Projecting Pac-12 Football's Most Improved Players for 2013 Season
The terms "breakout player" and "most-improved player" are often confused with one another, which is understandable. They're pretty similar, but they aren't necessarily the same thing.
Breakouts come out of relative obscurity, making a name for themselves where there probably wasn't one before. They are unexpected contributors that have a big impact.
The Pac-12's most-improved players don't have to also be breakouts. In fact, they usually aren't. Generally, they are better-known commodities and players familiar to more than just conference diehards.
They just happen to take a quantum leap forward from one season to the next.
WR Nelson Agholor, USC
Agholor has enormous shoes to fill in Southern California, taking over for departed Robert Woods in the spot opposite Marqise Lee.
Woods finished his Trojans career with 250 catches, 2,933 yards and 32 touchdowns in three seasons. Agholor certainly has the skill to occupy that void, and if preseason reports are any indication, he's also shown great form in camp.
According to USCTrojans.com, receivers coach Tee Martin even said that he's "right up there with [Lee]" from a talent perspective.
Blue-chip receiver George Farmer tore his ACL in the spring, putting an even bigger onus on Lee and Agholor to carry the passing game. Though he finished with just 341 yards as a freshman in 2012, Agholor could put up Woods-sized numbers as a sophomore.
DE Arik Armstead, Oregon
Armstead is a popular choice for lists of this nature—and there's a good reason for that.
It's hard to ignore the 6'8", 285-pound lineman's physical gifts, especially his mobility. Few players so close to 300 pounds are nimble enough to play D-I college basketball, which is exactly what Armstead does for the Ducks.
His real future lies on the football field, though, and after flashing his potential in short cameos last season, Armstead might be poised for superstardom this year. As the mental part of his game progresses, there will be less and less linemen capable of blocking him.
If he puts everything together in 2013, Armstead might not just be the Pac-12's most-improved player; he might also be one of its overall best.
RB Brendan Bigelow, California
Sonny Dykes' offense will always put up big numbers through the air, but calling him a "passing coach" would be a misnomer.
Just last season at Louisiana Tech—lost amid the accolade-filled success of QB Colby Cameron and WR Quinton Patton—true freshman running back Kenneth Dixon ran for 1,194 yards and led the nation with 27 touchdowns on the ground.
Dykes' offense uses the pass to set up the run, especially down in the red zone.
As good as Dixon was last year, he doesn't have nearly the talent or pedigree of Bigelow, who 247 Sports graded a 95 out of 100 coming out of high school. Now entering his junior season at Cal, which should be about his physical prime, Bigelow is in a perfect position to realize that potential.
As long as his offseason knee rehab stays on track, he could put up big numbers in the Bear Raid offense.
CB Alex Carter, Stanford
Carter started a few games last year—enough to be named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention—but was overshadowed by senior Terrence Brown.
Now, as a true sophomore, it's officially his time to shine.
With experienced safeties Jordan Richardson and Ed Reynolds behind him, Carter will be given the freedom to take risks on the outside. He's also just as capable playing as a true shutdown man, which he proved on multiple occasions last year.
He's got the size and strength to be a force in the run game, too—not unlike a former Stanford cornerback, Richard Sherman, who's done pretty well for himself at the next level.
Look for Carter to be one of the Pac-12's best this season.
QB Keith Price, Washington
Price exploded onto the scene in 2011, admirably replacing UW legend Jake Locker by surpassing 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air. However, he took big steps backward last season, throwing just 19 touchdowns and completing six percent less of his passes and lowering his efficiency by 39 points.
A large part of that regression might have been due to the offensive line, which battled injuries. In fact, according to Phil Steele's College Football Preview, the line had to start six different combinations in 13 games.
Now Price gets some stability back up front, which actually might be one of Washington's strengths in 2013, and that should allow him the same type of success he had as a sophomore.
The talent is certainly there, so nobody in Pac-12 circles would be shocked to see Price improve.
QB Travis Wilson, Utah
Utah is the Pac-12's forgotten member, having yet to enjoy the success it enjoyed in the Mountain West, so it's easy to forget the Utes' tradition of grooming highly productive quarterbacks.
Travis Wilson might be the reminder.
He was often inconsistent as a true freshman last season, but that's to be expected of a young passer on an overmatched team in the Pac-12. And even through those bouts of unevenness, he flashed more than enough upside to get excited about.
More than anything, though, Utah brought in Dennis Erickson as its new offensive coordinator. The long-time head coach has experience at both the college (where he won two national championships with Miami) and pro (where he coached the Seahawks and 49ers) levels and should do wonders for Wilson's game.