June 21, 2024
From OSU's DJ Uiagalelei to USC's Bear Alexander and Colorado's Shedeur Sanders, we examine the new players (and coaches) who stand to make a difference.

The Pac-12’s final season features three new coaching staffs and hundreds of new players via the traditional recruiting  process and the transfer portal.

We cannot begin to evaluate every arrival but have identified 15 with the potential to materially impact the course of the season for individual teams and the conference at large.

Please note: The following list does not include intra-conference transfers, head coaches or assistants/coordinators who moved from one Pac-12 school to another.

The final installment in our season-preview series is focused on the new names and faces.

1. Oregon State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei: An easy call for the top spot given the upside for both Uiagalelei and his team. If the Clemson transfer performs at an elite level, the Beavers will contend for the conference title to the final Saturday of the season. And we expect as much with coach Jonathan Smith and play caller Brian Lindgren crafting a scheme that puts Uiagalelei in positions to thrive. A huge talent in expert hands.

2. Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis: The Hotline typically directs the spotlight onto the coordinator in charge of the unit that differs from the head coach’s background. In Boulder, where a Hall of Fame cornerback runs the show, the coordinator weight falls on Lewis. The former Kent State coach is plenty sharp enough to handle the load and was one of the smartest hires of the offseason, anywhere.

3. USC defensive tackle Bear Alexander: The 325-pound, former blue-chip recruit who spent one year at Georgia would be an impact recruit anywhere. But add his talent to USC’s desperate need (fortifying the defensive front) and the Trojans’ desired destination (the playoff), and Alexander’s potential impact increases exponentially.

4. Washington RB Dillon Johnson: Had this list been published a week ago, Johnson, the Mississippi State transfer, would have been much lower (and perhaps not included). But the season-ending injury to starting tailback Cam Davis has changed the calculation. Now, the Huskies need Johnson, who averaged more than five years per carry last season with MSU, to make an impact and provide balance in the pass-oriented offense.

5. Oregon offensive coordinator Will Stein: The Ducks replaced one aggressive young coordinator (Kenny Dillingham) with another. Stein’s work the past three seasons at UTSA was impressive by any measure. But calling plays in Eugene for a head coach with a defensive background (Dan Lanning) means Stein will be under relentless pressure. The presence of a veteran quarterback, Bo Nix, helps immensely.

6. Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders: No incoming player has generated more hype and few can equal  Sanders’ ability to affect the trajectory of their team or the conference. If Colorado rises from the cellar, becomes competitive and upsets a contender or two, Sanders, who followed his father from Jackson State, will undoubtedly have a vital role in the proceedings.

7. Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital: The former Texas State head coach (2019-22) returns to Berkeley, where he spent one year as Sonny Dykes’ offensive coordinator. An Air Raid disciple, Spavital has been charged with nothing less than overhauling Cal’s dormant offense, maximizing the considerable talents of tailback Jaydn Ott and possibly securing coach Justin Wilcox’s future.

8. Arizona State quarterback Jaden Rashada: At this point, Rashada is the only quarterback from the prep class of 2023 who’s scheduled to start his team’s season opener. The former four-star prospect will have a steep learning curve and plenty to say about the direction of Arizona’s State’s first season under Kenny Dillingham. If not for the Sun Devils’ postseason ban, Rashada would be a few spots higher.

9. Utah receiver Mycah Pittman: Technically, Pittman counts as a newcomer — he caught 32 passes for Florida State last season. Before that, however, he spent three years at Oregon. Given that the Utes lost Dalton Kincaid and Jaylen Dixon (103 combined receptions), they could use all the playmaking help Pittman can provide.

10. Oregon receiver Jurrion Dickey: Quarterback Bo Nix needs a target to complement his top downfield threat, Troy Franklin, who is expected to attract constant attention after his sensational sophomore season. If Dickey, the No. 2-rated prep receiver in the country last year (per 247Sports), emerges as a consistent playmaker, Oregon’s passing game will be difficult to contain.

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11. Stanford strength coach Ryan Deatrick: Best we can tell, the Cardinal doesn’t have any high-impact transfers or recruits. But it does have a new coaching staff, and the key piece to the group is Deatrick, who followed coach Troy Taylor from Sacramento State. For anyone who watched Stanford’s play at the line of scrimmage in recent years,   Deatrick’s presence on this list should be self-explanatory.

12. Washington State offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle: The Cougars lost playcaller Eric Morris to North Texas and hired the 27-year-old Arbuckle, who spent the past two seasons at Western Kentucky. As with Oregon’s Will Stein, Arbuckle would be a few slots higher if not for the presence of a veteran quarterback. The Cougars will go as far as Cam Ward takes them.

13. Arizona defensive end Bill Norton: The former blue-chip prospect from Memphis spent four years playing behind Georgia’s parade of NFL draft picks, which does not preclude him from fortifying the Wildcats where they need it most. If anything, Norton will regard Pac-12 offensive lineman as weak sauce after facing Georgia’ starters in practice throughout his career.

14. USC receiver/returner Zachariah Branch: Meet the most gifted player to enter the conference (non-quarterback division) from the 2023 recruiting class. Branch, who scored two touchdowns Saturday in the season-opening victory over San Jose State, gives quarterback Caleb Williams yet another first-class target. Woods, Lee, Smith-Schuster, Pittman, Addison … Branch.

15. UCLA quarterback Dante Moore: The five-star recruit will start the season as a reserve after the Bruins named Ethan Garbers their Week One starter. But Moore will have a chance to show off his immense talent and is included here to cover our bases. He could have a major impact on the course of the season.

*** Previous installments in our season preview series:

My AP preseason top-25 ballot
The best game of every week
Projections for the conference race
Postseason picks: CFP, Pac-12 bowl games
Coaching Hot Seats: Assessing job security
Ranking the QB depth (starters and backups)

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to [email protected] or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.