Over the next few weeks we'll be breaking down each position group heading into spring ball. Today, we look at the South’s defensive lines.
Utah: Worry about replacing the trio of linebackers, sure. But don’t worry about the boys up front. An off-and-on, injury-plagued season hampered defensive end Hunter Dimick in 2015, but he should be back healthy. His absence opened the door for UCLA transfer Kylie Fitts to have an outstanding season. Expect both to be starters and potential all-conference candidates. Lowell Lotulelei has matured impressively and Filipo Mokofisi returns as another big body on the interior. Jason Fanaika will be missed, but solid backups like Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Pita Taumoepenu are ready to rotate in. As of today, on paper, Utah has the top defensive line in the league.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils return everybody across the defensive front except for Demetrius Cherry, though Viliami Latu got plenty of time at nose anyway. Tashon Smallwood will be a junior and JoJo Wicker will be sophomore. Those guys are bigger, stronger and wiser. As a trio last year, they combined for 23 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. Plus there are backups like Edmond Boateng and Renell Wren who have some experience. Coming off of redshirt years are Jalen Bates and George Lea (suspended all of last year for the BB gun incident) and they should contribute immediately. This is probably ASU’s strongest position group.
UCLA: Filling the massive hole in the middle of the defensive line -- vacated by the soon-to-be-drafted Kenny Clark -- has to be a top priority. One key person that isn’t leaving, however, is defensive line coach Angus McClure, who reportedly will stay on after being aggressively pursued by Nebraska. He’ll be coaching two returning starters in Takkarist McKinley (35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks) and Eli Ankou (47 tackles, five for a loss, 1.5 sacks). Also back after missing almost all of 2015 is Eddie Vanderdoes. He only appeared in the season opener last year, but still totaled eight tackles and two for a loss. When all is said and done, he could be the top defensive lineman in the league in 2016.
Arizona: The biggest loss here is defensive end Reggie Gilbert. He posted 41 stops last season -- tops among the defensive linemen -- and he led the Wildcats with 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. The good news is the rest of the major rotation returns. That includes nose tackles Sani Fuimaono and Parker Zellers and Luca Bruno at the opposite end. Before passing too many judgements early on, we need to see how new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and his 4-2-5 scheme (at least that’s what we think is being installed) plays out compared to Arizona's previous 3-3-5 scheme. Though don’t expect a huge shift on the defensive line. The extra lineman will likely be a hybrid rush end/OLB.
Colorado: Justin Solis is the only member from last year’s three-man front to leave. Defensive tackle Jordan Carrell and defensive end Leo Jackson III return, giving the Buffs a bit of experience on a defense that improved drastically last season. The question is going to be finding depth and a viable rotation. That could involve any number of guys, including Eddy Lopez, Michael Mathewes, Tyler Henington and Jase Franke.
USC: For as good as USC is on the offensive line (and they should be very, very good) they are extremely questionable on the other side of the ball. They lose all the starters, which includes all-conference NT Antwaun Woods, DT Delvon Simmons and DE Greg Townsend. Also gone is steady backup Claude Pelon. Promising young players who have to step up include DE Rasheem Green, DT Kenny Bigelow and NT Noah Jefferson.