Pac-12: Hroniss Grasu

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11
The watchlist roll out continues this week with the announcement of the Rotary Lombardi preseason list.

Of the 123 players on the list, 15 are from the Pac-12 representing six schools.

Eligibility for the Lombardi Award includes offensive or defensive “down” linemen or linebackers “who set up no farther than five yards deep from the line of scrimmage.”

Here are the Pac-12 players.
As much talk as there has been (including here at the Pac-12 blog) about how good the offenses in the conference will be this season, Thursday's release of the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's best defensive player, and Outland Trophy, given to the nation's best interior lineman, shows the Pac-12 measures up well against other conferences in defensive talent, too.

The Pac-12 led all conferences with 18 players on the Nagurski list, edging out the SEC (16), Big 12 (13), ACC (12) and Big Ten (10). For the Outland Trophy, which includes a mix of defensive and offensive players, the Pac-12 ranked second with 11 players behind the SEC (19).

Stanford's Henry Anderson, USC's Leonard Williams and Washington's Danny Shelton are on both.

Here are the Pac-12 players that were included:

Nagurski (defensive player)
Outland Trophy
Other watch lists
Watch list week continues with the release of the names on John Mackey Award and Rimington Trophy lists.

Here are the Pac-12 players on both lists:

John Mackey (tight end)

Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the award last season, but he left early for the NFL and was drafted in the second round by Tampa Bay. Looking strictly at how productive each of these players were as receivers a year ago -- which will always be the most significant factor in this award -- Hamlett has to be considered the conference's early favorite to contend for the award. He had 40 catches for 364 yards and five touchdowns a year ago and the Beavers need a combination of players to step up to replace Brandin Cooks' production.

The midseason watch list will be released on Oct. 13, the semifinalists will be named on Nov. 17 and the finalists will be revealed on Nov. 24.

Rimington (center)

Grasu, a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection, might be the favorite nationally after being named a finalist a year ago. Seumalo and Brendel are both team captains that started every game the past two seasons, while Gurrola, a one-time junior-college All-American, helped paved the way for Ka'Deem Carey last season. Shuler was included despite not having started a game for the Cardinal.

Note: A spring list was also released and there were no changes relating to the Pac-12.

Other watch lists
Eight Pac-12 players were named first-team preseason All-Americans by Athlon's on Monday, while 11 others were named to the other three teams.

Oregon, Stanford and USC each had a pair of first-team selections. The Ducks were represented by center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford's pair was OT Andrus Peat and kick returner Ty Montgomery, while USC was represented by WR Nelson Agholor and DT Leonard Williams.

The other two first-team selections were UCLA LB Myles Jack and Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's top Heisman Trophy candidate was second-team behind FSU's Jameis Winston, who won the trophy last year.

On the third team were three defenders: UCLA LB Eric Kendricks, USC LB Hayes Pullard and Washington DT Danny Shelton. Agholor also was named a punt returner, so he got two spots.

On the fourth team: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong, Oregon State C Isaac Seumalo and USC O-lineman Max Tuerk, who was listed as a guard even though he plays center. Stanford safety Jordan Richards was fourth team with the defense, while Utah kicker Andy Phillips was a fourth-team specialist.
Over the past few weeks we examined the Ducks, position-by-position, evaluating the talent. But since I was in Eugene last week for the NCAA Track & Field Championships, I figured I'd stop by the football offices to check in with one of the guys who knows that information best, offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Wednesday, we went through quarterback and running back highlights. Today, we're on to wide receiver, tight end and the offensive line.

