Pac-12 Football: Power Ranking Best Defensive Players Pre-2014 Spring Practice
The Pac-12's proclivity for offense is no secret. More than half of the conference's members ran uptempo offensive schemes last season, and the trend shows no signs of dissipating in the coming years.
The prevalence of high-scoring, high-tempo offenses around the league has forced Pac-12 defenses to step up its intensity and players have responded.
The Pac-12 was home to some of the nation's best turnover-generating defenses, as well as some of the most prolific sacking defenses.
Defensive talent is plentiful around the conference and, to that end, deserving names did not make the cut. Those who did are primed to be the Pac-12's top playmakers in 2014.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com unless otherwise noted.
11. Arizona S Jared Tevis
When Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff arrived in 2012, Jared Tevis was a walk-on from nearby Tucson Canyon del Oro High School. He was a contributor on the 2011 Wildcats but hardly a star.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel soon found a place for Tevis as a roving safety in the 3-3-5 odd stack formation, and Tevis flourished as a key turnover producer. Per ArizonaWildcats.com, he forced four fumbles and intercepted two passes despite missing two games with injury.
Tevis was again key to a much-improved Arizona defense in 2013 forcing three more fumbles and picking off a pass despite once again missing action.
10. Colorado LB Addison Gillam
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre had confidence linebacker Addison Gillam could flourish in the Buffaloes defense as a freshman, but even he said he was surprised by Gillam's breakout debut campaign, via CUBuffs.com.
"I thought Addison would be ready," MacIntyre said. "A first-team freshman All-American? No, but I thought he would start for us."
Gillam showed just how ready he was to make an impact in Week 1, recording two tackles for loss, 14 total tackles, a sack and breaking up two passes in Colorado's defeat of rival Colorado State. MacIntyre heaped praise on Gillam that day in his postgame press conference per CUBuffs.com.
He’s a player, I’ve always known he was a player since he was a junior in high school. He was up in the hills of California (Palo Cedro, Calif.), nobody looked at him but (MacIntyre's staff), and I’m glad he’s here.
Gillam led Colorado in tackles en route to Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America recognition.
9. Washington CB Marcus Peters
Desmond Trufant left a sizable hole in the Washington secondary when he left after the 2012 season, but Marcus Peters more than capably filled the void as the Huskies' star cornerback.
Peters closed 2013 with five interceptions and 14 passes defended, both team highs. But Peters is striving to improve even more. As he told The Seattle Times in December, Peters holds himself to a lofty standard:
I made some decent strides (in 2013), but I put so much on myself and I want to do so much from myself that I don’t think I can ever say that I achieved my goals. I beat myself up over everything. I for sure need to get better at being 100 percent dialed in on my technique day in and day out.
8. Oregon State CB Steven Nelson
One-time Georgia Bulldogs prospect Steven Nelson arrived at Oregon State after a junior college stop. He promises to continue the Beavers' recent tradition of standouts in the secondary after an impressive debut campaign.
There is a percentage of junior college guys who don't get it. They don't know the next step. Then there are those who have a special hunger for that second chance. ... That's what this guy is like. From the very moment Steven Nelson got here, he was motivated, hard-working and trying to grow.
Nelson was tied with teammate Rashaad Reynolds, Arizona State's Robert Nelson and Washington State All-American Deone Bucannon for the most interceptions in the Pac-12 with six.
7. USC LB Hayes Pullard
Early departures for the NFL draft hit USC hard, but among those who opted to return for 2014 was Hayes Pullard. His presence gives new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox a solid foundation on which to build next season's Trojans defense.
Pullard is a true veteran and arguably the top inside linebacker in the conference. He enters his senior campaign with three years of starting experience to his credit.
He was the Trojans' leading tackler in 2013 with 94 and second in 2012 with 107, but his signature moment is an 11-tackle performance in USC's upset over Stanford last November.
"We knew we wouldn't officially stop them, but we knew we needed to slow them down and match their intensity out there. We had to give it our all and go four quarters," Pullard said in the postgame press conference, per USCTrojans.com.
