Mark Lindquist

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Pac-12 North Division Preview

Saturday, August 11, 2018


*Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline



Pac-12 North

 

Washington (11-1; 8-1 in conference)

Oregon (10-2; 7-2 in conference)

Washington State (8-4; 5-4 in conference)

Cal (7-5; 5-4 in conference)

Stanford (7-5; 4-5 in conference)

Oregon State (1-11; 0-9 in conference)

 

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Washington Huskies


NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Trey Adams (Round 1)


How should I think of this team? No one in conference has grander dreams than the Huskies.


The case for: Oh look, another program where the gang’s getting back together. A slew of Washington’s draft-eligible Huskies announced returns to Seattle over the winter, including QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin and a stud first-round tackle prospect in Trey Adams. We would have, frankly eaten our hats had Browning declared -- he’s coming off a rocky year, more on that below -- but Gaskin’s return did raise our eyebrow, in the most positive way possible for Washington. He’s our favorite kind of player. The consistent one. Gaskin has rushed for at least 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his three years in Seattle. Should Gaskin need a rest, backup Salvon Ahmed averaged 6.4 YPC last season while handing 61 carries for 388 yards rushing. This is a team set on the line, and set at running back. And oh boy, is it set at defense.


The Huskies did lose giant human/defensive tackle Vita Vea, but they’ve suffered little other notable attrition defensively. Washington boasted a top-five scoring defense last year, a top-five rushing defense, and a slightly more saggy pass defense which surrendered a touch under 200 yards through the air on average last season -- that placed them 32nd in the country. There’s not going to be any sag this year. Not with the likes of Byron Murphy (two interceptions, seven passes defensed) working at corner. Murphy’s just the edge of the spear on what has the potential to be the best pass defense in the country. Jordan Miller, Elijah Molden, Myles Bryant are all notable names to watch, here.


Not only do the Huskies bring back considerable talent, their schedule is favorable with one caveat -- it might be over after one game. The Huskies open against Auburn in a few weeks' time, in game that may well decide the Pac-12’s Playoff fate. If UW can eek out that one, they’ve mostly got a clean path the rest of the way. A few trouble spots to look out for include road games against Utah (Sept. 15), Oregon (Oct. 13) and Washington State (to close out the regular season). We have them losing to the Ducks for their lone defeat of the campaign, meaning that they will almost certainly be in the Playoff conversation come November. This is Chris Petersen’s most complete, well-stocked team to date. 


The case against: While it’s easy to view Jake Browning as a potential Achilles heel for the Huskies, he’s not the biggest of our concerns. He’s actually a player we could see rebounding upcoming after throwing for 2,719 yards (a career-best 68.5-percent completions) with a 19/5 TD/INT ratio. Browning also averaged a career-worst 8.1 YPC. The takeaway? He was completing more passes, but fewer downfield, understandable given the loss of John Ross, but problematic this year. Not only is Ross long, long gone, last year’s dude, Dante Pettis is also out the door. And while TE Hunter Bryant remains on roster, he may well miss the season with a knee injury. That leaves Aaron Fuller (26-291-1) and Chico McClatcher -- now presumably healthy -- as the team's most experienced receivers which, yeah. We have legitimate concerns as to just how much upside this passing game might have. If Browning could lift the tide himself, that would be one thing. We don’t view him in that light.


Even with Washington’s potential cracks on the offensive side, they could still easily skip through the regular season. The real roadblock to what the program’s aiming for this season -- a national championship berth -- is that unless Washington has an emergent wideout or two among incoming freshmen Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Trey Lowe, they would be entering the postseason facing off with the likes of defensive behemoths Clemson, Alabama or Michigan with almost literally just one trick up their sleeve in Myles Gaskin. That’s just not going to fly. Browning needs to level up if the Huskies are to be viewed as a legitimate contender to raise Larry Culpepper’s trophy. Ultimately, we have too many offensive questions to put this team in the Playoff.


Bovada win total over/under: 10.5


Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 11-1 (8-1 in Pac-12)


Editor’s Note: Get a sneak peek at the Rotoworld’s NFL Draft Guide with a look at some of our top features such as positional rankings, sleepers and busts, dynasty rankings, mock drafts, rookie rankings and more! Click here now!


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Oregon Ducks

NFL Draft prospect to Watch: QB Justin Herbert (Round 1)

How should I think of this team? The sleeping giants of the Pac-12

The case for: The 2017 Ducks make for a great science experiment, as we saw two jarringly different squads depending on who was throwing the ball. The variable between them is easily enough to isolate. With a healthy Justin Herbert at the helm, they put up points in bunches (dropping 40 in four of their first five games) while looking very much like true -- and scary -- contenders in the Pac-12. But then Herbert fractured his collarbone. The drop-off to Braxton Burmeister proved precipitous. Thus the great hope for the Ducks this year, as Herbert not only will enter the campaign fully healthy (or so we presume), he also enters it in a peak developmental year as a junior.


Herbert will have the full arsenal to work with out wide as he preps for his NFL future, with the Ducks bringing a deep stable of receivers to the table. Not only in returning contributors such as Dillon Mitchell (42-517-4), but also in bringing in one of the more under-the-radar intriguing grad transfers of the offseason in former Wake Forest WR Tabari Hines. Hines is fresh off a career year in which he caught 53 passes for 683 yards and seven touchdowns. We’ll admit to having been somewhat nonplussed by Oregon’s receiving talent in recent years, but while it may lack a traditional lead wideout, there’s competency across the board.

