Spring practice has come and gone. So we’re taking a look at each team’s position groups and projecting them as being in either “Great shape,” “Good shape” or “We’ll see.” Remember that the last category isn’t necessarily bad. It means what it says … we’ll see.
Up next are the Pac-12 South division’s linebackers.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils were in great shape before the spring, and that’s where they remain with their top two tacklers from 2015 – Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam – back for another season. DJ Calhoun and – a name from the past – Carlos Mendoza should provide depth in the middle. Koron Crump and Marcus Ball had a nice spring battle at “spur” linebacker, while A.J. Latu fills out the “devil backer” spot. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Malik Lawal and sophomore Khaylan Thomas, a pair who impressed this spring.
UCLA: Jayon Brown emerged in the wake of Myles Jack’s injury last season and went on to lead the Bruins with 93 tackles. He’s joined in the middle by Kenny Young, who pitched in 69 stops and five tackles for a loss. Deon Hollins posted only 18 stops, but was still second-team all-conference with 4.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries. Also back is Isaako Savaiinaea, who posted 62 tackles. It’s an experienced group with young talent like Josh Woods and Mique Juarez likely ready to contribute immediately.
Colorado: The Buffs have switched to a 3-4 base defense, and they already have some good depth across the board with key players back like Derek McCartney, Kenneth Olugbode, Jimmie Gilbert and Rick Gamboa. Many in Boulder also are excited for the return of Addison Gillam – a true freshman monster in 2013 who has been plagued by injury since. Other players like Christian Shaver, Deaysean Rippy and Ryan Severson give the Buffs some solid depth across all four spots.
Arizona: The Wildcats still haven’t necessarily identified what their base defense is going to be. But even in the old regime, before Marcel Yates came aboard, the Wildcats were technically a 3-3-5 but often times were multiple. If they settle into the 4-2-5 that Yates ran at Boise State, DeAndre' Miller fits the OLB position. Cody Ippolito is back in the middle after missing last season with an ACL injury. Paul Magloire has experience at safety and linebacker, though he ended 2015 at the linebacker spot. Jake Matthews should also be back after a season-ending injury against Utah last year. Those four have quality experience. But depth is still an issue. RJ Morgan and Derrick Turituri (who also missed last season) will try to fill in some gaps.
USC: The Trojans are in this category because we’re waiting to see how things comes together in the new/old/new-again 5-2 scheme with new/old/new-again defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Cameron Smith, a freshman All-American and the Pac-12’s defensive freshman of the year last season, returns after posting 78 tackles with three interceptions. He’s regarded as one of the top middle linebackers in the league. Michael Hutchings, Olajuwon Tucker and Uchenna Nwosu should contribute in the middle. On the outside, the backers will step up closer to the line where they can either rush off the edge or drop back into coverage. Look for Jabari Ruffin, Porter Gustin and Osa Masina to work in at these roles.
Utah: The defensive front is outstanding. The secondary is deep and experienced. But the linebackers in the middle is the one area of the defense we’re still not sure about. Kyle Whittingham said he needs “two pairs and a spare” to make up his linebacking corps. Since the Utes play so much nickel, they are typically basing with two linebackers at a time (he recently called their old 4-3 base scheme "ancient.") Sunia Tauteoli came out of the spring as the “No. 1” linebacker with Cody Barton at No. 2. Fall camp will be the time to find the second pair plus the spare.