Pac-12 Football: Supporting Cast Transformed into Household Names
The college football season is less than 100 days away from kickoff as anticipation builds. In the Pacific-12, a new era begins. But will that mean a new chapter of uncharted champions and stars?
After the conclusion of spring drills, each coach across the conference had the opportunity to meddle with schemes, test players in different positions and evaluate the youth of their squad. Some athletes emerged and began creating a buzz.
For some players, this might be their last shot at glory with eligibility running out. Others highlighted might be fresh-faced rookies looking to earn a greater share of the playing time.
Either way, these five players will be household names by the end of the 2011 college football season.
5. Keith Price: Filling the Shoes of the Great Jake Locker
Keith Price managed the Husky offense in limited duty last fall. How will he survive as the No. 1 guy?
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Keith Price finally gets his shot. Many believed this day would have arrived last year, as Jake Locker was slated to be the first quarterback selected in the 2010 NFL draft. Locker, as we found out, returned to school, and Price became the full-time backup behind his mentor and Husky team leader.
As the Huskies backup, Price came off the bench in 8-of-13 games, as well as starting for the injured Locker against Oregon at Autzen Stadium. The sophomore has shown promise in limited action, completing 19-of-37 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Although Price has a small sample size, the Southern California product has yet to turnover the ball. Price displayed as much during spring practice, since his production beat out fellow teammate Nick Montana, son of the Hall of Fame quarterback.
Husky head coach Steve Sarkisian named Price the starter shortly after the spring game, to give the team one leader to rally around, just like Locker.
Price has a powerful arm and the flash to make plays on the ground, as well. Also very similar to Locker.
With the weapons Washington has in star running back Chris Polk and wide receivers Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse, Price could explode onto the season early in 2011.
The competition on the schedule is favorable with Eastern Washington and Hawai'i to begin the season, but Nebraska could be in for a surprise on September 17th, when the Huskies invade Lincoln.
Washington is anticipating the big payday for the time well spent for Keith Price. It is now time for Price to step outside of the shadow of Jake Locker and succeed on his own.
4. Lavasier Tuinei: Production Counts, Pronunciation Will Come Afterwards
Tuinei looks to build on last season's success under Chip Kelly.
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The Oregon Ducks are a trendy pick to make a return trip to the BCS National Championship. Whether that unfolds as the truth will certainly hinge on the Oregon offense.
Most of the big names are returning for the Ducks, including Darron Thomas at quarterback, LaMichael James at running back, as well as Josh Huff and David Paulson out wide.
However, one player that looks to make a major impact for Oregon is Lavasier Tuinei.
His name may be difficult to pronounce, but his production will force you to respect his presence.
Tuinei continued his growth in Chip Kelly's system, and has been an instant gem. At 6'5", his size is overpowering, yet his speed amazes cornerbacks in his wake.
When Tuinei was healthy, few in the conference were better. At season's end, he caught 39 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns. Tuinei averaged 11 yards per reception, and caught a season-high seven passes against USC and Washington in back-to-back games.
Tuinei missed the final three regular season games with a shoulder injury, before returning to perform in the BCS title game against Auburn.
Although Tuinei has the ability to lead the Ducks receiving corps in receptions and yards, he also exudes toughness with his blocking skills.
Pending Tuinei's health in 2011, the Ducks are equipped with another downfield target to light up the scoreboard.
3. Cameron Marshall: Make Way for the Pac-12's "Bell Cow"
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Running through the Pac-12's best athletes, it is easy to overlook the running backs with NFL-caliber talent at quarterback. However, it is not long before a running back like LaMichael James of Oregon or Chris Polk of Washington are mentioned as the conference's elite ball carriers.
Although the Pacific-10 in the past has been perceived as a wide open, pass-happy conference, there are plenty of running backs poised to break down the outsiders' belief.
Look no further than Arizona State's multi-talented bell cow in the backfield, Cameron Marshall.
At 5'11" and 223 pounds, Marshall has the size and strength to carry the ball in between the tackles, while barreling over, around and through defenders.
Marshall's physique is second to none, but his speed and and playmaking ability has opposing defenders shaking in their cleats. From poor defensive schemes and elite defensive coordinators, Marshall found a niche against all competitors.
As a first-year starter, it did not take long for Marshall to excel in 2010. After Marshall's first four carries of ASU's season opener, the San Jose Valley Christian product scored three touchdowns, totaled 104 yards, while also earning the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week.
Not a bad way to begin the season at all. However, Marshall would like to change the way ASU's season ended: without a bowl invite.
