Fall Camp Preview: Defense & Special Teams

Even for the novice Sun Devil fan it is virtually impossible to ignore the plethora of media reports that are apprehensive of this year’s Arizona State defense, a unit which lost nine starters from the 2013 squad. Is that situation as dire as many project it to be, and can a maligned special teams unit now become a strength? Joe Healey provides in-depth analysis of both.

Defensive Line

Returners: Jaxon Hood (JR), Marcus Hardison (SR), Mo Latu (RS-JR), Demetrius Cherry (RS-JR), Corey Smith (RS-FR), Zach Abdorrahimzadeh (JR), Sean O’Grady (RS-JR)

Newcomers: Edmond Boateng (RS-SO), Emmanuel Dayries (FR), Connor Humphreys (FR), Tashon Smallwood (FR), Renell Wren (FR)

Outlook : The numbers do not lie and there is no way to sugarcoat the losses ASU suffers in its defensive front as the departures of Will Sutton, Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway combine for 144 tackles and 16.0 sacks gone from the lineup as well as an innumerable collection of leadership and experience.

Following a season in which he was named a Freshman All-American an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection, Jaxon Hood suffered through a major sophomore slump in 2013 as he posted only 17 tackles without a sack after registering 26 tackles with three sacks as a true freshman the year before. Based on what he showed his freshman season, Hood is expected to lead and succeed, though he will need a bounce back performance in 2014 to substantiate those expectations. Despite the regression a year ago, Hood begins fall camp atop the depth chart at the “Tiger” (aka 3-technique) position.

A standout two-way lineman at the high school level, Mo Latu has bounced between offensive and defensive line but seems to have found a home at nose tackle, where he enters fall camp as the projected starter. A potentially beastly presence and a capable handful for opposing blockers, Latu has shown signs of high level ability but issues with conditioning and injuries have stalled his development. In the spring, Latu showed notable improvement and has undergone some physical improvements to keep hopes up that he can be a viable contributor and not just a role playing run-stuffer.

One of the top defensive prospects from the junior college ranks for the 2013 class, Marcus Hardison (pictured) came to ASU with lofty expectations that fell unmet over the course of his debut season with the Devils as he totaled a mere five tackles with one sack. Hardison has shown improvement over the offseason and spent the entire spring with the first-team defense and enters fall camp as the number one defensive end. In 2014, Hardison will be largely called upon to provide quarterback pressure as that general topic is a major question mark for the defense entering fall camp.

Demetrius Cherry and Corey Smith bring excellent frames to the defensive line and after redshirting in 2013, both players could be among the first names called off the bench in 2014. Standing 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, respectively, Cherry and Smith give the Sun Devils the length the coaching staff desires out of its defensive linemen. Both players are listed on the depth chart at the “Tiger” position behind Hood with Cherry standing second and Smith third. The tandem was unimpressive in the spring, so fall camp allows them an opportunity to hold off the newcomers vying for their depth chart status.

Aside from having a high Scrabble score last name, walk-on Zach Abdorrahimzadeh saw substantial action in the two-deep this spring. Though he’ll undoubtedly be pushed by newcomers this fall, a chance exists that he remains in the conversation for playing time in 2014 and Abdorrahimzadeh was listed on the initial fall depth chart as the second string nose tackle behind Latu.

Sean O’Grady, the most veteran member of the defensive line as he enters his fourth season at ASU, was not with the program in the spring but is expected to return, albeit likely in a lower-rung depth chart role.

Entering fall camp it essentially has become a given that ASU will rely on the contributions of multiple newcomers as five scholarship additions were made to the 2014 roster along the defensive line.

Edmond Boateng joined the program in the spring and starts the fall as a key reserve at defensive end, while Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren each earned four-star rankings by at least one recruiting service last year. The Sun Devils have next to zero game experience among its depth on the defensive line, creating a wide open opportunity for blue chip recruits such as the trio of Humphreys, Smallwood and Wren to make an immediate impact, with Humphreys probably standing the best chance for significant contributions.

