Three of the four running backs who averaged at least 100 yards per game will be back in 2015 with the exception being USC’s Buck Allen, who opted to leave early for the NFL draft. But the Trojans don’t need to fear. Sophomore Justin Davis is primed to enter the competition to be a top-5 running back in the conference, filling Allen’s shoes for USC.
But this got the Pac-12 Blog thinking: Who is going to lead the conference in rushing next season? There are plenty of arguments to be made for each of the top eight guys returning and the top spot could really go to any one of them. So, who do you think steals that spot?
1. UCLA’s Paul Perkins | 251 carries, 1,575 yards, 9 touchdowns
With Brett Hundley’s early departure, the Bruins will likely rely on Perkins even more next season than they did this past season to get things going for UCLA. Perkins averaged 6.3 yards per carry, a Pac-12 best for running backs who toted the ball at least 200 times. He’s not a little-by-little type of running back. Expect him to get his 2015 yardage the same way he got his 2014 yardage -- in big chunks. He led the league in rushes of 10-plus yards (46). A few big games could be enough to put him at the top of the list.
2. Utah’s Devontae Booker | 292 carries, 1,512 yards, 10 touchdowns
3. Arizona’s Nick Wilson | 236 carries, 1,375 yards, 16 touchdowns
Because of Oregon’s title run and the attention that got, Wilson’s accomplishments played second fiddle to the other star freshman running back in the conference (No. 4 on this list). But Wilson actually accrued more yardage on fewer carries than Royce Freeman did. Of running backs who carried the ball at least 150 times last season, Wilson was the most effective on third down, converting 58.6 percent. With Wilson and quarterback Anu Solomon both returning, Rich Rodriguez’s offense is going to be even more dynamic and more difficult to stop.
4. Oregon’s Royce Freeman | 252 carries, 1,365 yards, 18 touchdowns
Freeman was an absolute truck for Oregon this season. Give him a full season’s worth of starts next season and expect these numbers to go up. With the Ducks transitioning to a new quarterback, and one who likely won’t be nearly as mobile as Marcus Mariota, expect Oregon to rely more on Freeman and the run game to get some offensive yardage.
5. Cal’s Daniel Lasco | 210 carries, 1,115 yards, 12 touchdowns
Even though Sonny Dykes comes from the school of Air Raid, he has much more of a balance in his offense when it comes to rushing and passing. Enter Lasco, who made huge, huge strides between his sophomore and junior seasons. He only got better as the year went on, finishing with three 100-yard games in the Bears’ final four appearances. Like Wilson, Lasco will benefit from playing with the same quarterback two seasons in a row, which should help his total yardage. Plus, with Cal coming so close to a bowl game this season, don’t discount the value of a chip on the shoulders, especially on the shoulders of a senior.
6. ASU’s D.J. Foster | 194 carries, 1,081 yards, 9 touchdowns
What makes Foster so valuable as a running back is that he’s so difficult to defend. He managed to pick up all this rushing yardage while also tallying 62 receptions for 688 receiving yards -- which led the country for running backs. If he continues to develop his hands (and we’ve all seen what Mike Bercovici can do), he’ll just be even more difficult to game plan against.
7. Oregon State’s Storm Woods | 121 carries, 766 yards, 5 touchdowns
Woods might be one of the most interesting running backs to watch next season given the coaching change in Corvallis. Gary Anderson coached Melvin Gordon to two phenomenal seasons in Madison (549 carries, 4,196 yards, 41 touchdowns). Obviously Anderson won’t be able to turn Woods into Gordon overnight, but there should be several reasons for optimism around the Beaver program and what Anderson could do with the run game. And Anderson will be happy with the product he’s getting. Woods was the cleanest running back on this list this season, not recording a single fumble despite carrying the ball 133 times.
