1. Stanford (Four 1st Place Votes)
Coach David Shaw is well regarded as an offensive genius, but it's his defense that could make all the difference this season. The Cardinal are loaded at linebacker and return two of the top linebackers in the country in Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Murphy was a Third Team All-American last season and Skov has the potential to be better than his counterpart, so running the ball against Stanford will be a monumental undertaking.
AJ Tarpley will start opposite Skov at inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme after starting eight games last season. Junior James Vaughters should step in at the other outside linebacker position, but he'll face stiff competition from Noor Davis who was a top recruit last season. The Cardinal are insanely deep at linebacker, and that's why they earned all four of our first-place votes.
For the first time in a decade, the Trojans might be overlooked. USC returns plenty of talent from a team that underachieved in a huge way last season and much of that talent resides at linebacker. Hayes Pullard is back to anchor the position group after a 107-tackle season last year. Pullard is physical specimen at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds and he'll be flanked by playmakers on each side of him.
Lamar Dawson had 77 tackles last year and will start on the weak side while Devon Kennard should start on the strong side. Kennard has started off and on throughout his career, but he'll see ample time this season. Keep an eye on highly touted athletes Scott Starr, Jabari Ruffin and Michael Hutchings, as each could take on significant roles if duty calls.
UCLA returns three of its four starters at linebacker from last season including Second Team All-American Anthony Barr. Barr made the switch from tight end last spring and simply overwhelmed the competition en route to a 13-sack season. Remarkably, Barr had the fewest tackles (83) of any of the three returning starters at linebackers last season which should give you an indication of how deep this group really is.
Eric Kendricks led the Pac-12 with 150 tackles last season and will start next to Jordan Zumwalt at inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme this year. Zumwalt recorded 92 tackles including nine tackles for loss in eight starts last season. Freshman Jeremy Castro has an opportunity to step in at outside linebacker this year after joining the Bruins' program in the spring semester.
4. Arizona State
For the purposes of our power rankings, we decided to treat hybrid DE/LB Carl Bradford as a linebacker. The Sun Devils' devilbacker is the clear leader of a group that faces just one key loss (Brandon Magee). Bradford's 11.5 sacks were second to Will Sutton's team lead last season, and he looks poised to replicate his totals after an outstanding offseason in the weight room.
Chris Young makes the transition from SPUR to WILL to fill Magee's shoes after Young collected 12 tackles for loss last season. Steffon Martin returns on the strong side while Anthony Jones will get the first crack at taking over for Young at SPUR. The Sun Devils run a complex defense and you could see anywhere from two to five linebackers on the field at once, so depth is essential. Fortunately, Carlos Mendoza and Chans Cox will provide that this year.
The Huskies are young at the linebacker position, but they are fortunate to return all three starters from last season. The Washington linebackers have the potential to grow into one of the conference's premier units, but only time will tell if they can make those strides.
After being recruited as a defensive back, Shaq Thompson slipped into the weak side linebacker position and started all 13 games. Travis Feeney also moved from safety to linebacker, and the rising sophomore earned Honorable Mention Pac-12 honors last season. Junior John Timu headlines this group as the middle backer after starting every game and racking up 91 tackles last season. There's a few questions about depth, but the starting group possesses playmaking ability that coaches dream about.
The Ducks earn our sixth spot almost solely on potential. The linebacking core loses leading tackler Michael Clay and second round draft pick Kiko Alonso, but they return starter Boseko Lokombo and nearly every backup from last season.
In theory, the Ducks run the 3-4, but like Arizona State, the scheme changes on a down-by-down basis. Tony Washington, Joe Walker, and Tyson Coleman are expected to start along with Lokombo, but the Ducks rotate personnel so frequently that listing starters doesn't tell much of a story. Of the top 10 linebackers on the roster, eight or nine were highly sought after recruits and all are projected to make an impact at some point during their careers.
The team at House of Sparky might be sleeping on the Wildcats' linebacking group. Arizona returns three of its four starters from last season including middle linebacker and Second Team Pac-12 selection Jake Fischer. Fischer was all over the field last season and notched 119 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss, but he's not the only standout in this group.
Marquis Flowers returns at the strong side linebacker position after a 100-tackle season last year and CJ Dozier and SirThomas Jackson are prepared to split time on the weak side. Rounding out the group is SPUR backer Tra'Mayne Boundurant who put up 11.5 tackles for loss and defended nine passes last year.
8. Washington State
Though the Cougars limped to a 3-9 record last season, they were able to establish their team identity. On offense, the wide receivers are the definite bright spot. On defense, it's the linebackers who proved they can shoulder the load.
While Washington State loses Travis Long and his 9.5 sacks, they do return three starters including middle linebacker Darryl Monroe. As a freshman, Monroe earned Honorable Mention All-Conference honors and is poised for another stellar year. Cyrus Coen was also an Honorable Mention selection while weak side linebacker Justin Sagote was productive in his 10 starts.
The Golden Bears are the one team that our writers had difficulty pegging. They appeared as high as sixth on one ballot and as low as eleventh on another. Two of the three starters from the 4-3 scheme return and they have an immensely talented group of recruits ready to take the field.
Nick Forbes will start at middle linebacker and Jalen Jefferson is back on the strong side after a solid freshman campaign. Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt appears poised to take over the weak side role, but the Golden Bears have plenty of options to go to if that doesn't work out. Michael Barton, Hardy Nickerson Jr., and Jason Gibson were all impressive "gets" as recruits, so don't be surprised if they earn playing time this season.
10. Oregon State
Oregon State is fortunate to bring back both outside linebackers from last year's squad. Michael Doctor and DJ Alexander combined for 18 tackles for loss last season and they have the potential to match that production yet again this season.
However, the Beavers' defense has always revolved around the middle linebacker position and that's the biggest question mark heading into the 2013 season. Joel Skotte looks like he has the inside track on the starting job, but Jashwa James could also factor in. If the Beavers find a solid option, this group should turn out to be a strong point this year.
Over the past two seasons, the Utes have been riddled with injuries at linebacker and have also been forced to shift players to different positions on defense. While getting comfortable has been an issue for the Utah linebackers in the Pac-12, this year's group is not barren of talent.
Middle backer VJ Fehoko played in 12 games last year and recorded 30 tackles while strong side backer Jason Whittingham tallied 35 tackles in his freshman campaign. Though the numbers aren't stellar, the Utes do move safety Brian Blechen to outside linebacker which should help in a big way. Blechen is a proven commodity and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 in the secondary last year.
As we've mentioned throughout our power rankings series, Mike MacIntyre will have his hands full this season. The Buffalo defense was horrific last season, and it could take a few years for the program to get back on track.
Woodson Greer III and Derrick Webb both started at times last season, but neither was particularly effective. Brady Daigh started one game at linebacker last season, but was the team's special teams MVP. This season, Daigh will bring his hard-nosed attitude to the starting middle linebacker position, and Colorado hopes his spirit will be infectious.
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