Scouting the North rosters and depth charts for this exercise resulted in two broader conclusions:
- Offensively, the division is (in most cases) well-stocked on the lines but light on proven receivers.
- Defensively, the personnel improves as you move away from the line of scrimmage.
Given that alignment of personnel, the opportunities are seemingly more terrestrial than aerial despite the presence of four returning starters at quarterback and one returning Air Raid coach …
Welcome to the latest installment of the Hotline’s look-ahead series to the 2019 football season.
Next up is a focus on the strongest and weakest units for each team.
Please note: I did not include quarterbacks in the evaluations below — because we’ve hit that position previously — and special teams were not considered.
Strongest: Linebackers. Gave serious consideration to the defensive backs as cal’s best unit — safety Ashtyn Davis and cornerback Camryn Bynum are all-conference talents — but opted instead for the linebackers … Good as it was last season with Jordan Kunaszyk leading the way, the group should be even better in ’19. Lott Trophy candidate Evan Weaver returns, and edge rusher Cam Goode is expected to be healthy after missing most of last season … But the reason for the high ceiling is Kuony Deng, the No. 1 junior college linebacker in the country.
Weakest: Running backs. We could pick any unit on offense, except perhaps the line, but the backfield stands out for what it lost and what it has. It lost Patrick Laird and his 961 yards; it doesn’t have much … The top returning running back is Christopher Brown, who gained 148 yards last season — but only 60 in conference play … The Bears need DeShawn Collins, a transfer from City College of San Francisco, to contribute. (And if not Collins, somebody) … If defenses don’t respect the ground game, quarterback Chase Garbers has little chance to succeed.
Top talent: linebacker Kuony Deng. He hasn’t played a down, but Deng stands as one of the top pure talents in the conference. He’s a 6-foot-6 former basketball player who runs like a receiver and picked Cal over Texas A&M, UCLA and Virginia Tech following his season at Independence Community College.
Strongest: Offensive line. From this vantage point, the Ducks possess the best line in the Pac-12 and one of the five or 10 best in the country … If it feels like Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton have lined up for Oregon for eons, it’s because they started as freshmen. We’ll assume left tackle Penei Sewell is healthy after injuring his ankle midway through last season. Dallas Warmack, whose career began at Alabama, is the fifth starter, while backup Brady Aiello would start for most teams in the conference.
Weakest: Wide receiver. The selection is relative: The Ducks aren’t devoid of playmakers, but compared to their strengths at so many positions, the wideout group is unproven … They lost Justin Herbert’s top target, Dillon Mitchell (75 receptions, 10 TDs), from a unit that had far too many drops and not enough big plays … Brenden Schooler and Jaylon Redd must improve, and the Ducks will need immediate, lasting contributions from Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’ll give Herbert a substantial target on third down and in the red zone.
Top talent: left tackle Penei Sewell. Started at left tackle as a true freshman and was headed toward an all-conference season before the ankle injury against Washington. If healthy for the remainder of his college career, however long that lasts, Sewell will be one of the best in school history.
Strongest: Running back. An easy call, in part because the Beavers have holes on every other unit, in part because they have one of the top collections of tailbacks in the conference. Sophomore Jermar Jefferson rushed for 1,380 yards last season while filling in for Artavis Pierce. Meanwhile, Pierce has 1,254 career yards and is healthy for training camp. Both players must repel a push for playing time from 210-pound sophomore B.J. Baylor. Oh, and all three top 200 pounds … Keeping them all happy might not be easy, but OSU would gladly accept that problem.
Weakest: Offensive line. The Beavers did a reasonable job carving running lanes, but were lacking in pass protection (4.0 sacks allowed per game, worst in the FBS). From that group, they lost the middle and right side … The arrival of Nathan Eldridge, a graduate transfer from Arizona, will help, and we’ll count guard Gus Lavaka as a solid left guard. But there are questions elsewhere and with depth everywhere … Admittedly, one could make the case that the Beavers are equally, if not more vulnerable on the other side of scrimmage.
Top talent: running back Jermar Jefferson. We considered receiver Isaiah Hodgins but selected Jefferson after his breakthrough rookie season. The Beavers aren’t short on skill position playmakers, but need the other components (line and quarterback) to function effectively.
Strongest: Linebackers. The Cardinal has a talented collection of receivers, as well, but the group is largely unproven — the top returnees, Connor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown, had eight and seven catches, respectively, last season … So the choice is the linebackers, where Stanford is well stocked on the outside with Jordan Fox, Gabe Reid and Casey Toohill (12 combined sacks last season) and one of the inside spots with Curtis Robinson … If their year-over-year improvement offsets the loss of playmaker Bobby Okereke, the defense should be solid.
Weakest: Running back. The offensive line was decidedly un-Stanford last season, and the defensive line, long a weak spot, must become consistently productive … We opted for the backfield because the muddled state stands in contrast to its existence over the past decade. There is no obvious heir to Gerhart/Taylor/Gaffney/McCaffrey/Love. The contenders for primary duty are Cameron Scarlett, Justus Woods, Dorian Maddox and Trevor Speights … We haven’t seen enough from any as of yet.
Top talent: cornerback Paulson Adebo. The top player at his position in the Pac-12 — he was first-team all-conference last year as a redshirt freshman — and a likely first-round draft pick whenever he leaves school. His side of the field is essentially off-limits, which helps the defense cover holes elsewhere.
Strongest: Offensive line. Maybe not as good as Oregon’s, or maybe better. The Huskies have the foundation for a first-class quintet with All-American Trey Adams healthy after back surgery, all-conference center Nick Harris running point and three other returning starters (Luke Wattenberg, Jared Hilbers and Jaxson Kirkland) … The tight ends should be top-notch, and we suspect the tailbacks and secondary to be better than expected given the talent lost. But the offensive front is clearly UW’s best unit.
Weakest: Linebacker. Gave thought to slotting the receivers in this spot, but that unit is stocked with returnees who didn’t quite live up to expectations last season … The linebackers, on the other hand, are merely stocked with questions, among them: Who will replace the leadership and production of Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, and will the edge pressure improve? The Huskies were 100th in the nation in sacks per game, and repeat could be problematic with so many inexperienced defensive backs … Mammoth sophomore Joe Tryon (266 pounds) might be the answer.
Top talent: left tackle Trey Adams. If healthy, the 6-foot-8 Adams is one of the best in the nation. And if healthy, he’ll give new quarterback Jacob Eason a chance for immediate success.
Strongest: Wide receivers. The Cougars would boast a stellar lineup of wideouts if the group were simply limited to Davontavean Martin, Dezmon Patmon, Jamire Calvin and Easop Winston, who combined for 224 catches and 22 touchdowns. Then add sophomore Travell Harris, where’d-he-come-from freshman Kassidy Woods and others, and the Cougars are loaded at receiver like they haven’t been loaded in the Mike Leach era … The offensive line isn’t lacking in quality, either.
Weakest: Defensive line. We’re including the rush end/edge linebacker position because of the interdependency with the interior positions … The Cougars must replace productive veteran leader Logan Tago, while other veterans Nnamdi Oguayo and Dominick Silvels return. WSU has upgraded the unit’s depth considerably. An impact season from West Virginia transfer Lamonte McDougle will help limit the backslide … The linebacking and secondary units are also a bit suspect — all of them to a greater degree than any group on offense (except quarterback).
Top talent: right tackle Abe Lucas. The redshirt sophomore earned second-team all-conference honors and is a future pro. He won’t make anyone forget Andre Dillard, but he will make the quarterback transition much easier.