In recent years, the Pac 12 has emerged as one of college football’s most saturated conferences in terms of big time NFL talent. This year is no exception, as there is a handful of draft eligible players whom some scouts consider tops at their position.
But who are the guys stuck in the shadow of their blue chip teammates? Here are five Pac 12 teams whose stud prospects steal the limelight from some of the most intriguing players in the conference.
The Stud: This big name prospect for the Sun Devils is defensive tackle Will Sutton. Sutton may be the most explosive interior defenseman in the nation and should solidify himself as a top tier first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft with another productive season. Despite being undersized, listed at 6-1, 288, Sutton combines natural leverage with power and quickness to disrupt and split constant double teams. He’s versatile enough to play in a 4-3 or a 3-4 but his best fit is as a pass rushing 3-technique. Scheme diversity is highly coveted in today’s NFL where defensive coordinators must be equipped with a variety of alignments against an all-time potency of offenses.
The Sleeper: It’s only a matter of time until senior running back Marion Grice gains national attention as one of the better senior backs in the country. Grice was one of the top JUCO prospects in 2011 and had originally committed to Texas A&M before choosing the Sun Devils. His low profile has much to do with the fact he split carries with two other backs as well as a run-happy quarterback. Despite being third on the team in carries, Grice maximized his opportunities leading the team in rushing yards and touchdowns and was second in receptions. Most impressive were his 19 touchdowns on 144 total touches. His best qualities include his versatility, speed, balance, and hands. Look for him to be one of the conference’s biggest breakouts.
The Stud: You could make an argument for either receiver Brandin Cooks or defensive end Scott Crichton as the team’s best prospect. Both are juniors and Crichton may actually be the better prospect but fans are more likely to be familiar with Cooks because of the position he plays. Cooks proved to be one of the more explosive receivers in the country and is poised to have another productive season as the team’s primary target with the departure of Markus Wheaton to the NFL. There will also be more experience at quarterback, which should open up the offense. Scouts will be curious to see if he can overcome the extra attention at his size or if he’s a slot guy at the next level.
The Sleeper: When you sit down and watch Oregon State’s defense, the guy that is always around the ball is weakside linebacker Michael Doctor. The team’s leading tackler in ’12 is undersized at 6-0, 225 but he can fly. In run support he has the toughness to take on blocks and sheds quickly to make plays near the line of scrimmage. He has long arms and rarely misses tackles. Doctor also shows range in coverage combining athleticism with anticipation to close quickly on the ball. He is quietly the heart of the Beaver defense.
The Stud: Outside linebacker Anthony Barr might be the best NFL prospect in the conference. He would have likely been a top 10 pick in the 2013 draft had he declared. The converted halfback, Barr has elite physical tools which he was still learning to harness last year as he developed into a full time linebacker. A special pass rusher, Barr has an outstanding first step and uses freakish closing speed to consistently disrupt opponents’ backfields. The sky is the limit for Barr as he’s only played the position for one year. Once he refines his technique against the run and learn more about hand usage, it could get scary. The latest out of Westwood is that he bulked up to 270 and ran a 4.47 for NFL scouts in the spring.
The Sleeper: UCLA has a handful of young guys that we haven’t heard of yet but they are unlikely to declare anytime soon. However, defensive end/tackle Cassius Marsh is a guy that gets overshadowed by the Barr phenomenon. Marsh is a perfect fit as a DE in UCLA’s 3-man front. He’s long and powerful, particularly in his upper shelf. He excels against the run by using his upper body to control blockers at the point to maintain gap discipline and make a play at the line. Much of what he does allows guys like Barr and others to make splash plays around him.
The Stud(s): These teams are combined because the studs are everywhere for both teams. From Stanford’s NFL-ready offensive line to Oregon’s slew of explosive skill players, there are simply too many talented players to choose one for each team. So we will skip to pinpointing two very overlooked players on two of the country’s best football teams.
The Sleeper(s): On one of the nations most explosive offenses, there is so much attention to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Colt Lyerla, and De’Anthony Thomas (to name a few) that we forget about their only true number one receiver, Josh Huff. Huff has the talent to be the focal pass catchers on most other offenses but he’s buried in the shadow of the guys aforementioned. If you watch closely, you see a fluid receiver who wins with quickness and strength to pick up yards after the catch.
On Stanford’s offense, fullback Ryan Hewitt is the sleeper. Hewitt served as the lead blocker for 2-time 1,000 yard rusher Stepfan Taylor. He is a blue-collar player who loves physicality but is versatile enough to provide an extra receiving weapon for his quarterback. There are still some NFL teams that utilize the classic fullback in their offense and Hewitt’s versatility is only a plus.