These Pac-12 players could help define the conference championship chase.
Photo: Andy Bao / The Seattle Times
Article by Kyle Kollman
These Pac-12 players could drastically raise their NFL draft stock or burst on to
the scene this season.
Arizona - Gary Brightwell - RB
Finally, out of the shadow of J.J. Taylor, Gary Brightwell steps into the spotlight as the starting running back for U of A. The senior tailback should garner over 100 carries in a single season for the first time in his career. This is despite averaging a very productive 5.8 yards per carry in his first three years in Tucson. We know head coach, Kevin Sumlin, and Offensive Coordinator, Noel Mazzone, love to hand the ball off in their up-tempo spread offense. JJ Taylor had 549 carries over the past three seasons for the Wildcats. Those touches will now go to Brightwell who has already popped for over 100 yards rushing in 3 career games. Gary was named to the Preseason Doak Walker Award Watch list and some pundits predict him to make the all-conference team.
ASU - Johnny Wilson - WR
A big question mark for ASU is what will the Wide Receiver depth chart look like to start the season? Frank Darby is a bona fide #1 receiver who is trying to become the third consecutive Sun Devil Wide Out drafted in the first round in as many seasons. With the departure of last year’s leading receiver and first round pick Brandon Aiyuk, as well as Kyle Williams, who will fill the void behind Darby? A strong case could be made for highly touted 4 star Freshman, Johnny Wilson. The Calabasas native flipped from Oregon to ASU in large part to former Oregon assistant and now new Co-Wide Receiver coach, Prentice Gill. Wilson is listed at 6’7” 220 pounds and has already impressed the coaching staff at fall camp. New offensive coordinator, Zak Hill, has stated he is implementing his offense to be centered around Quarterback Jayden Daniels. Look for ASU to open up the play calling and allow Daniels to flourish after a fantastic Freshman campaign. Besides Darby, no other Sun Devil caught more than eight passes last season. All signs point to Johnny Wilson getting many opportunities to make an impact as a true Freshman.
Colorado - Daniel Arias - WR
It is a new era in Boulder as Karl Dorrell takes the keys to the Colorado program. Dorrell and the Buffs will have to find a way to replace, Laviska Shenault, one of the most prolific offensive weapons in program history. Colorado also lost Tony Brown to the NFL who hauled in over 700 yards receiving in 2019. This paves the way for the only senior Wide Receiver, KD Nixon, to thrive. Nixon, who is an electric home run threat out of the slot, should see the majority of opposing defense’s focus. These reasons lead me to believe Daniel Arias could really breakout this season. Arias has only caught 4 passes for 99 yards and 2 TDs in his first two seasons in Boulder, however, at 6’4” 205lbs he is a matchup problem on the outside. Offensive coordinator, Darrin Chiaverini, has spoken highly of Daniel this offseason and believes he could be primed to make the most of his opportunity.
UCLA - Demetric Felton Jr. - RB
The Bruins need to replace Joshua Kelley who toted the rock 454 times in his two seasons at UCLA. Now entering his senior season, Demetric Felton Jr. has carried the ball 101 times for 433 yards and 2 touchdowns. Last season, Demetric, was 3 yards away from leading the Pac-12 in receiving yards for a running back. He hauled in an absurd 55 catches for 594 yards and 4 TDs receiving in 2019. Felton is a serious dual threat out of the backfield and an exciting kick returner as well. In 2020 he could finally get his chance to start. Britain Brown, a transfer from Duke, will challenge for the starting running back position. Brown is a bigger back who has been hampered with injuries the past two seasons but had an explosive Freshman year. Felton is on the 2020 Doak Walker Award watch list.
USC - Brandon Pili DT
With the departure of Jay Tufele, a projected first round NFL pick who opted out of the 2020 season, a massive hole has been left on the Trojan defensive line. In steps 6’4” 325-pound defensive tackle, Brandon Pili. The senior has started five times in his career totaling 44 tackles (7.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks, 3 pass deflections, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal. New defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando, has emphasized physicality this fall, and Pili acknowledged that he must carry the weight for the defensive line. Brandon may be the key cog to stopping the run and improving on the 9th best Pac-12 rush defense in 2019.
