Posted on June 2, 2021
Teams struggled to stop the run and rush the passer. Maybe it was a conditioning thing.
I expect defensive line play to step back up in the Pac-12 in 2021, even though I don’t think the unit is loaded with talent and experience this year.
Also, each year, I put a note in these rankings that the difference between DEs and OLBs (sometimes combined as “EDGE”) is very gray in many schemes in college football.
So I classify some players as DEs that may kind of be OLBs, and just go off what the consensus seems to be with what I see them labeled as.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Junior Defensive End, Oregon
The table is set for Thibodeaux to be Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, an All-American, and a top NFL Draft pick in 2022.
If he can play the way he has against USC the past two years, he can do just that.
If not, he’s still easily the returning top defensive lineman in the Conference, and one of the best pure pass-rushers in the nation.
Ten sacks and 20 TFLs seems like the minimum for him in 2021.
2. Jermayne Lole, Senior Defensive Tackle, Arizona State
The Sun Devil big man has been one of the most-underrated players in the Pac-12 the past years and is one of the top-graded DTs returning in college football in 2021.
He makes a ton of plays on the interior of the defensive line and has the athleticism to get laterally across the line.
Watch for him to truly break out in 2021.
3. Mika Tafua, Junior Defensive End, Utah
Tafua emerged as a Second-Team All-Pac-12 player in 2020, and is a powerful presence on the edge for Utah.
The Utes have made their money getting defensive linemen like Tafua to step up as All-American types late in their careers, and Tafua feels like the next player who could do that in Salt Lake City, especially if he can rush the passer more.
4. Ryan Bowman, Senior Defensive End, Washington
Bowman missed almost all of 2020, but has some of the best numbers of any returning DE/OLB in the Pac-12, with 14 sacks and 24.5 TFLs in three years.
He should still be one of the most dangerous defenders in the Conference on third-and-long, and is also a pretty solid run defender as well.
5. Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Junior Defensive End, Washington
ZTF would have easily been the number one defensive lineman in the Conference had he not suffered an achilles injury in Spring football.
He was one of the most dominant defenders the Pac-12 has seen in the first three games of the 2020 season, putting up video game numbers off the edge.
I will put him here because it sounds like he may be back late in 2021, and he could make more of an impact in that time than the rest of the DL field, which is very weak.
6. Thomas Booker, Senior Defensive End, Stanford
Big, strong, talented and versatile, Booker has been a solid presence for the Cardinal for years now.
He has 100 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, and 8.5 sacks in three years of football so far.
He’s also intimidating on the edge at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, while not being overweight in the slightest.
7. Terrance Lang, Junior Defensive End, Colorado
The 6-7, 285 monster emerged as a major playmaker in 2019 and followed it up with a solid 2020.
The Buffs hope he can return to 2019 form when he had 30 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. He feels like a guy who could put it all together in 2021 and become a first round pick.
8. Tyler Johnson, Junior Defensive End, Arizona State
The powerful pass rusher had his best season in the abridged, 2020, snatching up 7.5 TFLs and five sacks.
I think Johnson is going to really emerge in a full season in 2021, working with Lole up front and be a key part of an ASU defense that I think could be really good this season.
9. Nick Figueroa, Senior Defensive End, USC
Figueroa stepped up in 2020 and should produce even more in 2021 with a bunch of stalwarts on the USC DL off to the NFL.
He’s big and strong and can hold the edge while also rushing the quarterback, just a balanced and tough DE.
10. Isaac Hodgins, Junior Defensive End, Oregon State
Hodgins is turning into the best defensive lineman Oregon State has had in a while.
He seemed to turn a corner in 2020, turning into a game-changing player up front for the Beavers.
11. Tuli Tuipulotu, Sophomore Defensive End, USC
Marlon’s little brother was one of the best freshman defenders in the Pac-12 in 2020.
He’s a guy I could easily see being first or second team All-Pac-12 by the end of the season with the talent he has.
12. Brennan Jackson, Junior Defensive End, Washington State
Jackson showed the ability to get off the edge really fast in 2020, and really make things hard on opposing offenses.
He’s a player I would watch out for all of the sudden to get 10 sacks in 2021.
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