Take 2: Pac-12's best position switch

August, 17, 2012
8/17/12
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Did you know that Oregon running back Kenjon Barner was recruited as a DB? That position switch has worked out, eh?

Every season, players are moved from one position to another. Sometimes the move is the player's idea. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes he likes the switch. Sometimes he doesn't.

And position switches often don't yield much. But sometimes they do.

So which Pac-12 position switch seems like a "Eureka!" moment this preseason. Here are a couple of ideas.

Kevin Gemmell: This is an intriguing question. Back when spring started, I probably would have said USC's Tre Madden switching from linebacker to running back. As it turns out, Madden got hurt, the Trojans got Silas Redd and all is well once again in the USC backfield.

[+] EnlargeTravis Long
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaTravis Long will be playing a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position this season.
UCLA's Joseph Fauria and Washington State's Andrei Lintz are also fascinating cases. Both now have "wide receiver" titles and more receiving responsibilities. I'm on record as saying both will flourish in their "new" roles. But they are essentially still just hybrid tight ends.

But it's Lintz's teammate, defensive end-turned linebacker Travis Long that strikes me as possibly the most impactful position change in the entire conference.

Washington State had a run defense that was marginal at best last year -- ranking seventh in the conference while yielding 157.2 yards per game. Long ranked in the top five in the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss, racking up an average of one per game last season.

So it stands to reason that you take WSU's best run-stopper, especially now that Alex Hoffman-Ellis is gone, and you unleash him and let him do what he does best.

At 6-4, 243 pounds, Long had good size as a 4-3 defensive end, but was probably on the smaller side of the spectrum. He relied on his speed to make plays in the backfield, and he was good at it. But now that speed is going to serve him better as WSU's "buck" linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, which is essentially a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

The Cougars will get the best of both worlds out of Long. He'll have his hand down a few times, hand up a few times, but still be able to use that burst and explosiveness to make plays. Think of how Stanford uses Chase Thomas and you'll start to get an idea of what Long is capable of.

The move should create a spike in Long's tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks. But he also has pretty good ball instincts, having deflected three balls as a defensive end. Put that to use a couple of yards off the line and you have a guy who can be an impact player in both the rush and pass defense.

Talking with Washington State defensive coordinator Mike Breske, he told me they plan to be very "multiple" with Long. Meaning they'll move him all over the field. Inside, outside, hand up, hand down and short of being a nickel back, Long will have his fingerprints all over this defense.

Washington State is going to score points. That's a foregone conclusion with the quarterback and receivers they have running Mike Leach's system. At question is if the defense in the new 3-4 look can slow down teams enough. While there will be growing pains, the move is a good one for Long and great one for the Cougars.

Ted Miller: I'm going to cheat by naming two guys. But since it's two guys making the same switch, it's not so bad. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Both Arizona senior Taimi Tutogi and Utah junior Thretton Palamo are running backs who have switched to defense, though Tutogi is still playing RB/FB, so he could go both ways.

They are similar in dimensions. Palamo, a former elite rugby player, is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. Tutogi is 6-1, 260. So these guys are stocky and built low to the ground and, as former running backs, obviously have above average speed.

Both figure mostly to be pass-rush specialists, using their speed and power to slip around lumbering offensive tackles on the edge.

Arizona's situation is a bit more desperate in terms of pass rush. Last year, the Wildcats finished with a measly 10 sacks, which ranked last in the Pac-12 and 116th in the nation. Making matters worse, they are replacing both starting defensive ends from 2011, C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman.

You might say good riddance, but keep in mind that no one on the roster was good enough to unseat them. Parish led the Wildcats with, gulp, three sacks.

Utah had a solid pass rush last year, recording 30 sacks, which ranked fifth in the conference. But its leading sack man, Derrick Shelby, is off to the NFL -- and playing well in the Miami Dolphins camp. While Joe Kruger has moved into Shelby's spot and has a good shot to match his production, Nate Fakahafua is unproven on the left side. That's who Palamo is backing up.

The early results with both have been promising, though we won't really know their roll and production until the games begin.

It's unlikely either one of these guys is going to become the primary starter. But here's a guess that one -- or both -- is going to bolster a pass rush this fall.

Ted Miller | email

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