I’ve already ranked the Pac-12’s likely starters at quarterback, the league’s running back rooms and wideout groups, as well as the offensive lines. Now it’s time to look at the defensive lines.

A few notes. First, the returning production percentages you’ll see below do not include transfer numbers. The reasoning is the same as with the offensive line: until we know how those new players will fit into the plan at their new school, it isn’t a 1:1 comparison. Second, edge rushers are included with the defensive line here as opposed to the linebackers.

No. 12: Stanford

Returning pressures: 19.4%

Returning stops: 17.9%

Stanford loses its top five snap-getters from 2021 and eight of its top 11. The Cardinal ranked 122nd nationally last season in run defense, yielding a ghastly 5.7 yards per attempt to opponents. Other national ranks for Stanford: 121st in standard down sack rate (2.7%), 123rd in stuff rate (12.6%), 128th in rushing success rate allowed (54.9%), and 130th or dead last in front-seven havoc rate (7.2%). Essentially, there was zero push up front. Everyone wants to talk about what has happened to Stanford’s power run game in recent years; the more pressing concern for David Shaw is a defensive front that has fallen off a cliff. One nice thing about the group: I like freshman edge David Bailey quite a bit. A ton of upside and there’s no reason for Stanford to keep him off the field in 2022.

No. 11: Colorado

Returning pressures: 59.7%

Returning stops: 58.4%

Carson Wells and Mustafa Johnson need replacing up front. Those two alone combined for 48 quarterback pressures (per PFF) in 2021. Wells looks more like a Sam ‘backer at the NFL level but he was an edge rusher for the Buffs and a darn good one. Easily the team’s best defender a year ago, he posted a pass-rushing win rate that ranked among the 15 best in the Pac-12 (per PFF). Guy Thomas is expected to take over his role. Thomas was pretty disruptive when healthy last season. CU has depth concerns up front, and if one or two of their top-line guys go down it gets hairy. But Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami are nice players. Like Stanford, CU is going to have to find a way to generate some negative plays. Opponents averaged 5 yards a carry on this defense last season (111th nationally) and won short-yardage battles (third- or fourth-down runs with 2 yards or less to go) 80% of the time. 

No. 10: Oregon State

Returning pressures: 61.9%

Returning stops: 51.4%

Riley Sharp looks like a promising edge. He had 26 pressures (quarterback hits, hurries, and sacks) and 19 stops (tackles that constitute a failure for the offense) a season ago. Oregon State needs a go-to havoc-creator in the front seven. Andrzej Hughes-Murray was close to being that guy last season, but this was a front seven that ranked 115th in havoc rate, 127th in standard-down sack rate, and 106th in stuff rate. Thomas Sio, a converted offensive lineman, was a spring standout on the defensive line after seeing just over 100 snaps there last season; he’s projected to start in the middle. Isaac Hodgins is looking to come back from an injury that robbed him of the entire 2021 season. He’s a big piece of this front, a preseason all-conference kind of player going into the 2021 campaign. 

No. 9: California

Returning pressures: 27.5%

Returning stops: 29.6%

Cameron Goode will be missed. He was a monster for the Golden Bears in 2021, playing just under 700 snaps while still producing the fifth-most pressures of any player in the league and the third-most sacks. Cal also needs to replace JH Tevis, Marqez Bimage, and Luc Bequette, but coach Justin Wilcox hit the portal for edge help and secured transfers from a couple of players I like. Odua Isibor and Xavier Carlton come over from UCLA and Utah, respectively. Wilcox will also once again have Brett Johnson, a guy who can move around on the defensive line but missed all of 2021 because of a car accident. 

No. 8: UCLA

Returning pressures: 33.6%

Returning stops: 32.2%

Another new scheme for the Bruins’ defense. Bill McGovern takes over as the new defensive coordinator and he’s brought with him a more traditional 4-3 look than the 4-2-5 UCLA played with last season. McGovern has talent to work with here on this defensive front, to be clear. Bo Calvert and Carl Jones have produced. The Murphy twins, Gabriel and Grayson, bring over a ton of promise after transferring in from North Texas. But it remains to be seen how well the talent on hand fits with what McGovern wants to do. The staff changed over and the Bruins lost seven of their top 12 snap-getters from a season ago, including four of the top five. The Murphy twins on their own—102 pressures last season, UCLA’s leading returner had 19—bump the Bruins up, but there are serious questions about the defensive line.

No. 7: Arizona

Returning pressures: 47.7%

Returning stops: 48.5%

Depth is a bit of a managing act at this point, but Arizona has a trio of players atop the two-deep who are outright studs. Jalen Harris and Kyon Barrs are guys I like to challenge for all-conference spots at the end of the year. (Barrs was a second-team guy last season.) Hunter Echols, coming over from USC, seemed to make the most of his spring period, with Wildcat Authority’s Jason Scheer calling him “consistently one of the best defensive players on the roster in the spring.” If those three can give Arizona consistency when it matters, this group has reason for optimism.

No. 6: Washington

Returning pressures: 68.2%

Returning stops: 54.6%

The talent is unmistakable. When healthy, Zion Tupuola-Fetui is a first-team all-conference edge rusher. Tuli Letuligasenoa is a preseason all-conference guy on the interior of the defensive line. Had Washington’s defense not laid out the welcome mat to opposing rushing attacks last season, he might have been more than just an honorable mention. But that front seven played so poorly a year ago, that’s what Washington gets here—an honorable mention. Middle-of-the-pack on talent alone. Last season, the Huskies ranked 104th in standard-down sack rate (3.7%), 105th in yards per carry allowed (4.8), 113th in short-yardage situations (80%, same as CU), 116th in stuff rate (13.6%), and 121st in rushing success rate allowed (49.6%). Slotting UW at No. 7 is significantly lower than consensus. Preseason preview magazines have this unit ranked in the top four or five. Keep ZTF healthy. Stop the run. 

