Spring Review: Defense

The spring game was certainly not the defense's brightest moment, but it wasn't a true reflection of their performance throughout the 15 practices either. In this article Joe Healey breaks down this group's play in the spring, and included in this analysis are some extensive and candid comments by ASU's defensive coordinator Craig Bray.

Defensive Line

Recap

At tackle, the regular starting pair, as expected, was William Sutton and Bo Moos, with Corey Adams, Toa Tuitea and Joita Te'i as the primary backups.

At defensive end, last year's Pac-10 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year Junior Onyeali was out of action following offseason surgery and James Brooks was in and out of starting lineup and active lineup as a whole during the spring. This equation made Jamaar Jarrett the clear leader at defensive end and gave Gregory Smith, a noted disappointment in 2010, a chance for vindication as he prepares for his junior season.

Behind Jarrett, Smith and Brooks (when in the lineup), senior Derrall Anderson (relocated from linebacker in the spring), redshirt freshman Jordan McDonald and walk-on Gannon Conway saw spring practice reps as reserves.

Coach Bray was generally pleased with ASU's front four who this past spring were under the tutelage of first year position coach Scott Brown who replaced Grady Stretz who left to accept a position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I think Scott Brown is an excellent teacher," Bray commented. "Grady was a very good coach but sometimes change is good and that change has been real good for us. A guy like Will Sutton (who missed all of 2010 due to academic ineligibility) doesn't forget how to play and Will has a lot of talent. He improved very well until he got that shoulder stinger that slowed him down.

"Bo had a solid spring and we were trying to get him to be a leader because we were missing a little of that on defense. I don't know where the leadership is going to come from because we don't really have a true leader yet. Leadership doesn't happen overnight, it's a day-to-day process. Hopefully that takes care of itself in the summer.

"I'm very excited about Greg. He has a lot of talent. He had a lot of family problems and other stuff that was going on in his life the last two years that most of us can't relate to. I think he has been able to work through those things and that has helped him improve a lot. We are expecting big things out of him."

Highlights

The two main highlights on the line clearly were Sutton and Smith; Sutton appears poised for the mega-breakout season he could have had in 2010, while if Smith had not played as he did this spring, he may have plummeted to total anonymity this season.

Sutton will unquestionably be ASU's most talented defensive tackle while Smith, though unlikely a starter this year, will make his presence felt to remain in the defensive ends rotation.

Another notable surprise was the play of McDonald, who last year appeared on campus looking more like a wide receiver than defensive lineman. The former Scottsdale Saguaro standout eventually added satisfactory bulk and showed flashes in spring practice of the talents that made him one of Arizona's top prep pass rushers.

Te'i also played well and figures to be a stable reserve and Anderson showed some promise at end, while Jarrett and Moos did exactly what is expected of them and positioned themselves perfectly to be starters as seniors in 2011.

Areas for Improvement

The necessary improvement is not specifically based in technique or other teachable football skills, but the clear question mark is Brooks' ability to focus on academics through the remainder of the offseason to ensure he will even be a part of the 2011 roster. Though his circumstance hasn't reached a desperately urgent level, this is not the first time the Flagstaff native has been disciplined by the coaches so he may not have substantial slack.

Another factor is for Adams to simply remain healthy enough to contribute on a consistent basis; the former five-star prospect has been in-and-out of the infirmary since his arrival in 2009. There is no denying the level of his talent, but he enters the second half of his college career with more question marks than answers.

If Smith, Anderson and McDonald are able to continue to play at the level they did this spring, they could surprisingly add invaluable depth at defensive end.

Fall Outlook

At defensive tackle, the starting pair of William Sutton and Bo Moos appears to be set in stone, while Corey Adams (if fully healthy) may be able to push Moos for starting reps. Te'i and Tuitea likely will battle to join Adams on the second team, while fall freshman arrivals Mo Latu (if academically cleared) and David Moala will have their work cut out for them to see the field in 2011, as the aforementioned five returning scholarship tackles showed all that is necessarily to fill an above average depth chart.

On paper, the defensive end depth rivals that of any in the Pac-12 Conference, as Jamaar Jarrett and Junior Onyeali are among the conference's elite ends. The clear question mark is the status of James Brooks, capable of being a noteworthy difference maker but also in need of better academic focus before his prospects for 2011 can be clearly identified.

If for any reason Brooks does not return, ASU appears to be equipped to cushion the blow as Gregory Smith made strides this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Davon Coleman will arrive in Tempe with very lofty expectations. Also, Jordan McDonald's spring progress makes him more of a potential factor on the depth chart than expected, while Derrall Anderson could be a contributor at end. True freshman Sean O'Grady will join Coleman as a fall arrival, but likely faces a redshirt year as he may struggle to earn much practice time early enough to prove his immediate worth as the Devils may be able to go three-deep on both sides with scholarship ends.

In all, the defensive line figures to be deep, talented and athletic and has the potential to be as prominent as any in the conference.

