Joseph Wicker

Pac-12 defensive line rankings

How does Arizona State's defensive line stack up against its Pac-12 counterparts? SunDevilSource ranked the defensive line units from top to bottom around the Pac-12 to provide you with a greater perspective.

To download this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Report' podcast and listen to our 'Pac-12 Preview: Wide receivers and tight ends' episode, click here.

As the spring comes to a close and the summer arrives, SunDevilSource will provide broader context for our Arizona State player capsules and player preparedness and potential grades by embarking on a podcast series that compares the Sun Devils' depth at various position groups to the rest of the teams around the Pac-12 conference.

Each week, SunDevilSource analysts Chris Karpman and Kerry Crowley will review position groups for each Pac-12 team, and draft the players from those groups in order of which players they would most like to have on their own hypothetical rosters. In each podcast, Chris and Kerry trade off picks in an effort to build the deepest team. 

After releasing their offensive line rankings earlier on Friday, the next installment of series features SunDevilSource's defensive line rankings. Because certain teams use edge rushers in both two and three-point stances, some hybrid players like USC's Porter Gustin and Washington State's Hercules Mata'afa were included as defensive linemen for the purposes of SunDevilSource's rankings while others like Washington's Azeem Victor and ASU's Koron Crump will be included in next week's linebacker rankings.

Defensive line rankings

1. Washington-- No team in the Pac-12 should be as strong in the trenches as the Washington Huskies this season, who have assembled our top offensive line as well. Even though Victor is considered a linebacker and the Huskies lose nose tackle Elijah Qualls, Chris Petersen's squad still returns two of the top defensive linemen in the conference, Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. It's more than just the alliteration in their names that make Vea and Gaines fun players, it's their impressive motors and strong fundamental technique. Vea had 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks last season while Gaines had 8.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as anchors along the interior of the Huskies' front. Washington also returns Connor O'Brien, who like Victor is more of an outside linebacker, but can also help the team from a three-point stance.

2. USC-- The Trojans soared up our rankings when we decided to include Gustin as a defensive lineman. One of the best ends in the Pac-12, Gustin is a tenacious edge player who plays with a downhill approach and is as stout against the run as any player of his size in the conference. USC also returns Rasheem Green, who posted 55 tackles and racked up 6.0 sacks a season ago and is poised for an even bigger season following the loss of Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a Second-Team All-Conference performer from a season ago. The Trojans restock their line as well as any team in conference, and that was made evident by the emergence of early enrollee, freshman Marlo Tuipulotu, who received high praise from Clay Helton this spring. Other contenders for playing time this season include Kenny Bigelow, Jacob Daniel and Malik Dorton.

3. Utah-- Much like USC, Utah is seemingly able to reload its talent on the defensive line year after year as the unit has become one of Kyle Whittingham's strongest. While the Utes lost Hunter Dimick --one of SunDevilSource's favorite players to watch-- Utah returns Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Bradlee Anae. Dimick was a First Team All-Pac-12 performer, but Lotulelei and Mokofisi each earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors last season for a Utah team that led the conference in sacks and rushing defense. Even though the Utes also lose Pita Taumoepenu and Pasoni Tasini, it's hard to imagine Utah taking much of a step back in 2017.

4. Washington State-- The Cougars benefitted from our ranking committee's decision to consider Mata'afa a defensive lineman, because he's the unquestioned leader of a Washington State front that is fundamentally sound and exciting to watch. Last season, Mata'afa finished with 47 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, and displayed a contagious motor that set the tone for a Cougars' team that finished third in the conference in rushing defense. Washington State will unquestionably be hurt by the loss of defensive line coach Joe Salave'a who departed for Oregon this spring, because Salave'a recruited and developed the position so well during his time under Mike Leach. Aside from Mata'afa, the Cougars are expecting production from returners like Daniel Ekuale and Garrett McBroom, who combined for 35 tackles a season ago.