8. Washington’s Dwayne Washington | 132 carries, 697 yards, 9 touchdowns
Washington split carries with freshman Lavon Coleman this season for the Huskies, who averaged 188.6 rushing yards per game. It’ll be interesting to see who really takes over for UW next season as the competition between Washington and Coleman will be tight this spring. Expect bigger things from the Huskies in Year 2 of Chris Petersen’s tenure.
Moving in at No. 3 overall is former TCU defensive end Devonte Fields. The former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is spending the school year at Trinity Valley Community College, and appears ready to make the move back to the FBS ranks and play one more season before entering the 2016 NFL draft. Fields is scheduled to visit Louisville Jan. 30 with the Cardinals the heavy favorite to land the Under Armour All-American Game alumni.
We unveiled our No. 5 QB on Monday and No. 4 on Tuesday. Up next:
No. 3: USC junior QB Cody Kessler.
Statistics: 315-of-452 passing (69.7 percent), 3,826 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 5 interceptions
Why he's here: The part of Kessler's game that jumps out right away when reading his stat line is the completion percentage. For a player to throw almost 500 passes and complete nearly 70 percent of those attempts is just insane. Kessler led the conference in completion percentage and was second nationally of QB's who attempted at least 300 passes. Because he was so accurate, his TD:INT ratio was -- unsurprisingly -- also very high, second only to Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 and third nationally to Mariota and Northern Illinois' Drew Hare.
His clutch-ness didn't stop there. He led the conference in third-down completion percentage (47.6 percent) and his play was a huge reason why the Trojans finished 9-4 with a season-ending win over Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl.
Kessler's improvement between last season and this season is quite staggering. He improved his completion percentage by 4.3 percent from his sophomore season to his junior season, throwing 19 more touchdowns while being picked off two fewer times.
What might be the most exciting thing about Kessler's all-around performance this season is that he returns in 2015 to lead a squad that'll be more settled under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian. Kessler will lose a fair number of playmakers, but the Trojans' roster is more in reload mode than rebuild mode. Mark Schlabach put the Trojans at No. 4 in his Way Too Early Top 25 -- the highest ranking for any Pac-12 team. A huge part of that ranking is Kessler and his proven track record of improvement. If he makes the same kind of gains this offseason that he made last offseason, and continues to settle into Sarkisian's offense, Kessler is going to be very, very dangerous.
Super Bowl media day has come and gone. With it there were a few notable appearances and quotes by some former Pac-12 players (there are 18 former conference players and five former conference coaches between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots).
- Former Stanford DB Richard Sherman made a few comments about Deflategate when he and the Seahawks arrived in Arizona and on Tuesday Patriots owner Robert Kraft responded to those comments while also taking a bit of a shot at Stanford.
- The Huffington Post said that former California RB Marshawn Lynch's "I'm just here so I won't get fined" act was the best press conference ever. But USA Today says the league should fine Lynch anyway.
- The Washington Post put together an entire thread of former Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski-related items. And, some other Gronk nuggets.
- Former Washington WR Jermaine Kearse got a podium at this year's media day thanks to his game-winning catch against the Packers. Frank Schwab writes that this is what he'll forever be known for.
- Extra nuggets: If you're just looking for some general media day bites, here's an update from The Seattle Times. NJ.com compiled a list of the 10 worst questions asked at media day. And USA Today's Chris Strauss writes that the key to Super Bowl media day is to just embrace the absurdity of it all.
- Get to know Arizona commit Jace Whittaker.
- What are the odds that Arizona State gets DE Porter Gustin?
- Cal picked up a huge commitment on Tuesday night.
- Mike MacIntyre owned one of his players on Twitter.
- Marcus Mariota's younger brother will walk on at Oregon.
- Gary Andersen added to his support staff on Tuesday.
- What kind of a player is Stanford getting in Dylan Jackson?
- The biggest needs for UCLA's 2015 recruiting class.
- Matt Leinart has some big expectations for USC next season.
- Utah added an offensive line commitment on Tuesday.
- Some final changes for Washington State's staff.