WIDE RECEIVER
  • On Devon Allen: He was actually a late offer for the Ducks who was offered after Chip Kelly left for the NFL. There were a few spots open (initially there had only been one spot for a receiver). "It all kind of worked out that we offered him, and this is where he wanted to be. I knew he could be fast. I had no idea he could go 13.1 in the high hurdles."
  • Frost actually was at Allen's race last Saturday when Allen won the 110-meter hurdle national title. Frost said that he doesn't think Allen "looks like he'd be a track guy, he's built more like a football guy, he's thick."
  • On his mindset on the receivers: "We felt good about receiver even losing the guys we did, with Bralon [Addison] back and some young guys we think are really talented. We're just going to have to have some of those young guys step up quicker than they would've had to otherwise."
  • The first receiver that Frost brought up after Allen was redshirt freshman Darren Carrington. "He has to grow up quick, but he has it in him to be that guy." The next three receivers he mentioned were redshirt sophomore Dwayne Stanford, redshirt sophomore Chance Allen and early enrollee Jalen Brown. Frost said that he thought Brown was "in over his head a bit" from a conditioning standpoint this spring, which limited his reps, but he's up to speed now, and Frost could see him being a contributor in the fall. So it sounds like after Keanon Lowe and D. Allen, there's certainly a pecking order of things, but the competition is still very much open.
  • It's the youngest crop of receivers Frost has ever had, so I was curious if there were any way he could speed up the learning curve or provide a catalyst (other than just more and more live reps). "Sometimes there's just no replacing experience. But all those guys are competitors. … They're going to get their shots early. You see it all the time in sports, when people get their opportunities some of them reach out and take it with both hands and others struggle a little bit. We're just hoping we have a bunch of guys where the former happens."
  • Frost said something interesting about indicators regarding whether a young guy can play early -- it's typically more based on mental and emotional maturity than talent.
TIGHT ENDS
  • Look for these guys, like the running backs, to be more involved in the pass game. "We have three, which is more than we've had going into a year that I can remember. … We have three guys that we trust to go out there and do it, and there's probably going to be times that a couple of them -- if they're playing well -- deserve to be on the field, and we can play with two tight ends."
  • Pharaoh Brown's injury isn't going to limit him through the fall. Frost said it's just a matter of keeping him healthy through the season. "He's really talented."
  • Frost called John Mundt’s freshman year a "roller coaster" but said that when he was on, "he did some exceptional things."
  • Frost thought Mundt and Evan Baylis' biggest areas of growth over the past year has just been confidence. No surprise there.
OFFENSIVE LINE
  • I asked Frost about senior Hroniss Grasu taking the blame (for the line as a whole) for the losses last season. Grasu had said in the spring that he thought the group lacked toughness and got outmuscled in those games, and that's why the Ducks lost. "I wouldn't necessarily agree with that. I think we had two losses against teams that played really good games against us." Frost though the turnovers were a bigger problem in the Stanford and Arizona games. "If you play a team that does things right and you give them the ball that many times, that's a recipe for losing."
  • He wasn't surprised that Grasu said that, because he's that kind of a guy. He said it speaks to Grasu's leadership that he's willing to shoulder that kind of blame.
  • The line returns all five starters and considering the weight gain, the general consensus with everyone is that the Ducks should be just fine. But, I wanted to make sure to ask about a few backups who were getting significant reps during the spring season. Frost's thoughts: Redshirt junior Andre Yruretagoyena had his best spring season yet. He said the staff has high hopes for redshirt freshman Jake Pisarcik. He was impressed with redshirt junior walk-on Matt Pierson at right tackle.
There is no simple measure that consistently predicts college football success. The best is pedigree, but even that often fails. Just ask Notre Dame and Texas.

While returning starters -- most particularly a quarterback -- are the easiest way to map out how a team stands in the preseason, there are more than a few folks who believe a veteran offensive line is as meaningful as anything.

No less than the Wall Street Journal put that theory forward in 2009, and it's pretty clear that it's a good thing to have experience returning on the O-line.

Last season, just eight of the 25 teams in the final AP poll ranked among the bottom half out of 126 teams when it came to returning offensive line starts in 2013. While leading the nation with lines with 124 and 123 starts didn't help Texas and Tennessee much a year ago, eight final top-25 teams ranked in the top-30 when it came to offensive line starts, including No. 10 Florida State (national champion), No. 9 Michigan State (Rose Bowl champion), No. 27 Stanford (Pac-12 champion) and No. 3 Duke (nation's most surprising 10-win team).

So let's look at how the Pac-12 stacks up when it comes to returning offense line starts, beginning with the North Division.

Washington

Returning O-line starts: 124

Notes: The Huskies welcome back seven players with starting experience, including five with 20 or more career starts. Three of them -- Dexter Charles, Mike Criste and Micah Hatchie -- earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season. The Huskies aren't too worried about things up front.

