Oregon Ducks: Xavier Cooper

You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division. We've already done offense for the South and North divisions. Wednesday we looked at defenses in the South.

Next up: North Division defensive three-headed monsters.

1. Stanford

LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson, S Jordan Richards

The skinny: The Cardinal lose their top tackler (Shayne Skov) and top sack guy (Trent Murphy). But there are others ready to take control. Tarpley has long been one of the league’s most underappreciated linebackers (93 tackles last season) and Anderson’s return boosts a front seven that should continue to party in the backfield. Richards is solid at one safety spot, though there are some questions about who will play opposite him. The Cardinal still boast the top defense in the league until proven otherwise.

2. Washington

LB Shaq Thompson, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, DB Marcus Peters

The skinny: The Huskies have some losses, like everyone else in the country, but there is plenty of talent coming back for the new coaching staff to work with. That returning production is enough to slot them No. 2. Thompson continues to get better with each season and appears on the verge of a breakout year. Kikaha has not-so-quietly turned into one of the Pac-12’s most feared rushers (13 sacks last season) and Peters is back after making five interceptions last season. They lose some leadership with the departure of Sean Parker and there's some question marks in the secondary. But this should be a salty group in 2014.

3. Oregon

LB Derrick Malone, DE/OLB Tony Washington, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

The skinny: Despite losing Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Terrance Mitchell, the secondary still boasts one of the top defensive backs in the country in Ekpre-Olomu. Mitchell led the team with five picks in 2013, but a lot of teams opted not to test Ekpre-Olomu. Malone is back after making 105 tackles, and Rodney Hardrick should be on his heels as top tackler. The linebackers should be a strength. Washington returns after recording 7.5 sacks to go with 12 tackles for a loss. Now, if they could just get off the dang field on third down ...

4. Oregon State

S Tyrequek Zimmerman, DE Dylan Wynn, CB Steven Nelson

The skinny: Zimmerman brings his 104 tackles back from last season and the return of OLB Michael Doctor, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, should be a nice boost. Replacing the production of Scott Crichton and his 7.5 sacks will be difficult. Linebacker D.J. Alexander and Wynn should see their share of time in the backfield. Nelson, a former junior college transfer, had a spectacular first season with the Beavers with a team-high six interceptions (tied with Rashaad Reynolds) and eight breakups.

5. Washington State

LB Darryl Monroe, DT Xavier Cooper, ?

The skinny: Do-all safety Deone Bucannon is gone after leading the team in tackles (114) and interceptions (6). He was an All-American for a reason. Monroe is an obvious choice for tackles, and Cooper is the obvious choice for sacks. But the secondary is wide open. Mike Leach has essentially said all four spots in the secondary are up for grabs. Clouding the issues is the future of cornerback Daquawn Brown, who has legitimate experience but also some legal hurdles to overcome.

6. California

S Michael Lowe, LB Jalen Jefferson, S Avery Sebastian?

The skinny: We all know about the defensive injury issues the Bears had last season, which is why Lowe returns as the leading tackler and tied for the lead in interceptions with one (the Bears only had five all last season). Jefferson returns with the most sacks, and Kyle Kragen appears to be a good fit for the scheme. (Remember when Kameron Jackson had three in one game!) We’ll see how oft-injured but talented Stefan McClure fares at safety. Getting Sebastian back from injury will help in the secondary. The pass rush should be improved with Brennan Scarlett’s return.
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Coach Rich Rodriguez is confident in both Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato and anxious to get junior-college transfers Jeff Worthy, who also spent a year at Boise State, and Jerod Cody acclimated to the system. Calvin Allen, Jack Banda and Luca Bruno are coming off redshirt seasons and represent a group Rodriguez said the team needs production from.

Arizona State: With the departure of Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman, there is a question about the team's depth at end. Without Will Sutton clogging things up next year, the Sun Devils' lack of experience is even more of a concern. Sean O'Grady backed up Conway and Coleman last year, but ASU has several well-regarded junior-college transfers in Edmond Boateng, Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry.

California: The Bears list seven defensive ends, but former junior-college transfer Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa gained the most experience last season listed at the rush position. Antione Davis was outgoing starter Dan Camporeale's primary backup, but Brennan Scarlett's return is more important. He started nine games in 2012 and has been cleared to play following a hand issue that cost him the 2013 season. Todd Barr, Sione Sina and recent-transfer Jonathan Johnson are also in the mix.

Colorado: Colorado must replace Chidera Uzo-Diribe, but Juda Parker is back for his senior season, and several others have game experience. Samson Kafovalu is the likely candidate to start opposite him after making 18 tackles in seven games last year. Jimmie Gilbert was Uzo-Diribe's backup, Kirk Poston and De'Jon Wilson also played.

Oregon: The Ducks took a hit with the departure of Taylor Hart, who was named second-team All-Pac-12, but have a talented player in Arik Armstead lined up to take his spot. Armstead started five times in 2013 and left the basketball team midseason to shift his focus back to football. T.J. Daniel, Jason Sloan are projected to be in the mix for playing time.

Oregon State: Scott Crichton is gone, but Dylan Wynn remains and will likely be the Beavers' best defensive player a year after finishing fourth on the team in tackles. Lavonte Barnett, Crichton's primary backup in 2013, and Jaswha James figure to compete for the starting job, but there are two others to keep an eye on. Obum Gwacham recently switched from receiver and Mike Riley has been complimentary of Titus Failauga, who is coming off his redshirt.

