I’m running through the 10 most intriguing players in the Pac-12 this season. This isn’t a list of the most important players or the best — we’ve already done that. Instead, it’s a look at which players across the league have the widest-ranging potential. Who can swing the league with a strong campaign? Which players have the potential to flip a win or two their team’s way? Here’s the group so far:

No. 10 Stanford offensive line

No. 9 Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui

No. 8 Oregon’s Justin Flowe

No. 7 USC’s Calen Bullock

No. 6 Arizona’s Jacob Cowing


No. 5: Darius Muasau, UCLA linebacker

Only one linebacker played more snaps than Muasau last season. The 6-foot-1 off-ball linebacker didn’t just break out, he exploded, so Hawaii just left him on the field. He posted 109 tackles — breaking the century mark for the second year in a row — to go with 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and five forced fumbles. 

He’s a ball-stopper with heat-seeking missile tendencies when sent on the blitz. Getting downhill is a skill, and the Ewa Beach, Hawaii native does it as well as anyone. 

Think about what UCLA needed. You couldn’t design a better linebacker to plug and play. 

For two years, UCLA brought pressure with little to show for it. The team hasn’t been able to generate enough splash plays, despite blitzing at one of the highest rates in football. 

UCLA ranked 79th nationally in havoc rate (tackles for loss, fumbles forced, passes defended) last season. 

It ranked 92nd in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage).

And it ranked 100th in sack rate. 

On passing downs, they brought pressure but had one of the nine worst sack rates in the country.

UCLA needed splash plays, and every offseason decision the defense made needed to be viewed through that lens. 

Bill McGovern is not Jerry Azzinaro. The latter overstayed his welcome a bit in Westwood, wearing on the fanbase until it was painfully obvious a separation was needed. The former is going to embolden Muasau. McGovern’s style is to bring his linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to help fill gaps and generate pressure.

Muasau wants to make plays. 

“When I get home … I just watch extra film, things I can get better at,” the linebacker said earlier in fall camp. “And not just our own film but also NFL film as well. I’m picking out specific things that they do in the league that I can implement into my own game.

“Right now, I think the top linebacker is Fred Warner, Darius Leonard. Devin White is up there. Guys like that (who) are always around the ball making big plays, difference-makers. That’s what I’m trying to strive to be.”

When he showed up on campus, Muasau’s new teammates said he wasn’t much of a talker. “I wanna say he was kinda shy with the group,” said defensive back Stephan Blaylock. But once practice started — or a meeting, or a film study — Muasau made his mark in his way. 

Asked what Muasau brings to the Bruins, the first thing out of Blaylock’s mouth is “physicality.”

For a while there — and early on, too — Muasau was catching everyone off guard. He’d call out the pulling guard before the ball was snapped. He’d call out the play before the offense triggered it. 

“You see this is a smart young man,” Blaylock said. 

Added offensive lineman Jon Gaines II: “He’s an instinctive player. … You can tell he takes his time, he’s very detail-oriented and he’s a hard-nosed linebacker. That’s all you really want out of a linebacker. You want people that know what they’re doing and hit hard.”

And Muasau hits hard. 

“Darius is a football player,” McGovern said, which is about the best compliment a coach can give. They say it all time. Does a guy love football? Is he about football even when it’s not glamorous or rewarding? “You can see it. He’s taken control in the middle. He’s done a nice job.”

Linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. sees the same.

“Such an exciting young player,” he said. “Really smart, really fast, tough. (He) has a good, mean attitude. Very coachable. Loves, loves football and he wants to improve. Any time you have all those variables, all those different traits in a linebacker, you’ve got a real good chance to be good.”

UCLA has been held back by its defense. An 8-4 season a year ago could have been much more if not for some of the defensive struggles. Coach Chip Kelly should have the offense rolling again. Maybe UCLA can catch the rest of the South* as SC is transitioning to the new era and Utah is taking its turn as the hunted rather than the hunter. Defensive improvement is a must. If the Bruins get it, this team can win 10 games and it can challenge for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and it can do all the things detractors say a Chip Kelly-coached team can no longer do.

And, no, one guy doesn’t completely change the defense. If UCLA shows that improvement we think it can, it’ll be because the collective was better. Muasau wasn’t the only impact transfer to join the program on that side of the ball this offseason. 

But given his production, he’s certainly one of the most interesting.