Pullard is a consummate leader, precisely what the Trojans need with a slew of youngsters on the roster in 2014.
6. Stanford SS Jordan Richards
Jordan Richards' decision to return to Stanford for one more season was a major boon for the Cardinal defense. Richards was the team's leader with three interceptions in 2013 and important protector of the back line from big plays.
Richards is evidence that while Stanford may lose great players, the program has the right system in place to ensure minimal, if any, drop-off as he explained to The San Jose Mercury News:
We're going to lose a lot of good players. They said the same thing last year, losing Chase (Thomas) and other guys. My sophomore year, we lost a lot of players, so we had to step up and play well in the secondary.
5. UCLA LB Myles Jack
Myles Jack commanded the national spotlight in his freshman campaign at UCLA, albeit for his pulling of double duty in the final month of the regular season.
His heroics as a ball-carrier in the depleted Bruins backfield may have made headlines, but his performance at linebacker was among the best in the Pac-12.
Jack earned FWAA Freshman All-America status and was named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year following a season with 75 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a team-leading 13 passes defended.
His explosiveness and ability to quickly get to the ball are reminiscent of former Bruins teammate Anthony Barr. With Barr headed to the NFL, the torch is now in Jack's capable hands.
4. Washington DE Hau’oli Kikaha
Hau'oli Kikaha capped a 2013 in which he earned second team All-Pac-12 recognition with a flourish.
His nine tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble in Washington's 31-16 defeat of Brigham Young in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl earned him the game's Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
The torrid finish gave Kikaha a team-leading 13 sacks for the season which, according to his GoHuskies.com bio, tied the second most accrued in one season in program history.
"The first guy in the weight room and the last guy to leave every day," is how former Washington quarterback Keith Price described Kikaha to The News Tribune. "I know it sounds a bit cliché, but that’s Hau’oli Kikaha. That’s how he is, and I don’t see him changing."
Kikaha could leave Washington as its best defensive lineman since Steve Emtman, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate and led the Huskies to a national championship in 1991.
3. Stanford CB Alex Carter
Alex Carter established himself as a vital part of Stanford's ballyhooed defense in 2013 and enters 2014 as one of the top coverage men in college football.
Opposing offenses recognized Carter's ability, evident in the decision of opposing quarterbacks to avoid throwing to his side of the field.
Stanford head coach David Shaw laid out the process to The San Jose Mercuy News in November:
I told him that, 'When you are really good at your job at corner, you don't see a lot of balls.' That's where Alex is right now. It's about keeping your mind into it, playing at a high level, eventually the ball is going to come your way. You have to be ready.
Carter proved to be more than ready when opportunities came leading the Cardinal with eight passes defended and seven break-ups.
2. Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
Two-time All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu put the NFL on hold for one more year instead returning to Oregon to build on what is already an impressive legacy.
"I wanted to do more," he explained to The Oregonian in January.
Ekpre-Olomu has already done plenty. He intercepted four passes in 2012 and added three more in 2013 despite opposing quarterbacks throwing less to his side of the field.
He is among the nation's most dynamic playmakers in the secondary with an uncanny ability to force turnovers forcing six fumbles in 2012 and another last season. That production is a cornerstone of the Ducks defense.
Simply put: "Ifo might be the best player I've ever coached," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal told The Oregonian in November 2013.
1. USC DL Leonard Williams
Leonard Williams is a rare talent who can excel either on the interior of the defensive line or rushing off the edge as a defensive end.
"He's probably one of the best athletes we've had here on the defensive line as far as size-speed ratio," former interim head coach and Williams' one-time defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said on a teleconference call last October.
Williams was USC's second-leading tackler in 2013 with 74, 13.5 of which went for a loss. He also racked up six sacks and forced a pair of fumbles.
Williams is the anchor of the Trojans defense again for 2014 and might be the most fearsome defensive lineman in all of college football. Perhaps the scariest proposition for Pac-12 backfields heading into 2014 is that Orgeron said: "He's getting better every game."
If that trend continues into the next year, pity his opposition.
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