Wilner Hotline – Pac-12 recruiting: How the top 2023 prospects would rank in a future NFL Draft

Arizona Sports News online

The Hotline is delighted to provide Pac-12 fans with a weekly dive into the recruiting process through the eyes and ears of Brandon Huffman, the Seattle-based national recruiting editor for 247Sports.

The following information, in his words, was provided to the Hotline on April 27 …

The West Coast produced the top two picks in the NFL Draft this weekend in Pasadena’s Bryce Young and Rancho Cucamonga’s C.J. Stroud. Although neither played in the Pac-12, the conference will have a stellar lineup of quarterbacks in 2023 on two fronts:

— The group of returnees is stacked with the likes of USC’s Caleb Williams, Washington’s Michael Penix and Oregon’s Bo Nix;

— The incoming class of recruits is fully loaded, with five of the top 10 passers in the high school senior class.

So let’s imagine it’s April 2026, when next season’s freshmen will be draft-eligible. And potentially spending a lot of time in the draft’s green room.

Here’s a mock draft based on the 2023 class, assuming the recruits play three years, then turn pro.

No. 1: USC QB Malachi Nelson
Comment: Lincoln Riley has coached two No. 1 overall draft picks, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, plus the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, Jalen Hurts, who was a Day Two draft pick. And there’s a good chance USC’s Williams goes No. 1 overall in 2024. So Riley’s history is very, very good. Nelson will take over in 2024 and should be the starter in 2025, as well. Given Riley’s track record, let’s use a Sharpie to mark Nelson as the Pac-12’s top pick. And he just might be the first player from any conference to receive a hug from Roger Goodell on draft night.

No. 2: UCLA QB Dante Moore
Comment: But Dante Moore may have a thing to say about the identity of the Pac-12’s No. 1 pick in 2026. And by then, he might have more seasons (three) of starting experience than Nelson (two). Whether that matters or not, of course, is up to the NFL teams at the top of the draft. While Moore has a stronger arm than Nelson, Nelson will play in a system that has produced overall No. 1 picks. So we’ll slot Moore in the No. 2 position.

No. 3: Oregon State QB Aidan Chiles
Comment: When Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei finished high school in 2020, nobody expected C.J. Stroud to pass Uiagalelei and become the No. 2 quarterback drafted from Southern California. Chiles has a similar career arc to Stroud as a late bloomer who stayed at the local public school and was overshadowed by quarterbacks at powerhouse programs. (In his case: Nelson at Los Alamitos and Nico Iamaleava at Long Beach Poly.) But there is a lot of optimism about Chiles’ potential. While Uiagalelei will likely start for OSU in 2023, the future is all about Chiles, who could play himself into the draft’s green room.

No. 4: USC WR Zachariah Branch
Comment: What does the NFL covet in its receivers? Speed. What does Branch have? Speed. And a lot of it. The No. 1 receiver in the country in 2023, Branch will be an immediate big-play threat for the Trojans as a true freshman and has three years to show his playmaking skills. How fast is Branch? Think Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle fast — and then think about how Branch’s destination will be known by dinnertime on the first night of the 2026 draft.

No. 5: Utah OL Spencer Fano
Comment: We can all agree that Utah offensive line recruiting has been superb under Kyle Whittingham and position coach Jim Harding. Well, Fano is the best prep offensive lineman they’ve signed. Ever. A top-50 prospect overall in the 2023 class with natural length, bend and technique, he’s able to play all three spots (center, guard and tackle). And Fano’s athleticism should propel him into the first round of the 2026 draft, especially as he adds weight and strength to his 6-foot-5 frame.

No. 6: Colorado CB Cormani McClain
Comment: Do you test Travis Hunter, or do you test Cormani McClain? That will be the question for Pac-12 quarterbacks facing Colorado next season as the No. 1 cornerback in the 2023 class joins forces in Boulder with the No. 1 overall player from a year ago to form a stellar tandem. NFL general managers drool over big, fast, long cornerbacks. And McClain checks all those boxes.

No. 7: Oregon DL Matayo Uiagalelei
Comment: Given Dan Lanning’s track record with pass rushers during his time with Georgia, Uiagalelei will be as close to a Bulldog defender as Oregon has in the 2023 recruiting class. While he’s more similar to Ohio State’s J.T. Tuimoloau (a projected first-rounder in 2024) than former Duck Kayvon Thibodeaux (an actual first-rounder in 2022), Uiagalelei possesses the size and athleticism to become an intriguing edge rusher. And the expectations, while great, are nowhere near the level they were for his brother DJ when he arrived at Clemson.

No. 8: Utah CB CJ Blocker
Comment: A Utah defensive back with high football IQ, instincts, twitch, ball skills and coverage ability? Yes, here we go again. Like Jaylen Johnson and Clark Phillips III before him, Blocker looks like a future star in the Utes’ secondary. He was fantastic at the Polynesian Bowl in January and should make an impact as a freshman and beyond. He could be the next Ute defensive back to have a short wait for his name to be called on draft night.

No. 9: Washington QB Austin Mack
Comment: Michael Penix has gone from oft-injured to a projected first-rounder next spring, and Mack could be the guy to replace him despite limited prep experience. He mostly played junior varsity as a sophomore for Folsom (California) High School in 2021 and has just one year as a full-time varsity starter. Two weeks after committing to Washington, he reclassified to the 2023 class. He’ll spend a year learning behind Penix and attempt to start for UW in 2024. With Mack’s size (6-foot-6) and arm, plus Kalen DeBoer’s offense, we foresee another Day One quarterback for the Huskies.

No. 10: Arizona State QB Jaden Rashada
Comment: Forget all the drama around his departure from Florida. Rashada is a major talent and top-50 player in the 2023 class, which is why schools were willing to give him a lot of NIL opportunities. Out from under the microscope of Florida or Miami — and instead at his father’s alma mater — he played well in ASU’s spring practice. The Sun Devils may go with one of their transfer options in 2023, giving Rashada a chance to recalibrate and prepare for the starting job in 2024 and 2025.

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