This mailbag note from Luke caught my eye on Friday and merited more than just cursory consideration: "Could you name a player from each school who you think has dark horse first- or second-team All-Pac-12 potential this season? Could you also include a sentence or two providing your rationale?"
So we decided to bite, starting with the South Division today.
Arizona: The Wildcats have a new, super-secret defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Marcel Yates, but scheme won't mean anything without playmakers. A candidate to be just that is linebacker DeAndre' Miller, a 6-foot-3, 236-pound junior with the athletic skills to rush the passer and play in space. He had eight tackles for loss and two sacks last year, and those totals should go up as the Wildcats try to replace the production of Scooby Wright.
Arizona State: While accumulating A-list defensive linemen is often a challenge for Pac-12 teams, that is not an issue at present for Arizona State. The best of the lot may be true sophomore JoJo Wicker, who at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds can rush the passer and stand up to a power run game. He had four sacks last year and should increase that total this fall.
Colorado: Tight end Sean Irwin caught only 15 passes last year, but his 16.5 yards per reception hints that the rising senior perhaps should have been targeted more often. That figures to happen this fall with the departure of record-setting receiver Nelson Spruce. While Irwin isn't huge -- 6-foot-3, 245 pounds -- he's an asset as a run blocker, too.
UCLA: Defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes was probably headed toward an All-Conference season in 2015 -- see his eight tackles in the opener against Virginia, including two tackles for loss. But he blew out his knee and missed the rest of the season. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound junior is pretty much a sure thing if he is fully recovered and stays healthy.
USC: Also likely on the list of "sure things" is Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith. Despite missing the final four games of his true freshman season, he ranked second on the Trojans with 78 tackles. The Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year could end up transforming the word "Freshman" into "Player" before he dashes off to the NFL.
Utah: Utes defensive end Hunter Dimick is our favorite for comeback player of the year. He had 10 sacks as a redshirt sophomore in 2014 but missed six games due to injury last year and wasn't terribly productive while playing at less than full-speed. If Dimick stays healthy -- and that has been a pesky "if" for him -- he should put up big numbers for a strong Utes D-line.