ASU was hoping for a major boost from top-notch JUCO defensive lineman Dalvon Stuckey, but recently it was determined he would not meet academic requirements to play for ASU. Largely benefitting from that result is freshman Emmanuel Dayries, a player who was initially slated to join the program as a walk-on this season but will be given one of the scholarships vacated by Stuckey’s inability to qualify.

Burning Fall Camp Question: Will the leaders lead?

Of the three projected starters, each brings equal parts excitement and concern: Jaxon Hood has regressed significantly since his Freshman All-America season in 2012, Mo Latu has beastly run-stopping potential but lingering weight and injury issues, while Marcus Hardison did little last year to substantiate his billing as one of the elite junior college defenders in the 2013 class.

Hardison has been praised for his work and development this offseason and Latu has had encouraging news regarding his physical shape; however Hood remains an enigma in terms of his ability to grasp the leadership role that is expected of him as a third-year key contributor.

With a collective game résumé that is borderline non-existent behind these three, it is imperative that each not only holds down a starting position with authority but also exudes the qualities necessary to lead the forefront of the defense.

Linebacker

Returners: Salamo Fiso (RS-SO), Viliami Moeakiola (RS-SO), Carlos Mendoza (RS-SOPH), Antonio Longino (RS-JR), Viliami Latu (SOPH), Chans Cox (RS-FR), Alani Latu (RS-FR), Eriquel Florence (RS-JR), Marcus Washington (RS-SR)

Newcomers: D.J. Calhoun (FR), Ruben Ibarra (SR), Ismael Murphy-Richardson (FR), Christian Sam (FR), Jamal Scott (FR)

Outlook : Many questions surround ASU’s four linebacker positions after the Sun Devils lose four of the top five leading tacklers among linebackers from 2013, but one area of certainty is the return of SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso (pictured).

A Freshman All-American last year, Fiso replaced senior Steffon Martin in the starting lineup early in the year and quietly went on to submit a fantastic season with 71 tackles with 3.0 sacks. Entering 2014, Fiso is tied with defensive back Damarious Randall as ASU’s leading returning tacklers and Fiso will be expected to step away from the role of the unsung freshman among a seasoned defense into a leader and all-conference honors candidate.

At the WILL and SPUR positions, ASU is tasked with replacing starters in Chris Young and Anthony Jones, respectively. Exiting spring drills, true freshman D.J. Calhoun and Antonio Longino continued to battle for first-team reps at WILL with Viliami Moeakiola holding on to the top spot at SPUR.

Calhoun, a midyear high school graduate, showed outstanding promise this spring and exudes all-conference potential. Longino, who saw limited action as a sophomore last season, has top level athleticism and will continue to challenge Calhoun for linebacker reps this fall.

A starter in six games last year, Moeakiola registered 21 tackles and looks to take on a greater role at SPUR as a sophomore in 2014. A factor in Moeakiola’s contributions will be where Marcus Ball is slated and if Ball can remain healthy. This time last year, Ball made an immediate impact before a Camp Tontozona injury sidelined him for the year. In addition to the uncertainty surrounding Ball’s availability for the start of fall camp, it also remains to be seen whether he will be slated at safety or linebacker.

Perhaps the most talked-about position this offseason, ASU enters fall camp with no true replacement for Green Bay Packers rookie Carl Bradford at the Devilbacker position. A tough act to follow, Bradford totaled 39.5 tackles for loss with 20.0 sacks the past two years at Devilbacker, setting the bar very high at roughly a 20-TFL, 10-sack standard annual output for the position.

During the spring, Chans Cox, Eriquel Florence and Viliami Latu rotated at the position and at no point did one of the three become a distinct favorite to capture the first-team nod in the fall. ASU expected to receive an instant boost at Devilbacker from the 2014 class in the form of junior college transfer Darrius Caldwell, but earlier this month it was determined he would not be admitted to ASU.

