The Watch List: Pac 12 Preview

Updated: August 10th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Sam Darnold, QB, USC:  Everywhere you look, Darnold is the top QB prospect for 2018 if not the first overall player.  I’d say the hype is verging on Andrew Luck territory, however Luck had much more experience (38 games vs at most 25 for Darnold).  I’m not quite ready to say that Darnold is the second coming, but he’s my clear QB1 for 2018 right now.  Darnold has good size at 6’4″ and 225lb but questionable speed.  Heading into college he ran a 4.95 per ESPN; DraftScout.com has him pegged in the 4.74 range.  At those combine measureables, Darnold compares to Christian Hackenberg if he runs faster or Tom Savage if slower.  Hopefully I’m not damning with faint praise here – Hackenberg was hyped after a great freshman season but his value came crashing down after a bad sophomore year.  In 2016, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards, 31 TDs and 9 INTs – good totals for somebody who wasn’t the starter until week four.  He had a very high completion percentage of 67.2%, good enough for ninth in the nation.  I checked his situational stats on CFBStats.com and was impressed with how clutch he was in the red zone (63% completion percentage, 23 TDs and just one INT) and in the fourth quarter (when his completion percentage and passer rating spiked compared to earlier quarters).  The first game tape of Darnold I watched was against Washington (15th ranked pass defense).  His footwork was immediately apparent – his feet don’t stop moving and he is always primed to either step into a throw or leave the pocket.  He is comfortable under pressure and throws accurately while on the run.  My favorite play of his during the Washington game came on a 2nd & 11 in the red zone, early in the 2nd quarter with the score tied.  He felt the pressure from his left, rolled right, shuffled his feet until he saw a lane to hit a streaking receiver in the back of the end zone.  He managed to thread the defenders and lead his receiver well.  His evasion of the rush was also on display against Utah when literally the first play of the game saw him under duress.  He broke two tackles, rolled right while outrunning a defensive lineman and threw the ball away.  In the drive log it showed up as an incomplete pass but in reality it was so much more: it showcased his athleticism (I still won’t call him fast) and his field awareness.  I remember seeing a similar type of play when watching film of Deshone Kizer and instead of throwing the ball away and playing another down, he threw it up to be intercepted.  Speaking of his athleticism, he had a hard fought ten yard touchdown run in both games – unfortunately the one against Washington was called back on a penalty.  Regardless, he won’t be doing much running in the NFL but I think he could gain a reputation as “mobile” in the pocket like Ben Roethlisberger.  My biggest concern after watching Darnold’s tape is his arm motion.  It struck me that it looks too long.  On many throws he dips his hand below his waist as he loads for the throw.  He does throw from varied arm angles which leads me to believe he can be taught and isn’t locked into his bad habit.  Darnold will be the top pick in the 2018 draft and should garner early interest in your RSO league.  If you are in a standard league, you’re looking at an early second round pick for him; in superflex leagues, I’d say somewhere in the 1.06 range (after Barkley, Guice, Chubb, and Sutton and right around Scarborough and Washington).
  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA:  If it weren’t for Darnold, Rosen would be the one to watch in the Pac-12 this season.  For that reason, I’m not convinced that Rosen leaves after his junior season unless he absolutely lights it up.  Rosen lost most of his sophomore season to a shoulder injury but is okay to return this season.  In 2015, as a true freshman, he put up solid numbers: a 60% completion percentage, 3,669 yards, 23 TDs to 11 INTs.  In 2016, his stats were basically on the same track with an uptick in yards per game.  Like Darnold, I took a closer look at his situational stats but was disappointed (I used 2015’s stats to have a larger sample size and because in 2016 he missed three of the team’s four games against ranked opponents).  Rosen’s completion percentage and passer rating take a dip in the 4th quarter, the opposite of what you’d hope.  2015 was actually a tale of two halves for Rosen.  In the first half, he threw 16 TDs, 6 INTs, completed 63.7% of his passes and had a passer rating of 148.  In the second half, just 7 TDs, 5 INTs, 55.7% and 118.  It’s a shame we didn’t get a full complement of games in 2016 to see if these stats would have improved because in the small sample we have they did.  That’s something I will be checking on after the 2017 season.  Rosen measures in at 6’4″ and 210lb and is a true pocket passer, even more so than Darnold.  He’s such a pocket passer that I came across two separate pieces during my research comparing him to Eli Manning (one from NFL.com, one from DraftBreakdown.com).  I was underwhelmed by Rosen’s stats but his film is good – maybe it’s just refreshing to see a college quarterback under center and in the pocket rather than trying to run all over.  I watched him against Stanford in 2016 because that was the toughest passing defense he faced (61st) in his shortened season.  I noted that he has very good play action fakes.  At first I wasn’t sure why the play action plays caught my eye but then I realized it is because we see college quarterbacks under center so infrequently that a true play action fake, when their back is to the defense, is rare.  Rosen has a quick release and unlike Darnold does not need to work on his mechanics.  