Power Ranking the 10 Most Underrated Offensive Weapons in the Pac-12
Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Ty Montgomery are just several of the big offensive names to watch in the Pac-12 this upcoming season. The quartet, along with a handful of other stars, will likely be featured in many of the national previews that are unveiled in the months leading up to the start of the regular season.
But should those players perform as advertised, it probably won't raise any eyebrows. We expect the talented and proven guys to showcase their skills and make a case for a variety of end-of-year honors.
Perhaps the more intriguing aspect of college football is discovering those hidden gems, players who have flown under the radar despite providing invaluable contributions to their respective teams.
Today we're power ranking the 10 most underrated players from a league with as many offensive standouts as there are in any other conference in the country. To be very clear, these are players that have shown the ability to star on offense, but due to playing in the shadow of a teammate or existing in an offense that fails to showcase their talent, they haven't become household names.
Chances are, if one of your favorite players isn't on this list, it's because he's already considered by many to be great. This eliminates guys like Bralon Addison and D.J. Foster because despite not starring or winning postseason honors, it's pretty clear to everyone watching how much they bring to the table.
Remember, too, that the only criteria here is how "underrated" we think a player is, meaning the second- or third-ranked player may not necessarily be "better" than the guy in the six or seven spot.
Now on to the list, where you'll get a first look at players who might not be so hidden after the 2014 season commences.
10) RB Justin Davis, USC
When you think of the stable of running backs at USC, the first name that pops into your mind is likely Javorius Allen, who burst onto the scene in 2013 to the tune of 774 yards rushing and 14 scores.
Next up in your head might be Tre Madden, who also topped the 700-yard mark. While it's true that Allen has certainly earned his designation as a featured back, Justin Davis should prove equally important to the ground game.
In just seven games, the true freshman ran for 361 yards and six scores. He had the highest yards per carry of any back on the team with more than 10 carries, and he disappeared from our collective consciousness after suffering an injury in late October.
Davis has the size—6'1", 200 pounds—and speed for us to feel comfortable placing him in the all-around category of backs. He probably won't grind out a fourth-quarter drive very often, but without the injury, Davis might be the one capturing all the headlines instead of Allen.
It's true that he's entering just his second season, so calling him underrated already might not be entirely fair. But he's taken a backseat to both Allen and Madden, yet Davis has the talent to become one of the conference's best weapons.
9) RB Dwayne Washington, Washington
There won't be any need for you to give credit to the first place you read about Washington running back Dwayne Washington, but at least remember this slide for when he inevitably becomes the Huskies' best ground threat in 2014.
Like Davis at USC, Washington was just a freshman in 2013, stuck behind future NFLer Bishop Sankey on the depth chart. But despite being given just 47 carries, Washington ran for over 300 yards and hit paydirt four times. He was the only back on the team to average more than seven yards per carry as well.
With Sankey gone, seniority falls on the shoulders of Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier. But neither player has the "wow" factor possessed by Washington, who will have an excellent shot to snag the starting gig when the season begins.
He's underrated because he's not well known by the average college football fan and because the natural order of things would put Callier or Cooper in the driver's seat in the Huskies' backfield. But look for Washington to become the featured back in year one of the Chris Petersen era.
8) WR Vince Mayle, Washington State
Washington State had six receivers with more than 400 yards in 2013, so you can understand how easy it would be to get lost in the shuffle.
In fact, with so many targets for Connor Halliday to throw to and nobody who clearly stands out above the rest, you could probably call the whole group underrated. But keen observers are probably aware of what Gabe Marks brings to the table, and due to a combination of a great name and a solid freshman season, River Cracraft is relatively well known, too.
We're going with wide receiver Vince Mayle, who is returning for one final season, as one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12. After tallying just 70 yards through the air in the Cougars' first five games last season, Mayle had a breakout performance against Cal in which he caught four passes for 113 yards and a pair of scores.
What's most impressive about Mayle is his size, as he's listed at 6'3" and 240 pounds. Marks and Cracraft will continue to grab the headlines in Mike Leach's aerial attack, but Mayle has quietly become one of the better offensive weapons in the conference.
7) WR Chris Harper, Cal
When your team wins just one game, it's going to be difficult to garner attention no matter how good you are.
That's precisely why Cal wide receiver Chris Harper makes the power rankings, because were he on a team that made a bowl game, there would be a lot more buzz surrounding his name.
But although the Bears were flat-out awful in 2013, Harper's play still deserves mention. The sophomore caught 69 passes for 840 yards and five touchdowns in an offense that likes to spread it around. Harper will enter the 2014 season with an excellent chance to earn postseason honors.
And again, if Harper were playing at Oregon, USC, UCLA or another school with much higher expectations, he wouldn't be nearly the unknown that he is now. Those who've kept up with the Pac-12 know what Harper is all about, but from a national perspective, he's clearly one of the more underrated talents on offense.
6) WR Devon Cajuste, Stanford
In 2013, the Stanford Cardinal needed a pass-catcher to emerge as a real threat on offense to help offset the losses of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo from the tight end position.
Wide receiver Ty Montgomery did exactly that in hauling in 10 scores and nearly 1,000 yards through the air. But the offense would still have been missing a key ingredient if Devon Cajuste hadn't shown up ready to go in September.
