- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Linebacker should a strong position in the Pac-12 this fall. You could argue that six or seven guys are or could become All-American candidates.
So how do the units stack up?
Stanford: Three starters back for the Pac-12's best run defense, including All-American candidates Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Even the competition to replace Chase Thomas between James Vaughters and Blake Lueders is between two A-list veterans. Depth is good, too. Might be the best unit in the country.
UCLA: Well, start with Anthony Barr on the outside. The general reaction to him at media day, "Dang. He's big. I didn't know he was that big." Then there's the underrated Eric Kendricks inside along with the solid Jordan Zumwalt. There doesn't seem to be much concern about the vacancy at the other OLB, where Aaron Wallace, Kenny Orjioke and, perhaps, incoming freshman Myles Jack are competing.
USC: Inside 'backer Hayes Pullard and Morgan Breslin on the outside make for a good start, as the Trojans transition to a 3-4. Fellow inside linebacker Lamar Dawson had a forgettable 2012 season, but he reacted well to being challenged this spring. Then there's the return of Devon Kennard, who should finally feel comfortable playing the OLB position he was made for.
Washington: As previously noted, the Huskies are extremely strong here, though it doesn't seem that many folks realize it. They will. The general feeling among just about everyone is that Shaq Thompson will make a move toward All-American recognition this year, while Travis Feeney and John Timu also are well above average. Rush end Josh Shirley also merits note as a hybrid LB/DE in Justin Wilcox's amorphous scheme.
Oregon State: Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander are both back, giving the Beavers speed and experience on the outside. Joel Skotte is expected to win the job at MLB. Depth is a little iffy, but the Beavers run defense was strong in 2012.
Arizona State: Pac-12 blog favorite Brandon Magee is gone, and for that we are terribly sad. Incredibly productive Devil 'backer Carl Bradford is back, as are Steffon Martin and Chris Young, as well as Anthony Jones. Sun Devils struggled a bit against the run last year.
California: The Bears are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which means Chris McCain is now officially a rush end, not an outside linebacker. But this is a better-than-you-think crew, despite the lousy numbers from 2012. Nick Forbes is strong inside, while Jalen Jefferson is back on the strongside. Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt is finally healthy and ready to roll. Depth is a little questionable.
Arizona: Everyone is back, led by Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers, and the Pac-12 blog is of the mind the Wildcats are actually OK at linebacker. The issue is the guys in front of them not being very good at gobbling up blockers. Terrible run defense last year, though.
Washington State: We think one of the big surprises this year might be how solid the Cougars are on defense, and linebacker is one of several reasons why. Most of the 2012 two-deep is back, though losing OLB Travis Long is a big hit. Darryl Monroe is the leader inside.
Oregon: It's not just that the Ducks lost three of four starters. It's that they lost OLB Dion Jordan and Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay inside. Each is on an NFL roster, Jordan being a first-round pick and Alonso going in the second round. No team in the country lost anything approaching that at linebacker. Boseko Lokombo is back on the outside, but injury issues this spring prevented there from being much depth chart clarity.
Utah: While the 2012 run defense was solid, the Utes didn't play well at linebacker last year, though injury issues were the chief concern, preventing any type of week-to-week continuity. Trevor Reilly, who played "stud" 'backer last year, has returned to his more natural end position. A healthy Brian Blechen will take over at "stud" after bouncing back and forth at safety -- he's 230 pounds, too -- and that should help. Big area of fall competition here.
Colorado: Senior Derrick Webb is a strong presence on the weakside, but Jon Major and Doug Rippy are gone. The Buffaloes likely will be young here, see true freshman Addison Gillam topping the post-spring depth chart.
You can see previous previews here: