To download this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Report' podcast and listen to our 'Pac-12 Preview: Linebackers and defensive backs' 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 defensive line rankings last week, the next installment of the series features SunDevilSource's linebacker rankings. The Pac-12 boasts a lengthy list of deep linebacker corps as five of the eight players who received First or Second Team All-Pac-12 honors last season return to their teams this season.
1. Washington-- After finishing the regular season with an 11-1 mark a season ago, the Huskies return nearly all of their key talent at the linebacker level including First Team All-Pac-12 performer Azeem Victor. Victor is joined by Second Team All-Conference selection Keishawn Bierria, one of the best sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the conference and a solid, physical run-stopper. The Huskies boasts some of the conference's best players at the linebacker level, but they also possess some of the best depth as players like Tevis Bartlett, D.J. Beavers and Ben Burr-Kiven return this fall. The Huskies clearly have the deepest linebacker unit, and should have the strongest front seven of any team in the conference.
2. USC-- The Trojans took a step forward on the defensive side of the ball last season under Clancy Pendergast, and USC's linebacker corps is poised for another big season thanks to the return of Second Team All-Pac-12 selection Cameron Smith. Just a sophomore a season ago, Smith posted 83 tackles including 7.0 tackles for loss in a breakout campaign. Smith will be the focal point of the Trojans' defense this season, and USC will surround him with talent like Uchenna Nwosu who had 53 tackles including 7.5 for loss last season and John Houston, a former five-star recruit who is poised to take on a larger role in 2017.
3. Stanford-- The Cardinal don't return a slew of big names, but Stanford always finds a way to compile one of the league's most productive linebacker corps and this season should be no different. Head coach David Shaw is hoping senior Joey Alfieri can make a successful transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker which should free up opportunities for fellow returners like Bobby Okereke, who posted 39 tackles and three sacks last season. The Cardinal don't lose much talent at the linebacker level, and aside from bringing back Alfieri and Okereke, Stanford returns three other players, Sean Barton, Mustafa Branch and Casey Toohill who all recorded at least 20 tackles last season. Additionally, early enrollee Curtis Robinson reportedly enjoyed a breakout spring.
4. Arizona State-- ASU should have one of the most experienced linebacker units in the conference in 2017 as the Sun Devils return a pair of multi-year starters, D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam, as well as Second Team All-Pac-12 honoree Koron Crump. After leading ASU in tackles in 2015, Sam lasted less than a full half into the 2016 season before an ankle injury wiped out his campaign. Sam's loss forced Calhoun to step into a larger role, and if he can become a more consistent tackler and a better defender against the pass, the duo could form one of the better one-two punches at inside linebacker in the conference. The return of Crump is pivotal for a team that will need a dominant pass rusher to ease the pressure on ASU's shaky secondary. Sophomores Khaylan Thomas and Malik Lawal will provide depth for ASU, with Lawal expected to contribute in sub-package situations.
5. Oregon-- The Ducks have struggled on the defensive side of the ball in recent years, but Oregon could be ready to take a step forward in 2017 thanks to an improving linebacker unit that returns Troy Dye, one of the conference's standout freshmen from a season ago. Dye led the Ducks with 91 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and he's joined by Jimmie Swain who posted 77 tackles in 2016. With new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt entering the program, the level of coaching Oregon's linebacker will receive will go up a few notches, and that should translate to more on-field success for Dye, Swain and others like A.J. Hotchkins and Kaulana Apelu.
6. Colorado-- Even though the Buffaloes lose multi-year starter Kenneth Olugbode, the Buffaloes return a solid pair at the heart of their defense in Rick Gamboa and Addison Gillam. Gamboa was one of the only underclassmen to start for a senior-laden Buffs' defense last season, and he proved he belonged on the field by finishing second on the team with 76 tackles. Gillam was a starter earlier in his career, but was passed up on the depth chart and now appears poised to close out his playing days at Colorado on a high note as Gamboa's sidekick. The Buffaloes lose pass-rusher Jimmie Gilbert, a First Team All-Pac-12 selection, but are hopeful one of their reserves from a season ago can fill his void.
7. Washington State-- The overall depth of quality linebackers in the Pac-12 is impressive, and perhaps nothing puts that into perspective better than the fact we ranked Washington State seventh despite the fact the Cougars return three of their most important defensive pieces. Peyton Pelluer is a rangy sideline-to-sideline player who brings a nasty streak to Washington State's defense, and he's joined at the second level by Isaac Dotson and Frankie Luvu, who both recorded impressive statistics a season ago. The trio of Pelleur, Dotson and Luvu combined to notch over 200 tackles and 20 tackles for loss last season, and the Cougars are hoping rush end Dylan Hanser takes a step forward this year to make this a more complete unit.
8. UCLA-- The Bruins take one of the biggest hits of any team in the conference as they lose First Team All-Conference standout Jayon Brown, but UCLA can take comfort in the fact it returns Kenny Young who finished the 2016 campaign with 90 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. UCLA doesn't have much experienced talent around the 2016 Second Team All-Pac-12 honoree, but former highly-touted recruits like Dechaun Holliday and Krys Barnes could be ready to take their games to the next level now that there's a clear path for playing time.
9. Utah-- The Utes were hit hard by graduation in the secondary and along their defensive front, but Utah does bring back two of its top linebackers from a season ago as David Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli are both back in the fold. Though the linebacker corps was the weakest link in an extremely sound Utah defense last year, the return of Luafatasaga and Tauteoli should give the Utes hope that they won't take a huge step backward this season.
10. Cal-- The transition from Sonny Dykes to Justin Wilcox as the Bears' head coach signals a changing of the guard for the Cal program, and the linebacker unit could be one of the first position groups to benefit. Wilcox has a player to build around thanks to the return of Devante Downs, who finished with 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks last season, and he also has a complementary piece with Raymond Davison returning to the Bears. If Cal can find some depth behind its top duo, the Bears may be able to climb up the rankings by the end of the season.
11. Oregon State-- The Beavers' linebacker unit is highlighted by Manase Hungalu, one of the top returning producers at the linebacker level in the conference from last season and a clear anchor for Oregon State's front seven. Hungalu is the player Gary Andersen will rely on to lead a defense that loses its leading tackler, Caleb Saulo from a season ago. With Saulo out of the picture, Oregon State is hoping reserves like Andrzej Hughes-Murray and Jonathan Willis can pick up the slack.
12. Arizona-- The Wildcats lost nearly every critical piece from a linebacker unit that was already one of the conference's weakest last season, and rebuilding the position group won't be an easy task. With Paul Magloire, Cody Ippolito, Tellas Jones and Michael Barton all off the roster, Arizona is hoping players like John Kenny and Tristan Cooper are able to step in without giving the Wildcats a noticeable decline in production.