Beyond the quarterback and receivers -- and strange to say -- we’re intrigued by Oregon’s defense. Very sneakily, they finished at an S&P+ rank of 61st in 2017. That might not seem like any great shakes, but given that the whole outfit was a burning raft of garbage under Mark Helfrich a few years back, 61st is downright respectable. They’re bringing back some fun talent, too, in linebackers Troy Dye and Justin Hollins, as well as defensive end Jalen Jelks, who proved imminently disruptive a year ago in racking up a healthy 15.5 tackles for loss. We’re not betting on Oregon to step it into the elite territory of the likes of Washington on the defensive side, but given their immense offensive upside, this is a unit which just needs to maintain respectability and the Ducks will have a chance for a big season.

The case against: Royce Freeman’s absence this season could potentially be a problematic one. All eyes will be on Herbert for the obvious reasons, but Freeman received 258 touches from scrimmage a year ago. To put it technically, that’s a ginormous amount of offensive production to replace. We don’t view Tony Brooks-James in the same kind of workhorse light -- though that’s not to count him out altogether -- and if Oregon’s crew of talented but largely unproven secondary back options such as CJ Verdell can’t shape up to form a usable rotation, that’s more pressure on Herbert and a receiving corps which we like for its depth even as we wonder on its top end.


The crack in the defensive armor that we might see exploited, here, will come in the secondary. We touched on the loaded linebacking corps earlier and view the front-seven as a clear strength, but there’s simply not as much solid ground to stand on with the cornerback and safety options in Eugene. The Ducks lagged behind with an S&P+ ranking against the pass of just 54th last season. We do view some of this as simple greenness, with freshman such as cornerback duo Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir being put through their very early paces a year ago, but even so, possessing a somewhat soft pass defense -- even one with room for improvement -- is problematic in this conference.


Bovada win total over/under: 8.5


Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 10-2 (7-2 in Pac-12)


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Washington State Cougars


NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Andreas Dillard (Round 4)


How should I think of this team? A rollercoaster ride.


The case for: We’ll hit up the live wire that is Mike Leach later on, but even with his occasionally absurd antics his Air Raid remains a potent offensive system when run correctly. We’ll give them a C+ in execution for last year. The Cougs noticeably sloughed off on offense from 2016, dropping from 18th in scoring offense to 50th. For context’s sake, they went from scoring 38 a game to scoring 30 a game, At the end of the season, it was revealed that QB Luke Falk had played through a broken wrist. That would explain a lot, but it also raises so, so many questions. If Washington State had a relationship status, it would most definitely be “complicated, with everything.” Despite the many, many odd -- sometimes cloudy -- angles with Leach, though, that offense just works with the right signal-caller.


Enter Gardner Minshew, who nearly took his transfer from ECU down to Tuscaloosa -- he’d love to coach after he’s done with his collegiate career -- before instead opted for the currently smoke-filled skies of Pullman, Washington. Don’t worry, Mr. Minshew. It’ll be plenty nice in the fall. It’s early yet in camp, but Minshew’s been hitting the right notes in tuning up for the season. After throwing for 2,140 yards (57.2-percent completions) with a 16/7 TD/IN ratio, the big question is just how much those numbers might inflate now that he’s not, you know, playing for ECU.


Playing for the Pirates does come with its benefits, though, and WSU has no immaculate receiving talent on-hand at the level of a Trevon Brown. They do, however, offer up a far deeper roster of skill-position options than Minshew’s going to be accustomed to. Dontavean Martin is the most notable of those and the most obvious successor to the wideout rollout at WSU, but the team also boasts Dezmon Patton, Jamire Calvin and the list goes on and on. It’s a stacked receiving corps, supplemented by one of the best receiving backs in the nation in the ever-dependable James Williams (395 yards rushing; 71-482-3 last season). He’s going to have a chance to shine to the brightest degree without Jamal Morrow around to swipe touches. This is an offense that is ready to rock. Assuming Minshew can smoothly take over as starter, we’re expecting a notable uptick from last year in terms of per-game scoring average.


The case against: This is like The Leftovers (we’re pretty sure we reached our quota on Infinity War references several conferences ago), with half of the Cougs just up and vanishing. We’re talking about a number of key cogs ranging from QB Luke Falk to the aforementioned Morrow to wideouts Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, both of whom left the team under less than amicable circumstance. Also OL Cody O’Connell and DE Hercules Mata’afa. And DC Alex Grinch. Even with the steadiest hand guiding the ship, this would be a tough overhaul. Instead, they’re being guided by Mike Leach, who got into an offseason war with venerated USA Today reporter Dan Wolken after he posted a laughably-edited video of former President Barack Obama to Twitter, not his first brush with making political headlines. It very much feels like he is reaching the end of his leash in Pullman, even as WSU continues to win games on a year-in, year-out basis.


Hanging over all of this is the suicide of QB Tyler Hilinski, who would have likely taken over for Falk had events passed differently in January. Few football programs have to navigate the choppy waters of grief that the Cougs are still making their way through in the wake of the quarterback's suicide. We hope that the football field offers some level of comfort for Hilinski’s teammates -- and it’s even possible to believe that his passing will galvanize the team in a way that few things could -- but at the same time, it’s completely understandable that there might be something beyond just receivers and defensive coordinators missing with Wazzu this year.


Bovada win total over/under: 6.5


Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 8-4 (5-4 in Pac-12)


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Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.
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