Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.
Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.
Ranking the Pac-12's Defensive Lines for 2012
1. Oregon – Utah should have a strong defensive line in 2012, but a slight edge goes to the Ducks as the Pac-12’s top group. End Dion Jordan earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last year after collecting 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Taylor Hart was solid last season, recording 44 stops and 2.5 sacks. He is expected to start at end, but could also see snaps on the interior. Isaac Remington and Wade Keliikipi are expected to start at tackle, while Ricky Heimuli and Jared Ebert will see playing time. Arik Armstead ranked as the No. 8 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and will be expected to contribute to the rotation this year. This group allowed 142.8 rushing yards per game last season but also led the Pac-12 with 45 sacks.
2. Utah – When you have a Star of this caliber up front on the defensive line, you will always have a chance to win. The Utes finished in the top 30 nationally in sacks, finished 1st in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and 20th in America against the run (3rd in the Pac-12). And it all starts with All-American nose tackle, and reigning Morris Trophy winner Star Lotulelei. Add in two more returning upperclassmen in tackle Dave Kruger and end Joe Kruger, and Kyle Whittingham has one of the most stable front lines in the nation. Nate Fakakafua and Niasi Leota, among others, will compete for the final starting spot at end. This is a veteran group that could easily end up being the Pac-12’s best unit.
3. USC – This unit easily has the most question marks of any on the Trojans’ defense. Three starters have expired their eligibility, including first-team All-Pac-12 end Nick Perry. Tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris were underrated and will be missed against the run. Although this unit is a concern, the cupboard isn’t bare. Seniors Devon Kennard and Wes Horton will anchor the end spots, with junior college transfer Morgan Breslin and redshirt freshman Greg Townsend providing depth. George Uko is a player to watch after recording 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks as a freshman in 2011. The other tackle spot will likely go to sophomore J.R. Tavai. However, look for Antwaun Woods, Leonard Williams and Christian Heyward to figure into the mix. This group will be young and depth is a concern. However, if USC avoids injuries and can work some of the young players into the mix, this unit should be solid in 2012.
4. Stanford – Two of the three starters will return for a unit that helped Stanford lead the Pac-12 in rushing defense — good for third best nationally behind only Alabama and Florida State. End Ben Gardner has been receiving rave reviews from his coaching staff and should be one of the league’s top edge players. Senior tackle Terrence Stephens also returns to a line that was second in the Pac-12 in sacks a year ago. Replacing Matt Masifilo will be key, but Josh Mauro and Henry Anderson look capable of filling the void. Much like the offensive line, David Shaw has recruited incredibly well along the D-line and should have plenty of contributors in the 2012 class.
5. California – Even with the departure of ends Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu, this unit should still perform at a high level in 2012. The Golden Bears ranked fourth in the Pac-12 against the run last season and allowed only 17 rushing scores. Deandre Coleman and Mustafa Jalil are expected to assume the starting spots at end and both will be breakout players to watch in 2012. Coleman recorded 19 tackles and two sacks in limited time last year, while Jalil made 13 stops. Coleman is an Athlon Sports third-team All-Pac-12 selection for 2012. Senior Aaron Tipoti anchors the interior, while Kendrick Payne and Viliami Moala will provide depth.
6. UCLA – If fans want to pinpoint one sleeper defensive line that could totally shock the league in 2012 - it might be UCLA. The level of talent throughout this D-line depth chart is outstanding. But the Bruins finishing 11th in rushing defense and 11th in sacks in the Pac-12 last season isn’t getting the job done. Elite recruits Cassius Marsh, Datone Jones, Brandon Willis, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and incoming freshman Ellis McCarthy has as much ability as any team in this league. Developing this talent and playing sound football up front will go along way to improving the UCLA defense. Look for the new toughness Jim Mora Jr. is instilling to pay off in this group the most this fall.
