Pac-12 Football: 12 Most Important Players in the Pac-12

Michael PleshaCorrespondent IIIMay 26, 2011

Pac-12 Football: 12 Most Important Players in the Pac-12

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    CORVALLIS, OR - DECEMBER 4: Head coach Chip Kelly speaks with quarterback Darron Thomas #1 and running back LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducksin the second quarter of the game against the the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on December 4, 2010
    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    In the first year of the Pac-12 every team believes they have a shot to make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game but only two teams will. 

    For each team to make it there they will each need certain players to step up and make big plays when it matters.  Most people know who the superstars on each team are but they are not always the athlete that is going to be the biggest difference maker. 

    Here is a look at each team in the Pac-12’s most important player for the 2011 football season.

12. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State

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    BERKELEY, CA - OCTOBER 24:  Jeff Tuel #10 of the Washington State Cougars passes against the California Golden Bears at California Memorial Stadium on October 24, 2009 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The Cougars were the laughing stock of the Pac-10 during its last few years of existence.  Fans up in Pullman are hoping that the expanded conference will help change their fortunes. 

    They have reason for optimism as quarterback Jeff Tuel is entering his third season as the starter.  Luckily for Tuel he has a crop of receivers that can make plays down the field and put some points on the board. 

    The 2011 schedule sets up nicely for the Cougars so it will be interesting to see if this team can capitalize on its talents and win more than one Pac-12 conference game.

11. Jon Major, LB, Colorado

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    Colorado is going through a rebuilding stage right now but luckily they don’t need to build from the ground up. 

    Although the offense was bad last season the unit returns eight starters and should be improved with Dan Hawkins out of town.  The defense however is a little shakier.  The unit ranked among the worst in the Big-12 last season they get back their leader at linebacker Jon Major who was injured last season. 

    He will have the job of keeping the inexperienced defense together.  Colorado is going to get scored on a lot in 2011, the key will be whether or not Major and company can get the important stops when the team needs them.

10. Kyle Quinn, C, Arizona

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    With Nick Foles at the helm the Wildcats have had a great deal of success passing the ball the last couple seasons. 

    Arizona is expected to pass the ball even more this season but it’s not because of Foles’ experience, it is because of the lack of experience on the offensive line.

    All five starters from last season are gone and only two linemen remain who have appeared in more than five games.  One of those men is Kyle Quinn who will be the leader of this unit after starting at center in last year’s Alamo Bowl. 

    If the young linemen at Arizona can keep Foles upright they have the ability to turn some heads in the Pac-12 South.

9. Tony Dye, SS, UCLA

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    PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Daniel Thomas #8 of the Kansas State Wildcats is tackled by Tony Dye #6 of the UCLA Bruins in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl on September 19, 2009 in Pasadena, California.  UCLA defeated Kansas State 23-9.  (Photo by Jeff
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    When UCLA brought in Rick Neuheisel as their head coach they anticipated he would bring the offensive firepower to battle with USC. 

    This has not been the case largely because Neuheisel has not been able to find a quarterback capable of running his offense with success.  The same is true for this year and it is possible that a true freshman will start under center for the Bruins. 

    If UCLA is going to compete in the Pac-12 South this season it will be because of their defense.  Last season’s leading tackler Tony Dye will be in charge of leading this group that expects to get little offensive assistance. 

    Despite losing a few of their defensive stars to the NFL UCLA still expect to have one of the conference’s best defenses.  Expect Tony Dye to have another big season in the Bruin’s secondary.

8. Isi Sofele, RB, Cal

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    BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Isi Sofele #20 of the California Golden Bears runs against the Eastern Washington Eagles at Memorial Stadium on September 12, 2009 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The position battle that is getting the most attention in Berkeley is quarterback but there is an equally important battle at running back.

    Cal has had a running back rush for 1,000 yards in eight of the last nine seasons.  If Cal’s quarterback is going to be successful he’ll likely need a back that can rack up the yards. 

    Isi Sofele is the Bears leading returning rusher but many doubt his ability to carry the load due to his small stature. 

    For Cal fans hopefully Sofele can prove doubters wrong and have a break out year.  Cal’s running backs are always well coached so don’t be surprised if you hear the name Isi Sofele quite a bit during the 2011 season.

7. Keith Price, QB, Washington

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    EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 6: Quarterback Keith Price #17 of the Washington Huskies scrambles out of the pocket in the third quarter of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium on November 6, 2010 in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks won the game 53-16. (Ph
    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    The Jake Locker era in Washington is over and quarterback Keith Price has been handed the keys to the Husky offense. 

