Spring Practice Preview - Defense

After coming off a disappointing 4-7 record with only one win in Pac-10 play, the Sun Devils begin their preparations for the 2002 season, under second-year coach Dirk Koetter. Spring Practice will be utilized to further implement the 4-2-5 defensive system, and find the appropriate players to play in this scheme, in hopes of improving this unit's performance.

The biggest key to the Devils' misfortunes last year was an underachieving defense. The ASU defenders rarely forced turnovers, didn't stop the run, and were extremely poor against the pass. With ASU's high-octane offense, a defense that improves even just 50 percent could equate to a significant improvement upon last year's record.

The first priority for this defense is up front. Terrell Suggs is a nationally recognized player, and has produced a high sack total in his first two years. With good speed and athleticism, he really forces the opposition to scheme at him. Many are excited to see if Suggs has gained some weight since the season ended. At 235, Suggs proved that strong opposing tight ends let alone 320+ tackles could handle him. With added strength, Suggs should be able to reverse his fortunes, and command even more attention than he did until now.

It's no secret that Suggs would benefit greatly by a strong presence at defensive tackle. . Last year ASU often played undermanned and undersized at the defensive tackle position. One player expected to help out immediately is JC transfer Shane Jones. Jones is 6-3 285, stops the run well, and loves to get after the passer. With 10-15 lbs added under ASU's strength program, Jones could be a real monster in the middle for ASU this season. The player lining up next to Jones is still a question mark. If Danny Masaniai returns to the team, (and there have been rumblings that the NCAA will grant him medical hardship) he would be a welcomed addition for the Sun Devils. Injury, academic ineptitude, and disciplinary issues have marred Masaniani's tenure at ASU. However, he does represent a dominating, disruptive force, which stuffs the run well, and gets a great inside push. His return to the team would give it much needed beef inside, but might also allow fall arrival Matt Mason to play the weak side end. Other players to keep an eye on at tackle this spring are: Phil Howard (needs to gain weight), Khoa Nguyen (has to prove that he can play as a backup), and James Beal (assuming he stays on the team). Looking at the numbers, it's imperative that Masaniai get reinstated. The other thing to keep an eye on is position switches. It is thought that ASU might move a lineman from offense to play the defensive line (Toni Aguilar and Grayling Love are two possibilities).

At the opposite end of Terrell Suggs, several players figure into the mix. Shane Jones' JC teammate Ishmael Thrower will be a new face that many will watch intently. The first question that comes to mind with him is his weight. He has been listed at 6-2 215. Thus, the ASU coaches might feel compelled to play him at linebacker. Thrower is very fast, and excels rushing the quarterback. Jimmy Verdon improved a great deal last year, and was equally skilled at rushing the passer and stopping the run. Verdon is thought to be a candidate to move to tackle, because of his frame and relative ease at gaining weight – considering that he was a safety in his high school's senior season, a linebacker his redshirt year, and in his freshman season he was a success at defensive end. Brian Montesanto plays positionally well, but doesn't make very many plays and doesn't exhibit a lot of strength for a run stopping position. Other players expected to contribute: Daniel Pryor (a late JC transfer last year, who redshirted) Josh Kirkwood (redshirted last year) and Jared Wolfgram. Ben Fox and Chad Howell are coming off knee injuries. Look for a few walk-ons to get looks in the spring as well. The coaches will be looking for depth at defensive line, and better pass rushing. If players don't embrace this opportunity now, they will probably be buried on the depth chart come summer time, when several highly regarded recruits will make their debut.

