Pac-12: under the radar 2012

Under the radar: Arizona

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
9:00
AM ET
We conclude our under the radar series.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name, but who might be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a crucial role in 2012.

We've gone in reverse alphabetical order.

Arizona: CB Jonathan McKnight

2011 production: McKnight missed the season with a knee injury.

Making the case for McKnight: Back during 2011 spring practice, former Arizona coach Mike Stoops told me that McKnight was the Wildcats' best cover guy. He was stoked about McKnight's upside. Stoops, now back as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator, knows defensive backs, too. He played the position at Iowa and in the NFL and he's always coached it. Tim Kish, then Arizona defensive coordinator, said the same about McKnight. And when McKnight blew out his knee during fall camp, I imagined Stoops doing one of the angry dances that TV cameramen so loved to capture during games. I don't really know how good McKnight is because he mostly saw spot action as a true freshman in 2010. But I'm going to trust Stoops and Kish. The 5-foot-11, 175 pounder out of River Ridge, La., and younger brother of former USC running back Joe McKnight, could become an emerging star this fall if he stays healthy and lives up to the words of his former coaches. He was 80 percent this spring but should be 100 percent this summer, with plenty of time to get his conditioning -- and confidence in his knee -- back to where it needs to be. If McKnight is healthy, don't be surprised if, at season's end, he ends up on the All-Pac-12 team.
We're continuing with our under the radar series.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name, but who might be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a crucial role in 2012.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.

Arizona State: RB James Morrison

2011 production: Carried the ball 11 times for 59 yards with a score against Colorado.

Making the case for Morrison: Outside of Arizona, most folks probably don't know Morrison. He came in as a walk-on out of St. Mary's high school in Phoenix and never really found a place with the old coaching staff. New coach Todd Graham has dubbed the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder "Tank" for his power style of running. He's coming off a fantastic spring and used the absence of Cameron Marshall to gain valuable reps.

In this new ASU offense, the focus is on downhill running. And that's something Morrison can do. The big question is whether he did enough in the spring to earn the reps, because ASU's backfield is going to be crowded in the fall. He could be featured as a third-down back because he's a good blocker, or simply as a goal-line/short-yardage specialist. He could be the No. 2 guy off the bench behind Marshall -- pending the status of Deantre Lewis. Or he could be a spring wonder who never gets consistent carries, falling back behind Lewis, Kyle Middlebrooks and incoming freshman D.J. Foster, who might contribute immediately. Morrison is by no means a sure thing to break out, but if you're looking for someone who could surprise under the right circumstances, he's the guy.

Under the radar: California

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
9:00
AM ET
We're continuing with our under the radar series.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name, but who may be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a critical role in 2012.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.

California: RB C.J. Anderson

2011 production: Anderson rushed for 361 yards with eight TDs. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He also caught seven passes for 186 yards and a score.

Making the case for Anderson: Talk about under the radar: Anderson is the backup to one of the Pac-12's most underrated players in Isi Sofele, who quietly rushed for 1,322 yards last year. Anderson was mostly the thunder to Sofele's lightning in 2011, giving Cal a big back to spell the diminutive Sofele, particularly in short-yardage situations. But here's the deal: A little bird told me that Anderson was consistently the Bears best back this spring. A big reason for that is Anderson losing 15 pounds -- he was out of shape last year after transfering from a junior college -- though he's still listed at 5-foot-11, 215. He's a physical runner who showed much better quickness this spring. Fans got a taste of the new-and-improved Anderson when his 87 yards rushing in the spring game included a 15-yard TD and 44-yard scamper. The Bears backfield is stacked. After Sofele and Anderson there's speedy Brendan Bigelow, and Daniel Lasco isn't too shabby either. That's a quality foursome, but there's only one ball. Let's just say Anderson, if he continues to focus on conditioning during the summer, could offer Sofele some legit competition for the starting job in fall camp. It's notable that Anderson is not only more physical, he's also a better receiver than Sofele and less of a mismatch when asked to block. Even if Anderson doesn't displace Sofele, it's not unreasonable to expect him to double his production from 2011.

Under the radar: Oregon

May, 7, 2012
5/07/12
9:00
AM ET
We're continuing with our under the radar series.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name, but who may be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a critical role in 2012.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.

