Saturday's showdown between UCLA and Oregon will feature playmakers galore. From Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley to Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Eric Kendricks (and Hroniss Grasu and Myles Jack and Arik Armstead and Eddie Vanderdoes, etc., etc.) there won’t be a lack of future NFL talent at the Rose Bowl.
They say big players make big plays in big games. OK, but football games are rarely won by one player. Sometimes it’s the under-the-radar guys who make the biggest impact. Here are three players from each team who might not be as well known, but could end up making a big difference in the outcome.
WR Darren Carrington: With just nine catches for 172 yards, the speedy Carrington is yet to have a breakout game. This could be it. Devon Allen has drawn plenty of attention. And with Byron Marshall listed as a wide receiver this week, it could open the door for Carrington to have some one-on-one coverage. Remember, we’re looking at someone under the radar, and that’s exactly where Carrington is flying right now. He has a ton of explosive potential and if he’s not accounted for, he could bite the Bruins.
WR/Splt: Charles Nelson: We’re tapping Nelson not for what he does in the receiving game (just three catches for 27 yards), but for what he does on special teams. He leads the Ducks with an average of 15 yards per return … including a 50-yard touchdown in the win over South Dakota. But he’s also one of Oregon’s best gunners in coverage -- and that’s going to be of note against a dangerous return team like UCLA. Nelson is one of those guys who could quietly help dictate the field position battle, having already posted a team-high 10 special-teams tackles.
S Tyree Robinson: He stepped up big in the Michigan State win with five solo tackles. And it looks like he’s the new option ahead of Dior Mathis when Oregon goes into its nickel package. Erick Dargan moves over to corner and Robinson steps in at safety alongside Reggie Daniels. He’s already seen significant playing time and is being rewarded with more by the coaching staff. UCLA isn’t shy about spreading things out offensively, so the Ducks will likely be in nickel several times throughout the game. Look for Robinson to make an impact in both ground and air defense.
NT Kenny Clark: Already with 27 tackles on the year, including two for loss, the sophomore is emerging as one of the top defensive linemen in the country. But nose tackles don’t always get the ink. At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, he has the size and power to command multiple blockers in UCLA’s odd-front scheme. Given the state of Oregon’s offensive line, he could be the difference-maker in the trenches. Fun sidebar to this game will also be watching Clark and Grasu when it’s straight up, one-on-one. One will be playing on Sundays next year, the other won’t be too far behind.
WR Thomas Duarte: He’s officially listed as a receiver, though he’s a hybrid tight end, which is why he’s on the Mackey Award watch list. There are more explosive receivers, but few as reliable. Duarte has been targeted 15 times this year and hauled in 13 of those – including a pair of touchdowns. And of his 265 receiving yards, 110 have come after the catch. The Ducks will certainly be keeping an eye on him. He caught the only touchdown against Oregon in their meeting last year. Look for him on third downs and in the red zone.
DB Anthony Jefferson: Ishmael Adams gets plenty of recognition for what he does in the secondary. But Jefferson, the old man of the group, is the guy who keeps the youngsters in line. So far he’s posted 20 tackles on the year, including an interception in the ASU game. Oregon ranks first in the conference in pass efficiency, with Marcus Mariota completing 71.1 percent of his throws for 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. His accuracy will put a strain on UCLA’s defensive backfield, so the Bruins will look to Jefferson to hold things together.