Spring Review: Defense

Devils Digest's Joe Healey provides a snapshot of the ASU defense

Defensive Line

Spring In Review

With a handful of issues and necessary accommodations, including former all-conference honoree Jamaar Jarrett and steady starter Bo Moos having graduated as well as the unavailability of former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Junior Onyeali due to suspension, ASU's spring defensive line depth showed multiple new features.

In addition to personnel changes, head coach Todd Graham's defensive schematic changes from the prior coaching regime caused a number of shifts and realignments this spring.

At defensive tackle, the steadiest performer was Will Sutton (pictured), returning for his second season as a full-time starter. Active and energetic, Sutton's presence at tackle gives ASU an enthusiastic, high-motor player that should contend for all-league honors. His skills in a 3-4 alignment should prove to be beneficial to say the least. Listed behind Sutton at defensive tackle is junior college transfer Jake Sheffield, a versatile United States Marine Corps veteran that bring discipline and intensity and provides the ability to play multiple line positions.

Rounding out the tackle depth are walk-ons Derrick Nsubuga and Zach Stewart. Nsubuga, a Scottsdale Chaparral High School product who came to ASU after a brief stint at Southern Illinois, had a solid spring game performance and will compete for reserve duty in the fall.

At nose tackle, Corey Adams tops the post-spring depth chart despite missing some time due to a calf injury. The former five-star recruit had several impressive moments during the spring where he showed the combination of power and athleticism that fans have been waiting for since his arrival to ASU. Behind Adams, Toa Tuitea, who owns more career appearances than any of ASU's defensive linemen, is slated as the second string nose tackle.

Walk-ons Shaq Jenkins and C.J Ryan are posted as the third and fourth options at nose tackle. Similar to his fellow local product Nsubuga, Jenkins, a Chandler Hamilton graduate, had a solid showing in the spring game, as well as several impressive sessions over the last few weeks.

A three-game starter last season, Davon Coleman will be expected to ramp his play up substantially in the absence of Jarrett. Though he served a brief suspension to start the spring, Coleman emerged as the top option at defensive end with walk-on Gannon Conway, a key reserve last season, behind him on the second team.

Redshirt freshman Sean O'Grady and walk-on Cutter Baldock complete the defensive end depth chart but both players saw limited action in the spring.

With Graham's schematic changes, the "Devil" position features players able to play defensive end or linebacker, depending on whether the defense employs a three or four-man front, with Carl Bradford as the standout of the group with Greg Smith and Jordan McDonald backing him up.

Bradford, who has played both linebacker and defensive end at ASU, showed tremendous upside and continuously drew rave reviews from the coaching staff. While McDonald is somewhat undersized for the position, he showed more than just a few flashes this spring, especially in the last two scrimmages and is one of the most improved players on this side of the ball.

Smith, despite his tremendous physical potential, was hampered with academic issues during the spring and was in-and-out of the lineup because of it. He definitely could be an asset in a position that doesn't have much quality depth to it, and this squaring away his academic issues could prove vital here.

Onyeali, who is presumed to return this summer, likely will be a candidate at "Devil" this fall. It would naturally be a welcomed sight he could return to his 2010 season form where he was named the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. With both the physical and personal changes that he underwent in the last few months, he may just be on a path that should lead him to success.

Top Performers

Sutton impressed with his non-stop motor and hyper athleticism, while Adams displayed a formidable performance beside him at nose tackle. As far as upside and potential go, Bradford has the versatility to be a significant factor in the fall. Though depth along the defensive line remains a concern, the starters, especially at the tackle positions, enjoyed a steady spring.

Storylines going into Fall Camp

• Which Junior Onyeali will be seen in 2012?

• Can Corey Adams stay healthy and show his true talents?

• How will the personnel handle the multiple looks Graham intends to implement?

• Who will step up among the reserves?

• If academically qualified, will Mike Pennel make an immediate impact at defensive tackle?


Spring In Review

There is no doubt about the need to replenish multiple key positions at linebacker, with Vontaze Burfict, Colin Parker, Shelly Lyons and Oliver Aaron—the top four tacklers at the position in 2011—all gone from the roster.

Of course, ASU received an emotional and leadership boost with the return of Brandon Magee, a surefire starter when at full health. Though he is expected to be fully healed in time for the fall, Magee participated in lighter contact drills this spring, creating yet another window of opportunity at linebacker.

In Magee's absence at WILL linebacker, walk-on Grandville Taylor stepped up with Isreal Marshall behind him. Despite his non-scholarship status, Taylor, who was already showing promise last season, was incredibly consistent and performed at high levels in scrimmage situations, putting him on the path to stay in the two-deep this fall. Marshall is a physical, versatile linebacker with a high ceiling and will be one of the team's top reserve outside linebackers. An y injury midway through the spring held him out of full contact drills, preventing him from truly showcasing his full range of skills.

