Every year, we compile a list of standout Pac-12 players Washington State avoided the season before, either because of injury, suspension or the conference’s scheduling rotation that forces the Cougars to miss two South Division teams every year.
So, because WSU skipped Arizona State and UCLA in 2018, this year’s rundown includes two Sun Devils and two Bruins the Cougars will need to account for when they sketch out their Week 4 and Week 6 game plans.
In addition, the Cougars, who stayed relatively healthy throughout a historic 11-win season, ran into a few teams from their own North Division that weren’t at full strength. Oregon State, in particular, was missing a starting quarterback, wide receiver and tight end when the Cougars and Beavers faced off up in week six. Two of those three make our list this year.
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona St.
They still went through the gantlet last season, facing the likes of Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson, Arizona’s JJ Taylor, Oregon’s CJ Verdell and Washington’s Myles Gaskin, but the Cougars bypassed the Pac-12’s rushing leader by missing Arizona State.
Benjamin returns as one of the conference’s most dangerous ball-carriers after recording the 24th best rushing season in Pac-12 history, chewing up 1,642 yards while crossing the goal 18 times. During a four-game stretch in late October/early November, Benjamin rushed for 691 yards and five touchdowns. That came three games after his school-record 312-yard, three-touchdown effort against Oregon State.
Even if he won’t catch anybody off guard this season, Benjamin is still primed for a big year and made every preseason watch list.
Isaiah Hodgins, WR, Oregon St.
Three years ago, the Walnut Creek, California, native pulled his commitment from the Cougars and became the highest-rated member of Oregon State’s recruiting class a few months later when he committed to the Beavers and former coach Gary Anderson. Hodgins may still wonder what would’ve happened had he stuck with the Cougars, who offer more pass-catching opportunities than the Beavers and have obviously had much greater success than their Pac-12 North rival.
But Hodgins also wouldn’t have been featured as much as he is in Corvallis. The junior missed just one game last season, a 56-37 WSU rout at Reser Stadium, but still managed 876 receiving yards on 59 receptions, with five touchdowns. The Beavers, once again, were picked to finish last in the North, but in theory, they should have plenty of offensive firepower with Hodgins, Jefferson and senior quarterback Jake Luton.
Joshua Kelley, RB, UCLA
The scheduling rotation actually allowed the Cougars to miss two of the conference’s premier running backs last season. Kelley didn’t earn All-Pac-12 preseason honors simply because of the conference’s depth at the position, but another 1,000-yard season could put him in prime position to make the postseason list.
In 2018, Chip Kelly’s first at the helm in Westwood, UCLA’s running back with the same last name – well, minus an “e” – ran for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. With more uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Bruins should lean on Kelley’s production once again. The senior’s best game coincided with the most important one on UCLA’s schedule – 289 yards and two TD scampers against USC in a 34-27 win over the rival Trojans.
Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
Sewell may only be the third-best offensive lineman on campus, but he’s one of the 10 best in the conference, according to the media’s preseason voting. And the Ducks could’ve used their big offensive tackle in last year’s clash with the Cougars. WSU’s pass-rush generated three sacks of star quarterback Justin Herbert and Oregon’s rushing attack averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, and 58 in total.
After missing nearly half the season with an ankle injury, Sewell returns to anchor Oregon’s offensive front, which could be one of the best in the country as Shane Lemieux, Calvin Throckmorton, Dallas Warmack and Jake Hanson all return.
Merlin Robertson, LB, Arizona State
By missing the Sun Devils in 2018, WSU avoided the Pac-12’s top running back and also its Defensive Freshman of the Year. Robertson, as a true freshman last season, was the team leader in tackles (77), tackles for loss (8 1/2) and sacks. He rounded out his rookie stat line with an interception, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
A rangy linebacker at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Robertson became the first ASU freshman to lead the Sun Devils in tackles since 2001 and even though he missed a game and a half because of injury, the Californian still ranked top-10 in the country among Power Five players in snaps, at 749.
Jake Luton, QB, Oregon State
Not only were the Beavers missing Hodgins when WSU came to town last season, they didn’t have their starting QB, Jake Luton, who was sidelined for a good portion of the year with a high ankle sprain. A year earlier, Luton was the OSU QB who was stretchered off the field at Martin Stadium after suffering a thoracic spine injury on a hit from the Cougars’ Hercules Mata’afa.
The NCAA granted Luton a sixth year of eligibility and the 6-foot-7, 229-pound, strong-armed senior from Marysville, Washington, is looking to make the most of his second senior season. The one-time Idaho QB was responsible for one of the best wins in recent program history when he led the Beavers to a 28-point comeback overtime win against Colorado in Boulder. Luton threw for 310 yards and three TDs in the second half and overtime, earning him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Cameron Goode, LB, Cal
Goode’s career, much like Luton’s, has been marred by injury. The Cal linebacker suffered a season-ending injury after starting nine games as a freshman, and didn’t make it past the season opener of the following season, suffering a lower-body injury against North Carolina.
But Goode has been more than good in his limited reps with the Golden Bears and should figure back into the linebacker rotation this year, especially with standout senior Jordan Kunaszyk graduated. Two years ago, Goode produced 46 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks, one interception that was returned for a touchdown against Ole Miss, three pass breakups, two QB hurries and one forced fumble.
Darnay Holmes, DB, UCLA
The Bruins ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in total defense and their at-times lackadaisical pass coverage contributed to that. But they return Holmes, a 12-game starter who led UCLA in interceptions (3) and forced fumbles (2).
The Cougars host the Bruins in week four, and will not only have to account for his instincts in pass coverage but also his skills as a returner.
Holmes, an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention DB, is also UCLA’s kick returner and he brought back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown last season against Stanford.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.