I paused the film during a few throws to see how his motion compared to Darnold and it was starkly different – Rosen’s hand rarely dips below his numbers which is why he can unload the ball so quickly.  Because Rosen is a statue in the pocket, he does take a number of sacks.  Per Phil Steele’s game logs, UCLA allowed 15 sacks in games that Rosen started (2.5 per game); for comparison USC only allowed six in Darnold’s games (0.6 per game) and never more than one per game.  I predict NFL scouts will fall in love with Rosen the more tape they watch but ultimately I don’t think he’ll overcome the Darnold hype.  His mechanics and college offense might better prepare him for the pros but Darnold is more athletic, has a better pocket presence and is clutch when it counts.  If Rosen comes out, which is likely but he might have less competition in 2019, he will likely be the second QB off the board in both NFL and RSO drafts.
  • Dante Pettis, WR, Washington:  The odds of Pettis becoming a productive NFL receiver are against him due to his size.  Since 2010, the list of WRs who weighed in at less than 190lbs at the combine is long (16 players) and the only one with any notable NFL success is Will Fuller.  Yes, that Will Fuller that just broke is collarbone and is out indefinitely; and yes, that Will Fuller who also missed time last year due to other injuries.  Pettis has contributed all three seasons and his stats have improved year-over-year.  In 2016, he was part of a potent one-two punch with John Ross.  Pettis finished with a 53-822-15 line.  His touchdown to reception ratio was impressive: he caught a touchdown every 3.5 receptions.  Whether he can keep that up in 2017 is questionable as he won’t have the threat of Ross opposite him to distract defenses.  I watched film of Pettis against Oregon and I do have to admit that I was surprised to see him as a willing blocker on a number of plays and he was also not afraid to go across the middle despite his size.  He also showcased his hands on two great touchdown catches.  The first one he high-pointed and caught the ball with good hand placement (he lost the ball when heading to the ground and it likely would not have been a touchdown in the NFL); on the second one he made a diving one handed catch in the back of the end zone.  He’s capable of NFL quality moments but I think his size will hold him back in scouts’ minds.  He’ll probably be in the range of WR6-8 for me this Spring so you should plan on targeting him late in the second round of your RSO draft.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Luke Falk, QB, Washington State:  Falk is a third year starter in coach Mike Leach’s air raid passing offense.  He has a very high 68.8% career completion percentage and tossed 38 TDs each of the past two seasons.  Falk feels like somebody who will be under-drafted because of his college offense but will show up in camp and beat out some veteran for a backup job due to his experience, composure and accuracy.  If he manages to land behind a questionable starter, he might be worth a speculative add.
    • Ronald Jones, RB, USC:  Ronald Jones is a bit of an enigma to me.  He’s long and lean: 6’1″ and 195lb.  That may not seem like an odd combination but I went back through combine measurements dating back to 2000.  There was just one RB who was over 6ft but under 200lb.  In order to make himself more desirable to NFL scouts, I think Jones will need to add at least 10lb.  In two seasons, Jones has 2,069 rushing yards and 20 TDs.  Unfortunately, he’s not a factor in the passing game.  One last caveat: Jones has just one career game where he received more than 20 carries.
    • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon:  Freeman, on the other hand, is a 230lb battering ram who gets fed.  Freeman has fourteen career games with more than 20 carries, for comparison to Jones.  When I look at his stats, game logs and highlights it just screams NFL.  Freeman started as a true freshman in 2014 with 252 carries; he peaked in 2015 with 283 before being slowed to 168 in 2016.  He has 44 career rushing TDs.  Also unlike Jones, Freeman is a decent receiver, averaging 22 receptions a year.  Freeman isn’t the smoothest runner, he looks a bit laborious, but he comps well to Eddie Lacy in both size and speed (DraftScout.com estimates a 4.54 for Freeman).  I’ll be keeping an eye on Freeman this season and think he will slot in as my 5th ranked RB for the 2018 draft.
    • Vita Vea, DT, Washington:  You can’t teach size – and Vea has plenty of it.  He lists at 6’5″ and anywhere from 332-344lb depending on the source.  He will likely play at NT in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL.  I watched highlights of him against Rutgers and he honestly looked smaller than his listed size so his value could come down to the combine.  He had 39 tackles in 2016 with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
    • Cameron Smith, LB, USC:  Smith was a sensation as a true freshman in 2015 and was named a Freshman All-American and was Second Team Pac-12.  He increased his tackle output slightly (78-83) and should hit the century mark this year if he wants to cement his draft pedigree.  Smith is a stay at home MLB who has just two career sacks so he might not show up on the highlight reel but he will show up in the boxscore.
    • Iman Marshall, CB, USC:  Marshall came out of high school as Phil Steele’s #1 cornerback recruit; he’ll be leaving college as his #2 pro prospect at the position.  Marshall has put up good numbers through two years as a starter: 119 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 passes defended.  Marshall obviously doesn’t mind getting involved in the run defense to rack up so many tackles (for comparison, Steele’s top corner prospect Tavarus McFadden had just 19 tackles last year to Marshall’s 52).