Oregon

Returning O-line starts: 107

Notes: Ducks center Hroniss Grasu is the only All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 O-lineman returning this fall, which will be his fourth as a starter. He leads the conference with 40 career starts. Tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher are two-year starters, but Johnstone is coming back from a knee injury and might not be available early in the season.

California

Returning O-line starts: 51

Notes: The good news is the Golden Bears have eights guys coming back with starting experience. The bad news is the O-line struggled mightily last season, which is one reason why -- other than injuries -- so many guys saw action in 2013. There are high hopes, however, that some of the young guys forced into action, such as then-freshmen Steven Moore, Chris Borrayo, Matt Cochran and Christian Okafor, will take big steps forward.

Oregon State

Returning O-line starts: 42

Notes: The Pac-12 blog doesn't like to confess to surprise, but the Beavers' number here is about 30 less than it would have guessed, even though three starters need to be replaced. The centerpiece, of course, is center Isaac Seumalo, a legitimate All-American candidate after earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. The junior owns 25 career starts. Sophomore Sean Harlow is next with nine starts last season. Still, five guys have started at least one game, which means the shade of green here isn't so light.

Washington State

Returning O-line starts: 33

Notes: OT Gunnar Eklund and OG Joe Dahl started every game last season. Though three starters need to be replaced, including center Elliott Bosch, the unit's unquestioned leader, there's a general feeling of optimism because the line should be much bigger than it was the past two years. Still, this will be a young crew next fall.

Stanford

Returning O-line starts: 15

Notes: Stanford lost four starters from one of the nation's best offensive lines in 2013, two of whom were NFL draft picks. The good news is the return of massive LT Andrus Peat to protect QB Kevin Hogan's blindside. A second-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2013, Peat is an almost certain first-round NFL draft pick if he opts to leave after this season. Further good news is the likely four new starters all saw significant action last season, and not just in mop-up duty. The Cardinal has recruited this position so well, there's not that much worry on The Farm about the lack of starting experience.
Another watch list, another strong showing for the Pac-12. Six players from the conference were placed on the spring watch list for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the nation’s top center.

The organization has expanded its watch list to 64 players this year.

You can click here to see the complete list of players. Here are the six from the Pac-12:
The Rimington Trophy committee uses the All-American lists from the Walter Camp Foundation, Sporting News and Football Writers Association of America to determine its winner.

Players who play center as their “primary” position will be considered -- even though some may interchange at other positions. For example, Oregon State coach Mike Riley has said they've tinkered with the idea of playing Seumalo at other positions. However, he’s widely regarded as one of the nation’s top centers and that’s still considered his primary position (for now).

Grasu was a finalist for the award in 2013. Florida State’s Bryan Stork was the winner last season.

A player from the Pac-12 has never won the Rimington Trophy.
ESPN’s Todd McShay released his Way-too-early 2015 mock draft on Wednesday, giving a very early look into the future of some potential NFL draftees next season. Once again, the SEC leads the way, putting 10 players in the first 32 picks of McShay's first mock draft.

McShay predicts the No. 1 draft pick being a defensive lineman just like the 2014 draft. Only, instead of coming out of the SEC, he believes that defensive lineman will be one out of the Pac-12, USC's Leonard Williams.

McShay put eight Pac-12 players in the first round, including three top-10 picks. The ACC is behind the Pac-12 with seven picks, though six of those are from Florida State. The Big Ten has four players on the list while the Big 12 landed three.

Oregon leads the way for the Pac-12 with three players in the top 20 picks -- cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu. USC got on the board with two players in the top 32 while UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State each had one player.
It might be a very different looking Oregon team that takes the field next fall … and not because of the uniform changes (though, those are sure to be something different). Instead, the guys wearing those uniforms might fill them out a bit differently.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks and Tennessee Volunteers
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesOregon is hoping the weight gained by player like Johnny Mundt will not affect the team's speed advantage.
Through this winter, several players went through some significant weight changes by making minor tweaks in the strength and conditioning program. But coach Mark Helfrich is hoping that the weight gains aren't just shown physically but in how the players take the field, as well.

