The 2015 season isn't far away; we can see the light at the end of the offseason tunnel already. It's time for a quick Pac-12 knowledge refresher.
Here's how we do this. Every day features a new position group. We provide three categories and place each conference team accordingly: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."
It's time to look at the Pac-12 North's linebackers.
The linebackers are the veteran strength of a Cardinal defense that's losing a flood of talent along the defensive line and in the secondary, so there's pressure on them. Stanford returns Blake Martinez, who anchored the inside with a team-leading 102 tackles in 2014. Fellow senior Kevin Anderson has developed into a dangerous, high-motor pass-rusher on the outside, and Peter Kalambayi is one of the finest young quarterback hunters in the Pac-12. Kevin Palma, Noor Davis, and Joey Alfieri all add quality pieces to this second level.
Like Stanford, the Ducks must replace a couple pieces here (Derrick Malone and Tony Washington), but there's an experienced backbone of talent sticking around. Joe Walker, Rodney Hardrick, Tyson Coleman, and Christian French are all fifth-year seniors, so Oregon is dealing with known commodities who will execute assignments. Even if talent is not on a Kiko Alonso or Michael Clay level anymore, this unit will remain effective.
There's a core of returning talent here, and that bodes well for the Bears because their run defense was actually solid in 2014 (they allowed 4.0 yards per carry, fourth-best in the Pac-12). Still, thanks to a cellar-dwelling pass defense, Cal's aggregate performance on this side of the ball was bad, so we can't justify categorizing their linebackers in the upper tier just yet (they have some coverage responsibilities, too). Sonny Dykes' plan says this should be "Turn the Corner" year for the Bears' defense. Michael Barton, Hardy Nickerson, Jalen Jefferson, and Devante Downs look to be integral pieces of that effort.
The parallels between the Cougars and Cal are striking -- maybe that's why the played an insane 60-59 game last season -- and they continue all the way down to the strengths and weaknesses of their bad defenses. Washington State's secondary also bled yardage and touchdowns last season, but their run defense held it together just like the Bears, allowing 4.1 yards per carry. Between linebackers Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio, both of whom enjoyed productive offseasons, new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has something to work with at this spot. Expect the Cougars to be aggressive bringing pressure from the linebacker position -- Grinch is looking to help the secondary force more turnovers this season.
There were so many proven names at this spot in Seattle last season: Shaq Thompson, Hau'oli Kikaha, John Timu, and Travis Feeney. Of that foursome, only Feeney returns in 2015. To make matters more worrisome, the block-gobbling presence of Danny Shelton up front -- which certainly benefited Washington's linebackers -- is also gone. This is setting up to be one daunting rebuilding effort in Chris Petersen's second year. Cory Littleton, Keishawn Bierria, and Scott Lawyer represent the new guard alongside Feeney.
Three of the Beavers' five leading tacklers are gone, so they're also in a replacement race. Rommel Mageo will be counted on to grab a larger role -- he posted 23 tackles last season -- and underclassmen Kyle Haley, Bright Ugwoegbu, and Caleb Saulo all have talent, but the clay is fresh and still waiting to be molded. New defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake has his work cut out for him in Corvallis: This linebacking unit can benefit if the veterans along the defensive line deliver sturdy support in 2015.