<
>

UCLA, Washington lead Pac-12's talented secondaries

Every Pac-12 team will deal with primary issues during spring practices, but just one -- Arizona State -- will be taxed by secondary issues.

That bit of fatuous wordplay leads into the conference's most notable personal strength heading into the 2016 season: the secondary.

Nine teams welcome back at least three starters in the back half on defense. One team not included in that crew, Stanford, pretty much should be, as two starters are back and Zach Hoffpauir, a 2014 starter, is returning to the team after focusing for a year on professional baseball. Arizona State is the only team replacing three starters, and that might not be a bad thing for a unit that surrendered 35 touchdown passes last fall, tied for most in the conference.

Moreover, this is a quantity and quality issue. Seven of the eight first- or second-team All-Pac-12 DBs will be back this fall. Washington welcomes back three of its four starters from a secondary that featured two first-team All-Pac-12 performers -- safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones -- and yielded just 11 touchdown passes, which tied for ninth fewest in the nation.

UCLA, which led the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense in 2015, welcomes back pretty much its entire two-deep in the secondary, and that doesn't include cornerback Fabian Moreau, who missed the 2015 season due to injury. In fact, four Bruins defensive backs -- Moreau, Ishmael Adams, Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood -- have earned first- or second-team all-conference honors over the past two seasons.

“I like our secondary," UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "You need a lot of depth in the secondary when you start playing a lot of nickel. You need more depth than in the old days when you’re only playing four back there. Now you’re forced to play five a lot more often -- unless you have a special guy like [linebacker] Myles Jack.”

And the Bruins' 2015 secondary, as more than a few UCLA fans will sigh, only benefited from Jack's presence in three games last year.

Last spring, things were different. Just three of the 10 first- or second-team All-Pac-12 defensive backs (yes, the all-conference teams were set up in a nickel) were slated to return. Moreover, USC's Su'a Cravens switched to linebacker, and Moreau, as noted, got hurt.

There are two more variables worth noting here. For one, eight Pac-12 teams are replacing their starting quarterback, an atypically high number. While that sounds like a big win for conference pass defenses, there's also this: Just two of the 15 first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honorees from the defensive front seven return in 2016 (Utah DT Lowell Lotulelei and UCLA LB Deon Hollins). Just three players who ranked among the league's top 10 in sacks will be back.

So a bevy of new QBs will be throwing against strong secondaries but might be facing less pressure.

“What’s going to happen, early on, is your secondary guys might see more tackling," Bradley said. "There are going to be some busts up front. You can’t do as many schematic things when your down guys aren’t as mature.”

A potential beneficiary could be the conference's strongest offensive position: running back. Six of the top eight rushers from 2015 are back, a list headed by Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, Oregon's Royce Freeman, Washington's Myles Gaskin, Arizona State's Demario Richard, Arizona's Nick Wilson and USC's Ronald Jones.

While UCLA and Washington should lead the conference's strong pass defenses, if you are looking for a team potentially on the uptick, it could be Oregon, which welcomes back all four 2015 starters, albeit from a fairly maligned secondary. The Ducks, hit hard by youth and injuries after losing three starters from 2014, also yielded 35 TD passes last year and ranked eighth in pass efficiency defense. The season before, they ranked third in the conference in PE defense and gave up just 20 TD passes.

Secondaries do tend to improve with experience, as youngsters grow more comfortable playing in space against the freakish athletes the Pac-12 offers up. Consider the Huskies, who boasted probably the nation's most talented front seven in 2014 but still gave up 26 touchdown passes and ranked eighth in pass efficiency defense, in large part because of a freshman/sophomore-laden secondary. That crew grew up in 2015, and should be even better this fall.

While across the board, for the most part, Pac-12 teams have questions with their front sevens, it's always comforting to be talented and experienced in the back half. It is, after all, the last line of defense.

“I look at it this way," Bradley said. "A guy up front, he makes mistakes, there’s always the linebackers to cover for him. A linebacker goes the wrong way, is not in the right fill, the secondary guy can cover for him. But the secondary guy, there’s no one to cover for him because the next line is the end zone. Their mistakes are magnified, become ESPN highlights.”