The question before us today: Which Pac-12 player is ready to rise to All-Pac-12 this fall? Our parameter is this: He can't have been any better than honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2011.
There are a lot of good choices. Here are a couple from our -- and I think we can all agree on this -- very large Pac-12 blog brains.
Kevin Gemmell: There's a reason Cameron Marshall was left off of the All-Pac-12 teams last year. It didn't have as much to do with Marshall as the four guys who were named to the first and second teams ahead of him.
LaMichael James ... good. Chris Polk ... good. Stepfan Taylor ... good. John White IV ... good. Cameron Marshall ... good ... but not good enough -- at least not last season. Yes, he tied with James for most rushing touchdowns in the conference (18), but of the seven backs who rushed for more than 1,000 yards, Marshall had the lowest yards per carry with 4.6. His touchdowns, combined with his 1,050 yards was more than enough to make him deserving of honorable mention.
This year, if Marshall stays healthy, he has as good a chance as any running back in the conference to land on either the first- or second-team. For starters, he's 100 percent. All of those aforementioned numbers -- that was done despite a nagging ankle injury all season. He's surgically repaired and ready to go.
Also, the scheme he's in plays to his skill set much better than the previous one. He was able to be a 1,000-yard rusher in a spread offense that had a pass-run ratio of 56 percent. A lot of Marshall's runs last year were stretches outside the tackles -- sideline-to-sideline. Marshall is fast, but that's not the strength of his game.
At 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, Marshall is a wrecking ball with potential energy that's waiting to be unleashed. He's better meeting tacklers head on and driving through them than he is dancing around them. He has quickness and can be elusive, but that quickness will serve him better going downhill and exploding through the hole than it will trying to stretch out the defense. That should also play particularly well in the Pac-12, where linebackers are traditionally speedier than beefier.
I like him to land on the postseason list, but when you consider the backs in this conference -- White, Taylor, Kenjon Barner, Curtis McNeal, Silas Redd, Isi Sofele -- it's no guarantee. A couple of guys are going to be disappointed. Winning helps, too, so the Sun Devils can do Marshall a huge favor by avoiding long stretches of mediocre play -- which is what plagued them at the end of last season.
Also, to his credit, Marshall is a very complete back and a good blocker. Of those other backs just mentioned, only Taylor had more catches last year (25) than Marshall (24). None of those other backs broke the 20s and only Barner (17) and White (13) were in the teens.
Marshall is one of the four best, most complete backs in the Pac-12. And if he stays healthy, there's a good chance he'll be rewarded with a spot on the all-conference team.
Ted Miller: A very good choice for Kevin. Here's a ditto from me. Of course, as he notes, there's a lot of depth at running back in the conference this year.
Same could be said of linebacker, my position of focus after Kevin took the offense. Stanford, USC and Oregon are loaded at linebacker. I particularly think Ducks linebacker Kiko Alonso is headed for a big year if he can stay focused.
But we're tapping USC weakside LB Hayes Pullard. Here's a guess that many educated Oregon fans who were going, "It must be a DUCK!" Are now going, "Oh, yeah. He's really good. I sort of hate Pullard, in fact."
You see, Pullard's name was called many, many times in Autzen Stadium last fall during the Trojans' upset victory over the Ducks. Fourteen times, to be exact. Twice he hushed the crowd with sacks. Another time, he forced a fumble. Toss in an outstanding game against rival UCLA, and it could be argued -- and has been -- that he played better than fellow linebacker Dion Bailey down the stretch, and Bailey was second-team All-Pac-12 and the conference's Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
Pullard, a 6-1, 235-pound redshirt sophomore, tied Bailey for the team lead in tackles last year (81, though Bailey missed a game). He also had 6.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups.
Former USC linebacker Chris Galippo, in fact, picked Pullard as his breakout player for 2012, telling Michael Lev of the Orange County Register, “He’s probably the best tackler on the team, besides T.J. (McDonald),” Galippo said. “Just the way he gets to the ball and makes plays. Being as young as he was, he’s only going to get better.”
Pullard playing like he did late in the season suggests All-Pac-12.
The only problem, just like running back, is the depth of talent at the position -- Bailey, Stanford's Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, Oregon's Alonso and Michael Clay, among others. Further, the Trojans are questionable on the defensive line. It's far more difficult for a linebacker to look impressive when he's dodging D-linemen skating backwards.
Still, if the Trojans are to contend for a national title, as many expect, they will need to be elite on defense. If that comes to pass, expect many to point at Pullard as a big reason why.