Take 2: Who has the Pac-12's best defense?

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
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They say offense wins championships. They don't say that? Well, they say that in the Pac-12. And the two teams that have dominated Pac-12 play the past two seasons -- Oregon and Stanford -- have been dominant on offense.

But the Ducks and Cardinal also played solid-to-good defense the past two seasons. In other words, you can't be an elite team -- and you won't likely win the conference -- without a strong defense.

So which team has the best defense heading into 2012? Your humble -- and by humble we mean "huge-brained" -- Pac-12 bloggers offer two takes, which is why we call this "Take 2."

[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Chase Thomas leads a Stanford defense that returns six starters on its front seven.
Kevin Gemmell: Yeah, yeah ... the Stanford blogger is picking Stanford. Surprise, surprise. But when you look at all of the defenses in the conference, there really aren't any without at least a couple of holes. So in that situation, I'm deferring to the most basic principal of defense: Can you stop the run? And it's hard to argue that Stanford isn't at the top of that list -- at least on paper -- when you consider who the Cardinal have coming back and coming in.

First, the Cardinal have six of their front seven returning from last season -- including all-conference outside linebacker Chase Thomas and second-team all-conference defensive end Ben Gardner. Terrence Stephens is a rock in the middle, Trent Murphy is underrated for what he does opposite Thomas on the outside, and Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley developed nicely at both inside linebacker spots last season. So replacing Matt Masifilo (no easy task by the way) is the only immediate concern on the front seven. Developing depth behind them is the secondary concern, but an important one. It's depth that allowed them to successfully replace middle linebacker Shayne Skov when he went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Stanford was the only team in the conference that held opponents below 100 yards rushing per game on average. In fact, their 84.4 yards per game was 27 yards per game less than the No. 2 team, USC, at 111.4. And if Skov returns 100 percent healthy from injury, it will make them that much better against the run.

But like all teams, Stanford has its question marks -- specifically in the secondary, where it must fill two safety spots and develop depth at cornerback. Wayne Lyons returns from a foot injury, and head coach David Shaw has had no qualms about saying Lyons will emerge as one of the best cornerbacks in the country. No pressure there, though. Ed Reynolds is back in the safety mix -- after missing last season with an injury -- along with Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards, who both saw quality time last season at safety.

Then there are the youngsters, like linebacker James Vaughters. Last season, he was used primarily as a third-down pass-rush specialist. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinal keep him with his hand down, or give him more reps standing three yards deep. And a couple of freshmen to keep an eye on will be outside linebacker Noor Davis and cornerback Alex Carter. Both were ESPNU 150 players and could make an immediate impact right away.

If Stanford can get its secondary to catch up with its front seven, the defense could be even better than last season.

Ted Miller: Kevin is right. No Pac-12 defense heads into 2012 without questions. My pick -- Utah -- has some questions, too. But it also has a Star in the middle of everything, which is a good place to start.

[+] EnlargeStar Lotulelei
Russ Isabella/US PresswireWith Star Lotulelei, Utah is likely to have one of the toughest defenses in the Pac-12.
If you asked defensive coordinators who'd they pick first in a Pac-12 defensive draft, my guess is Utes nose tackle Star Lotulelei would top the list. Having an athletic, 325 pounder who commands often unsuccessful double-teams on every play makes life easier for everyone. And he's one of three returning starters on the Utes' defensive line, which was probably the best line in the conference in 2011. The Utes ranked third in the conference in run defense in 2011, and they gave up just seven rushing TDs, by far the fewest in the conference.

Further, this is the Pac-12. Folks pass a lot. So it's always good to have nine of the top-10 players returning from a secondary that: 1. ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense; and 2. Led the conference with 19 interceptions.

So, defensive line, check, secondary, check.

The biggest question heading into spring practices is replacing a pair of multi-year starters at linebacker: Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. It's time for three rising sophomores, V.J. Fehoko, Jacoby Hale and Nate Fakahafua, to show their stuff.

The Utes also have to replace cornerback Conroy Black and figure out some depth questions on the line, though a couple of incoming junior college recruits were signed to help immediately. But this unit looks like it can be better than the one that led the Pac-12 in the most important defensive category in 2011: Scoring (20.2 ppg, which ranked 19th in the nation).

A couple of more reasons to like Utah's defense. First: Coaching continuity. Coach Kyle Whittingham is a former Utes defensive coordinator himself, and his right-hand man, Kalani Sitake, is building a reputation as one of the bright defensive minds on the West Coast.

Second: Utah doesn't play Oregon or Stanford. Again. Missing out on those two high-powered offenses will automatically boost a defense's numbers.

The big measure of the Utes' defense will come on Oct. 4, when USC and Matt Barkley come to town. Last season, the Utes held Barkley and company to just two offensive scores in a close loss in the Coliseum. Round 2 should be interesting.

Ted Miller | email

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