Mountain West Preview: Looking at the league’s star players

(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Images)

While the Mountain West doesn’t have a true National Championship contender like the American (Louisville) or a catchy nickname like #MACtion, make no mistake, there will be plenty of quality football played when this conference’s teams take the field in 2013. Along with three clubs which finished the 2012 season with at least nine wins (Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State) the league will also welcome two 11-win clubs from the WAC, when Utah State and San Jose State join the fold in 2013.

It also means that there will be no shortage of talented players.

As we did with our American preview two weeks ago, let’s take a look at the players you need to watch out for entering the 2013 Mountain West season.

Star Watch:

Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State: It only seems appropriate that we start with the defending Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, who also happened to have one of the most underrated seasons in all of college football last season. If I told you that Carr finished third in the country with 37 touchdown passes, would you believe me? Or what about if I told you that he set a single season Mountain West record with 4,104 total yards?

Yes, Carr was that good, although he didn’t do it without a little bit of help.

For example, there was…

Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State: Carr wasn’t the only Bulldog to get accolades in Tim DeRuyter’s first year as head coach of the program, as Adams took home the conference’s Rookie of the Year award also (while we’re here I suppose we should mention that departed defensive back Phillip Thomas was also the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as well. Hello Fresno!!!).

And looking at Adams’ stats, it’s easy to see why he earned that award; regardless of class ranking, Adams was one of the best wide receivers in college football last year. The freshman finished the2012 season with a Mountain West best 89 receptions, and also had 14 touchdown grabs, which was nearly double the league’s next best total of eight.

David Fales, QB, San Jose State: While Carr is the league’s top returning signal-caller, it’s Fales- a member of Mountain West newbie San Jose State- who might be the league’s best NFL prospect. After throwing for 33 touchdowns in 2012, ESPN’s Todd McShay has Fales listed as an early second round draft prospect for 2014.

Simply put, Fales (who incredibly threw at least two touchdowns in each of San Jose State’s last EIGHT games in 2012) has all the skills needed to unseat Carr as the league’s first team All-Conference quarterback. What will be most interesting however, is to see how Fales transitions to a new offense. Remember, former head coach Mike MacIntyre is now at Colorado, with Ron Caragher set to take over the Spartans’ offense.

Kasey Carrier, RB, New Mexico: With Nevada’s Stepfon Jefferson forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, it is the appropriately named Carrier who is this league’s top returning rusher. The 5’9 soon to be senior rushed for 1,469 yards in 2012, and his 15 touchdowns were the second most in the league.

Furthermore, consider this: Carrier’s 122 yards per game rushing are even more impressive when you factor in that they were nearly a third of New Mexico's 370 yards per game as a team.  

Derron Smith, DB, Fresno State: Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least put one defensive player on our Star Watch watch list, and it only seems appropriate that Smith is that guy. As a sophomore last year he was a member of the All Mountain West first team, and finished the 2012 season with six interceptions.

That interception number was second in all the Mountain West, trailing only teammate Phillip Thomas.

Thomas of course ended up as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Don’t be surprised if Smith follows in his footsteps in 2013.

Breakout Performers:

Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State: Ok, so for anyone who has even half paid attention to college football the last few years knows that Keeton is hardly due to “break out.” After all, he nearly upset defending National Champion Auburn in his first start two years ago, and finished 2012 with a combined 35 touchdowns (27 passing, eight rushing).

Still, we’re listing him here, because now in a new conference, Keeton has a chance to break out on a national level in the Mountain West in a way he never could’ve in the WAC. After all, it’s one thing to lead your team to a victory over San Jose State or Louisiana Tech. It’ll be quite another if he does it against Boise or even San Diego State however.

Jeremy Ioane, DB, Boise State: While Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and Boise State’s offense have made headlines through the years, the school could easily be mistaken for “DB U.” Incredibly, at least one Boise defensive back has been selected in each of the last four NFL Drafts.

And while Ioane won’t likely continue that streak in 2014 (if only because he’s only entering his junior), he should follow in the footsteps of Boise’s other great secondary stars like Kyle Wilson, George Iloka and Jamar Taylor. Ioane finished the 2012 season with 70 tackles and three interceptions, despite largely being overshadowed by Taylor.

