With spring practices beginning across the Pac-12, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in the North and South. Check back next week for a look at each team's biggest weakness.
Here's a look at the North:
California: Wide receiver. Despite the fact that the Golden Bears lost the Pac-12's leading receiver in Chad Hansen, the group still remains incredibly deep. Look for Demetris Robertson, who finished the season with the second-most catches of any Cal receiver, to have a huge 2017. One Pac-12 defensive coordinator told ESPN.com that he's hands down going to be the best receiver in the conference this season. Robertson will be joined by Melquise Stovall, Jordan Veasy and Vic Wharton III. Though it's fair to assume there won't be quite as many passes thrown in 2017 as there have been in recent past, don't get caught up in thinking that Beau Baldwin won't utilize wide receivers. He groomed Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who was the FCS ADA National Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016.
Oregon: Running back. Even if Royce Freeman didn't return this still might've been the strongest unit on the Ducks' roster. But with Freeman it might be the strongest position unit in the entire conference (assuming players stay healthy in 2017). Freeman was the top priority for coach Willie Taggart when he got to Eugene, and the fact that Taggart got Freeman to stay says a lot about where this offense is going. Backing up Freeman will be Tony Brooks-James, who had a great 2016 campaign (101 carries, 771 yards, nine touchdowns), and Kani Benoit, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry in limited action. This position group also has the benefit of an offensive line that returns four starters from a season ago as well as Tyrell Crosby, who sat out 2016 with an injury but was a two-year starter before that.
Oregon State: Running back. Ryan Nall was one of the more underappreciated players in the Pac-12 a season ago (partially due to the lack of conference wins, partially due to injuries), but he's back in 2017 and looking to build on his season-ending performance against Oregon -- four touchdowns, 155 yards. The Beavers also have Artavis Pierce who, like Nall, has excellent hands and can contribute to the pass game. Both Nall and Pierce were effective in their roles a season ago without consistent quarterback play. In 2017, with a quarterback race that Gary Andersen hopes produces a more polished QB, these two will look to have an even bigger impact as part of the team's strongest position group.
Stanford: The secondary. The Cardinal return both starting corners in Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder and bring back talent such as safety Justin Reid, who's developing into a mature veteran. It's a crucial time for the Stanford secondary to be the strength of the team. Washington, Washington State and Oregon all return starting quarterbacks, while Oregon State has an arsenal of players from which to choose. Though there will be a lot of talent on the ground this season in the Pac-12 North, a lot of teams will look to utilize that quarterback experience and take their shots deep. But when it comes to facing Stanford, an offensive coordinator might feel differently about that when scouting Meeks, Holder and Reid.
Washington: Front seven. The strength of Chris Petersen's teams every season in Seattle has been the defense. Over the past few seasons that strength has gone from front seven to secondary (in 2016) and will swing back to the front seven in 2017. The Huskies lose Elijah Qualls to the NFL, so they'll need to find someone to fill his spot, but they return Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. Azeem Victor, who was Washington's best pass rusher before suffering a season-ending injury midseason, will be back and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks while Conor O'Brien, who stepped in during Victor's absence, will provide important depth there. Keishawn Bierria, DJ Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven will all be back and looking to keep Washington's reputation as the toughest defense in the conference.
Washington State: Quarterback. Strength doesn't always lie in numbers here as it often does at running back or wide receiver. Sometimes that strength comes in the form of a single player, and when you're a three-year starting quarterback in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, you are the strength. Luke Falk returns to the Pac-12 North a year older and wiser, with a bigger chip on his shoulder. He averaged 344 passing yards per game in 2016 and though he loses Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, Leach will have options waiting in the wings at receiver. In his return announcement, Falk stated that the team "has much more to accomplish," so look for him to be back in his final year with an added sense of urgency and cleaner mechanics as he looks to become a more efficient quarterback in 2017.