Last week, I covered the Pac-12’s top 2016 NFL Draft prospects at each offensive position. Today we focus on the defensive side of the ball.
Kylie Fitts, DE (Utah):
The Utes return valued talent on the defensive side of the ball, and Fitts is a tremendous one. The Army All-American originally signed with UCLA and played six games for the Bruins in 2013 primarily on special teams; he then transferred to Utah and was forced to sit out the 2014 season per NCAA rules. Fitts’ first year in Salt Lake was as advertised, playing in all 13 games with 11 starts, leading the Pac-12 (tied for ninth in the country) with four forced fumbles. His seven sacks paced Utah and ranked fourth in the conference while finishing second on the team and tied for fourth in the Pac-12 in pass breakups (10).
Fitts spent the majority of his time as a 5- and 6-Tech and Wide 9 rusher. As his numbers indicate, he is an extremely disruptive player with a swift first step that allows him to win the edge as highlighted in the videos above; he also possesses the lower body flexibility to flatten his path to the quarterback. He is an instinctive player who gets his hands up to disrupt passing lanes and defend passes, an invaluable asset in today’s NFL. Against the run, Fitts’ ability to change direction in short areas, sift through the trash, and set a hard edge make him one of the complete players in the conference. At 6’4,” 265 pounds, Fitts’ best fit is as a 4-3 defensive end primarily because of his ability against the run coupled with his pass rush; while he can afford to add five to seven more pounds, five of the 15 NFL teams that ran a 4-3 (just prior to the 2015 season) featured defensive ends that weighed an average of 265 pounds or less.
Lowell Lotulelei, NT (Utah):
Another member of the Utes’ talented defense, Lotulelei is the younger brother of former Utah great and current Carolina Panther, Star. Lowell has made a name for himself after playing in 13 games (nine starts) as a true freshman, earning first-team Freshman All-American honors by USA Today and second-team Freshman All-American honors by Scout.com after tallying 33 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. This past season, he made an equal amount of appearances and recorded 26 total tackles, five TFL, a sack, pass breakup and forced fumble en route to first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Standing 6’2,” 310 pounds, Lotulelei lines up as a 0- and 1-Tech where he can be a natural two-gapper. The first video showcases Lotulelei’s ability to fire off the ball with desirable leverage and punch, creating separation that he utilizes to locate the ball carrier and shed the block. His upper body strength allows him to push the pocket as shown in the second video; teams place a premium of protecting a quarterback’s blind side, but generating interior pressure is equally as important for any defense. Due to these traits, Lotulelei projects as a 3-4 end due to the responsibilities of occupying blocks over rushing the passer, but will fit naturally in a 4-3 due to Utah’s use of multiple defensive packages.
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT (UCLA):
Vanderdoes was a herald recruit as a USA Today and Army All-American, widely regarded as a top three defensive tackle via numerous recruiting services. As a true freshman in 2013, he played in all 13 games (seven starts) and garnered first-team Freshman All-America honors by Sporting News and Football Writers Association, as well as honorable mention all-conference. His played improved in 2014 after starting 12 games and racking up 50 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and two sacks, repeating his honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection, but tore his ACL in the 2015 opener and was forced to miss the remainder of the season.
The 6’4,” 305 pound senior has lined up solely as a 1- and 3-Tech, and will likely do the same at the next level. Vanderdoes isn’t a dynamic pass rusher and has athletic limitations, but he is a smart player who is quick to recognize run and maintain appropriate gap integrity. For what he lacks in athleticism, he remedies with brute strength that allows to hold his ground and keep blockers off his linebackers against double teams. He has flashed refined pass rush moves, but has yet to become a disruptive force.
Pita Taumoepenu, EDGE (Utah):
The Utah native began playing football when he moved from Tonga at 17, earning USA Today All-Utah Football Team honors in just one season of high school football. After spending most of his time on special teams as a freshman in 2013, Taumoepenu played in all 13 games (one start) and tallied 17 tackles and 5.5 sacks the following year. He played in all 13 games this past season, racking up six sacks along the way.
The raw pass rushing ability shows in Taumoepenu’s game, but he quite possibly has the quickest first step in this years’ class. He sets up the left tackle, causing him to panic and eliminating his ability to remain poised, before executing one of the more refined spin moves you can find; from there, he uses his athleticism to take down Goff. He has flashed an over-reliance on said move and his coaches wish to get him from 245 pounds to 260, but he certainly has the potential to be an every down player albeit being a more advanced pass rusher than run stopper. Another year with more snaps will serve Taumoepenu well and allow him to scratch the surface of his potential.
Deon Hollins, LB (UCLA):
The Semper Fidelis All-American played 11 games as a true freshman, providing an impact on special teams. In 2014, Hollins lead the team with nine sacks and finished third on the team with 10 TFL in 13 games (12 starts) before earning second team all-conference honors for his efforts in 2015 (18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks).
Hollins isn’t going to stuff the stat sheet due to the way the Bruins use him, but he has evolved into one of the Pac-12’s top pass rushers with a tremendous first step and a shoulder dip that allows him to beat blockers at the top of the arc. He has lined up as a 5-Tech and edge rusher where he can use good leverage and hand placement to create separation, setting a hard edge and forcing cutbacks. Although it’s alarming to see his production dip in 2015, expect Hollins to have a heavier work load this year.
