A few early thoughts on possible frontrunners for the defensive player of the year.
Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona: This is the ultimate no-brainer. There was no defensive player in the nation more statistically dominant than Wright last year. He led the nation with 163 tackles (an average of 11.6 per game), 29 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles. We can throw 14 sacks onto those numbers for good measure. Put simply, Wright is a one-man wrecking crew who’s a master of the blitz and sideline-to-sideline pursuit, a skill combination that comes in very handy given the Pac-12’s spread-it-out offensive attacks.
There’s reason to believe that Wright can put up even bigger numbers this season, and that’s a scary thought. The Wildcats feature a rather unproven supporting cast around Wright, so he may possess greater responsibility to patrol the field. That being said, it’ll be very tough to expect Wright to match last season’s stupid numbers, so we should also note that he’ll likely have an impact on nearly every play — and not only the ones in which he registers an official statistic.
Wright won this award last year, and Arizona’s Pac-12 South championship certainly helped him in that quest. His numbers speak for themselves, though: Team success is not a prerequisite for Wright to grab the necessary attention to win. He already did that with his jaw-dropping production last year. This 2015 season is all about providing an individual encore, and the stars have aligned for that to happen: Keep in mind that Wright was only a sophomore last year, so further improvement can be expected now that he’s an upperclassman. -- David Lombardi
Budda Baker, S, Washington: I think a lot of people have already mailed in their votes for Wright to repeat as the defensive player of the year. Let me be the first to say that I won’t be surprised to see Two Star Scoob repeat. However, what kind of writers would we be if we also didn’t discuss a few other players who deserve to be in the conversation
So, if we’re talking dark horses, I like Baker. He’s going to have every single chance to be that guy for the Huskies this season on defense and from everything I’ve heard, he’s already living up to that in Washington’s fall camp. No more Shaq Thompson. No more Hau’oli Kikaha. No more John Timu. No more Danny Shelton. This defense is going to be the Budda Baker show. That’s reason enough to tune in (and I’ll admit it, there might not be a ton of reasons to tune in for UW next year).
Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said that what instantly impressed him about Baker last season was how fast he played, not just for a freshman, but for a defensive back. And this year Lake said that Baker is playing even faster. That speed will translate into picks, broken up passes and big plays time and time again for Baker. -- Chantel Jennings
Su’a Cravens, USC, LB: No, Chantel, the line for the Pac-12’s most obvious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year Not Named Scooby Wright starts behind USC linebacker Su’a Cravens. A starter since he arrived on campus, Cravens’ talent cannot be questioned. If it was determined, like originally thought, that it made the most sense for Su’a Cravens to play safety, we would likely be discussing his name as a potential All-American candidate there. Instead, we can have the same conversation about him as a linebacker.
To lead a team in interceptions (3) and tackles for loss (17), which Cravens did last year, is crazy and with the Trojans as part of the preseason contingent with realistic conference-title-and-beyond aspirations, Cravens’ role is among the most important in the conference. No one at USC, or anywhere really, would be able to step into his role and function at a similar level. He’s too unique. For that reason, he has to rank as one of the most irreplaceable players in college football. And it’s also fair to say USC’s fortunes rest more so on how it plays on defense than offense, if only because the offense’s recent track record makes it easier to forecast a high level of success. The defense has more room for improvement and Cravens will be the driving force behind that. -- Kyle Bonagura