College football training camps are two-plus weeks away, and the heat of summer can at last be somewhat mitigated by the giddy excitement we feel at the onset of another season. You know the drill over the next few weeks – optimistic clichés from coaches, players saying the right things, everyone sure that everyone else is ready to rise to the occasion. Of course they are, that’s why we call it “optimism.” But you and I know that within that optimistic façade, there are concerns and issues that coaching staffs are addressing to facilitate a successful fall.
As a fantasy player, there are issues and concerns you should be heeding right now, too. Fortunately, I’m going to take a little of that worry out of your hands and look at an issue or player from each team in the Pac-12 that could have a profound affect on fantasy fortunes – and why? Truth be told, there is nothing scientific about the names I’m going to offer up for your consideration – just gut feeling, a little expertise, a helping of information and plenty of logic will dictate the thoughts I share with you.
If that’s cool, let’s begin our look at the Pac-12 and who or what we should be keeping an eye on as the 2011 college football season unfolds.
Running back Keola Antolin is a guy I’ve picked up several times over the last two years, but each time I add him he immediately gets hurt or starts sharing carries with two or three other backs. With Nic Grigsby gone, his biggest playing time nemesis is out of the way – and I’m glad. I think Antolin is a quick sparkplug of a running back (5-8, 195) that makes plays when he’s healthy and getting carries. This year, he should get plenty of the latter.
Firmly established as “the guy” heading into fall, I’m back on the Antolin train again and think that he’s undervalued in the Pac-12. Antolin’s success will have a direct impact on Nick Foles, Juron Criner and Co. in the passing game – Antolin must have a big year to keep defenses honest. With the attention they pay Foles and the passing game, there are going to be holes to run through and open space to make plays in for the running game – and I think Antolin is the perfect weapon to do just that. He gained nearly 700 yards a year ago while seeing eight starts, and I’m projecting him to be a 1,000-yard rusher this year with double digit touchdowns.
He’s a small guy, but he’s quick in space with very good speed and a bowling ball physique that makes him hard to arm tackle. With defenses obsessed with Foles, I like those attributes to very effective most weeks. He’s a guy I’m going to be looking hard at for quality bench strength of possible starter in deeper leagues.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad doesn’t amaze with speed or size, all he does is catch the ball. Quarterback Brock Osweiler will draw a lot of attention and there are certainly receivers on the roster who pass the eye test better, but Pflugrad is that Mike Hass, Jeff Maehl kind of guy that a smart quarterback develops a love-love relationship with quickly.
Osweiler feels the pressure and starts forcing things down the field, which prompts defenses to clamp down on the running game and create a one-dimensional offense. Osweiler needs an “out” receiver, a guy who can move the chains and keep the offense on the field and potent. It’s not about going downfield all the time, but making defenses play defense. Pflugrad has “out” receiver written all over his short and intermediate zone running body.
Osweiler and Pflugrad become BFFS (Best Football Friends this Season) and work the seams, sidelines and underneath stuff to dizzying success. Every offense that relies on the pass to set up the run needs a guy with great hands who is always open. For the Sun Devils, Pflugrad is that guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he nears the 45-catch mark this season with 5-6 big games in terms of PPR, yardage or scores.
California Golden Bears
Is Zach Maynard the guy to bring stability and long-term productivity to the quarterback position? After watching the whirling dervish quarterback play of the ultra-inconsistent Kevin Riley that last three seasons, the Bears need a quarterback who can hit the open receiver, run a little (Maynard can) when the situation calls for it, and keep turnovers to a minimum. California thinks it has a running game with Isi Siofele and certainly has a couple quality receivers in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen. Does it have a quarterback who will make those assets shine?
Maynard wasn’t exactly and bolt of lightning at Buffalo, so him winning the spring quarterback derby should in no way instill unshakeable confidence in what kind of quarterback he is. The worst-case scenario is that step up in class is too much for him and we’re back to watching rotating quarterbacks be barely Pac-12 capable – and those other assets go to waste.
Maynard steadies the ship and the Cal offense becomes a legit run-pass threat. He doesn’t have to be great, just good enough to keep the offense ahead of the sticks and get them in position to score with Allen, Jones, Siofele and the other weapons they possess. If Maynard falters, it could be a very, very long and frustrating season…again…for coach Jeff Tedford and the California faithful. Maynard must answer the call and I think he will.
Toney Clemons needs to be the receiver that teammates and coaches glimpse from time to time. The one-time Michigan Wolverine is the leading receiver (43-482-3), but there seems to be so much more there. With Cody Hawkins gone and Tyler Hansen immovably lodged in the starting spot at quarterback, Clemons seems to be in prime position to establish himself as the “go-to” guy. He has the speed and athleticism to get more than 11 yards a catch, something this offense, which is desperate for big plays, needs.
