Pac-12 has produced backfield terrors, who's next?

Earlier this week, the Pac-12 blog brought you a story about why offensive production has increased in the league over the last five seasons. Here’s the side bar to that ... Pac-12 defensive players are getting better. Seem counterintuitive?

Maybe. But consider that the league has had 12 defensive players taken in the first round of the NFL draft over the last three seasons. So for all the offense that’s going up, there are some GMs out there who think some of these defensive guys are pretty good too.

The Pac-12 has had some of the nation’s most dominant edge rushers over the past three seasons -- be it from off the line, as a linebacker, or as a hybrid.

In 2012, Anthony Barr, Will Sutton and Morgan Breslin were all top-three nationally in sacks. A year later, Trent Murphy led the nation in sacks, while Hau'oli Kikaha was in the top five. Last season Kikaha led the country, with Nate Orchard and Scooby Wright III in the top five.

Just as there were fairly elementary explanations for the offensive surge -- great quarterbacks mixed with more spread offenses -- the spread explanation can also be applied to the other side of the ball.

“It’s been pretty special on both sides of the ball,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “The spread game lends itself to a Trent Murphy, who can lead the nation in sacks playing against up-tempo passing teams because you have guys with a greater chance to get after the quarterback. The style of offense lends toward a certain style of defense. If a guy is good at being a great tackler in space, it shows off their skill set even more.”

It’s true, Pac-12 defenses give up a lot of yards and a lot of points. The numbers don’t lie. But is that because the defenses are soft? Or is it because the offenses are surging? The latter makes the most sense given the defensive talent that's gone to the NFL the last three seasons. And it’d be pretty tough to lead the country in scoring, and scoring defense, at the same time.

Two of the last three seasons the Pac-12 has led the country (including last year) in sacks per game. But last season might have been its most impressive, because the league also led the country in total sacks with 425. Why is that so impressive? The Pac-12 played 156 games last season compared to the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, which all played 181. Still, Pac-12 defenders put quarterbacks on their respective backs more than any other conference.

But a massive talent drain leaves a void and begs the question: Who are the next great backfield havoc-wreakers in the Pac-12? Seven of the 10 leaders in sacks are gone. Seven of the 10 leaders in tackles for a loss are gone. Here are a few candidates (in alphabetical order) to watch this season. Remember, we’re just looking at backfield plays.

  • Kevin Anderson, Stanford: Along with Peter Kalambayi (see below) the Cardinal might have their best 1-2 OLB punch since the Murphy-Chase Thomas era. He had 5.5 sacks last year and 11.5 tackles for a loss. But depth on the defensive line – and whether that front can open up the holes for the OLBs, remains to be seen.

  • Lavonte Barnett, Oregon State: The senior defensive end is an interesting player. He had a nice breakout season last season with 4.5 sacks (0.45 per game) and missed a couple of games because of injury. The Beavers might go to an odd front -- we say “might” because they spent one half of spring as an odd-front team and the other as an even-front team. But they’ll be multiple at the very least. Barnett might not play every down, but he's the best pass rusher the Beavers have. And new DC Kalani Sitake was brilliant at Utah at using hybrid guys to create havoc in the backfield.

  • Su'a Cravens, USC: Not exactly the same frame as a lot of guys on this list, but he showed his versatility last season by finishing fourth in the league with 17 tackles for a loss. He might not get after the quarterback, but depending on how he's used, he can blow up plays before they get started.

  • Hunter Dimick, Utah: The defensive end had great numbers last season, producing 14.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks. Question is, how much did he benefit from the presence of Nate Orchard? And with a new defensive coordinator for the first time in his career, can he become “the guy” in Utah’s front seven? If you missed it a couple months ago, Ted Miller chatted with Dimick about that very topic.

  • Christian French, Oregon: You have to go back to 2011 to find an Oregon player who finished in the top five in the league in sacks, as Dion Jordan had 7.5 that season. One offensive coordinator in the league recently described French as “freaky athletic.” We’ve heard that same adjective to describe the likes of Barr, Sutton and Murphy. French had 6.5 sacks last season and 7.5 tackles of a loss. He, like Jordan, worked out early in his career as a tight end. French could be poised for a breakout season.

  • Deon Hollins, UCLA: With Myles Jack moving to inside linebacker opposite rising sophomore Kenny Young, there is going to be ample opportunity for Hollins to make plays on the edge. He might be the biggest benefactor of new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Hollins will be a hybrid OLB/DE, which means he’ll have good opportunities for QB sacks and TFLs. Hollins posted nine sacks last season.

  • Peter Kalambayi, Stanford: Much like Anderson, much depends on how the defensive line comes together. But it’s pick your poison between those two. Because if you try to double up on one side, the other has a good chance to get you. Kalambayi broke out nicely last season with 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss.

  • Wright III, Arizona: What makes him so impressive is he does it from the middle linebacker position instead of at defensive end or hybrid OLB. He tallied 14 sacks last season to go with 29 tackles for a loss. It’s not like he’s a big secret, either. Teams scheme for him, and he finds ways around those schemes with his ultra-high motor.