“Hopefully a lot of that is confidence,” Helfrich said. “Just that edge of you feeling a little better about yourself, you’re moving a bit more, you’re physically bigger. It’s just you’re coming into the play with more confidence and that’s a big deal.”

Defensive lineman Sam Kamp put on the most weight of any player, packing on another 29 pounds and fellow lineman T.J. Daniel added 22. Not to be outdone, the offensive linemen packed on more than 100 pounds as a unit, with guard Doug Brenner leading the way with 26 pounds and Matt Pierson, Cameron Hunt and Elijah George all bulking up at least 20 pounds.

“I think we’ve kept our speed and athleticism,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “The added weight gain is just there to get us more physical and blowing the defensive line off the ball where we lacked that toward the end of the season.”

But it wasn’t just the big men making significant changes. Tight end John Mundt packed on 20 pounds and in the linebacker group, guys like Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Tyrell Robinson all put on at least 15 pounds.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota is up to 218 pounds and hopes to be at 220 for the start of the 2014 season, while both leading backs made some important changes -- Byron Marshall lost six pounds (down to 201 pounds) while Thomas Tyner added 14 pounds and is up to 215.

With all of the weight gain the main concern would be that the high-powered offense the Ducks feature might be lacking some of that Oregon speed, but the players have tried to keep up their speed with the added weight. Mundt said that one of the focuses was finding that sweet spot for each player at which he stayed as fast as possible but got as big as possible.

“We were all pushing each other in the weight room and in conditioning,” Mundt said. “We’ve all gotten better and stronger, so that’s a good thing. … I think we have more strength and size across the board, but we’re still moving fast.”

Added bulk is certainly going to benefit this team,and as long as each guy can still move the same, the only teams struggling with the weight gain with be opponents. In May, if a player doesn’t appear the same when he takes the field for the spring game, it’s not the uniform, it’s the guy in the uniform.
The true mark of a great offensive line is for it to never be talked about, for it to be the silent wall that moves the pile and allows for others -- the running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers -- to shine.

It’s an unfortunate position in that regard because it means really the only time people will talk about it is when it’s playing poorly -- none of the fame, all of the blame.

But it’s a part of the position. For players like Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, it’s almost better because rather than just having receiving stats or passing stats or rushing stats, the O-line gets to celebrate all three.

[+] EnlargeHroniss Grasu
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiSenior center Hroniss Grasu has taken it upon himself to be a vocal leader on Oregon's O-line.
“As an offensive lineman, that’s your characteristic,” Grasu said. “When our running backs score a touchdown, we take a lot of pride in that or when Marcus [Mariota] has six, seven seconds to sit in the pocket and throw a touchdown, we feel like that’s ... our moment of glory. A lot of people don’t see it that way but as offensive linemen, we understand it.”

So from that perspective, the Oregon offensive line racked up the stats last season. It was top 20 in the nation in passing yardage, top five in the nation in passer efficiency, and top 10 in the nation in rushing yardage.

But it was in the losses when the O-line gained its moments of bigger recognition that stand out the most clearly to Grasu and his group.

“They wanted it more,” Grasu said of the opposing defensive lines. “That’s very hard to say.”

They didn’t win the line of scrimmage, didn’t hold their blocks as long as they should’ve, didn’t play with a low enough pad level. All of the basics, all of the things that group needs to go unrecognized, weren't executed. And suddenly, they’re deficiencies, and recognizable ones at that.

The Ducks rushed for 198 yards in their loss to Arizona, averaging 5.1 yards per rush. However, when the three longest runs of the game are taken out of the equation that statistic drops to 4.1 yards per rush, more than two yards below their season average.

The same was true in the Ducks’ loss to Stanford, except that they only rushed for 62 yards (2.6 yards per rush). And when the three longest runs in that game are taken out, that number drops to just 1 yard per rush.

Against the Wildcats, Oregon reached the red zone five times but only converted on three of those attempts (two touchdowns, one field goal). Against the Cardinal, the Ducks got there just three times and only scored one touchdown.

