#4Pac: Most surprising player in 2014?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
7:00
PM ET
Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what'll be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question, one topic or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet and all contribute our thoughts.

Sometimes, like today, we'll be playing devil's advocate for a specific team, player or idea.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're looking for a player who may surprise the league by becoming a household name. They're already established contributors on their own teams, but they may be poised to join the upper echelon in the league with strong showings in 2014.

Utah QB Travis Wilson

Wilson
Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: The best news is Travis Wilson is still playing football. It wasn't so long ago that it appeared his career was threatened by an injury to an intracranial artery. The good news, at least for Utah fans, is that he successfully fought off a legitimate challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson.

It's not just good news that the Utes will have a 16-game starter behind center. It's that Wilson wasn't handed the job as a sentimental gesture. He competed and won. And he's won over new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. That means Utah, a team that has struggled with quarterback play since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, has an experienced player behind center who has flashed real ability, both as a passer and a runner.

If you're looking for an under-the-radar guy who might surprise you, who might lead a team back toward its accustomed winning ways, it's Wilson.

Recall that Utah, though coming off consecutive losing seasons, was 4-2 after an upset win over Stanford in mid-October of last year. Those two losses came in overtime to Oregon State and by seven points to UCLA, despite a dreadful six interceptions from Wilson. Even with those picks, however, Wilson's efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

Wilson has something to prove, but he also has the means to prove it. The Utes are going to surround him with good offensive talent, starting with perhaps the Pac-12's most underrated crew of receivers -- underrated in large part because so many other teams are good at the position. He has weapons to help him and a solid offensive line to protect him. Don't be surprised if you're looking at the sparkling Pac-12 QB numbers and see his name ranking in the top half.

Stanford LB James Vaughters

Vaughters
Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: Vaughters' arrival at Stanford in 2011 signaled a significant change in the way Stanford was able to recruit. The Cardinal went into Georgia and pried away one of the most coveted recruits in the country.

Vaughters had offers from Alabama, Georgia and just about every big-name school in the country -- so listing him here is not so much a surprise as it is a breakthrough. He bounced around from defensive end to inside linebacker to finally outside linebacker last season when he played opposite All-American Trent Murphy. The results were good -- 36 tackles in 14 starts with four sacks -- but he’s still never quite reached the heights his recruiting profile suggested.

This year, that changes. A.J. Tarpley is going to lead the team in tackles, but Vaughters will be the most physically imposing player on the Cardinal defense and the player most capable of delivering a highlight-caliber hit. At 6-foot-2 and 258 pounds, I fully expect him to push double digits in sacks and turn himself into a legitimate NFL prospect.

Stanford needs that out of him, too. Murphy meant so much to the defense a year ago and with him gone, Vaughters’ role will be key.

USC RB Buck Allen

Allen
Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: All this guy does is take advantage of his opportunities. You tell him he’s under the radar and he runs over the radar on his way to the end zone.

It’s likely we’ll see him shuffle carries with Tre Madden (when he gets healthy) and Justin Davis. But when you look at what Allen accomplished last season, it’s pretty impressive.

After spending the first portion of his career on Lane Kiffin’s do-not-play list (six carries for 32 yards in 2012), he exploded in the second half of last year and turned into one of the most productive backs in the league, earning all-conference honorable mention along the way. He had four 100-yard rushing performances in the final six games and finished the season with 135 carries for 785 yards (5.8 average) and 14 touchdowns.

When you look at what Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo twist did for Bishop Sankey last season in Washington (1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns, in case you forgot) it’s hard not to get giddy about the prospect of a productive back like Allen getting a full season’s worth of carries. Whether he emerges as a solo act or part of a committee, he’s shown to be a back you have to scheme for.

Washington State WR Vince Mayle

Mayle
Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Last season, Vince Mayle had 42 catches (539 yards, seven touchdowns) for the Cougars. But this year, I think he might be making a big jump. He became quarterback Connor Halliday’s go-to guy in the spring and based off the bit I saw in fall camp, the chemistry between the two is pretty darn good.

Mike Leach likes to spread the ball around to his receivers and get as many guys involved as possible, but if Mayle is Halliday’s safety net then the quarterback's going to go back to him time and time again.

Mayle has really only played wide receiver for a few seasons (he was a running back in high school and junior college), but with his learning curve, I think this could be a huge year for him. A 1,000-yard season seems a bit of a stretch considering how many wide receivers the Cougars have, but there's no reason he couldn't lead Washington State in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns by year's end.

Ted Miller | email

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