OK, it’s all a matter of degrees. There are a few hundred Pac-12 football players who have something to prove when the season gets going next week. But here’s a player from each program whose work will be especially scrutinized:
Arizona — Running back Ka’Deem Carey led the nation in rushing last year, but had a troubled off-season, getting booted out of a ‘Zona basketball game at the McKale Center in an argument with security, and then being investigated (and eventually exonerated) in a domestic-violence case in which charges were dropped. How he does without the dynamic Matt Scott at quarterback will say a lot about the Wildcats’ fortunes.
Arizona State — Linebacker Anthony Jones. The Sun Devils are scrambling to find the right man for their “Spur” linebacker position, which is a combo ‘backer/safety. Chris Young, the Auburn product, had the job a year ago, but they’ve moved him to weakside linebacker, while another candidate, Carlos Mendoza, has fought knee swelling in August. Jones will try to help a defense that was nails against the pass last year (allowing only 168 yards per game, easily best in the Pac-12) but poor against the run (giving up 183 ypg).
California — Initially, I was going to plug running back Brendan Bigelow into this hole. He’s the stick of dynamite that at times looked all-world last year, when Cal would get him on the field. But inevitably, the guy who will be in the crosshairs is freshman quarterback Jared Goff, who won the job in a bit of a surprise after coming in early for spring football. And he doesn’t have a cushy landing, as the Bears have a killer opening month with Northwestern, Ohio State and Oregon on tap.
Colorado — The Buffs’ pass-efficiency defense of 102.6 was a bad last in the Pac-12 in 2012, partly because the secondary had a hard-to-believe two interceptions. Safety Parker Orms can help them improve that, if he can shake a history of injury problems.
Oregon — Byron Marshall, a 5-10, 207-pound sophomore, gets the call first as the likely guy to step into the void left by Kenjon Barner (and before that, LaMichael James) at running back. The challenge could fall to touted freshman Thomas Tyner, but he’s sat out time with a leg injury in camp.
Oregon State — In recent years, one of the better indicators of OSU’s fortunes has been its fate at stopping the run. The Beavers did well at it last year, but there are voids at defensive tackle, while middle linebacker was thinned when Mike Riley kicked Josh Williams off the team. That leaves sophomore Joel Skotte (say “Scotty”) with some big responsibility at middle linebacker.
Stanford — Tight end Luke Kaumatule is considered a promising replacement for the three recent Cardinal tight ends who have gone off to the NFL, and he needs to be. Otherwise, the Stanford offensive personality changes significantly, and it’s no given that with Stepfan Taylor gone and lots of unproven commodities at wide receiver, Stanford can withstand the hit.
UCLA — Devin Fuller, a 5-11, 195-pound New Jersey product who plays the slot, needs to produce if only because of the hype heaped on him by Jim Mora, who says Fuller “is in the mold of Percy Harvin.” Noel Mazzone, Bruins offensive coordinator, told the LA Times the coaches “think he can be one of the top inside receivers in the country.”
USC — Devon Kennard has bounced between defensive end and linebacker since he’s been at USC, and now he’s an outside linebacker in Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4, where he should flourish. Kennard tore a pectoral muscle on his fourth repetition of bench-pressing 405 about a year ago, causing him to redshirt the 2012 season. He told me recently on the USC campus, “It worked out as a blessing. I’m not looking back. I’ve got a new defensive coordinator. I feel I fit very well into this defense. It’s going to give me an opportunity to excel like I know I can.”
Utah — The Utes benefited from 2,500-plus yards rushing over the past two years from John White, and now Kelvin York, a big back (5-11, 220), is the heir to that responsibility. But Utah also likes shiftier James Poole (6-0, 195), who could bump York out of prominence.
Washington State — The Cougars lost their best defensive player of 2012 in Travis Long, and in their search for a replacement at the “Buck” linebacker spot (part end, part linebacker), they went big, settling on 6-4, 290-pound Destiny Vaeao, “a big old monstrous guy,” in the words of Mike Leach. Vaeao is formidable up front; the question is whether he can master pass drops.
Washington — Inescapably, the guy who fits this description most is quarterback Keith Price. The Huskies need him to be a lot more like the guy who shocked fans with a brilliant 2011 season, outplaying RGIII in the Alamo Bowl, than the fragile, uncertain figure who played the position last year.