Season in review – defense

The bar may have been set too high in the pre-season and ultimately the ASU defense didn't live up to the lofty expectations. Nonetheless this side of the ball turned in some impressive performances throughout the season. Devils Digest's Joe Healey evaluates the performance of the various groups on this side of the ball and discusses their prospects for the 2011 campaign.

Defensive Line

Looking back on the 2010 season, the defensive line personnel expectations at the end of the season is definitely different from that which existed to begin the year.

As a whole, the results were impressive and a few unexpected impact players surfaced in the rotation.

The leader of the defensive line in play and in spirit unquestionably is Lawrence Guy. Despite the fact that his statistics (41 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) weren't made of All-American ingredients, look no further than Guy's gutsy, team-first performance against Arizona to understand his overall value to the team.

Fighting injury and fatigue, Guy refused to rest or relent as the epic matchup ticked into the waning moments, and the Las Vegas native played a major role in a handful of stops to allow the Devils to outlast the Wildcats. The image of Guy euphorically but exhaustedly collapsed on the Tucson turf symbolizes the sacrifices he is willing to make for the maroon and gold.

Since his 2008 arrival, Guy's efforts in the classroom and on the field have been nothing short of marvelous and he was a driving force on ASU's defensive front that helped the Devils rank second in the Pac-10 in rush defense.

Senior Saia Falahola and junior Bo Moos split starting duties beside Guy and did so in solid if unspectacular fashion, as the pair combined for 30 tackles, including 3.5 for loss.

After suffering a season-ending back injury in 2009, former five-star prospect Corey Adams had moments that flashed the awesome potential he showed while at Scottsdale Saguaro High School. In total, Adams tallied 10 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, helping him forge a path to a potential starting spot as a junior in 2011.

True freshman Lee Adams (no relation to Corey) appeared in one game before a season-ending suspension, while sophomore Toa Tuitea saw action as an all-purpose defensive lineman and totaled six tackles on the year.

At defensive end, the early-season starters ultimately were overthrown by players initially tabbed as reserves, as junior Jamaar Jarrett and true freshman Junior Onyeali both submitted excellent seasons on the edges of the line.

Jarrett, who in two years collected minimal totals of 25 tackles and 4.5 tackles-for-loss, exploded as a junior with 40 total stops, including 10.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. Showcasing a forceful presence and powerful ability to disturb plays behind the line of scrimmage, the 2010 season showed Sun Devil fans why Jarrett was a highly-regarded prospect out of the San Diego area for the 2008 class.

Though it is proven seemingly on an annual basis with the NFL Combine, year-in and year-out in the game of football athletes are overlooked because of less-than-desirable measurables. A recent occurrence of this slighting became ASU's major gain as Junior Onyeali, all 5-foot-11 of him, made his way out of Denver, Colo., with minimal interest from the major Big XII schools, became a Sun Devil and promptly asserted his will and worked his way to earn Pac-10 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Only a spot starter, Onyeali brought a major punch to ASU's pass rush, pacing ASU with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks, ranking him behind only Shante Carver (10 sacks in 1990) and Terrell Suggs (10 sacks in 2000) for most sacks by a freshman.

Onyeali's speed, intensity and low center of gravity became a major asset to ASU's defensive press, and as the season matured, as did Junior and 2010 likely set the foundation for a stellar career.

James Brooks has had a very enigmatic career since arriving on campus via Flagstaff (Ariz.) High School; he has had as much raw physical talent as any Sun Devil, but discipline and focus issues have stalled his development. As a junior in 2010 Brooks certainly had his best season thus far, totaling 25 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and four sacks, but he found himself in and out of the starting lineup due to the emergence of Jarrett and Onyeali.

However, as far as Sun Devil fans are concerned, as the season concluded any and all of Brooks' issues were absolved when he was credited with both extra point blocks in Tucson to allow ASU enter overtime and ultimately take the victory on the second extra stanza.

