One of the beautiful things about collegiate sports is seeing the fresh faces that come into a program each year. With each fall, fans get an opportunity to watch these new kids grow into key contributors.
Below is a list of players who might be familiar to the followers of their respective programs, but who figure to take the next step and become household names to the rest of the Pac-12's fans:
Oregon – Marcus Mariota – QB
With Chip Kelly closing spring practice to the public, Oregon fans and media alike had little to work with when trying to predict who would win the starting quarterback battle between redshirt freshman Mariota and sophomore Bryan Bennett.
The lone opportunity for the public to view the competition came during the Spring Game. It was then that Mariota flashed his immense potential.
During the Spring Game Mariota completed 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing for 99 yards and two touchdowns, including an 82-yard score.
As evidenced by the 82-yard run, he possesses an element of speed at the quarterback position that has not been seen in Eugene since the days of Dennis Dixon. In addition, he throws a very catchable ball and appears to have the arm strength needed to make the throws in Kelly’s spread-option offense.
Kelly maintains the competition will continue up through the final week of fall camp, but if Mariota performs as well during camp as he did during the Spring Game, it won’t be long before the Pac-12 knows about the redshirt freshman from Honolulu.
Stanford – James Vaughters – LB
Vaughters was widely regarded as one of the top 10 linebackers in the entire 2011 recruiting class. He arrived in Palo Alto around 230 pounds, but worked off some excess weight during the season and came out of spring camp at 208 pounds.
As a true freshman Vaughters appeared in all 13 games last season, recording 11 tackles – including 5 for loss – and a sack. Although he was used primarily as a pass-rusher from the outside linebacker position last season, it is likely that he moves back to his natural inside 'backer position this fall.
Stanford has a very strong group of linebackers at its disposal due in part to the decision of Chase Thomas to return to school, as well as to 2010 star Shayne Skov's return from a knee injury.
Despite the strong competition, Vaughters' blend of speed (4.6 second 40 time), agility (4.47 second shuttle time), and aggression promises to be noticed by fans across the conference in 2012.
Washington – Kasen Williams – WR
Williams came in as a true freshman in 2011 from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington, and performed well. He saw action in all 13 games, including 3 starts, and recorded 36 receptions for 427 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Williams’ performance improved over the course of the season, as he tallied four touchdowns over Washington’s final four regular season games. His combination of size (6’2”, 216 pounds) and great hands makes Williams a dangerous red-zone target.
With senior receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar gone, the Huskies are counting on Williams to continue his progression and become Keith Price’s go-to receiver. If he is able to reach that level of production, Williams is sure to be known by fans throughout the Pac-12 this fall.
California – Brendan Bigelow – RB
Bigelow enters his sophomore year fully recovered from ACL tears suffered during both his junior and senior seasons at Fresno Central High School.
He played sparingly in 2011, carrying the ball 6 times for 25 yards, while also returning kickoffs (including one for an 88-yard touchdown). This spring however, he had an opportunity to shine as senior RB’s Isi Sofele and CJ Anderson were both out with injuries.
Despite the ACL tears, Bigelow is the fastest player on the Golden Bear roster (4.4 40 time). The speed at the running back position has been an element missing from the Cal attack since Jahvid Best left for the NFL after the 2009 season.
Cal coaches have intimated that Bigelow should see significant playing time this fall, provided he can hold onto the football. If the playing time is there, it won’t be long before his name reverberates well beyond the confines of Strawberry Canyon.
Oregon State – Storm Woods – RB
Woods came to Corvallis in 2011 as a relatively unknown running back out of the state of Texas. Sound familiar? If Coach Mike Riley is fortunate enough to get half the performance out of Woods that he got out of the last Texan running back to star at OSU – Jacquizz Rodgers – then the Beavers will be in good shape.
Woods is currently competing with fellow redshirt freshman, Malcolm Agnew, among others, for the starting running back position. Woods is arguably the Beavers most explosive ballcarrier (4.5 second 40 time), and at just over 200 pounds, he possesses the strength to run through arm tackles.
The Beaver coaches want to see Woods improve his blitz pick-up technique before proclaiming him the starting running back. With more time devoted to learning blocking schemes and technique, Woods figures to become another well-known Beaver running back out of the Longhorn state.
Washington State – Deone Bucannon – S
Bucannon is far from unknown to Cougar followers, as he enters his junior season with 2 years of starting experience under his belt. However, due to the Cougars' underwhelming performance and lack of exposure under head coach Paul Wulff, very few outside of Pullman are aware of Bucannon’s talents.
In 2010, as a true freshman, Bucannon led the Cougars in tackles with 84. He followed that up with another strong season last year, producing 80 tackles and 3 interceptions, both good for second on the team.
Bucannon possesses a great combination of speed and explosion, enabling him to close quickly on ball-carriers and to separate the ball from would-be receivers. Mike Leach brings an element of excitement to the Palouse not seen in years, and with more outside eyes on the program, this year Bucannon figures to become one of the most recognizable defensive players in the conference.
By Chris Harker
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald