[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with the 3-Point Stance, looking at defensive tiers in the PAC 12, the best LB recruiting programs in recent years, and Group of Five linebackers to keep an eye on.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— Let’s keep it rolling on the defensive side of things as we rank the defensive tiers in the PAC 12.
Elite: Oregon, Utah
The Ducks under new head coach Dan Lanning should have one of the best defenses in the nation, and it all starts with Noah Sewell. The former five-star linebacker is arguably the best in the nation, and should see his role expand even more in the new scheme. If Justin Flowe can ever stay healthy, they'll be among the nation's best. They've still got plenty of talent along the defensive front with the return of Brandon Dorlus, Popo Aumavae, and Keyon Ware-Hudson. Bryan Addison, Trikweze Bridges, and Bennett Williams are all excellent DBs as well, giving Oregon playmakers at every level.
The Utes, year in and year out, have one of the best defenses in the nation. So despite losing All-American Devin Lloyd, you know they'll still be outstanding. They brought in Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate to fill in for Lloyd, and he should be very good. Van Fillinger returns as their top pass rusher, and he's poised for a huge season. Clark Phillips and Cole Bishop are stars in the secondary, and they have plenty of big, athletic bodies to throw along the defensive line. They're going to be great one again.
Good but not Great: Cal, Washington State, UCLA, USC
As long as Justin Wilcox is the coach in Berkeley, the Bears are going to have a minimum above-average defense. Despite a rough season, they still finished tied for first in the conference in yards per play allowed. Their secondary is elite, with Lu-Magia Hearns III and Collin Gamble as an excellent corner duo and potential all-conference safety Daniel Scott behind them. Washington transfer linebacker Jackson Sirmon was a great pickup for them as well, and he'll continue the lineage of strong linebacker play under Wilcox. The defensive line, however, is still in a state of flux, and that will more than likely be their weak link.
There is a lot to like about Washington State's defense, especially when you look at the front seven. They can really get after the quarterback on the edge - Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson are arguably the best edge rushing combo in the conference. Linebacker Daiyan Henley was one of the hottest players at his position in the portal, and he and safety Jordan Lee both came up from Nevada alongside new defensive coordinator Brian Ward. They should be very good at all three levels.
The Bruins are just on the border of tier three, but I'm leaving them in tier two for now because of their depth in the front seven. The portal additions of Gabriel and Grayson Murphyfrom North Texas did wonders for their depth at the edge position, while Hawaii transfer Darius Muasau should be a perfect fit at linebacker. The big question mark is the secondary, which was porous at best last year and lost their top performers in Jay Shaw to the portal and Qwuantrezz Knight to the draft. Wyoming transfer Azizi Hearn should be an improvement, though, at one cornerback spot, and their pass rush should be strong enough to cover up for deficiencies in the secondary.
The Trojans have a ton of talent at every level, but they haven't proven that they can put it together yet. Tuli Tuipulotu is on the shortlist for best pass rushers in the conference, while cornerback Calen Bullock is returning fresh off of a freshman All-American season. Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon has a ton of experience and is an above-average starter at corner, while Eric Gentry should be one of the better linebackers in the conference. But this is a squad with a ton of talent that finished 86th in the nation last year defensively, so I'm reticent to put them in tier one just yet.
That'll Do: Arizona State, Washington, Oregon State
The Sun Devils are right on the cusp of being in the bottom tier, but I kept them in tier three because I think that their defensive line could be one of the best in the conference. Nesta Jade Silvera was a great portal addition for them from Miami, and he joins Omarr Norman-Lott and Jermayne Lole as the three main guys on the interior. The secondary is entirely new, however, and the linebackers replace their two most productive members from last season. If injuries happen to the defensive line, they'll drop down a tier, but for now, that unit props them up into tier three.
The Huskies are a bit of a stars-and-scrubs roster on the defensive side of the ball. They've got two truly elite players in edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui and linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. However, Tupuola-Fetui is coming off of an injury and will need to be monitored. Linebacker as a whole is the best position group, but they'll need to do a lot to replace their defensive backfield after losing two first-round picks.
Oregon State's unit is built back-to-front with some really solid players at corner in Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin, while safety Jaydon Green is a solid veteran. They should be okay on the edge as well with the addition of former Florida Gator Andrew Chatfield Jr. However, linebacker is tricky for them, and their depth on the interior of the defensive line is suspect. That being said, I could definitely see them taking a couple of steps forward this season.
Cross Your Fingers and Pray: Arizona, Colorado, Stanford
As is to be expected, Arizona has one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12, with really only their secondary as at least a league-average. Christian Roland-Wallace is the star of that defensive backfield at the cornerback position, and he's been very, very good during his first three seasons in Tucson. However, the front seven is going to need to bulk up. Tiaoalii Savea (UCLA) was a nice addition on the defensive line via the portal to go next to Kyon Barrs, but there are too many holes elsewhere.
It will be another year of tough sledding for Karl Dorrell's crew. Their front seven is adequate, but they will struggle on the back end, needing to replace three starters from last year's team. Isaiah Lewis offers positional flexibility in the defensive backfield, but it's still a bit unknown as to who else is going to be playing around him. Linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo is the definite leader of this unit and is someone who is going to be playing on Sundays in the very near future.
The Cardinal were as bad as anyone on the defensive side of the ball in 2021, and they lost seven starters from an already porous unit. DB Kyu Blu Kelly is a really nice player, but the rest of the secondary is entirely new. Linebackers Levani Damuni and Ricky Mizean are also both back, but there is nothing in front of them on the defensive line, and it could be another long season on The Farm.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— Who recruits linebackers the best in recent years? Oregon is up there. Here’s the top five including the transfer portal.
— Is there really any question about this? They just land five star after five star from Reuben Foster to Dylan Moses to Will Anderson.
2. Ohio State
— The Buckeyes haven’t produced a ton aside from a Darron Lee here and there but they recruit the best for sure. And wins in the Southeast are key with players like Raekwon McMillan but locals like CJ Hicks could help them break through.
— Nakobe Dean is the latest but before him was Roquan Smith and many others and they continue to land 4 and 5 stars.
— Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe were an amazing 1-2 punch in recent years and they keep adding the best talent at the position out west.
— Harold Perkins is the latest in a great line of elite LB talent to head to Baton Rouge. Patrick Queen will be followed by others in round one soon.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— And finally the Group of Five love continues with some linebackers to watch.
1. Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati
— The MAC defensive player of the year had 125 tackles last season and takes a step up with the Bearcats this season.
2. Carlton Martial, Troy
— He’s been elite for years now as he’s had more than 100 tackles and 10 TFL in three straight seasons.
3. KD Davis, North Texas
— He’s an absolute beast despite being a bit short as he plays with natural leverage and had more than 100 tackles last season.
4. Kyle Harmon, San Jose State
— He had 135 tackles in 2021, and could top 150 this year. An absolute machine.
5. Kyle Pugh, Northern Illinois
— He’s been around for 8 seasons now, I kid you not. If he can stay healthy he’s going to have a great last season.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]