Top Newcomer: Jake Sheffield
Look Out For: Carl Bradford, Joita Te'i
Who Needs to Perform: Corey Adams, Greg Smith
There are many unknowns on the Sun Devil defense entering the spring—both in what consistent philosophy will surface as well as personnel—but what is known is that the defense will showcase multiple formations and looks, thus versatile and tenacious defensive linemen will be of great need.
Up front, Will Sutton returns at defensive tackle, with his former fellow starter Bo Moos gone after concluding his senior year in 2011. Sutton has shown every tool necessary to be an All-Pac 12 performer and though his sophomore season didn't necessarily produce the statistical output that was expected, chances are high that he emerges as a team leader and productive performer in 2012.
In traditional four-man fronts, the most likely candidate to start beside Sutton is Corey Adams, preparing to begin his senior year. Though it seems like just yesterday that the former five-star prospect picked ASU over Ohio State and USC, Adams has yet to come close to substantiating those expectations. Perhaps, Sun Devil fans hope, Adams can have a Gerell Robinson type of senior year athletic epiphany. Having said that a calf muscle injury will limit him I the spring, so it remains to be seen how heavy his workload will be during the next 15 practices.
At defensive end, the major newsmaker has been the continued suspension of former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Junior Onyeali, a sanction that has no timetable or even predictable outcome. In his absence and with Jamaar Jarrett concluding his college career, Davon Coleman, who progressed nicely over the course of the season last year, is the clear-cut top defensive end.
With an opening at defensive end, Carl Bradford and Greg Smith appear to be the two candidates most suitable to fill the role in a four-man front, as both players have experience as reserves as well as limited first-team responsibilities. Bradford and Smith are essentially on opposite ends of the spectrum, as Bradford appears to be a budding defensive standout, while the highly-gifted Smith enters his senior season with his prior moments of productivity being few and far between. It has also been mentioned that Bradford could see time at linebacker, the position at which he began his Sun Devil career in 2010.
With the certainty of multiple defensive fronts on the horizon, ASU has a handful of players able to play multiple line positions, namely ones such as Gannon Conway, Joita Te'i and Toa Tuitea. Of these three, each could play tackle or end depending on the scheme and should be in the conversation for worthwhile reserve duty.
Another versatile lineman is midyear junior college transfer Jake Sheffield, technically listed as a defensive tackle but also with experience at end in a 3-4 defense at the junior college level. Todd Graham and his staff love Sheffield's experience, work ethic and versatility, as well as the demeanor that is natural to the former active duty Marine.
At defensive tackle—especially in three-man fronts—redshirt freshman David Moala and perhaps Mo Latu could get looks at nose tackle. The only two 300-plus pounders according to the pre-spring roster, both youngsters have the ability to be prototypical space-eaters. Latu was expected to be a natural for a nose tackle role, however the bulk of his practice duties will be played on the offensive line at center as ASU works to replace departed all-conference member Garth Gerhart.
Further down the depth chart, scholarship players Jordan McDonald (6-4, 228) and Sean O'Grady (6-3, 238) could be defensive end or even linebacker depending on the formation, due primarily to their size and skill strengths. Regardless the position, it would be a surprise to see either player earn better than limited backup snaps in practice.
Returning Starters: Brandon Magee*
Top Newcomer: Isreal Marshall
Look Out For: Brandon Johnson
Who Needs to Perform: Kipeli Koniseti
*-Projected starter in 2011 but missed season due to injury
Clearly no position on defense is as depleted following last season's departures from as is linebacker. The top four players at the position are no longer on the ASU roster, but thankfully it will be gaining some experience. Consummate leader Brandon Magee (pictured) is prepared to return to duty after a season-ending injury that caused him to redshirt during his would-be senior season in 2011.
However, Magee's spring availability is uncertain, creating potential openings for playing time at every starting and depth position at linebacker. Magee is expected to make a full recovery and have a stranglehold on one starting ‘backer position in the fall, but beyond that stands a series of question marks both in the starting lineup and among reserves.
Anthony Jones, entering his junior season, has long been considered ASU's most athletic linebacker by the previous staff and despite making a limited impact in 2011 he has to be considered a front-runner for a first-team duties this spring. His athleticism, range and playmaking abilities have never been in doubt but various disciplinary and focus issues have created setbacks for Jones. Nonetheless, other than Magee, Jones has the most team experience of any linebacker and will need to step into a greater role for the position group to rebound from the aforementioned personnel losses.
After Magee's injury last August, Isreal Marshall nearly worked his way into a first-year playing role with his admirable work ethic and athletic skill set. Though he was retained as a redshirt, Marshall should be a well-rounded linebacker and could see first-string repetitions this spring, especially if Magee is held out of contact.
