As a Southern California native, I’ve followed PAC-10 football closely since I first fell in love with the sport. And now that it’s finally that time of year (college football time that is), what better way to start the season off by taking a look at some of the top talent that the PAC-10 (sorry, PAC-12) has to offer in 2011.
Since this is a draft coverage site, I’ll stick with the players that will be draft eligible at season’s end. I don’t think that’ll be too much of an issue, though, considering the fact that most of these PAC-12 teams are saturated with NFL-caliber talent.
To kick this series of articles off, I’ll go with the Stanford Cardinal. Why not start off with the best player in college football? And no, it’s not because they’re my favorite college football team…
Bias or not, here we go.
1. Andrew Luck, Quarterback (Jr.)
If you don’t know about Luck and all of the elite talent that he possesses, than you clearly don’t follow college football or the NFL Draft at all. Some are considering Luck the top quarterbacking talent since Peyton Manning. I’ve even seen some experts go as far as saying that Luck could be even better than Manning. He’s a born leader who always finds a way to put his team in the best position to win. Combining pin-point accuracy and a cannon for an arm with impressive vision and scrambling ability, Luck has helped elevate Stanford from a middle-of-the-road program to an NCAA elite. With Luck at the helm, Stanford is considered one of the top National Championship prospects heading into the 2011 season. If he can stay healthy and continue to build on his rare abilities, the Cardinal might have what it takes to unseat Oregon as the leaders of the PAC-12.
2. Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle (Jr).
The Stanford offensive line was phenomenal in 2010 and helped Luck turn in the jaw-dropping, Heisman-runner-upping season that he did. The line only gave up six sacks and helped paved the way for running back Stepfan Taylor, who racked up 1,137 yards (sixth 1,000-yard rusher in school history) and 15 touchdowns. Unfortunately, three-fifths of that offensive line are gone. That leaves left tackle Martin to lead a new group of hog mollies into a season overflowing with high expectations. Arguably one of the best tackles in the nation, Martin will have his hands full creating cohesiveness within this inexperienced offensive line. Luckily, they have Luck on their side. If he can continue to put the Cardinal in the best position to win and make plays, Martina and the rest of this offensive line should be able to make an easy transition into this new era of Stanford football.
If you want a natural leader and playmaker from the linebacker position, look no further than Skov. Skov, a 6’3’’, 243 pound monster in the middle, is one of the most consistent playmakers in the PAC-12. This head-banging, brutal backer is primed for another impressive year as Stanford returns a considerable number of their top defensive talent. Despite missing two games due to injury, Skov still managed to lead the team in tackles with 84 while adding 7.5 sacks in the process. Although he needs to do a better job of controlling his emotions on the field, he brings a spark to this defense that they haven’t had for some time. The linebacking corps will be questionable this season with two of the four starters from last year gone, but Skov should have no trouble picking up the slack.
4. David DeCastro, Guard (Jr.)
Despite all of the hype surrounding Luck, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Stanford has had a dominant running game as well over the past couple of seasons. Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor both have DeCastro to thank for their success on the ground. He’s a steamroller out on the field and is arguable one of the best run blockers in the NCAA. Don’t be fooled, though. DeCastro is just as dominant in pass protection as he is when opening holes for Stanford’s stable of runners. He teamed with Martin last season to form one of the best passing blocking lines in the nation, but three of the starters are gone. The Cardinal may be stacked when it comes to playmakers, but a huge a part of those players’ future success will be the tremendous blocking that they get from DeCastro and Co.
5. Delano Howell, Strong Safety (Sr.)
The Cardinal secondary was a huge part of their 12-1 record in 2011, and Howell was the driving force behind their ability to shut down opposing passing games. Despite his abilities as an enforcer in the middle of the Stanford defensive backfield, Howell is also a tremendous ballhawk. He finished second in the PAC-10 last year with five interceptions and also tallied 10 pass deflections. Although Howell started his Stanford career as a running back, he found his niche at safety in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. If he continues to improve at this same exponential rate, he could find himself at the top of the safety rankings when the 2012 NFL Draft finally rolls around.
Stepfan Taylor, Running Back (Jr.)
Coby Fleener, Tight End (Sr.)
Chase Thomas, Outside Linebacker (Jr.)
Michael Thomas, Free Safety (Sr.)
Chris Owusu, Wide Receiver (Sr.)