We’re taking a look at where each Pac-12 team stands coming out of spring ball on a position-by-position basis, and today we're switching things up. Instead of a straight 1-12 ranking, here's a tiered look at the returning defensive lines.
DE DeForest Buckner is arguably the best defensive lineman in the conference and returns alongside NG Aelx Balducci, who started all 15 games a year ago. The Ducks will move on without DE Arik Armstead, a first-round pick of the 49ers, but have an intriguing group of players ready to compete for his snaps -- with Tui Talia, T.J. Daniel, Henry Mondeaux, Jalen Jelks among them.
Replacing DE Owa Odighizuwa, a third-round pick of the New York Giants, will prove difficult, but the duo of Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes is the most talented returning 1-2 punch in the conference. Late last season, it was assumed Ellis McCarthy would slide into Odighizuwa’s starting role in 2015, but his surprising departure for the NFL (he went undrafted before signing with New England) leaves a job up for grabs. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Takkarist McKinley headline the group in contention there.
Leonard Williams is irreplaceable, but the Trojans have five, yes five, fifth-year seniors who will be in the rotation up front, with Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods and Claude Pelon the projected starters. Greg Townsend Jr. and Cody Temple should see plenty of time, and sophomore DT Kenny Bigelow could make an impact after sitting out the past two seasons because of an injury and his redshirt.
DE Nate Orchard led the nation in sacks per game, but that was undoubtedly made possible by the pressure created by the rest of the line in "Sack Lake City." Junior DE Hunter Dimick (10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss), senior DE Jason Fanaika (55 tackles, 5 sacks), and disruptive sophomore DT Lowell Lotulelei (33 tackles, 4 sacks) provide a good starting point. Sophomore DT Filipo Mokofisi and senior DT Viliseni Fauonuku will boost the interior, and UCLA transfer DE Kylie Fitts should also play a significant role.
GOOD, NOT GREAT
With Reggie Gilbert (34 starts) returning for a fifth season, the Wildcats have one of the most experienced players in the country. He leads a solid group that features undersized former walk-on Parker Zellers, Jeff Worthy, Sani Fuimaono and Calvin Allen.
The Sun Devils lack the star power provided by Marcus Hardison a year ago, but they should be in good shape assuming the development process plays out as expected. Senior Demetrius Cherry, junior Edmond Boateng, junior Villiami Latu and sophomore Tashon Smallwood have enough combined experience to indicate the line could be an area of strength.
Coach Mike MacIntyre has spoken at length about his team’s lack of depth up front, but that shouldn’t be as much of an issue this season. Juda Parker is gone, but three of four starters on the line (Derek McCartney, Josh Tupou and Jimmie Gilbert) return as the Buffaloes transition into new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s 3-4 scheme. Justin Solis was productive in a backup role last season, and the group receives a boost from junior-college transfers Jordan Carrell (DT) and Blake Robbins (DE).
The Beavers need to replace four outgoing seniors, including Dylan Wynn, who started 44 games. Seniors DE Jaswha James, DE Lavonte Barnett and DT Jalen Grimble have all started games, but there isn’t much in the way of depth.
WAIT AND SEE
Losing Brennan Scarlett, potentially its best defensive lineman, to its cross-bay rival was just awkward, but Cal has enough returning talent for some optimism. DE Kyle Kragen will return from injury, Wake Forest-transfer DT James Looney has drawn solid reviews and DT Mustafa Jalil and DE Noah Westerfield both showed promise last season. The priority needs to be an improved pass rush to take the pressure off a battered secondary.
The Cardinal had three fifth-year seniors starting up front in 2014, which leaves the line in flux heading into next season. DE Solomon Thomas, who redshirted last year, has star potential and Scarlett (whose career has been plagued by injuries) has long been billed as an NFL talent, but an extreme lack of depth is worrisome. The rest of the defensive linemen on the roster combined for 25 tackles last season: Aziz Shittu (13 tackles), Jordan Watkins (0), Harrison Phillips (9), Nate Lohn (1) and Torsten Rotto (2).
Somehow the Huskies will have to account for the departures of Danny Shelton (93 tackles), Hau'oli Kikaha (72 tackles), Evan Hudson (31 tackles) and Andrew Hudson (77 tackles). To do so, they will rely on a number of lesser-known players including Elijah Qualls, Joe Mathis, Taniela Tupou and Will Dissly among others
Destiny Vaeao is the lone returning starter with Xavier Cooper (Cleveland, third round) and Toni Pole (Cincinnati, UDFA) off to the NFL. Cooper, particularly, will be tough to replace, but Daniel Ekuale, Robert Barber and Darryl Pauilo have shown enough to expect decent production up front for new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.