- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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We’re taking a look at where each Pac-12 team stands coming out of spring ball on a position-by-position basis. Instead of a straight 1-12 ranking, here's a tiered look at the league's linebacker corps.
POSITION GROUP OF STRENGTH
When it comes to Pac-12 linebackers, Scooby Wright is the headliner, so the Wildcats earn first mention here. Wright's production alone accounts for that of about three solid Division I 'backers -- that's how absurd his 2014 statistical output was. Here's the final tally: 163 tackles, 14 sacks, 29 TFL and six forced fumbles. Those numbers should ease Rich Rodriguez's mind when it comes to the linebacker position regardless of who makes up Wright's supporting cast. The names to keep an eye on there: Cody Ippolito, Derrick Turituri, and Jake Matthews.
Su'a Cravens is listed as an outside linebacker, but he may well be the most versatile defender in the Pac-12. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he brings solid size to the position, but his speed and pass coverage skills allow him to shift to safety and effectively cover the variety of looks presented by the league's perimeter-oriented attacks. Although the Trojans are combatting the losses of Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai, the returns of Cravens and Anthony Sarao give them a solid, athletic base from which to operate on the second level. There's also a bevy of exciting young talent competing around these two reliable veterans.
The Sun Devils list 24 linebackers on their roster, a number that's impressive in and of itself. There's quality returning talent to be found amid the mass of bodies at the position, too: Laiu Moeakiola, Salamo Fiso, and D.J. Calhoun all return after productive 2014 campaigns. Remember that nine of 11 defensive starters are back for ASU, so this defense is expected to turn up the jets as cohesion grows moving forward. The unit made progress as last year went along, and spring returns were positive as well, so there's faith that this crew can get the job done.
David Shaw's program finds itself in the opposite position of the Sun Devils: The Cardinal must replace nearly all of their 2014 defensive starters. Still, Stanford has established itself as a defensive powerhouse -- the Cardinal have led the Pac-12 statistically in each of the past three seasons -- and the development system on that side of the ball seems to be churning ahead. Two of the Cardinal's few returning starters happen to come from this position group. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez was the team's leading 2014 tackler, while outside 'backer Kevin Anderson brings heat. Peter Kalambayi flashed explosive pass-rush ability last year, and he's expected to assume a more vital role in 2015.
After spending three seasons adapting to the speed and power of Pac-12 football, the Utes hit 2014 on a physical note that really made one appreciate their growth into the new conference. It was fun to watch Jared Norris, Gionni Paul, and Jason Whittingham fly to the football, lay wood, and set a violent tone that steered Utah's season in a positive direction. The crew certainly benefited from the now-departed pass-rush presence of Nate Orchard in front of them, but it should continue to assert itself as a true program strength in 2015. Norris, who delivered a team-leading 116 tackles and 13 TFL with his sturdy 234-pound frame last year, is a particularly intriguing defensive centerpiece.
While all focus shined on Marcus Mariota and the Ducks' high-flying offense last year, it's easy to forget that Oregon's defense actually ranked second (23.6 points per game) behind Stanford in the Pac-12. True star power existed on both the defensive line and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps also did a solid job, and a number of grizzled veterans are returning there. Joe Walker, Rodney Hardrick, Tyson Coleman, and Christian French are all fifth-year seniors who should give Mark Helfrich a reliable backbone at the position.
POTENTIALLY SOLID, BUT QUESTIONS PERSIST
Eric Kendricks was an awesome tackling machine -- he consistently ranked at or near the top of the nation in that category -- and he'll be sorely missed. The Bruins have a lot of sideline-to-sideline productivity to replace at the position, and that's a hole that can't possibly be filled until the team takes the field in September, although Kenny Young has generated press as Kendricks' replacement. The Bruins also feature two-way sensation Myles Jack on the second level. He's obviously capable of inflicting serious damage, but UCLA must prove it can maintain effectiveness without Kendricks.
The Bears' secondary bled more yardage than any other pass defense in the nation last year, and the final tally wasn't close (they surrendered 367.2 yards per game, while the next-worst team allowed only 296.6). Cal's run defense, though, was respectable -- especially in comparison to those atrocious numbers: The Bears allowed only 4.0 yards per carry, the fourth-best average in the Pac-12. That's a testament to decent linebacker play from Michael Barton, Hardy Nickerson, and Jalen Jefferson. Still, better discipline is needed from these upperclassmen to help shore up an awfully leaky defense.
New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch praises the leadership contributions his linebacking corps has gotten from Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio this offseason. Those two both played solid 2014 seasons, and they'll be counted on to maintain productivity moving forward as the Cougars work to force more turnovers with a fresh, aggressive mind-set. Linebackers certainly weren't the weak spot of Washington State's defense last season -- 4.1 yards allowed per rush actually ranked the Cougars in the league's top half in that regard -- but the position group will be counted on to turn up the heat in 2015 regardless.
The Huskies have lost a staggering amount of defensive talent. Shaq Thompson, sack master Hau'oli Kikaha, and leading tackler John Timu are all gone. There's a massive amount of productivity to replace, and Travis Feeney is the only starter who has stuck around to help that effort. Cory Littleton, Keishawn Bierria, and Scott Lawyer are among the competing names, but they've yet to make a name for themselves as integral players and they all have big shoes to fill.
The Beavers' defense also faces a major rebuilding process. Several of the team's leading tacklers are gone, creating a scary situation in which Rommel Mageo's 23 tackles from a year ago actually represent significant returning production. Oregon State will need quick production from untested players -- Kyle Haley, Bright Ugwoegbu, and Caleb Saulo are all names to look out for. The recruiting profiles of these underclassmen all suggest that potential is there, but the pressure is on for the results to follow.
The Buffs may be buoyed by transfer Jaleel Awini, who played quarterback at Air Force before changing programs and positions. He was arguably Colorado's top spring performer and should add a helpful shot of athleticism to a linebacking corps that struggled in 2014. Underclassmen almost entirely comprised Colorado's front seven, and the resulting yardage leaks saw the Buffs allow 5.6 yards per carry, a full yard worse than the next Pac-12 defense. A healthy Addison Gillam can potentially team with Kenneth Olugbode to bring improvement, but the Buffs' linebackers have much work to do after 2014's lackluster performance.