The two senior defensive ends on the 2010 roster were a pair of players that have to be considered drastic disappointments, as the ultra-athletic duo of Dean DeLeone and Jamarr Robinson completed their careers with total anonymity, though both athletes had chances to crack the starting lineup during their tenures.

As a senior, Robinson notched 15 tackles, including three for loss, giving him merely 16 tackles over four years, while DeLeone, a former junior college transfer, totaled only three stops with one for loss, giving him 17 career tackles over a two-year span. Neither player recorded a sack at ASU.

Looking Ahead

At defensive tackle, Guy could enter the NFL Draft a year early but by all accounts he is expected to complete his Sun Devil career, while Corey Adams and Moos will battle to replace Falahola, as will William Sutton, a redshirt sophomore in 2011 that played as a true freshman in 2009 before being declared academically ineligible this past season.

It is unknown at this point if Lee Adams will chose or be invited to return to the team for 2011 after his suspension and in any regard that spot of the depth chart will include athletes such as Toa Tuitea and Joita Te'i – versatile players able to platoon among multiple defensive line positions.

At defensive end, the trio of Brooks, Jarrett and Onyeali will continue to grind for time and each of the three brings big-time capabilities to the defensive line.

The two aforementioned all-purpose linemen will likely also be able to compete for time at end, while freshman Jordan McDonald will also be in the mix for time, though he may not quite be ready for the physical demands as he entered his first fall camp at 210 pounds.

ASU is expected to make some notable additions to the defensive line with this recruiting class and has already done some damage – namely tackle Matt Ramondo and intriguing four-star prospect Dillon van der Wal – while a couple additional d-line signees will likely join that pair by the time NLI signing day rolls around.

In all, ASU's defensive line rotation likely will include eight scholarship players with game experience, some of whom have multiple years of starting experience, making the outlook for the line an interesting one to say the least.

Linebacker

Evaluating the linebackers has some complications largely because, by most fan accounts, Vontaze Burfict (pictured) was presumed to morph into a superhuman combination of Ray Lewis, Jesus and Batman when the season kicked off.

All blasphemy aside, Burfict's Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year season of 2009 was a tough act to follow and his rookie performances set a challenging par for the whole defense to meet.

Though Burfict didn't display quite as many YouTube worthy hits as expected and his temper earned him negative notoriety throughout the year, he still submitted an excellent year as ASU's most name worthy defender and leading tackler.

In all, the Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School graduate tallied 85 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, while making a number of plays that few defenders in the college came could duplicate.

Burfict did, of course, have issues with composure and excessive, unnecessary penalties, though the argument can clearly –backed by video evidence—be made that Pac-10 officiating began a bit of a witch hunt when Burfict's wild reputation became publicized.

Thankfully, as the season wound down, as did Burfict's episodes and hopefully his emotional maturity can soon equal the advanced level of play he brings to the gridiron every game.

In his first season as a full-time starter, weak side linebacker Brandon Magee showed the potentially destructive skill set that he has and finished second on the team with 73 tackles, including five for loss.

As a backup playing primarily behind Mike Nixon the past two seasons, Magee has shown spurts of dynamic playmaking ability and this season was able to stretch that to a season-long consistency. A fellow graduate of Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School along with Burfict, Magee concluded the 2010 season in impressive fashion by notching a game-high 13 tackles in ASU's gritty win over Arizona.

On the strong side, Shelly Lyons, the third member of the ASU's Centennial connection at linebacker, entered the year as a starter and collected 22 tackles and a sack before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

Though Lyons' early loss had its affect on the defense, in his place rose one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2010 season for ASU as junior Colin Parker began to play at an excellently consistent level.

Reminiscent of Nixon by his cerebral play, Parker was much more than a stop-gap with Lyons on the sidelines, as the former Chandler Hamilton High School star and son of former ASU and NFL defensive back Anthony Parker totaled 57 tackles, including three for loss.

In all, Parker's play in 2010 was not only impressive for the season in and of itself, but also gave a tremendous boost in his bid to overtake Lyons as a starter in 2011.

