The Pac-12 has the reputation of being an offensive league. Players like Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James are the poster boys for the conference.
However, that does not mean the conference is short on defensive talent. Players like Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris have received plenty of national attention.
In this list, I rank the best defensive players in the Pac-12 Conference. As always, give me your insight about who you think I missed and who might be overrated.
Omar Bolden was one of the best defensive players in the nation entering spring football. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in the spring and is now expected to miss at least the first half of the 2011 season.
Some might ask why he deserves a spot in this list. It may be the ASU homer in me, but I feel that the only returning All-Pac-10 defensive player from a season ago deserves a spot on the list no matter what.
Bolden is a true shutdown cornerback. He is quick enough to hang with anyone and is a very strong tackler.
John Boyett is arguably the most underrated player in the conference.
Boyett is a ball hawk and a big hitter at safety for the defending champion Oregon Ducks. He has a knack for making big plays. If Oregon wants to repeat as conference champions, it will need playmakers on defense.
Expect Boyett to be excellent again for the Ducks and to become a key leader in 2011. He is one of the most important players on their team.
As the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year Award winner a season ago, Junior Onyeali was a pleasant surprise for the Sun Devils.
He did not start getting consistent playing time until halfway through the season, but he still went on to record 6.5 sacks for the Sun Devils. Expect that number to improve as he becomes a regular starter.
Standing only 5’11” and 233 pounds, Onyeali is undersized but uses it to his advantage.
Opposing offensive linemen have a tough time stopping him due to his low center of gravity and speed.
Chaz Walker is the only newcomer featured in these rankings. He is not a marquee name to most Pac-12 fans, but should become one after 2011.
Last season, Walker was a tackling machine. He recorded a team-high 113 tackles and even snagged two interceptions.
He used to be a safety, so Walker has great speed for a linebacker.
It will be interesting to see how Walker adjusts to playing against Pac-12 offenses next season. It will be a big test of the linebacker.
The first of consecutive Stanford players on this list, Delano Howell is a big-time talent. He is a converted running back who has found his calling at safety.
Howell gets it done with his elite quickness and ball-hawking ability. Despite being only 5’11” and 200 pounds, Howell is a surprisingly big hitter as well.
He is great at defending both the pass and the run.
Last season, Howell recorded 60 tackles and five interceptions as his Stanford Cardinal had a great 11-1 season.
Shayne Skov made a name for himself in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. He was dominant and was one of the key reasons the Cardinal ran away with that game.
Skov is a vicious tackler who has a truly passionate style of play. He is aggressive and was a great representation of Stanford’s blue-collar mentality last season.
With linebackers Owen Marecic and Thomas Keiser no longer at Stanford, expect Skov to get a lot more attention.
He has an opportunity to become one of the best linebackers in college football.
Mychal Kendricks proved he was an elite linebacker last season for the Golden Bears. He recorded 62 tackles and 8.5 sacks, good enough for second in the conference.
He is probably the most-feared pass rusher in the conference and is the star on Cal’s stingy defense.
He earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season, but I expect him to easily crack the first team in 2011.
T.J. McDonald was a bright spot on an otherwise-disappointing Trojans defense from a season ago. If USC wants to take a step forward in 2011, it needs another great season out of McDonald.
Last season, he recorded 89 tackles, three interceptions and even one sack.
He is a big safety who is a terrifying tackler, but is also one of the quickest guys on the field. That deadly combination of speed and strength makes McDonald a big-time NFL prospect.
If McDonald has another solid year in 2011, don’t be surprised to see him leave school early for a chance to be drafted in the first round.
With Omar Bolden injured, Cliff Harris is now easily the best cornerback in the conference.
His speed is unparalleled, and he is quickly developing into a shutdown cornerback. Last season, Harris had 30 tackles and a conference-best six interceptions.
Not only is Harris a threat on defense, but he is also one of the best return men in the nation. Last season, he returned four punts for touchdowns and averaged 20.4 yards per kick return.
Harris has become a big name. Expect him to see him on the All-American team next season.
Vontaze Burfict has recently been named the preseason defensive player of the year by Lindy’s Sports. That isn’t just the Pac-12 honor—that is the national honor of the best defensive player in the country entering the 2011 season.
Burfict is a beast. He is as fast as a running back, but as big as a defensive lineman. Due to his unbelievable passion and aggressiveness, Burfict could be the most-feared player in college football. He anchors a Sun Devils defense that was the best in the conference against the run a season ago.
If Vontaze can learn to control himself a little better and stop committing so many dumb penalties, he will be one of the best players in college football.
Burfict has shown a lot of maturity over the offseason and has taken up a leadership role for the Devils.
This needs to be Burfict’s year.