No group will be impacted more by position changes than the defensive line. A position mired by injuries, suspensions, and off the field problems, the defensive line underachieved last year as a unit, and never recovered from Terrell Suggs' early departure to the NFL. However, last year the Devils did find out they have a superstar in the making. Once Kyle Caldwell (pictured) got healthy he showed the flashes of what made him one of the most recruited players in the nation two seasons ago. Many expect him to have some classic battles with Andrew Carnahan this spring. Long time starter Jimmy Verdon capably handles the other end spot. While Verdon does the hard work that often goes unnoticed, it will be important for him to step up his productivity this coming year. The senior is a big weak side defensive end who also handles the run well. It is hoped for the sake of the defense that he can pick up his sack totals in 2004.
Gabe Reininger is one of the likely starters at defensive tackle. The senior made a nice impact last year, but should really blossom this season as he is fully acclimated to the Division-I game. Who will start next to Reininger is a question that will be worked on in the spring, but may not be fully answered until the fall when a couple of junior college transfers arrive and the depth chart sorts itself out. Ali Likio is a player who has had every unfortunate challenge come his way in his first two years at ASU. If luck is on his side this season, he may be just what the Devils need playing the role of 345-pound run stuffer. Brett Palmer has also been packing on the pounds (coming in at 281) and is looking to find his way into the mix. His development and contributions are key to an area begging for depth. One player making a position changes is Connor Banks. The senior isn't traveling all that far, as he has played the last two seasons at defensive end. Banks is a workout warrior bulking up without limitation, and looking to take his relentless nature to the inside of the line. Jordan Hill, one of the more physically gifted players on the team, will be leaving the linebacker spot and to join Banks at tackle. Most aren't sure what type of impact Hill will have on the defensive line, but his three reaming years of eligibility could yield dividends down the road. Yet another player making a position switch is former fullback Mike Talbot. Talbot was a stellar player on the defensive side in high school. He will be making the switch back and will put his athleticism to work at defensive end. Talbot has a redshirt year available to him, and if necessary the coaches could give him extra time to adapt to his new role. Ishmael Thrower returns as a pass rushing specialist, who just might come into his own and wreck havoc in opposing backfields. After coming back from a tough injury, Thrower every so often put his fine skills on display. Spring will be a time for him to work on more pass rushing moves, while balancing out his game and playing effectively against the run.
The linebacker position will undertake some changes as well this season. The emphasis will be on making the extra safety more of a rover who is better at stopping the run and matching up against complex facets of opposing offenses. The best news for the linebacker core is the fact they, unlike last year, return some experienced players. Last year saw the top four players all getting their first action of their careers. Jamar Williams is the leader of the unit and one of the team leaders in the locker room. A rangy backer who loves to blitz, Williams will be counted on to fly all over the field and break up running and passing plays. Senior Justin Burks is another player Devil fans expect to improve quite a bit this year. Playing the first year following junior college ball is tough enough, but playing among guys who are just as green as you makes the learning curve that much steeper. Look for Burks to show Sun Devil fans more of a polished player who can be a consistent difference maker.
Mark Washington saw the field quite a bit as a true freshman last year. He is another rangy player who finishes tackles extremely well and loves playing a physical game. One can expect Washington to strongly contend for a starting spot in the new 4-3 scheme. DeAndre Johnson is a local player who could make a name for himself this year. Coming off a year layoff (while trying to gain academic qualification) proved detrimental in trying to avoid the redshirt tag. His range of coverage for a linebacker is what attracted the coaches to him in the first place, and he will be looked upon to provide invaluable depth.
R.J. Oliver (pictured) returns as one of the starters on defense. A full-time player since his freshman days, Oliver suffered a serious leg injury in the 2003 opener that proved to hamper him for the entire season. When healthy, Oliver is a pro prospect with glue like coverage skills. His health and mentoring of the young Devil corners will be essential this spring and through out the season. The other starting job is entirely up for grabs. It is likely that Chris McKenzie is the leading candidate for the job and will open up spring running with the first team. Playing corner is a difficult job at any level, and McKenzie had to adjust from playing at the juco level the year before to going against the most pass happy teams in America. The results were mixed, but no one doubts his speed or his instincts. The senior will look to get the coverage part down with new position coach Mark Carrier this spring and create a solid tandem with Oliver at the corner spot.