Sensible predictions would foretell that in the fall Brandon Magee and incoming junior college transfer Steffon Martin would be two strong starting candidates in three-man linebacker sets, potentially leaving one opening available that could feature the winner of a Jones-Marshall position battle.
Brandon Johnson and Kipeli Koniseti are two players that may benefit from Vontaze Burfict's early departure to the NFL, and though both have little collective game experience of any substance, they possess qualities that could help them deserve valid playing time. It is unlikely that either Johnson or Koniseti maintains a starting role in the fall when Martin arrives on campus, but the spring will remain essential for this tandem of players to remain in the conversation for playing time as reserve. Both players have been praised for their offseason work ethic, but it may be a major hurdle to clear for either to emerge as a legitimate Pac-12 starting caliber linebacker.
Likely to complete the two-deeps at linebacker are Matthew Tucker, who saw limited time as a reserve linebacker last season after a switch from safety, as well as walk-on Grandville Taylor, who has earned game action on special teams despite his non-scholarship status.
In all, the spring landscape at linebacker should be an intriguing one—especially due to the multiplicity expected in ASU's defensive formations. Additionally, with Magee's short-term status unknown and the unavailability of Martin, as well as his Arizona Western College teammate Chris Young, expected to be a natural for the safety/linebacker hybrid "Rover" role (both arriving in the summer), the personnel grouping at linebacker likely will experience a shake-up in the fall compared to spring. Additionally, freshmen such as Salamo Fiso, Carlos Mendoza and Matthew Rowe will undoubtedly push for instant playing time.
Prior to Young's fall arrival, linebackers such as Tucker and possibly Jones or Marshall could get a sniff at the "Rover" position due to the fact that each of the three has college or high school experience at safety and linebacker—or at least the athletic skills to audition for the role.
If ASU experiments with four-man linebacker sets, Carl Bradford has been mentioned as a candidate to shift from defensive end to linebacker. Bradford spent his redshirt season and early part of his redshirt freshman season at linebacker before a switch to defensive end during the 2011 season.
All in all, there are many openings—diverse openings—and competition will only stiffen in the fall. If some of the players that may run with the ones and twos don't step up in the spring, their depth chart role is likely to plummet come fall camp.
Top Newcomer: Robert Nelson (CB)
Look Out For: Robert Nelson (CB)
Who Needs to Perform: Keelan Johnson (S)
Down the stretch of the 2011 season, ASU's secondary became a major deficiency, and a substantial Achilles Heel that prolonged the Sun Devils' late season skid.
Whether it's a positive or an element of continued concern, the cornerbacks return fully in tact, led by starters Deveron Carr (pictured) and Osahon Irabor. Both players had some moments in the season that showcased the peak of their athletic talents, but far too often the pair was abused downfield—even by inexperienced quarterbacks.
Hopefully a difference maker in the spring will be the improved quantity of depth players at cornerback, as injuries decimated the options last season.
A former starter at Louisiana-Monroe before transferring last summer, Robert Nelson sat out last year and brings experience to a position greatly in need. Many eyes will likely follow Nelson in the spring as a stable presence would be a major blessing to the Sun Devil secondary.
With Devan Spann expected to continue to miss time due to a preseason injury, Rashad Wadood, who earned playing time as a true freshman last year, has the potential to see increased activity with the second-team depending on how limited he is after a late season injury.
Redshirt freshman Joe Eason and walk-ons Steve Gallon and Robert Kennedy, Jr. are the most likely candidates to complete the depth chart at cornerback and if Wadood is noticeably limited, the trio will dogfight for second-string reps.
After seeing action at multiple positions as a sophomore in 2011, Alden Darby likely will settle into a position at safety and has an excellent chance to secure a starting nod with two holes left by Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd, last year's first-teamers. Though he has suffered through some learning curves, Darby has shown remarkable ball skills and versatility and should remain a top option at safety as the season approaches.
Having bounced between the first and second teams during his first three years at ASU, Keelan Johnson's athletic ability has never been questioned but he has struggled to grasp the nuances necessary to stand out at safety. Entering the spring, he is in prime position to etch out a starting role but that cannot be considered an absolute certainty.
Helping Johnson's bid for playing time is the expected spring absence of Ezekiel Bishop, a dynamic safety that had earned the right not to redshirt last season before an injury—the same that will likely keep him out of action in the spring—ended Bishop's rookie year in the season opener.
Rounding out the scholarship depth chart at safety will be Kevin Ayers and Shane McCullen. Ayers, a junior college transfer before last season, saw action primarily on special teams while McCullen has had a stalled development in transitioning to defensive back after a high school career in which he primarily played running back. Both players could be candidates for the "Rover" position, as well as other aforementioned safeties, as the top options for the new defensive role are currently an unknown.