- Washington State lost a recruit to Arizona State on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici and safety Jordan Simone attended Super Bowl media day to add to some of azcentral.com's coverage of the event. We'll have a story later on today with Bercovici's thoughts on the day and his advice to other reporters (now that he has such a deep understanding of the profession), but as a preview to some of the in-depth and exclusive content you'll get from the Bercovici-Simone media team, check out this tweet:
Just talked to Tom Brady about hair products... #BrotherFromAnotherMother— Michael Bercovici (@MikeBerco) January 27, 2015
We're sure it was enlightening. Someone get this man a Pulitzer.
Jones, the No. 1 ranked running back in the ESPN 300, is a highly acclaimed 6-foot, 187-pound explosive game-changer who rushed for 2,009 yards (8.4 avg.) and 28 touchdowns in 2014.
Both are solidly committed to the Trojans, and combined with speedy Southern California product Dominic Davis (Mission Hills, Calif./Bishop Alemany), they make up what is sure to be one of the top running back classes in the nation come signing day.
It's been quite awhile since any coaches at USC have spent the time and energy recruiting the Lone Star State that Sarkisian and Co. have over the course of the past year.
USC did pull in John Plattenburg out of Houston (Texas) Lamar last February, but in that case it was actually at Corona (Calif.) Centennial -- where he spent his sophomore and junior seasons -- that the talented safety first caught the eye of the Trojans' coaches. Before that, the last time USC signed a player from Texas was back in 2008 when Houston Aldine offensive lineman Daniel Campbell inked with the Trojans. Campbell failed to qualify, however, and he never played a down at USC.
So how did the Trojans reel in two running backs from the heart of Big-12 country this time around?
For Jones, it actually wasn't that difficult. USC first grabbed his attention at a young age, when he watched former head coach Pete Carroll's teams bring home victory after victory on television.
"USC has just always been one of my favorite schools," said Jones, who de-committed from Oklahoma State in mid-December before choosing the Trojans over Notre Dame a few weeks later. "I grew up watching Reggie Bush and all of those guys, so I knew I would always look at them closely."
Ware's interest, meanwhile, stems more from his desire to branch out.
"I was born and raised in Texas," said Ware, who also held offers from the likes of Florida, Ohio State and Arizona State. "I want to get out and explore the world and experience Cali life, and just have fun outside of Texas. I want to experience new things."
The turning point for both players, however, came when they were able to check out the USC campus in person for the first time. That was especially true for Jones, whose mother was initially hesitant to let her son go to school so far from home.
"My mom didn't want me to go far at all," said Jones, whose mother accompanied him on his official visit to USC in December. "But once she was able to see it for herself, she said that she'd be a fool for telling me not to follow my heart. That official visit was big. I was always sold, but for her, that's what did it."
Ware took his official visit to USC in September, but it was following his earlier unofficial visit for the Rising Stars Camp last July that he made up his mind.
"When I first went out there this summer I really liked the whole environment and the players' and coaches' attitude about football," Ware said. "I could really tell that they were passionate about football, and I knew that was the place that I wanted to be."
Set to arrive on campus early this summer, Jones and Ware, in addition to Davis, all appear to possess the talent to vie for immediate playing time, especially with the recent announcement by last year's leading Trojans' rusher, Javorius Allen, that he will forgo his senior season at USC to enter the upcoming NFL draft.
But the Trojans also still have a pair of talented veterans returning at the position in junior Justin Davis and fifth-year senior Tre Madden. That, coupled with the fact that this year's crop will also have each other to contend with, means that competition will be the name of the game come fall camp.
But that concept doesn't bother either Texas running back. In fact, both Jones and Ware are more excited about the idea of playing each other, as well as Davis, than anything else.
"I love competing and working for it," Jones said. "I don't look at it like those guys are my rivals or anything. I think we can really complement each other. Back when USC was rolling, they would have different running backs with different styles that they would go to, and I think that's what we're doing in this class."