    Price is a terrific athlete but accuracy has been an issue for him.  Thankfully for Price he has Chris Polk to hand the ball off to.  Price will likely see a lot of blitzes early on because teams will be trying to stop the run. 

    If Price can find the open man and capitalize on aggressive defenses it will significantly increase the Husky’s chances of victory.  The receiving corps is a talented group with plenty of speed but it is up to Price to get them the ball. 

    Whether or not the Huskies will return to a bowl game for the second consecutive year is up to Keith Price.

6. Harvey Langi, RB, Utah

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    Utah has had great success in the Mountain West Conference but the Pac-12 will offer a new level of competition on a weekly basis. 

    Lucky for the Utes they return quarterback Jordan Wynn to run Norm Chow’s offense.  The question in Utah is who will carry the ball after they lost the team lost their two leading rushers from last season. 

    The answer is likely freshman Harvey Langi who was an early enrollee and caught a lot of people’s attention in spring practice. 

    The Utes will likely feature multiple backs in their backfield but Langi is powerful back how can help take the pressure off of Wynn.

5. Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State

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    TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 02:  Quarterback Brock Osweiler #17 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass during the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on December 2, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Wi
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last year Arizona State had arguably the best defense in the Pac-10 which returns eight starters this season. 

    In 2011 ASU will no doubt be able to shut down many of their opponents on offense but the key will be whether or not their offense can score enough points to win.  Leading the offense this year will be quarterback Brock Osweiler in his first full year as a starter. 

    The Sun Devils have enough talent around Osweiler to get the job done it will just come down to his ability to be accurate down the field and make good decisions. 

    If Arizona State has indeed found their quarterback they could be looking at a Pac-12 South Championship in 2011.

4. James Rodgers, WR, Oregon State

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    TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 09:  Wide receiver James Rodgers #8 of the Oregon State Beavers catches a 33 yard touchdown reception against the Arizona Wildcats during the first quarter of the college football game at Arizona Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Tucson,
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    For the past couple of season the James and Jaquizz Rodgers have done almost everything for the Beavers on offense. 

    Last year the team realized exactly how import they each were when James went down early in the season with a horrific knee injury.  Unfortunately for Beaver fans James’ rehab has gone slower than expected and his brother Jaquizz bolted for the NFL. 

    Returning quarterback Ryan Katz needs playmakers to distribute the ball to and there are not many better than James Rodgers. 

    However it is very possible that this fall OSU will have to realize the sad truth of life without the Rodgers brothers a little sooner than they expected.

3. TJ McDonald, FS, USC

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 11:  Safety T.J. McDonald #7 of the USC Trojans tackles running back Keith Payne #22 of the Virginia Cavaliers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Ima
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Since Pete Carroll left USC for the NFL the defense at Southern Cal has been one of the conference’s worst.  Despite sending players to the NFL year after year the unit has not been able to come together as a whole. 

    Last year free safety T.J. McDonald had a break out year in the secondary but he was by far the best player in an under-performing group. 

    Matt Barkley and company will have little trouble scoring on offense but the key for the Trojans will be their defense’s ability to get stops when they need them. 

    For USC to improve their record from last season McDonald will need to get his group of stellar athletes to play in harmony on the field.

2. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford

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    MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 03:  Stepfan Taylor #33 of the Stanford Cardinal runs the ball in the second half against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the 2011 Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 3, 2011 in Miami, Florida. Stanford won 40-12. (Phot
    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    At Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck gets most of the attention.  What went largely unnoticed last season was the Cardinal’s ability to run the football with success. 

    A lot of this had to do with the size and experience of their offensive line but only one starter remains on campus from last year’s group. 

    If Andrew Luck is going to have any time in the pocket to pass the ball it will be because the opposing defense has to respect the run. 

    For that reason running back Stepfan Taylor is Stanford’s most important player in 2011. 

    If he can have the same type of production as he did last year Stanford has the potential to remain a power player in the conference.

1. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon

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    BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 13:  Darron Thomas #1 of the Oregon Ducks warms up before their game against the California Golden Bears  at California Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    It is safe to say that Darron Thomas had a great year in his first year as a starter.  He had a wealth of talent around him and he was able to distribute the ball to his playmakers. 

    Going into 2011 the Ducks will have to replace their two leading receivers from a season ago as well as three offensive linemen.  If Oregon is going to return to the National Championship this season it will happen because Darron Thomas continued to grow in Chip Kelly’s offense. 

    Kelly’s offense is run on speed and Thomas can significantly improve the speed at which the offense is run if he improves his decision making. 

    After another offseason studying the offense Thomas should have no problem continuing to grow this season.