Throughout the rest of ASU's 6-6 season, Marshall was the driving force behind Noel Mazzone's offense. When the story ended on the Sun Devils season, Marshall totaled 1,014 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns.
Whether by ground or through the air, Marshall was a desired recipient of the pigskin at each turn.
Dennis Erickson and his staff admitted as such during the final stages of the season. The buzz exiting spring practice focused on integrating more running packages for Marshall and his fellow Sun Devil running backs.
After Marshall averaged 5.2 yards per carry behind the exact same offensive line to be featured in 2011, it is safe to say Cameron Marshall's numbers will balloon this fall.
2. Rodney Stewart: Big 12's Best, but Unknown to the Rest
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To many Pac-12 observers, the name Rodney Stewart might not be as recognizable as other top flight ball carriers, but Stewart could be the best back in the conference by season's end.
Think of former Pac-10 running backs Jacquizz Rodgers, Tyler Ebell, or even a young Maurice Jones-Drew, before he added the hyphen. Wrap all three of those balanced backs and you get Rodney Stewart.
Standing at a meager 5'6" and 175 pounds, Stewart does not carry himself as an imposing figure on the football field with his style, but his performance is often frightening for opposing defenses.
No matter how the play might start, Stewart finds an alley to pick up yards, and in large chunks. During Stewart's first three seasons in Boulder, the Ohio native compiled 2,744 rushing yards, 487 receiving yards, while finding the end zone 15 times.
All of that success came prior to Colorado's coaching transition. Along with new head coach Jon Embree, new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will be returning to the Boulder campus. In Stewart's eyes, the addition should be an abundance of running plays.
For those that have not witnessed Bieniemy's work firsthand, he is one of the most fiery and intense competitors on the sidelines, practice field, film room or even at team meals.
And Bieniemy also holds Colorado's career-rushing record of 3,940 yards.
Stewart currently sits in fifth place on the Buffs career-rushing list. However, with four of Colorado's five starting offensive linemen returning from a season ago, complete with 81 starts to boot, Stewart will be eyeing the top spot.
If Stewart's motivation to surpass Colorado's rushing record was waning in the slightest bit, you can count on "EB" to be the master motivator behind the Buffs offensive prowess in 2011.
Perhaps the influence of Bieniemy will be all the help Colorado needs to progress in a foreign environment, but one thing is for certain, fans will not be kept in the dark long regarding star tailback Rodney Stewart.
1. Matt Kalil: Every Great Star Needs an Equally Talented Co-Star
The previous four athletes highlighted as "rising stars" might be better suited than an offensive lineman, but there might not be a more important player in the entire conference than Matt Kalil.
Firstly, Kalil is the starting left tackle for the USC Trojans and valiant protector of Matt Barkley's blind side. Standing at 6'7" and 295 pounds, Barkley should feel fairly secure with the presence of Kalil nearby.
However, the other four line positions are the dread of Trojan coaches, placing even more of a burden on USC's anchor, Kalil.
Other than Kalil, USC returns one other starter on the offensive line from 2010, center Khaled Holmes. All other possible candidates up front for the Trojans will be green, fresh-faced rookies to the Division 1-A trenches.
During spring drills, Kalil, a redshirt junior, found himself mentoring the younger linemen both on the field and in film session, to ease the transition from high school and junior college fields to the Pac-12 gridiron.
Mistakes will inevitably be made by the youngsters, but Kalil is hopeful his leadership and coaching tips in the huddle will keep errors to a minimum in the fall.
Kalil believes his lessons will be put to use this upcoming season, as well as enhancing his own game, mentally and physically. Last fall was Kalil's first as a full-time starter on the Trojans' offensive line, and is looking to improve his game, as well.
“I did well, but I can always improve,” Kalil said. “I want to be more aggressive. Definitely finish more. Get more knockdowns. Study defenses more. Just improve my overall game.”
As a coach, Lane Kiffin received a gift with the mentality Kalil possesses. Throughout Kalil's career, he has always improved. From his days at Anaheim Servite, Kalil was garnering national attention at just 15 years old.
In 2005, Kalil was named to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Sophomore first team. As the sophomore became a junior, then a senior, the accolades never ran dry. Virtually every national publication tabbed Kalil as an All-American offensive lineman.
It is now 2011, and Kalil has continued to improve his game. No awards were handed out last fall for the Trojans or Kalil, but eventually Kalil will be graced by one NFL organization in the near future.
By that time, everyone will take note of Matt Kalil. Until then, Matt Barkley will keep him close, as his personal bodyguard in 2011.