Preseason position reviews: Linebacker

July, 13, 2012
7/13/12
1:00
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Linebacker is a strong position in the conference. It will be quite a battle for first-team All-Pac-12 because a handful of conference LBs figure to be All-America candidates.

Of course, not everyone appears stout.

Here's how things stack up.

Great shape

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeWith Chase Thomas and James Vaughters, Stanford will have a lot of pop at linebacker in 2012.
Stanford: If Shayne Skov comes back from his knee injury at 100 percent, this might be the best unit in the nation. Nine of the 10 LBs from last year's depth chart are back -- not including Skov -- and the Cardinal ranked 19th in the nation in run defense. OLB Chase Thomas is a preseason All-American, OLB Trent Murphy had 6.5 sacks last year and James Vaughters is a beastly talent. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley combined for 127 tackles in 2011. Heck, Blake Lueders and Alex Debniak would start for a lot of teams.

USC: The Trojans' three freshmen standouts from 2011 likely will become breakouts in 2012. The big question is who's the best between MLB Lamar Dawson, strongside backer Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard on the weak side. The depth isn't as good as Stanford's, but these three are superior athletically.

Oregon: Is it just me or do some media folks not understand how good the Ducks are at LB? Did they not see Kiko Alonso turn the Rose Bowl into the Kiko Bowl? Michael Clay had 102 tackles last year and should be in the all-conference mix. Boseko Lokombo has seen significant action. And the young depth is promising. Further, if you go ahead and say the Ducks mostly run a 3-4 defense, you can toss in Dion Jordan as an OLB, though he's still officially a defensive end.

Good shape

California: The Bears lose conference Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt, who was the brains behind the Cal defense, but there's plenty of experience and young talent coming back, topped by OLB Chris McCain and ILB Nick Forbes.

Colorado: Jon Major and Doug Rippy are a strong, experienced tandem and Derrick Webb also is a returning starter. The only issue the Buffs have is the weakness up front might make life hard for their 'backers.

UCLA: Patrick Larimore is officially the only returning starter, but Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks have starting experience and OLB Damien Holmes started as a defensive end last year -- the Bruins are switching to a 3-4. This is a solid crew that almost certainly will get better coaching this year.

Utah: On the one hand, two of three starters from 2011 are gone. On the other, the highly productive Trevor Reilly -- five sacks, nine tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles -- is back. V.J. Fehoko has potential to be a good one in the middle. When I chatted with Kyle Whittingham this spring, I got a sense he's not losing sleep here.

Oregon State: Feti Unga and Michael Doctor are both solid returning starters, but Cameron Collins needs to be replaced on the strong side. The issue for the Beavers, not unlike Colorado, is whether the big bodies up front can hold the line and let these guys make plays.

We'll see

Washington: ILB Cort Dennison is gone, but just about everyone else is back. The bad news on that is the Huskies were lousy at LB last year. Lousy. It's possible, however, that the improvement here will be dramatic due to a combination of experience and better coaching. Guys who got pushed around will improve, for one. Further, switching to a 3-4 defense, as well as moving some guys around will help. Josh Shirley has a chance to become a big-time pass rusher at OLB, and the move of safety Nate Fellner to ILB went well this spring.

Arizona State: The top four LBs from last year are gone. Brandon Magee coming back from his Achilles tear helps both as a good player and a good leader. Further, it's likely that Junior Onyeali will be reinstated after a spring suspension, where he looks like a nice fit as a hybrid DE/OLB. That's a good start in the Sun Devils' new-look defense. But this still will be a green unit.

Washington State: Moving Travis Long from DE to OLB in the Cougars' new 3-4 means one slot is a certainty. After that? Welcome to "We'll see." That's what happened when a pair of returning starters, C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, got kicked off the team. Darryl Monroe and Eric Oertel flashed promise this spring.

Arizona: Jake Fischer returns from a knee injury, and he's a good player. After that, things are pretty questionable, particularly after Akron transfer Brian Wagner, penciled in as a starter at MLB, quit the team. The term "perilously thin" works here.

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