Turning now to the lineman and linebackers of the Mountain West's defenses: the differences in ranking these units seem much smaller than the width between ranks among the MWC's secondaries. Utah returns the best known quantities in its front seven, with BYU only slightly behind them. Wyoming, UNLV, and TCU basically tie for third, with Air Force in fourth, mainly because there are just too many new starters playing in these teams' defensive fronts to confidently stack them differently. New Mexico, Colorado State, and San Diego State either will start skads of new players, or put returners in a new scheme-- or in New Mexico's case, both. These teams' defensive fronts are essentially unpredictable, and thus fall to the bottom by default.
Talent-wise, the usually suspects would rank first through third, perhaps with a surprising challenge from UNLV. But this ranking tries to give experience equal weight. It'll be interesting to compare notes in December.
Despite losing DE Paul Kruger and DT Greg Newman, Utah returns a wealth of experience on the line. Whittingham boosted the ranks a couple years ago with some JUCO linemen, and this year they begin starting, bringing with them a lot of experience. 2nd team all-conference DE Koa Misi returns for his third year as a starter. DT Dealver Siliga replaces Newman, and is experienced. The other interior lineman, Kenape Eliapo, has started in two previous seasons. Battling to replace Kruger are JUCO transfer James Aiono and very experienced Derrick Shelby. This group may meet last year's outstanding performance.
At linebacker, the Utes return all of their starters. Fotu, Sylvester, and Wright will be a superior unit.
BYU loses a terrific linebacker to graduation, Nixon, and two very good linemen to LDS missions, Russell Tialavea and Bernard Afutiti. However, the Cougars return starting ends Jan Jorgensen and Brett Denney, and backup Tevita Hola, a JUCO transfer who redshirted last year. The new personnel bring just enough questions with them to miss out on first place expectations in the conference. There are no such questions at linebacker. Jordan Pendleton, Matt Bauman, Shaun Doman, Matt Ah You, Coleby Clawson, and Vic So'oto all vie for starts. Look for this year's BYU defense to quiet last year's critics.
Wyoming loses one very good linebacker, Ward Dobbs, and a few backup linemen on defense. It returns its entire starting d-line, as seniors: Mitch Unrein, Fred Givens, and John Fletcher. As juniors, they held opponents to 3.7 ypc; expect improvement with their higher intensity workouts and coaching, making them one of the conference's best lines.
At linebacker, the Cowboys are more experienced than talented. Starters Gabe Knapton and Weston Johnson return, and experienced Brian Hendricks will replace Dobbs. While the Cowboys won't see much dropoff in this unit, they'll need to get improvement to make inroads on the conference's rushing attacks.
UNLV loses several backups on the line, and returns one of the conference's best starting four: DE Isaako Aaitui, DT Martin Tevaseu, DT Malo Taumua, and JUCO transfer B.J. Bell. Taumua's backup, Lale Taiese, was the scout team's PoY. Expect considerable improvement from last year's 5 ypc and 11 team sacks. All of the team's starters at linebacker return: Beauchamp, Paulo, and Fuimaono. Several backups saw starts last year. Together these two groups make perhaps the conference's most experienced defensive front seven. Expect all-star performance, especially because the group works behind an improved line.
TCU loses two highly under-decorated defensive tackles, in 2nd-team all-conference Cody Moore and honorable mention all-conference James Vess. DE Matt Panfil graduated as well, taking 2nd team all-conference honors with him. It'll be up to junior DTs Kelly Griffin and Cory Grant to take the heat off of returning all-world DE Jerry Hughes. Wayne Daniels will work in tandem with Hughes at right end. How this line's backups grow to compete for starts will be a good measure for the Frogs' season: Henry Nuitei, Jeremy Coleman, Clarence Leatch, and Braylon Broughton will make or break TCU's bid for the conference title.
At linebacker, the Frogs sent their second and third LBs to the NFL over two years: Jason Phillips and Robert Henson, each taking 1st team all-conference honors. Next in the Frogs' pipeline to the pros is Daryl Washington, who likely will have a monstrous year. New starter Tank Carder may be the Frogs' best kept secret. Look for no dropoff, and the emergence of another star Frog linebacker.
If the new starting linemen and linebacker play to the level of their talent, this group will finish the season ranked much higher than fifth in conference. Preseason, however, there are simply too many unknowns in the two-deep to warrant a more hopeful ranking.
Air Force loses two fantastic ends, Jake Paulson and Ryan Kemp, and two very good linebackers, Hunter Altman and Brandon Reeves. Guard Ben Garland returns to start for a third year on the line, joined by experienced DE Myles Morales and Rick Ricketts, who has impressed this spring. This unit won't be the anchor it was for the Falcons in 2008, but if Calhoun's player developing magic continues, it won't be a liability, either.
At linebacker, the Falcons return two starters, Ken Lamendola and Andre Morris. Justin Moore and Patrick Hennessey bring considerable experience to their new starting roles. This group has more experience than the '08 corps, and probably will not show much dropoff.
New Mexico loses a wealth of starters in front. Kevin Balogun, Wesley Beck, and Jeremiah Lovato each started for multiple years in Albuquerque. LBs Herbert Felder and Zach Arnett also were multi-year starters. The Lobos' rebuilt line will depend highly on early-enrolled JUCO transfer DT Peter Gardner, who impressed in the spring. New starters Jaymar Latchison and experienced Kendal Briscoe, and DeAndre Davis, a JUCO transfer who redshirted last year fill out the front four. These big guys have experience individually, but none as a group. How they'll perform together is an open question.
Behind them, the linebackers are only slightly more experienced. Joe Harris redshirted last season. Carmen Messina had one start in 2008; Terel Anyaibe had two. Clint McPeek is a third year starter, converting from the "Lobo" back to conventional linebacker. Add the new schemes for this defense, and nobody can tell what kind of performance to expect from the Lobo defense this season.
Colorado State has taken bad losses in its defensive front. DE Wade Landers, NG Matt Rupp, DE Tommie Hill, MLB Jeff Horinek all graduate. WLB Ricky Brewer got himself suspended. The Rams' line is in the hands of Cory Macon, Guy Miller, and James Morehead, with backups Ty Whittier and Sam Stewart. This group is experienced, but has only a few starts between them. CSU didn't have a head-knocking group up front last year, but if this line gels, it could greatly outperform expectations.
At linebacker, Mychal Sisson, Luke Diehl, and Chris Gipson start. Losing Brewer to suspension hurt this inexperienced group.
San Diego State also implements highly new schemes, but does so with experienced players almost without exception. The Aztecs lose Siaosi Fifita, a fixture on the line, and Russell Allen, a multi-year starter in the linebacking corps.
The returning roster is immense. DE Jonathan Soto is backed up by sometime starter Eric Ikonne; LT Erine Lawson by sometime starter Jerome Long; B.J. Williams by sometime starter J.J. Autele. There is no more experienced two-deep in the conference, due to last year's plague of injury-prompted starts. This unit only can improve on its dismal 5.1 ypc and team total 13 sacks, despite new schemes.
Behind them returns lots of experience as well, also due to injuries. Andrew Preston's backup, Jerry Milling, started twice in 2008; Luke Laolagi's, Marcus Yarbrough, once. While the schemes are drastically different, but the defense was so bad last year that it can't be worse.