In addition to Parker's unexpected high-level contributions, fellow outside linebacker Oliver Aaron finally showed in games what he has contributed in practices and scrimmages since his arrival in 2007.

Undersized but overly athletic and aggressive, the Florida native notched 47 tackles including 7.5 for loss -- second-most behind Burfict among ASU's linebackers -- while he also recovered a fumble against Arizona that led to a crucial second half Sun Devil touchdown.

One of the most respected and dedicated players on the entire team, Gerald Munns, the lone senior linebacker, concluded his Sun Devil career on a high note, tallying 24 tackles on the year.

Munns' presence undoubtedly will be missed on the field and in the locker room, but certain pride and gratification can be found in his ability to rebound from personal challenges that caused him to leave the team for the majority of the 2008 season.

Linebackers Derrall Anderson, Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor all saw action on special teams throughout the course of the season.

Looking Ahead

In 2011, ASU will have an embarrassment of riches at linebacker as only Munns needs to be replaced from this season's roster.

Magee, Lyons, Parker and Aaron all return for their senior seasons, while Burfict will begin his third -- and in all likelihood final -- season as a Sun Devil.

Additionally, the Devils expect to regain the services of Anthony Jones, a high-ceiling outside linebacker that was forced to sit out the 2010 season due to academic ineligibility.

Jones, a sophomore in 2011, will be joined by Carl Bradford, a fierce athlete that will be a redshirt freshman and has the ability to play either middle or strong side linebacker.

Adding to the depth is recent verbal commit Gionni Paul, whose vicious skill set may enable him to see the field as a true freshman weak side linebacker or strong safety.

ASU will continue to pursue linebackers for the 2011 class to prepare for the departure of up to six scholarship 'backers, so it is to be expected that a few more athletes will enter the fray for time next season.

Cornerback

All things considered, the evaluation of the cornerbacks – and the secondary as whole – is a mixed bag. There were notable individual performances but also many instances of inadequacy. In all, the pass defense was far from where it wanted and was expected to be, ranking eighth in the league by averaging 245.2 yards though the air.

Though the group's performance had its ups and downs, junior Omar Bolden (pictured) enjoyed a stellar season, netting unanimous First-Team All-Pac-10 recognition for his play. Over the course of the year Bolden limited his misjudgments – though he didn't entirely eliminate them – and transitioned from a very athletic but unrefined corner into one of the conference's elite defensive backs.

A starter all year long, totaling 52 tackles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions en route to his all-league honors, the first Sun Devil cornerback to earn first-team accolades since Courtney Jackson's senior season in 1999.

Sophomore Deveron Carr, who missed the end of the 2009 season and part of the offseason due to injury, entered the year as the starter opposite Bolden but unfortunately was again shelved to a season-ending injury, this time after only five games. As a starter in those five contests, the Scottsdale Chaparral High School graduate accumulated eight tackles and one interception.

Following Carr's injury, redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor promptly transitioned into the starting lineup, where he stayed for the final seven games of the year. Irabor quickly showed the immense promise that he displayed in practice as a true freshman before missing time in 2009 due to a wrist injury. A participant in all 12 games, Irabor notched 40 total tackles, including 3.5 for loss and one interception.

After primarily being featured on special teams as a junior in 2009, former junior college transfer LeQuan Lewis was an additional beneficiary of the opening for playing time after Carr's injury. Lewis has been noted as one of the fastest, most athletically gifted players on the roster since his arrival in the spring of 2009, but in his first year he struggled to carve out a pure role as he bounced between defense, offense and special teams. His last of two seasons can certainly be considered a success as he totaled 23 tackles, including two for loss, with one interception while ranking second on the team behind Bolden with four pass breakups.

True freshman Alden Darby saw time in the secondary and platooned on the depth chart at both cornerback and safety, en route to collecting 14 total tackles as a rookie.

