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12 players who could make life hard for Washington State this season

From left: Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Boise State’s David Moa and USC’s Sam Darnold are among the most lethal players the Cougars will face this season. (File / AP)

Week 1, it was a wide receiver from Eastern Washington. Week 2, it was a running back from Boise State. Week 11, it was a quarterback from Colorado and Week 12, a safety from Washington.

The losses that put a stain on the front end, and also the back end, of Washington State’s 2016 season can largely be traced to dazzling performances by individuals wearing enemy colors. Thankfully, the Cougars don’t have to see Cooper Kupp, Jeremy McNichols, Sefo Liufau or Budda Baker this year – all four are in NFL camps now – but they’ll surely have to stomach some strong solo efforts as they coast through the 2017 season.

Here are 12 players – one from each team on the schedule – who could make life difficult for the Cougars this fall:

Montana State – Chris Murray, quarterback: The reason former WSU quarterback Tyler Bruggman left Bozeman this offseason? That would be Murray. The reason – possibly the only reason – Leach and company could lose their sixth straight season opener, and third to a Big Sky school? Also Murray. The Inglewood, California, product stripped the starting job from Bruggman midway through the year and with 860 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, ran away with Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors.

Boise State – David Moa, nose tackle: Brett Rypien is obviously another strong choice, but few defensive linemen in the Mountain West harness the tools that Moa does when it comes to rushing the passer. He pretty much came out of the blue as a sophomore to lead the Broncos with 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles-for-loss. The All-MWC first-teamer put Luke Falk on his butt 1.5 times in WSU’s loss at Albertson’s Stadium last season and made five tackles to go with a pass breakup.

Oregon State – Ryan Nall, running back: The Cougars were generally strong against the run last season, ranking third in the conference with 134.2 rush yards allowed per game. But Nall, as a redshirt sophomore, had nearly that many by himself during WSU’s come-from-behind win at Reser Stadium and was one of just four 100-yard rushers the Cougars saw in 2016. By in large, defenses are getting smaller and faster, and WSU is no exception. That’s helpful most of the time, but it doesn’t do the Cougars much good when a 6-foot-2, 237-pound tailback like Nall is in the backfield.

Nevada – Malik Reed, defensive end: In a three-week span, the Cougars will see two of the best – or the two best – defensive linemen the Mountain West has to offer this year. Reed, just like BSU’s Moa, broke out in 2016 when he registered 59 tackles, five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. But unlike Moa, Reed does all of his work from the edge. The Dothan, Alabama, native used a redshirt year in 2014 when the Wolf Pack upset the Cougars in Reno, so he’ll be making his debut against WSU on Sept. 23 in Pullman.

USC – Sam Darnold, quarterback: The sophomore is already being mentioned in the same breath as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley and he’ll make his first – and probably last – trip to the Palouse on Sept. 29 in an ESPN game that figures to carry big implications for both teams. Darnold has better mobility than most of the other USC greats and he’s coming off a freshman year that saw him throw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns with only nine picks. And Darnold recently landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so suffice it to say, he’s poised for greatness.

Oregon – Royce Freeman, running back: The Cougars have to see two bruisers from the state of Oregon this year and this one is a notch better than the first. Freeman didn’t play at full strength for much of his junior season, but even with a fraction of his powers, Oregon’s leading rusher rolled up 945 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. Even before he arrived on campus, Freeman had the physique of a pro tailback, but word out of Eugene is that the senior is now in the best shape of his life. And as long as he hits 1,000 yards, he’ll become the school’s all-time leading rusher.

California – Demetris Robertson, wide receiver: The Bear Raid is no longer; quarterback Davis Webb is with the New York Giants and Webb’s top man, Chad Hansen, is now catching footballs on the other side of the Big Apple for the Jets. Only one of those things is advantageous for Robertson, who immediately becomes Cal’s best pass-catcher with Hansen gone. First-year offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has a reputation for sculpting young wideouts – look no further than the two EWU grads currently tearing up NFL camps – and Robinson, coming off a 767-yard, seven-touchdown freshman year, should only get better under Baldwin’s tutelage.

Colorado – Steven Montez, quarterback: The redshirt sophomore from Texas steps in for Liufau, but he’s already a well-known commodity in Boulder. And in Eugene. Montez put on one heck of a show at Oregon last season, completing 23 of 32 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns. He also gashed the Ducks for 135 yards on the ground and another score. If there’s anyone that can’t stand a dual-threat QB, it’s WSU. See: Alex Kuresa (Portland State, 2015), Kevin Hogan (Stanford, 2015) or Liufau (Colorado, 2016).

Arizona – Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, safety: The Wildcats seemingly played without a single defensive back on the field last season when they came to Pullman. WSU smacked Arizona 69-7 in a game that saw Luke Falk complete all but three of his 35 passes before sitting in the fourth quarter. So why exactly is Flannigan-Fowles on this list? Well, using a formula that adds the number of passes defended and interceptions made, then divides it by number of total targets, Pro Football Focus determined that the Arizona junior is the “best playmaker” among returning safeties in the Pac-12. Also, the Wildcats didn’t exactly offer a ton of options.

Stanford – Quenton Meeks, cornerback: Meeks was a no-show against UW and WSU last season, and it was evident. The Huskies blasted the Cardinal 44-6 and the Cougars cruised to a 42-16 win just eight days later. Meeks was back to play Notre Dame a week later and Stanford didn’t concede 40 points in a game the rest of the season. It’s unlikely that he’ll shut down the Air Raid singlehandedly, but if the 6-2 corner can take at least one of the Cougar wideouts out of the game, it’s a big improvement from 2016.

Utah – Lowell Lotulelei, defensive tackle: In one mock draft, ESPN expert Todd McShay had Lotulelei as the 21st pick and second defensive tackle off the board. Here’s the thing: that was a projection from 2016, when most assumed the big Ute would trade his senior season in Salt Lake City for a pro contract. But the younger brother of Carolina Panthers tackle Star Lotulelei opted to stay in school and made every quarterback in the Pac-12 uneasy because of it.

Washington – Azeem Victor, linebacker: Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Dante Pettis, Vita Vea and Greg Gaines all make honorable mention, but Victor could be especially troubling for WSU because of his ability to neutralize the middle of the field. The Cougars didn’t see him in the Apple Cup last year – Victor missed four games with a broken leg – but the passing game was less than productive with River Cracraft out, and if WSU can’t patch up their big hole at inside receiver, the rivalry game in Seattle on Nov. 25 could be more difficult than it already is.