer portal rankings. He threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns this past fall, helping Incarnate Word to the second round of the FCS playoffs. The discrepancy between the two sets of rankings has more to do with the situation than talent. Washington State very much needed a quarterback and was able to secure one of the best available. Will he be one of the best players in the conference right away? Maybe. We’ll see. But the guys above him on this list have proven it at the FBS level already, and that’s pretty much what it comes down to.
- USC DL Tuli Tuipulotu: The First Team All-Pac-12 selection had 5.5 sacks in 2021. USC needs even more from the youngster, and he feels capable of providing it.
- Washington State EDGE Ron Stone Jr.: The Pac-12’s leading returning tackler for loss, Stone had 11.5 last season after totaling only five in his previous two years. He was the most disruptive force on a surprise Cougar defensive front. Good player.
Imagine leaving Thomas in the “Honorable Mention” category. Right? The tailback had a conference-leading 21 rushing scores last season, which were also the most among any Power Five running back. And he’s below two Pac-12 runners on a “best returning” list. That one was agonizing, selecting between the league’s top three returning rushers for two spots.
But there were a handful of other players who just missed the cut as well. The “Honorable Mention” section could have legitimately gone 10 or 15-deep. This whole piece could have easily gone 20-deep for “best returning” and still included another five or so honorable-mention candidates. There’s good talent in the league heading into 2022. There’s exciting, young talent heading into the league in 2022.
Here’s the top 10.
No. 10: USC RB Travis Dye
In terms of workload, I wonder what will be available to Travis Dye at USC relative to what was available to him at Oregon. For the Ducks last season, Dye had 257 offensive touches. No running back hit 200 rushing attempts in a season for Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and only one averaged multiple receptions a game over the course of a full year. With Austin Jones and Raleek Brown also joining the fold, the USC offense can be multi-faceted, which could work to deflate some of Dye’s production. Still, he has been one of the most productive players in the conference over his career and the prospect of him working in a Lincoln Riley offense is an exciting one. He should do well.
No. 9: Utah TE Brant Kuithe
Either Utah tight end could be on this list as both Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid are the top two returners in the league after the departure of UCLA’s Greg Dulcich. Rarely used as a blocker, Kuithe was flexed all over the formation as a pass-catcher last season. Per PFF’s tracking data, he spent nearly 70% of his snaps either out wide or in the slot. He finished the season 14th nationally in receiving yards by a tight end and was the second-most targeted player in the Utah offense. Britain Covey, the most-targeted player, has used up his last bit of eligibility, so Kuithe and Kincaid should get even more work in 2022.
No. 8: Arizona WR Jacob Cowing
The 5-foot-11 wideout comes to Arizona from UTEP after leading the Miners in receiving yards in 2021. On only 19 more receptions than UTEP’s No. 2 wideout, Cowing had more than twice as many yards (1,367). Cowing ranked ninth nationally in receiving yards and 11th nationally in yards per catch, he produced 2,608 yards over three seasons with the UTEP program, and his 3.8 yards gained per route run was the second-best mark among qualified receivers, behind only Smith-Njigba at Ohio State. Overall, he earned a 90.3 grade for the season from PFF, the fourth-best by a qualified receiver from the C-USA in the last six years. With Arizona looking to overhaul one of the Pac-12’s most lethargic offenses and a quality quarterback coming over in Jayden de Laura, Cowing has a chance to see an 80-reception kind of workload right away. The more I dig into Cowing’s game, the more interested I get in his potential. The seats on the bandwagon are going to fill up quickly. Grab a spot.
No. 7: Utah CB Clark Phillips III
He’s the best returning cornerback in the conference and with continued improvement could become one of the clear-cut best corners in football in 2022. Over his final six games of the 2021 season, Phillips was the highest-graded outside corner in the country per PFF, allowing 0.3 yards per coverage snap over that stretch. He finished his second year in Salt Lake City with 13 pass breakups (most in the league), two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. A quick corner who thinks and sees the game at a really high level. I’m still thinking about his chase-down, punch-out on Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the Rose Bowl.