Salamo Fiso, LB (Arizona State):
Hailing from California power Long Beach Poly, Fiso was one of the state’s top recruits before redshirting in 2012. He burst onto the scene the next season where he recorded 71 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and three sacks (14 games, 10 starts) as a College Football News honorable mention Freshman All-American. Fiso bettered his the numbers in 2014 where he tallied 83 tackles, 11 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and an interception as an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection. 2015 was an incredible year with 101 tackles, a whopping 21.5 TFL, six sacks, and an interception.
Plain and simple, Fiso is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker as his numbers support. At 6’0,” 230 pounds with the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, Fiso projects as an outside linebacker at the next level with pass rushing potential. That ability is attributed to his downhill mentality, spatial awareness, and reactive athleticism.
Azeem Victor, LB (Washington):
Once a high school defensive end, Victor redshirted as freshman in 2013 before registering a mere five tackles the following season. Incredibly, Victor has grown into a serious Mike linebacker in Washington’s 3-4 defense where he is responsible for occupying blocks to free the outside ‘backers; he also meets the requirements of being the bigger, stronger linebacker in that alignment, standing at 6’3,” 239 pounds. This past season, Victor made 95 stops, nine TFL, and 1.5 sacks as an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection.
Victor, to begin with, is a high IQ player who reads quarterback’s eyes well when in zone, baiting passers into throwing the ball where windows are closing faster than they expect. Both videos showcase his downhill burst, a trait you wish to see in a big, physical linebacker who was tasked with taking on blocks close to the line of scrimmage and making stops against the run. The second video also showcases Victor’s ability to translate speed to power and force a fumble; these traits are catalysts for Victor’s success as a pass rusher.
Adoree Jackson, CB (USC):
Jackson was a highly touted recruit with unreal athleticism: aside from part-time work as a receiver with the Trojans, he is a world-class track and field athlete. He was a long jumper and sprinter on USC’s track team in the springs of 2015 and 2016, winning the Pac-12 outdoor long jump title both years (and placing second in the Pac-12 in the 100 in 2016) and earning All-American status both years after twice placing fifth in the NCAA long jump. Jackson also earned multiple All-American honors in football his first two season, the first USC football letterman to earn track All-America honors in an individual event since Sultan McCullough in 2000 (100 meter dash) and in a field event since long jumper Luther Hayes in 1961.
The elite athlete will focus primarily on defense this season, but he is also one of college football’s return men having returned two kickoffs for six in 2014 and two punts in 2015; he also caught 27 passes for 414 yards and two touchdowns this past season. As a corner, Jackson possesses a quick click-and-close with fluid hips that allow him to change direction and turn and run in man coverage with ease, making him a valuable slot corner (slot corners also don’t play press, something Jackson lacks the physicality to do). There are some technical issues in his backpedal and route recognition that he needs to shore up, but look for him to challenge McCaffrey as one of college football’s best athletes.
Sidney Jones, CB (Washington):
Chris Peterson has Washington’s other program on the rise with young talent on offense and athletic players on defense. The California native was a standout true freshman in 2014, starting 12 of 13 games and posting 61 tackles, 2.5 TFL, a sack, two interceptions and a forced fumble as the co-winner of the Huskies’ Travis Spring Most Outstanding Freshman award. Despite his emergence, he was even more impressive this past season, tallying 45 tackles, 3.5 TFL, four interceptions, 10 passes defended, and three forced fumbles as a first team All-Pac-12 selection.
It’s surprising quarterbacks took even more chances at Jones after a standout freshman campaign, but it will certainly work in his favor when the NFL Draft rolls around. He plays the ball with good instincts and equal route recognition, also utilizing a quick, balanced backpedal; his ability to get his hands on receivers in press is intriguing as well. Jones is on every Pac-12 coaches’ radar and will take away a third of the field.
Budda Baker, FS (Washington):
After winning three consecutive state championships at Washington great Bellevue, Baker started all 14 games as a true freshman playmaker. His 80 tackles, two TFL, one sack, one interception, six pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles earned him honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors, sharing their Most Outstanding Freshman award with Jones. In 2015, his tackles dropped to 49, but he picked off two passes and broke up another seven passes as a first-team All-Pac-12 choice.
Despite being undersized at 5’10”, 174 pounds, Baker is the heart of Washington’s “Death Row” defense that has produced five draft picks the last two seasons, four of which were top-50 selections in 2015. He packs some serious power behind his pads as no stranger to a big hit with the ability to square his pads on contact; Baker is a physical defender who has spent time as a slot corner and rallies quickly to the ball. With the speed to be a rangy single-high safety, and another standout season, he could join Jones as a first rounder.
Shalom Luani, SS (Washington State):
The American Samoa native was a soccer player who is known for scoring during American Samoa’s first FIFA-sanctioned win against Tonga (November 2011). Luani began his college football career at San Francisco City College where he earned first-team All-American honors as the California Community College Defensive Player of the Year during his sophomore campaign; he was a top 50 junior college prospect by many recruiting services. He started all 13 games in this past season, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after totaling 90 tackles (third on team), three TFL, four interceptions, six PBUs, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.
For starters, Luani is an explosive player who, as you can see above, translates speed to power and flies downhill to deliver massive hits and make plays against the run; his 90 tackles weren’t primarily the result of a poor front seven. His speed and coverage ability makes for a rangy safety who has also spent time as a single-high defender with the IQ to play the quarterbacks eyes in zone and remain disciplined. He also possesses great long speed to make plays down the field, elements of a playmaker that Luani’s stat line support.