Fall camp preview: defense

Question marks abound on ASU's front seven, and ironically this group may have to go through the biggest transformation from last year on defense. In this article, Devils Digest's Joe Healey provides a comprehensive look at the Sun Devil defense as it begins its season preparations this Friday.

Defensive Line

Up front, the Sun Devil defensive line features a depth chart at tackle that starts with junior Will Sutton. Sutton, a high-energy veteran, has all the tools to be an all-league player and will get more than his share of chances this year to earn that sort of prestige. Behind him, spring junior college transfer Jake Sheffield is slated as the top reserve. Sheffield has experience playing In a three-man front and the former active duty Marine has the physicality to be a reliable backup.

At nose tackle, Corey Adams tops the depth chart followed by Toa Tuitea. Both players enter their senior seasons of 2012 having primarily been reserves over their first three seasons at ASU. Adams came to campus with lofty expectations as a five-star prospect but due mainly to injury issues he has not been able to live up to that hype.

This fall, ASU will welcome massive nose tackle Mike Pennel from nearby Scottsdale Community College. The 6-foot-5, 340-pounder is expected to compete for time right away with Adams and Tuitea.

At end, Davon Coleman is expected to run with the first team, backed by walk-on Gannon Conway and Sean O'Grady. Coleman had a solid debut season last year as a sophomore and will be counted on to be even more forceful as a junior in 2012.

The "Devil" linebacker position will feature players that may slide down to a role on the line as well, and that depth chart includes players such as Carl Bradford, Junior Onyeali and Jordan McDonald, all having prior experience at defensive end.

Spring vs. Fall

The key difference from April to August will be the addition of mammoth JUCO transfer Mike Pennel. Outside of the addition of Pennel, the depth of Will Sutton (pictured) and Jake Sheffield defensive tackle, Corey Adams as the main nose tackle and Davon Coleman, Gannon Conway and Sean O'Grady at defensive end is likely to repeat in camp.

Keep an Eye On

The competition at nose tackle between Corey Adams and Mike Pennel presumes to be a dog fight, but the lack of proven depth at defensive end will be worthy of attention as well. Davon Coleman is the clear starting candidate over alternates such as Gannon Conway and Sean O'Grady, but hopes are that Coleman does not rest on his laurels and continues to improve.

Schematically, it will be intriguing to watch the multiplicity that the coaches feature along the defensive line and how the players react. With several new pieces being utilized, it will be integral that the players are able to adapt to their various responsibilities for the defense to be as efficient as the coaches hope it will be.

Newcomers to Watch

Jaxon Hood is a high-motor player who gives the impression that he could be a "lunch pail" type of fan favorite down the road and Jake Sheffield should be a stable reserve who has already earned the respect of Sun Devil fans everywhere for his military service.

But make no mistake about it, the defensive line newcomer that everyone will be watching will be the one that is easiest too see due to his 6-foot-5, 340-pound frame. Mike Pennel is a beast of a man that is surprisingly athletic for his size and could be an absolute monster for opposing linemen to face. Though Corey Adams exited the spring as the top nose tackle, Adams has suffered a multitude of injury problems during his career and will face tremendously stiff competition from Pennel this year.

Linebacker

The outlook at linebacker is much different than it's been in previous years, both in terms of the responsibilities of the positions and the individuals manning the spots.

ASU will feature a "Devil" ‘backer that is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, a "Spur" that is a hybrid safety/linebacker, an inside WILL linebacker and a MIKE ‘backer.

At the Devil position, Carl Bradford has enjoyed a tremendous offseason. A standout in the weight room, the coaches rave about the abilities he brings to the field. In the two years he's been at ASU, Bradford has played both linebacker and defensive end which can only help his adjustment to this position.

Junior Onyeali, the 2010 Pac-10 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year as a defensive end, is generally expected to return to full duty after serving a spring suspension. A pass rush dynamo when at his physical and mental best, if Onyeali is at the top of his game and in the coaches' good graces, he could easily atone for his disappointing sophomore season.

Behind these two, with the dismissal of senior Greg Smith, Jordan McDonald rounds out the depth at the Devil position.

Ultra athletic linebacker Anthony Jones (pictured) was the first-team Spur during the spring, and if he has a solid fall he can live up to the lofty expectations coaches have had since his arrival in Tempe. Jones has absolutely no shortage of athletic gifts and this season marks his first true opportunity to earn substantial action.