One of the most purely gifted defenders on the roster, Carlos Mendoza simply cannot shake the injury bug as he only saw action in six games last season after being granted a medical redshirt the year before due to a serious early season injury. When at full strength, Mendoza combines size and versatility in a way perhaps unparalleled by any other Sun Devil linebacker; however, the challenge has been keeping him healthy enough to fully display his talent.

Entering fall camp, Florence is atop the depth chart at the position but that battle figures to be fluid to say the very least. Offensive players such as De’Marieya Nelson and true freshman Kalen Ballage might also get a crack at spot duty as pass rushers at linebacker.

Viliami Latu’s brother, Alani, saw early season action last year but missed the vast majority of the year due to injury and ultimate was granted a medical redshirt. Listed is the number two SAM linebacker behind Fiso, Latu will battle for a depth chart role in what technically is his redshirt freshman season in 2014.

A journeyman throughout his Sun Devil career, Marcus Washington began at ASU at running back before switching to tight end and ultimately this spring was relocated again to SPUR linebacker. He showed flashes of ability on defense but likely faces an uphill battle to obtain any measure of meaningful playing time this fall. Seldom used Luke Williams reportedly had a solid off-season that could just see him sneak in a second-team SPUR.

Recently former Purdue Boilermaker Ruben Ibarra announced his transfer to ASU and after sitting out the season’s first two games he will be eligible to play as a senior graduate transfer. In seven games last season for Purdue, Ibarra collected 27 tackles – a total that stands as the third-highest among any returning player at ASU behind Salamo Fiso and Damarious Randall. Ibarra figures to add depth behind Fiso at the SAM position, while also having the ability to audition the WILL spot as well.

True freshmen Ismael Murphy-Richardson, Christian Sam and Jamal Scott join the program for 2014 and each brings substantial upside. Of the three, Sam is the most likely to see immediate action. Murphy-Richardson, who is still working to resolve eligibility issues, and Scott have outstanding long-term potential, making ASU’s 2014 class of linebackers one that can provide substantial rewards down the line.

Burning Fall Camp Question: Who will emerge at Devil backer?

The early loss of Carl Bradford to the NFL was sure to be a tough blow for the Sun Devils to cushion; however, as the past several months have transpired more questions than answers have surfaced at the position.

This spring, Cox, Florence and Latu battled at the position with few highlights among their performances. At the time, the lackluster play was not perceived to be a big deal as man expected 2014 signee Darrius Caldwell to be fitted for immediate playing time in the fall – an idea that was crushed in July when it was determined Caldwell did not meet academic requirements to enroll at Arizona State.

In the first preseason depth chart, Florence was listed as the first-team Devilbacker with Latu and Cox behind him, though that pecking order is far from concrete. Murphy-Richardson may very well be the future of the position, but between short term academic issues and a need to add bulk to his frame won’t be a legitimate candidate in 2014.

Additionally, the fact that the staff has mentioned its interest in using offensive players such as De’Marieya Nelson and/or Kalen Ballage at the position speaks volumes of the unsettling feeling for the spot entering fall camp.

Altogether, the trio of Cox, Florence and Latu boasts a whopping 10 games of FBS playing experience (all by Latu last year).

Defensive Back

Returners: Damarious Randall (RS-SR), Lloyd Carrington (RS-JR), Marcus Ball (RS-FR), Jordan Simone (RS-JR), James Johnson (RS-FR), Solomon Means (RS-JR), Ezekiel Bishop (RS-JR), Jayme Otomewo (RS-FR), William Earley (RS-FR), Marcus Mehlhaf-Brown (RS-SO), Ronnie Sellers (RS-JR), Luke Williams (RS-JR)

Newcomers: Chad Adams (FR), Kweishi Brown (JR), Armand Perry (FR), DeAndre Scott (FR), Das Tautalatasi (FR)

Outlook : ASU has quickly created a proud tradition of defensive back play under Todd Graham with players such as Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson in 2012 and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson last year.

