The Favorite: QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Redshirt Freshman)
Based on the average production of the three first-year quarterbacks since Chip Kelly arrived at Oregon in 2007, whoever takes over for Darron Thomas should account for 2,254 yards passing, a 21:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, with another 606 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on the ground this year.
Based on how Marcus Mariota played in the Oregon spring game, those numbers seem far too low.
Conventional logic had already installed redshirt sophomore Bryan Bennett as the successor to Thomas when he bypassed his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Bennett had performed well in relief of an injured Thomas against Arizona State, and looked even better the next week as he started at Colorado. There were even rumblings of a quarterback controversy after Bennett stabilized the offense at Washington State after a shaky performance from Thomas.
But that was before a national television audience saw Mariota, who played at Honolulu (Hawaii) St. Louis, explode for 301 total yards and three touchdowns to end the spring. The redshirt freshman looked positively Dennis Dixon-esque, lean and lanky as he sprinted away from defenders in the open field but poised and accurate in the pocket.
At 6-foot-4 and 196 pounds, Mariota looks to be everything Kelly could want in a quarterback, the true dual-threat presence not seen since Dixon was on his way to the Heisman Trophy before crumpling on the turf at Arizona Stadium. Jeremiah Masoli was a wizard operating the zone-read and option, but struggled when forced to rely solely on his arm. Thomas was a better pure thrower, but seemed at times to lack creativity, vision and improvisation.
There seem to be no such issues with Mariota, albeit on a very limited sample size under less than game-like conditions.
He’ll still have to beat out Bennett for the job in fall camp, but if Mariota gets the nod, there should be no doubts he will put up exceptional stats, highlight reel plays, and plenty of wins for Oregon. At this point, does anyone doubt that Kelly could pull Puddles the Duck off the sideline, put him in at quarterback, and get reasonable play?
If Mariota starts, he will win the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year honors in a walk. Even Kelly, who famously refuses to deal in hypothetical questions, would have to acknowledge that.
The Contenders: WR Bryce Treggs, California (Freshman)
Seemingly penciled in for a starting role opposite All-America candidate Keenan Allen from the moment he signed with the Bears, Treggs is perfectly positioned to be the next breakout Pac-12 freshman receiver.
A coach’s son through and through, Scout’s top wideout on the West Coast and fifth-ranked prospect nationally effortlessly combines precision route running and excellent hands with an innate ability to set up corners and attack.
As defensive coordinators focus on containing Allen, Treggs could easily match the 846 yards Cal’s No. 2 receiver Marvin Jones had last season and become the eighth wide receiver in conference history to be honored as the top freshman.
RB Byron Marshall, Oregon (Freshman)
WR Nelson Agholor, USC (Freshman)
On recent history alone, there would be a pretty good chance either the Ducks or Trojans will add another piece of hardware at season’s end, as LaMichael James won the award in 2009, Robert Woods took in 2010, then De’Anthony Thomas and Marqise Lee split it last year.
Agholor has been the talk of summer workouts in Los Angeles, with teammates and observers putting him ahead of Woods in his comprehension of the playbook. But with the two Gardena (Calif.) Serra sensations ahead of him, it seems unlikely Agholor can make the same splash as Woods and Lee did upon arrival, barring an injury or two. On talent and buzz alone though, he has to be recognized.
As Oregon must replace James and his 247 carries, there is opportunity waiting for Marshall, whose older brother Cameron is a star for Arizona State. He could easily pick up the dozen or so attempts that Kenjon Barner had a year ago, especially if Thomas stays in his hybrid role splitting time between runner and receiver.
The Long Shots: RB Storm Woods, Oregon State (Redshirt Freshman)
With Jacquizz Rodgers off to the NFL, the Beavers could barely run the ball last season, finishing with the third-worst per game average in the FBS.
Head coach Mike Riley knows that has to change, saying at media day that as long as Oregon State rushes for 1,800 yards this time around he doesn’t care how it gets done. Considering the success he had with Rodgers, why not turn to another Texan with a name tailor-made for headline puns?
Voted the scout team MVP during his first year, Woods has underrated receiving skills to compliment sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion.
QB Michael Eubank (Redshirt Freshman)
Sophomore Michael Bercovici seems to be the safe choice to start for the Sun Devils, with coaches likely to ask him to do nothing more than hand the ball to the elder Marshall 25-30 times a game and try and hit some play-action throws as defenses crowd the line.
Eubank, all 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds of him, is regarded as the quarterback of the future. However, coaches have indicated they will take advantage of his remarkable athleticism and dual-threat skills in some fashion.
Odds are Eubank will be nothing more than the Tim Tebow to Bercovici’s Chris Leak this season, coming in occasionally to run the option and give opponents something to worry about. If he does more than that and lifts Arizona State about its predicted fifth-place finish in the South in the process, Eubank would certainly receive consideration for his role.
History Isn’t On Their Side: OT Torian White, UCLA (Redshirt Freshman)
OT Zach Banner, USC (Freshman)
OT Andrus Peat, Stanford (Freshman)
OT Kyle Murphy, Stanford (Freshman)
Since the then-Pac-10 started handing out a freshman of the year award in 1999 – it wasn’t until 2009 that it honored offensive and defensive newcomers separately – only once has an offensive lineman (Oregon State guard Jeremy Perry in 2005) been recognized.
Is it the lack of statistical verification, the rarity of freshmen contributing immediately on the line, willful bias or unintended negligence, who can say?
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.