In the middle, some figured that whoever was with the first team during the spring would merely be a holdover between Vontaze Burfict and highly touted incoming fall junior college transfer Steffon Martin. However, Kipeli Koniseti, primarily a third-team MIKE ‘backer last year, stepped up in impressive fashion and was one of the surprise stories on either side of the ball. Though he was banged up and did not compete during most of the final week of spring, Koniseti, with excellent tenacity and physicality, has put himself in prime position for playing time this year.

Behind Koniseti, veteran walk-on Brandon Johnson, who saw extended playing time behind Burfict at the MIKE position last year, is listed as the second string. Much like Taylor, Johnson is another walk-on who turned some heads in 2011 and was able to build on that performance and have a solid spring. In the 3-4 alignment he was lined up with Koniseti at the MIKE. Jason Franklin, another walk-on who played well throughout the spring, is backing up Johnson and in performed admirably limited duty.

When in a 3-4 alignment, the aforementioned "Devil" position headlined by Carl Bradford (pictured) took on an outside linebacker role, one that Bradford his highly capable of playing. With the multiple looks that Graham plans to showcase, Bradford and those behind him figure to be utilized in a variety of ways. To aid the group's development, outside linebackers coach Joe Lorig is responsible for those at the "Devil" position.

Similar to the versatility necessary from the "Devil" competitors, the "Spur" position requires players to instinctively react, as they'll have extended duties both in run support and defending the pass.

Anthony Jones, long considered to be ASU's most athletic linebacker even with the senior-heavy lineup last season, tops the depth chart at the position with Matt Tucker and Charles Beatty behind him. If his spring performance is any indication, the 2012 season could be a breakout opportunity for Jones, but there are also incoming players in the fall that at the very least could push him for playing time.

In all, the linebacker positions this spring were a collection of previous depth players and a series of walk-ons, which both created opportunities for many players typically planted on the sidelines while also showing areas of opportunity for new fall arrivals to make immediate contributions.

Top Performers

As previously mentioned, Bradford, who has been impressive in spurts since his arrival to ASU, showed the physical and technical makeup to stand out at "Devil", while Taylor was consistently and relentlessly attacking from his position.

The most substantially impressive performer, by far, was Koniseti, who went from a deep reserve role in 2011 into the conversation to start this upcoming fall. Fierce and active with the ability to be a playmaker in the offense's backfield, Koniseti was one of the defense's most consistent overall players.

Storylines going into Fall Camp

• Will Brandon Magee be the same player he was before the Achilles injury?

• Can Kipeli Koniseti hold onto a first-team role?

• Will Anthony Jones remain a starter or will a newcomer threaten his position?

• Will walk-ons Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor contribute?

• How will the multiple fall arrivals factor into the depth chart at linebacker?

Defensive Backs

Spring In Review

The 2011 season produced far more traumatic pass defense nightmares than Sun Devil fans wish to revisit, making development in the secondary a dire need going into the upcoming campaign. With both starters gone at safety and no player safe from demotion, the defensive back positions saw some heated competition during the spring.

One of the most competitive position battles on the team outside of quarterback was at starting cornerback, where Osahon Irabor (pictured) held down one end with Deveron Carr and Robert Nelson alternating at the other.

Irabor impressed Graham with his toughness and mental development, and though Carr has great size and physical qualities in addition to his experience as a fifth-year senior, Nelson's speed and aggressiveness allowed him to dip into the starting rotation.

Behind Irabor at boundary corner, Rashad Wadood and Joe Eason played reserve roles while Steve Gallon added depth at field corner behind Carr and Nelson.

Also playing field corner among the masses was Jarrid Bryant, the most compelling spring position change as the 6-foot-5 former wide receiver showcased some admirable ball skills during practice and could be a surprise contributor in the fall.

At safety, Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson were consistently on the first-team at boundary and field safety, respectively. Darby, who has bounced between multiple defensive positions, is well on his way to being an all-conference contender while Johnson, much like Carr at cornerback, is hoping to once and for all add field discipline and consistency to his already impressive physical skills.

Kevin Ayers started camp off in a strong note as the primary reserve at field safety before an injury that sidelined him for a substantial part of the practices, while Shane McCullen was a primary reserve at boundary safety.

Walk-ons Ronald Kennedy, Jr. and Mike Ingrassia filled out the depth chart at field and boundary safety, respectively, and both players submitted impressive performances in the time they received in the spring game. Kennedy was in fact singled out by Graham as one of the spring standouts in the defensive backfield.

Top Performers

Starters Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby took noticeable steps forward as both players begin their junior seasons and expect to be defensive leaders, but perhaps the most notable performer was Robert Nelson, who despite his limited size overtook Deveron Carr for a great share of first-team cornerback reps. Also a qualified punt returner, Nelson presumes to be all over the field for the Devils in the fall if he maintains his spring effort level.

Storylines going into Fall Camp

• Can Deveron Carr fend off Robert Nelson at starting cornerback?

• Will Keelan Johnson be a consistent starter?

• Will injured players such as Ezekiel Bishop and Devan Spann be prepared to contribute in the fall?

• What specific role will Chris Young play upon his arrival in the fall?

• Will fall transfer Oliver Johnson provide a reliable presence?

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