2024 NFL Draft: Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr. and the Pac-12’s top prospects

After a season in which five Pac-12 teams won at least 10 games (counting the bowls), the conference should again be one of the most competitive in college football. There will be eyeballs on the Pac-12 every week — not just because of Deion Sanders’ presence at Colorado — and head coaches like USC’s Lincoln Riley, Washington’s Kalen DeBoer and Oregon’s Dan Lanning all have programs with legitimate playoff hopes.

The conference also may have as many as five QBs drafted next spring, including the potential No. 1 pick, and it has several receivers, offensive linemen and edge defenders with NFL upside. Considering how much premium position talent the Pac-12 offers, expect the NFL to be paying close attention to how things shake out on the West Coast this fall.

We take a look at the Pac-12’s top draft-eligible players to watch (and some others to keep an eye on):

A major leg in the Heisman race will take place up the Pacific coastline this season, with Williams and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. on a crash course to meet in next year’s Pac-12 Championship Game. The two prospects find success differently, but their respective offenses are equally dependent on their quarterbacks.

Short of an unforeseeable disaster, Williams can be penciled in as a top-five selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. His efficiency and productivity as a passer took a giant leap from 2021 to 2022 — he finished last season with 4,537 passing yards and 42 touchdowns. I’d best describe Williams stylistically as a taller Kyler Murray, as he uses explosive short-area quickness to evade rushers and deliver the ball with good placement and velocity out of structure.

There are times when Williams’ scrambling and penchant for extending plays are gratuitous — and sometimes destructive because of bad sacks or missed dump-offs — but he doesn’t panic or suffer from poor pocket maintenance. There’s a give-and-take with creativity from a quarterback. You’ll also see Williams miss open receivers in his progression or be forced to scramble because he’s locked into one piece of a concept, and he’ll occasionally refuse to take a checkdown.

In the aggregate, though, it’s easy to identify what makes him so appealing to NFL evaluators. Don’t be shocked if he runs a 40-yard dash in the high 4.5s next February (only Anthony Richardson, Max Duggan and Malik Cunnigham came in under 4.55 among the QBs at this year’s combine), and the quality of throws Williams can make — in the air, falling away from his target or with pressure in his face — already are next-level.

Last year’s game against UCLA was an impressive showing of how to handle the blitz and manipulate pockets. If Williams can keep his turnovers down again and doesn’t take on more sacks from pressing or forcing plays, expect similar results to what we saw last year.

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Penix is primed for a major breakout in his final year of eligibility. In his first season at Washington, Penix posted 362 completions, 4,641 passing yards and 31 touchdowns — all surpassing his career totals from four seasons (including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) at Indiana.

Washington looks to push the ball downfield often (for reasons will get to shortly), and Penix has shown his ability to work through a full progression and deliver passes with proper timing. On his deep passes, Penix throws with necessary touch, which helps him access the wide side of the field in ways that some college QBs lack the confidence to try.

However, impressive as the counting stats and highlights were in 2022, Penix will have to answer concerns about his durability. Penix tore his ACL twice before transferring from Indiana to Washington, and he’ll be 24 by the time he’s drafted. Penix has some inconsistencies in his weight balance and transfer, too, which can cost him accuracy — especially outside of the numbers.

In his fifth college season as a starter, Penix will have all eyes on him and a difficult schedule awaiting. If he can clean up the misses and forced throws that lead to interceptions, Penix can work his way up the board.

The reason DeBoer’s offense can be so vertical is because of the talent it boasts on the perimeter, with two legitimate NFL prospects at wide receiver. McMillan and Odunze formed one of two Pac-12 duos in which each player reached 1,000-plus receiving yards (Arizona’s Jacob Cowing and Dorian Singer being the other). The differences in style of play between McMillan and Odunze complement the offense — and the other’s game – well.

McMillan (6-foot-1, 189 pounds) was good for at least one explosive gain each game, as he regularly stressed defenses vertically on posts and deep crosses. He tracks the ball well over the middle of the field, and he handles physicality and grabbiness from defensive backs down the field without losing his eye on the ball.

He’s also the shiftier of the two Washington receivers mentioned here once the ball is in his hands. On screens, McMillan looks to create big gains and make defenders miss before opening up his stride.

Odunze (6-3, 200) is more of a chain-mover. He can work the middle of the field, too, but you’ll find more of his targets outside of the hashes/numbers and around the first-down marker. His play strength matches his frame, and he has reliable hands at all three levels of route running. Both players have good play speed and agility for their size, which makes it easy to move them around and try each in different roles — versatility that should play at the next level.

If there are nits to pick, you’d like both receivers to spend more time playing above the rim, as they rarely sky over the top to bring the ball in despite having the height and leaping ability. With the design of Washington’s offense, there’s also not as much tape of McMillan and Odunze having to beat press coverage or tight coverage straight up. The profiles of both players bode well for the next level, though, and there will be more fireworks from the Huskies’ passing game this season.

