- Washington (Stars: LB Azeem Victor DT Vita Vea LB Keishawn Bierria DT Greg Gaines S Taylor Rapp S JoJo McIntosh)
The Huskies lost three starters from their secondary to the second round of the draft, but almost everything else returns from a great unit. Victor and Vea are first-team All-American-level players and every other position has potential All-Pac-12 players returning with great depth.
2. Stanford (CB Quenton Meeks S Justin Reid LB Peter Kalambayi, LB Joey Alfieri, LB Kevin Palma DT Harrison Phillips CB Alijah Holder)
Stanford’s defense is big, deep, experienced and talented. The secondary and linebackers could be the best of any in the conference and their defensive line is coming up as well, even without Solomon Thomas.
3. USC (LB Cameron Smith DE Porter Gustin DT Rasheem Green CB Iman Marshall S Chris Hawkins)
This formerly young Trojan group came of age in 2016 and is loaded with NFL talent. Smith is the leader in the middle as one of the nation’s best inside linebackers and Gustin, Green and Marshall could be the best raw talented defenders in the whole conference.
4. Utah (DT Lowell Lotulelei DE Kylie Fitts DT Filipo Mokofisi S Chase Hansen)
The Utes are consistent and powerful on defense, especially up front. Lotulelei, Fitts and Mokofisi is the conference’s best 1-2-3 punch on the defensive line. Hansen should help the secondary transition with new starters.
5. UCLA (S Jaleel Wadood LB Kenny Young)
The Bruins graduated a lot of defensive talent last year, but a lot is still around. Wadood might be the conference’s best DB and Young the best healthy returning linebacker. The rest of the starters are talented and just have to prove it on the field.
6. Colorado (CB Isaiah Oliver S Afolabi Laguda)
The Buffs had a mass exodus on defense, especially in the secondary where they lost three NFL players, but also up front along with DC Jim Leavitt. The good news is they have talent coming back like Oliver and Laguda and hopefully Derek McCartney coming off an injury.
7. Washington State (DE Hercules Mata’afa LB Peyton Pelleur DT Daniel Ekuale)
The Cougars have had underrated defenses in recent years and that could be the case again. Mata’afa might be the conference’s best pass rusher, Pelleur one of the best tacklers and the rest of the line and secondary more talented and experienced than the lay fan might realize.
8. Oregon State (CB Xavier Crawford LB Manase Hungalu)
Gary Andersen is building a tough defense in Corvallis. They don’t have the talent of an upper-level team, but they are getting there. Crawford is big and one of the best young defensive backs in the conference and Hungalu is a senior leader who can rack up tackles.
9. Arizona State (DE JoJo Wicker LB Koron Crump DT Tashon Smallwood LB D.J. Calhoun)
This unit that got shredded in 2016 isn’t short on talent. Todd Graham has the pieces to get his defense going again if he can settle it down and not miss on so many blitzes.
10. Cal (DT James Looney)
Cal’s defenses have been really bad lately, but that’s exactly why defensive whiz Justin Wilcox was hired. There is enough talent coming back to shore things up quicker than you think in Berkeley.
11. Oregon (LB Troy Dye)
Jim Leavitt is in Eugene to turn this historically-bad unit around. There is speed and some talent, led by freshman sensation Dye, but they have a long ways to go.
The Wildcats haven’t been good on defense for a long time. They could start to turn that around in 2017 if their experienced players progress.