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Conference Preview: Pac-12: Year of the Quarterback: West Coast Edition

John McKechnie

John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since early 2014.


All-Pac-12 Fantasy Team

First Team

QB: Justin Herbert, Oregon (8)
RB: Royce Freeman, Oregon (3)
RB: Bryce Love, Stanford (27)
WR: Dante Pettis, Washington (13)
WR: Tavares Martin Jr.Washington State (36)
TE: Jacob Breeland, Oregon (NR)

Second Team

QB: Sam Darnold, USC (12)
RB: Phillip Lindsay, Colorado (15)
RB: Ronald Jones II, USC (16)
WR: Deontay Burnett, USC (60)
WR: Demetris Robertson California (39)
TE: Daniel Imatorbhebhe, USC (NR)

Third Team

QB: Luke Falk, Washington State (13)
RB: Ryan Nall, Oregon State (22)
RB: Tre Watson, California (41)
WR: Darren Carrington, Utah (34)
WR: Chico McClatcher, Washington (42)
TE: Jay Jay Wilson, Arizona State (NR)

Sleepers

Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon State: Hey, remember this guy? You know, the one who ripped opposing defenses to shreds alongside Royce Freeman during Oregon’s run to the National Championship Game? Well, after a two-year retirement, Tyner has returned -- only this time he’ll be playing for Oregon’s cross-state rival and wearing black and orange. Of course, listing Tyner here requires something of a leap of faith considering it’s been so long since we’ve seen a healthy version of him on the field. Then there’s the issue of Ryan Nall, one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, also being featured in Oregon State backfield. That said, Tyner’s a player who’s too talented to be left out of the game plan for Gary Andersen and Co. Look for Oregon State to pound the rock as much or more than any other team in the Pac-12 using its deadly combo of Nall and Tyner to bludgeon and gash opposing defenses.

N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State: Harry was a tough omission from the above lists, so I’ll take the time to write him up here. At first glance, Harry’s production wasn’t overly eye-popping as a freshman in 2016 as he averaged just 6.8 yards per target. However, Arizona State’s offense, and particularly its quarterback play, was a mess last season. Harry still managed to lead the team in receptions (58) and touchdowns (5) despite catching passes from a beleaguered group of signal callers. Arizona State’s quarterback situation is still far from ideal, but it should be improved this season whether it’s a healthy Manny Wilkins, who showed flashes of potential last season, or talented Alabama transfer Blake Barnett under center. Furthermore, Harry’s main competition for targets, Tim White, is off to the NFL, making Harry the clear-cut No.1 target in the Sun Devils' passing game. Harry should be in for a monster season as a 6-4, 216-pound nightmare for Pac-12 secondaries.

Stephen Carr, RB, USC: It’s not every year that we see a true freshman carve out a significant role on a title contender (and yes, I’ve heard of Jalen Hurts. I said *every* year), but that’s what I’m expecting out of Carr this year. Yes, Ronald Jones is “the guy” in the Trojans backfield, but coach Clay Helton has had some funky usage patterns with him before and Carr (6-0, 210) is about 15 pounds heavier than Jones, which could net him some short-yardage opportunities. It’s not just that Carr is already working his way past Aca’Cedric Ware for the No.2 role behind Jones, which should afford him double-digit carries every week, but also that Carr can make the most of those opportunities. In a recent interview with Joey Kaufman of the Orange County Register, Helton compared Carr to former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott and said “You’re looking at a 200-pound man who is extremely explosive.” Look for Carr to make waves right away as an explosive and physical counterpart for Jones in the USC backfield.

Dillon Mitchell, WR, Oregon: Darren Carrington is out of the picture in Eugene, leaving a starting spot up for grabs in the Ducks’ receiving corps. No, there’s not a ton of track record to point to with Mitchell after he caught two of five targets for a whopping nine yards as a true freshman last year. However, Oregon’s offense should be much-improved this year with new coach Willie Taggart installing an explosive system that’ll be run by Justin Herbert--whom I expect to be the most productive fantasy quarterback in the conference. Herbert pointed to Mitchell, a top-flight receiver in the 2016 recruiting class, as one of Oregon’s most impressive players during summer workouts and fall camp. Charles Nelson still figures to be the Ducks’ top wideout, but keep an eye on Mitchell as a breakout candidate for a sneakily improved Oregon squad.

