Our offseason lists series continues today with a look at the best of the "dark horse" candidates for the 2015 Pac 12 Player of the Year honors. Since I don't have the mental acuity or intestinal fortitude to do separate posts for offensive and defensive players of the year, we'll use this post to cover offense and I'll see if I can't find some time for defense somewhere down the line.
The PAC 12 saw a lot of talent depart its ranks in 2014. Of course, reigning Heisman winner Marcus Mariota tops that list. But other huge underclassmen talents like Jaelen Strong, Shaq Thompson, Leonard Williams, Brett Hundley, Nelson Agholor, Andrus Peat and Buck Allen are all players with remaining eligibility who chose to go the route of the NFL draft. Any and all could have been Pac 12 POY candidates in 2015 and, with their departures, they leave the door wide open for a previously unproclaimed talent to seize that prize.
The following list details my top dark horse candidates to be the next Pac 12 POY. Keep in mind that to be a dark horse you must, by definition, not be a favorite. That means you won't be seeing names like Cody Kessler, Royce Freeman, Kevin Hogan, Paul Perkins, Myles Jack or Devonte Booker here. All of those players are well-accomplished and have already achieved All Pac 12 status in one form or another as underclassmen. The players on this list are all guys who could break out and, at best, have only gone so far as to demonstrate flashes of their potential to date. I've put them in descending rank order starting with the "best dark horse bet" to be the Pac 12's next POY.
1. Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
I know, I know. I can already hear you guys yelling at me that the point of this article was to highlight the "dark horse" candidates. How much of a dark horse, you may ask, can a guy who ran for 1300 yards, scored 16 TDs and beat Oregon actually be? The truth is "not much". But, I'm still in as much shock that Wilson was beat out by Royce Freeman for Offensive Freshman POY in 2014 as I am that Scooby Wright beat out Danny Shelton for DPOY. This seemed like a good place to vent that frustration.
2. Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State
I must admit that I'm not a huge fan of the style in which Bercovici plays QB. However, there is little doubt that his gunslinger mindset paired with the aggressive approach by Todd Graham and his staff is sure to create big play opportunities. If Bercovici can capitalize on a lion's share of those opportunities, the number of highlight reel plays that he may generate is enough by itself to draw attention to his candidacy as POY. Of course, before any of this happens, Bercovici has to win the job. I'm very impressed with the tools that his presumed backup, Manny Wilkins, brings to the field and am not 100% convinced that Bercovici has the starting job sewn up.
3. Adoree' Jackson, DB/KR/WR USC
Of all the players on this list, Jackson is the most tantalizing athletically. Last season, as a true freshman, Jackson started every game at CB, managed kick and punt return duties and scored three touchdowns on offense. Besides all of that, he competes on the USC Track team and, at a recent event, was the only long jumper in the field to post four jumps of 24 feet or more. 24 FEET!!! If Jackson pops this year, he won't only be a Pac 12 POY candidate, but also a Heisman candidate. That said, he's still a pretty raw player and there are a lot of other very talented players on that USC roster that are going to share in his touches and his glory. All of that conspires against him and his odds of being the next POY, but don't overlook what this man can do.
4. Jordan Villamin, WR, Oregon State
In the second half of 2014, I'm not sure that there was a more impressive player, much less wide receiver, than Jordan Villamin across all of the Pac 12. Blessed with tremendous size at 6'4" 240 lbs, Villamin started out his freshman season struggling to achieve consistency in basic route running and run blocking. Through his first five games, he recorded just 3 catches for 32 yards. But on October 16th at home against a tough Utah defense, Villamin found himself. He caught three balls, two of which went for long touchdowns. From there on out, the Villamin Express blew up. He would finish the season with 6 TDs and an eye-popping 17 yards per catch average. With his combination of size, speed and soft hands, Villamin is the perfect complement to Junior Victor Bolden and will be without a doubt the biggest playmaker on the Beaver offense. I'm guessing that if Gary Andersen is conscientious about working to Villamin we might just see the next great wide receiver emerge out of Oregon State.
5. Dwayne Washington, RB, Washington
This is the point in the list where we start dipping our feet into the "potential upside" pool. Washington is an interesting candidate given that we've seen him generate explosive plays in each of the first two seasons that he has played. When you combine that big play ability with the fact that he's now in his third full year of playing RB and in his second full year in an offensive system that is designed to strongly emphasize the running game, it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to project Washington as a true Pac 12 breakout player in 2015. In fact, if he breaks out to the same degree that Bishop Sankey did as a Sophomore, he's not only a candidate to be the Husky MVP, but also a possible Pac 12 POY.
6. Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR, Stanford
If you were paying attention to the Stanford Cardinal in 2014, it was impossible to miss the contributions that McCaffrey made in multiple phases of the game as a true freshman. In fact, there were times during the year that he was flat-out the best player on the field for the Cardinal - and that includes times when he was sharing the grid iron with guys like Andrus Peat, Kevin Hogan and Ty Montgomery. McCaffrey finished the year with 42 carries for 300 yards, 17 catches for 251 yards and two TDs. In 2015, he figures to be an "all-everything" guy for David Shaw and could see his numbers explode with a veteran offensive line and QB propping him up.
I know that I'm missing a lot of guys that many of you will no doubt bring up in the comments. On the Huskies alone you could highlight guys like Dante Pettis and (if you believe he'll switch back) John Ross. Other candidates like Darren Carrington, JuJu Smith, Jared Goff, Trey Griffey, Justin Davis, Demario Richard, Kenny Lawler and Anu Solomon are a sampling of players who could all come out of nowhere under the right circumstances in 2015 and put together an Offensive POY campaign as true dark horses.
What do you think? Who am I missing?