Cajuste, who stands at 6'4" and weighs nearly 230 pounds, was a perfect target for Kevin Hogan because he helped take pressure off Montgomery while also providing a big target in the open field. Cajuste ended up with 642 yards and five scores of his own, but the average fan probably can't name a player after Montgomery from the Cardinal's receiving corps.
One thing he must work on is becoming more consistent, however. Cajuste had seven games with more than 50 yards through the air and six with less than 20. Still, he and Montgomery form an impressive duo at wideout, and if defenses are too keyed in on the big name, Cajuste has the talent to take over, making him one of the league's most underrated offensive weapons.
5) RB Byron Marshall, Oregon
In 2013, Byron Marshall went from being a question mark to a solid performer to the Ducks' best back to an afterthought next to Thomas Tyner. That last bit is completely ridiculous, of course, and his late-season struggles were due in large part to injuries that forced him to miss a game and receive fewer carries than usual in several others.
Still, after rushing for 133 yards and three scores in Oregon's 42-14 win over UCLA, Marshall was the toast of Eugene. The performance marked the sophomore's fifth straight game with over 100 yards on the ground. After the win over the Bruins, however, Marshall would only rush for 159 yards and two scores the rest of the way.
Tyner, meanwhile, stepped up for the injured Marshall and played well, even racking up 140 yards in the Civil War. His potential is intriguing, and combined with Marshall's disappearance, would almost lead you to believe that the experienced junior-to-be is already a has-been.
But because of Marshall's incredible midseason string of 100-yard games, we know better. We know that Marshall is more than capable of leading a team on the ground, and though Tyner will undoubtedly get more carries in the future, Marshall is vital to the team's overall success.
He may not get the buzz in the offseason, and the pressure will be on to erase late-season memories. But he still has all the talent in the world and will have an excellent shot for a second-straight 1,000-yard campaign.
4) WR Devin Fuller, UCLA
The popular narrative for UCLA heading into 2014 will be who can step up on offense to help complement the enormous talent that is quarterback Brett Hundley.
Shaq Evans is gone, and odds are the average fan couldn't name another receiver on the Bruins roster. As it turns out, a trio of sophomores made quite the splash in the passing game in 2013, with the biggest coming from wideout Devin Fuller.
The 195-pound speedster hauled in 43 passes for 471 yards and four scores last fall, but you wouldn't know it with Evans garnering most of the attention at receiver. With him gone, Fuller likely becomes one of the top targets, if not the top target, for Hundley.
From where we are today, Fuller is not a name you're likely to come across when looking for exciting names to watch. But he has plenty of talent and is a key cog in the Bruins offense. Look for this underrated weapon to increase his stats and have a huge impact on where UCLA ends up in 2014.
3) WR Richard Mullaney, Oregon State
Playing on the opposite side of the field as Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks has its perks. Such as not receiving the lion's share of attention and rarely, if ever, seeing double coverage.
All of which makes Cooks' 1,730-yard, 16-touchdown year all the more impressive. But because he seemed to redefine what a receiver could and couldn't do each week, people failed to notice what Richard Mullaney was able to do.
Believe it or not, the sophomore hauled in 52 passes for 788 yards and three scores. He only topped the 100-yard mark on two occasions, but at 6'3" he has the size to high-point many of quarterback Sean Mannion's passes and win jump balls.
The pressure will be on Mullaney this fall to step up and make up for some of the production lost when Cooks declared for May's NFL draft. But if Cooks was the only player you noticed at Oregon State in 2013, you missed a pretty special season by Mullaney. Here's a guess that everyone will know exactly who he is and what he can do by the end of the 2014 season.
2) WR Nelson Spruce, Colorado
You undoubtedly heard about (or witnessed) the exploits of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson in 2013. He was an absolute game-changer for the Buffaloes offense, and his numbers were aided by promising young quarterback Sefo Liufau, a name you should also familiarize yourself with if you haven't done so already.
But one name that could be missing from your college football lexicon is Nelson Spruce, one of the more consistent, reliable playmakers in the Pac-12.
As a sophomore in 2013, Spruce had 55 grabs for 650 yards and four touchdowns. He had multiple catches in every contest save for one, and he even produced an eight-reception, 140-yard effort in Colorado's 41-24 victory over Cal.
Spruce doesn't rate off the charts in terms of physical ability, but aside form Liufau, he may be the most important player returning for the Buffaloes in 2014. Make no mistake: Colorado is going to turn things around. However, without guys like Spruce, the process will take a lot longer and maybe even come to a halt altogether.
1) QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
If you've opened your eyes on a Saturday in the fall even once in the past couple years, there's a good chance you'll recognize the name Taylor Kelly.
Arizona State's quarterback is no stranger to the spotlight out in Pac-12 country, and there's no real way to argue against his abilities without looking foolish almost immediately. In 2013, Kelly passed for over 3,600 yards and had 28 touchdowns while also rushing for nine scores and another 600 yards.
To put that into perspective, he had only 139 fewer total yards than Marcus Mariota and just three fewer touchdowns. One difference, of course, is that he had eight more interceptions than Mariota, but the point is he was nearly as productive as one of the best players in the country.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Pac-12 fan that isn't impressed with Kelly's ability. But nationally, he barely moves the excitement/buzz needle, when in fact, he could start for 85-90 percent of teams in the country. For that, he is extremely underrated and will undoubtedly be the biggest factor in how successful the Sun Devils are in 2014.
All stats via cfbstats.com. We did our best to include as many teams as possible, but apologies to the two that don't have a player in the power rankings.