Pac-12 football looks ahead to the 2021 season

The past college football season was challenging for many schools due to the pandemic and Pac-12 schools were no exception. The Pac-12 conference played an abbreviated football schedule last season due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it showed in the 2021 NFL draft. The Conference had 28 players drafted, the lowest number for the conference since the 2013 NFL draft. From 2014 through 2020, the Pac-12 has averaged 34 players per year in the NFL draft.

The USC Trojans, Oregon Ducks, and Stanford Cardinal led the conference in picks with 5 each. The Washington Huskies had 4 players drafted. Because of the pandemic, players were given the option to opt out and some of the better players took full advantage of the opt-out option. Four of the five players drafted from Oregon opted-out of the 2020 season.

The Pac-12 had six players selected among the first 45 picks of the draft and five of them opted-out for the 2020 season. Only USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker, the No. 14 pick overall, played this past season among the first six Pac-12 players selected. Vera-Tucker initially opted-out but changed his mind and started at offensive tackle for the Trojans.

The Trojans were led in the NFL draft by offensive lineman Vera-Tucker, a two-time All-Pac-12 selection, who was drafted in the first round by the New York Jets. Vera-Tucker versatility was attractive to the Jets. As Trojan head coach Clay Helton said of Tucker, "His versatility is what stands out to me first. I think he's going to be a special interior player at guard with elite athleticism and feet. He has that tackle athleticism that's elite at guard, but if you get in a pinch in a game or a season, you could always move him back out to tackle."

USC's Jay Tufele, a first team All-Pac-12 selection at defensive tackle in 2019, was selected in the 4th round by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tufele opted-out of the 2020 season and it might have hurt his draft status. A few picks later in the 4th round, wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was selected by the Detroit Lions at No. 112 overall. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, Brown has strong and consistent hands and runs good routes. In 30 games as a Trojan, Brown had 178 receptions and 16 touchdown catches.

In the 5th round, the San Francisco 49ers selected USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, a first team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020. Hufanga had 62 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in just six games in 2020. In the 6th round, the Philadelphia Eagles selected USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound first team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020.

With 20 of 22 starters returning in for the 2021 season, the UCLA Bruins only had two players in the NFL draft pool in 2021. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa was selected in the 3rd round by the Dallas Cowboys, No. 75 overall. Odighizuwa was selected first team All-Pac-12 in 2020 and played well at the 2021 Senior Bowl.

In the 6th round, the Cleveland Browns selected running back Demetric Felton of UCLA. Felton started at both wide receiver and running back for the Bruins. As a running back, Felton rushed for 1,101 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry while rushing for seven touchdowns. As a receiver, he had 99 receptions for 958 yards and eight touchdowns. As a kick returner, he averaged 23.5 yards per return and scored a touchdown.

Felton lined up at wide receiver at the Senior Bowl and had a 12-yard touchdown reception for the first touchdown of the game. A second team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, Felton rushed for 167 yards against Oregon and the following week ran for 206 yards against Arizona. His versatility makes him a steal in the 6th round for the Browns.

While this was not the most productive draft for the Pac-12 conference, next season should be a better, both on the field and in the 2022 NFL draft. The NCAA is allowing seniors who otherwise would have exhausted their eligibility in 2020 to return to their respective teams next season without penalty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The football recruiting website calls this group of returning seniors the "Super Seniors" group. Of the five power conferences, the Pac-12 is returning the most super seniors per team. The Arizona State Sun Devils played only four regular season games in 2020, which may be the reason that they are returning 14 super seniors, the second-best total among Power 5 schools.

The Huskies, like the Bruins, return 20 of 22 starters in 2021. ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay thinks that Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is the top prospect in next year's draft, and he also believes that Kedon Slovis of USC is the top quarterback in next year's draft. After a difficult 2020 season for the Pac-12 conference, the 2021 football season promises to be one full of excitement and hope.


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