No. 6: UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet
The former Michigan man was one of only nine running backs in all of college football last season with at least 200 rushing attempts and zero fumbles. Charbonnet forced 69 missed tackles—and did so at a per-carry rate that was among the best in the country—and posted an explosive run rate of over 15%. That was in Year 1 of Chip Kelly’s system. Another full offseason of work with Kelly and another season sharing the backfield with Dorian Thompson-Robinson could see Charbonnet turn in one of the Pac-12’s better rushing seasons.
No. 5: Oregon DL Brandon Dorlus
A first-team all-conference selection along the defensive line, Dorlus finished the season with 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two pass breakups. He was one of just eight Oregon defenders to play in all 14 games, providing some much-needed consistency during a season wrought with injuries. Expected to be one of the more improved defenders on the Ducks heading into last season, Dorlus blew past expectations and turned in a legitimately great third year. He had the second-best defensive grade among qualified interior Pac-12 defenders and led that same group of players by a wide margin with 42 total pressures (fourth-most among all Pac-12 defensive linemen). Anticipating Dorlus in a Dan Lanning defense is a bit like anticipating Travis Dye in a Lincoln Riley offense; can’t wait to see what the coach can do with the player.
No. 4: USC OL Andrew Vorhees
If you are immersed in Sooner Twitter, you’ve been told USC has the worst offensive line in football and no quarterback should ever look to play behind it. If you look at reality, USC’s offensive line posted the ninth-lowest sack rate in college football last season (3.7%) and the seventh-best overall pass-blocking grade from PFF. (Hey, one spot ahead of Oklahoma. Funny.) Vorhees is one of the most intriguing potential anchors on that line going forward when you talk about pass protection. He played both guard and tackle in 2021, the latter being his first experience at the position. Per PFF, the 6-foot-6 veteran earned a 92.4 overall grade at tackle. He was also the only qualified lineman in the country to earn a 90-plus grade as both a run-blocker and a pass-blocker. As Lincoln Riley remakes the USC offense, there’s some question as to whether Vorhees will play inside or out, but he should be a player whose talent Riley and his offense can maximize.
No. 3: Oregon ILB Noah Sewell
Here’s the list of defenders in 2021 who had at least 100 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and five pass breakups: Oklahoma State’s Malcolm Rodriguez, Appalachian State’s D’Marco Jackson, Middle Tennessee State’s Reed Blankenship, Utah’s Devin Lloyd, and Noah Sewell. That’s it. Five guys did it. A little esoteric? Sure, but it’s also illustrative of a unique talent. Sewell lives up to the last name. And he’ll be the best linebacker in the conference.
No. 2: UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson
Thompson-Robinson finished the 2021 season 13th nationally in total QBR. In UCLA’s last three when the offense exploded and the Bruins ripped off three straight wins, DTR posted QBRs of 82.6, 95.4, and 86.4. In those games, the line was strong: 1,016 total yards, 10 total touchdowns, three interceptions, only two sacks, a 69.7% completion rate, and per-play average of 9.3 yards. As we project out UCLA for the 2022 season, there’s a ton of emphasis being placed on those final three games of the year. Thompson-Robinson turned the image of his career around fully last season, particularly with his six-touchdown performance in the Bruins’ historic rout of USC. If that’s the offense that’ll be displayed in 2022, the one from the Bruins’ final three, Thompson-Robinson could be in for a great final year in Westwood. And there’s reason to believe it’s possible given his and Zach Charbonnet’s return.
No. 1: Utah QB Cameron Rising
Again using QBR, Cameron Rising was the sixth-most efficient quarterback in college football last season. His season-long 84.2 rating was the 12th-best by a Pac-12 quarterback in a season in ESPN’s database (going back to 2004). Rising threw for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns, tossed only five interceptions while completing 64% of his pass attempts, and led one of football’s most efficient offenses (11th in EPA/play, 17th in success rate). He’s a dual-threat quarterback with a good arm and strong decision-making. He’s the most influential figure in the 2022 Pac-12 title race.