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Ranking the Pac-12’s defenses entering 2019

pac-12-defense-rankings-college-football-2019 Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

For the Arizona Wildcats, it’s been quite a while since defense has been one of their strong suits. The last season in which UA allowed less than five yards per play was 2008, and that’s despite players like Brooks Reed, Scooby Wright III and Colin Schooler coming through the program since. A long cry from the Desert Swarm days of the 90s, indeed.

Still, Arizona’s defense has just slightly progressed under coordinator Marcel Yates, from 6.0 to 5.8 to 5.7 yards per play allowed the last three seasons. Those numbers aren’t great, but they are progress, and that could continue in 2019 with an experienced and underappreciated secondary combined with two legitimate star juniors in the linebacker corps in Schooler and Tony Fields II. Success will be dictated by the defensive line, but JUCO transfers Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa could stop the bleeding there.

Another year under Yates should mean another year of improvement, but where does that place the ‘Cats in relation to the conference? The Pac-12 hasn’t been a hotbed of defense for a long time now, either, which seems to suggest U of A could rise in these rankings during the season. There are still some fantastic squads in the west though, and it’s time to look at those.

Here’s my ranking of the 2019 Pac-12 defenses entering the season. Be sure to check out my rankings of Pac-12 offenses here.

Tier 1

1. California

For as awful as Cal’s offense was in 2018, its defense was just as great and maybe even better. Just as the Golden Bears’ offense has utterly collapsed since Justin Wilcox’s hire, their defense has gone from a typical undermanned Air Raid counterpart to an absolute juggernaut. At defensive end: talented returnee upperclassmen Luc Buquette and Zeandae Johnson. At linebacker: talented returnee upperclassmen Cam Goode and Tevin Paul. At cornerback: talented returnee upperclassmen Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks. At safety: talented returnee upperclassmen Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins. That’s not even mentioning Evan Weaver, one of the most terrifying defenders in the nation, able to both lay the lumber and nimbly defend the pass. The lone question mark is at nose guard, but at this point, does it even matter who starts there? Cal will be a force to be reckoned with again, and might somehow get even better. Now, about that offense...

Tier 2

2. Utah

Utah was probably the third-best defense in the conference last season. This year, that same ranking should be its absolute floor. The Utes’ defensive line is already getting national attention, as five linemen are returning from great seasons. The three seniors made the all-conference squad, and the fourth spot will be fought for between two already-proven juniors. The linebacker corps is a potential issue, as no major returnees from 2018 will be there. The secondary again features some key stars such as cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Julian Blackmon. Kyle Whittingham has long had Utah’s defense in order, and it’ll be business as usual for 2019.

3. Oregon

Oregon’s defense may not be the experience-loaded behemoth that the offense is, but there’s enough of both talent and experience for the Ducks to be hard to score on. One of the highest-rated 2019 recruits in the nation, Kayvon Thibodeaux, joins two returning juniors including second team preseason all-conference Jordon Scott on the line. Another all-conference player, this time first-teamer Troy Dye, will lead an above average linebacker corps. Ditto for the secondary, where second team all-conference Thomas Graham will be in charge of a good if not great unit. The most important part of Oregon’s defense, might be new coordinator Andy Avalos, who comes from Boise State and has the talent and scheme to make waves. The defense isn’t as scary as the offense, no, but Oregon has the pieces to be scary anyway on D.

4. Washington

Chris Petersen’s rejuvenation of the Huskies has been based on the defense, and the fruits of that labor were shown in April, when five of last year’s defensive starters were picked in the NFL Draft. Losing almost everybody on defense is normally a death sentence, but Petersen and assistants Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski have the talent to sustain their gains. This year’s defense will be almost all new faces, and as few as two or three seniors could start. One of them will be Myles Bryant, a defensive back and the primary returner. At every level, youngsters like Sam Taimani, Joe Tryon, and Kyler Gordon need to meet their potential instantly. That’s a lot to ask, but UW has earned the benefit of the doubt for now.

5. Washington State

Mike Leach has long held the reputation of a coach who wins by building an offense so dominating that the defense became almost unnecessary. That wasn’t entirely fair when Leach moved to Pullman, and it definitely isn’t now. Former coordinator Alex Grinch made this defense a very solid unit, and current coordinator Tracy Claeys has continued that trend. A few key contributors, namely star linebacker Peyton Pueller, depart, but this lineup is still covered in upperclassmen with talent. Will Rodgers III, Jahad Woods, and Jalen Thompson have enough skill between them to keep every level of the defense solid, and they have plenty of help at each position. WSU has yet to craft a truly elite defense, but the Cougars have been one step away for a while now, and that’s just as impressive.

