ASU's Defensive Line Fights Through Adversity

In the pre-season the Sun Devil defensive line was generating its fair share of question marks. The numerous injuries that hit this unit figured to just raise even more doubts. Yet, with some position changes and emerging newcomers, ASU's front four looks to be in good shape according to their position coach Grady Stretz. Devils Digest sat down with Stretz to discuss the state of his group.

"We're coming around and I think we made some good progress," said Stretz. "I'm excited to see how we do Saturday night. Our guys worked through it (injuries) and understood if someone goes down, someone else has to step up and get the job done."

No one has exemplified that last statement more than Dane Guthrie. After a couple of injuries at defensive end, the tight end was asked by the coaches to move the other side of the line of scrimmage. Ever since that move the junior has been one the bright spots of the group and in all likelihood will start in his team's first game of the 2007 season.

"I have pretty big expectations for him and we've been just cramming and just trying to get him caught up," Stretz commented. "He's got a lot of ability, but until you get under the lights and into the fire there, you're never quite sure what you got. We're gonna find out pretty quick and I'm confident in the kid. He has shown a lot of progress the last week and half, and has a lot of energy."

Prior to Guthrie's position move, junior college transfer Luis Vasquez manned one starting end position. The Arizona Western product came on strong the later part of spring practice, and played well in the beginning of fall camp until he was grounded due to an ankle sprain. Due to his strong work ethic, Vasquez went through a speedy rehabilitation process and is now healthy enough to play in his first ever Division I game this weekend– a fact that cannot be overstated according to his position coach.

"It's real important. Every game matters, and I don't take any team for granted," Stretz remarked. "San Jose State is a heck of a talented team and we need everything we got to get the job done."

Anchoring the line is senior defensive tackle Michael Marquardt, who has been receiving kudos from other coaches on the ASU staff aside from Stretz. "He's done a real good job and I expect a lot from him. I think he's gonna come out and surprise some people and have a heck of a season," said Stretz. "He's done a very nice job in his summer conditioning and has been solid for us in practice. He's gonna make a lot of plays for us and be very productive."

Dexter Davis had one of the best seasons ever for an ASU freshman defensive player. He paced all Pac-10 freshmen in sacks (six), Tackles-for-loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (three). Stretz indicated that the sophomore did anything but rest on his laurels from last season. "Dexter has improved a lot in all aspects of the game," Stretz noted. "With all the injuries at defensive end there have been times where had to hold down the fort, take a lot of reps and he has taken full advantage of that opportunity. He's polished himself up and turned into a quality defensive end."

Defensive tackle Jonathan English isn't only an intriguing story, but also a true freshman that stands to make an impact this year. He has made the most of the opportunity presented to him with the injury to Saia Falahola. "He comes from an unbelievable background and has been through a ton of stuff with his dad passing away, (Hurricane) Katrina, and now moving all the way here from New Orleans," said Stretz. "He has a lot of ability and our veteran guys coached him and really brought him along and built his confidence so he can go out and there and contribute."

Paul ‘Unga is defensive lineman that joined in the maroon and gold late in the pre-season from Mt. San Antonio college. Needless to say that he has been an invaluable addition in light of injuries to defensive ends Tranell Morant and Eric Tanner.

"He's done a nice job. There's still some technical stuff we're working on with him," said Stretz of ‘Unga. "He has a chance to go out there and contribute for us. He gives us depth at defensive end and is showing some steady progress. He has a good grasp of what we're trying to do. He has a banged up shoulder he's been fighting through a little bit and that has hampered him."

A defensive line is measured in its pass rush and run stop abilities, and Stretz is pleased with the work his group has been doing in both areas. "I think we have defensive ends that can be more productive for us than last year and help us with the pass rush," he said. "Between David Smith and Marquardt we got defensive tackles that can help both with the pass rush and stopping the run. I'd like to think that we can get it done in both areas and I think we're gonna surprise some folks."

As the clock winds down to the season opener, the message Stretz is conveying to his players is quite simple. "It's all about showing great effort and executing," he explained. "I just keep talking to them about carrying out your assignments and making plays day in and day out. I'd like us to play fast, with a lot of intensity and be physical. We're gonna cut it lose and be physical and I'm looking forward to Saturday night at 7 o'clock."

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