On July 5, the original Maxwell Award watch list was released, and it was filled with familiar names. A dozen players from the West Coast, representing 10 of the conference’s 12 teams, were featured among the 90 on the list.
Washington’s precocious underclassmen duo of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin made the list, as did Washington State’s explosive pair of Luke Falk and Gabe Marks. USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster and Ronald Jones, another sophomore, made appearances, as did Arizona’s Anu Solomon, Arizona State’s Demario Richard, Cal transfer Davis Webb, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and, obviously, Stanford dynamo Christian McCaffrey.
Oddly enough, no defensive players made the list, despite a linebacker, Manti Te’o, winning the award just four years ago — though he was also the first defensive player to win it since Hugh Green did so in 1980.
To simplify the list, here are the top three players to watch in the Pac-12:
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford RB
This is the biggest no-brainer on the list. The nation is well-acquainted with McCaffrey in the wake of his near-Heisman-winning campaign. He delivered indelible performances in the Pac-12 championship – 461 all-purpose yards, two touchdowns – against USC and a Rose Bowl pasting of Iowa – 368 yards, two touchdowns.
That was followed by a Heisman nomination, an ESPY Award nomination for best record-breaking performance, a Sports Illustrated cover story and appearances on essentially every award watch list you can imagine.
The good thing going for McCaffrey: He has the attention of the nation.
The bad thing going for McCaffrey: He has the attention of the nation.
Teams will do everything they can do stop McCaffrey, who no longer has Kevin Hogan at quarterback to at least take a portion of the defensive attention. It will be supremely difficult for McCaffrey to follow up his 2015 campaign, but then again, this is the guy who broke Barry Sanders’ record. It would be supremely difficult to count him out.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA QB
One aspect of Rosen’s freshman season that many choose not to notice: It was rather underwhelming. In terms of passing efficiency, Rosen ranked 55th in the nation, behind the likes of conference quarterbacks Anu Solomon, Mike Bercovici, Jake Browning, Luke Falk, Cody Kessler, Jared Goff, Kevin Hogan and Vernon Adams.
So, how does a guy who was in the bottom quarter of his own conference in terms of quarterbacking find himself at the No. 2 spot on this Pac-12 Maxwell Award watch list?
Rosen was just a true freshman last season, and he did win the conference’s Offensive Freshman of the Year and was a freshman All-America. The nation took notice of Rosen for a reason.
A year of experience can do wonders for a collegiate athlete, particularly for a quarterback who had never taken a college snap prior to last season. Rosen made throws that had NFL scouts salivating and others comparing his ceiling to players such as Andrew Luck. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he was better prepared for the NFL than Jared Goff, who was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.
It should be a special year for Rosen.
3. Royce Freeman, Oregon RB
Freeman has been the most underrated player on Oregon for each of his first two years in Eugene. His freshman campaign was overshadowed by a young man named Marcus Mariota, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy. His sophomore season was shrouded in disappointment by Oregon as a team, which finished 9-4. But Freeman was spectacular in each of his first two seasons.
His final two games were McCaffrey-esque, with five total touchdowns and nearly 300 yards rushing in a win over Oregon State and a triple-overtime loss to TCU, though that was more a reflection of how he performed the entire season than it was two heroic games.
All year, Freeman was held to less than 100 yards just twice and ran for multiple touchdowns in six games. With the graduation of Adams, Freeman is the surest thing coach Mark Helfrich has on his roster.