As we did earlier this week for the SEC, we are ranking the top returning units in the Pac-12 based on 2015 production. Here are the 10 best entering the season:
1. Stanford backfield
The Cardinal will be starting a new quarterback in 2016, but whether it is presumed leader Keller Chryst, or Ryan Burns, the offense will run through running back Christian McCaffrey. He was the No. 1 RB in PFF grades in 2015, our pick for the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 player in our College Football Top 101 players list entering this season. He was exceptional as both a runner (his 71 forced missed tackles is fourth-most among returning backs) and a pass-catcher (his yards per route run average of 3.20 would rank in the top 10 among returning wide receivers), and he’s our preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Daniel Marx earned the top run-blocking grade among returning Power-5 fullbacks last season, and backup running back Bryce Love played very well in limited action last season (7.8 yards per carry and eight broken tackles on his 29 rushes, plus eight more broken tackles on his 15 catches).
2. UCLA defensive line
The Bruins lost D-tackle Kenny Clark to the NFL but have a ton of returning production along their defensive line. Takkarist McKinley earned the fourth-best grade among returning 3-4 defensive ends last season, ranking fourth at the position both in run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity. He will move to more of an edge role in UCLA’s new 4-3 scheme, which could open up more pass-rushing opportunities for him. Undersized edge rusher Deon Hollins earned a negative run-defense grade last season but was very good at getting after opposing QBs. UCLA is stout up the middle as well, with the return of Eddie Vanderdoes to play a penetrating, 3-technique defensive tackle role after missing almost all of 2015 due to a knee injury (you can read more on Vanderdoes’ impact on UCLA here). He’ll line up alongside nose tackle Eli Ankou, who graded well last year in Vanderdoes’ absence.
3. Utah defensive line
The Utes have one of the better D-lines in college football this season, with four returning starters who graded out well last year. The unit is anchored by Lowell Lotulelei, who earned the No. 32 run-defense grade among returning D-tackles last season. Next to him on the interior is Filipo Mokofisi, who was solid against the run and actually offered a little more pass-rush ability than Lotulelei. Defensive end Kylie Fitts struggled some against the run but was very effective as a pass-rusher, while fellow DE Hunter Dimick was solid in both facets. The Utes need to find more snaps for Pita Taumoepenu, who led the nation among returning 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity, recording 24 QB pressures (including five sacks) in only 105 pass-rush snaps.
4. Washington front seven
The Huskies’ success on defense last season started up front with two excellent run-defending tackles in Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls, with Qualls also contributing a lot as a pass-rusher (five sacks). Edge defender Joe Mathis also graded well, particularly against the run, with the one question mark along the defensive front being Jaylen Johnson, who graded out slightly below average during his redshirt freshman campaign. Azeem Victor headlines a productive returning linebacker corps, after grading well against the run, as a pass-rusher and in coverage last season – earning the No. 10 overall grade among returning inside linebackers. The Huskies’ secondary, led by safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones, nearly made this list as well.
5. Washington backfield
The Huskies had a pair of stars emerge as true freshmen last year in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Browning earned the No. 15 passing grade among returning QBs last season, and what was most impressive was his ability to make difficult throws, excelling on deep balls (sixth in adjusted completion rate on 20-plus-yard throws) and when the opposing pass rush disrupted him (second in adjusted completion rate on pressure throws). Gaskin struggled on passing plays but was excellent as a pure runner, ranking ninth in elusive rating and fifth in yards after contact per attempt and overall RB grades.
6. USC offensive line
The Trojans return all five starters on their offensive line, led by right tackle Zach Banner, who was great as a run-blocker and also led all returning tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season after allowing just nine total pressures (including just one sack) on his 406 pass-blocking snaps. Teammate and left tackle Chad Wheeler wasn’t quite as effective, allowing 20 pressures and three sacks on 432 pass-block snaps, but that was still good enough to rank in the top half of the country. Center Toa Lobendahn and right guard Viane Talamaivao have room to improve upon their 2015 grades, but left guard Damien Mama was a very effective run-blocker a season ago.
7. Oregon backfield
The Ducks are similar to Stanford in that they are breaking in a new quarterback with the help of a star running back. Royce Freeman is one of the best backs in the country after ranking third in PFF’s rushing grades. Only LSU’s Leonard Fournette forced more missed tackles among returning backs than Freeman last season, and he might even have some room to grow as a pass-catcher. Behind him, running backs Taj Griffin, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James all graded very well in their limited action a year ago, with Griffin looking like a particularly devastating gamebreaker. He forced a 30 combined missed tackles as a runner and receiver last year on just 85 touches, producing an elusive rating (PFF’s measure of how effective a back is at generating yards on his own) that would have ranked second among returning Power-5 backs, had he had enough touches to qualify.
8. Washington State offensive line
There’s a case for grouping WSU’s entire passing game in here, as the Cougars return a QB in Luke Falk who ranks No. 12 in passing grade along with a good group of receivers. But the offensive line deserves recognition as one of the best in the country. Colleague Taylor Wright recently ranked them as the sixth-best line in the country, and explained in this piece the importance of good O-line play in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. Eduardo Middleton earned the highest pass-blocking grade last year among returning guards, and Cole Madison did the same among returning tackles, but the Cougars deserve credit for being a good run-blocking outfit, as well.
9. Colorado secondary
The Buffaloes struggled to a 4-9 finish last season, but their play in the secondary was among the best in the conference. It starts with cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who ranks fourth in PFF grades among returning cornerbacks. He is excellent in all three facets of the game, ranking fifth in run-stop percentage and generating the most pressures (22) and sacks (4), to go along with his skills in coverage. Tedric Thompson was another standout. He toggled between free safety and the slot in 2015, ranking 23rd in run-stop percentage and holding up well in ccoverage, despite being targeted frequently. His yards per coverage snap allowed was ninth-lowest in the country. New starting corner Isaiah Oliver graded well in his limited action a year ago.
10. USC wide receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the best returning wide receiver in college football. Through the first eight weeks of last season he ranked fifth among Power-5 wideouts in PFF grades, prior to injuries slowing him down, and he finished the year with a 3.39 yards per route run average that is tops among returning Power-5 WRs. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr. are both talented pass-catchers who graded right around average last season – if one can emerge as a legitimate No. 2 option behind Smith-Schuster, that could take USC’s supporting cast to another level.