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30 Day Countdown - Day 20: PAC 12 Defensive Player of the Year Predictions

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The PAC 12 has intriguing defensive stars competing for the title.

Oregon State v Washington
Vita Vea won the 2017 PAC 12 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Let’s get after it talking about PAC 12 defenses today, shall we?

Washington v Utah
Kevin King knows how many days we have left before the season kicks off.

As we consider who might be the best candidates for PAC 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, it is helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t about who is the best defensive player in the conference.

Recent history has plenty of examples of that. In 2014, Arizona’s Scooby Wright won the award despite the fact that UW DL/LB Hau’oli Kikaha (72 tackles, 25 TFLs, 19 sacks) was hands down the best defensive player in the conference. The year prior, ASU DL Will Sutton won his second award in a season where UW’s Marcus Peters had five interceptions, 14 passes broken up, a pick six, and 3.5 TFLs from his CB position. In 2010, OSU’s Stephen Paea, with a whopping 6 sacks, beat out UW’s Mason Foster who had 105 solo tackles (168 overall) to go along with 14 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles, 1 INT, and two blocked kicks. Oh, and he had 6 and a half sacks himself.

Just to show you that I’m not biased, I would even point out that a case could be made that Vita Vea may have been the second best defender in the PAC a year ago after WSU’s Hercules Mata’afa (22.5 TFLs, 10.5 sacks).

So, lesson learned: the best player isn’t necessarily the right player for this exercise.

A couple of other things need to be emphasized. There are basically three kinds of players that have won the majority of the awards:

  1. The uber-athletic defensive back who picks off passes and scores TDs (think Adoree Jackson here)
  2. The havoc-creating defensive lineman who, more times than not (but not always) has big TFL and sack numbers (Will Sutton, DeForest Buckner, Jason Chorak, Steve Emtman, Vita Vea, and Terrell Suggs)
  3. The overachieving inside linebacker who “does it all” (like Mychal Kendricks, Scooby Wright, and Rey Maualuga)

Oh, and one other thing, PAC 12 DPOYs tend to play for any team not named the Cardinal. Stanford has never had a DPOY (nor has Utah or Colorado, but that is more a function of time).

So, with that in mind, let’s build out our candidate pool, shall we?

Option 1 - Byron Murphy, UW Defensive Back

If you scan the league leaders in total passes defenced (breakups and INTs) from a year ago, Murphy is in the top four of returning starters (with 11 total) despite the fact that he played in just 6 games.

Montana v Washington
A few more of these and UW’s Byron Murphy will be well on his way to a DPOY award.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Projected over a full year, Murphy has a chance to put up enormous numbers from his cornerback position. He has the dynamic athleticism that both seems to attract the attention of voters and enables defensive scoring opportunities — always a plus in these kinds of exercises. There is also a very good chance that Murphy may be the best punt returner on the roster, though his injury history might give coaches pause to use him in that manner.

There are other great defensive backs in the conference to keep eyes on. ASU’s Chase Lucas, Oregon’s Thomas Graham, Arizona’s Lorenzo Burns (led the PAC with 5 INTs last year), and UCLA’s Nate Meadors are all names to watch.

Option 2 - Jalen Jelks, Oregon Defensive End

Jelks looks like the one of those guys who has the great chance to take over the title from Mata’afa as the conference’s most disruptive defensive lineman. The 6’6” 245-lb senior put up some solid numbers in his breakout season last year with 15 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and a blocked kick. He also, interestingly enough, was the league leader in passes defensed among non-defensive backs with seven.

Those numbers would have to be improved upon in order for him to be seriously considered as a DPOY candidate—something more along the lines of what Mata’afa put up last year. But he has an opportunity to do just that if he can improve his stamina and his every-play effort levels. The talent and athleticism are certainly there.

Option 3 - Cameron Smith, USC Inside Linebacker

Though he certainly fills the role of “does everything” linebacker, Smith might just win the DPOY award based on his lifetime service. The senior captain of USC’s defense has been a four-year starter despite not possessing the kind of size or athleticism that you’d expect from a USC player in that position.

Notre Dame v USC
Cam Smith is a four year starter at USC.
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Over the course of three seasons, Smith has posted 275 career tackles, four career INTs, 19 career TFLs, and three career sacks. Those aren’t really overwhelming numbers, especially after you consider that some ILBs in the conference post half that number of tackles in just one season. Smith hasn’t really excelled in anything at a remarkable rate. As an example, he’s forced only one fumble over his entire career.

However, Smith needs to be considered a serious candidate in the case that the conference doesn’t produce a player with a remarkable set of stats. Voters can be sentimental when it comes to seniors, especially high character players like Smith. Numbers can sometimes be completely disregarded (assuming they are serviceable) if the voters are emotionally invested in a player. Smith could fit that bill.

Option 4 - Christian Rector, USC Defensive End

Rector broke out last year as a sophomore and comes into 2018 as one of the top pass rushers in the conference. The 275-lb end is a big guy who showed good instincts both as a run stuffer and pass rusher (7.5 sacks, 11.5 TFLs). His stats were impressive, especially after you consider he didn’t really start playing until week 3 and played some of the year with a broken hand.

He is unusual for USC in that he is a three-star recruit in a position through which the Trojans usually parade five-star talents. If he can stay healthy and build off what he did a year ago, he could very well surpass Jelks as the premier D-end in the conference.

Option 5 - Jaelan Phillips, UCLA Defensive End

We have to talk about Phillips, a player that many people recognize as having perhaps the highest ceiling of any defensive player in the entire conference.

The super-athletic defensive end struggled through a series of ups and downs as a true freshman. He was good enough to start four games, but couldn’t make it through the season healthy. Nevertheless he led the team with 3.5 sacks.

Phillips may not be fully healthy to start the season. An offseason scooter accident led to two surgeries on his wrist. That said, his talent is too immense to ignore. If he is healthy, he is a prime candidate for a breakout season.

others considered - Troy Dye, LB, Oregon; Taylor Rapp, S, Washington; Colin Schooler, LB, Arizona; Julian Blackmon, DB, Utah; Tony Fields, LB, Arizona; Chase Lucas, DB, Arizona; Bradlee Anae, DE, Utah; Drew Lewis, LB, Colorado; Jalen Thompson, S, WSU

Poll

Who is the best candidate to win PAC 12 DPOY in 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 59%
    Byron Murphy, UW
    (469 votes)
  • 4%
    Jalen Jelks, Oregon
    (36 votes)
  • 6%
    Cam Smith, USC
    (52 votes)
  • 2%
    Christian Rector, USC
    (17 votes)
  • 2%
    Jaelan Phillips, UCLA
    (22 votes)
  • 23%
    Someone else?
    (187 votes)
783 votes total Vote Now