CFB Recruiting: 10 Under-the-Radar Recruits Who Could Star in the Pac-12
The Pac-12 isn't the powerhouse Power 5 conference it used to be.
Since the College Football Playoff's inception, the Pac-12 has struggled to produce regular participants, and while it builds back to prominence with Oregon's big year a season ago and a resurgent USC this year, the league's coaches need some jewels in recruiting cycles.
The conference isn't keeping as much 4- and 5-star talent at home as it should be, and until it does, the league will stay behind. Still, the Pac-12 puts quality players in the NFL every single year. You don't have to be a highly rated prospect to hit it big.
As mentioned in similar lists of underrated recruits in the SEC, the Big Ten and the ACC, 23 of the most impactful players from a season ago—selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft or named first-team All-Americans—were 3-star prospects or lower.
Who are the candidates to do the same from the 2021 cycle?
To make this list, you have to be outside of the top 247 players in the Composite ratings. There are a few 4-stars, sure, but a lot of these guys are 3-star players.
From a couple of quarterbacks to a pair of defenders with major-college bloodlines, there are a lot of exciting candidates in this recruiting cycle who could help the Pac-12 return to its glory days.
Here are the '21 class representatives who could wind up playing better than their rankings once they get to the college gridiron.
Jonathan Flowe, Oregon Linebacker
Last year around this time, the Oregon Ducks won one of the biggest recruiting sweepstakes of the season when 5-star linebacker Justin Flowe decided to play for Mario Cristobal in Eugene.
Though his freshman year didn't go quite as expected, ending with an injury after he'd barely gotten on the field, and most of the headlines went to fellow first-year linebacker Noah Sewell, Flowe is a future star.
Now, he's going to have his brother there for emotional support. It may not be a stretch to think the Flowe brothers can even start and star in the same linebacking corps.
Oregon received word recently 6'1", 200-pound prospect Jonathan Flowe was coming to the Ducks, too. The 4-star prospect from Upland, California, maybe wasn't as highly rated as his sibling, but he was still just as heavily recruited.
He chose Oregon over offers from all over the nation, including Alabama, Miami, Penn State, Florida, LSU, Ohio State and others.
The reason why he was so coveted is because of his speed and athleticism. He's a versatile defender who can do a lot of things and is always around the football. His film looks like he's on the cusp of being an elite prospect, even though he's a 4-star prospect and the nation's No. 301 overall player.
Other services are higher on him than 247Sports, which rates him as a 3-star recruit, but that just means the younger Flowe will arrive in Eugene to play alongside his brother and Sewell, and they could be a formidable trio for the next few years.
He will outplay that ranking.
Keontez Lewis, UCLA Wide Receiver
One puzzling thing that has transpired over Chip Kelly's time at UCLA is his inability to lure top-tier recruits to play for the Bruins. It's surprising considering just how in vogue his offense was during his heyday at Oregon.
Still, if you watch his team this year, there's obvious evidence of player development. UCLA is a better team than its 3-3 record would indicate, and the team is especially stout on offense with dual-threat star junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson leading the way.
With the NCAA wiping away eligibility for the 2020 season, DTR may be at Westwood a couple more years, and Kelly would do well to keep surrounding him with weapons.
One such guy who fits that bill in the '21 class is Keontez Lewis, who the Bruins went all the way to East St. Louis to nab. He chose Kelly's program over offers such as Arizona, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and others.
Lewis is rated the nation's No. 470 overall prospect, which seems low. He is a 6'2", 185-pound prospect who looks the part and is a smooth athlete. He has been catching passes from Mizzou quarterback commitment Tyler Macon for the past few years and could have followed him to Eliah Drinkwitz's Tigers.
Instead, Lewis is going to become a star in the Pac-12. He's blazing his own trail after Macon and Dominic Lovett both stayed home with the Tigers. Lewis is too talented to keep off the field for the Bruins right away.
He'll be a star, and Kelly will get him the ball.
Kai Millner, California Quarterback
Let's get this out of the way: If you want to see one of the coolest high school trick plays ever, the California Bears' quarterback commitment Kai Millner was a part of it.
He threw a pass backward over his head for a touchdown, and that play alone is worth some recognition.
But that's not the only reason why the 6'2", 188-pound signal-caller is a player to watch over the next few years in the Pac-12. He's a 4-star prospect in the composite rankings but is better than the No. 291-rated player in the country.
With offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Colorado, UCF, North Carolina State and several others, a lot of people loved Millner's skill set, which includes a compact motion, a quick release and good enough arm strength.
Blair Angulo of 247Sports also noted in Millner's profile that he is an "impressive leader" and possesses "high-level competitiveness," which are two terrific attributes for quarterbacks.
His Higly High School coach Eddy Zubey told SI.com's Jeff Faraudo: "He is a very smart quarterback and has a quick release. He's athletic enough to run when needed, but his arm strength and accuracy make him great."
The Bears are banking on it. With Chase Garbers' career in Berkeley coming to an end before long, Millner is the kind of prospect who can come in, develop under a college strength and conditioning program for a couple of seasons, learn the system and be ready to star.
