Spring Review: Defense and Special Teams

Coming into spring there may have been some concerns replacing some key figures from last year's defensive unit which was one of the best in the Pac-12. Yet, thanks to some surprise contributions the coaching staff can generally feel at ease about the state of this group going into fall camp. Special teams were a different story. Here's our analysis of how both groups performed in the spring.

Defensive Line

(for the purposes of this article we will list Devil backers Bradford, Koniseti and Cox with the defensive line)

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. The Arizona State defense, which overall had one of the best seasons in school history, did struggle stopping the run in 2012 and this was one of the top goals of the spring. Fast forward to this year's spring practice and not much has changed in this aspect. Granted, one cannot put 100 percent of the blame on this group, and the depth of talent at running back isn't exactly an easy group of players to defend, but the defensive line has to show considerable improvement to truly help the entire team to take that proverbial next step in 2013. Something to keep in mind come fall camp.

Other than that deficiency, there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to this unit. It's a group that is simply loaded with talent and features players who had an outstanding 2012 campaigns to build on.

The fact that the coaching staff noticed a marked improvement in All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, shows that the senior is poised to make his last season as a Sun Devil even more special than a year full of career highs. Earning the honor to wear the Pat Tillman practice jersey shows that whether it's on the field or off of it, Sutton is handling his business the right way and is poised to eclipse his personal stats that weren't only in the upper echelon of the Pac-12, but also in the entire nation.

It's no secret that Devil backer Carl Bradford (pictured) greatly benefits from Sutton's play, but the junior should certainly be given his own due for his high level of performance in the spring. Bradford is an extremely explosive edge pass rusher who continually harassed the offensive backfield seemingly every practice. It was good to see the junior exhibit his versatility as he lined up at MIKE linebacker when the defense showed a 3-3-5 stack look, an alignment that was commonplace in the spring. One area that Bradford could improve on, as well as the rest of the linebackers, is playing the run and is this aforementioned scheme that trait will be vital for his effectiveness on the field.

All-American freshman Jaxon Hood (pictured) was one the biggest surprises in 2012 and much like his aforementioned teammates he did anything but rest on his laurels. The former Chandler Hamilton player slimmed down this year allowing him to improve his agility and strength. He developed a deeper understanding of the game which was manifested by his great technique (especially when shedding blockers). Overall, his progression has to be pleasing to his coaches to say the least.

While it may have been a given that the core players of this group would perform at a high level in the spring, suffice to say that no one expected to see Gannon Conway who was seldom used in 2012, have a solid spring and be a mainstay at starting defensive end. At 6-4 261 lbs. Conway was already one of the most physically imposing defensive linemen on the team, but in the spring he looked more athletic than ever. Even though he's one of better run stoppers of this group he will need to gain weight to improve that attribute, and his pass rush skills are far from refined. However, it was hard not to be impressed by his play.

The ascent of a reserve player such as Conway obviously spells the regression of the starter he replaced, in this case Davon Coleman. While there is no denying of Coleman's talent, the senior has yet to master the mental aspect of the game and there always appears to be some minor off the field issue that further prevents him from realizing his full potential. Not only did Coleman backup Conway but he also took some reps backing up Hood at nose tackle with not much success. It's obviously not too late for Coleman to improve his depth chart positioning going into the season, but it's far from a guarantee as well.

Another reason Coleman moved back to defensive end from nose was the move of Mo Latu over from offensive line to the group he actually began his ASU career at. Even though that move took place with just a couple of weeks left in the spring, the former Gilbert Perry standout has shown some promise here displaying athleticism and explosion you wouldn't necessarily expect from a 6-3 338 lbs. player. If he can lose considerable weight by August he stands to really flourish at a role that the team certainly could use some quality depth at.

