Looking Ahead to 2005 – Defense and Special Teams

Following a successful 2004 campaign capped off by an exciting Sun Bowl victory, many are already looking ahead to ASU's 2005 season. In the second and last part of our Looking Ahead to 2005 series, DevilsDigest will analyze the Sun Devil defense and special teams units. We will examine the losses at each position, project the current players to fill those spots, and discuss the impact some returning players will have.


Defensive Line

No position will lose more players and no position is hurting for depth as much as the defensive line is. Jimmy Verdon concluded a wonderful Sun Devil career that saw him play safety in high school, being recruited as a linebacker, flourishing at both defensive end and tackle. A player with his experience and expertise as well as flexibility will not easily be replaced. The Devils also lose Ishmael Thrower , who turned into a terrific defensive end rushing off the edge. In addition, key reserve Gabe Reininger graduates and Connor Banks has also exhausted his eligibility.

It is clear the Devils will make the defensive line a recruiting priority in 2005 and the lure of early playing time should help fill some of those vacancies. ASU also has two young building blocks in place who will make 50% of the front four very formidable to start the season. Kyle Caldwell really came into his own in 2004, and his great combination of size, speed and technique have helped him become a significant playmaker for the defense. Very rarely is a star defensive end a complete player against the run and the pass, but Caldwell's pedigree gives him that special ability. The sophomore has been a little banged up both of his years, and if he gets a clean bill of health for all of 2005, he can evolve into a major headache for the rest of the Pac-10. The other returning starter is Jordan Hill. Hill took his tenacity and love for hitting from the middle linebacker spot and played as an undersized but super quick defensive tackle this past year. Considering it was his first full year at this position, the sophomore had the maroon and gold fans salivating over his remaining two years on the squad. Hill is very quick off the ball, and extremely strong for his size. Sun Devil followers can expect him to add some more weight this off-season and fine-tune the techniques that made him a pleasant surprise this past year

Two players who didn't get much of a chance to make their impact were junior college transfers DeWayne Hollyfield and Quency Darley. Due to limited depth, both players were thrust into the action this year, and one can argue that Hollyfield wasn't quite ready yet for prime time. Darley is a lock to play defensive tackle again in 2005 and should really come into his own with a full season now under his belt. His ability to grab the starting spot will go a long way to completing the Devils' promising defense this coming year. Hollyfield appears to be the more intriguing prospect. His size and growth combined with great athleticism and speed make him a prospect who might fill the Jimmy Verdon role. Hollyfield saw some time at the end and took some snaps over the center as well. A standard rule applies to most JC transfers, and that is that you can expect a great deal more out of them in their second year in the program. Thus, it will be interesting to see if this rule holds true for this duo.

The Devils were able to red shirt two of their high school recruits from the 2004 class. Wes Evans had a terrific fall camp and again showed why Koetter and his staff are masters at finding obscure recruiting prospects who become impact players in college. At 6-3 250 Evans is already a good-sized defensive end, and his technique is something he spent most of the 2004 season fine-tuning. Knowing there is an opening on the defensive line should give him all the motivation he needs to advance his game and contribute to the defensive effort. The other high school recruit was David Smith from local Hamilton in Chandler. Smith came into fall camp with a tall frame (6-2 245) with a good amount of weight already on it. While he might have been a little more raw at the position, he has a lot of upside and will be expected to be part of the rotation in 2005. Both players' physical attributes can make ASU fans wonder if either will grow into a defensive tackle later in their careers.

Both Brett Palmer and Mike Talbot saw playing time throughout the season. Palmer is only a redshirt freshman and it might have been a little early to expect a lot out of him. Due to lack of upperclassmen depth, many fans were hoping Palmer would come right in and make a name for himself. His performance and ability to step into the two-deep can be an accurate predictor of his prospects in the maroon and gold. Talbot was moved from the disbanded fullback position over to defensive end. Talbot was a fine defensive player in high school, and at ASU was able to make his way right over to the backup position. He has good speed off the edge, and his increased experience in the new should allow him to break out in 2005.


