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The hit men: Who's loaded at linebacker?

3/11/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

And finally there were linebackers. Or a lack thereof.

All three first-team All-Pac-10 linebackers are gone. USC and California both lost three starting linebackers from elite units.

The only team that welcomes back an intact crew is Washington, which is a mixed blessing when a defense is among the worst in the nation the previous season.

That said: No one is completely rebuilding.

Each linebacker unit, other than USC, has at least one starter back, and the Trojans crew has seen significant playing time and is probably as talented as any in the Pac-10.

Great shape

  • UCLA: This is a position of strength for UCLA, with a lot of experience and athletic ability, led by middle linebacker and leading tackler Reggie Carter, who was second-team All-Pac-10 a year ago. Akeem Ayers and Kyle Bosworth man the two outside positions, while Steve Sloan started nine games last year.

  • Oregon State: Keaton Kristick, second-team All-Pac-10, leads another solid corps of Beavers linebackers from the strongside. Middle linebacker Bryant Cornell is gone, but he only ranked fifth on the team in tackles. Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey are back on the weakside, while David Pa'aluhi is slated to replace Cornell.

Good shape 

  • USC: Sure, all three starters are gone, but we just can't pull the trigger and downgrade the Trojans. The general feeling that Chris Galippo inside with Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan on the flanks will be as physically talented as any crew in the conference. Each saw significant action last year and recorded double-digit tackles, with Morgan leading the way with 24, including five for a loss.

  • Arizona State: Lost second-leading tackler Morris Wooten but the Sun Devils get everyone else back, including Gerald Munns, who left the team early last season due to personal issues. Moreover, young players such as Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee will push for playing time.

  • Arizona: Lost leading tackler and leader Ronnie Palmer in the middle, but Sterling Lewis (five starts) and Xavier Kelly (eight starts) are back and Vuna Tuihalamaka, who is slated to replace Palmer, saw a lot of action in 2008.

  • Stanford: Pat Maynor is gone, but Clinton Snyder leads an experienced crew that includes Chike Amajoyi, Will Powers and Nick Macaluso.

  • California: Lost three of its four starting linebackers, but both Eddie Young and Mike Mohamed started games last year, with Mohamed ranking third on the team in tackles.

  • Oregon: Jerome Boyd is gone but second-leading tackler Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews are back. Eddie Pleasant likely steps in for Boyd.

  • Washington: Because the Huskies defense was so bad last year, it's hard to rank them in good shape just because all three starters are back. But the addition of 2007 leading tackler E.J. Savannah, who was suspended by former coach Tyrone Willingham, makes this an area of least concern on a team with many concerns.

We'll see

  • Washington State: It might seem like we're picking on the Cougars by leaving them alone down here but here's the situation. WSU lost its best defensive player and leading tackler, middle linebacker Greg Trent, from the nation's worst rushing defense (248 yards per game). Undersized weakside linebacker Louis Bland, who had nine tackles for a loss in 2008, is back, and word is Andy Mattingly might move back to linebacker from end. If that happens, the position upgrades substantially.