That's something that Ware, who was a part of deep tailback group at Cedar Hill, knows about first-hand.
"At Cedar Hill, my junior year, we had three running backs, and my senior year it was me and Denvre Daniels," Ware said. "When you have that much talent, you can rotate the running backs and wear the defense down. I like that. We can inflict a lot of damage."
And with that trademark Texas confidence, Ware and Jones are determined to do everything they can to ensure that they're more than ready to do their part in making that idea become a reality -- and sooner rather than later.
"We're going to bring that Texas flavor to Cali," said Ware. "We're going to show everybody how it's done."
Up next: 200 x 2
Who and against whom: After catching eight passes for 220 yards against Washington State the previous week, USC receiver Nelson Agholor backed it up with another performance to remember against Cal on a Thursday night.
The numbers: Agholor caught 16 passes for 216 yards and two scores, and USC held on for a 38-30 win.
A closer look: The final numbers were impressive, but it's what Agholor did in the first half -- more specifically the first quarter -- that made this one of the season's best performances. After the big game against WSU, Agholor couldn't have gotten off to much better of a start than he did at the Coliseum against Cal. He made eight catches for 120 yards in the opening quarter and had 13 for 177 yards before the break. If not for USC's 31-9 halftime advantage, who knows what he would have finished with, but he wasn't targeted much in the second half and finished one catch shy of Robert Woods' school record of 17 catches in a game. Not only had no USC receiver ever recorded more than one 200-yard receiving game in a season before Agholor recorded his second, but the school record for 200-yard receiving games is also just two. He was the only player in FBS to record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games this year and one of just seven since the 2004 season -- a group that includes Colorado's Paul Richardson in 2013.
It was a busy weekend in the conference, as 14 prospects made commitments between Friday and Monday night and several others backed out of Pac-12 recruiting classes. It looks as though this could be a sign of things to come, as the conference recruiting race is heating up with little more than a week until signing day.
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3 a.m., doing cartwheels down the hallway
Jack Follman over at Pacific Takes broke down the rosters of this weekend's Super Bowl teams to find out where the Seahawks and Patriots are finding their talent. His findings are very College Football Playoff-y. Here's the breakdown, by Power Five conference: 1. Big Ten, 26; 2. Pac-12, 25; 3. SEC, 22; 4. ACC, 13; 5. Big 12, 9. In all, 11 Pac-12 teams were represented, with Washington State being the lone exception. The full list of players, broken down by team, can be found at the link.
Here are a few other Super Bowl-related items as they relate to the Pac-12:
- CBSSports.com notes that Oregon boasts the most Super Bowl starters of any college team.
- Both starting running backs are from California.
- Here's an interesting study from Stanford (in a somewhat nerdy kind of way) about Super bowl advertisements.
- You might have heard former Colorado linebacker Chad Brown opining on the Super Bowl this week.
- Utah picked up a commitment from offensive lineman James Empey.
- Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has made good on a bet with Ohio Governor John Kasich.
- Here's a look at Bryce Sterk, who recently committed to Washington.
- WSU receiver commit Deontay Burnett had a good showing at a high school all-star game.
- The story of new Oregon commit Fotu Leiato is worth reading if you haven't already, wih an assist from the Internet.
- UCLA received a $1 million donation from Marilyn Silva-Lund and David Lund for the Wasserman Football Center project. As a result of their donation, the couple will have the center's recruiting lounge and terrace named in their honor, according to the school.
- Nam Le dreams big in his State of Cal Address.
Two groups of alums from USC's School of Cinematic Arts are finalists in Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which has been pared down to 10 finalists. The winner, chosen by an Internet vote, will have their 30-second commercial shown during the Super Bowl and earn a $1 million prize. You can vote here.
Here are the commercials from USC's two groups:
It's tough to imagine a more exhausting and stressful conclusion to a recruiting process than the one Iman Marshall orchestrated. Over the past 10 days, Marshall has taken official visits to Florida State, LSU and Michigan, as well as hosted several coaches at his home and school. But just like on the football field, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect doesn't appear to be fazed at all by what's being thrown at him.
