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Day 27: previewing PAC 12 Offensive Player of the Year candidates

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Can Jake Browning make it two in a row?

NCAA Football: Washington Spring Game
Jake Browning throws lots of touchdowns. It is his thing.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Hey Trevor Walker, how many more days until your former teammates take the field?

Trevor Walker makes his final appearance in a UW uniform in today’s countdown. Good luck at Texas Tech, T-Dub. WOOF

Jake Browning last season became the first Husky since Marques Tuiasosopo in 2000 to win the PAC 12 Offensive Player of the Year award. It was a record-breaking season for the Husky sophomore as he set a new benchmark for efficiency in the conference with a 12:1 TD to INT ratio and his 44 total TDs are second only to Marcus Mariota’s single regular season record.

Given that Browning is now a junior and is coming back fully healthy, should he be considered the favorite to win the award a second time?

There is precedent. In fact, four players in conference history have won the award outright in back to back seasons. They are:

Charles White (1978, 1979)
Rueben Mayes, WSU (1984, 1985)
Napoleon Kaufman, UW (1994, 1995)
Andrew Luck, Stanford (2010, 2011)

I ought to note that both Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart of USC fame have also laid claim to back to back prizes, though they shared one in 2004).

With that background info established, let’s look at the Gekko’s preseason watchlist.

Option 1 - Jake Browning, QB, UW (62.1%, 8.8 YPA, 43 TD passes, 9 INT)

Browning’s candidacy is a no brainer given his status as the reigning champ. John Ross’s decision to move on takes 17 TDs off of Browning’s tally that he’ll have to replace. Whether or not he can coax the rest of his receiver corps to produce that kind of output remains to be seen. Still, Browning is a year older, fully healthy and playing behind what should be one of the best offensive lines that UW has produced in years. Assuming that the running backs don’t cannibalize too many of those TDs, Browning should be in the running all the way to the end.

Option 2 - Sam Darnold, QB, USC (67.2%, 8.4 YPA, 31 TD, 9 INT)

NCAA Football: Southern California Spring Game
Sam Darnold might win OPOY based on his coiffure alone.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This one goes without saying. Darnold had a huge year once he became the starter as a redshirt freshman for the Trojans. With USC projecting to put another explosive offense on the field, Darnold is not only an OPOY candidate, he’s a Heisman candidate. Unlike the other QB on this list, however, Darnold is going to be contending with some moving pieces on his offense. His receiving corps is still figuring out roles (even if you assume that Michael Pittman, Jr will be a stud) and his offensive line is in flux given all of the injury issues and new players that they are working into the mix. That said, there are playmakers all over the Trojan offense and USC figures to win many games. That usually bodes well for OPOY candidates.

Option 3 - Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (945 yds, 5.6 YPC, 9 TDs)

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice
Royce Freeman is healthy and ready to go.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Freeman is an intriguing candidate given both his return to a fully healthy status and the re-orientation of Willie Taggart’s offense to more of run-emphasizing spread. At his best, Freeman is a sound decision-maker with a strong base who gets through holes quickly and reigns terror on smaller linebackers and defensive backs. He lacks the kind of top end speed that my other two favorite RB candidates have (Bryce Love and Myles Gaskin), but he breaks off big chunk plays routinely and will get all of the carries near the goal line.

Option 4 - Shay Fields, WR, Colorado (58 recs, 883 yds, 15.8 YPR, 9 TDs)

The top WR candidate that I project for 2017 is Colorado’s Shay Fields. He barely bumps out some of the other PAC 12 big play threats such as UW’s Dante Pettis, ASU’s N’Keal Harry, Utah’s Darren Carrington and Cal’s Demetris Robertson (the latter two figure to benefit greatly from the installation of EWU style passing offenses thanks to their new offensive coordinators)

Fields is part of a three man committee that make up one of the, if not the best, receiving corps in the PAC. Of the three, he is the playmaker. His 15.8 yards per catch tied for best in the PAC among starting receivers last season and his 9 TDs is second only to Dante Pettis (15 TDs) among returning receivers.

Honorable Mention: Bryce Love, Stanford; Luke Falk, WSU; N’Keal Harry, ASU; Ryan Nall, OSU; Justin Herbert, Oregon; Darren Carrington, Utah; Phillip Lindsay, Colorado; Myles Gaskin, UW; Ronald Jones, USC; Dante Pettis, UW; Demetris Robertson, Cal

The Verdict

Jake Browning, UW

Yah, I’m throwing a little red meat out there for my Husky base with this selection. If it works for POTUS, it will certainly work for me.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
Aw, shucks. It’s Jake in 2017.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

All bias aside, Browning has a great case supporting his candidacy. The baseline talent is obviously there. Browning has a great sense of the position and elite command over the fundamentals that drive success: footwork, accuracy, command of the offense.

In addition, Browning should be more productive in an offense that is maturing. His offensive line projects as one of the best in the conference and much improved over last season. The receiving corps will miss John Ross, but it should be more dangerous given the increased number of options that Browning will have in the passing game. Finally, UW’s rushing attack is projected to be deeper with both Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew ready to provide relief to the one-two punch of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.

Each of the other candidates have great arguments to make. Darnold has a higher ceiling than Browning based on physical talent, but he’s playing behind a less experienced offensive line which, I think, might result in one or two stinker games for him ... just enough to turn the equation to Browning.

If any QB puts up a 40 TD kind of season, which I think we’ll see out of Browning again, it is almost impossible for a non-QB to win the prize. Thus, I think Freeman and Harry are candidates that come up just short.

Poll

Who do you predict will be the PAC 12 OPOY in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 66%
    Jake Browning, UW
    (215 votes)
  • 20%
    Sam Darnold, USC
    (65 votes)
  • 1%
    Royce Freeman, Oregon
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    Shay Fields, Colorado
    (4 votes)
  • 6%
    either Myles Gaskin or Dante Pettis
    (21 votes)
  • 3%
    some other PAC 12 player
    (12 votes)
323 votes total Vote Now