The difference between the ASU defense in 2003 and 2004 was dramatic to say the least. A great part of that was the steady and spectacular play of its three linebackers. ASU made the decision to switch to a 4-3 base alignment, which paid heft dividends. Most expected converted safety Matt Fawley to be one of the better players at linebacker. Little did anyone know that the star of the linebacker corps would be Dale "Manimal" Robinson. The JC transfer lead the way on defense and will undoubtedly anchor the defense next season along with fellow 2005 senior Jamar Williams. Williams plays the Devil backer position and is a hard hitter, solid run defender and is great in pass coverage. He also run blitzes finding the perfect time to crash the defense. Fawley will be back in the mix at the linebacker position, and will be highly motivated after serving his season long suspension in 2004. His sure tackling and previous game experience make him a vital cog to the Devil defense.

Losing Justin Burks will be a difficult challenge for the Sun Devils. While they have players in the program ready to step up, replacing the quiet job Burks did plugging the middle, covering the tight end, and laying the wood will be a major test for this position. A couple of 2005 sophomores will be the early favorites to succeed Burks. De'Andre Johnson and Mark Washington are two backers that may have the inside track. Both have big frames and are very adept in covering sideline to sideline. Washington was a primary back up in 2003 and redshirted last year. De'Andre used 2003 to get acclimated to Division-I football, and was a primary backup in 2004 in a position, which the starters seldom came out of the game.

Providing further depth here are Robert James and Lamar Baker. Baker has run the gamut of defensive positions while at ASU. A top cornerback recruit coming out of high school, Baker starred at that position his true freshman year only to be hindered by injuries for the next two years. After a move to safety, Baker moved into the Devil Backer position, and saw extensive second-string duty all year long. Baker will provide senior leadership and outstanding special teams play. Robert James really came on quickly this season as a redshirt freshman. He was one of the highlights mentioned by Koetter on special teams and also made his way up the ladder on the line backing depth chart. James has the perfect size and speed for the Devil Backer position and will only get better as his career continues at ASU.

Antone Saulsberry made his mark all over the field for the Sun Devils last season. One of the early pleasant surprises in fall camp, the true freshman showed up ready to put a hat on somebody. Little did he or anyone else know that with the problems that would plague the Sun Devils running game, he would reprise his high school role as a running back during few games of the season. At this point, the coaches haven't commented whether or not Saulsberry will return to the defensive side or remain at running back. If he does move back to the defensive side, the Devils will have a player who has already seen the field a great deal, and will fight and claw his way into the starting lineup. Another player from Hamilton high school, Adam Vincent, used the 2004 season to redshirt and acclimate to college football. Vincent is a player that fits the mold of all ASU linebackers. He's tall and athletic and has the ability to cover sideline to sideline. Vincent will probably get a chance to make his mark on special teams this season and showcase himself for the openings that will present themselves in 2006.

Many Devil fans will tell you the best pickup has already been secured for 2005 in the hiring of former Florida assistant coach Bill Miller as Defensive Coordinator. Miller brings a wealth of experience to the team and has coached many first round picks and All- Pro players. His Texas recruiting connections will also serve the team greatly and may bear some pleasant surprises in the upcoming recruiting class. Brent Guy got the ball rolling in making ASU's defense better in 2004, and then made a great assist to Koetter when suggesting Miller's name as when looking for possible replacements.

Defensive Backs

The coaching hiring of former All-Pro Mark Carrier paid immediate dividends in the ASU secondary during the 2004 season. The corners made better plays in 1-on-1 situations and also became harder hitters and more sure in their tackling. Chris McKenzie will leave one position up for grabs. Josh Golden was the opposite corner starter all season and is the likely to repeat that role for the 2005 season. Golden made a great deal of improvement under Carrier and 2004 was probably his finest year yet. Once a popular whipping boy for frustrated Sun Devil fans, Golden has laid everything out on the line to be a dependable, if not a spectacular player. His presence in the secondary will help offset the loss of three seniors. The popular choice to start opposite Golden is Chad Green. Green has tantalized fans with his ability since choosing ASU over LSU three years ago. Injuries have hampered him during his short tenure at ASU, but his ability and talent continue to stand out in the opportunities he receives.

