Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Pac-12 getting defensive
By Ted Miller
The Pac-12 is known for offense, so it's not surprising that a list of the nation's top-25 players includes six players from conference offenses.
Defense? Not so much. Just one Pac-12 defender -- Stanford LB Shayne Skov -- made The Sporting News list.
That is not unreasonable. The 2011 season was not a great one for Pac-12 defenses, though, of course, we can endlessly spool the "chicken or the egg" perspective of conference defenses looking worse due to playing nine games against superior conference offenses.
Still, the numbers are hard to deny. The conference featured no statistically elite defenses last fall. In fact, just two ranked in the nation's top 30 in total defense (California and Stanford at Nos. 25 and 26) and scoring defense (Utah at No. 19 and Stanford at No. 30).
But things may be different in 2012. In fact, the Pac-12 blog views this as "highly likely."
The best five defense in the conference in 2011 -- California, Oregon, Stanford, USC and Utah -- have the makings for ranking among the nation's top 25 in 2012. And some of the teams that were bad to incompetent on defense in 2011, such as Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State, seem fully capable of becoming at least respectable.
It's not really about the number of returning starters -- about 6.4 per team.
And it's not completely about star power -- 11 of 22 first- or second-team all-conference defenders are back -- though that's part of it.
It's about looking at the units as a whole and extrapolating forward with star power and young talent, as well as coaching continuity. Or new and improved coaches.
California has intriguing talent on all three levels, but it will need its youth movement to produce the expected results. Oregon looks strong at linebacker, end Dion Jordan could be ready for a star turn and safety John Boyett is the brains behind the operation. Stanford might have the conference's best front seven. USC might have the conference's best back seven. Utah appears strong on all three levels, though a couple of young linebackers need to step up.
As far as star-power, there's plenty. Among those who could get themselves into the All-American picture are Skov, Jordan, Boyett, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas, USC safety T.J. McDonald, USC cornerback Nickell Robey and Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer.
There are also buy ratings on Arizona defensive back Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, Cal defensive end Deandre Coleman, Colorado defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton, Stanford cornerback Wayne Lyons, Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, UCLA defensive end Datone Jones (yes, we're tapping him again!), USC's young linebackers (yes, all three), Utah defensive end Joe Kruger, Utah S/LB Brian Blechen, Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and Washington State OLB/DE Travis Long.
Further, the defensive numbers might be better as teams take a step back offensively. USC's offense looks potentially dominant, and Oregon is always very good, even with a new QB. But Stanford is almost certain to take a step back without four first-round NFL draft picks, as might Washington with the loss of running back Chris Polk and its top two receivers. Four teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and four teams are adopting new systems with new coaches.
Most notable: There are offensive line questions across the conference.
Will the Pac-12 suddenly start playing a bunch of 17-10 games? No.
But here's a guess that the conference will play much better defense in 2012.