Happy Returns: Part 1

Washington will enter a new era in 2011 when the Pac-12 begins its inaugural season. The Huskies will see two new teams in Colorado and Utah, but will still recognize plenty of faces from the rest of the former Pac-10 as the conference returns talent in abundance.

The post-season performances from Oregon, Stanford, and Washington bode extremely well for the conference. Oregon missed out on a national championship, losing to Auburn on the final play of the game. Stanford won big over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Washington dominated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Only Arizona looked bad in getting clown-stomped by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

Let's take a look at the Pac-12 for 2011 and see who the top returning performers are, and see if it gives a good indication of which teams could be strong contenders for the division titles.

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks:
Andrew Luck (Jr) – Stanford. Luck is currently, hands down, the number one selection in the 2012 NFL draft. He is big, fast, strong, and incredibly accurate. He connected on a freakish 70% of his attempts, over 3,000 yards, and 28 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He is also a legitimate running threat, nearly gaining 500 yards on the ground. He will be the face of the Pac-12 conference next year, and will make Stanford the team to beat entering the season.
Nick Foles (Sr) – Arizona. Foles will be a senior and put up huge numbers last season. He threw for 2900 yards, 19 touchdowns, and was accurate, hitting on 68% of his attempts. Foles is not a rushing threat in the least, but if you give him time, he will pick apart your secondary. Arizona will rely heavily on his right arm.
Darron Thomas (Jr) – Oregon. Thomas runs the Oregon offense with deft precision. He led all Pac-10 quarterbacks in rushing (492 yards) and threw for over 2500 yards and 28 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He will be a junior in 2011 and is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the conference. His threat to run the ball on any down for big gains makes defenses remain very honest when defending the spread.
Jordan Wynn (Jr) – Utah. Wynn completed 62% of his throws, good for 2,300 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 10 games. He has been the Utes' starter at quarterback since his true freshman season. He's not big but he makes the Utah offense go in a big way.

Tailbacks:
LaMichael James (Jr) – Oregon. James led the country as a sophomore in 2011 with 1,700 yards and a whopping 21 touchdowns. His mix of speed and cutting ability give him the ability to take any play the distance. His long run on the season went for 76 yards and he averaged 6.0 yards per carry. He and Thomas give the Ducks an incredible 1-2 punch in the backfield.
Chris Polk (Jr) – Washington. Polk broke the 1,000 yard barrier for the second straight season. He doesn't have the speed of James but he can break tackles like no one else in the conference. His yards after contact are where he makes his living, as he never goes down when he is first hit. Polk had 8 touchdowns and averaged over 100 yards per game for the season. He will be the Huskies main offensive weapon in 2011.
Rodney Stewart (Sr) – Colorado. Stewart amassed 1,300 yards and scored 11 touchdowns for the 5-7 Buffaloes. Stewart is only 5' 6" but his explosive speed commands defensive attention.
Stepfan Taylor (Jr) – Stanford. Taylor was the top ground gainer for the punishing Stanford rushing attack, going for over 1,000 yards in his sophomore campaign. He averaged over 85 yards per game and found the end zone 15 times. He provides a nice compliment to Luck's passing prowess.

Receivers:
Juron Criner (Sr) – Arizona. Criner had 82 receptions for over 1200 yards, both league bests. He will be Foles' top target in the Wildcat offense. His 11 touchdowns last year were a school record. When Criner is in single coverage, he rarely looses battles for the ball.
Jermaine Kearse (Sr) – Washington. Kearse just needs to gain consistency now, as he puts up bigger numbers than anyone in the conference when he's on. He had 62 receptions for over 1,000 yards and a Pac-10 leading 12 touchdowns. He excels at the big catch at the biggest times. No question, he will be the Huskies biggest threat through the air.
Marquess Wilson (So) – Washington State. Wilson compiled 1,006 yards on just 55 receptions, making him a legitimate big play guy. He averaged nearly 19 yards per catch and scored six times. He is on the skinny side but his dependable hands and speed are what make him the Cougars' most potent offensive weapon.

Tight Ends:
David Paulson (Sr) – Oregon. Paulson had 24 receptions for 418 yards and found the end zone four times. He is sneaky fast and gets behind linebackers with ease. The Auburn, Washington native isn't a punishing tight end but he stretches the field vertically better than any other in the conference.
Joe Halahuni (Sr) – Oregon State. Halahuni will be one of Katz's main targets in the Oregon State passing attack in 2011. He is a bruising blocker capable of making acrobatic catches. The native of Graham, WA had 390 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Cory Harkey (Sr) – UCLA. Harkey has all of the tools you look for in a tight end, however the Bruins are so saddled at the quarterback position that he probably becomes somewhat irrelevant. If the Bruins sort that out, Harkey can be one of the tops in the conference.

Offensive Linemen:
David DeCastro (Sr) – Stanford. The former Bellevue High School product has established himself as a rock solid offensive guard in the Cardinal punishing rushing attack. He and his linemates beat up on their opponents physically.
Jonathan Martin (Sr) – Stanford. Martin is quick, flexible enough to run or pass block extremely well, and has a nasty streak. An outstanding tackle in every way.
Erik Kohler (So) – Washington. Kohler played as a true freshman last season for Washington, earning a couple of starts before going down while fighting a bout of mono-nucleosis. Despite being sapped physically, Kohler played on big downs. He is versatile enough to play guard or tackle. His technique is outstanding. Frosh teammate Colin Porter got the acclaim in 2010 because of how much he played, but people should expect big things from Kohler now that he's fully back on form.
Mitchell Schwartz (Sr) – California. Schwartz was the main man that Shane Vareen ran behind for the Bears. He is a long-armed beast capable of lining up on either side of the center and just about anywhere.
Mike Remmers (Sr) – Oregon State. A former walk-on, Remmers was the main road grater for Jaquizz Rogers in the Beaver attack. Can play inside or out, but prefers tackle.
Tony Bergstrom (Sr) – Utah. The mammoth Salt Lake City native will be starting his third season on the Utes' offensive line at tackle.

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