Millner may not be an instant-impact guy, but coach Justin Wilcox doesn't need him to be. He's going to mature and be a quality prospect with high upside.
Erik Olsen, Colorado Tight End
No Colorado football fan wants to hear just how well former coach Mel Tucker was recruiting during his brief tenure with the Buffaloes, especially given the circumstances under which he left. But Karl Dorrell's first full class definitely has felt the impact of Tucker's abrupt departure to Michigan State after just a season.
One of the handful of players who looks like he can make an immediate impact, though, is the jewel of the Buffs' class, 3-star tight end Erik Olsen.
Though he's only the No. 422-rated player in the nation, he's Colorado's top playmaker in the class, and the 6'5", 230-pound pass-catcher is a do-it-all tight end who was coveted by teams all over the nation like Notre Dame, Auburn, Arizona State, Stanford, Washington and others.
Olsen (and every other prospect in this class) had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic leveling recruiting visits and plans, but he told Buff Stampede's Adam Munsterteiger it wouldn't have mattered.
"My decision would have been the same," he said. "It would have been nice to be able to go visit some other places, like Washington and Stanford, and get out there and maybe treat those as vacations or something like that. But, at the end of the day, I knew I was going to go to Colorado as soon as I got that offer."
That's exactly the kind of prospect Dorrell needs as he tries to build his program. With the lack of loyalty the program has endured in the past year, and with the recruiting struggles this season, they need some players to instill a culture.
Olsen is that guy, and he's a good player, too.
He uses his size to position himself well for passes, and he is going to be a matchup nightmare against linebackers and even some nickelbacks. Though he is not one of the most athletic tight ends in the class, he has great, soft hands, and he could pack on some weight and be a quality in-line tight end, too.
KC Ossai, Arizona Linebacker
Much like Jonathan Flowe, KC Ossai is the type of player you can look at from a bloodlines perspective and cross your fingers that he's going to pan out the way his brother did. Even more so in this case.
The 6'1", 222-pound defender from Conroe, Texas, did not have a strong offer sheet, but he committed to the Arizona Wildcats and has at least stuck with the team so far despite them firing Kevin Sumlin last week. It's unclear just how many Power 5 options he'd have gotten in the end, but he didn't sign with the Wildcats.
But Ossai is the kind of raw athlete you take a chance on scholarship-wise, and the Wildcats may have gotten a good one. They definitely did if he's anything like his brother Joseph, a Texas Longhorns defensive end, who is one of the biggest impact defenders in the Big 12.
The Houston area prospect was born in Nigeria and has a big-time prospect in brother Joseph, but he wants to be known as his own player and blaze his own trail, although he did say to Tucson.com's Michael Lev he'd have to think about it if the Longhorns offered.
Still, he believes he's going to do just fine with the Wildcats.
"I feel like I'm the best Ossai to come through," he said.
Ossai is already incredibly strong for a high school kid and does a lot of good things on the football field. He could bloom and turn into a great interior linebacker prospect when he develops after a couple of seasons in the weight room.
The Wildcats have watched their class fall apart a bit in the past week or so, but the guys who stayed could wind up getting a better coach who turns a sleeper program back in the right direction. Ossai may turn out to be a big part of the defensive puzzle.
Ari Patu, Stanford Quarterback
At 6'4½", 205 pounds, Ari Patu is a bit on the skinnier side right now, but he has the type of frame that could make him an NFL prospect by the time his college days are over.
The 3-star prospect and the nation's No. 367-rated overall player in the class could be a steal for the Stanford Cardinal very soon. Is he going to be a starter right away? Not likely, but coach David Shaw can help turn him into a very good player soon.
Greg Biggins of 247Sports compares him to former Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins, which would be a nice comparison if Patu can get to that point. Obviously, Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards believes he can since he offered the Folsom, California, prospect.
So did other programs such as UCF, Indiana, South Florida, Georgia Tech and Duke, among others.
"Patu has an athletic frame and the kind of body you might see in a small forward on a basketball team," Biggins wrote on his profile. "He's a mobile, dual-threat type quarterback with a smooth, easy delivery. He has plus arm strength and will make a big jump in this area as he fills out his frame."
He is one of the most underrated quarterback prospects in the entire country in this cycle. There are a lot of things to like about Patu's game, and he has all the puzzle pieces you want to be an elite college player.
He also attends the same high school as another former exceptional Pac-12 quarterback in Washington's Jake Browning.
Patu is going to be a star in Palo Alto; it just won't be in 2021.
Jaylin Smith, USC Safety
After last year's debacle of a recruiting class that saw USC finish 64th nationally, head coach Clay Helton has rallied. It's not just because the USC Trojans are playing better on the gridiron, though that may wind up helping them close out the class.
While it's no surprise the offense is clicking with quarterback Kedon Slovis and an elite group of wide receivers, the secondary is one of the biggest surprises on the team.
That side of the ball is playing with a swagger under first-year coordinator Todd Orlando and has proved the difference in three one-possession wins so far this season. Getting him from Texas is also helping on the recruiting trail.
