We're just a couple of weeks from the Pac-12's all-conference teams being announced. And with those comes the recognition of the league's offensive player of the year, the Pat Tillman defensive player of the year and the league's coach of the year. All awards are voted on by the league's coaches.
As the season winds down, we thought we'd toss our thoughts out there. Tuesday we covered offense, Wednesday is defense and Thursday coach of the year.
David Lombardi: There's no question that this has been a down year for defense in the Pac-12. The conference lost an immense amount of star power to the NFL draft, and those players took hundreds of sacks, tackles for loss, and interceptions with them. One can even argue that increased parity in the league can be traced back to this mass defensive exodus -- it's close to impossible to find a unit that hasn't been lit up for gaudy numbers at some point this season.
But there is at least one star who had the option to go pro but didn't, and that's Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. He currently leads the Pac-12 with 7.5 sacks, and although that isn't an insane total (consider the fact that Nate Orchard and Hau'oli Kikaha both finished with more than 18 sacks last year), Buckner has been dominant enough to earn first-round NFL draft evaluations.
"It's been a struggle for the Oregon defense, but don't blame Buckner," Mel Kiper wrote.
I certainly don't blame the senior -- it's clear that the Ducks' woes have been most pronounced in the secondary, and not on the defensive line. Watching Buckner wreak havoc against a very talented Stanford offensive line on Saturday solidified my opinion of him: He's a 6-foot-7, 300-pound physical freak that disrupts plays even while facing consistent double teams.
Kyle Bonagura: The case for the Pac-12's best defensive player shouldn't be told through his statistics. UCLA nose tackle Kenny Clark, by virtue of his role, simply isn't going to put up the type of numbers that are usually associated with Player of the Year type distinctions. That shouldn't affect his candidacy.
That said, the stats are still solid: he ranks tied for No. 31 in the conference in tackles (53) and tied for seventh with five sacks, but Clark's dominance is more apparent when seeing how opposing teams are forced to deal with him. Double teams are standard, triple teams aren't rare and, according to UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure, he commonly forces teams to alter their usual blocking schemes to account for his whereabouts.
A true junior, Clark has been starting games since midway through his freshman year, when he displaced a senior, Seali'I Epenesa, well-regarded enough to sign a rookie free agent contract with the New England Patriots. Clark's ability to occupy blockers was instrumental a year ago as middle linebacker Erik Kendricks broke the school's all-time tackles record. It was even more important this year as the Bruins were forced to replace three NFL-caliber players.
Should Clark forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft, which is expected, he has the chance to be an early first-round pick and possibly the first Pac-12 player selected. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Clark at No. 9 overall on his Big Board and after the season he's has, it shouldn't come as a surprise if his stock continues to rise.
Kevin Gemmell: This is a much tougher call than our offensive discussion. Buckner and Clark are certainly deserving. And if we randomly drew names from a hat and I picked either of those guys, I'd make the same arguments.
Fortunately, that's not the case. We get to choose on our own. And I'm going with Utah linebacker Gionni Paul. (For the record, I was trying to decide between Paul, Su'a Cravens and Travis Feeney). Kyle is right in the sense that statistics shouldn't necessarily drive this particular award. Unlike offense, where touchdowns provide convincing and empirical evidence, defensive impact is tougher to quantify.
But numbers can't be ignored, either. Especially good ones. And it's not just the fact that Paul has very good statistics. It's that he's got them in multiple categories: tackles, tackles for a loss, interceptions, fumbles recovered. Where some players excel at one dimension of the game, this guy is everywhere. He makes plays behind the line, at the line and at the second level. His presence makes Utah's defense better in every phase.
His 86 stops rank third in the league. He's tied for fifth in tackles for a loss (12), tied for second in the league in interceptions (3) and tied for the league lead in fumbles recovered (3).
Further, Utah's defense is No. 1 in the league against the run -- in large part to Paul -- and they are fourth in scoring defense, yielding 23.1 points per game. That bests UCLA's 25.2 and Oregon 37.1, dead last in the league. I think you have to consider a team's defensive success when judging the league's defensive player of the year. Because those numbers have to count for something.
From a versatility and production standpoint, Paul has been too good in too many areas not to be considered the league's defensive MVP.