Bullock was a fun watch in 2022, reeling in five interceptions (plus five pass breakups) as USC’s free safety. He is hard to miss on tape, given his length and 6-3 frame, and his range from the deepest parts of the field helps him regularly end up around the ball.

A first-team All-American last season, Bullock is a gambler in coverage. He trusts his smooth hips and raw athletic traits to bail him out in times of need, so there’s reason to watch his play discipline with a keen eye. That focus should extend to his tackling, too, because he was simply not consistent enough to be a potential star player at the next level.

Bullock’s ball production is too hot of a commodity not to draw top-100-to-top-120 interest, but it’s imperative that he be more sound as a tackler if he wants to be an elite zone-coverage defender in the NFL.

Williams transferred from Fresno State after the 2022 season, and his profile as a tackler/blitzer-type should allow him to thrive in Lanning’s zone-blitz-heavy scheme.

Williams (listed at 6-1, 194 by Fresno State last year) is a tough player and comfortable showing up in the box to finish plays. He lacks some of the necessary raw athletic traits to play the middle of the field in the NFL, but his style and usage will make for an interesting conversation regarding whether or not he can handle the slot. As a coverage defender, he had his most productive season in 2021 (three interceptions, nine passes defended), but he’s more of an opportunist than a player with the knack for finding the ball in the air.

I don’t expect Williams to soar up draft boards, but his steady play and versatility are necessary pieces when building a modern defense.

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I’ve been excited to watch Cornelius make the jump to the FBS/Power 5 level ever since I evaluated him as a transfer player last winter. He was an all-conference player last season at Rhode Island, and he’ll now step in as one of Oregon’s presumptive starters at tackle.

Cornelius (6-5, 310 last season) first caught my eye when Rhode Island faced off against Pittsburgh in 2022, as he helped spring his team’s running game several times during that game. He has the necessary movement skills to repeat that success for the Ducks, and he’s in a better place to improve his balance and footwork in the passing game. I’ll have some concerns if Oregon flips him to left tackle, but he’ll make for an interesting project either way.

Fuaga was one of Oregon State’s many hidden gems heading into 2022, but rewatching the film makes clear why the Beavers moved the ball consistently against Pac-12 competition.

The 6-6, 325-pound Fuaga is an impressive run blocker. He seals defensive tackles with down blocks, displaces edge defenders on base blocks and wisely works angles to get to the second level. He handles power rushes well as a pass protector, and though he can lose the edge against speed/finesse, he has enough body control not to lose balance.

The length he has is evident. Another year of good tape will make him an interesting proposition on Day 2 of next year’s draft.

Stylistically, Latu and Washington’s Bralen Trice (the next player on our list) couldn’t be more different, but they were equally productive for their respective defenses. Both prospects finished last season with at least 9.0 sacks, they almost equaled each other in total tackles (39 for Trice, 36 for Latu), and each was good enough to earn first-team All-Pac 12 honors.

Latu is more of a bender than Trice. He uses his club, swipe and rip moves to gain the necessary leverage to turn corners against tackles and affect the pocket. His productivity bodes particularly well for 2023, too, as he put up numbers despite not being an every-down player and while coming off multiple seasons in which he was limited by a neck injury.

He’s an adequate run defender, but at 6-4 and a listed 265 pounds, he has the frame to be even better in that phase of the game. If his medicals are clear by next spring and he maintains his play through the season, he can be one of the better players in the 2024 draft class.

Trice is a power rusher. Despite their similar frames and measureables (Trice is also listed at 6-4 and weighs 267), Trice plays bigger than Latu. He can align as a nine-technique and use his get-off to build the speed he needs to convert into bull rushes. When he’s playing his best as a run defender, Trice displaces his blocker and crushes the edge, forcing cutbacks from runners.

Trice can improve his use of angles and hands this year — adding a counter to his repertoire would go a long way toward making his power rush more effective.

He and Latu may not receive the same kind of publicity as the top quarterbacks in this league, but I can’t wait to watch their sack counts climb as the season goes along.

Other prospects to watch (Offense): Jacob Cowing, WR, Arizona; Troy Fautanu, G/OT, Washington State; Troy Franklin, WR, Oregon; Joshua Gray, OT, Oregon State; Traeshon Holden, WR, Oregon; Sataoa Laumea, G, Utah; Bo Nix, QB, Oregon; Cameron Rising, QB, Utah; Dorian Singer, WR, USC; DJ Uiagalelei, Oregon State; Cameron Ward, QB, Washington State; Mario Williams, WR, USC

Other prospects to watch (Defense): Mason Cobb, LB, USC; Brandon Dorlus, DT, Oregon; Brennan Jackson, Edge, Washington State; Darius Muasau, LB, UCLA; Karene Reid, LB, Utah; Ron Stone Jr., Edge, Washington State; Junior Tafuna, Edge, Utah

(Top photo of Michael Penix Jr.: Jacob Snow /
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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