With just two games left to go in the regular season, we have a large enough body of evidence to begin the process of whittling down the candidates for the PAC 12’s annual “Of the Year” awards.
Husky fans probably had high hopes in terms of seeing candidates from their favorite team pop up on the watch lists for these awards. Players like Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp, and Ben Burr-Kirven all seemed like guys who were probably going to show up based on past performance and projected success.
Those hopes haven’t exactly come to pass. Instead, a more diversified set of candidates has broken out in what has admittedly been a very down year for the PAC 12 in terms of breakout players and dominating performances among individuals. That said, there are still some quality candidates, some of them of the “surprise” variety, who have become factors in the conference’s superlatives races.
Let’s break them down, shall we?
Offensive Player of the Year
Candidates: QB Gardner Minshew, RB Eno Benjamin, WR N’Keal Harry, RB Jermar Jefferson
It hasn’t been a great year for PAC 12 offenses in general. If you don’t believe me, consider that the OPOY candidate list above includes a grad transfer, a first-year starter, a true freshman, and a star WR who has played banged up most of the season. Nowhere on this list is a playmaker in the mold of a Marcus Mariota or Christian McCaffrey, putting up stats in multiple categories or making highlight-reel plays that spark national attention.
In fact, the most notable thing about this list is who isn’t on it. There is no Bryce Love, who last year put up a darkhorse Heisman campaign. There is no Khalil Tate, also a preseason Heisman favorite. There is no Justin Herbert, a supposed “top pick in the draft” kind of talent. There is no Jake Browning, the 2016 OPOY winner in the PAC. Even Laviska Shenault, who burst onto the scene early in the season and had this thing almost sewn up by mid-season, has fallen away as he has struggled with injury.
The hodgepodge list of contenders is headlined by Minshew. Like most Coug QBs, Minshew’s vast number of passing attempts creates measurable stats that are far and away the highest in the league for a QB. His 3800+ yards are nearly 1000 more than K.J. Costello and his 29 TDs are four more than Justin Herbert. His accuracy also leads the league (69.7%). Of course, his yards per attempt are a pedestrian 7.4 (which is one of the lower marks in the league) and his TDs per attempt are 1:18, which is middlish territory in the PAC right around Tyler Huntley, Jake Browning, and Manny Wilkins.
What separates Minshew is the leadership effect and the stabilizing force that he has been on a team that has made a surprise bid for the College Football Playoff. He plays the game with much more aggressiveness than previous Coug QBs and he has posted a couple of signature moments, including a game-clinching drive to seal the win against Cal a few weeks ago.
N’Keal Harry has also had a strong season in what is surely his swan song in Tempe. The junior is on the verge of another 1000-yard receiving season and has already posted nine receiving touchdowns.
But, wait, there’s more.
Harry has also done spot duty as a punt returner, including taking over as the primary returner when ASU needed him in their win against USC. In that one, Harry had over 100 yards in punt returns including one for a TD. All told, Harry has produced TDs in the run, pass, and return games.
His partner in crime at ASU, Eno Benjamin, has turned into the surprise rushing leader in the PAC. While not as flashy a runner as some others, Benjamin has evolved into the prototypical “workhorse” kind of back. He leads the league in carries (227), rushing yards (1221), and rushing TDs (12) at this point in the season. His 5.7 yards per carry are respectable and he has turned into more than an adequate enough blocker to be an asset on third down.
The Winner: Gardner Minshew, Washington State
In a field of such closely matched candidates, the pick will almost always be the quarterback. This is especially true when the QB is leading his team to the conference’s best overall record.
Defensive Player of the Year
Candidates: ILB Ben Burr-Kirven, ILB Chase Hansen, ILB Jordan Kunaszyk, ILB Colin Schooler, DB Byron Murphy
Husky fans will undoubtedly be clamoring for BBK to keep this award in Montlake, following in the footsteps of last year’s winner Vita Vea. Burr-Kirven has exploded onto the national scene this year by leading the PAC in total tackles and contending for the nationwide lead in both tackles per game (second in the NCAA) and tackles (third) at this juncture. His productivity has been off the charts on a Husky D that sets up linebackers to make tackles and relies on them not to let plays get behind them. BBK excels in all those areas. The one ding on BBK will be that he has made very few plays outside of his tackles. His four forced fumbles are good, but he only has three TFLs and one sack to date.
