1. UCLA BRUINS
Converted from running back, Anthony Barr’s breakout as one of the most menacing pass rushers in college football was one of the biggest surprises in 2012. Barr recorded statistics on par with standouts like Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. The secret is out: Barr is one of the top defenders in the nation. He made 13.5 and 21.5 tackles for loss to key the Bruin attack.
Combine Barr’s monstrous hitting ability with Eric Kendricks’ activity, and UCLA has one of the best one-two punches in the country. Kendricks was, to borrow a phrase from Petros Papadakis, a rolling ball of knives, racking up 149 tackles. That ranked in the top 10 nationally. But Kendricks did so much more, adding an interception; five pass deflections, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He’s perpetual energy in the same vein as former Boston College Eagles, and current Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly.
Were a one-two combination not enough to stagger opposing offenses, the Bruins also return veteran Jordan Zumwalt. Zumwalt made 71 tackles and forced two fumbles in 2012. Versatile Stan McKay can play both linebacker and safety, adding depth to a linebacker corps that enters 2013 among college football’s elite.
2. STANFORD CARDINAL
Chase Thomas was the face of Stanford’s outstanding linebacking corps a year ago, and spokesperson of the #PartyInTheBackfield. Thomas is gone, but the party atmosphere lives on in Trent Murphy. Murphy terrorized backfields to the tune of 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and six quarterback hurries.
Shayne Skov is not a member of the Laurinaitis family, but he certainly looks like one of the Road Warriors. And every time he brings a big hit, Skov is unleashing a one-man Doomsday Device. He led the Cardinal with 81 tackles. Also returning is A.J. Tarpley, another disruptive presence in opposing backfields. Jarek Lancaster also mans the inside linebacker, giving Stanford unparalleled depth.
3. USC TROJANS
USC has a rich tradition as the West Coast Linebacker U., and that lineage continues into 2013. Multi-talented Dion Bailey moves into the secondary as part of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 52 scheme. That means Hayes Pollard is now this unit’s star, after registering 101 tackles, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble in 2012.
Joining Pollard is fellow returning starter Lamar Dawson, a linebacker as adept in pass coverage as he is stopping the rush. Dawson makes Bailey’s move back to safety possible, since Dawson is similarly skilled. He intercepted two passes and deflected four, and forced one fumble. Celebrated 2012 signee Scott Starr, an aggressive blitzer, is recovering from neck surgery. If he’s available, he gives the Trojans depth.
4. WASHINGTON HUSKIES
Responsible in no small part for Washington’s defensive resurgence were first-year linebackers Shaq Thompson and Travis Feeney. Both were named All Pac-12 as freshmen, combining for 150 tackles, 14.5 for loss, and six sacks. When he arrives, four-star 2013 prospect Sean Constantine could bolster the youthful energy of this group, which helped UW rank in the top half of rushing defense nationally.
But the Husky linebacker corps is not exclusively a youth movement; returning John Timu led the Dogs in tackles a year ago with 81. Justin Wilcox’s defense also returns veteran Thomas Tutogi (42 tackles, three for loss).
5. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
Carl Bradford challenges Anthony Barr for the title of Pac-12′s most dangerous pass rusher. Bradford made 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, deflected five passes and recorded a quarterback hurry in his star turn supplementing the outstanding Sun Devil line.
Bradford’s return is big, but so is the loss of Brandon Magee. The Sun Devils’ leading tackler with 113, Magee did a little of everything in his senior campaign: two interceptions, 12.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks. His production is not easily matched, and his leadership is most definitely not. Fifth-year senior Anthony Jones was primarily a special teams player and reserve, but should move into a more prominently role in Magee’s void.
6. OREGON DUCKS
Boseko Lokombo brings pressure from the edges to supplement Oregon’s stout defensive line, returning for 2013 as the star of the linebackers corps. But defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is without Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, the Ducks’ two leading tacklers in 2012. Clay and Alonso combined for 182, 24 of which were for loss. Their departures are not easily addressed, though Oregon is flush with young talent at their position.
JUCO transfer Joe Walker reportedly flourished in spring practices, while Tyson Coleman and Rahim Cassell enter their second seasons of on-field action, and their third under Aliotti.
7. WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
The Cougars lose All-Conference linebacker and sack machine Travis Long to the NFL, but still has a considerably talented group. Cyrus Coen is capable of picking up some of the slack left with Long’s departure. Darryl Monroe mans the interior of the linebacker corps effectively, last season racking up 80 tackles and forcing two fumbles. Monroe operates as something of a quarterback in the Washington State system. Others will key off Monroe, particularly younger players moving into more prominent roles, like Chester Su’a and Logan Mayes.
8. ARIZONA WILDCATS
Jeff Casteel’s implementation of the 3-3-5 stack defense called for former safety Marquis Flowers to move to linebacker, a transition that benefited the hard-hitting senior tremendously. Flowers brings thunder to complement the lightning of Jake Fischer. Fischer returned from a yearlong absence to lead the Wildcats in tackles with 119. Fischer also forced three fumbles.
As is the case with most of UA’s defensive units, the question mark is depth. First-year players C.J. Dozier and Dakota Conwell became immediate contributors because the Wildcats were so thin after the retirement of Brian Wagner. Their maturation and the return of Hank Hobson from injury could improve this unit’s production, which it desperately needs after ranking near the bottom of college football in rush defense.
9. OREGON STATE BEAVERS
Michael Doctor has been the most active ball pursuing defender on the Oregon State roster each of the last two seasons, and returns for a third go-around. Doctor is a gifted play maker who pursues the rush effectively, but can also disrupt passing routes. He has three interceptions in the past two years, and in 2012 deflected five passes. Joining Doctor is D.J. Alexander, an active play maker coming off a
Beyond those two, Mark Banker is working with a very inexperienced group. The learning curve is steep.
10. CAL GOLDEN BEARS
Cal returns a sizable portion of contributors from its 2012 linebacker unit, including No. 2 overall tackler Nick Forbes. Forbes was active across the field. Brennan Scarlett and Jalen Jefferson also return after seeing significant playing time in 2012. The two combined for 87 tackles and four sacks.
Andy Buh’s proven effective in getting the most from his linebackers — he was linebackers coach at both Stanford and Wisconsin — so his insight combined with the Golden Bears’ experience could translate into a much better finish than this projection.
11. UTAH UTES
Outstanding pass rusher Trevor Reilly is playing defensive end in 2013, depleting a Ute linebackers corps with some holes. First-year player Jason Whittingham was Utah’s most active returner with 35 tackles. L.T. Filiaga made 32 tackles, and V.J. Fehoko had 30.
Utah’s rush defense has ranked near the top of the conference each of its first two seasons since joining the Pac-12, so such a low ranking is made cautiously. Kyle Whittingham and staff should have this unit ready, even if it’s lacking in star power.
12. COLORADO BUFFALOES
Inside linebacker Derrick Webb was Colorado’s leading tackler in 2012, and returns for more in 2013. Webb has a good nose for the ball in pursuit and gives the Buffs a foundation. However, Webb is without his top wingman, Jon Major. Paul Vido and Brady Daigh must step up their production if Colorado is improve upon its ghastly rushing yields of a season ago.