Oregon: DT/DE Taylor Hart

2011 production: Hart was 10th on the Ducks with 44 tackles. He also had three tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

Making the case: If DE Dion Jordan is sure to be the star producer for the Ducks defense -- read: sacks -- then Hart likely will be the man-behind-the-man. Hart is a guy who doesn't get a lot of acclaim but is almost always cited by his coaches and teammates. Before spring practice, LB Michael Clay went off on his own tangent to me about how underrated the 6-foot-6, 289-pound junior is as a pure athlete. Chip Kelly clearly loves the guy. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti provides Hart's name first when he explains that he's more worried about replacing safety Eddie Pleasant than DE Terrell Turner. We'd say that Hart is the Hart and Soul of the Ducks defensive front, but then you'd accuse us of making a bad pun. So we won't do that. A 14-game starter last fall, Hart earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 notice. He can play both DT and DE, as he is proficient at holding his ground as well as attacking. The Pac-12 all-academic second team member also is smart, which is a good thing. Jordan is a top candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, a guy who figures to record double-digit sacks. But don't be surprised if Hart doubles his sack total during another productive season.

Under the radar: UCLA

May, 2, 2012
5/02/12
9:00
AM ET
We're continuing with our under the radar series.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name but who may be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a critical role in 2012.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.

UCLA: OT Xavier Su'a-Filo

2011 production: Su'a-Filo didn't play last year -- or in 2010 -- because he went on a two-year Mormon mission. He was the Bruins starting left tackle as a true freshman in 2009.

Making the case for Su'a-Filo: Su'a-Filo could transform a line that has been mediocre-to-lousy since he went on his mission into at least solid. That could make all the difference for a Bruins offense that has been mediocre-to-lousy for, well, a while. A touted, prep-All-American recruit in 2009, he started all 13 games as a true freshman and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors as well as numerous freshman All-American accolades. Simply, the 6-foot-4, 310-pound sophomore has NFL potential. Perhaps high-draft choice potential. And he's a hard-working, high-character, mature guy who has grown into a man over the past two years. If he steps back into his left tackle spot and plays well, that means the Bruins quarterback will have security on his blind side. That's big. Further, paired with senior guard Jeff Baca, the Bruins actually would have a formidable left side tandem. See where this is going? With Su'a-Filo playing to his potential, a notorious and longstanding weakness for the Bruins -- offensive line -- suddenly has the potential to be at least solid. Perhaps -- gasp -- even sneaky good, with new position coach Adrian Klemm scaring the pooh out of them on a regular basis. You give offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone solid line play, and he will give the Bruins offensive effectiveness, which they haven't had in, well, a while.

Under the radar: Washington State

April, 26, 2012
4/26/12
9:00
AM ET
We're starting a new series: Under the radar.

The idea is to pick out a player who is not a big name but who may be underrated. Or, at least, a guy who will need to step up and play a critical role in 2012.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order on this one.

Washington State: CB Damante Horton

2011 production: Horton, a true junior, led the Cougars -- and was tied for the Pac-12 lead -- with four interceptions and tied for the team lead with seven pass defenses. He also forced two fumbles and recorded 31 tackles.

Making the case for Horton: The Pac-12 blog is aware that some Coug fans are not huge fans of Horton. Some, in fact, have created a name -- a "Damante Horton" -- to describe an easy interception. Well, I know of no coach who makes the distinction between a "hard" or "easy" interception. Shoot, if QBs want to make things easy on Horton for some mystical reason, well, then that's even better. Lucky and mystically beguiling are good things to have going for a defender. Oh, and I'm sure that the two fumbles that Horton forced were luck, too. That Horton was involved in six of the Cougars 17 total takeaways in 2011 clearly is a case of right-place, right-time and has nothing to do with Horton's instincts or efforts. That fumble Horton forced in the final series of the win over Colorado? Right place, right time. First career interception against UCLA, which earned team "Big Play" honors? Right place, right time. That interception against Stanford? If only the Cardinal had a good quarterback! A 76-yard interception return for a TD against Oregon? Yeah, well, can the guy do anything against good teams? Are we extending our sarcasm a bit long? Yes. Was Horton perfect last year? Not by a long shot. But a guy who seems to find himself in the right place at the right time so many times might just also be the right player in the right place. The Cougars welcome back all four starters and all four backups from their 2011 secondary; that's the good news. It's one that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense; that's the bad news. (A better pass rush certainly might have helped, by the way). Opinions may vary on where Horton ranks among them, even if he was the only one to receive honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. But what is indisputable is the Cougs would benefit greatly if he duplicated his 2011 playmaking, while perhaps cleaning up a few mistakes we'll chalk up to youthfulness.

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