ASU, USC, Washington, and California seem to have the best defensive lines on paper going into camp. ASU will have one of the better defenses in the country and a strong front line will help support all that talent at linebacker. The Trojans always have a bevy of five stars to throw at you but injuries and depth problems could stunt this units potential. The Huskies are anchored by NG Alameda Ta'amu. California has plenty of talent and depth.
Arizona State - Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy left early for the NFL. DE Junior Onyeali was a stud as a true frosh last season and has star written all over him. Jamaar Jarrett and James Brooks also were impressive. The unit took a blow when Brooks decided to quit the team for personal reasons a couple of weeks ago. Despite the loss there is still a nice buffer of depth here. The Devils will depend on Will Sutton, Bo Moos, Corey Adams, and Toa Tuitea to fill the tackle rotation. It is a solid group lacks the experienced war daddy in the middle.
Arizona State feels it has an embarrassment of riches at linebacker. Much like a quality hockey team, it can roll out line after line of capable players without missing a beat. A solid D-line makes a talented group even stronger versus the run. The Sun Devil defense is poised for a big year, with this ensemble of linebackers fueling much of the optimism.
Southern Cal - DE's Nick Perry and Wes Horton are an excellent combo out on the ends for the Trojans. They are backed up Devon Kennard and Kevin Greene who are also solid. DT Christian Topou is coming back from a knee inury. George Uko, DaJohn Harris and Armond Armstead are all solid inside. If this group can stay healthy it can be the best in the conference.
Assuming they all stay healthy, Armstead, Harris and Tupou are certain starters. I like Perry at the rush-end spot, in part because of his potential, in part because it enables the bigger Horton to swing between the two sides. (Horton essentially is a starter; the fifth Beatle, if you will.) At times, Perry, Horton and Armstead will play together, with Armstead sliding inside. Look for the athletically impressive Uko to be the fourth member of the DT rotation and the starting "3-technique" come 2012.
California -The Bears run a 3-4 so developing dominating NG is a huge priority for the program. The Bears are s solid three deep in the middle with Aaron Tipoti, Kendrick Payne and Villiami Moala who may have been the most coveted recruit on the coast last season. On the outside the Bears will start Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu who are both potential studs. Gabe King and Deandre Coleman are backups with plenty of upside. The Bears had a monster recruiting class on defense so if needed they can get some immediate help from the class of 2011.
While this latest edition of the Cal D-line is going to play to the whistle and acquit itself well, you don’t get better by losing first round draft choices in successive years. The run defense isn’t expected to skip a beat, getting ample help from the linebackers in the 3-4, but the pass rush has question marks that Guyton alone won’t be able to answer.
Washington - DT Alameda Ta'amu is a potential first round draft pick. He is a big guy that moves well and plugs the middle. Lawrence Lagafuina who redshirted last season will back him up. Semisi Tokolahi can play either the three or nose. He was impressive last season until breaking his leg against WSU. He could be limited early. Sione Potoae steps into the starting job in his absence. True frosh Danny Shelton has the body to play right away. DE Everrette Thompson can play inside or out. Hauoli Jamora will line up on the other side after receiving conference honors as a true frosh in 2010. Washington has plenty of quality depth behind them. Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson are big time rush ends which will give the Huskies a dimension they haven't had sine the early 1990's.
"He’s fast, (Josh Shirley) " said quarterback Keith Price, smiling, as usual. "He’s pretty fast. I tried to get him on the edge a couple times, and he got me today." Shirley got everyone during the scrimmage period. The redshirt freshman linebacker-defensive-end-hybrid recorded what would have been four sacks, unofficially – quarterbacks are off-limits to contact, so the whistle is blown when it becomes apparent the defense has the QB hemmed in – and showed why he just might be what the Huskies have been missing defensively.
Oregon - The Ducks lost both of their starting defensive tackles from 2010. It shouldn't hurt them much because they have recruited well and built layer after layer of experienced depth. Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert are all part of the rotation heading into fall drills. DE Terrell Turner returns after having a strong 2010. Dion Jordan locked down starting job on the other side this past spring. They will be backed up by Brandon Hanna and Tony Washington who both had good springs according to the coaches.
Of all the groups with major holes to fill this spring, the defensive line had the most encouraging month. Hart, Keliikipi and Heimuli proved to be a formidable rotation at the tackle spots, and sometimes played together with Hart shifting out to end, a la Bair. Keliikipi (back) and Heimuli (elbow) displayed toughness by practicing through injuries, and Hart is one of the more underrated guys on the team, as a former mid-level in-state recruit. Remington is another guy who looks cut from the Bair mold, capable of playing both tackle and end. Ebert is the more stout of the two former JC transfers, and fits well behind Keliikipi and Heimuli in the tackle/nose guard role.
Utah - The Utes have to replace a couple of starters but coach Whittingham seems to have the pieces in place to do that. NT Star Lotulelei is a potential star and plug in the middle. James Aiono will play beside him at the three technique. LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid backups. Out on the ends Derrick Shelby and the Kruger brothers are back along with Tevita Finau.