Storylines to Watch

  • The Darnold & Rosen Show:  No, it’s not a new drive-time sports talk radio show, it’s going to be the weekly back-and-forth between these two quarterbacks.  Both have NFL aspirations and both will see themselves with 1st round draft grades if they can stay healthy and at least reasonably productive.  If both are still healthy come their November 18th face-off it will be epic.
  • The Ascension of Willie Taggart:  At just 40 years old, and with a career 40-45 record, Taggart finds himself in a great job in Eugene with Oregon.  Taggart took over struggling programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida and turned them around with back-to-back winning seasons before moving on.  His records aren’t all that encouraging (0-3 vs Top 10, 2-11 vs Top 25, 3-15 vs Power 5) so this is a move based mostly on potential.  If you’re a fan of looking at “coaching trees” you will be happy to see that Taggart is well connected to the Harbaughs: he coached under Jack at Western Kentucky and under Jim at Stanford.  Ducks fans will hope Taggart has a similar steadying influence on their program but that he sticks around for the long term.
  • Return to Mediocrity for Colorado:  Colorado was a surprise success last year.  They finished the 2016 regular season at 10-3, won the Pac-12 South and landed in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State.  Unfortunately for the Buffs, 2017 will be less like the 2016 regular season and more like the Alamo Bowl, a 38-8 loss.  Colorado relied on a strong defense that finished Top 20 in both points and yards.  8 starters depart so there will be a let down.  On offense, QB Sefo Liafu is gone and the top spot will belong to Steven Montez.  Montez might sound familiar because he did get into a number of games last season when Liafu was hurt.  He did well against Oregon and Oregon State but struggled against the tougher defenses of Michigan and USC.  It will take a miracle for Colorado to make it back to the Pac-12 Championship.

Games to Watch

  • September 1, Washington at Rutgers:  This one is a bit of a homer pick, me being a Rutgers fan and all, but I do think it is a big game for Washington.  It’s their only non-conference Power 5 game and is on the road.  If the Huskies start their season with a convincing win as they did last year (48-13), heading into weaker foes in Montana and Fresno State, it should set them up well for Pac-12 play.  Washington’s schedule is back-loaded and they will face their five toughest opponents in a row to end the season.  Starting out strong is imperative.  It’ll be a national spotlight game on a Friday night so be sure to make your weekend plans accordingly.
  • October 14, Oregon at Stanford:  Stanford will be the toughest test yet in a young season for new coach Willie Taggart and the Ducks.  Both of these teams will be hoping to challenge Washington for the Pac-12 North title and winning this game will set them up well.  Making this game even more interesting is the connection between the two head coaches.  Taggart previously coached at Stanford and was the running backs coach when Stanford head coach David Shaw was the offensive coordinator.  The two should know each other well enough to make this a close one.
  • November 18, UCLA at USC:  I have touched on these two teams a number of times in this preview so it should come as no surprise that their season-ending matchup would find it’s way onto this list.  It’ll be our last chance to see one of the two star quarterbacks for 4-5 weeks until the bowl; the winner will get a chance to stay in the limelight playing in the Pac-12 Championship.  USC has won the last two games by a combined 41 points.  I expect the 2017 contest to be closer.

Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, drafttek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.