A player everyone is excited to watch is Chad Green. Green chose the Devils over LSU last year, and the fact the Tigers, a solid defensive team in their own right, pursued Green speaks volumes as to how his skills and potential are perceived. Thus, ASU may have a lock down corner in the making. The redshirt freshman will get plenty of looks and every opportunity to stake his claim to a starting role. It's make or break time for Mike Davis Jr. Davis showed enough promise to play as a true freshman and cover opposing receivers, especially the more towering ones. It has been a work in progress for the junior, but his ability to step up will go a long way to adding proven depth to the secondary. The same can be said for Josh Golden. Golden saw the field a lot as a freshman, but found himself frequently on the sideline as a sophomore. The junior possesses great speed and is a sure tackler, but his coverage is lacking at times. The first test for Mark Carrier will be to determine what he can get out of these two raw players. Depending upon how the safety and rover position shake out, there has been some mention of getting Josh Barrett a look at cornerback. He will be unavailable for spring practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
The Devils lost two starters from the three-safety scheme last year in Brett Hudson and Jason Shivers. The third starting safety, team captain Riccardo Stewart (pictured), suffered a devastating injury at Washington State. Consequently, he will be limited in practice sporting the #7 orange jersey. His latest injury raised the question as to whether his body can take many more shattering hits. Nevertheless, what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in heart and courage. Beyond that, Stewart is a role model to all of the young safeties on the squad. The player with the most playing experience behind Stewart is Matt Fawley. Fawley is a fan favorite, and is a fine tackler in the open field. Because he combines good speed with a good physique, there is some question as to whether or not he might fit in at the after mentioned rover spot. Nevertheless, regardless of position there seems to be little doubt that Fawley will be on the field in some capacity, and the maroon and gold followers can look to spring ball to witness how the situation will sort itself out.
Maurice London is the only junior college player that is enrolled in school, and thus eligible for spring practice. The extra reps he'll receive are crucial for this player who was brought his with one prevailing thought in mind – replace the team's leading tackler the last three years, Jason Shivers. The next two players likely to get long looks at the safety post are former cornerbacks. Emmanuel Franklin made a triumphant return last season from a serious head injury. He was a key cog on special teams and will look to transition to the safety post this spring. Lamar Baker was one of the most acclaimed cornerbacks ever signed by ASU. However, because of an injury, he was never able to get back on track. He was a second stringer last year at safety while learning on the fly. This year he knows he will be counted on again at special teams and will do what he can to force his way into the new defensive scheme.
Last year the Devils redshirted two speedy players who will get their first taste of competition this year. Robert James needed the year to redshirt after spending much effort to get admitted into ASU. Now that he is fully involved with the program, many wait to see if the buzz he generated as a high school player will successfully translate to the college game. Known for his scrappy play, some might think Darnel Henderson is Riccardo Stewart's little brother, since he packs the same punch into the same tiny frame. Henderson is a likely candidate to shine on special teams this spring. The Devils have two players listed as safeties who may actually become rovers. Both are physical specimens who have the potential to grow into linebackers. Daniel Varvel and JW Lucas pass the eyeball test when stepping on the football field. Both are tall and lean, but very physical nonetheless.
Kicker Jesse Ainsworth (pictured) should have all of the bugs from his true freshman year worked out this season. Ainsworth is an athlete playing kicker. He loves to get in on kickoff coverages, that is when his kicks actually merit coverage. Most ASU fans believe Ainsworth has the leg to kick the ball out of the end zone each and every time. While we understand the importance of a big open field hit, a fumble, or pinning a team back on a kickoff, it seems odd why Ainsworth is occasionally instructed to attempt gimmick kickoffs where there is little doubt that the ball could consistently sail out of the end zone.
On the other hand, Ainsworth will need to drastically step up his accuracy on field goals this year. In 2003, he came on strong at the end, but some of his early season misses took the momentum out of the team's sails. The coaching staff is high on walk-on punter Chris MacDonald. He impressed the staff last fall, and his ability to handle his new role would make everyone around the program feel a little bit easier over not getting a scholarship player in the last recruiting class or even having one on the team. Returning kicks and punts in the spring will be Josh Golden, Terry Richardson, and Rudy Burgess. Jason Burke and Grant Izokovic will battle it out for the long and short snapping duties.
2004 Spring Practice Preview Part II
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