Utah - Mika Tafua DE
Mike Tafua is the lone returning starting defensive lineman for the Utes. The three departed defensive linemen were all NFL draft picks in April. Coach Kyle Whittingham believes Tafua has what it takes to do the same. Mika, the 6’3 250-pound Junior, has tallied 69 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and a 68-yard fumble returned for a touchdown in his first two seasons in Salt Lake City. Tafua, also tied for the most fumble recoveries in the country last season with 4. Mika was named the Pac-12 defensive lineman of the week in week 12 last season. He has been named a captain for the 2020 season. The Utes ranked 2nd in the country last season in total defense. They also have led the Pac-12 in rushing defense in three of the last four seasons. The Utes have consistently developed productive defensive linemen and Tafua should be next in line.
Cal – Chigozie Anusiem CB
The Golden Bears picked off twenty passes last season, the second most in the country. Cal plays a heavy amount of Nickle coverage and in 2020 will have to replace four of their five starters in the secondary. Chigozie Anusiem will get his opportunity this season after only starting one game, the Bear’s bowl win. The 6’1” 200-pound redshirt sophomore had 15 tackles and 5 pass breakups in 2019. Justin Wilcox has developed numerous successful corners in his career and Chigozie has the size and skill to shine in his system.
Oregon – Steven Jones OT
It is rare in college football to have to replace all five starters on the offensive line, but that is exactly the task in Eugene. The 2019 Duck offensive line was best in the country according to Pro Football Focus last year. The biggest loss obviously being Penei Sewell, a projected top 3 pick in the NFL draft, who opted out of the 2020 season. The heir apparent at left tackle is 6’6” 340-pound Steven Jones. A redshirt sophomore, who was a 4 star recruit out of Temecula, CA. Jones has one career start in which PFF graded him out as the best Pac-12 Tackle of the Week. He did not allow a sack or commit a penalty in five games as a Freshman. Mario Cristobal has stated that he believes Steven can be one of the best lineman in not only the conference, but the country.
OSU – Trevon Bradford WR
The Beavers surpassed all expectations last season winning double the amount of games Sportsbooks had pegged for their season win total. The Beavers will miss Isaiah Hodgins who caught the most touchdowns in the Pac-12 in 2019. Head coach, Jonathan Smith, will have to manufacture some of that production to keep the program trending up in year three. Trevon Bradford, senior wide receiver, hopes to carry some of the burden for the Oregon State receivers. Bradford was able to redshirt last season after missing the first seven games due to injury. Trevon is just one of two senior wide receivers on the Beaver’s roster. In his junior season, Bradford flashed for 56 receipts, 649 yards and 6 touchdowns. In his career he has amassed 85 catches over a thousand yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. He also has carried the ball 16 times for 200 yards. Offensive coordinator, Brian Lindgren, plans to play Bradford outside to stretch the field, as well as inside at slot receiver.
Stanford - Austin Jones RB
Many expect sophomore, Austin Jones, to have a big season on the farm. Jones takes over as the starting running back from Cameron Scarlett who graduated. Austin was a 4-star recruit out of the Bay Area, who was a significant signing for the Cardinal. As a Freshman, Jones had 227 rushing yards on 45 carries, including a 35- yard touchdown run. He also caught 14 passes for 108 yards and saw action at kick returner in the last game of the season. Stanford has a rich tradition of churning out running backs; is Austin Jones next?
Washington - Puka Nacua WR
Most Husky faithful expect Puka Nacua to have a big 2020 campaign. Puka recorded 7 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns in 2019, despite only playing in 8 games as a freshman before a season ending injury. All of his receptions came in just three games, when he showed flashes of brilliance. The Huskies lost their top two leading receivers from 2019. Puka was a highly sought after 4-star recruit who committed to the Huskies four days after National Signing Day. New offensive coordinator, John Donovan, has stated he wants this offense to be more aggressive this season. Washington was just ninth in the Pac-12 in pass attempts for the 2019 season. Nacua who started three games as a Freshman is slated to be a big factor in the Washington offense.
WSU - Derrick Langford CB
Derrick Langford is a tall and lengthy 6’3” cornerback who could help improve the Cougar secondary this season. Langford was a JUCO transfer from San Francisco City College. Derrick tallied 7 tackles and 4 pass breakups last season in just one start. He also had two tackles and two pass breakups in Wazzu’s scrimmage last week. He will be challenged by freshman Chau Smith-Wade and freshman transfer walk-on, Ayden Hector, for a starting cornerback position. Hector was a blue chip 4-star recruit, who signed with Stanford, but his scholarship was dropped after a police investigation dating back to high school. Langford has been quoted as taking both corners under his wing. If Derrick can beat out both talented freshmen, it should speak highly of his potential.