Linebacker was another disaster last year. Part of the problem was the group's inability to create a push up the middle, but the biggest problem was the drop off in play by Solomon Bates. Solo has been seen looking much trimmer. How that translates to the Football field is another issue. Bates is a true middle linebacker. He stuffs the run, and blows up the fullback. With ASU's 4-2-5 scheme, some believe that Bates' skills are useless. In this scheme it's vital for the linebackers to be fast and mobile, with the ability to contain sideline to sideline. The coaches will be looking for players in the mold of former linebacker great Adam Archuletta. Perhaps the best player who demonstrates this is Josh Amobi. Amobi has gone through his career at ASU relatively unused, but figures to be one of the top 3 linebackers next season. Mason Unck should be fully recovered this season, and will be another of the main guys looked at this spring. There are three young players who played on special teams last year. Connor Banks and Barton Hammit saw extensive duty on the coverage teams last year, and figure to get longer looks at linebacker this spring. With the top three players seniors, it is important to develop depth at this unit. The wild card in this group is Zach Mims. Mims has had injury problems in his first two years at ASU. He has looked like the player that would excel at this system, but just hasn't stayed healthy to fully showcase his skills.

Just as it is with the defensive line, the young players need to step up before highly regarded players arrive in the fall. The coaches will pay close attention to the young guys to determine how they'll embrace the system. Solo Bates got much more playing time than he deserved last year, and if the coaches continue to play the upper classmen over younger guys who better fit the defense ASU will be in for a long season.

The defensive backfield also begs for improvement. There were too many mistakes made by both the coaching staff, and their young inexperienced players. Willie Daniel and Al Williams were two players who didn't fit into the scheme very well last year, after excelling in previous years. On the other hand, ASU found a jem in true freshman All-American Jason Shivers. Shivers was all over the field making tackles and covering up various deficiencies of the defense. Surely the coaches are excited by the prospects of Joey Smith joining his high school buddy Shivers in the defensive back field this year. Smith was the star of the scout team in 2001, and will be looked upon to bring the same style of play to the team as Shivers did. Riccardo Stewart played strong during the start and the end of the season. His game experience he will be counted on to compete for a starting job or add strong depth to the safeties. Al Williams embodies what one of the strong safety positions calls for, with his punishing hits. He struggled to grasp the system last year, but with a year under his belt should contribute and thrive in the system. Williams is a class act on an off of the field, and will be seen helping out all of the younger players at spring practice. JC transfer Brett Hudson is a jack-of-all-trades. In junior college, he excelled at the safety, cornerback, and at wide receiver positions. He is a great athlete and has the size to play one of the strong safety positions where the coaches can most utilize his speed. ASU has three other safeties who have seen some playing time in Michael Holloway, Patrick Wilson, and Brandon Falkner.

Corner back was a sore subject last year for the team. Consequently, many Pac-10 teams went deep on ASU all year. It was probably asking too much of all of the inexperienced players at this position to play man to man, which the 4-2-5 scheme calls for. Look for the coaches to continue working on one on one shutdown play, while providing deep help in their schemes. Lamar Baker figures to start at one corner. He played well as a true freshman, and was one of the only players consistently trying to create turnovers. Players to watch for the position opposite of him are RJ Oliver and Emmanuel Franklin. Both of these players struggled greatly last year, but also showed flashes of brilliance. Oliver is a very sure tackler, and closes on the ball well. He is shorter than most receivers, and doesn't make a lot of plays while the ball is in the air. Franklin is faster and taller, but doesn't tackle as well. Look for the coaches to try and get these guys as many reps as possible in the spring, working on their cover technique and pass breakups. Backups at the position will be Josiah Igono, Adrian Thomas, and Courtney Sterling who's coming off an injury.

With the team's workout program (which has been running for a few months now), it is expected that the defense's speed and conditioning will be vastly improved over last season. Playing as a team and knowing their positions better should improve the their chances to make more proactive plays, and lower the yardage they give up. Each position on defense needs to implement its own improvements for their own sake, as well as for the rest of the units on this side of the ball. A better pass rush will go a long way in allowing the corners to better cover. Good cornerback coverage can in turn give the line more of a chance to get to the passer. And both of these actions combined will allow the safeties and linebackers to make the big plays that alluded them all of last year.

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