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 Linebacking Corps for 2012
1. Stanford – If Shayne Skov returns to full strength from an ACL tear, the Cardinal could have the nation’s best linebacking corps. Skov suffered the injury early last year; when healthy, he is an All-America candidate. He will serve a one-game suspension due to an off-the-field incident in early February. Chase Thomas earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season and led the conference with 17.5 tackles for a loss. Stanford is well-stocked with depth at this position, as Jarek Lancaster, AJ Tarpley, Trent Murphy and James Vaughters will all be in the mix for playing time at the other two starting spots. True freshman Noor Davis is a potential impact newcomer but may have trouble getting snaps with the players ahead of him on the depth chart.
2. Oregon – This could be Chip Kelly's best defense during his tenure in Eugene and it will likely be due to the stacked roster of linebackers. Michael Clay doesn’t have prototype size but is a leader and is lightning quick from sideline-to-sideline in the middle. Kiko Alonso has had his issues with focus but has elite level upside and raw talent. He showed just how good he could be in the Rose Bowl performance last year against Wisconsin. Boseko Lokombo will hold down the strongside with elite level ability of his own. If you also count Dion Jordan, who plays a hybrid end/backer, then this group could be considered one of the nation’s elite. A loaded depth chart of talent will allow Kelly to rotate in plenty of bodies — like he wants to do.
3. USC – Playing with youth — aka three freshman — last year will prove to be beneficial in 2012. Dion Bailey was better than anticipated and has a chance at All-American honors. He and Hayes Pullard are fast and can cover a lot of ground for Monte Kiffin. Lamar Dawson looks to be the starter up the middle this fall after starting the final four games of last year. This trio is as talented as any starting threesome in the league (or nation, for that matter) but will the youthful exuberance cost the Trojans in key situations? Only time will tell, however, these aren’t an ordinary set of sophomores. The depth chart is talented as well, but like the starters, still very green.
4. UCLA – Damien Holmes and Patrick Larimore return to the starting lineup with loads of playing time and starting experience under their belts. Holmes switch to linebacker from end makes him a potential pass-rush star. It might also allow opposing offenses to expose other aspects of his game. The most intriguing name for UCLA will be Eric Kendricks, the younger brother of former Cal star Mychal. He was only a redshirt freshman last year but was stellar. He could be one of the Bruins best in years. Fellow senior Jordan Zumwalt gives Kendricks three starting seniors surrounding him. Like most areas of the UCLA team, this unit has talent and upside — but simply hasn’t lived-up to expectations. 2012 could be different.
5. Colorado – Coming off a 3-10 season and only three starters returning on offense, there’s not much to be excited about in Boulder for 2012. Colorado has ranked near the bottom in most of Athlon’s Pac-12 unit rankings, but the Buffaloes have a chance to rank in the top half in linebackers. All three starters return from last season, including potential all-conference candidates in Douglas Rippy and Jon Major. Rippy suffered a torn ACL in the seventh game of last year but all signs point to a return to full strength. Major recorded 85 stops in 2011, while junior Derrick Webb is back after posting 54 tackles last year.
6. California – Just like the defensive line, the Golden Bears suffered some key losses but also have some promising players ready to step into the starting lineup. The biggest loss is Mychal Kendricks, who earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. D.J. Holt will also be missed after recording honorable mention all-conference honors in 2011. With two performers gone, coordinator Clancy Pendergast needs a big season from sophomore outside linebacker Chris McCain. He has a chance to be one of the top breakout players in the conference this year. Look for sophomore Nick Forbes and senior Robert Mullins to anchor the interior. Despite the losses, California’s linebackers should rank in the top half of the conference.
7. Utah – The Utes return only one starter in the linebacking corps but there seems to be little concern from the coaching staff about the performance of this unit. Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker departed after a solid 2011 campaign, but the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kalani Sitake. Trevor Reilly is a breakout candidate to watch after recording 47 tackles and five sacks last year. Sophomore V.J. Fehoko played in eight games last season and will be required to take on a bigger role in 2012. The rover spot in the linebacking corps is up for grabs, as sophomore Jacoby Hale and redshirt freshman LT Filiaga left spring practice locked into a tight battle.
8. Oregon State – Feti Unga and Michael Doctor return to the starting lineup and have a chance to reverse a recent Oregon State linebacker trend. This has been an area of concern of late, but 2012 could be different. Unga will lock down the middle while Doctor and fellow outside tackler D.J. Welch, have the athleticism to be very productive. With improved defensive line play, this group could finally be a strength of the team.
9. Washington – The Huskies are switching to a 3-4 scheme, which will put even more emphasis on this unit’s performance in 2012. New linebacker coach Peter Sirmon will have his hands full, especially after Cort Dennison’s eligibility expired after the 2011 season. The Huskies return two starters, including junior Princeton Fuimaono and sophomore John Timu. The other two spots could go to junior Taz Stevenson and senior Nate Fellner, but don’t rule out sophomore Jamaal Kearse from making a push for snaps.
10. Arizona – The Wildcats didn’t have much to celebrate about the defense’s performance last year. Arizona ranked last in the Pac-12 in passing and total defense, while allowing 35.4 points a game. New coordinator Jeff Casteel should bring some improvement to the defense but plenty of question marks exist. The linebacking corps has been an issue for the past couple of years and may not be much better in 2012. Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo expired their eligibility at the end of 2011, while Akron transfer Brian Wagner decided to leave the team after spring practice. There is a bit of good news for Casteel: Jake Fischer is back after missing all of 2011 with a knee injury. Fischer started in 2010 and should be the unit’s best player. Rob Hankins and Hank Hobson will likely start at the other two spots.
11. Arizona State – This group was decimated in the offseason as the top four linebackers are gone. Getting outside backer Brandon McGee back from his torn Achilles will help new coach Todd Graham fill the void, but make no mistake, this unit has some holes. Steffon Martin should replace star-turned-disappointment/headache Vontaze Burfict inside and fans are hoping he lives up to his lofty junior college recruiting status from last cycle. Anthony Jones leads a host of upperclassmen hoping to earn reps under the new coaching staff.
12. Washington State – Hybrid Travis Long counted in the defensive line rankings for the Cougars, but he is likely the most important defensive player on the team. Long will contribute some to a unit that will have to account for unexpected losses from players (C.J. Mizell, Sekope Kaufusi) who were kicked off the team. Eric Oertel and Darryl Monroe will get the first crack at starting and showed some promise in the spring. Chester Su’a is penciled in as a starter as well. Depth will be the real issue for Mike Leach in year one.
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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