Linebacker

Recap

The bread-and-butter of the Sun Devil defense was able to show top level talent across the entire depth chart, led by returning All-American Vontaze Burfict (pictured) and seniors Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker in the typical starting lineup, as would-be starting outside linebacker Brandon Magee primarily spent the spring with ASU's baseball team.

Senior Oliver Aaron was the primary second-team weak side linebacker, joined by sophomore Anthony Jones on the strong side and redshirt freshman Carl Bradford in the middle.

In addition to the horde of talented scholarship ‘backers, walk-ons Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor submitted noteworthy efforts and may be factors on the depth chart albeit probably more in 2012 than this coming season.

There is little doubt that ASU should easily have the top group of linebackers in the Pac-12 Conference in 2011. However, Bray is still looking for some aspects to improve on.

"I'm never satisfied with linebackers," Bray said. "They have a lot of talent and they don't consistently know how to work to get better everyday. We will be visiting next week about that with a lot of guys about that and in a lot of cases this is their last year. Sometimes we go out to practice and rely on our ability and we have to become more focused on the little things to meet my expectations.

"It is a very talented group and we have depth there too. But a #2 middle linebacker hasn't emerged. I wouldn't say the linebackers underachieved but I wouldn't say that they improved everyday."

Highlights

The spring highlight reel for the linebackers may be measured in hours, not minutes—whether the first, second or even third team was on the field, there was a great deal of solid play.

The typical starting trio – Burfict, Parker and Lyons – was as expected; consistent, athletic and always in attack mode. However, that group wasn't necessarily the main highlight because their abilities are generally proven and a high level of proficiency is expected. It was the reserves—and even a group of walk-ons—that perhaps raised the most eyebrows, as Bradford, Jones, Johnson and Taylor were able to show their physicality and athleticism, while Aaron continued the momentum built during his breakout junior season. The commendations they received, of course, do not imply they necessarily played at a higher level than the starters or are expected to unseat any of the first-stringers, but the emergence of amazing linebacker depth emphasizes the tremendous potential of the defense as a whole.

With such a diverse and talented stable of ‘backers, ASU has the tremendous luxury to fit each piece into perfect roles; the group can rotate and mix-and-match and not miss much of a beat regardless what combination is on the field.

Perhaps most reassuring is the growth of Bradford and Jones, which gives long-term confidence for after Aaron, Lyons, Magee and Parker graduate and Burfict makes his likely early exit to the NFL.

Areas for Improvement

The only areas for improvement are ones that essentially linger from last season and seem potentially be solved already—beginning with Burfict's leadership and discipline.

Over his first two years, the staff and fans have called for his focus to match his immense talent, and this offseason the potential All-American has been applauded for taking on a greater locker room role. The true test will be on the field this season, where Burfict's reputation for being a penalty magnet will be tested early and often.

In addition to Burfict's growth, Shelly Lyons is a player whose career has been statically average and impacted by injury, but his spring was certainly worthy of a thumbs-up. Dennis Erickson has noted Lyons as one of the most improved defensive players this offseason and a potential senior leader, so expectations for improvement are in place as Lyons is expected to compete for a starting outside linebacker role.

Magee being routinely absent may provoke some sort of ding on the continuity of the starting linebackers, but the benefit within his absences is Lyons and Parker earned ample first-team action together, which could prove helpful in the event that Magee is ever again out of the lineup.

Fall Outlook

When it comes to ASU's linebackers for 2011, Clubber Lang said it best: "My prediction? Pain."

No team in the Pac-12—and few in the nation—can match ASU's talent, depth, experience and athleticism, as there is little drop-off not only among the three projected starters, but also from the first to second team.

Burfict seems to be in a position to add leadership qualities to his unrivaled intensity, Magee is one of the most unheralded defenders in the league, while Lyons is in career-best form and figures to be in line for a solid year if he can shake the injury bug. Aaron and Parker are coming off career years in 2010, while underclassmen Bradford (the team's strongest linebacker) and Jones (the team's most athletic linebacker) pack a lot of promise for the group.

Additionally, walk-ons Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor have the skill sets to be scholarship members of the two-deep at several Pac-12 schools, while local stud Isreal Marshall and junior college transfer Kipeli Koniseti will join the squad in the fall.

The sum of this equation is that the Sun Devils have the very definition of a spoil of riches at linebacker and have the artillery to attack offenses from sideline-to-sideline for every snap they are on the field, all season long.

Secondary

Recap

The Sun Devil secondary was marred by injuries this spring, as reigning First-Team All-Pac-10 cornerback selection Omar Bolden tore his ACL, while starting cornerback Deveron Carr, starting safety Eddie Elder and reserve safety Keelan Johnson each missed all of spring practice.

Though many of the key pieces of the secondary missed action this spring, the mild silver lining is that a host of reserves were placed into greater roles—many of which responded in commendable fashion for most of the spring. Highlights

The play of the cornerbacks was largely overshadowed by the loss of Bolden, but the pair of Osahon Irabor (pictured) and Devan Spann played respectably as a first-team duo, especially in the earlier part of the 15 practices. The attention-grabber, perhaps, at cornerback was walk-on Harrison Evens, who saw substantial action as the third corner and may have earned a role for 2011 after his consistent spring efforts.