Mike Davis Jr. continues to improve and gain confidence in the Sun Devil secondary. His height and size make him an attractive option against the growing legion of tall Pac-10 receivers. He still appears to give up to much cushion in passing situations and never gets much of a chance to make a play on the ball because the receiver has already caught it. While it seems unlikely Davis Jr. will start next year he does provide incredible depth and three years of experience. The Devils have a real talented player in Uriah Marshall who redshirted during the 2004 season. Marshall has had the privilege of working under Coach Carrier prior to his ASU days, so his technique and schooling should be advanced for that of a first year player. Marshall will be one of the more watched players during spring ball and will be given every chance to win a starting job.

At the safety position ASU loses both starters in Emmanuel Franklin and Riccardo Stewart. Stewart was the defensive captain for two years and was a valuable leader on and off the field. Franklin truly found a home at safety and was a big play specialist throughout the 2004 season. Due to Stewart's numerous health problems, ASU got a chance to play some younger players and see what they could contribute. Josh Barrett appears to have the inside track on one starting safety position next season. A concern for Barrett is some shoulder injuries that have caused him to miss games in both of his first two years. Barrett has the height and speed coaches love in a safety and has really made an impression early in his young Sun Devil career. Maurice London saw the field plenty last season, and if the JC transfer rule holds true for him, he'll improve dramatically in 2005. London isn't as big as Barrett but is very fast and has a knack for the ball. His experience helps to offset the loss of both starters.

Behind these talented players lies another set of unproven but potentially exciting Sun Devils. Leading this pack is redshirt Daniel Varvel. Varvel was good enough to play during his true freshman season, but due to the depth and the return of a couple of players, he was able to redshirt in 2004 saving a precious year of eligibility. Varvel is a very natural looking athlete and at 6-3 210 immediately passes the eyeball test. He's such a big safety there's often speculation he could move up the LB spot if necessary. Where ASU had many problems keeping their undersized safeties healthy, Varvel appears ready to buck that trend and make a name for himself in the Sun Devil secondary.

ASU redshirted Myrio Davis and Angelo Fobbs-Valentino in 2004. Both players came to Tempe with impressive physical numbers and outstanding high school careers. Davis is another by-product of the state champion Hamilton team. He was a college-sized safety in high school and often appeared to have an easy time making tackles. His great size and athleticism make him a player in the mold of Daniel Varvel. He'll be another player on the radar as ASU looks to get bigger and faster at this important position. Fobbs-Valentino was a standout at several positions in high school, but ASU recruited him to be a safety. He too has great size and his ability to get a little bigger will combine with his terrific speed to make him another great safety prospect.

True freshman Rodney Cox was a player who broke through as a walk-on and then played during his first year. A rare feat indeed, Cox found his way onto the third string safety tandem and also contributed heavily on special teams. Provided he continues his development, he seems like a serious candidate to receive a scholarship and push for one of the opening spots at the safety position.

Special Teams

The Devils are young and talented at special teams. Punter Chris MacDonald put many of the Devil fans fears to rest early in the season. A former walk on from local Red Mountain high school, MacDonald earned a scholarship in the fall and then punted his way onto several freshmen All-American lists. His best feature is his ability to pooch the ball into the corner, often leaving the opposing team with a very long field on offense. MacDonald is very physical for a punter, and one of his highlights of the year was chasing down the Washington State punt return man from behind. It only figures to get better from her eon out for MacDonald as he gets stronger and takes on more practice.

Kicker Jesse Ainsworth came firing out of the gates in 2004. His kickoffs continue to be a weapon for the Devils, as the majority of them sail out of the end zone or are deep enough in that the opposing return man is inclined to take a knee. Saving many players from hitting on special teams and not giving the other team a chance for momentum is an advantage the Devils love to exploit. Ainsworth certainly has the foot to make kicks over 50 yards, although he struggled from that distance down the stretch and in the Sun Bowl. The biggest off-season goal for Ainsworth will be to improve accuracy and belief that he is talented enough to make those long range kicks. This added dimension will only enhance the Devils' explosive offense.

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