While not necessarily putting up the same kind of total tackle numbers as BBK, Hansen has compiled a wider array of stat categories in what has been a remarkable senior year. A converted safety, Hansen has become a multi-faceted playmaker. His 19 TFLs lead the conference, his five sacks are second, and his two interceptions are tied for third. He also has a defensive touchdown to his credit.
In what has become the year of the ILB, Jordan Kunaszyk has been another rock-solid contributor on one of the PAC’s best defenses. He trails BBK by two tackles per game for second in the PAC, but has produced more plays behind the line of scrimmage than his Husky counterpart. He has four sacks, eleven tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, and an INT through ten games.
Longer shots in this discussion are the reigning freshman defensive player of the year in Colin Schooler and UW shutdown corner Byron Murphy. Schooler has stuffed the stat sheet in his own way, being tied with Hansen for the conference lead in tackles for loss and having grabbed a couple of interceptions. Murphy leads the league in pass breakups and has been among the most effective corners in the league in terms of opponent pass completions, TD completions, and third down conversions in the league as measured by advanced stats.
The Winner: Chase Hansen, Utah
I know UW fans will probably have a few words for me in the comment sections, but I don’t see BBK pulling this out. “Tackle machine” players don’t often fare well in these kinds of awards. You have to go all the way back to 2011 and Mychal Kendricks before you can find a DPOY whose primary attribute was tackles—and even then, Kendricks was able to put up more stats in terms of TFLs and turnovers generated.
Chase Hansen, on the other hand, has a more complete set of measurables including tackles. He also has the benefit of being a four-year contributor and the kind of guy that conference award voters often like to acknowledge for their entire body of work over the course of their career. I could see this being close at the end, but I think Hansen will likely get the edge.
Candidates: RB Jermar Jeffeson, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, QB J.T. Daniels
This won’t be close.
Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson is tied with Eno Benjamin for the league lead in touchdowns (twelve) and already has posted 1200+ yards just ten games into his Beaver career. Impressively, Jefferson has already proven himself a workhorse with three games with over twenty carries and two others with thirty or more. Despite such a high number of carries, Jefferson has also managed just over six yards per carry. The only other true freshmen running backs to have put up such huge seasons in recent memory are Myles Gaskin (2015) and LaMichael James (2009).
St. Brown (550+ yds, 2 TDs) and Daniels (2000 yds, 11 TDs) are the only other real competitors for this award. But neither even qualifies among the league leaders at their respective positions. That USC has had such a down year pretty much makes their nominations moot.
The Winner: RB Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
Freshman Defensive Player of the Year
Candidates: LB Talanoa Hufanga, LB Merlin Robertson, DL Thomas Booker, DB Jevon Holland
This race will likely come down to a two man race between ASU’s Robertson and Oregon’s Holland.
Holland, the Ducks’ freshman DB, currently leads the league in interceptions with four. This includes a big two-interception day in Oregon’s big win over Cal in Berkeley halfway through the season. He’s tacked on an additional four pass breakups and 23 tackles on the season. He has not recorded any sacks or TFLs.
ASU’s Merlin Robertson has been a terror as a freshman. Playing mostly as a strong side OLB, Robertson is fourth in the league in sacks with 5.0 and has generated 8.5 tackles for loss. He has started all ten games so far for Herm Edwards, recording 43 tackles and an INT to go along with the havoc he creates.
Stanford’s DL Booker and USC’s LB/S Hufanga have both stepped into difficult situations and produced big snaps for their respective teams. While neither has exactly stuffed the stat sheet, both have been steady contributors in thin units for their teams.
The Winner: LB Merlin Robertson, ASU
This one could still swing Holland’s way if he continues to lead the league in INTs. That said, Robertson has been far and away the most complete freshman defensive player in the league this season and I expect him to take home the prize.