7. Washington – The biggest difference between Washington and its North Division counterparts has been defense. And it starts up front with a rebuilt defensive line. Getting sophomore end Hau’oli Jamara back healthy should be a huge step in the right direction, while fellow sophomore Josh Shirley should be improved as well. Danny Shelton, should he get the start at nose tackle, gives the new Husky defensive staff three sophomores along its three-man front. The good news for a team that ranked 76th in rushing defense and allowed at least 65 points twice last year is the veterans on the depth chart. Talia Crichton and Semisi Tokolahi are seniors who have experience. Line coach Tosh Lupoi is one of the nation’s best, but he has his work cut out for him with this talented but youthful group.
8. Oregon State – The Beavers ranked dead last in rushing defense last fall by allowing 196.8 yards per game. Needless to say, the interior of the defense has to play better if Mike Riley expects his team to return to the postseason. Scott Crichton and Andrew Seumalo have the end spots anchored for now and should be improved. But Castro Masaniai or Mana Rosa — or whoever else gets a shot — has to provide some toughness up the middle for Oregon State to improve in this area. Or it could be a another long season on defense for the Beavs.
9. Arizona State – With a new coach taking over and only eight combined returning starters, it’s likely to be a rebuilding year for the Sun Devils in 2012. The line lost two solid contributors – end Jamaar Jarrett and tackle Bo Moos – and the linebacking corps must be revamped. One bit of good news for Arizona State’s defensive line is the status of end Junior Onyeali. He missed spring practice due to a suspension but is on track to return to the team in August. Junior Davon Coleman (42 tackles, 2.5 sacks in 2011) is expected to start opposite of Onyeali at end. The interior is in good shape, led by junior Will Sutton and senior Corey Adams. Junior college transfer Mike Pennel was a key pickup for coach Todd Graham and his size (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) should help the Sun Devils stuff the run in 2012. This unit has a lot of question marks but could end up as a strength if Onyeali stays out of the doghouse, and Pennel lives up to the hype.
10. Washington State – With Mike Leach’s arrival in Pullman, there’s no question the Cougars are going to score plenty of points in 2012. However, getting to a bowl game could rest heavily on how much the defense improves this year. Washington State is switching to a 3-4 scheme, with standout Travis Long moving to a rush end position. Long should be one of the conference’s best defenders in 2012 and will easily top last season’s numbers (42 tackles and 4 sacks). Senior Anthony Laurenzi and freshman Xavier Cooper are expected to start at end, while Kalafitoni Pole will start at nose tackle. The Cougars allowed 157.2 rushing yards per game and ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense last year. Both of those numbers must decrease in 2012 if Washington State wants to make a run at seven wins.
11. Colorado – When the first line of the Athlon Sports breakdown reads “this is the most depleted are of the team,” you know you’ve got issues up front. Three names return with experience up front in senior tackle Will Pericak, jack-back hybrid Chidera Uzo-Diribe and sophomore end Juda Parker. Big things will be expected from a freshman class that includes Josh Tupou, Kisima Jagne and Tyler Henington. Any time three freshmen are filling the top six slots on your depth chart, you could be in a long season.
12. Arizona – A year after ranking 33rd nationally against the run and recording 33 sacks, the Wildcats slumped to finish last in the Pac-12 in pass and total defense. Arizona’s rush defense allowed an average of 161.6 yards per game in 2012 and registered a paltry 10 sacks all season. New defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has a lot of work to do to get this unit playing at a high level, and that task will be even tougher with the return of only four starters. C.J. Parish (32 tackles) and Mohammed Usman (19) have expired their eligibility, leaving very little depth at end. Senior Willie Mobley missed all of 2011 with a knee injury, but his return should help this unit. Junior Sione Tuihalamaka is the favorite to start at the other end spot in Arizona’s 3-3-5 scheme. Tackle Justin Washington was one of the Pac-12’s biggest disappointments last year, but will have an opportunity to thrive under the new coaching staff. This unit should be better than it was last year, but there may be a transition period as this team moves from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5.
Related Pac-12 Content
Ranking the Pac-12's Offensive Lines for 2012
Ranking the Pac-12's Wide Receiving Corps for 2012
Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections
College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012
Athlon's 2012 All-Pac-12 Team
Top 25 Pac-12 Heisman Contenders for 2012
Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Predictions