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Preseason position reviews: linebacker

8/4/2010

Linebacker is not an easy position to rate in the Pac-10. It's fair to say that only Oregon is worry-free at the position.

There are plenty of good individual players: Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, California's Mike Mohamed and UCLA's Akeem Ayers are getting preseason All-American attention and Washington's Mason Foster looks primed for a breakout. But other than the Ducks, every team gives you reason to pause over the depth chart.

So what's the pecking order?

Great shape

  • Oregon: The Ducks are fast and deep and experienced. Casey Matthews was second-team All-Pac-10, while Spencer Paysinger was his equal in production. Josh Kaddu and Boseko Lokombo are impressive enough that returning starter Eddie Pleasant moved to rover. And sophomore Michael Clay might end up the best of the lot by season's end.

  • USC: Everyone read all about the Trojans problems at LB during spring practices, but that was mostly about a lack of depth. The bottom line is there are three returning starters from the Pac-10's No. 1 scoring defense, and sophomore Devon Kennard may be good enough to beat out Chris Galippo in the middle.

Good shape

  • Arizona State: Burfict may be the best middle LB in the conference, and Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons saw plenty of action as backups for a unit that ranked No. 1 in the conference in total defense. Still, there's reason to pause over the loss of Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel, two heady, productive players.

  • Stanford: The Cardinal switched to a 3-4 defense, and the lineup of LBs is impressive in terms of potential. Sophomore Shayne Skov is a budding star and Owen Marecic is a beast, though this will be his first season as a full-time LB after playing FB last year. It's possible Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser will be better OLBs than DEs. But we'll have to see.

  • California: Mohamed led the Pac-10 in tackles last year and, though two starters must be replaced, there's talent and experience on the depth chart, particularly if Mychal Kendricks breaks through. The Bears ranked second in the conference in run defense in 2009.

  • UCLA: The Bruins are breaking in two new starters next to Ayers, though MLB Steve Sloan started nine games in 2008. But Ayers may end up the conference's defensive Player of the Year, so he makes up for a lot of the issues here.

  • Washington: Mason Foster is as good a LB as any in the conference, and Cort Dennison is solid in the middle. But who starts on the strong side is one of the Huskies' biggest preseason questions.

  • Oregon State: The Beavers are replacing their two best linebackers: Keaton Kristick and David Pa'aluhi. Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson both have significant experience platooning on the outside, though it remains to be seen how full-speed Pankey is after tearing his Achilles during the offseason. Tony Wilson and Rueben Robinson are competing in the middle.

We'll see

  • Washington State: Though the Cougs are replacing two starters, they have plenty of experience. The problem is the run defense has been terrible the past two years.

  • Arizona: The Wildcats, you might have heard, are replacing all three starters. Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo are JC transfers who have never played a down in the Pac-10. Sophomore Jake Fischer is hardly a veteran. Things could turn out fine, but as the title says, "We'll see."