Pac-12 Football: The 10 Best Freshman Seasons of the Past 10 Years

Craig Mitchelldyer

A number of players in recent conference history have made huge marks in their first year of action.

The Pac-12 coaches made a bold, but appropriate choice in naming Oregon freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota to the All-Pac-12 first team. The honor is usually designated to senior signal callers and the conference had two great ones this year in Matt Barkley and Matt Scott, but Mariota's numbers, efficiency and record simply outweighed all of the senior clout that both Matt's had. By earning the honor, Mariota solidified himself as the best freshman in the conference in recent years. But who does he beat out for that designation?

1. Marcus Mariota QB Oregon 2012 (Redshirt)

There was speculation when 2010 and 2011 starter Darron Thomas inexplicably declared for the NFL draft after his junior season that it was because he didn't want to get beaten out by Mariota in 2012 and while you can't really confirm that, it's not hard to believe. Mariota looked like he was created in a lab to run Oregon's offense from day one and as mentioned before he earned All-Pac-12 first team honors. Mariota's speed was a notch above that of previous Oregon QBs and he showed great accuracy within Oregon's offense far beyond that of what you would expect from a freshmen. His dynamic play and calm demeanor led to a near national championship game appearance for the Ducks and he also filled up the stat sheet at the same time, arguably putting up the best numbers of any quarterback in the conference in 2012.

2. LaMichael James RB Oregon 2009 (Redshirt)

Things looked dicey at running back for the Ducks after returning star LaGarrette Blount got himself suspended for the bulk of the season in the opener against Boise State, but James made Ducks fans almost forget about the whole thing. The small and speedy James got his prolific career started by rushing for more than 100 yards in every conference game except one while leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 15 years. Much like Mariota in 2012, James was the perfect player for the Ducks system with his superb cutting ability, vision, speed and deceptive toughness and he brought Chip Kelly's offense to a whole new level.

3. Jacquizz Rodgers RB Oregon State 2008

Rodgers wasn't quite as prolific as some of the other guys at the top of this list, but he is the only freshman of the group to win Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. A small but strong back, Rodgers carried the ball much more than any other back in the conference and was the heart and soul of the Beavers offense. Rodgers also saved his best game of the year when it mattered most, carrying the ball nearly 40 times for nearly 200 yards and 2 touchdowns in a historic upset of top-ranked USC.

4. De'Anthony Thomas RB Oregon 2011

The most versatile of any guy on this list, Thomas came onto the scene as an athlete unlike any ever seen before in the Pac-12 and maybe the country. A danger to take it all the way on the ground, in the passing game and in the return game, Thomas spread out his damage in 2011 and was a nightmarish addition to the Ducks already nearly unstoppable offense. Thomas ran for nearly 600 yards with 7 touchdowns while receiving for 600 yards and 9 touchdowns and then added 2 kick return touchdowns on top of that. Thomas capped off the season by helping the Ducks win the Rose Bowl with touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards.

5. Brett Hundley QB UCLA 2012 (Redshirt)

Hundley would have been far and away the best freshman quarterback in the Pac-12 almost every year in the history of the conference other than 2012. The key factor in UCLA's emergence as a power in Jim Mora's first year in LA, the strong armed and athletic Hundley had the Bruins just a few points away from a Rose Bowl trip in his freshman season. Hundley led the conference in passing yards while also racking up yards and touchdowns on the ground and has limitless potential.

6. Jake Locker QB Washington 2007 (Redshirt)

Locker had a lot to live up to as he was crowned as the Huskies savior before he even took a snap, and he lived up to expectations in his first year of action. Locker would end up being more of a pro-style passer, but he had most of his success in 2007 using his blazing speed, rushing for just a hair under 1,000 yards while nearly leading the conference in rushing touchdowns. Locker didn't lead the Huskies to a winning record, but he almost single-handedly kept them in games against better opponents in a number of games.

7. Marqise Lee WR USC 2011

Lee one upped Woods' fantastic freshman season in 2010 just a little bit, grabbing 73 passes for 1143 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lee teamed with Woods to form one of the best receiver duos in the nation and the two proved almost unstoppable towards the end of the season. Lee was also instrumental in the Trojans upset of Oregon as he had 8 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown in the game.

8. Robert Woods WR USC 2010

Before Lee, Woods was a lone explosive freshman receiver at USC that Matt Barkley loved tossing the ball to deep. Woods wasn't quite as productive as Lee as a freshman with 65 receptions for nearly 800 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he did put together a monster game against Stanford with 224 yards and a touchdown.

9. Brandon Browner CB Oregon State 2003 (Redshirt)

The Pro Bowler for the Seahawks had 6 interceptions in 2003 and worked his way to second team All-Conference back when freshmen simply didn't make All-Conference teams. One of the biggest cornerbacks to ever play in conference, the physical Browner would have undoubtedly been named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the year had the honor existed in 2003.

10. Taylor Mays S USC 2006

A pure physical specimen, Mays started from day one at USC which is very hard to do, especially considering that the Trojans were in the middle of their dynasty when he arrived. Mays was a huge boost to the Trojans defense, especially in run defense, but he also helped out with pass defense, grabbing 3 interceptions.

Honorable Mention

Vontaze Burfict LB Arizona State 2009, Jairus Byrd CB Oregon 2006 (Redshirt), Mike Thomas WR Arizona 2005, Alterraun Verner CB UCLA 2006, Marquess Wilson WR Washington State 2010

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