Stanford: Henry Anderson has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the conference and Blake Lueders, who switched from OLB, began the spring atop the depth chart. The intriguing prospect is Luke Kaumatule, who was recruited to play defense but began 2013 as the team's starting tight end. Spring will be important for his development, but his raw ability is impressive.

UCLA: Both Ellis McCarthy and Eddie Vanderdoes were all-Pac-12 honorable mention last season and highlight a talented UCLA defensive line. Their return will help account for the loss of Cassius Marsh, who started 12 games last year. Both McCarthy and Vanderdoes can play inside or outside, but the Bruins listed them both at end. Highly recruited DE Kylie Fitts saw playing time as a true freshman last season.

USC: Leonard Williams, the only sophomore named first-team all-Pac-12 on defense last season, is the best in the conference. Delvon Simmons, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech, has a lot of game experience. He started 12 games for the Red Raiders in 2012 and had regular playing time as a freshman there in 2011. Both Simmons and J.R. Tavai, who was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection, can play inside or outside.

Utah: There's no replacing Trevor Reilly, who made 100 tackles despite lingering effects from a torn ACL, but Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick both saw extensive playing time last season. The Utes have five other defensive ends on the roster, but of that group only LT Filiaga made a tackle last season.

Washington: The Huskies are in great shape with the return of Hau'oli Kikaha, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, Cory Littleton and Evan Hudson. Josh Shirley has 10 career starts, while Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching provide depth.

Washington State: With Toni Pole expected to move back inside, the depth chart will look similar to how it did going into last season, minus Matt Bock. After making 50 tackles last year, Xavier Cooper will start on one side, with Destiny Vaeao and Lyman Faoliu strong candidates for more playing time. Emmitt Su'a-Kalio is coming off a redshirt, and the Cougars also signed a pair of defensive ends from Hawaii in Kingston Fernandez and Hercules Mata'afa.

Previous positions

Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
11:00
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Taking stock of Week 4 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: While the Pac-12 blog has been hard on Stanford for giving up 21 unanswered points to Arizona State in the fourth quarter, the fact remains the Cardinal posted a two-touchdown win over a ranked team. And that first half showed folks why Stanford is a national title contender. Need to tighten some things up? Absolutely. But Stanford at its best has plenty of irresistible force and unmovable object to it.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsWill Oregon State QB Sean Mannion miss coach Danny Langsdorf, who is heading to the NFL? Sure, but it shouldn't affect his production.
Best game: Oregon State fans let out a massive, "Whew," after the Beavers overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit at San Diego State and won 34-30. While the game was far from pretty, it was a win, and the Beavers seem like a team right now that should just be grateful to collect one. Further, the weekend was otherwise devoid of nail-biters, though USC allowed Utah State to stay unnecessarily close.

Biggest play: Oregon State's defense has been mostly horrible, but it provided the winning margin against San Diego State when CB Steven Nelson returned an interception 16 yards for a TD with 2:31 remaining. The play might have saved the Beavers' season.

Offensive standout: Oregon State can't run the ball or play defense, but QB Sean Mannion can throw the rock around with WR Brandin Cooks. Mannion completed 38 of 55 passes for 367 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Beavers' comeback win over San Diego State. Cooks was his chief weapon, catching 14 passes for 141 yards.

Defensive standout: Utah State couldn't block USC DT Leonard Williams, who had eight tackles with three coming for a loss in the Trojans' 17-14 win over Chuckie Keeton and the Aggies. The Trojans held a previously potent offense to just 285 total yards.

Defensive standout II: Sure, it came against woeful Idaho, but Washington State DT Xavier Cooper dominated inside. Of his five total tackles, 3.5 came for a loss, including 1.5 sacks. He was a key part of a surging defense that held the Vandals to 253 total yards. LB Darryl Monroe, who led the Cougars with 12 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, also merits note.

Special-teams standout: Think you had a long Saturday? Utah punter Tom Hackett punted 11 times for the Utes against BYU, averaging 44.2 yards per boot with a long of 61 yards, though that one was returned 58 yards to the Utah 13. That's 486 yards of punting from the Australian! Three were downed inside the Cougars' 20-yard line. G'day to that.

Frowny face: USC and Oregon State were both ranked in the preseason but both appear to be significantly flawed. The Trojans can't do anything on offense, and the Beavers are struggling on defense. Hmm. Maybe if they combined forces we could generate another national title contender?

Smiley face: The Pac-12 is 29-4 in nonconference play, including 21-3 against FBS teams, with just three matchups with Notre Dame left to play. That is by far the most distinguished mark in the nation. Remember when the Mountain West Conference was -- rightfully -- talking smack about the Pac-12? Well, the Pac-12 is 10-0 versus the MWC this year.

Thought of the week: While the season is only hitting the quarter pole, we should learn a little about the conference's South Division contenders -- and pretenders -- this weekend. Arizona has played three overmatched foes and was off over the weekend. The visit to Washington should be revealing. We have no idea who the Wildcats really are. They seem much improved on defense and limited throwing the ball. A victory over the Huskies would thrust them into the top 25 and announce them as contenders in the South Division. Meanwhile, the Arizona State-USC game also seems to serve as a critical separation game in the South.

Questions for the week: Will Lane Kiffin's last stand be in the desert? If Kiffin and the Trojans prevail and improve to 4-1, Kiffin might buy himself some goodwill -- and top-25 votes. The season would still offer plenty of hope. If the Trojans lose, they will fall to 0-2 in the conference, a major hole in the division race. At that point, reporters covering the Trojans likely would start writing speculative articles about USC's next coach.

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12