Arizona State...Vontaze Burfict is the best linebacker in the conference and he returns to resume his reign of terror on anyone or any team who dares come close to him. Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee who went to high school with Burfict return to flank him. Plenty of experienced depth behind these three studs so the Devils can attack with fresh waves of speed. This group has the potential to be one of the best LB groups in the history of the conference.
The All-Pac-10 selection paced the Sun Devils last year with 90 tackles, 8.5 of them for loss. It may be odd to call a 6-3, 252-pound middle linebacker lightning quick, but it applies to the junior. He has the range to make plays all over the field and the punishing hits to intimidate the opposition.
Stanford...The Cardinal lost two excellent linebackers to graduation but Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas return and they have the potential to be among the best in the Pac 12. Stanford has recruited well and has a lot of young depth that is ready to emerge. Fifth-year senior Max Bergen might have a slight edge heading into fall camp for the open spot, but the coaches was very impressed with the play of junior Jarek Lancaster along with sophomores A.J. Tarpley and Joe Hemschoot during the spring.
One teammate has compared him to Damien, the evil five-year-old in The Omen. There is the ghoulish eye black, which the 6' 3" 243-pounder paints on his cheeks in quantities that would make Gene Simmons blush. There's the warrior haircut of last season, a ginger Mohawk that Skov sported long after most of his teammates who had dabbled with the 'do had given it up. Then there's the debris trail. Skov tears up so much turf that he leaves divots in the grass. "Shayne drives everything he has into those cleats," says co--defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "Even when he is on the new type of field turf, you can see the little chips of rubber flying. It's like he leaves a footprint."
California...The Bears traditionally run a 3-4 defense so they really depend on this unit to be the heart of the defense. D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks are excellent inside linebackers. David Wilkerson and Cecil Whiteside make their debut on the outside and are considered to be promising. The Bears had one of the better defensive recruiting classes I have ever seen on the coast last season. Expect quite a few of those young players to get looks this fall.
With two starters gone and two returning, both all-stars, is the glass half-empty or half-full at the second level of defense? It’s a question that won’t be answered until after the season kicks off. One thing is for sure—the Bears have a solid enough base to build around and continue to recruit this position well. Since moving to a 3-4 alignment, the staff has sought out big linebackers, with the range to cover the field and the girth to emulate some defensive ends.
Utah...Brian Blechen moved from safety to "stud" linebacker and looked good this spring. Chaz Walker and J.J. Williams will fight it out for the MLB position. Matt Martinez returns to man the outside. Former starter Nai Fotu was indefinitely suspended for a dangerously creative DUI but could be back in the mix this fall.
As the man in the middle of Utah's defense, linebacker Chaz Walker is surrounded by several new faces this spring. The coaching staff is auditioning new starters at both cornerback and safety spots. They're also working Brian Blechen into his new role at stud linebacker and filling the void left by former captain Sealver Siliga's decision to give up his senior year for a shot at the NFL.
Oregon... Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger have moved on. Josh Kaddu was arrested for minor possession of alcohol this spring. Kiki Alonzo was indefinitely suspended for a second time. This time it was for being part of a burglary so it was business as usual for the Ducks. Michael Clay, Boseko Lokombo, Dewitt Stuckey, and Josh Kaddu are the starters at this point. Derrick Malone will be part of the rotation. At this point we aren't sure when and if Alonzo will be available.
It wasn't 24 hours after the spring game that all those developments were undercut by the news of Kiki Alonso's arrest and subsequent indefinite suspension for breaking into a stranger's house following a night of drinking. Suddenly, depth up the middle again looks like a very serious concern. Before his suspension, it was easy to imagine a playing rotation in 2011 that featured Kaddu and Lokombo sharing time at SAM, Clay starting at WILL and Alonso at MIKE -- with Stuckey backing up both of those guys as Clay did for Matthews and Paysinger last season -- and then Malone getting a few reps here and there.
UCLA....MLB Patrick Larrimore returns to full strength after rehabbing a shoulder injury in the off season. When healthy Larrimore is one of the better LB's in the conference. Sean Westgate returns on the outside. Jordan Zumwalt is the likely starter on the other side. The Bruins have some young promising depth behind the starters that will see their first action this season.