Tier 3

6. Arizona State

A lot of ASU’s mildly surprising 7-6 campaign came from improvement on the defensive side of the ball last year. Enough of those players who improved return this year for Sun Devil fans to be optimistic. The defensive line will be breaking in a lot of new players, but super sophomore Merlin Robertson will anchor a solid linebacker group. Two experienced cornerbacks in Chase Lucas and Kobe Williams return as well, and that means ASU will have the secondary to keep themselves in close games. If a combination of last year’s role players and Herm Edwards’ recruits can build a solid defensive line, Arizona State will have the defense to make further improvement as a team.

7. Stanford

If anyone has mastered the art of the smashmouth, anti-social, pro-style defense in the college ranks, it’s probably Stanford. Despite that, there’s been quite a dip in quality the last few seasons, and that should continue this year. Only a few impact players return, but among them are talented junior linemen Jovan Swann and Michael Williams, along with one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Paulson Adebo. Outside of those three, this defense is gonna be mostly built on last year’s depth players and a few freshmen. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like a recipe for failure either. An average defense can still a winning team make, and David Shaw will have to hope that rings true this year.

8. USC

Just like the offense, USC’s defense is facing a must-win-big season at the same time they are trying to rebuild. The Trojans had as much talent as ever last season, especially in the back seven, but were still average last season. Well, now the back seven is alarmingly young while the defensive line tries to improve on a disappointing season. The linebackers might do fine, with John Houston, Palaie Gaoteote and Jordan Iosefa playing roles, but the secondary will be entirely reliant on freshmen and sophomores. This being USC, almost all those players are blue-chippers, but that’s still a perilous level of youth, especially in a relatively pass-happy conference. The Trojans have the talent to prove the doubters wrong, but let’s just say there’s a reason those doubters exist in the first place.

9. Arizona

It’s been hard to believe in Arizona’s defense for a while now, but there is legitimate reason to expect improvement this season. The linebackier corps has been a downright strength ever since Schooler entered the lineup, and Fields makes for a perfect partner-in-crime. The secondary should also improve, with Jace Whittaker finally returning and players like Lorenzo Burns, Tristan Cooper, and Scottie Young Jr. returning after seeing lots of action last year. The defensive line is the only glaring weakness, and it might be crippling. The JUCO duo of Tapusoa and Mason will fill gaps, but some homegrown talent will need to help stud Jalen Harris rush the quarterback, perhaps Arizona’s biggest weakness last season. If that somehow happens, this is an average-to-good defense, which could make UA dangerous when combined with their offense.

10. UCLA

Chip Kelly’s Bruins don’t have too much anxiety about their defense entering 2019, but improvement still needs to happen. The linebacker corps is absolutely loaded with talented seniors, particularly Keisean Lucier-South. The secondary isn’t as loaded as the linebackers, but there’s still a pleasant mix of talent and experience. Darnay Holmes was UCLA’s sole all-conference selection in the preseason, and he’ll anchor a solid batch in the defensive backfield. Osa Odighizua will be an important part of the defensive line, but he might not have much help. Kelly didn’t do too well in recruiting last winter, but he might need to bring in some of those new faces to bolster the roster and start his culture change. UCLA will have a lot of new faces next year, and that means this year’s squad will have just enough experience to tread water.

11. Colorado

When Colorado has succeeded in the last decade, it’s been with a suffocating defense. Admittedly, the Venn diagram of “Colorado in the Pac-12” and “successful football teams” has only overlapped for three months in 2016 and one month in 2018, but the point remains. That alone suggests that CU will struggle again in Mel Tucker’s first year. Sure, pass rusher Mustafa Johnson and linebacker Nate Landman provide the skeleton for a great defense. Outside of those two and a couple of senior defensive backs though, the cupboard could be scarce. Most of the projected starters haven’t seen much if any game time before this year, and there could be a real lack of depth. Tucker is a great defensive coach, and he brought an experienced coordinator in Tyson Summers, but his job will be to build for the future instead of salvaging this year.

Tier 4

12. Oregon State

The Beavers’ 2018 defense was the kind of bad that’s almost hard to illustrate and even harder to fathom. OSU’s two best defensive performances by points allowed last season were their two wins: 25 points allowed against 1-10 FCS Southern Utah and 34 points allowed against Colorado in a borderline accidental win. Outside of that, only Arizona, Nevada and USC failed to score at least six touchdowns, and UA and USC scored five. The goal here is to go from atrocious to just bad. The good news is that a lot of last year’s starting freshmen are now starting sophomores, and Jonathan Smith got a few transfers to bolster those young returnees. Shemar Smith and Jalen Moore will be two of the most important seniors on the roster, and if they and Oklahoma transfer Addison Gumbs, Nebraska transfer Avery Roberts, and Laney College transfer Jordan Whittely can lead improvement from the youngsters, that goal of being merely bad is within reach. Actual improvement to a solid level will have to wait until further into Smith’s tenure at the earliest.