News & Analysis

Top 10 players returning in the Pac-12 in 2020

The Pac-12 is going to be one of the more intriguing conferences to watch in 2020. Both Oregon and Washington rank among the top 10 in PFF’s way-too-early top 25 but have question marks at quarterback. USC has one of the best returning young quarterbacks in the country but has question marks everywhere else. Using PFF’s advanced database that all 32 NFL teams and 72 FBS programs take advantage of, these are the top 10 players returning to the Pac-12 in 2020:

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1. T Penei Sewell, Oregon

It’s highly unlikely that any offensive lineman will ever win the Heisman Trophy. The last time anyone to play the position finished in the top five in voting was back in 1996, when Ohio State’s Orlando Pace finished fourth. That being said, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell should most certainly be in the Heisman conversation heading into the 2020 season. We’ve never seen an offensive lineman post a higher grade than Sewell’s 95.5 last year. He allowed just seven pressures on 491 pass-block snaps and opened up massive holes in the run game, as he recorded a 95.3 grade in that facet. Sewell’s 2019 campaign was far and away the most valuable season we have ever seen from an offensive lineman:

Season WAA
1. Penei Sewell, Oregon 2019 0.38
2. Kevin Dotson, Louisiana 2019 0.35
T3. Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin 2016 0.34
T3. Matt Rotheram, Pittsburgh 2014 0.34
T3. Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame 2017 0.34
T3. Shaq Mason, Georgia Tech 2014 0.34

If he matches this unprecedented year in 2020, not only should he be taken within the first few picks of the draft, he should be the first offensive lineman to crack the top five in Heisman voting for the first time in nearly 25 years.

2. CB Jevon Holland, Oregon

Ever since Jevon Holland stepped foot on the field as a true freshman in 2018, he’s been one of the best players on the field. He’s manned the slot for the Ducks and produced the highest two-year coverage grade at the alignment than anyone else. Holland was mostly a safety in 2018, but he even played the box and deep safety at a high level. He tracks the ball incredibly well and has combined for 20 interceptions and pass breakups over the past two seasons. In that same span, Holland has been the third most valuable defensive back in the country behind Derek Stingley Jr. (Yes, he’s played in only one season and been that good) and 2020 first-round prospect Kristian Fulton.

3. CB Elijah Molden, Washington

Holland was the best in the slot for a longer period, so he gets the nod over Washington's Elijah Molden, but the highest-graded slot corner of the 2019 season was none other than Molden. This was the junior’s first full season as a starter for the Huskies — and clearly, it worked out for both parties. He was the fourth most valuable cornerback in college football, largely because of the saving tackles he routinely made. In the slot this past season, Molden had 26 “defensive stops,” which are basically tackles that constitute as a loss for the offense. That was nine more than second and 14 more than third.

4. CB Mykael Wright, Oregon

Mykael Wright was one of the top cornerback recruits coming into Oregon, and he ended his true freshman campaign as one of the best cornerbacks in college football. He had a limited role due to Oregon’s depth at the position but allowed just eight catches on 23 targets in coverage while forcing four combined interceptions and pass breakups. Out of those 23 targets, Wright forced tight coverage on 17 of them. Not to mention, he didn’t miss one of his 25 tackling attempts. It’ll be interesting to see how Oregon opts to use Wright considering it returns all its corners, but he has more than proved to see the field more than the 306 snaps he had in 2019.

5. CB Trent McDuffie, Washington

Like Mykael Wright, Trent McDuffie was a top recruit entering his true freshman season and ended as one of the best players at the position. McDuffie started all but one game for Washington this past season and produced an 83.7 coverage grade on his reps while finishing as the 12th most valuable corner in the FBS. McDuffie proved he could hang with the big dogs right from the get-go, as he lined up in press coverage the fifth most and had the seventh-highest coverage grade on those plays. You don’t see that too often from a true freshman.

6. QB Kedon Slovis, USC

USC found itself a gem in Kedon Slovis, who produced the 35th-best passing grade (80.8) as a true freshman. One of the biggest things you want in a quarterback is sharp accuracy, and Slovis displayed that. In fact, he led every single FBS quarterback in percentage of accurate passes thrown when targeting 10 or more yards downfield (62%) according to PFF’s ball-charting process. Yes, that was a higher rate than even Joe Burrow — Slovis produced a rate 20 percentage points higher than the FBS average, too. The fact that he did that as a true freshman is quite remarkable. He has little to no mobility and needs to work on his pocket presence, but that can be coached. What you can’t coach are the routinely accurate passes he throws.

7. EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

Coming into the 2019 season as the best recruit of this true freshman class, Kayvon Thibodeaux had a lot of expectations to fulfill — and he did just that. Out of every true freshman season we have recorded by an edge defender, Thibodeaux’s 2019 was by far the most valuable. His 79.9 pass-rush grade was second to only 2020 NFL Draft prospect Bradlee Anae of Utah in the Pac-12. The fact that he won over 16% of his pass-rush reps as a true freshman in a Power-5 conference is incredibly impressive. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a household name throughout the 2020 season.

8. CB Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon

Thomas Graham Jr. has been a starter for the Ducks since the very second week of his true freshman season in 2017 and has progressed into one of the best cornerbacks in the country the past couple of seasons by producing a two-year coverage grade that is among the 10 best at his position. He’s been tough to shake off on horizontal routes, particularly on the shallow ones. Defending those routes nine yards or less downfield, Graham has intercepted two and forced more incompletions (nine) than first downs allowed (seven), leading the way to just a 40.5 passer rating allowed.

9. TE Brant Kuithe, Utah

Utah is losing a lot of great talent to the NFL this season — its five most valuable players from 2019 (Tyler Huntley, Terrell Burgess, Zack Moss, Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon) are all headed to the 2020 NFL Draft. The Utes actually return only one of their 10 most valuable players from their 2019 squad, with Brant Kuithe being one of the best tight ends returning overall. His 84.7 overall grade was the third best of the 2019 season at his position, and he was easily the most explosive. Among tight ends to see at least 40 targets last year, Kuithe generated an explosive play of 15-plus yards on 37% of his targets — the highest in the country and over 15 percentage points above the average. Kuithe was great after the catch, averaging 8.0 yards after the catch per reception, and was one of the most productive tight ends in the country with 2.72 yards per route run.

10. DI Levi Onwuzurike, Washington

Over the past two seasons, Levi Onwuzurike has been the ninth most valuable interior defensive lineman, just a spot ahead of 2020 first-round NFL prospect Javon Kinlaw. He took a step back when he increased his workload from a role player to a starter, taking his 90.8 overall grade in 2018 down to 82.5 in 2019, but he’s easily one of the five best defensive linemen returning to college football in 2020. Onwuzurike can play nose tackle or 3-technique at a high level, as he has placed himself in the top 10 at each alignment in two-year PFF grade. He’s effective both against the run and when rushing the passer and has missed just four of his 95 tackling attempts in his career at Washington.

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