In 2013, Darby and Nelson earned First-Team All-Pac-12 honors while Irabor was a second-team member, making ASU the only program to place multiple defensive backs on the first or second team lists. As much of a feather in the cap of Todd Graham as that accomplishment is, all three players have since departed from the program, placing the high secondary standard in the hands of a much less experienced group than what was seen in Tempe the past two years.

Though his initiation to Sun Devil football was stalled during the first month of the season in 2013, from the Notre Dame game through the remainder of the season Damarious Randall validated the high expectations he brought to Tempe after his JUCO All-America season at nearby Mesa Community College.

Randall showed multiple glimpses of his playmaking ball skills and totaled three interceptions including a memorable pick-six of Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker in ASU’s dismantling of the Wildcats to end the regular season. Heading into 2014, Randall is pegged as a defensive leader and to his credit, he has embraced that role and figures to be headed to an All-Pac-12 caliber season.

A willing tackler, Randall totaled 71 stops last year including 5.5 behind the line of scrimmage. It is not out of the realm of possibility to expect Randall to near or exceed the 100-tackle mark in a full season as a starting safety for ASU.

A reserve last season after transferring from Pittsburgh, Lloyd Carrington faces the challenge of leading a cornerbacks unit that must replace a first and a second-team All-Pac-12 recipient from last year because of the departures of Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor.

A talented player in his own right and the only cornerback on the roster with more than one game of FBS playing experience, Carrington (pictured) is a virtual guarantee to start and will be counted on to help usher in a new wave of Sun Devil corners. In total as a last season, Carrington posted 25 tackles and one interception.

The first look at boundary safety to replace Alden Darby figures to feature a battle between Jordan Simone and Marcus Ball (when healthy). Simone was the “feel good” story of the spring as he came virtually out of nowhere to lock down a first-team role in Ball’s absence. Ball, who has had the last year of his career derailed by injuries, has all-conference potential when healthy and is a potential candidate to move to Spur linebacker if the coaches see fit.

At field safety, high potential redshirt freshman James Johnson is listed as the primary reserve. The coaches have raved about his skill set and Johnson is expected to find some way to substantial field action in 2014.

Elsewhere at safety, redshirt freshman Jayme Otomewo and junior Ezekiel Bishop figure to add depth.

William Earley and Solomon Means look to contribute this season after joining the program as members of the 2013 class. Last year, Earley redshirted while Means was credited with one game appearance.

Entering fall camp, Earley is listed as the first-team boundary corner with Means behind Carrington at field corner.

Likely to provide formidable competition in the cornerback race is incoming junior college transfer Kweishi Brown, a JUCO All-American who picked off 11 total passes over the course of his last two seasons. Though he has yet to suit up for ASU, many expect Brown to start opposite Carrington at cornerback this season.

Marcus Mehlhaf-Brown, Ronnie Sellers and Luke Williams will compete to add depth in the secondary during fall camp. Brown was listed in the first fall camp depth chart as the second boundary corner behind Earley; however, that depth chart did not include any fall newcomers.

Four true freshmen defensive backs will enter the fold this fall in Chad Adams, Armand Perry, DeAndre Scott and Das Tautalatasi. With potential openings in the depth chart at cornerback and safety as well as on special teams, fall camp will determine who redshirts and who, if any, plays immediately.

Burning Fall Camp Question: Can the standard in the secondary continue in 2014?

? In 2012, three Sun Devil defensive backs earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 recognition and last year, the collective play of the secondary took things a step even higher as three Devil defensive backs were either first or second-team all-conference recipients.

Entering 2014, Damarious Randall appears to be poised for an excellent season at safety, but behind Randall and projected starting cornerback Lloyd Carrington, the entire depth of all four secondary positions includes only two players with prior FBS playing experience in safety Ezekiel Bishop (12 games) and cornerback Solomon Means (one game).

This is not to say there isn’t talent in the secondary, because the coaching staff is enthusiastic about the group’s collective potential. However, battle-tested veteran leadership from the likes of Darby and Irabor that was abundantly available last season is not in place with the 2014 season on the horizon.