Christian Pabico, WR, UCLA: UCLA has recruited at an elite level under Jim Mora, but those blue chip recruits -- particularly in the receiving corps -- have largely failed to live up to their lofty billing. Even still, coaches will often give the benefit of the doubt to their most talented players. So, who is this Pabico guy and how does he fit into the picture alongside the likes of Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley? Well, he’s a walk-on without a single collegiate reception to attach to his name. He’s also been working with the first-team offense throughout fall camp and is in line to start for the Bruins. Not only has Pabico been working with the starters, he’s been playing like one and his play making ability is being noticed by teammates and coaches alike. Pabico could be one of the best “out of nowhere” performers in the FBS landscape this season.

Busts

Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington: Gaskin’s production through his first two seasons at Washington has been nothing short of spectacular, posting 1,300 yards and double digit touchdowns in back-to-back years. He’s at no risk of losing the starting role for the Huskies. So why the bust label? Well, it mostly has to do with Lavon Coleman’s presence. Coleman, who checks in at 5-11, 228, is a much bigger back than the 195-pound Gaskin. With that, Gaskin’s 35 red zone carries from a year ago could see some major regression if coach Chris Peterson feeds the hulking Coleman the rock when the Huskies get down near the goal line. Do I think Gaskin totally flames out and goes under 1,000 yards this season? No. But I have a hard time believing he’ll live up to his ADP while sharing a backfield with Coleman.


Arizona State backfield: It can’t possibly get worse than what we saw last year when Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both ran for under 600 yards while averaging under 4.3 yards per carry apiece. But, how much better is it realistically going to get? Ballage has surpassed Richard as a draft prospect with his absurd combination of size (6-2, 227), speed, and versatility, but he disappeared for long stretches last season and never recaptured the same level of brilliance he displayed when he torched Texas Tech for eight total touchdowns. With Richard, a senior running back coming off a year in which his yards per carry dropped to 3.83, there are too many red flags to justify rostering in most fantasy formats. Is it possible Richard bounces back? Sure. But will that bounce back mean recapturing his 2015 form when he ran for 5.26 yards per carry over 210 totes? Doubtful. Toss in the fact that Arizona State ranks 105th in the nation in returning starts along the offensive line, according to Phil Steele and we see a Sun Devil run game that could be in for another long season.


Brandon Dawkins, QB, Arizona: Running quarterbacks are always game-changers in college leagues with their high built-in floors and rushing touchdown upside, and Dawkins certainly came on as one of the most pleasant surprises in the fantasy landscape last season. He led the Wildcats in rushing with 944 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 1,345 yards and eight scores through the air. Still, it’s important to contextualize that production. Arizona’s best running backs, Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor, were both injured for the bulk of the season, which put an onus on Dawkins to carry the ground game. With Wilson and Taylor back healthy this season, Dawkins may have less of a designed role in the run game, and his passing skills are too shaky to be relied upon for consistent production. Furthermore, this might be a situation where Dawkins wins the job out of camp but gets on the hot seat early if Arizona struggles. Khalil Tate is already reportedly right on Dawkins’ heels, so there may not be a whole lot of margin for error despite Dawkins’ successes last year.

Jake Browning, QB, Washington: Browning had an unbelievable sophomore season in 2016, leading the Huskies to a College Football Playoff Berth on the heels of a Pac-12 Title as he threw an absurd 43 touchdowns while only tossing nine picks. If that’s the bar Browning has to clear to be considered a success this year, then I have my doubts, especially with him losing top wideout John Ross to the NFL. Ross was able to take the top off of defenses and draw defenders away from the likes of Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher, giving each of them more open looks. With Ross gone, there may not be as many open windows for Browning this season, and there certainly won’t be anyone who can take a five-yard out route and turn it into a long touchdown pass for Browning the way Ross could. Browning should still challenge for 30 touchdowns through the air while posting a respectable yardage output, but I have my doubts about him replicating his 2016 dream season.

Charles Nelson, WR, Oregon: Again, Darren Carrington’s dismissal has an impact on the Oregon offense. Of course, the knee jerk reaction was that Nelson would be the primary beneficiary as the lone returning starter in the offense. While Nelson still has a nice floor, particularly in PPR as a high-volume slot wideout, I’m not convinced that he’s the receiver to target in Oregon’s offense. Not only do I expect the aforementioned Mitchell to enjoy a breakout season, but I also see Jacob Breeland coming into his own as a weapon over the middle. Again, Nelson still has a nice floor with PPR value, but Carrington’s dismissal is going to launch other Oregon receivers into the breakout stratosphere more than it will an undersized slot receiver in Nelson.