As talented as Jones is, he'll face stiff competition in the form of Chris Young, who may see time at safety or the Spur position. One of the top junior college defenders in the nation last year, Young has experience at safety and linebacker and could be a perfect fit at the position. His academic clearance is still not 100% confirmed and just like any other junior college transfer Young would still face a learning curve and need to physically adapt to the FBS level of play.

Matt Tucker, also a player with experience at ASU at both safety and linebacker, will be a reserve Spur .

No player is more eager to see the field in 2011 than WILL Brandon Magee, as his senior season was wrecked by an Achilles injury last August. Magee is nearly prepared to be cleared for full duty and when he is, offenses he faces will undoubtedly suffer. This offseason, Magee has more than embraced the role of perhaps the team's overall leader and is prepared to be the focal point on the field and in the locker room for the Sun Devils.

Behind Magee, redshirt freshman Isreal Marshall and walk-on Grandville Taylor will compete for reps. Marshall has shown some marked streaks of athleticism in his first year on campus, while Taylor has refused to give up his fight for a role on the team. Magee is the unquestioned starter and leader of the group, but Marshall and Taylor can add formidable depth and prepare themselves to replace Magee in 2013 and beyond.

At MIKE, incumbent starter Kipeli Koniseti figures to have a heated battle with junior college transfer Steffon Martin. Koniseti, a reserve last year, showed marked improvement this spring before suffering an injury. Martin, however, comes to ASU as the prototypical middle linebacker and has every tool to be an early impact starter.

Walk-on Brandon Johnson has seen some game action during his ASU career and took over as the first-string MIKE linebacker in the spring when Koniseti was shelved.

Three true freshmen in Salamo Fiso, Carlos Mendoza and Matthew Rowe will debut with the Sun Devils this fall. Though there are heated battles throughout the four linebacker positions, these newcomers, especially Fiso, could still lay claim to immediate playing time, especially at the two inside linebacker positions.

Spring vs. Fall

Few positions on the roster may shake up as much as linebacker when comparing the spring and fall depth charts. Koniseti and Jones' positions as first-team members may be severely challenged by incoming JUCO transfers, while Onyeali's probable return will give Bradford a test as well. Lastly, the three incoming true freshmen will throw their names in the hat and have the skills to push for quick reps.

Koniseti and Magee may be limited due to lingering injuries, which will create additional openings for players to prove themselves.

As the spring wore on, players such as Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor saw extensive playing time with the first-team defense but likely face a reduction in playing time in the fall.

Keep an Eye On

Many are expecting immediate returns from junior college transfers Steffon Martin and Chris Young, so that inherently means that eyes will focus on their immersion to the FBS level of play. JUCO transfers often are a crapshoot, with some catching on instantly, some after a year of play and some failing to ever fully acclimate to the elevated competition level. Martin and Young were two of the top junior college defenders on a national level during their time as teammates at Arizona Western, but that does not create a guarantee for instant success at ASU.

Aside from the newcomers, Junior Onyeali will undoubtedly have his share of onlookers as fans cross fingers in hopes that he can mimic his freshman form rather than his misdirected sophomore season.

In general the group will need to establish quick organization and continuity, as the defense unlikely will reach its potential this year if the linebackers are unable to establish themselves as a dependable platoon.

Newcomers to Watch

No position brings in as much new talent as the linebacker positions, with Martin and Young coming from the junior college level and Fiso, Mendoza and Rowe entering their freshman seasons.

With so many departures at linebacker from 2011, all bets are off as far as who will redshirt and who will not, so all five newcomers can enter camp with the realistic expectation to play in 2012.

Martin and Young have the most plausible chances to start or at least see ample time, like with Martin at MIKE and Young at SPUR. It would not be a surprise to see one or two of the true freshmen see game action this year, with Fiso and Mendoza as perhaps the two most viable options of the trio.

Secondary

Personnel Breakdown

At cornerback there is very distinct separation between the top three and the remainder of the field. Osahon Irabor (pictured) is a virtual lock to start, with Deveron Carr and Robert Nelson competing for the other starting nod. Beyond those three rests a group chock full of uncertainty due to inexperience, injury concerns or both.

