2002 Pac-10 Football Stars: A Look Ahead

The Pac-10 conference is known for its offensive reputation. It's a league of great quarterbacks, past and present, and it's a league full of immensely talented skill position players. Why, then, has it been over 20 years since the Pac-10 could claim a Heisman Trophy winner from its ranks?

USC's extraordinary tailback Marcus Allen brought the Heisman back home to Los Angeles with him way back in 1981. No man since has won the award from the premier West Coast conference even though many have finished second or third in the voting.

This year probably won't end that 20-year string of non-Heisman winners in the conference, but there will be plenty of worthy candidates. Here's a look at the ten superstars of the Pac-10, broken down into three categories: Established stars, Defensive stars and Rising stars.

Established stars:

*Jason Gesser, Sr. QB-Washington State: Probably the best chance to win the Heisman lies with Gesser and his right arm. The multi-purpose QB led the Pac-10 with 2,729 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago and is a projected All-American candidate by many of the experts.

*Clarence Farmer, Jr. HB-Arizona: Farmer won the conference rushing title in 2001 with an impressive 1,229 yards for the Wildcats. His combination of power and breakaway speed, when coupled with his size, make him a big-time prospect to NFL scouts.

*Reggie Williams, So. WR-Washington: There isn't a better NFL prospect on the offensive side of the ball in the Pac-10 than the 6-4, 220-pound lightning fast Williams. As a freshman, he caught 55 balls for 973 yards. Look for him to triple his season total of three touchdowns as a sophomore.

*Onterrio Smith, Jr. HB-Oregon: During his sophomore year in Eugene, Smith rushed for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry…as a backup! Now that he has inherited the starter's job, look for Oregon to give him the ball more and watch his yardage and touchdown totals increase dramatically as well.

*Shaun McDonald, Jr. WR-ASU: The guy is only 5-9 and maybe 175 pounds but he wound up leading the Pac-10 last year in receiving yards (1,104), receiving TDs (10) and in yards per catch (an eye-popping 23.5). ASU head coach Dirk Koetter and his pass-happy offense has its go-to guy in McDonald.

*Mike Saffer, Sr. OT-UCLA: Saffer, a graduate of Sabino High School in Tucson, spent the last three seasons opening up holes for departed tailback DeShaun Foster. Now he will do the same for Bruin junior Akil Harris and sophomore Manuel White. There are no fancy stats when describing an offensive lineman, but Saffer (6-5, 305) has done enough to get the attention of plenty of NFL scouts.

Defensive stars:

*Lance Briggs, Sr. ILB-Arizona: Over the past two seasons, Briggs has accumulated 206 tackles in Arizona's complex Double-Eagle Flex defensive scheme. The goal is to funnel ball carriers into the path of Briggs and let him unload on them. It has worked. Expect more blitzing from Briggs this year as Arizona tries to compensate for an inexperienced defensive line.

*Terrell Suggs, Jr. DE-ASU: There has always been a single goal for Terrell Suggs when it came to playing football: get to the quarterback. He has had his double digit sack totals and will try to improve upon them once again as a junior. At a mere 232 pounds, expect Suggs to make the switch to outside linebacker once he gets to the NFL.

*Dennis Weathersby, Sr. CB-Oregon State: Weathersby (6-1, 210) is coming off a sub-par season in 2001. He has made it clear that he plans on making up for lost opportunity in this his senior year. He's a big, strong, fast cover corner with game-breaking ability. Most opposing offenses will choose to challenge his cornerback partner, Terrell Roberts instead of going at Weathersby.

*Troy Polamalu, Sr. SS-USC: Polamalu is a playmaker, simple as that. He's not the biggest guy, at only 5-10, but he is exceedingly strong and uses all 215 pounds to his advantage, whether it be in making crushing hits or in having the explosion in his legs to outrun opponents after one of his many game-turning interceptions. Some have called Polamalu a potential All-American in 2002.

Rising stars:

*Steven Jackson, So. RB-Oregon State: Jackson quite possibly should have been given the ball considerably earlier for the Beavers instead of three-year starter and Heisman disappointment Ken Simonton in 2001. Jackson is a lot bigger and stronger than Simonton was and is faster also. He had some huge games later in the year and the coaching staff at OSU hopes he carries those performances over into this season.

*Matt Ware, So. FS/CB-UCLA: The Bruins seem to land talented recruiting classes full of players loaded with potential every year but rarely do they get a lot out of those guys. Matt Ware is the exception. Ware is a 6-3, 205-pound free safety who might be asked to play opposite Ricky Manning, Jr. at corner in 2002 because he's so talented. He also plays professional baseball in the offseason but that didn't deter him from making progress after starting in every game during his freshman year. He exemplifies the term "playmaker".

Ben Hansen can be reached at AZPointGuardU@yahoo.com

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