Q&A with coach Trent Bray

At the heart of a talented ASU defense lays arguably the best linebackers corps in the Pac-12. Yet, during a 6-6 campaign this unit much like the rest of the team, has had its bouts with consistency. In this extensive interview Devils Digest sat down with ASU's first-year linebackers coach, Trent Bray, to discuss his group's performance in 2010, and his expectations for the upcoming season.

DD: Coach, Isreal Marshall signed in the 2011 class. What kind of skill set does this local prospect bring to the table?

Trent Bray: "He's a tremendous athlete who has decent size at 6-2 205 lbs. but he has the frame to put on weight. He brings a lot of speed and athleticism. I had a chance to go to one of his basketball games and it was impressive."

DD: Do project Marshall at the WILL or SAM position?

TB: "We do change the alignment of our guys based on the teams we play. Against spread teams he would be a guy that we put to the field. But right now if he we were going against a team like Stanford he would be a WILL linebacker."

DD: You obviously had a chance by now to reflect on the 2010 season. How would you evaluate the performance of the linebackers during that campaign?

TB: "By the last half of the year we were better defensively and so were the linebackers. Early on we made too many mistakes. There is a difference with a guy that is in a backup role that plays 25 snaps a game that now has to play 60 snaps. So learning how to make that transition and keep your focus is something that we had to learn early on."

DD: Run stopping was certainly the strong suit of this defense last year and the linebackers obviously played a significant role in that aspect. Do you feel your group's performance is this specific area was a solid one?

TB: "They did a good job and again they did a better job towards the end of the year. They did a better job with their assignments and I did a better job coaching them. I was learning how to get those guys to do what I want them to do and I got better as the year went on. It was a total group effort and I was very pleased with how they played. The great thing is that neither I nor they are satisfied with what happened, so I am really excited for spring."

DD: You did occasionally line up in a 3-4 formation, but probably not as much as some expected. When you did play in that alignment were you satisfied with the results on the field?

TB: "Like you said we didn't do much of the 3-4 and we need to continue and develop it. We are not tremendously deep at linebacker and if you get one guy Hurt then suddenly all that time you spent on that formation goes out the window. But we are definitely going to develop it more, especially during passing situations to allow us to bring more pressure."

DD: Would you say that this linebackers unit was at its best when it just played straight up in a traditional 4-3 alignment without much blitzing or other variations?

TB: "I absolutely agree with that and that's what we did towards the second half of the year – cut down the playbook. This group knew how to play fast and they did and they had to be comfortable with what is called. I do believe that when we did run our base coverage, when we did read and react, that is when we were at our best."

DD: So just like the 3-4 formation, is blitzing another facet you look to develop with the linebackers in the spring?

TB: "We definitely want to get better at blitzing whether we do it more or not. But the thing this spring is getting guys comfortable with what we are going to do (in pressure and non-pressure situations) and that will make a big difference. Last year in spring and fall camp we put a lot in, but this year we are going to do more pressure (formations) but it's not as much stuff. I think that will really help us ."

DD: I wanted to touch on some of the linebackers in this group starting with Vontaze Burfict. Stats wise he had the year people expected him to have, but probably just as impressive if not more what his mental improvement. As someone who probably spends more time with him than anyone else on staff what are your thoughts on Burfict's progression last year?

TB: "He went as the linebacking corps went. He started off not that great and wasn't very disciplined. He thought he could just go out every week and do it without attention to detail. As the season went on, and we really worked hard on it as coaches he started to understand what you had to do from Monday until Friday to have success on Saturday. He started to buy into that as the season went along and towards the end of the year really played his best football.

"In the off-season he hasn't missed a workout and has really become a leader. He's focused, worked hard and really pushed a lot of people too. It was almost looking at a completely different person than last year and maturity has a lot to do with that."

DD: Brandon Magee was perhaps overshadowed, for lack of a better word, by Burfict but really turned in his best year as a Sun Devil…

TB: "Brandon had a very good season and he did get overshadowed a little bit as far as attention. He was probably our most consistent linebacker and that is a long ways from where he started. He's a guy that spends a tremendous amount of time off the field in the film room, asking questions and stuff like that. We just got done reviewing our season these last couple of weeks and he was a guy that stood out and made a ton of plays. I was very happy with the way Brandon played."

DD: How will Brandon divide his time during spring practice between football and baseball?