One of the underrated prospects in this class is Jaylin Smith of Mission Hills, California, a 4-star safety who had a 5-star offer sheet. Even so, he was rated the nation's No. 328 overall player, despite offers from Alabama, Texas, Auburn, Michigan, Clemson, Arizona State and others.
Smith is going to be a Swiss Army Knife, do-it-all athlete in the secondary for the Trojans. Though he's only 5'11" and a bit undersized, he's all around the football and is a gritty, impact defender who could play right away.
The way he tackles and hits, he plays like a much bigger prospect. Smith is going to be one of the top players in a very good class for the Trojans before his career is over.
Smith is going to continue the recent success of that secondary and will fit right in with his attitude and the way he plays the game. USC's defensive future is in good hands with prospects like him.
Jabez Tinae, Washington Wide Receiver
When Jimmy Lake was defensive coordinator under Chris Petersen, he was one of the Huskies' ace recruiters.
He's finding recruiting as a head coach is a little bit tougher.
The 2021 Huskies class is spearheaded by 5-star quarterback Sam Huard, but there isn't the quality of depth there normally is in a Washington haul. It certainly would have helped had they been able to land Ohio State pledge Emeka Egbuka or 5-star defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, who seems destined to go elsewhere.
One of the elite players in the class, however, is receiver Jabez Tinae, who could wind up being a steal.
The 6'1", 187-pound pass-catcher from Burien, Washington, is a 4-star prospect ranked 292nd nationally, but he has the skill set of a big-time receiver and was coveted by a bunch of good programs. The Polynesian Bowl participant had offers from Arizona State, Boise State, California, Colorado, Oregon, USC and others.
There's nothing flashy about Tinae, but he runs quality routes, has great hands and can go up and get any ball. He is the type of player who can step right in and play next year and will make a lot of catches for the Huskies, even if he doesn't wind up being a top-notch NFL prospect.
If there's one thing about Lake's future program, it's full of promising freshmen and sophomores, and it's got a lot of quality, young quarterbacks. True freshman Ethan Garbers and Huard should challenge starter Dylan Morris in the future.
They'll have several good receivers to throw to, and Tinae will be in the mix. Lake needs to step it up a bit in recruiting to not fall so far behind the Oregon Ducks in the North, but Tinae is the kind of prospect who can help them do that.
Isaac Vaha, Utah Tight End
Last year, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham surged to the finish line and secured a strong recruiting class by luring some excellent players late in the game.
During this cycle, the Utes have been a bit steadier on the trail, and they've got a nice core who fit what Whittingham wants to build on both sides of the ball.
The prospect with perhaps the most upside in the class, however, is 6'7", 230-pound tight end prospect Isaac Vaha, who has the type of body that you cannot teach. That's why teams from all over the West wanted him, including Oregon, UCLA, BYU, Arizona State, Washington and others.
He chose to stay at home and play for Whittingham's Utes.
Vaha is a two-sport star who also excelled in basketball and could be good enough to step onto the hardwood at the collegiate level. But his future is on the gridiron. There's no reason to think Vaha will stand on the sideline when he comes in. With his size, he at least should get a look in red-zone opportunities.
Though Vaha is raw, he has a lot of upside, and with the way offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is helping turn around the tight end position at Utah with the emergence of Brant Kuithe last year, having a high-upside prospect like Vaha has to have the coach salivating.
No matter if Vaha is ready to play right away, he will mature, add weight and learn the game after so much basketball focus during his high school days. He could wind up being one of the Pac-12's top tight ends a few years down the road.
A player with his size is a lock to get picked up by an NFL team if he shows any promise in college. He's one to watch as a future Pac-12 star.
Jaydon Williams, Arizona State Linebacker
If you are a high school defensive player, how could you not want to go to Arizona State?
Herm Edwards is a guy who has NFL connections from his many years coaching there and who, by all accounts, is one of the top players' coaches in football. Then, you're co-defensive coordinators are longtime NFL coach Marvin Lewis and former NFL Pro Bowler Antonio Pierce.
The Sun Devils are going to be a force on the defensive side of the ball as long as that trio is in Tempe, and they're going to pull some dynamic talent in if they only start winning in a big way.
One of the players in this year's class who fits that description is 4-star linebacker Jaydon Williams of Dallas, who could have played at any of the four corners of the country. He had offers from LSU, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Ole Miss, Tennessee and others.
The big-play 'backer could be a star with the Sun Devils. He is a high-energy guy who packs a punch, can play sideline-to-sideline and is a former wide receiver who bulked up and is now a linebacker. He has the type of frame that could possibly get him to the inside, but he should stay outside.
That's where he can display his ability to cover receivers and track down ball-carriers. He probably needs to improve his tackling after spending much of his high school career on offense, but Williams is going to be developed by some of the best.
He has the type of athleticism that can translate to the NFL in three or four years. Of all the prospects in Arizona State's class, he may have the highest ceiling. This is going to be a player everybody in the Pac-12 knows before his days are done.
Edwards, Pierce and Lewis are going to turn him into a star.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.