Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Spring position breakdowns: LB
By Ted Miller
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.
Arizona: The Wildcats are going to be young at linebacker, as even returning starter Scooby Wright is a true sophomore. Stalwarts Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers, the Wildcats' top two tacklers in 2013, are gone. Senior Hank Hobson was Fischer's backup last year, and sophomores DeAndre' Miller and Jake Matthews were officially behind Flowers. But there will be plenty of competition, with touted juco transfer Antonio Smothers, junior Keoni Bush-Loo and sophomore Derrick Turituri -- listed behind Wright last year -- also in the mix, along with a handful of redshirt freshmen.
Arizona State: Arizona State is replacing three of its four starting linebackers, most notably Carl Bradford and Chris Young. Sophomore "Sam" linebacker Salamo Fiso is the only returning starter. Expect Carlos Mendoza and Antonio Longino to top the spring depth chart at the "Spur" and "Will" spots. They combined for 11 tackles last season. Chans Cox and Viliami Latu could be in the mix to replace Bradford in the key "Devil" LB spot, though neither at present looks like the pass-rushing threat he was. There could be some mixing and matching, and safety Viliami Moeakiola played some linebacker last year. Also in the fray: true freshman early enrollee D.J. Calhoun, Eriquel Florence and juco transfer Darrius Caldwell.
California: Junior Jalen Jefferson, sophomore Michael Barton and sophomore Hardy Nickerson are back. They ranked among the Bears' top six tacklers in 2013. Those three seem likely to find a spot in the starting lineup, but this is a fluid situation after Cal was hit hard by injuries last year and has a new defensive coordinator in Art Kaufman. Nathan Broussard, who is coming back from an ACL injury, could be in the mix, as could Jason Gibson. Obviously, young players will have an opportunity to earn early playing time.
Colorado: While the Buffaloes lose Derrick Webb, they welcome back Addison Gillam, who had a sensational freshman year, and seniors Woodson Greer III and Brady Daigh, who both started and/or saw significant action last season. Sophomores Kenneth Olugbode, Ryan Severson and Clay Norgard also are in the mix. Watch out for sophomore Pittsburgh transfer Deaysean Rippy, cousin of former LB Doug Rippy. Deaysean Rippy, a touted recruit in 2012, seems likely to challenge for a starting job.
Oregon: The Ducks lose only one of their four starting linebackers from 2013 -- Boseko Lokombo -- and his backups, Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot, saw plenty of action. Outside linebacker Tony Washington and inside 'backers Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick should be better as second-year starters. Backup inside LBs Joe Walker and Rahim Cassell also have significant experience. It will be interesting to see if any youngsters, most notably Prevot, make a push.
Oregon State: This might sneak up on you, but Oregon State has one of the best linebacker trios in the conference coming back: D.J. Alexander, Michael Doctor and Jabral Johnson. Johnson replaced Doctor when his season ended in Week 2 with a foot injury, so it should be interesting how the outside spots work out. In the middle is sophomore Rommel "The Desert Fox" Mageo, who replaced the inconsistent Joel Skotte, a junior, in the starting lineup five games into the season. Sophomores Caleb Saulo and Darrell Songy also saw plenty of action last year.
Stanford: The Cardinal are replacing two first-team All-Pac-12 linebackers from their 3-4 defense: OLB Trent Murphy and ILB Shayne Skov. James Vaughters is back on the outside and 2013 second-leading tackler A.J. Tarpley is back on the inside. Kevin Anderson is almost certain to replace Murphy. He had 6.5 tackles for a loss to go with 26 tackles last year. Blake Martinez, Joe Hemschoot and Noor Davis are competing for the other inside spot.
UCLA: The Bruins are replacing All-American OLB Anthony Barr and ILB Jordan Zumwalt, two highly productive players who figure to have NFL careers. The good news is the return of senior Eric Kendricks on the inside and sophomore Myles Jack on the outside. Junior Kenny Orjioke is the top candidate to replace Barr, and sophomore Isa Savaiinaea and senior Ryan Hofmeister have received a lot of playing time inside.
USC: The Trojans lose outside linebacker Devon Kennard, but welcome back three starters (considering OLB Morgan Breslin only played five games), including highly productive veteran ILB Hayes Pullard, who has led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Also back is OLB J.R. Tavai and ILBs Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson, co-starters last year. Still, things figure to be highly competitive this spring, with Pullard being the only sure thing. Sophomore Jabari Ruffin received plenty of playing time last season, and fellow sophomores Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell should be in the mix. Some touted freshmen might enter the mix in the fall.
Utah: While Utah loses Trevor Reilly, a hybrid DE/OLB, it welcomes back pretty much every linebacker from the 2013 depth chart. In the middle there's Jason Whittingham, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season. Also back are senior Jacoby Hale, who had 6.5 sacks last year, and Jared Norris. In terms of depth, there's V.J. Fehoko, who started the 2013 opener at MLB. Further, Miami transfer Gionni Paul figures to challenge for a starting spot after sitting out last season, and there are several younger players who could make a move. Also, it remains to be seen where Brian Blechen, who has bounced back and forth between safety and linebacker, ultimately ends up.
Washington: Inside linebacker John Timu was suspended after he was charged with misdemeanor vehicle prowling, which wasn't a great welcome for new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. Nevertheless, the Huskies are pretty stacked at linebacker. If Timu gets his act together, then all three 2013 starters are back, with the athletic duo of Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson on the outside. You could also include rush ends Corey Littleton and Josh Shirley as returning OLBs in the hybrid defense the Huskies ran under Justin Wilcox. While junior Scott Lawyer has some experience, the overall depth is young, if promising. Azeem Victor, Connor O'Brien and Keishawn Bierria are youngsters to watch.
Washington State: With junior Destiny Vaeao moving to end from "Buck" linebacker, the Cougars will be replacing two starters. Junior Darryl Monroe is a two-year starter and the leader in the middle, and Cyrus Coen is back at "Sam" LB. The battle to replace Vaeao figures to be between juniors Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan, and Tana Pritchard is the favorite to replace Justin Sagote at "Will" linebacker. A big question: Where does junior Chester Su'a fit in? He missed last year because of injury, and could play behind Monroe or challenge Pritchard. There are some intriguing young players who also could insinuate themselves into the rotation.