Ranking the Top Pac-12 Defenses for Spring 2021

How do the Pac-12 Defenses stack up for the Spring Season? We take a look and break down the top defenses in the conference.

Photo: AP/Timothy J. Gonzalez

By: Christopher Caravello

As the most tumultuous offseason in college football history has now been extended for the Pac-12 conference, the fallout from the postponed Fall 2020 season has already begun. With so much uncertainty surrounding a potential Spring college football season, some players have decided to enter the transfer portal or declare for the NFL draft. With those changes in mind, we analyze which programs will feature the top defenses in the Pac-12 in 2021.

1. Oregon Ducks

The reigning Pac 12 and Rose Bowl champions will return to the field this season with a defensive roster featuring several of the conference’s best players. The elite Duck secondary that produced 20 interceptions a year ago stayed entirely intact this offseason, meaning opposing offenses will again have to contend with Jevon Holland (the nation's best best slot corner according to PFF), Mykael Wright, Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir, and Rose Bowl Defensive MVP Brady Breeze. It will also be adding Jadarrius Perkins, who is rated the nation’s No. 3 junior college cornerback, and five-star cornerback Dontae Manning. With the back end of this defense able to holds its own, Kayvon Thibodeaux should be able to wreak havoc along the line. The former consensus No. 1 ranked player from the 2019 recruiting class led the nation with seven sacks in the fourth quarter last season, picking up Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors. The biggest area of concern for Oregon is how the linebackers perform without Troy Dye, their leading tackler in each of his 4 seasons. Thankfully, Isaac Slade-Matautia returns after starting all 14 games in 2019 along with a few other veteran players, and there will also be new talent infused with 5-stars Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe joining the team. This is a loaded defense that should help Oregon transition into the post Justin Herbert era a bit easier. The 2020 schedule was supposed to feature Ohio State and FCS powerhouse North Dakota State taking trips to Eugene, and it will be interesting to see if these programs are put back onto the schedule since both are currently slated to play in the spring.

2. Washington Huskies

Every Husky fan is collectively holding their breath waiting for news about defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and defensive back Elijah Molden. The two seniors are receiving accolades in multiple preseason publications, and both could very well have declared after their junior seasons. While it would be a huge loss if one or both decided to forgo the Spring season, UW has proven before that it can insert new personnel onto the defensive side of the ball and still perform at an elite level. This part of the program is a known commodity, and with Pete Kwiatkowski shifting back into the role of DC, the defense should continue to keep Washington in every ballgame. The 2019 season saw 9 new starters on defense, and a year of experience will pay huge dividends in the spring with 7 starters returning. This includes junior Joe Tryon, who posted eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2019, and LB Edefuan Ulofoshio, whose relentless efforts last year earned him a scholarship during the offseason. Whenever UW takes the field again it will also mark the debut of one of the most heralded defensive commits in program history, outside LB Sav'ell Smalls.

3. Utah Utes

Kyle Whittingham’s group is going to need to reload on the defensive side of the ball, as 6 Utah defenders heard their names called in the 2020 NFL draft. The emphasis on the defense will be even more paramount, as Utah also will be replacing its starting RB & QB in a similar situation to what Washington faced last season. The talent evaluation and development that Coach Whittingham and his staff has performed over the past few recruiting cycles has not gone unnoticed with recruits, with incoming DB and one-time Ohio State commit Clark Phillips III joining the defense for the upcoming season. The highest rated commit in Utah history, Phillips should help a secondary that lost Jaylon Johnson and Javelin Guidry to the NFL. On the defensive line, Mika Tafua earned honorable-mention All-Pac-12 last season and should bolster what has been a solid unit the past few seasons.

4. Cal Bears

For the past 2 seasons, the Cal defense has helped bring stability to a program trying to take the next step under Justin Wilcox. The defensive minded coach has improved his win total each year in Berkley, defeated Washington twice, won in Oxford against Ole Miss, and might be poised to take the next step in year 4. Unfortunately, two-time Cal Most Valuable Lineman award winner, Luq Bequette announced he will transfer. With 38 consecutive starts, Bequette has been an anchor on the Cal DL and his decision to enter the transfer portal will impact a defense that was already trying to replace consensus first-team All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Evan Weaver. Fortunately, the defense returns 7 other starters and still has cornerback Camryn Bynum and LB Kuony Deng, with both players being listed on the preseason Bednarik Award watch list which goes to the best defensive player in college football.

5. USC Trojans

Coming off a sweep of the entire South division and facing a schedule that suddenly lacks Alabama and Notre Dame, the Trojans are poised for a promising spring season. USC experienced the first domino to fall in terms of star players deciding not to play this spring as DT Jay Tufele declared for the NFL draft a few days ago. One of the highest rated defensive tackles in the upcoming draft rankings and a starter for all 13 games last season earning 1st Team All-Pac-12 honors in the process, this is a big loss for an otherwise experienced defense that will also be changing schemes under new DC Todd Orlando and an entirely replaced defensive staff. Now the Trojans, along with every other Pac 12 team, will have to wait and see if any other players join Tufele in opting out of the spring season and leaving school entirely. In the meantime, a talented secondary returns key pieces in Talanoa Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao, Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, and Chris Steele. This part of the Trojans defense boasts a ton of experience and will need to provide lock down coverage to pair with the defensive front featuring DE Drake Jackson. The LB units have a ton of talent but are coming off a year in which they were decimated by injury. The talent exists on defense for the Trojans, but if this becomes another season in which rival fans snicker about highly touted USC recruits not living up to their billing, it could finally seal the fate of embattled head coach Clay Helton.

Honorable Mention: ASU Sun Devils

While the first two campaigns under Herm Edwards have shown promise, Sun Devil fans should be excited about the team that ASU will field this season with electric sophomore QB Jayden Daniels and an experienced defense. The defensive unit remains largely intact and will now be co-led by former NFL coach Marvin Lewis and former NFL LB Antonio Pierce. This side of the ball also has the possibility of seeing some help from talented incoming freshmen DT Omarr Norman-Lott and LB Jordan Banks. The amount of close games that this team has found itself in since Edwards took over is staggering, with 17 out of the 26 games that he has coached being decided by one score or less. If this trend continues, having a disciplined and reliable defense could be the key for ASU having a successful season this spring. Worth noting is ASU’s shift from a 3-3-5 defensive scheme to a 4-3, which will force an experienced secondary that has given up explosive plays in the past to hold their own.

Whether or not a Spring college football season becomes feasible is yet to be seen, and even the most stable rosters in the Pac-12 are sure to feel some significant bumps between now and when they finally are able to participate in an actual game. The above rankings could shift as more key players decide to opt out. What is clear today could change tomorrow, making this uncertain offseason sure to lead into an equally unpredictable season no matter when it is finally played.