TB: "Right now we are going to let him play baseball (during the spring) and the reason for that is that when we recruited him that's what we told him. We are different than a lot of schools in that we are honest with our kids. If we told him he can play both sports here than that is what we are going to do. So he has a choice. He will be at every spring meeting and that is what I am worried more about – it's the mental part. I'm not worried about him going out there and doing it physically because I know he can do that.

"He's extremely focused. If it was anyone else I would be worried, but I'm not worried about him."

DD: Shelley Lyons had a somewhat of a rough season. How would you assess his play in 2010?

TB: "To be brutally honest he wasn't very good. When we moved him out of a starting role he responded to it the way I wanted him to and late in the season he was really playing at a high level and at a level I thought he was going to play at in the beginning of the year. It was disappointing for him to get hurt last year but I am excited to get him back. If he picks up where he left off last year he can really have a good season with us."

DD: Prior to last year Colin Parker and Oliver Aaron got lost in the mix with depth at this group, but probably like Magee in 2010 turned in their best season ever at ASU…

TB: "Colin is a guy that we kept trying to keep off the field. He doesn't bring the athletic ability that some of the other players do but he does things right and he makes plays. He continued to do that when he started and played very well. In pass coverage he was probably our best linebacker. He's an extremely smart player that always knew where to be and he also played the run well. Colin was a huge surprise and I am very happy with the way he played."

"Ollie started a few games and played well for us. He made some big plays for us late in the season like the fumble he forced and recovered against Arizona. He needs to be more consistent but I would agree that this is the best he played since he has been here. If he gets more consistent he can really be an asset for us."

DD: Normally players on the scout team are hard to evaluate, but Carl Bradford was one freshman you were thinking about not redshirting because of how he played in fall camp. Can you talk about his development?

TB: "Physically, his development has been impressive. Our strength coach Ben (Hilgart) said that Carl was the strongest freshman we ever had since we have been here. He's up to 250 lbs. now but can still run like an outside linebacker. Obviously he's big enough to play inside and that's where we are going to play him at. I am very excited about Carl and I think he can help us this year spelling Vontaze. He can also really help us on special teams. He just has to continue and learn how to play linebacker because he never played the position until he got here. So it's still a learning process for him but I expect him to have a good spring and contribute in the fall."

DD: Anthony Jones has to sit out last year due to academics, so he was another player that may have been hard to assess. But looking at his potential I would imagine that you are excited with what he can bring to the table this year…

TB: "Anthony is by far the most athletically gifted linebacker we have. His speed and burst is unbelievable and better than a lot of our safeties. He's a guy that I am going to work on very hard to get him on the field because he needs to be out there helping us. He can do many things athletically and I fully expect him to help us this year and in the future. When it's all said and done I expect him to be a great linebacker for us."

DD: Speaking of the future, looking at the depth chart you can't help but notice the six linebackers that this year potentially will play their last season as Sun Devils. Suffice to say that the linebacker position will be a great point of emphasis in the 2012 class ?

TB: "Yes, it is a point of emphasis. We had a couple of linebackers in the previous class commit and then de-commit which hurt us. But I rather not take a linebacker who I don't think is good enough to play because you will be worse off for that. So yes this year it (linebacker) will be a big year for us, but if we have the year we are capable of having, if we do everything right…a lot of good linebackers are going to want to come and play for us because of the opportunity, the school and obviously being a successful program."

DD: You touched on this earlier as far as 2010 being your first year as ASU's linebackers coach. You're obviously not a stranger to the program being a graduate assistant a few years ago, but when you look back at this first year at this position was it everything you expected?

TB: "It was harder than I thought. Earlier in the year there was a transition, especially with me and Vontaze. All of a sudden I went from a guy that was a buddy to him to a guy that is now an authoritative figure. I think early on it was an adjustment period for him and for me. So that relationship changed, we butted heads early in the season and that became something we both had to work through.

"But as the season went on we understood each other more and it turned out to be a really good process and relationship. It was a fun year."

DD: As you go into spring practice what are some of the goals that you are going to set forth for the linebacking group?

TB: "Aside from the obvious which is getting better, we need to become more effective in our pass coverage. That is something we are going to stress more than ever because when linebackers are effective in the pass game it is very hard for offenses to move the ball. Our pass rush, with the talent we have and the speed we have at linebacker, we should be effective blitzers when it's time for us to come. We will do more in the pass rush game as far as technique and there will be new stuff that I will be teaching them. It won't be complicated stuff but it will be effective.

"So pass coverage and pass rush are the two things we are going to focus on but obviously we will continue to get better at everything else. We have to keep up our effort because if you watch our film it's always eight, nine guys around the ball and we have to keep that up all the time."

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