Most of the best football players aren’t just great because of their athleticism. In order to stand out among thousands of others, the top players on a college football team must possess a unique passion for the game, poise under pressure and mature leadership skills that represent their school. As we take a look at the top players in the Pac-12 conference to keep an eye on for the remainder of the season, we must also consider what makes each individual’s name rise above the average student-athlete in addition to their superior playmaking skills.
12) Budda Baker, S, Washington
Baker was thrusted into a starting secondary position as a true freshman. Since then, he has blossomed into a star and one of the leaders of the Husky defense alongside Sidney Jones. Now a junior, Baker was named to last year’s All-Pac-12 First Team from the safety position and is a candidate for the All-American team when all things are said and done. The one game he missed happened to be Cal’s 30-24 victory in Seattle, but this year, he remains motivated to lead the No. 10 Huskies to their first conference title since 2000. He’ll look to slow down the top player in the conference, Stanford star Christian McCaffrey, this Friday evening.
11) Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
A former walk-on in 2013, the redshirt junior has blossomed into one of Washington State’s best quarterbacks in the history of its program. Like many of the other names on this list, Falk earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors last season after passing for 4,566 yards and 38 touchdowns. He led all of college football in passing average with 380.5 yards per game, establishing a dangerous connection with receiver Gabe Marks. With 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in three games thus far, Falk is on track to best many of the already astounding numbers he put up last year.
10) Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah
The once injury-ridden Dimick has developed into the backbone for a Utah defense that has already lost several key players to injury this season. In all four starts this year, he has recorded at least one sack and is tied for fifth in the nation with 5.0 total, a scary thought considering that the undefeated Utes will face the Bears this weekend at Memorial Stadium. Even with the loss of senior Kylie Fitts and a banged-up Lowell Lotulelei, Dimick’s presence makes the Utes defense the toughest the Bears will have faced this season.
9) Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
To put it simply, Marks is the best receiver in the history of Washington State football. He set the record for most touchdown receptions in a season last year with 15 and his 104 receptions ranks second in the school’s history. If he were on a team that was competing for the National Championship every year, this guy would make a case for best receiver in the country. While he doesn’t get to showcase as much as McCaffrey or receivers like USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster, Marks has the speed and talent to beat up on any secondary that this conference has to offer.
8) Davis Webb, QB, Cal
Webb won’t be drafted No. 1 overall in the NFL draft when the time comes, but he does a pretty good imitation of Jared Goff’s days at Cal. And while he wasn’t supposed to crack the best Pac-12 players list at the beginning of the year, he’s been a nightmare to solve for opposing defenses. Although he’s made some miscues late in close games during his stint as a Bear, Webb has been terrific through four games. His 1,837 passing yards leads college football by a margin that’s longer than three football fields, and if he can keep on performing at a high level, NFL scouts will likely be calling his number throughout the rest of the year.
7) Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah
An All-Pac-12 member for the past two seasons, Lotulelei has the ability to make plays when his team needs something big. During Utah’s bowl game last year against BYU, Lotulelei forced a late fumble, leading to the Utes’ game-winning drive. Entering the season as an All-American candidate for the second straight year, Lotulelei remains questionable to play against Cal this Saturday with a shoulder injury he recently suffered. Having to deal with Hunter Dimick is already asking a lot, but if Lotulelei is able to suit up for Saturday’s afternoon matchup, Webb could be in line for his toughest performance yet.
6) JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Yet another All-American candidate to crack this list, JuJu Smith-Schuster represents a stellar combination of speed and size. Although the USC offense has taken a step back from last season, Smith-Schuster is still capable of producing at a high level. He averaged 16.3 yards per catch and hauled in 10 touchdown passes as a sophomore, but is still seeking his first 100-yard game in 2016 after producing eight in his career thus far. There’s still a lot of season left, so look for Smith-Schuster to break out in a big way over the next few weeks as NFL scouts begin pointing fingers at him and Marks.
5) Chad Hansen, WR, Cal
Anybody who says they saw this coming, is lying. In many ways, Hansen’s story is one of the reasons why people love sports so much. Three years ago, Hansen was a member of the Idaho State Bengals of the Big Sky Conference. GoingComing into last week, Hansen was the leading receiver in all of college football. After racking up one touchdown and 249 yards in his first full year as a Bear, Hansen has produced six touchdowns and an eye-popping 656 receiving yards through the first four games of the season. While his stats are likely to regress as defenses begin to realize how talented the kid is, his presence on the field not only provides Webb with a go-to deep threat, but also opens up the rest of the field for other Cal targets like freshmen Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall.
4) Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Not many college athletes can say they’ve scored a touchdown via receiving, interception, kick return and punt return. Thus, Adoree’ Jackson might be the most versatile and interesting player in college football. If you ask him to line up against Marks or Hansen or any other receiver, he’ll shut them down. If you ask him to take a kickoff from goal-line to goal-line when the offense is struggling, he’ll do just that. In addition to being one of the most feared defensive and special teams players in the conference, he has the ability to line up as a receiver and beat teams with his speed on that side of the ball, too. He’s a joy to watch and is just the player to assist JuJu Smith-Schuster in turning USC’s season around.
3) Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Every year, it seems as if the Ducks prolific offense is highlighted by a versatile quarterback and an exciting running back. As Dakota Prukop develops into the Ducks quarterback and leader of the future, Freeman remains in the spotlight as one of the toughest tailbacks in college football to catch from behind. The junior is currently just 15 touchdowns shy of breaking the Ducks’ all-time record, and has already received countless awards for his offensive dominance during his early years. Expected to return this weekend against Washington State, Freeman will look to single-handedly snap the Ducks’ uncharacteristic two-game losing streak.
2) Jake Browning, QB, Washington
This placement is a stretch, but Browning has performed as well as any quarterback in college football on this side of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson thus far. The sophomore has already unseated Falk, Webb and UCLA’s Josh Rosen as the quarterback to watch out for, not just for the rest of the season, but for the rest of his career. Browning enters Friday night’s rendezvous with Stanford with the third best QB rating in college football and is tied for second in touchdown passes. After receiving a strong test from the Arizona Wildcat defense, Browning will look to defeat his greatest challenge of his young career against McCaffrey and the Cardinal. If he loses in a close game, he’ll come back from the experience mentally stronger and ready to continue improving. If he wins and continues to lead Washington up the rankings, he should be considered as one of the brightest stars the sport has to offer.
1) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Combine Gabe Marks’ dominance with Adoree’ Jackson’s agility with Royce Freeman’s speed, and you’ve got a player that resembles the amazing talent that McCaffrey has become. He holds accolades that likely won’t be broken for years, most notably the NCAA single-season all-purpose yards record with 3,864. Despite not winning the Heisman in a close race last year, McCaffrey was named the Associated Press Player of the Year and dominated each game with charisma and poise unlike any other. He continues to contribute out of the backfield, out of the slot, receiving kicks and punts, just about everything. It remains to be seen how high his ceiling is, but regardless, let’s appreciate the greatness for as long as we can.
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