Kipeli Koniseti at Devil backer finished the last couple of weeks of spring sessions on a very high note and played very well in the spring game. At 6-2 235 lbs. the senior has a similar frame to Branford's, perhaps a tad more physical than him but certainly not as athletic. He's one player that for a while was simply searching for his own niche in the linebacker crops and I truly believe that he has found it now with this role. Quietly, he's one the most improved players from last year on the entire squad and in his last season as a Sun Devil his timing couldn't have been better.

Obviously Chans Cox being sidelined for virtually all of spring with a foot injury, and being a true freshman to boot puts his chances of unseating Koniseti in the depth chart in jeopardy. He will have to come blazing out of the gates in August to truly mount any kind of competition.

Another player who missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, was Junior Onyeali. The senior battled that injury all of last season, something that has naturally impacted his production in 2012 as missed five games. With the current cast of characters and the JC transfers additions in the fall, I don't like his chances of being productive as he was during his first two years in Tempe. Much like Cox, this once Pac-10 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year faces a crucial fall camp and one that could greatly determine his playing fate in 2013.

6-5 251-pound true freshman Kisima Jagne is the perfect example of a player blessed with great measurable but also one who has to hone the mental part of the game to make any meaningful contribution. A shoulder injury and some minor off the field issues saw him miss about half of spring practice, something that will make his learning curve that much steeper.

Jake Sheffield at nose and Sean O'Grady at end did enjoy a somewhat stronger spring practice than last year but I would be surprised if they still didn't get buried in the depth chart this season.

Linebackers

There wasn't much concern among the coaches on how to fill the void left by last year's leading tackler, Brandon Magee, who exhausted his eligibility, and Chris Young (pictured) is the reason why.

Now, his level of play in the spring shouldn't come as surprise because as the hybrid safety/linebacker, aka Spur, the then JC transfer proved to be the perfect combination of quickness and sure tackling, as he was equally as effective against the run as he was versus the pass. His 14 tackles for a loss last season were second only to Sutton and Bradford – enough said.

On the other hand, no one knew for sure if Young could be as effective in Magee's vacated WILL role, but the former Arizona Western College star made that transition absolutely seamless. That role versatility shown by Young allowed the coaches to put senior Anthony Jones, who largely underperformed last season, in his more natural Spur position. However, redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza, who practiced all of spring with a green non-contact jersey (shoulder) did end up taking first team reps there late in the spring as he enhanced the battle for that role. Mendoza plays with a maturity beyond his years and was somewhat a surprise to see him display the athleticism necessary to play there. With talented incoming JC transfer Antonio Longino, who's more suited for the WILL position it will be interesting to see if Young slides back to his original role having Mendoza and Jones battling it out for second team duties.

At SAM linebacker Steffon Martin was another much improved player from last season and he will have to enter fall camp with a lot of confidence as he will battle Eriquel Florence for starting duties here (although Florence could probably play at WILL as well). As a newcomer in 2012 Martin had a rougher time than his JC teammate Chris Young making the transition to the Division I level. Now, with a year under his belt, not only is the learning curve less steeper, but spending more time in the team's strength and conditioning program has helped him get in better physical shape which naturally enhanced his overall development.

One player that caught our eye in the spring, and in fact had a solid fall camp last year as well and one that almost prevented him from redshirting, was Salamo Fiso. Played well in the SAM role with his physicality and much like Mendoza has an understanding of the game, as well as versatility, that you wouldn't expect such a young player to have.

Grandville Taylor started spring at WILL but in August he will fight just to still be in the two-deep, and redshirt freshman Matthew Rowe faces even a bigger uphill battle in that aspect.

Secondary

During an off-season interview with the media, Head Coach Todd Graham said that he and his staff seek out tall and physical safeties, but he quickly added with a smile "but don't tell that to Alden Darby." Even though Darby (pictured) may not be an imposing presence in the defensive backfield he's not only the defense's leader but also a relentless competitor, with a great nose for the ball and tackling skills. In a group short on experience you simply cannot measure the value that this senior brings to the table. Darby enjoyed a fine spring and the boundary (aka bandit) safety set the tone for the rest of his teammates here.