Irabor enjoyed an excellent showing in his first spring under Todd Graham and has the staff's full confidence as a starter. Nelson, who sat out during 2011 after transferring from Louisiana-Monroe, was one of the surprise contributors and put significant pressure on Carr, despite the fact that Carr enters his fifth year in the program. Though the actual starting pair is uncertain as of now, it is highly predicted that this trio will form the upper part of the cornerback rotation.

Further down the depth chart, players such as Rashad Wadood, Devan Spann, Joe Eason, Jarrid Bryant, Ronald Kennedy, Jr., and incoming junior college transfer Oliver Johnson will compete for practice reps.

Wadood saw action as a true freshman last year and would presume to be the top candidate to see second-team action. Spann, though he has a high talent ceiling, has been completely marred by injuries his first two seasons on campus and is an unknown at this point. Eason had inspiring moments during the spring but remains a work in progress, while Bryant, who also showed some definite appeal at cornerback, spent his first three seasons at ASU as a wide receiver.

Kennedy, a walk-on that has seen practice time at multiple defensive back positions, will add depth. Johnson brings amazing size to the position and could be a wild card in the position competition but also may be a bit rusty as he missed a significant portion of his sophomore season in 2011.

After bouncing around multiple positions during his first two seasons, Alden Darby (pictured) is poised for a tremendous breakout year in 2012. One of the most vocal players on the team, Darby has embraced a leadership role and is determined to back that up on the field as a junior. As a freshman and sophomore he has seen time at cornerback, safety, linebacker and on special teams, making him a versatile defender that should be among the team's top defensive honors candidates.

For the first time in his career, fifth-year senior Keelan Johnson is an odds-on favorite to start as camp opens. High on athletic ability but just unable to compose the body of work necessary to be a viable starter, a starting role is Johnson's to lose as he enters his final year at ASU.

Ezekiel Bishop figures to be a major wild card at safety; after only a couple weeks of practice last year as a true freshman he showed unbelievable tenacity and range, making him a high-ceiling prospect. Unfortunately, that excitement stalled when his true freshman season came to a screeching halt with a season-ending injury in the opening game. If back to full speed, Bishop has the qualities to be an athlete Graham will want to highlight as much as possible.

Senior Kevin Ayers and junior Shane McCullen also will compete for time at safety but neither brings a very diverse skill set to the group. Both players can be expected to see most of their game action on special teams and as emergency replacements at safety.

Newcomers Laiu Moeakiola and Luke Williams will start their Sun Devil careers and compete for immediate time at safety. Williams, a late July addition to the 2012 class, is an unknown commodity at this point but Moeakiola comes to Tempe with the expectation to possibly leapfrog players such as Ayers and McCullen for playing time.

The immediate availability for full contact of both Ayers and Bishop are currently uncertain as they both missed action this offseason due to injuries.

Spring vs. Fall

The position groups figure to have some similarity between what was seen in the spring versus what will be seen in the fall, though both groups hope to get a few injured players back into the fold.

Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor appear to be surefire locks to start at safety and cornerback, respectively, with Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr expected to also start. Cornerback Robert Nelson and possibly safety Ezekiel Bishop will be the top contenders to joint he first-string defense, though Bishop's immediate availability and/or whether he will be the player he was last year are unknowns due to his continued recovery from last fall's ACL injury.

Keep an Eye On

At cornerback, Nelson is definitely one to watch as he attempts to continue his rise up the depth chart. In the spring he gave Carr a definite run for his money and if that type of effort continues he may find himself in the starting lineup. Bishop has major upside at safety as he exhibited last preseason and if he can rebound from last year's ACL injury he is expected to be a definite contributor and possibly also challenge to start.

As a whole, fans will undoubtedly be heavy critics of the secondary's development from last season as the group became a major liability down the stretch of the 2011 season. The cornerbacks and safeties have definite experience, so there are no excuses for a lack of progress.

Newcomers to Watch

True freshman safety Laiu Moeakiola, junior college cornerback Oliver Johnson and recent addition to the 2012 class, safety Luke Williams, are the primary newbies that will compete for reps this year. Each of the three undoubtedly will begin practice a few notches away from starting positions, but there are still opportunities for unknown commodities to be promoted in the secondary.

Another factor with the new safeties is whether Kevin Ayers and Ezekiel Bishop will be limited due to injuries that have held them out of previous offseason action. If one or both of the two is not fully healed at the start of camp, it is very likely that a newcomer could see instant second-team action.


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