“When we’re getting down in the red zone it’s on the offensive line,” Grasu said. “We have to score the ball. When we get down on the 5-yard line against Stanford or the 1-yard line against Arizona, that just, for an offensive lineman, takes a lot of pride out of you.”

So re-instating that pride became a focal point for Grasu and the rest of the line during the offseason, which means they want to go back to being as anonymous as possible in the public while providing obvious production.

They started in the weight room, packing on more than 100 pounds as a unit. The competition started there, with each guy trying to one up the other on each rep each week, resulting in a much bigger O-line at the start of spring practices.

“I think as far as from the size aspect we’ve always gotten a little bit of bad press for being a little undersized,” left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. “And I think we’re turning that around this year. ... We’re bigger and stronger and a little more fierce this spring ball for sure.”

Johnstone, who isn’t participating in spring practices as he rehabs his knee, has become a player-coach of sorts, coaching the group up from the sideline.

He, like Grasu, is becoming more vocal, pointing out the smallest of errors on the line. After the size gain in the offseason, that has become the focus of his spring -- making the minutiae the most important and making sure every member in the offensive line meeting room feels the same way.

Being that vocal enforcer isn’t always easy, though.

“The issue was that since we’re all such good friends, we don’t want to upset someone else,” Grasu said. “If someone isn’t playing hard enough we don’t want to get on their case, we’re going to wait until the coach does so we don’t look like the bad guy.”

Grasu said that winning games now trumps being the “bad guy,” and that players are pushing each other more and more as they look back and film and realize how different a play could’ve been if they had just held a block a moment longer or stayed in the film room to study gap assignments for just 10 more minutes after practice one day.

“It’s very easy to look back and say ‘Hey, if we just move our feet six inches and don’t hold on this play, it’s a touchdown,’ ‘If you execute here it’s the difference between a huge win or not,’” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We need to get a little edge of toughness, a little edge of physicality while still being extremely disciplined. That absolutely is a topic this spring.”

And as long as the O-line gets edgier and more physical on the field, they’ll be as anonymous as they want everywhere else.

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 23

January, 21, 2014
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon

2013 numbers: As is always with the case with offensive linemen, it’s tough to gauge their individual statistical impact. But he anchored the line for the No. 1 scoring offense in the Pac-12 (45.5 points per game), the top rushing offense in the league (273.5 yards per game) and the No. 1 total offense in the league (565 yards per game). The Ducks line also allowed just 18 sacks in 13 games, the third-lowest total in the league.

Preseason ranking: No. 23

Making the case for Grasu: When we started making the postseason list and evaluating offensive linemen, there was no debate. “Grasu has to be there,” your Pac-12 bloggers said in sitcom-like unison. Named an All-American by several publications, Grasu gave the Ducks an instant boost by announcing he’d return for another season alongside quarterback Marcus Mariota (spoiler alert: Mariota is somewhere on this list, too). Grasu has been the Pac-12 first-team all-conference center for two seasons and was one of six finalists for the Rimington Trophy after starting all 13 games. He also paved the way for yet another 1,000-yard rusher from Oregon as Byron Marshall totaled 1,038 yards. Expect Grasu to be on most 2014 preseason All-America lists -- and more than likely the postseason ones as well.

The countdown:
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

Postseason honors in Pac-12

December, 16, 2013
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While the Pac-12 was shut out of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver and Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end, so the postseason has seen some individual accolades for the conference.

Further, a number of Pac-12 players are on their way to consensus and unanimous All-American honors.

While we still await the AP, FWAA and the American Football Coaches Association teams, here's how things stand so far with 12 different Pac-12 players receiving note on at least one first team.

PAC-12 FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

ESPN.com

Offense: RB Ka'Deem Carey, Jr., Arizona, WR Brandin Cooks, Jr., Oregon State, OL David Yankey, Sr, Stanford

Defense: DT Leonard Williams, So., USC, LB Trent Murphy, Sr., Stanford, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Jr., Oregon

Walter Camp

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Murphy, LB Anthony Barr, Sr., UCLA

The Sporting News

Offense: Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Barr, Murphy

Specialists: KR Ty Montgomery, Jr., Stanford

Athlon

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey, OL Hroniss Grasu, Jr., Oregon, All-purpose Myles Jack, Fr., UCLA

Defense: Barr, S Deone Bucannon, Sr., Washington State, S Ed Reynolds, Sr., Stanford

Specialists: Montgomery

SB Nation

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Barr, Murphy

Specialists: Montgomery

Humble Alamo Bowl win a must for Ducks

December, 11, 2013
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From a public relations standpoint, Oregon lost too many days in 2013.