No. 5: USC

Returning pressures: 54.5%

Returning stops: 55.2%

How physical will USC be under this new coaching staff? Lincoln Riley brought over his Oklahoma DC, Alex Grinch, whose system trades size for speed. The “Speed D,” he calls it. It’s a 3-3-5 look. If Riley’s offense hums, Grinch’s defense will be on the field quite a bit. The complexion of this front looks like it… should… be able to handle that?  Between Nick Figueroa, Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, and Tuli Tuipulotu, there’s a fair amount of athleticism along the defensive line. How much can Brandon Pili, a 6-foot-3, 345-pound sixth-year senior, help out along the interior? He’s making his way back from an Achilles tear. Romello Height and Korey Foreman are a tantalizing pair at USC’s rush end spot, but the former is going to see a sizable jump in responsibility after filling a reserve role at Auburn a year ago and the latter is coming off a disappointing freshman season while still managing the expectations of being a former No. 2 overall recruit. USC has talent, but it is not without questions. Namely, this was a defense that ranked among the worst in the country at hitting backs behind the line of scrimmage (128th in stuff rate) and winning in short-yardage situations (123rd). Grinch has work to do getting this group ready for a Pac-12 title run.   

No. 4: Arizona State

Returning pressures: 68.1%

Returning stops: 52.4%

I’m expecting this Sun Devil front line to play with some nastiness. Nesta Jade Silvera, the big defensive tackle transfer from Miami, could very well go down as one of the 10 most impactful transfer players in the entire conference this season. He had 18 pressures and 24 stops while playing the lion’s share of his snaps as a B-gap DT. Michael Matus, Anthonie Cooper, and Tautala Pesefea Jr. bring experience; Omar Norman-Lott and Joe Moore bring potential; BJ Green II brings something possibly special to the table. Among front-seven players to see at least 100 snaps last season, Green had the fourth-best win rate (per PFF) as a pass-rusher. The guys ahead of him: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Gabe Reid, and Mika Tafua. Pretty good company. Arizona State was also the best team in the conference last season stopping the run. Yes, it needs to replace DJ Davidson and Tyler Johnson, but I’m super high on this group.

No. 3: Washington State

Returning pressures: 77.8%

Returning stops: 92.4%

Washington State has a pretty compelling argument to make for the best pair of edge rushers in the conference. Ron Stone Jr.—a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season—and Brennan Jackson combined for 74 pressures and 63 stops a year ago. They produced nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Nevada import Brian Ward comes over to be Jake Dickert’s new defensive coordinator, and maybe he’s the exact right man for the job. Washington State got pressure on the quarterback a season ago, but it didn’t always bring the quarterback down. Nevada tied Notre Dame and San Diego State for the 12th-most sacks in the country a year ago with 41 in 13 games, just one less than Utah and Clemson. The Cougars’ 21.1% stuff rate also ranked 14th nationally. Every interior defensive lineman who saw at least 100 snaps last year returns, so projecting more consistency feels like a safe bet to make. 

No. 2: Oregon

Returning pressures: 67.7%

Returning stops: 68.0%

No one in the league has recruited the way Oregon has recruited, which means no other team would be better suited to replace a kind of player like Kayvon Thibodeaux. An elite edge rusher, Thibodeaux departs Eugene after three years of dominant—albeit scattered—play. When he was healthy, he was a force; he just wasn’t always healthy. As Oregon moves into a new era under Dan Lanning, a new defensive identity should do this roster wonders. Lanning brought all kinds of pressure from all over the place and simulated pressure as well as anyone while helping Georgia to a national title. Looking at the collection of pieces he has to work with up front in Eugene, you have to think he’s excited. Brandon Dorlus and Popo Aumavae are two of the highest-graded returning defenders in the Pac-12, giving Oregon a stout interior. DJ Johnson looks like a terror unleashed now as a full-time edge guy. Bradyn Swinson got a ton of work filling in for Thibodeaux last season. Oregon also plucked a three-year Washington starter from the transfer portal in Sam Taimani and a pair of Nebraska defensive linemen who spent multiple seasons under new UO defensive line coach Tony Tuioti when they were in Lincoln, Nebraska. There’s a ton of depth and a ton of star potential and a staff that seems poised to maximize it all.

No. 1: Utah

Returning pressures: 42.1%

Returning stops: 56.6%

Let’s just take a second to appreciate the season Mika Tafua had last year. Aidan Hutchinson was a Heisman finalist for his pass-rushing ability and Tafua tied him with 74 total quarterback pressures. Tafua was an absolute unit for a Utah defensive front that terrorized opposing offenses for most of the season. He will not be easily replaced, but Utah has a pair of defenders in Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna who I think can be as good as any in the conference. “Our next man up mentality here at Utah always seems to apply to our defensive line with the talent we continue to bring into the program,” coach Kyle Whittingham said in addressing the group. Tafuna was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. Fillinger’s 9.5 tackles for loss and 21 total pressures are a nice springboard season for what should be an all-conference year in 2022. You just don’t doubt Morgan Scalley’s ability to put together a tenacious defense.