The Cardinal were nearly identical with Arizona State against the run in 2010, and they return two linebackers in Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. Those two are great at getting into the offensive backfield and combined for 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks a piece. Their ability to get to the quarterback and stop the running game behind the line of scrimmage is where Stanford has the edge over the other teams.
There are four players vying for the third starting spot for Stanford and it is looking like it will go to Max Berger, but Trent Murphy, Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders. Freshman James Vaughters who was the ninth rated linebacker in the 2011 class is a darkhorse for the final starting spot, but he should at least contribute this season. Berger is the only of those players who played in all 13 games at the linebacker spot while starting two games. Berger's edge is because of his speed he brings to the defense as well as his game experience over the other three contenders.
The Utes come at the second spot due to the depth at the position as well as because Arizona State lost a key starter for the year. Former walk-ons Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez stepped in quite well last year as first time starters, and both ended up earning all-Mountain West performers with Walker earning second-team consideration with Martinez as honorable mention.
Walker accumulated 113 tackles in 2010 which was the second most in the Mountain West and he became the first Ute to record 100 tackles since 2007. Martinez was just behind Walker with 91 tackles. With a year experience these two have the chance to be the best duo in the Pac-12. The third starter is the only question mark and it has been looking like converted strong safety Brian Blechen, but in fall camp Trevor Reilly -- who also made a position change from defensive end to linebacker -- is pushing Blechen for that starting job. The Utes feel comfortable enough and feel they have 10 linebackers who can all play a significant role this season and some key back ups will be V.J. Fehoko, Dave Fagergren, Victor Spikes and Jacob Haley.
3. Arizona State
The Sun Devils have Vontaze Burfict who is arguably the best linebacker in the country and last year he had 90 tackles, 8.5 for a loss and broke up three passes while being a key in being the best run defense in the Pac-10. The only issue with Burfict is his antics that could have an effect on him this year. Burfict has already punched a teammate in fall camp and is getting personal foul penalties almost regularly. However, they recently lost outside linebacker Brandon Magee for the year with a torn achilles.
Magee was second on the team in tackles last year with 73 just behind Burficit. The linebacking corp for Arizona State is deep and look for Seniors Oliver Aaron, Shelley Lyons and Colin Parker who have starting experience, and sophomore Anthony Jones to step in to fill the void left by Magee as well as the third starting spot. This unit will take a small step back from they could have been due to the injury, but they will still be a formidable opponent in the running game this year.
The returning starters for Cal are Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt and then Cal expects to have David Wilkerson back at full strength. Last year Wilderson redshirted after getting a concussion, and will likely be one of the starters on the outside this season. Wildeson was highly sought out of high school and was a four-star recruit and the ninth rated middle linebacker in the country. He has the potential to be an instant contributor.
The linebackers will be led by Kendricks who led the team in with 15 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries. Then they have Holt who was among the best in the Pac-10 last year with 85 tackles. Cal runs a 3-4 defense, so the fourth starter looks to be Ryan Davis who is a junior college transfer and redshirted last season and impressed the coaching staff during the spring. Depth is not an issue as Cecil Whiteside, Jason Gibson and Nick Forbes are three players that will likely come in and see playing time as reserves.
The starters for USC have the talent with seniors Shane Horton and Chris Galippo and then after that they are inexperienced with this spot. Horton is looking to make the most of his move to the starting linebacker position; over the past two years he has seen time in 13 games but as a part time player.
Galippo is looking to get back to his 2009 form where he had 70 tackles compared to 2010 where he was a part-time starter and special teams player. The other projected starter is redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, but he is highly regarded by the coaching staff and has had a good fall camp so far. USC moved Devon Kennard was a projected starter made the switch from linebacker to defensive end this past spring. USC has the talent at this position but if they suffer any sort of injury to their starters they will be in trouble. The backups are two freshman and a sophomore.
The Ducks lost Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger to graduation and maybe without Kiko Alonso who was suspended indefinitely following his second alcohol-related offense back in May. The most experienced returning player is Michael Clay who say action in all 13 games as a backup and racked up 42 tackles.
