UCLA: Top players 2014

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
AM PT
Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
9:00
AM PT
Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

15. UCLA LB Eric Kendricks

2013 stats: 106 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble

Why he's ranked here: In his time at UCLA, Kendricks has gone from an outstanding defensive scout team member to being a crucial element to one of the best linebacking groups in the conference (and maybe the country). In his redshirt senior season, we are expecting big things. And we aren't the only ones. UCLA coach Jim Mora sees big things happening for Kendricks. At Pac-12 media days last week he spent quite a bit of time complimenting Kendricks. First, on his leadership, saying, "He's kind of a glue guy. Without even saying a lot, he's kind of that guy that everyone wants to orbit around." Second, Mora complimented Kendricks' personality, explaining that if his daughter married Kendricks, he would be perfectly OK with that. Third, he said Kendricks had great hair.

We can't guarantee all of that (though, if there's a Pac-12 award for best hair, he'd have to be a semifinalist, right?) but the first fact seems pretty valid. Kendricks' leadership is going to be huge for the Bruins this season, and when a player is given that kind of a role by his coaches, and looked up to by his teammates, a lot of times that results in very big numbers on the field. Will he record double-digit tackles in games? There is a good chance. In 2012, he averaged 10.6 per game and in 2013 (ailed by injuries) he averaged 8.8. But he's just the first of two Bruins linebackers in this grouping on our countdown. Running backs, take note ...

14. Washington LB/RB Shaq Thompson

2013 stats: 78 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: Thompson was second on Washington last season in tackles, but he's going to take on a bigger role this season as he begins his journey as a two-way player (perhaps he can ask No. 13 a few questions about that role). At Pac-12 media days, coach Chris Petersen addressed this and said, "We don't want to water him down and make him less of a defensive player. So I think there is a fine balance there and we'll continue to work through that." What exactly that fine balance is, we'll see. But there are certainly reps to be had at running back as the Huskies attempt to replace the production of Bishop Sankey. And Thompson could be a guy who contributes there. With the ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball for Washington, Thompson -- who wasn't talked about too much even a year ago -- cracked the top 15 players in the conference in 2014.

13. UCLA LB Myles Jack

2013 stats: 75 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions; 38 carries, 267 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns

Why he's ranked here: So, with Thompson taking on a larger role on both sides of the ball, Jack is scaling back a bit. He was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but this season, look for him to be much more a defensive player. Jack has athleticism pouring out of him, and with more of a focus on defense, and the discipline that brings, he could be scary, scary good this season -- so good he is the second-highest ranked linebacker on this list (not bad for a sophomore).

Though Mora didn't have quite the flowery sentiments about Jack as he did Kendricks (no hair or dating his daughter comments), he did say that if anyone were to ask UCLA players who the hardest-working Bruin was, that they would all say Jack or quarterback Brett Hundley. That is what the fans should care about. With someone who has his talent and athleticism, the fact that he is still the hardest-working player on the team means something. And that is going to show on the field this season. Could he lead the Pac-12 in tackles? Maybe. Could he and his top-25 counterpart Kendricks be an absolute nightmare to face this season? We think definitely.

12. USC LB Hayes Pullard

2013 stats: 94 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: For two of the past three seasons, Pullard has led the Trojans in tackles. Chances are that this could be Year 3 for him in that category. He is going to have serious competition for best linebacker in the conference (cough, cough, Nos. 15-13), but with 39 starts and 282 tackles under his belt, we're pretty sure Pullard is going to make the most of his senior year. At Pac-12 media days, USC coach Steve Sarkisian said he thought the strength of his team was in its front seven, and at the middle of that front seven for the Trojans this season is going to be Pullard. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior should crack 100 tackles this season, and we wouldn't be too surprised if at least 10 of those are for a loss.

11. Stanford OT Andrus Peat

Why he's ranked here: At Pac-12 media days last week, Stanford coach David Shaw told NFL.com that he thought Peat was second to just one offensive tackle he has ever been around -- 11-time NFL Pro Bowler John Odgen. That is pretty high praise. Peat is the highest offensive tackle and second-highest offensive lineman on our list. Assuming nothing goes insanely wrong, he will be an easy all-conference pick at the end of the season and possibly a semifinalist or finalist for the Outland Trophy. At 6-7, 316 pounds, he's going to be pretty tough to move. We're certainly looking forward to a few potential matchups with top defensive linemen (one, whose name will pop up later on in this list ...) as Peat looks to prove himself as the most feared tackle in the Pac-12. At this point in time, he has our vote. We'll see how the season shakes out.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: No. 25-21, No. 20-16

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2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
B. Hundley81576863
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
P. Perkins633044.82
B. Hundley29742.61
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
J. Payton1926614.01
D. Fuller14835.90
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense159288447
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring30246