With Taylor gone, expect Ioane to step into the spotlight. Also expect him to shine.

Martaze Waller, RB, Fresno State: This list is quickly turning into a “Who’s Who” of Fresno State football stars, but one name that most don’t know is that of Waller. He rushed for just 174 yards and one touchdown last season.

Then again, he was also playing behind the school’s all-time leading rusher Robbie Rouse as well, who has since graduated.

With Rouse gone, look for Waller to step into the starting lineup and team with Carr and Adams in one of the league’s most explosive offenses.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State: Like Waller, Ajayi was largely overshadowed by a senior teammate in 2012, yet like Waller, Ajayi should be due for a breakout year in 2013. The soon to be sophomore rushed for 548 yards and four touchdowns last year, despite carrying the ball just 84 times.

And in actuality, that might be the most impressive thing about Ajayi: That 6.7 yard per rush average he had in 2012.

While that number might not be quite as high in 2013, don’t be surprised if Ajayi ends 2013 as the fifth Boise State running back to rush for at least 1,000 yards in the last five years.

Jalen Claiborne, WR, Wyoming: With Brett Smith now set to enter his third year as a starter in Laramie, it could be a big season for Wyoming’s self-entitled “Fast and Furious” offense.

The biggest benefactor should be Claiborne, who quietly had one of the biggest seasons in the Mountain West last season. Claiborne had just 34 catches, but averaged a staggering 14.41 per grab, with five touchdowns. Meaning that nearly one in seven catches he made went for a score.

If he puts up numbers close to that in 2013, Wyoming’s offense really might live up to its billing as “Fast and Furious.”

Top Newcomers:

Kamalei Correa, DL, Boise State: It’s not often that a true freshman defensive linemen gets significant snaps anywhere in college football, let alone in a program as established as Boise State. However, if there is one exception it might be Correa, who chose the Broncos over offers from nearly half the Pac-12, including Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State.

The kid is good, and he might have the opportunity to prove it from Day 1.

Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State: Like Correa, Pumphrey had offers from a number of high-level FBS clubs coming out of high school this winter, including Colorado and Utah of the Pac-12.

Still, Pumphrey decided to bring his talents to the Mountain West and could see the field immediately because of it. San Diego State finished 20th nationally in rushing last year with over 220 yards per game on the ground.

Simply put, there will be of carries to be had for the Aztecs. Even for a true freshman like Pumphrey.

Josh Tremblay, OL, Fresno State: We’ve spent a good chunk of this article discussing the merits of Fresno State’s offense, but one place they need to plug in bodies is along the offensive line. Two starters depart for the Bulldogs, who averaged nearly 500 yards of offense per game last season.

Look for Tremblay to fill one of those spots.

Coaches don’t bring in junior college transfers (like Tremblay) to sit on the bench, and in a position of immediate need, the 6’5 285 lb. Tremblay could see the field immediately.

Josh Quezada, RB, Fresno State: Another Fresno State player makes this list in Quezada, who along with Martaze Waller (listed above) should compete for the reps lost at running back with Robbie Rouse’s departure.

Quezada had 803 yards rushing in two seasons at BYU, before sitting out the 2012 season while transferring to Fresno.  

Taylor Graham, QB, Hawaii: There’s no nice way to put this, but, umm, Hawaii quarterback Scot Schroeder was terrible last year (11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions). And because of Schroeder’s ineptitude, so too was the Rainbows offense; Hawaii finished dead last in the Mountain West with just a 21.2 point per game average in 2012.

That also means that there’s a very realistic chance that Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham could step in and play right away.

Without a single career pass, not much is known about Graham. Well, other than that he is a prisoner of some unfortunate circumstances. As a true freshman he spent his first season on campus sitting behind Terrelle Pryor, and when Pryor left following the 2010 season, he was almost immediately replaced by some guy named Braxton Miller. You have heard of him, right?

Point being, we don’t know much about Graham. We also wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up at Hawaii’s opening week starter.

For all his insight, opinion and analysis on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.