Terrific Trio Ready to Fulfill Expectations

With the loss of a Lombardi Award winner and three senior linebackers, it is easy for some to proclaim the Sun Devil defense considerably weaker than last year. However, those critics are overlooking ASU's safety unit – arguably the most talented and deepest in the conference. DevilsDigest sat down with the three starters, Riccardo Stewart, Jason Shivers, and Brett Hudson to get their thoughts on the 2003 season.

We caught up with Riccardo Stewart as he and his team ended their last practice before going up to Camp Tontozona. "I'm feeling good." He said, "I'm a little sore, but I'm feeling fresh. The defense is doing real well so far. Everyone is working very hard and that's what matters." The safety has mixed emotions about leaving the Valley of the Sun. "We're looking forward to cooling off, but I'm happy with Coach Koetter's decision to keep us down here for four days. I don't mind practicing in the heat as long as I can sleep in my own bed, go home, call my parents rather than being in camp. I don't know how everyone else is feeling, because the heat is killing everyone (smile)."

Stewart understands why some may look down on this Sun Devil defense, and knows that actions speak louder than words. "We'll take any talk, positive and negative. We don't care what people say. Terrell (Suggs) was the best defensive player in football last year. So, of course they're gonna say that you won't be as good without him. But I think a lot of guys will pick it up. Nick Johnson is a beast. He's every bit of Terrell just without the experience. You can go up and down the line and see we got a lot of talent on defense. Coach Koetter says as long as we're working as a team we'll win. I know the guys that are here this year can play together and get it done." The junior is also very excited for his own unit. "Personally, I think we have a lot of good safeties. We have 16 safeties, and 11 or 12 are scholarship guys. I think we're talented and with no injuries this year we'll be very deep…Matt Fawley is the fourth safety and he could be the starter at any time on our team or anywhere else in the Pac-10. He's playing exceptionally well."

The 5-10 210 Stewart was honored by his peers and elected to be the co-captain along with Andrew Walter. How does he feel about his new title? "That's been the question of the summer hasn't it (smile)? It was great. When it first came out I wanted to keep it to myself. You don't wanna go around bragging about. It's a great honor to be voted by your teammates and I'm glad to accept it. " Most captains, and leaders for that matter, tend to be vocal ones. However Stewart prefers to show his leadership in a more quiet and effective manner. "I'm not going to be very vocal. I'll speak up when it's needed. When I got here I just sat back and watched guys like Willie Daniel and Al Williams. They got down and dirty on the field, in the weight room, and worked hard in the classroom. That's what I try to do so I can lead by example. That's what those guys did for me, and I hope to do the same for the younger guys. It's a honor when guys follow your example, but at the same time it's what you want them to do. That's how this team will keep going."

Right before he went down with an injury, Stewart led the conference in tackles and eventually succumbed to Jason Shivers who led ASU in tackles for the second year in a row. Is Stewart ready to break that Shivers streak? "Jason is a real good tackler. If he wants to get all the tackles that fine (smile). I'm gonna get mine, but I also want to get big hits, turnovers…anything I can to get a win. It's all about keeping their offense on the field and getting our offense on the field. Don't get me wrong, I want to get a lot of tackles and hit a whole lot of people. I might lead in tackles, Jason may lead, and who knows maybe even Brett…"

"Lead the team in tackles again - that's the goal." Says Jason Shivers. "That has been in play since the first year. I almost feel like I have to do that. I also want to put up a lot of interceptions and get the team record. This is my third year here, and I just wanna have fun with Riccardo, Brett, R.J., Josh, and the rest of the guys." On Media Day earlier this week, we talked to the local South Mountain product who not only had a beneficial off-season in conditioning drills, but also with his landscaping business. "Even though there weren't many Monsoon storms this summer, we've been busy. A lot of people have weeds in their yards that need to be picked up (smile)." And what has kept him busy on the field? "Working on my technical skills, backpedaling, covering, just watching a lot of film. It's been a productive off-season."

Unlike Stewart and Hudson who play closer to the line of scrimmage, Shivers sits back at his free safety spot much like a signal caller on offense. The junior relishes in that analogy. "Oh yeah. I loved playing quarterback when I was younger, so that kinda makes my role fun. It fulfills something I loved to do when I was younger – making calls, telling people where to line up– it's really up my alley." Shivers once again will be using his athletic ability to return kicks on special teams. "I started returning kicks midway last year. Against USC I almost returned it to the crib (smile). I wanna be all over the field. I'll play offense if they want me to. If I don't need to be there, I won't be there. As long as we're winning it's all good. That's my whole outlook as far as this upcoming season."

And what will happen after the season comes to an end? There has been speculation that another 100 tackle season or so for the 6-0 192 Shivers may entice him to forgo his last year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. Those thoughts right now will have to take a back seat. "When I get to that point I'll think about it. Until then my goal is to show excellence on the field, and make it to the Sugar Bowl."

Speaking of the pros, junior college transfer Brett Hudson wowed the NFL scouts last year when the 6-2 223 senior ran a 4.4. When we mentioned this to Hudson on media day, he was genuinely embarrassed. "I'm just happy that all the hard work in the off-season paid off. It's nice that I can lift this much or run that fast, but I have to make sure that I'm doing enough to help out my team."

Junior colleges transfers usually struggle, much like freshmen, in their first year of Division I football. Hudson was clearly an exception to that unwritten rule. "I heard that talk too. I guess it's just not true for everyone. You had guys like Shane Jones that were juco transfers and played well too. We have great coaches and a great system. If you know what you're doing and you work hard, you gonna succeed. It won't matter if you're a juco transfer or a senior."

One issue that Hudson is less humble about is the prospects of his safety group. "I know we have the best safeties in the Pac-10. Jason has led the team in tackles for the last two years, and you know Riccardo is gonna bring the wood every week. Yeah, a lot of people are talking about how good we are, and some people don't think we'll be that good. But no matter if they say bad or good things about you we can't worry about that. Our job is to produce. If we play hard and do our job, then the compliments will come. But we don't play for the compliments. We play for each other and the team."

Hudson started 10 of his 12 games at cornerback. Even though he received high praise for his play there, he would prefer to stay at his natural safety spot. "It was a learning process playing there. I just went out and did the best I can. It was hard going back and forth between both positions, but I did what's best for the team. Sure, I want to stay at safety, but if they need me to go there again – I'm there."

Like his teammate Shivers, and despite the early interest shown by NFL scouts, Hudson puts his thoughts about the next level in the appropriate place – the backburner. "I can't think about it right now. We have a lot of things to accomplish this season. When it's over, we can worry about the NFL. When I go to the NFL, it's because it's my time to go. You won't see a big press conference like the one for Terrell last year (smile). But no matter where I get picked, it will be a dream come true." And if this highly acclaimed threesome lives up to expectations, there will be many more dreams, individually and team ones that will come to fruition.

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