Clemons does some amazing things in practice, but too often the big plays he seems destined to create don’t show up in the games. Now in his second season with Colorado, the hope is that he will regularly flash the big-play capability he’s teased so many with the last two years. There are more than a few wondering if he ever will.
At 6-2, 205 pounds, Clemons is a great combination of size and speed. Hansen throws a much more accurate medium and long ball than Hawkins did, something that should benefit Clemons in 2011. This is a receiver who should be a 50-catch, 800-yard, eight touchdown kind of receiver this year. Everything is in place for him to do just that.
In the fantasy realm, productive tight ends are very scarce, so when one presents itself, you pay him attention. David Paulson is a guy who could be on the cusp of big things. The Ducks lost a lot in its receiver corps from 2010, and while there are some interesting pieces with experience (Lavasier Tuinei, Josh Huff), the situation still needs to sort itself out. Who makes the Jeff Maehl catches of the last two years? Paulson, who his incredibly athletic, seems a very likely candidate to see more throws his way this season as the young Duck receivers earn their…wings.
Paulson caught 24 passes for 418 yards and four scores a year ago. Teams will be lining up to try and contain the Oregon running game with LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Co. – and I expect quarterback Darron Thomas to run more this season – the passing lanes are going to have more room. While Thomas works on his timing and feel with a new crop of main receivers, he’ll almost certainly look more to an old reliable – a reliable that averaged 17.4 ypc in 2010.
Paulson can make the transition from last year’s receiving corps to this season’s much easier by being more involved in the passing game. I can’t help but think that Thomas will look for Paulson a lot more this season, particularly early in the season as things start to sort themselves out. I can’t help but think the Duck coaching staff is thinking the same thing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 40-catch, six to eight score season out of Paulson this season. For a tight end, that’s fantasy gold, my friends.
Oregon State Beavers
Quarterback Ryan Katz had a pretty good year going until throwing three interceptions in the OT loss to Washington. It wasn’t the interceptions themselves as much as how bad they were – bad throws into tons of coverage that seemed to snuff the spark of confidence out of him for the remainder of the year. Katz has a big arm and can make things happen with his legs and despite the 18 touchdowns in 2010, you got the feeling that his confidence was sketchy at best down the homestretch.
He’s back and though he’ll have a new running back and has injuries to his tight end and top receiver, the feeling is that Katz is about to take a stride – a giant stride – in his development.
That’s good news because there are question marks surrounding him on offense, including an offensive line that took plenty of heat a year ago – and has been almost completely reshuffled, even with four returning starters. Markus Wheaton needs to be a dependable receiver, Joe Halahuni needs to be a healthy tight end and a running game must develop in concert with an offensive line that blocks the run and pass effectively.
But all that is moot if Katz isn’t ready to learn from last year and move ahead. Katz will not get a lot of love from fantasy players early on as the Pac-12 has plenty of tasty quarterbacking morsels to feast on instead, but he is going to take on more this year and if he does take that step forward, you could easily be looking at a 3,000-yard passing season with 20-to-25 touchdowns. He’s a quarterback who will likely be around late in drafts or on the waiver wire and could be a real difference-maker if things click.
Chris Owusu is a fast receiver, but he’s also been a bit fragile so far in his Stanford career. That needs to change in 2011. Quarterback Andrew Luck will certainly be looking for a go-to receiver to form a productive bond with. Since receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen are gone, the onus now falls on Owusu, who had a team-leading 15.8 ypc, to be the big-play guy. It’s interesting in that you don’t hear a lot about Owusu in fantasy circles just yet, but with arguably the best quarterback under center, in an offense that’s his for the using, Owusu should be a name that’s bandied about a little more freely. Additionally, there’s the likelihood that Owusu will be getting back into the return game as well, a little additional intrigue to the puzzle.
Given whom the quarterback is and the loss of the team’s top two receivers from a year ago, Owusu seems like a very intriguing receiving prospect and a guy capable of 50 catches and 6-to-8 scores this season.
It’s not often a team losses a very valuable piece and you immediately think “kicker.” But with Kai Forbath graduating, the kicking game now falls into the hands of redshirt freshman Kip Smith. While the Bruin offense was often a rudderless hulk, splashing aimlessly around the field, Forbath often offered the only offensive direction this team had. Forbath was a Lou Groza Award winner and at one point had 37 straight makes from 50 yards and in. With questions at quarterback affecting potential at running back, receiver and tight end, Smith will be called on fairly often to bail the offense out with points.