5. Arizona State-- Even though the committee considers Crump a linebacker, the Sun Devils still check in at the fifth slot in our defensive line rankings thanks to the return of multi-year starters Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker, the latter of whom was a Second Team All-Conference selection in 2016. Smallwood and Wicker are among the most experienced defensive linemen in the conference, and both players have the versatility to play multiple positions along the Sun Devils' defensive front. Aside from the veteran duo, ASU returns Renell Wren, who boasts an SEC body type and could be poised for a big season, and George Lea, who cut weight this spring in order to become a more viable option at nose tackle. If junior college transfer Doug Subtyl can make progress this fall, ASU could have more depth on its defensive line than the Sun Devils are accustomed to having.

6. Stanford-- The Cardinal defensive line took the biggest personnel hit of any group this offseason as Solomon Thomas departed for the NFL, becoming the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft. Thomas was a high-motor, high-energy player who set the tone for the Cardinal defense, but Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection Harrison Phillips has the chops to keep this unit playing at a high level. Though Stanford doesn't have much in the way of experience behind Phillips, the Cardinal are hoping a player like Dylan Jackson can emerge as a more consistent force. Stanford doesn't need its defensive line to be outstanding, because the Cardinal's linebacking corps is always among the best in the conference at stopping the run.

7. UCLA-- UCLA was hit hard by personnel turnover this offseason, as First Team All-Conference honoree Takk McKinley is off to play for the Atlanta Falcons while Eddie Vanderdoes is headed up north to play for the Oakland Raiders. Still, the Bruins have focused on building quality depth behind the stars that have carried the team's defense over the last few seasons, and players like Rick Wade, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson appear capable of stepping into starting roles this fall and learning on the job.

8. Cal-- After the season the Bears had defensively last year, it's almost inconceivable to rank Cal eighth, but that's the state of some of the lower-tier defensive lines around the conference. The one trait Cal has working in its favor is experience, because three starters are back along the defensive front and all three players --Cameron Saffle, Tony Mekari and James Looney-- put up respectable numbers last season. Looney even earned an Honorable Mention All-Conference selection, but still, don't let the production of this trio fool you, because opponents should still be able to run the ball against the Bears this season.

9. Oregon-- Washington State's loss is Oregon's gain as the Ducks will be the beneficiaries of Joe Salave'a services this fall, but the new assistant has a tall task ahead of him in his first year on Willie Taggart's staff. The entire Ducks' defense suffered from abysmal coaching over the last few seasons, and for Oregon to take a step forward, Salave'a will need to work with and improve the techniques of returning starters like Justin Hollins and Henry Mondeaux, who have potential, but need to refine their skill sets. Hollins is the ringleader of this group after posting nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks a season ago, and he could be primed to take a big step forward this fall.

10. Colorado-- The Buffaloes were among the teams in the Pac-12 hit hard by graduation on the defensive side of the ball, as Colorado loses all three starters along its defensive line. Mike MacIntyre's squad finished a respectable fourth in the conference in sacks and sixth in rushing defense, but Colorado is starting from scratch with players like Leo Jackson and Timothy Coleman who were nothing more than depth options a season ago.

11. Oregon State-- Oregon State returns just about everyone on its defensive line this fall, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Like Cal, Oregon State struggled in the trenches last season, but the Beavers' players failed to produce much in the way of statistics and rarely ever impacted the quarterback. The Beavers ranked 11th in sacks and 10th in rushing defense last season, but perhaps having a year under their belts will help returners like Baker Pritchard, Philip Napoleon and Kalani Vakameilalo.

12. Arizona-- It's hard to compete in the Pac-12 with undersized defensive linemen, but that's exactly what Arizona is trying to do as the group is led by returner Parker Zellers, who finished with 12 tackles and 3.0 sacks a season ago. Former ASU defensive lineman Vince Amey is the Wildcats' defensive line coach, and he'll attempt to do less with more for an Arizona defensive line that often has just two players aligned with their hands in the dirt. 


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