Pac-12 Football: 5 Players Who Must Step Up as Leaders in 2014
Talent can only take you so far in a power conference like the Pac-12; the rest, ultimately, falls on the leadership of veterans like Oregon's Marcus Mariota or UCLA's Brett Hundley, both of whom will need to be vocal both on and off the field in order to take their respective teams to the top.
But the aforementioned players are obvious candidates to be leaders of their squads. They're talented, experienced and looked up to by younger players, especially during the tough times.
What we're looking at here are players who you might not necessarily identify as leaders, but who must nonetheless step their game up in that department in 2014. To be clear, this isn't a knock on the following five guys, but rather a call to action due to a key offseason graduation or presumed expanded role on the field.
All five players have proven skills and played integral parts in their team's successes in 2013. Now, they must learn to become leaders as well.
LB Shaq Thompson, Washington
It would be unfair to call Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson a disappointment, because 78 tackles to go along with four tackles for loss and an 80-yard pick-six is pretty impressive. But as a freshman in 2012, the highly touted Thompson had eight-and-a-half tackles for loss, four sacks and three interceptions.
The dip in numbers doesn't necessarily indicate a drop in talent or a lack of improvement, but Thompson needs to be the kind of player who takes over games for the Huskies' defense.
As a linebacker who converted from safety, Thompson has both the speed and physicality to make a difference at all three levels. Whether it's bursting into the backfield to chase down the quarterback, stuffing a run up the middle or breaking up a pass down the field, his athleticism allows for him to be in the right place at the right time.
No, he's not Troy Polamalu, but he could play a similar role in 2014 by doing whatever it takes to make a play.
In addition to getting better, however, Thompson must also become a more vocal presence. The Huskies only gave up 22.8 points per game, which is nothing to scoff at. But the talent is starting to roll in, and that number has the potential to drop below 20.
Whether it does or not will depend largely on the efforts of Thompson both with his play and with his voice in making sure he and his teammates are ready to go each and every snap.
LB A.J. Tarpley, Stanford
Massive losses on the defensive side of the ball for Stanford can only mean one thing: It's time for linebacker A.J. Tarpley to step directly into the spotlight as a player and leader for the Cardinal.
There is no more Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy or Ben Gardner. Gone too is Ed Reynolds, a key member of David Shaw's secondary over the past several seasons. Fortunately, the second-leading tackler in 2013 was none other than Tarpley, who finished the year with 93. Five of those came in the backfield in addition to one sack.
At nearly 240 pounds, Tarpley is the kind of player who typifies what we've come to expect from the Cardinal defense in that he's smart and as physical as they come on the gridiron. Now, with Skov no longer roaming the middle, he'll need to add leadership to his already special mix of skills.
For those who think Shaw's team can continue to win with hard-nosed defense and grind-it-out offense, well, you may be right. But a common thread over the past few seasons has been the play of guys like Murphy and Gardner.
Now, for the first time in several seasons, the defense loses a ton of veteran leadership. If Tarpley can become more vocal and get players to follow him the way he keeps track of running backs, he'll be in the running for a variety of postseason awards.
WR Austin Hill, Arizona
After a year off due to injury, you might not expect Arizona wide receiver Austin Hill to shoulder the load on offense.
After all, that much time away will require a few games to get back into the swing of things, not to mention his voice hasn't been in a real game huddle in almost a year and a half (forget that the Wildcats rarely huddle). But there's the issue of the offense losing both Ka'Deem Carey and B.J. Denker, which requires Hill to step back in without missing a beat.
Although even singing in tune might not be good enough, because as someone who had 1,364 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns in 2012, Hill should have the whole package. Not just great hands, great speed or unselfish blocking, but the leadership ability to make the big plays when they're needed the most and instill confidence in those around him, too.
Rich Rodriguez's system hit full stride on several occasions last year, but at this point in the offseason it's just a bunch of receivers, and other players, locked in tight position battles, the most notable one coming at quarterback.
Hill must emerge as the leader on offense and help this team pick up where it left off in 2013, even with someone new directing the unit down the field.
QB Sefo Liufau, Colorado
We've written previously about how important quarterback Sefo Liufau is for the future of Colorado football. As a freshman, he threw for nearly 1,800 yards and 12 scores in just eight games and has the potential to become one of the top passers in the league.
However, him being on this list has more to do with intangibles than talent. As in, he'll need to display the intangibles it takes to turn around a team mired in mediocrity for the better part of a decade.
No, it's not an easy job, and you can bet that even some of college football's best would struggle to take the Buffaloes to new heights right away. But it's also an opportunity, and a four-win campaign in 2013 is something the team can really build off of.
Four wins, you ask? Well that's coming off just one in 2012 and three in 2011. So, yes, four wins is a step in the right direction, and it's that same momentum Liufau must capture and use to instill belief into everyone around him.
Colorado was once a powerhouse. It probably will be again sometime down the road. For that to happen sooner rather than later, Liufau must become the ultimate leader through his words and his play.
WR Bralon Addison, Oregon
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the unquestioned leader of Oregon's defense. On offense, young players will look toward quarterback Marcus Mariota and perhaps center Hroniss Grasu as well. So where does wide receiver Bralon Addison fit in?
It has to do more with his position than anything else, because receiver is the one area of the nation's most explosive offense that loses leadership. We're talking about Josh Huff, a physical receiver who wore his emotions on his sleeves and left it all on the field, and Daryle Hawkins, a lead-by-example type.
With those two gone, the leadership load now belongs to Keanon Lowe and Addison. Lowe is similar to Hawkins in that he'll always give 110 percent, and how he goes about his business is a perfect model for younger players to follow.
But Addison is like Huff in the sense that he's a game-breaker. With nearly 900 yards receiving to go along with seven touchdowns, the speedy 5'10" junior should be Mariota's favorite target. But the unit will fall off unless Addison can replicate what Huff did in the leadership department.
That means making plays when the Ducks fall behind and not letting the offense get down if it gets into a situation like the one it faced at Stanford in 2013. It means staying positive and exuding what it means to be a leader. If Addison can do that, there is no weakness in Mark Helfrich's point-scoring demons.
All stats via cfbstats.com.
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