From former tight end Colt Lyerla leaving the team and his subsequent drug-related arrest to high-profile players making verbal miscues -- and of course the world’s most watched snowball fight -- the Ducks had more drama than their first-year coach probably would have preferred. A bad November on the field didn’t help, either.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCoach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks could get to 11 wins with a victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
So it was no surprise that after a disappointing bowl placement -- disappointing in the fact that it’s not a BCS bowl game -- Oregon had two of its most respected and well-spoken ambassadors handle the talking.

In the first five minutes of chatting with the media following Sunday’s bowl selection, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu -- both who have decided to pass up the NFL for one more season -- couldn’t work in the words “honor” and “blessed” enough when talking about their spot in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas.

Maybe that’s how they really feel. Maybe it’s not. But from here on out, as the Ducks look to rehab their image, the message has to be one of sheer elation and excitement to be playing in a bowl game. Any bowl game.

“This season has been a blessing and an honor to be able to play for such a great team,” Grasu said. “It’s been a lot of fun. A couple of things didn’t go our way but there is no one to blame for that but ourselves. We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. But it happened. You have to move on. Now we have to worry about what we can control and that’s getting better. Going through finals and then preparing to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl, which is a big honor to play in. That’s all we can control right now.”

Another word they both used a lot was “opportunity.” That’s the key.

This is a big opportunity for Oregon. It’s an opportunity to get coach Mark Helfrich his first bowl victory and reach the 11-win mark, something Chip Kelly didn’t do in his first year. It’s an opportunity to show the recruits that the month of November was simply a hiccup and Oregon football isn’t going anywhere. It’s an opportunity to show the rest of college football that Oregon has neither been exposed nor is on a downward trend.

“It was tough and it is unfortunate,” Mariota said. “But we put ourselves in this predicament. We didn’t give ourselves a lot of room. We had the opportunity. But we’re blessed and it’s a great opportunity and we’re looking forward to it … I think for the most part guys are going to be exited. We have a lot of guys from Texas. A lot of guys that haven’t been to Texas. It’s going to be an awesome, awesome venue. We’re playing one of the most traditional programs in the country.”

Almost every college football fan in the country -- yes, even a few in Oklahoma -- wanted to see Alabama-Oregon in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Even if it weren’t for a national championship, it’s still a dream matchup that has been speculated on for years. But geography, travel and the fact that the SEC and Big 12 have a schedule alliance coming were all contributing factors to the Ducks being on the outside -- despite only losing to Pac-12 champion Stanford and the nation’s best running back in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. That those losses came in November magnifies their impact.

If there is disappointment in the ranks, and there has to be, now isn’t the time to let it show. Now is the time to exude confidence and humility at the opportunity placed before them. Now is the time for Mariota, who said he hopes to be 100 percent for the bowl game, to go out and show why he deserved to be in New York as a Heisman finalist. He could also start off his 2014 campaign with a bang.

“I don’t think anyone is disappointed,” Grasu said. “It’s an honor to play in this bowl game against Texas. Getting a bowl win in the Alamo Bowl against Texas would a big momentum boost in the offseason and getting ready for next season. It’s really exciting. We have a lot of guys coming back, but we can’t look to next season because we’re preparing to play Texas.”

Oregon’s reputation as an elite program, combined with a bowl win, likely gets them into single digits in the final rankings. Mariota’s return makes them a preseason top-10 team in 2014. There will be many, many more days to win. And it has to start on Dec. 30.

Preferably, quietly.

After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.

As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will return to Oregon next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite.
While the Ducks probably are going to say goodbye to receiver De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who have yet to announce their intentions, Mariota's decision does make one thing clear: Oregon will be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.

While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.

Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.

Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.

Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.

The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.

That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.

Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.

The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.

Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.

But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.

Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.

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