It will take probably this entire group working together to fill the void left behind by Akeem Ayers. Given all the youth and inexperience at linebacker, UCLA will also need a captain, a role Ayers only mildly embraced but has mostly been vacant since the days of Reggie Carter. Larimore might have been the top candidate if not for the fact he will be sidelined for all of spring while still rehabilitating a shoulder injury.
Colorado...Jon Major who missed half of last season with a knee sprain is back. When healthy Major can be a stud you can build a defense around. Doug Rippy appears to have won the job in the middle and Patrick Mahnke will man the other OLB spot.
For the Colorado linebackers, it’ll be a case of one step forward and two steps back. While the Buffs are excited to be getting back one of their top performers from injury, they also lose a couple of valuable seniors to graduation. Michael Sipili, in particular, was a tone-setter at the second level and the leading tackler of 2010. Developing the young players and building a workable two-deep will be primary goals of the coaching staff in the summer.
USC...The Trojans can count on Chris Galippo being a solid anchor in the middle but they may have to go young to find equal talent to line up beside him. Shane Horton has experience but hasn't performed up to expectations which opens the door for Hayes Pullard. Marquis Bailey and Dion Bailey are scheduled to rotate on the strong side.
"This is probably our most unsettled unit as we need to decide who plays where. We’ll experiment with some options this spring, but because we have several players sitting out spring with injuries, we won’t be able to figure that out until the fall." - Lane Kiffin
Washington...Cort Dennison has been one of the anchors of this defense since he arrived on campus. This season the team will count on him even more heavily as they break in a ton of young depth beside him and behind him. JC transfer Thomas Tutogi will be his backup. Tutogi has three years of eligibility remaining and he is being grromed to replace Dennison when he graduates. Jon Timu and Princeton Fuimaono could be the guys who will be taking the places of Mason Foster and Vic Aiyewa. Very close behind them are Garrett Gilliliand, Jamal Kearse, and Cooper Pelleur. Ted Miller of ESPN has been runing a series on each teams most indispensable player. Cort Dennison is that guy defensively for Washington. Cort is the glue and the straw that stirs the drink.
Senior captain Cort Dennison is the lone returning starter in the linebacking corps. Dennison inherited Butler's Mike spot last year and performed very well, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 with 8.0 tackles per game. Though not particularly blessed with physical gifts, the 2006 Utah Athlete of the Year is an absolute maniac in the weight room and on the practice field-his year-round effort and football intelligence have keyed his rapid improvement and put him in position to do something great this year. He will need to be a rock in the middle as the inexperienced outside linebackers get up to game speed.
Arizona...Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo are quality players but depth is going to be a huge problem. The problem was compounded when starter Jake Fisher blew out his knee. The Cat's only had five active LB's available for spring ball. That smells like trouble.
Arizona Wildcats coach Mike Stoops is down to five linebackers this spring after the departures of sophomore R.J. Young and redshirt freshman Trevor Erno, according to the Tucson Citizen. Stoops gave no reason for the players leaving the program. The Wildcats have three starting linebackers locked in, led by Paul Vassallo, the team’s returning leading tackler from last year. But only a redshirt freshman and a senior walk-on are ready to play behind then. Stoops and his staff plan to bring in three freshmen linebackers this summer, and all will compete for significant playing time on defense and special teams.
Oregon State....Rueben Robinson hung onto his job during spring practice but there is some decent depth behind him that will challenge him for his job when camp begins. Cameron Collins moves up from safety and he looked pretty good this past spring. Michael Doctor will man the other outside position.
I guess the question is, how much blame do the linebackers get for what happened to defensive coordinator Mark Banker's 'D' in 2010? ... a cold-blooded analyst might say the LBs got a ton of the blame, because one of the off-season casualties of OSU's 5-7 season was 14-year veteran position coach Greg Newhouse, who coached the LBs.
Washington State...The good news is that Alex Hoffman-Ellis, C.J. Mizell, Sekope Kaufusi and Mike Ledgerwood give the Cougars an experienced foursome at the position. The bad news is these guys were part of one of the worst defenses in the country last season. A year of experience should do wonders for this group.
The Cougars will be without just a single starter from a year ago, giving the linebackers a chance to be the strength of the defense. As long as the defensive line continues to struggle at the point of attack, this is going to be an active group, one that’s forced to make a ton of plays in space. If the linebackers are unable to make stops consistently, an already shaky run defense becomes downright toothless.