Power Ranking the Scariest Defenders in Pac-12 Football

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IMay 8, 2014

Power Ranking the Scariest Defenders in Pac-12 Football

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    USC DL Leonard Williams
    USC DL Leonard WilliamsJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Nobody seems to care about defense in the Pac-12 anymore. It's all about the experienced quarterbacks, the up-and-coming crop of receivers and the powerful offensive lines at schools like Stanford and UCLA.

    You'll see the occasional note about a pass breakup or tackle for loss during spring practice, but that's not what gets fans going anymore. Who had the most dazzling performance on offense? How much better is QB1 or RB1 than he was last season? And what's the 40-yard time of the guy returning punts?

    All of those questions are hot topics, but you aren't going to win without getting stops. Believe or not, offenses still have to game-plan for opposing defenses; they don't just shred 'em without preparation.

    Which defenses are the hardest to prepare for? And more specifically, which guys keep players like Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota and Nelson Agholor up at night?

    That's the subject of today's piece, which takes a look at the five scariest defenders in the Pac-12. Buckle up!


    All stats via cfbstats.com

5) LB A.J. Tarpley, Stanford

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    LB A.J. Tarpley
    LB A.J. TarpleyRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    You can't have Pac-12 defensive power rankings without including a player from Stanford, although deciding which one to include admittedly induced a headache. There are defensive backs Jordan Richards and Alex Carter, both future NFL'ers who made more players than you can count in 2013.

    There's also a fully stocked cupboard up front, where any one of the linemen can scare the heck out of opposing offenses. In the end, we landed on linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who should assume a much larger role without Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov to help out.

    There will be other talents alongside him, but Tarpley will be the headlining act in 2014, and for good reason. The 6'2", 240-pound beast is Stanford to the core, and by that we mean he's hard-working, strong as an ox and rarely makes mental errors.

    In 2013, he finished second on the team with 93 tackles, five of which were made behind the line of scrimmage. Tarpley is an intimidating presence who enters the fall with the pressure of carrying the defensive torch left behind by Skov and Murphy.

    Not only will he take that torch and run with it, but he'll use it to light a fire under the rest of the defense and help the Cardinal continue to produce one of the toughest units to score on in the country.

4) CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon

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    CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
    CB Ifo Ekpre-OlomuEric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The one and only reason cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu isn't higher up on the list is because unlike everyone else in the power rankings, he can go large stretches of games without getting in on the action.

    To his credit, though, Ekpre-Olomu is a physical player who isn't afraid to put his head down and make a play on the ball-carrier. And when he's not seeing any action, it's usually because the man he's guarding is being blanketed like a newborn on his way home from the hospital.

    "But how is he scary?" you might ask. Why don't you first ask that question to quarterbacks with the guts to throw in his direction? Because anytime you throw to someone being covered by Ekpre-Olomu, you're taking a gamble.

    Rarely are receivers able to separate from the Ducks' soon-to-be senior, and when he can take away an entire side of the field by himself, it allows the defense to do so much more up front.

    Ekpre-Olomu isn't scary in the physical, make-you-shudder sense, but he's just as much of a game-changer as the rest of the list, and he's the most important player on new defensive coordinator Don Pellum's defense.

3) DE Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington

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    DE Hau'oli Kikaha
    DE Hau'oli KikahaMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    If you don't know much about Hau'oli Kikaha, then this slide is perfect for you, so read up! The Washington defensive end doesn't get his name thrown around nearly as often as Danny Shelton or Shaq Thompson, but he's by far the scariest player on his team.

    Let's begin with the stats, which speak for themselves. In 2013, Kikaha piled up 70 tackles, which included a whopping 15.5 for loss to go along with 13 sacks. The sack total tied for third in the entire country.

    So how has this guy slipped your radar? For one, he plays with the aforementioned players who show up more often in the press, but he also plays for a defense that takes a major back seat to Stanford in the Pac-12 North, although to be fair, so does every other team that sits alongside the Cardinal in the standings.

    But it's more a matter of Kikaha being a player who goes about his business and quietly puts up monster numbers while leading a defense very much on the rise. Become familiar with the name, because he's one of the best defensive ends in the country and a player who should have a major impact on what kind of success the team has in Chris Petersen's first year at the helm.

2) LB Myles Jack, UCLA

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    LB Myles Jack
    LB Myles JackMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In 2013, a star was born, and his name was Myles Jack. That's not entirely accurate, of course, as Jack has been alive on the planet for more than 18 years now, but in the college football world, last fall was his hello to the country.

    You wouldn't call him small, and at 6'1", 225 pounds, he has ideal size to play at linebacker. But it's his speed that truly sets him apart from the majority of defensive players throughout the country.

    He has an incredible knack for the ball and rarely finds himself out of position, which is remarkable for someone so young. He finished his freshman season with 76 tackles, which included seven behind the line of scrimmage as well as two interceptions.

    The first and most important requirement in our power rankings is the ability to force offenses to game-plan around you specifically. Jack does that, because there's no way to just ignore him by trying to move the ball away from him.

    In addition to his defensive prowess, he also excelled in the Bruins' backfield, tallying over 200 yards rushing. But he makes our list of scariest defensive players because of his athleticism and ability to make plays anywhere on the field. The truly horrifying part for the rest of the league? The kid will be just a true sophomore next fall.

1) DL Leonard Williams, USC

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    DL Leonard Williams
    DL Leonard WilliamsUSA TODAY Sports

    At the top of our power rankings is a player who might not have the name recognition on a national level as some of the other players on the list, but don't let that diminish what he can do on the football field.

    USC always seem to churn out next-level talents from the defensive line, and big Leonard Williams certainly fits the recent trend. He's 6'5", 290 pounds and can do it all.

    In 2013, he notched five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, which are good numbers, although not elite by any stretch. He also tacked on 73 tackles, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. But sometimes the big fellas up front make the biggest impact without showing up in the box score.

    For Williams, the top priority is causing havoc in opposing backfields and plugging up the middle—and sometimes, that means simply garnering the attention of multiple offensive linemen to free up other players lined up alongside him.

    We'll fully admit that placing Williams at No. 1 is definitely swayed by a projection about what he'll do in 2014. At this very moment, Williams may not scare you. But if your team is playing USC, here's a guarantee that he'll be haunting your dreams for several days following the contest.