Though Bolden affirmed is ability in a fashion that many fans had hoped for since his freshman year, ASU suffered upon occasion due to a lack of experience depth – but there were also times that the novices' superior athletic talents negated their lack of experience.

Looking Ahead

Even though momentum is certainly in Bolden's favor after not only earning First-Team All-Pac-10 honors at cornerback, but Second-Team recognition as a kick returner. He is unlikely to leave early for the NFL.

Assuming Bolden returns, he'll certainly lock down one position while Carr, when healthy, will battle with Irabor in what predicts to be a fierce competition for fans to enjoy.

Further down the depth chart, Josh Jordan will return to the lineup after using the 2010 season to redshirt, while Darby and classmate Devan Spann, a redshirt freshman in 2011, will compete for time.

At this point it does not appear as if ASU will pursue a junior college cornerback to add instant depth.

If Bolden happens to leave, Carr and Irabor are definitely qualified to assume the starting spots, but depth certainly becomes more of an issue.

The variables in predicting the quality of ASU's cornerbacks for next season lie in whether Bolden returns and if Carr can remain healthy; if both those result in an affirmative response for Sun Devil fans, the pass defense should climb back up to the upper half of the conference.

Safety

Though there were no major injuries to speak of, ASU's safeties flip-flopped throughout the year more than any other defensive position group.

In the spring, it appeared as though Clint Floyd and Keelan Johnson had a firm dual grasp on the starting roles, but as the regular season commenced, the first-string pair ultimately switched to Eddie Elder, a first-year Sun Devil after transferring from a California junior college, and Max Tabach (pictured) , a senior previously used primarily on special teams and as a reserve.

The latter of the two duos collective performed at a surprisingly high level with multiple statistical similarities, as Elder and Tabach each totaled 64 tackles, two interceptions and one sack.

Both players can be considered overachievers as the size of Elder's efforts grossly exceeded is 5-foot-10, 186-pound frame, while Tabach more than quadrupled his career total of 15 tackles compiled over two seasons at ASU after he played his freshman season at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College.

Though Floyd's inability to keep a stranglehold on a starting role was unsettling, the junior from Los Angeles certainly remained a contributor by totaling 30 tackles and one interception, helping him remain actively involved and likely to return to the first-team in place of Tabach in 2011.

Johnson has been a total enigma since his arrival on campus and the 2010 season showed no different from him, as his athleticism is nearly unparalleled but the Mesa High School product has been challenged by the cognitive requirements of being a defensive back. A spot starter for two games but primarily a reserve, Johnson gained a total of 20 tackles and one interception as a sophomore.

True freshman Alden Darby earned time at multiple defensive back positions and on special teams, collecting 14 total tackles, while senior Mike Callaghan (11 tackles in 11 games), junior Jonathan Clark (two tackles in eight games) and redshirt freshmen Shane McCullen (one tackles in 12 games) and Matthew Tucker (two tackles in eight games) all played on special teams.

Looking Ahead

With Tabach gone from the 2010 roster, the most likely candidate to emerge as a starter is Floyd, who is more than qualified to do so.

Elder has the ability to emerge to an all-conference caliber safety with a full offseason to continue his development and hopefully Johnson can merge into a more significant defensive role and utilize his sensational athletic gifts to their full potential.

Barring an unforeseen development, Elder, Floyd and Johnson will earn the mass bulk of the playing time at safety with a substantial drop-off in proven talent beyond the trio.

Depending on team need, Darby may see action at either safety or cornerback, while McCullen, Tucker and redshirt freshman Ramon Abreu will fill out the lower levels of the scholarship depth chart. Clark is expected to return for his senior season but has yet to prove to be a realistically viable option for the game rotation.

Of this group, Darby and McCullen are the two most likely to succeed and see time in case of emergencies, but the most plausible circumstance for substantial playing time will be in 2012 after Elder and Floyd graduate.

The position group as a whole surely had positives and negatives in 2010, but with the undeniable athletic talent and the hope of a productive offseason, 2011 has the potential to be a stable season for Sun Devil safeties.


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