Pac-12 Football: 5 Sleepers Who Will Shock the Conference in 2014
College football is a cyclical sport, and just when you think there can't possibly be a better player than Joe Quarterback over here, a Mr. John Football (no relation to Manziel) comes along.
The Pac-12 will be highlighted by the sensational talents of Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and others, but perhaps more fun will come from discovering new players waiting in the shadows, hoping to be discovered.
We're not talking about the players primed to take that natural step forward, either. We're looking at the sleepers who will step into the spotlight and put up big numbers. Think wide receiver Jaelen Strong in 2013 or Ka'Deem Carey from the year before.
So who will begin to create their true legacy in 2014?
All stats via cfbstats.com
RB Khalfani Muhammad, California
On teams that throw the ball 60 percent of the time, running backs don't often find a way to stand out. Cal is such a team, and yet, one of the keys to its future success may come from the running back position.
In 2013, junior Brendan Bigelow was expected to carry the load on the ground and help offset the aerial efforts of freshman Jared Goff. While he managed 425 yards and two touchdowns, it was freshman Khalfani Muhammad who racked up 445 yards and four touchdowns—only he did it with 32 fewer carries.
Make no mistake—the Bears need to throw the ball effectively in order to win more games in 2014. That means more big plays, fewer interceptions from Goff and a consistent attack that sets up short-yardage situations.
But counting solely on the passing attack to move the offense down the field is a recipe for disaster, as defenses will key in on what the Bears are doing and force Goff into some difficult situations.
Look for coach Sonny Dykes to trust his talented sophomore back with the ball as much as 15 times per game to keep the defense on edge. Oh, and while Bigelow averaged barely four yards per carry, Muhammad was over six. He has the speed and talent to make plays in any offense, but as the only proven ball-carrier on Cal, look for him to get a larger piece of the offensive pie and rack up a bunch of yards this season.
WR Victor Bolden, Oregon State
Oregon State wide receiver Victor Bolden had just 95 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving in 2013, so yes, he's the very definition of a sleeper pick.
But what makes him so intriguing is his speed, which is on full display in the video. That kick return may have been meaningless, but his 25-yard scamper for six against the Ducks in the Civil War was not, as it put the Beavers ahead with just a few minutes remaining in the game.
Bolden stands at just 5'9", but if that means anything to you then you evidently missed the entire career of James Rodgers, a diminutive wideout who became one of the Beavers' most elusive weapons. He was featured heavily in the fly sweep, a play in which the receiver sprints across the field just in front of the quarterback.
At the snap, the quarterback either hands off the ball or pitches it to the streaking wideout who then hits the edge and races upfield. It requires speed, quickness, more speed and more quickness, just for good measure.
Look for Bolden to step up in the absence of Brandin Cooks and become the squad's premier home run threat from the first game of the season.
DL Arik Armstead, Oregon
After a solid freshman season, in which defensive lineman Arik Armstead showed plenty of promise, Duck fans expected the former 5-star recruit to take a gigantic leap forward this past fall.
That didn't happen. Instead, the 6'8" sophomore was largely forgettable, tallying just 15 tackles and a lone sack.
But with a renewed focus on the gridiron after quitting the basketball team, Armstead could be in for a monster junior season. Part of that is due to his sheer size, as he combines his height with a nearly 300-pound frame.
Another aspect, however, is the lack of depth along the Ducks' defensive line. Though Armstead may not have the numbers, he does have the experience, and after losing Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli, that's something the unit sorely needs.
It's officially put up or shut up time for Armstead (not to imply that he's a loudmouth; in fact, he's quite the opposite), and we're expecting him to finally realize some of his enormous potential.
RB Dwayne Washington, Washington
Running back Dwayne Washington is a perfect fit for the Huskies, if only because of his last name. But Chris Petersen had to like what he saw on tape when he first popped in film of his new team.
The freshman tailback averaged over seven yards per carry en route to 332 yards and four scores in 2013.
What's important to note with Petersen's involvement is what he's been able to do with heavy, dragging-tacklers-down-the-field type of backs. First there was Ian Johnson, and then Doug Martin followed by Jay Ajayi.
Washington is a stout 220 pounds and will be much more dangerous in Petersen's offense than either Jesse Callier or Deontae Cooper. Though experience typically has a leg up on position battles, look for the youngster to get his fair shot in replacing Bishop Sankey.
If he can simply double his carries, which would give him 94 in total, Washington will have a breakout season.
DT Marcus Hardison, Arizona State
Don't lie. That was your first thought when you arrived at the final slide, and who could blame you? Arizona State defensive tackle Marcus Hardison had just five tackles and one sack in 2013.
But the former top-tier junior college recruit is now one of the players tasked with replacing Will Sutton, the all-everything Sun Devil who clogged up the middle of the defense over the past few seasons.
It's not an easy job, but someone has to do it. Why shouldn't it be Hardison? He's extremely intimidating at 6'5" and 290 pounds, and he'll have every opportunity to go out there and earn time in the rotation.
If he can put it together and prove that he's worthy of more than a few snaps here and there, Hardison may end up making opponents forget all about Sutton.