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Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.
ESPN 300 commitments: 1
Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.
Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.
To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here .
In Southern California in particular, they just don't seem to grow behemoth high school defensive tackles with much quantity and quality. It's not to say that some of the defensive line prospects aren't good enough, but there just isn't an overabundance of them. The best of the best defensive linemen in SoCal can play for anybody, but there aren't enough of them to go around, especially when the country's best recruiters invade the SoCal looking for a stud or two.
That's what makes the recruiting of Gardena (Calif.) Serra High's Rasheem Green (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) such a high priority for the Trojans. Green stands alone as the best defensive line prospect in Southern California, and naturally everybody and anybody wants his services. Steve Sarkisian and staff are giving it their best shot to land the prep All-American.
Looking at past, heralded prep defensive linemen from SoCal, how many can you name that became major factors along the Trojans defensive line? Did you answer Chino High's Sedrick Ellis and/or Los Altos High's Shaun Cody? In their schoolboy days, they made everybody's recruiting list, and they lived up to the billing at USC.
Of course, there are always some lesser known prospects coming out of the local prep ranks that developed into Trojans All-America linemen like Los Alamitos High's Mike Patterson and Los Angeles Verbum Dei's Kenechi Udeze.
The point again is there are defensive linemen here but not like you see in the South, which seems to grow them like there is no tomorrow. Yet, every once in a great while, the Trojans can swoop into SEC country and extract a major D-line prospect. The Trojans seem to get their share of skill players from the South, but defensive linemen are another story.
The latest Trojans defensive tackle All-American, Leonard Williams, hails from Daytona Beach, Florida, and Mainland High School. It took a Herculean recruiting effort by the Trojans to sneak this major blue-chip prep tackle out SEC country.
For many in 2014, Williams was considered the premier defensive lineman in the country and deciding to forego his senior season, No. 94 is a possibility to be selected as the overall No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
The Trojans' defensive line class of 2015 shows commitments from Jacob Daniel (Fresno, Ca./Clovis North), Noah Jefferson (Las Vegas, Nev./Liberty), and Christian Rector (Los Angeles Loyola). Currently, only Rector is from Southern California. While the Trojans are pleased with those commitments to be sure, it is Green that makes Sarkisian and defensive line coach Chris Wilson light up.
And while Green is considered the big fish amongst prep defensive tackles, there is also an under-the-radar prospect in rapidly rising Kevin Scott (6-4, 255) from Los Angeles Salesian. Scott could fall into the Mike Patterson/Kenechi Udeze category of the-best-is-yet-to-come.
Obviously out of necessity and the desire to recruit the best not only locally but nationally, the Trojans have not confined their defensive line search to Southern California. Sarkisian and his staff know to achieve expectations, defensive linemen are more valuable than ever.
However, it's not like the Trojans haven't been trying to lure stellar prep defensive linemen from out of the Southern California area. The USC staff put in yeomen efforts to persuade national recruits like Kahlil McKenzie (Clayton Valley, Calif./Charter HS), Trenton Thompson (Albany, Ga./Westover), and Canton Kaumatule (Honolulu, Ha/Punahou). McKenzie has since committed to Tennessee, Thompson to Georgia, and Kaumatule to Oregon.
So, as the Trojans streak toward signing day on Feb. 4, it appears USC will finish at the very least somewhere in the top 5 nationally and perhaps even No. 1. However, like all championships -- even in recruiting -- it starts with defense, especially along the defensive line.
It's a fairly unusual year for recruiting when it comes to the two Los Angeles programs. While this is usually a zero sum war with a clear winner and loser -- as was the case with the 2014 class, when the Trojans finished 3-for-3 on the final three huge uncommitted prospects in Southern California -- this signing day provides the opportunity for both programs to either finish strong or fizzle out, without one much affecting the other.
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