Coach Rick Neuheisel is feeling the heat, his quarterback Kevin Prince can’t seem to stay healthy and the rest of the quarterback corps seems to struggle every time they get under center. I like Smith, if he keeps the job, to have a fairly decent statistical season simply because the Bruins will have many a drive bog down outside the red zone. Smith will benefit from that and so will fantasy owners looking for kicking help.
Trojan running back Marc Tyler can’t stay out of the trouble, and his latest suspension just another example of poor judgment. However, with his sentence to the Lane Kiffin doghouse, opportunity has landed on Curtis McNeal, who was in a dead heat for the running back spot coming out of spring practice. With quarterback Matt Barkley under center, and a host of speedy potential at the receiver spots, the missing ingredient, and Kiffin knows this, is a solid running game to keep defenses honest and off Barkley.
Yes, there’s the potential of Dillon Baxter hovering in the background and Tyler could magically realize this is his final go-round, but McNeal is an intriguing option at this point and the Trojans desperately will need to establish a running game to keep the offense rolling.
Barkley will have a big year, but an established running game will make it that much bigger. Given Tyler’s continuing troubles, I like McNeal to be the guy who emerges as the running back of choice.
Quarterback Jordan Wynn and his history of injuries is the obvious choice here, but I’m looking out wide for a fantasy difference-maker – wide receiver DeVonte Christopher. While Wynn’s development continues, Christopher has a chance to impact the fantasy landscape in ways bigger than last year’s 39-660-6 stat line. A big-play receiver, he has the ability to be a game-changer for a Utah offense that’s going to be testing a new running game this season.
Christopher, who came to Utah as a quarterback and it still learning the receiving ropes, doesn’t get mentioned with guys like Robert Woods, Juron Criner or Jermaine Kearse, but my gut tells me he’s close to that level, he’s just a little unknown because there’s still plenty of mystery surrounding Utah and Colorado as they step into the Pac-12.
A year ago, Christopher averaged 16.6 ypc for a team that seemed hesitant to go downfield much, preferring to run the ball with Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide. Those two are gone, Wynn is expected to take a step forward and Christopher seems to be well-positioned for a statistical upgrade from last year. Right now, Christopher isn’t considered an upper echelon receiver in the Pac-12. My feeling is that he’s going to finish the season as one. And fantasy players will reap the rewards for jumping on him early. After Criner, Woods, Kearse and your Oregon receiver of choice are off the board, this is a guy I’d take a long look at.
After an injury-plagued 2010 season, Washington wide receiver Devin Aguilar is back for his final campaign. While he’s no Jermaine Kearse, he’s a quality possession receiver who has a knack for making big plays. A year ago we didn’t see that as often as he missed two games and struggled in others with injuries. Now healthy, I’m looking for Aguilar to take the pressure of Kearse and be the Huskies new quarterback’s best friend in the short and intermediate routes. I’m not convinced the Washington quarterback situation is decided, but I do know that the Huskies have weapons at running back and wide receiver. In this scenario, I actually can see Kearse’s number dropping as the new quarterback(s) look short more often. That’s where Aguilar excels, particularly his ability to get a step on a defender and turn a six yard pattern into a 28-yard gain. A year ago, injuries kind of robbed him of that ability, but now healthy, I like him to get back to his 2009 numbers, say about 43 catches and five or six touchdowns.
Kearse will get the attention, but Aguilar will be the dagger in the heart of defenses and put up good numbers to boot. Fantasy players looking at that next tier of receivers should keep him in mind.
Washington State Cougars
Quarterback Jeff Tuel has been through the ringer that has been Washington State football the last few years. Now, with the level of talent considerably improved and two very talented and established receivers to work with in Marquess Wilson and Jared Karstetter, it seems that “Tuel Time” is about to arrive. Bet you didn’t know that Tuel threw 18 scoring passes a year ago, did you? No, who did? The Cougars toil almost anonymously up there in the hinterlands of Washington, an afterthought on the college football landscape after suffering through five years of absolute nightmarish results. Well, things are changing and Tuel, a veteran quarterback, is going to be a big part of that change.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cougars are probably only going to win a handful of games this year, but they will rely heavily on their passing game – again. With the talent on the flanks and several years of experience under his belt, I’m giving Tuel a major upgrade in his performance this season – say 3,200 yards and 22-to-24 touchdown passes. The strength of this team will be its passing game, so expect Tuel to throw it around a ton. With Karstetter working the middle and Wilson a threat to make a big play every time he touches the ball, I like Tuel’s chances of really making a big jump in 2011.
He’s kind of lost in the Pac-12 quarterback jungle of Barkley, Thomas, Foles and Luck, but when the smoke clears, I firmly believe Tuel will be a valuable fantasy commodity before it’s all done. Few will take a fantasy chance on him, but once the big guns are gone, this is a guy I’d target in the Pac-12.