This time last year, Oregon State tailback B.J. Baylor was a career backup with 300-something rushing yards and a few touchdowns to his name.
Three months and 1,337 yards later, Baylor was a first-team all-conference performer and one of the biggest surprises of the Pac-12 season.
Each year, stars appear from unexpected places in the #Pac12AfterDark sky.
How many fans were familiar with Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault prior to his dominant 2018 season?
Or with ASU wideout Brandon Aiyuk before the 2019 campaign?
The list below identifies 15 candidates to become breakout performers across the conference this fall, but please note:
— We did not consider quarterbacks, transfers from outside the conference or players who have been named first- or second-team all-Pac-12 in previous seasons.
— Additionally, we omitted several multi-year starters, like ASU linebacker Merlin Robertson, whose names should be well recognized by fans across the conference.
Issues with that approach or the list below? No problem. This is an entirely subjective exercise, after all.
2. Utah receiver Devaughn Vele: The former walk-on averaged 17 yards-per-catch last season in a limited role. He’s 6-foot-5 with soft hands and body control. The Utes need playmakers on the outside to complement their stellar tight ends and fill the void left by Britain Covey’s departure. We have Vele atop that list.
3. USC linebacker Eric Gentry: One of two intra-conference transfers to meet our threshold played in all 13 games last season for Arizona State. Gentry is 6-foot-6 and makes quality use of his wingspan. We expect him to unseat a returning starter, Ralen Goforth, and make a weekly impact.
4. Stanford tight end Benjamin Yurosek: The latest in Stanford’s decade-long line of elite tight ends averaged 15.3 yards per catch last season. (For a tight end, that’s stellar.) Yurosek benefits from having a deft passer, Tanner McKee, delivering the ball. Also true: He makes McKee better.
5. Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe: The former five-star recruit suffered season-ending injuries in each of the past two years. If he remains healthy, Flowe should emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top raw talents and combine with Noah Sewell to form the best linebacking tandem in the conference.
6. Washington defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa: Is this finally the year Letuligasenoa plays to the level of his illustrious predecessors like Vita Vea and Greg Gaines? That’s our expectation. If he commands double teams on the interior, there’s one less body available to block Zion Tupuola-Fetui on the edge.
7. Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez: The second intra-conference transfer included here was named honorable-mention all-Pac-12 last season at Colorado. We expect Gonzalez to build on that foundation and secure a spot on the first team by season’s end. He just might be the best on the West Coast. (We’ll pause while Utah fans ponder whether Salt Lake City counts as the West Coast and if we are, in fact, tossing shade at Clark Phillips III.)
8. Utah defensive end Van Fillinger: The Utes were so loaded defensively last season that a first-year starter who recorded 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss managed to toil in relative obscurity. That won’t be the case this season. Fillinger is a worthy successor to Utah’s unblockable defensive ends over the years.
9. Washington State receiver Lincoln Victor: Began his career at Hawaii but played for the Cougars last season, allowing him to qualify for consideration. Victor was named to the all-conference team as an all-purpose/special teams performer. This fall, recognition comes for his skills as an elite pass catcher.
10. Oregon State cornerback Rejzohn Wright: Former junior college transfer who’s entering his third season in Corvallis. Long and aggressive with first-rate instincts. Also, he’s the brother of Cowboys cornerback (and former Beaver) Nahshon Wright, a third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
11. UCLA receiver Kaz Allen: One of the most versatile playmakers in the conference, largely because of his track speed. Led the conference in kickoff returns last year (29.1 ypr) and has played both tailback and receiver. We expect Allen to be deployed everywhere this season, which will only make it more difficult for defenses to catch him.
12. Arizona safety Jaxen Turner: The third-year junior caused plenty of disruption last season in the defensive and offensive backfields (four tackles-for-loss). We suspect he has all-conference talent, and we know he’s a key piece to a full defensive revival in Tucson.
13. Colorado defensive tackle Jalen Sami: The Buffs were slapped around by attrition, but their roster isn’t completely devoid of talent. Sami is one of the top interior linemen in the league — it’s a well-stocked position group — and at 325 pounds, he’s certainly among the biggest. Earned honorable-mention recognition last season.
14. Oregon State linebacker Omar Speights: After spending years in the considerable shadows cast by Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and Avery Roberts, the steady Speights is positioned for next-level production in ’22 and should thrive in the aggressive system deployed by new coordinator Trent Bray.
15. Arizona State guard LaDarius Henderson: Started as a true freshman back in 2019 and is now ready for his star turn in Tempe as one of the league’s best linemen. Of note: The Sun Devils lost a second potential breakout star when defensive end Michael Matus suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
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