With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.
Here's a look at North Division linebackers.
California: The Bears have three talented players in Michael Barton, Hardy Nickerson and Jalen Jefferson, but for 2015 to be a success, consistency will have to improve. As Cal took its lumps defensively over the past two seasons, there was a feeling of “Well, at least those players are getting experience that will help down the line.” That time is now. Jefferson will be a senior, while Nickerson and Barton will be juniors. Youth is no longer an excuse. Devantae Downs showed promise late last year and will push Nickerson inside.
Oregon: The Ducks will miss Derrick Malone and Tony Washington, but return an experienced group led by fifth-year seniors Joe Walker (81 tackles), Rodney Hardrick (75 tackles) and Tyson Coleman (44 tackles). Christian French, another fifth-year senior, also is in line for a bigger role too with Washington’s departure.
Oregon State: The Beavers lose three of their top five tacklers with the departures of D.J. Alexander (70 tackles), Michael Doctor (69 tackles) and Jabral Johnson (63). Outside of Rommel Mageo (23 tackles), there aren’t many known commodities coming back. Darrell Songy gets mentioned frequently as a possible starter after missing the 2014 season due to suspension. Kyle Haley, Bright Ugwoegbu and Caleb Saulo also should factor in to the competition on some level.
Stanford: Four-year starter ILB A.J. Tarpley and OLB James Vaughters, who also contributed on defense for four years, will be tough to replace, but the Cardinal have several promising young linebackers who should be ready to go. ILB Blake Martinez (team leader with 102 tackles) and OLB Kevin Anderson (52 tackles) are the two starters who return. Peter Kalambayi should slide right in to Vaughters’ role and become be the team’s most dangerous pass rusher after finishing with 6.5 sacks last year in limited playing time. Kevin Palma and Noor Davis figure to get the first crack at the playing time freed up by Tarpley’s graduation.
Washington: All the Huskies need to do is replace All-American inside linebacker Shaq Thompson, the nation’s sack leader in OLB/DE Hau’oli Kikaha and the team’s leading tackler, John Timu. No problem, right? OLB Travis Feeney is the most talented of the returners, while Cory Littleton and Keishawn Bierria also have solid experience. Scott Lawyer played in 10 games a year ago and will get first crack at inside linebacker.
Washington State: New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who comes over from Missouri, will keep the Cougars in a 3-4 base, but until the spring game it will be tough to get a read on how the defense will look. Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio both are coming off good seasons and Peyton Puelluer has the natural ability to develop into a good Pac-12 linebacker. Roy Manning also joined the staff to coach outside linebackers.