Dewitt Stuckey is expected to fill in for the suspended Alonso, and even though Stuckey is a senior he has only played in seven games each of the last two seasons. The third starting linebacker is Josh Kaddu was a starter last year and will be the most experienced linebacker the Ducks have. This unit will be comprised of speed as is the norm for Oregon, but if they are without Alonso for an extended period of time then the inexperienced players will need to grow up quickly to keep the Ducks on pace for a potential Pac-12 title.
The Bruins do return all three starters, but the low ranking is because the backups are lacking experience at the FBS level. They do bring in a junior college transfer in Ryan Hofmeister who is expected to contribute right away. Sophomore Jordan Zumwalt is going to be in the rotation as a back up and will try to improve off of his freshman campaign where he saw time in 12 games and had 32 tackles.The returning starters are Glenn Love, Sean Westgate and Patrick Larimore; however, they were ninth in the Pac-10 in rush defense last year and allowed 205 yards per game. UCLA will need to keep their starters healthy to avoid a season like last years in regarding the rush defense.
The Wildcats are in the same position as UCLA with the lack of experienced depth at this position. They return Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo who are the only linebackers who have taken snaps at the FBS level. Earls was a bit more inconsistent and had only 44 tackles but 6.5 were for a loss, however Vassallo was one of the better linebackers in the conference as he tallied 102 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss.The third starting linebacker was to be Jake Fischer but an ACL injury during spring practice and will now cause Arizona to use one of three incoming true freshman as the starter, with Rob Hankins being the favorite.
9. Oregon State
Cameron Collins and Michael Doctor are projected starters with the outside position, but the middle linebacker spot is up in the air. Doctor had only eleven tackles last year but he is expected to have a breakout year. The middle linebacker spot is expected to be between Feti Unga, Tony Wilson,and Reuben Robinson; all thee of those linebackers saw time in 12 games last year, so there will be some experience at the back up position with the two who do not start. The outside has plenty of depth with freshman Donell Welch having an impressive spring and Shaydon Akuna emerging as a break out candidate.
Colorado lost two of its better linebackers from 2010 in Michael Sipili who was Colorado's leading tackler and B.J. Beatty who was excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback. Depth is an issue for Colorado and they will be counting a lot on Jon Major who had 57 tackles in eight games before he sprained his MCL.
The two players to step in and start will be Douglas Rippy and Derrick Webb. Rippy had an excellent spring and looks to be a force for Colorado even though he is light on game experience. Webb saw action in seven games a year ago as a redshirt freshman and had 17 tackles and the coaching staff is expecting more from Webb in 2011.
Senior Cort Dennison is the leading returner for the Huskies, last year Dennison recorded 92 tackles and is expected to be the defensive leader. Thomas Tutogi who is a junior college transfer and made the move to become the starting inside linebacker after he struggled at the outside linebacker during spring practice.
Tutogi has ideal size and speed for a linebacker as he stands 6-feet-1-inches, 235 pounds and runs a sub 4.6 second 40-yard dash and should be key player in stopping the running game. The starter at outside linebacker has not been announced, but Garrett Gilliland had a strong spring and there is a good chance he will be the starter. Gilliland started one game against Nebraska last year, but he mainly was a special teams player.
12. Washington State
The Cougars were the worst team against the run last year by giving up 220 yards per game and for 2011 they lost two starting linebackers from that 2010 team. Alex Hoffman-Ellis is definitely the starter at the weak side linebacker position with the middle linebacker spot is between Mike Ledgerwood and C.J. Mizell.
Mizell had an impressive spring to move up the depth chart and put himself in position to challenge for the starting spot. Sekope Kaufusi had an impressive spring and will be the starter at strong linebacker position. Outside of the loser of the Mizell and Ledgerwood battle, the other backups are a pair of inexperienced sophomores in Darren Markle and Eric Oertel who will be asked to contribute.