With the season creeping closer following each turning day, it is never too early to start ranking the players from the most intriguing conference in college football (at least to me!).
Linebackers kick off my series of “The Pac-12’s Top 10 by position”.
Watching these linebackers patrol the line like a hungry velociraptors can send shivers directly to your soul. It’s shame we have to wait so long to see these beast in action.
Let’s check out the list.
No. 1: Mychal Kendricks, California
Senior Mychal Kendricks earned All-Conference Honors last season, wrestling down the quarterback seven times and pulling in 14.5 tackles for a loss (TFL). He led or tied all Pac-12 linebackers last season in these categories and should contend for the top of the class again in 2011.
No. 2: Shayne Skov, Stanford
In case you missed the 2011 Orange Bowl, Shayne Skov exclaimed to the nation his beastly ability to get to the ball. The junior linebacker’s stat line was godly, notching 12 total tackles and four TFLs, which included dragging down the quarterback three times. Skov flew under the radar a bit last season, but expect him to grab headlines in 2011.
No. 3: Chase Thomas, Stanford
Junior Chase Thomas collected seven sacks last year, tying Skov and Kendricks for the lead amongst Pac-12 linebackers.
His relentless drive to reach the ball and astounding speed around the corner allows Thomas to get into the backfield fast. Expect to see Thomas consistently making tackles behind the line once again this year.
No. 4: Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
Junior Vontaze Burfict (or El Baron as I like to call him) continues to improve since starting as a true freshman in 2009.
Although Burfict failed to record a sack last year, he tallied 8.5 TFLs, the most non-sack TFLs in the Pac-12.
He also tied for third amongst Pac-12 Linebackers with 90 tackles.
It’s hard not to like El Baron. He is primed for a breakout season and Arizona State’s South Title hopes could depend on it.
No. 5 Sean Westgate, UCLA
Senior Sean Westgate surprised most people with an astonishing performance last season.
Spending most of his career on UCLA’s depth chart as a kick returner/linebacker, Westgate made a permanent switch to linebacker last spring and the Bruins could not be happier.
Last season, Westgate ranked 3rd amongst Pac-12 linebackers in tackles (90) and TFLs (11), and 4th in sacks (4). His prowess in pass coverage was also quite impressive, leading all Pac-12 linebackers with seven passes defended.
No. 6: Paul Vassallo, Arizona
Paul Vassallo should probably rank higher on this list, but for some reason I like the above five better.
Vassallo led all Pac-12 linebackers last season in total tackles, slamming down bodies at rate of 7.85 per game. Coming to the Wildcats as a JUCO recruit, not many people thought he would make such an immediate impact.
Arizona’s suspect defense is greatly depending on Vassallo to produce similar numbers this year.
No. 7: Chaz Walker, Utah
Chaz Walker exploded onto the Mountain West scene in 2010, rattling off 115 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 2 interceptions. The senior linebacker will have a tougher road to sled this season with several talented running backs to keep in check.
No. 8: Cort Dennison, Washington
Cort Dennison doubled his tackle total from 2009 to 2010, landing second amongst Pac-12 linebackers with 92. Also adding 8.5 TFLs and 7 Passes Defended to his totals, Dennison was a factor in every section of the field.
With youth littering the Huskies’ linebacker depth chart, Dennison will need to step up as the team leader.
And the best way to lead is by example.
No. 9: Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Washington State
Alex Hoffman-Ellis was one of the few bright spots for Washington State last season. He wrangled in 81 tackles and two sacks on what was a rather mediocre Cougars defense. Hoffman-Ellis should shine bright again for Washington State in 2011.
No. 10: Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA
Jordan Zumwalt’s 2010 numbers were not eye-popping, but give him a break, he was a freshman. After a decent first year, the sophomore continued to make strides this spring, collecting five tackles and a sack in UCLA’s spring game. Zumwalt is in position for a breakout season and I want to be there at the bottom floor.