Field (free) safety featured a back a and forth battle between sophomore Ezekiel Bishop and redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola, and ironically both could find themselves as reserve players this season if some of the newcomers hit the ground running in a few months. But in the spring Bishop's roller coaster performance ended with him claiming the starting role for now, while the more physical Moeakiola ended spring battling senior Shane McCullen for reps behind Darby at the boundary safety. Sophomore Luke Williams was running behind all of his teammates, and would be even more hard pressed for reps in August.

Graham cited the field safety as one position he was anxious to solidify a starter at, and frankly this may be overall the most glaring deficiency in an otherwise stout ASU defense. The fall camp battles here are worth of following closely.

At boundary cornerback we find another senior anchor in Osahon Irabor (pictured) who followed up a solid junior year with an outstanding spring performance showing that he is poised for an All-Pac 12 season. Some may recall that ever since his true freshman year, Irabor stood out as one of the team's best players in this role and if it wasn't for a wrist injury and a subsequent forced redshirt year, he would have exhausted his eligibility last season.

Starting in the team's last 32 games, Irabor is savvy veteran which explains why it's almost unheard of to see him commit a mental mistake in a position that is frequently challenged in the pass happy Pac-12. His cerebral style of play is a thing of beauty and a good example for younger and more athletic players to follow in order to refine their own game.

Marlon Pollard, a onetime four-star safety who played at UCLA and transferred to ASU from Eastern Michigan appears right now to be slated as Irabor's backup. Had a nice spring and being that this was his first spring practice with the Sun Devils you had to be encouraged with his skills.

Opposite Irabor at field safety there has been a very tight position battle developing among several players. Robert Nelson started spring on a very strong note, but after missing a few sessions due to personal reasons never seemed to be the same once he came back. Doesn't play as physical as his teammates but still does a good job in the press and also bump coverages the defense often employs.

After redshirting 2012 due to a shoulder injury, no one knew what to expect from Rashad Wadood and his possible impact on the depth chart. In Nelson's absence, Wadood not only filled the starter spot but also staked a serious claim by the end of spring. Probably the opposite of Irabor being a player that is more gifted athletically but being a sophomore still has to develop a better understanding of the game. Nonetheless, Wadood has shown that he's healthy and ready to contend for a starting position.

Lloyd Carrington may be the most intriguing spring performer here and not just because he played one year under Graham at Pittsburgh and ultimately followed him to Tempe. At 6-0 188 lbs. he is the most physical member of the group but more importantly very versatile as he shuttled back and forth between field corner and field safety and showing well in both roles, as he's just as much adept playing man or zone coverage. While the junior is far from a shoe-in to start, he's one player that is going to be hard to keep off the field, especially in nickel coverage. All in all, I feel that the Sun Devils have a capable group of cornerbacks providing a level of depth that hasn't been seen here in quite a while.

Special Teams

Let's start with the somewhat good news. Walk-on Dom Vizzare was a pleasant surprise at punter. Showed a strong leg for most of the spring, although in live situations displayed less consistency. Can he make it an interesting battle when true freshman Matt Haack arrives in the summer? Perhaps. Yet, it would be a surprise if we didn't see the newcomer take the field for the season opener and beyond.

The fact that ASU offered incoming true freshman placekicker Zane Gonzales a scholarship over a month following NLI day (he was originally scheduled to arrive as a walk-on) is the most telling tale regarding the current state of the Sun Devil kickers. Judging by the spring performance of Jon Mora and Alex Garoutte, if Gonzalez comes in as advertised he should win the job, although there's a good chance he would be regulated to field goal kicking while Garoutte maintains his kickoff duties.

Hard to judge the return game when the practice/scrimmage reps weren't full speed, but Richard Smith appears to be a very capable returner (mainly punts) while D.J. Foster and Marion Grice are good options for kick returns. Robert Nelson and Alden Darby round out the depth chart here, and we like the former much more than the later at this position.


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