Just because there aren't any household names doesn't mean Utah isn't loaded on the defensive line. The Utes once again boast ample size, power, and overall talent in the trenches. Best of all, none of the ends or tackles have peaked in their potential. Lotulelei, Finau, and the Krugers are liable to begin maxing out at the same time, which would cause a world of problems for opposing Pac-12 offensive lines.
Stanford - The Cards run a 3-4 and there really isn't an obvious brick in the middle to replace NG Sione Fua who graduated. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson will battle it out for the job but since they don't have much experience there could be a big learning curve and a soft spot in the middle. Depth is lacking at DE so they are going to have to get creative with their line backing unit to help the depth. Matt Masifilo returns and Ben Gardneris slated to flank him. The Cards really can't afford any injuries out here.
The defensive line could be an area of legitimate concern for the Cardinal in 2011. Sure, some of the linebackers double as hybrid linemen, but that won't absolve the front three from doing their jobs. Someone other than Masifilo has to deliver on a consistent basis or else those second-level defenders will be making more stops than the staff would like.
UCLA - The Bruin defensive front were terrible last season. They were only 108th nationally against the run last season. Those numbers need to improve if UCLA wants to contend this season. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa were all highly recruited and now that they have some experience you would expect the numbers to improve. The return of DE Datone Jones to the line up is huge for the Bruins. Jones is a potential NFL type talent that the team missed last season after he went down with an injury. Damien Holmes will man the other side with Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Keenan Graham who have tremendous potential playing back up roles.
"One of our spring practice goals is to develop the defensive line and take it to the next level. Last season, a lot of our players saw their first significant action. Now we have some experience to build upon and this has become one of the most competitive positions on the field for us. Datone is healthy and can be one of the top ends in the Pac-10 and our leader in this area. The growth of our younger players like Holmes, Marsh, Owa, Tepa, Graham and Epenesa is going to be exciting to watch."
Colorado - DE Josh Hartigan played well in 2010 leading the Buff's with seven sacks. The coaches feel that he will hit a higher gear in 2011. Chidera Uzo-Diribe will line up on the other side. He also has experience from last season and is capable of getting after the quarterback. Will Pericak has started 24 games at tackle. Conrad Obi and Nate Bonsu will share time at the nose. Obi had a great spring while Bonsu is bouncing back from an injury.
This will once again be a blue-collar group that operates with a non-stop motor. The linemen will scrap all year, generating pressure and making it difficult for opponents to run the ball with consistency. A classic case of the sum being greater than its parts, the Buffalo line is an underrated group that’ll make life a little simpler for the back seven.
Oregon State - Stephen Paea, Brennan Olander, and Gabe Miller are gone leaving some big holes on a defense that wasn't really good at stopping the run last season.You can probably blame a lot of that on the linebackers but there is no question the Beavers are going to be even more challenged this season. Dominic Glover has moved inside to man one of defensive tackle positions. The massive 340 lb Castro Masaniaicould be a plug in the middle if his shoulder heals. Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motte will be the main backups. Out on the ends Taylor Henry and Scott Chrichton will battle it out with JC transfers Rusty Fernando and Blake Harrah.
Major improvement is needed at every position - and some unfamiliar names must step up and become impact players - if Oregon State expects to return to the days when it had one of the fastest, meanest, search-and-destroy units in the league led by a cadre of players who (drum roll please) weren't four and five-star athletes coming out of HS but fit perfectly into Banker's system.
Arizona - The dominating DE tandem of Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore have graduated and that leaves some big holes in the Wildcat defense. C.J. Parrish and Mohammed Usman will be stepping in to fill the void but there will be a learning curve because of a lack of experience.DT Justin Washington was impressive at times last season. Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010 and has good size and potential. Depth is a problem so these guys need to stay healthy for Arizona to have success. Willie Mobley, who began his career at Ohio State, was in line to be a backup at defensive tackle tore up his knee playing basketball and is out for the season.
Arizona’s inexperience on the defensive line, combined with an even-greener group of offensive linemen, gives the Wildcats potential trouble in the trenches on both sides.
Washington State - I really like DE Travis Long. He played well last season and was a big part of the jelling and resurgence at the end of last season. JC transfer Ian Knight will compete for a job on the other side. There is some experienced depth behind them. Brandon Rankin and Anthony Laurenzi were the two top tackles after spring practices. Toni Pole could press Ranking for his starting job because obviously every job is open on a team that was one of the worst nationally against the rush in 2010.
Paul Wulff made it no secret that adding some guys who could rush the quarterback was a high priority, and he did that by signing a trio of JC players who theoretically should be able to compete immediately. Smart fans have learned to dial down their expectations of JC transfers, but could one of these guys resemble the sort of speed rusher we haven't seen in nearly a decade? Also: Can Long become a force of the edge? He doesn't have elite explosion, but as a junior, it's time for him to give the Cougs a little more in terms of pressure than he has in the past.