With Elder and Johnson out and potential starter Clint Floyd missing some practice time as well, multiple windows of opportunity were created for reserves to step up and contribute. All things considered, a few players took advantage of the opportunities, namely Jonathan Clark, Alden Darby and Matthew Tucker.

Darby was switched to safety from cornerback this offseason and saw routine first-team action in Elder's absence, while Clark and Tucker also rotated in with the first-string. Clark showed commendable reactionary skills in the pass game, while Darby and Tucker at times also provided prowess in run support. In all, the trio made an already unpredictable depth chart even more complicated with their noteworthy performances.

"I think Darby can help us," Bray declared. "But the problem in the secondary is that if you inconsistent you will cost us football games. That is something that comes with youth. I just anticipated him to improve at a higher rate. If he improves he will be a tremendous addition for us."

Areas for Improvement

Though depth is an enormous concern at cornerback, the level of play has the potential to be adequate. If healthy, Carr is one of the top overall athletes on the team, while Irabor has shown what is necessary to be a legitimate starter. With the encouraging signs Spann has showed this group could alleviate some of the concerns that were manifested the last couple of weeks of spring practice.

At safety, one would hope that among the mass of bodies on the depth chart, two formidable starters could emerge. The odd circumstance that seems to exist is that after the spring, the players with the most momentum are ones that have minimal game experience – specifically Clark, Darby and Tucker.

For Johnson to have missed the spring may prove to be more than just a marginal setback for him, while Floyd has not yet cemented a starting position, so even the most experienced safeties are not necessarily entrenched as starters. Essentially, the main areas of improvement at safety include the upperclassmen remaining healthy and consistent so they can avoid being bypassed by less experienced players.

As far as an individual is concerned, Shane McCullen seems to remain in a developmental stage and likely will continue to primarily be a special teams' contributor this season.

Fall Outlook

The cornerback and safety positions are night-and-day differences as far as predicting the depth that will surface in September.

At cornerback, Deveron Carr, Osahon Irabor and Devan Spann undoubtedly will be the top three—likely with Carr and Irabor as starters. Walk-on Harrison Evens may have the chance for playing time this year, but likely will be tested by talented incoming freshman Rashad Wadood. Other options at cornerback are fall arrivals Joe Eason (also possibly a safety) and Rashad Ross (also possibly a wide receiver).

The x-factor that fans will be watching like hawks is the healing process of Omar Bolden, who may have a chance to return to action late in the year. Regardless the availability of Bolden, ASU can certainly survive by primarily rotating three main cornerbacks. If the unit can remain healthy, and show marked improvement over the latter part of spring, the quality level has a chance to be formidable even if Bolden is unavailable.

Safety, however, is a much different ordeal as ASU will field as many as eight scholarship safeties with seemingly only one certain starter.

Though Elder was not available for the spring, he has more solid possession of the coaching staff's collective confidence, so his starting spot seems to not be in jeopardy. Across from him, however, the two primary starting candidates seem to be Clint Floyd or Alden Darby, though Jonathan Clark was a surprise contributor this spring and seemingly is hell bent on jump starting his otherwise dormant career at ASU.

Keelan Johnson, also unavailable in the spring, always remains a factor because his athleticism is unparalleled among the safeties but the coaches are still waiting for everything to ‘click'. Sophomore Matt Tucker also turned in a noteworthy spring, though any ascension for him on the depth chart will be simply a more credible reserve role, while classmate Shane McCullen appears on the bottom end of the scholarship depth chart at safety.

Added to the competition this fall are junior college transfer Kevin Ayers and talented freshman Ezekiel Bishop—two athletes that are being brought in to raise the talent level immediately.

Basically in the secondary, the cornerback position yields very little margin for error, while safety may be a veritable battle royale for depth chart positions.

"We have a lot to work to do and our biggest concerns came to fruition during the spring game with our people in the secondary," Bray admitted. "We were missing two safeties and Omar, and the safeties are coming back but Omar isn't. We have some issues that hopefully we can solve. Our depth at corner and our quality at corner is a big concern and it's not an easy solve."

Bray is cognizant of the performance the defense turned in the second half of the 2010 season. He did however add that this group needs to keep on being hungry and relentless in their quest for improvement.

"The defense was pretty decent up until the last week of spring and the spring game," Bray stated. "I think you also have to attribute that (trend) to the improvement of the offense. We became a better defense as the (2010) season went along and we were one of the better defenses in the league beyond what the statistics would show you. But you always have to be careful telling your players how good they are because sometimes they aren't mature enough to understand what it takes to be good.

"Our work ethic throughout the winter was good, and in the spring up until the last week I thought our work ethic was good. The summer is a big time period for the defense to try and achieve where they want to be for fall practice and we (as coaches) have no control over that. Everything that they accomplish in the summer is what is going to lead us up to the fall. I feel very positive about it and I think we have a chance to be a very good defense but there are always variables that come into play."


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