Special Teams Preview

Amid a group of special teams units that was tremendously subpar in 2013, Zane Gonzalez (pictured) provided many redeeming qualities as the true freshman submitted one of the finest kicking seasons in Sun Devil history.

Showing no rookie jitters, Gonzalez ended up claiming First-Team All-Pac-12 honors after setting an ASU record for points by a kicker (138) while tying the NCAA record for field goals made by a freshman (25). Gonzalez also was the Pac-12 leader in kick scoring (9.9 points per game), landing him 10th in the nation in the category.

Gonzalez connected in 18 consecutive field goals spanning nine games of the season but missed two of his final five attempts – one from 31 yards, the other from 24. Regardless, he enters 2014 as a top conference and national honors candidate as well as a legitimate Lou Groza Award option.

If Gonzalez is able to attain similar postseason recognition his sophomore year as he did his freshman season it would quickly place him among the top kickers to play at Arizona State as only one Sun Devil kicker – Luis Zendejas – earned first or second-team all-league recognition more than once.

It would be far too boring to research, but it is difficult to believe many major college football programs in recent history have had as many players punt in a single season as ASU did with the four that did in 2013.

Through the early portion of the season, walk-on Dom Vizzare and true freshman Matt Haack went back-and-forth, but as the year settled it was placekicker Alex Garoutte who ended up punting the remainder of the year. Also, as was the case the previous season, starting quarterback Taylor Kelly was used on pooch punts.

This offseason, Haack has gained a more favorable stance with the coaching staff, while Vizzare is no longer with the program, placing Haack in a spot to be the unquestioned clubhouse leader for the position entering fall camp. A left-footed punter with booming ability, Haack averaged 38.2 yards on 16 punts with six fair catches forced in 2013.

With Gonzalez retaining placekicking duties and Haack (for now) having the staff’s confidence at punter, senior Alex Garoutte likely will focus solely on kickoffs. Few players in recent Sun Devil history have been through as many trials as Garoutte, but he has done all the staff has asked of him – a list of responsibilities that has included every feasible kicking role.

It’s no understatement that ASU needs to greatly refine its kickoff coverage – with the Sun Devils’ high octane offense, many opportunities exist as the Devils totaled a league-high 106 kickoffs last season. Despite 39 touchbacks (second most in the Pac-12), ASU ranked seventh in the league in kickoff coverage. Special teams coverage carries such magnitude, in fact, that it was a prominent factor in replacing Joe Lorig with Keith Patterson this offseason.

After a three-year span from 2010-12 in which ASU ran back nine total punts and kickoffs back for touchdowns, the Sun Devil return game came to a screeching halt last year as the team as a whole averaged only 5.7 yards on punt returns and 21.6 yards on kickoff returns.

Kyle Middlebrooks and Damarious Randall were listed as the top options at both kick and punt returner at the conclusion of the spring. Middlebrooks has extensive special teams experience at ASU – who can painfully forget his near touchdown what seems like decades ago at Wisconsin – while Randall averaged 18.4 yards on punt returns with two touchdowns at Mesa Community College in 2012.

Other options in the return game might include speedy junior college transfer De’Chavon Hayes as well as redshirt freshman receiver Ronald Lewis and perhaps other members of ASU’s class of newcomers such as Chad Adams. D.J. Foster, Deantre Lewis and Jaelen Strong also have career experience at ASU as kick returners.

A note that went generally unnoticed is that the final spring depth chart had an “OR” tagged between walk-on Donnie Shields and Easton Wahlstrom at long snapper, implying some doubt that Wahlstrom, the snapper the past two seasons, is an automatic to retain the deep snapping responsibilities. Though far from headline news, the potential parity is unsurprising as poor snaps caused drastic issues against Wisconsin, Stanford, UCLA and others last season.

Backup quarterback Mike Bercovici exited the spring listed as the holder with Garoutte behind him.

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