Spring Preview: Defensive Front Seven

Breaking down the Sun Devils' spring roster, depth chart and top competitions at linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end.


Spring Participants: Oliver Aaron, RS-Fr., Derrall Anderson, RS-Fr., Jeff Bereuter, Soph., Travis Goethel, Jr., Chad Lindsey, Jr., Ryan McFoy, Jr., Gerald Munns, Jr., Mike Nixon, Jr., Colin Parker, RS-Fr., Anthony Reyes, Sr., Antone Saulsberry, Sr., Morris Wooten, Sr.

Fall Arrivals: Shelly Lyons, Fr., Brandon Magee, Fr.

Departures from 2007: Robert James (13 starts, 107 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, four interceptions, 2.5 sacks, First-Team All-Pac-10 member and ASU Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Year recipient), Garrett Judah (12 games, primarily special teams), Jamarr Robinson (moves to defensive end)

Spring Competition to Watch: Weak side linebacker, Oliver Aaron vs. Ryan McFoy

Spring Outlook

"A lot of bodies" is the phrase defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Craig Bray uses to define the Devils' depth at linebacker entering the spring, with no fewer than 12 players at the position eligible for spring drills to jockey for position among the depth chart.

The main departure from last season is a big one, First-Team All-Pac-10 member Robert James, who started all 13 games on the weak side in 2007, led ASU in tackles and was named the team's Defensive Most Valuable Player of the Year.

Perhaps the stiffest competition among the three linebacker spots will appear among those attempting to replace James, and the two names at the forefront of the list are junior Ryan McFoy and redshirt freshman Oliver Aaron.

McFoy was relocated from safety to linebacker prior to last year, a move that carried high expectations, as head coach Dennis Erickson and staff likened the switch to that which was made by Nick Barnett, currently with the Green Bay Packers, when Erickson coached at Oregon State. However, McFoy did not grasp the new responsibilities quick enough to contribute a significant impact last season and appeared primarily on special teams, playing in all 13 games but recording just 15 total tackles on the year.

The recipient of ASU's Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year award, Aaron made tremendous waves in practice last season, however his youth and lack of size (6-0, 200) require that he compensate with tenacity and athleticism. Nonetheless, coaches and onlookers are greatly excited about his potential, and the Florida native has a legitimate chance at earning substantial playing time, if not a starting position.

Moving from safety to weak side linebacker is redshirt freshman Colin Parker, who played the position in high school at local Hamilton High School in Chandler; however the son of former ASU defensive back Anthony Parker has not seen game action since his junior season in high school due to injury so his maroon and gold jersey may be covered in some rust in the early going.

At middle linebacker, three players earned starts last season, the most of which went to senior Morris Wooten (eight starts), while juniors Mike Nixon (four) and Gerald Munns (one) also received first-team duties.

Wooten, however, enters the spring in a disadvantageous state, having been excluded from the team's Holiday Bowl appearance due to a team rules violation. Although back with the team in good standing, he will face an uphill battle to regain his first-string status.

Nixon has repeatedly earned high praise from the Sun Devil staff, and despite being slightly less than ideally athletic, he compensates with maturity, field intelligence and dedication. Also a candidate to see action at outside linebacker, Nixon will, in some form or fashion, see significant time this season.

A player of a mold similar to Nixon, Munns adds tremendous size (6-4, 240) and has progressed into a solid contributor and looks to continue to elevate his performance level, possibly to the point of earning first-team action.

Adding depth at middle linebacker are seniors Anthony Reyes and Antone Saulsberry, both of whom appeared mainly on special teams last season.

On the strong side, junior Travis Goethel started all 13 games in 2007 and is the Devils' leading returning tackler following James' departure. It is very likely he won't need to watch over his shoulder in fear of losing his starting position.

As Bray alluded to in a recent interview with Devils Digest, Nixon has the ability to play on the strong side, but likely won't threaten to start at that position.

Redshirt freshman Derrall Anderson is capable of playing either outside linebacker spot; however he will likely have to expedite his development to crack the two-deep on either side during the spring.

Depth on the strong side will include sophomore Jeff Bereuter, who appeared in ten games last year and junior Chad Lindsey, who participated in five contests.

Incoming freshmen and prep teammates Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee add versatility and explosiveness to the defense, as Lyons, the No. 24 strong side linebacker recruit in the nation by Scout.com, is able to play in the middle or on the strong side, while Magee, the No. 21 weak side linebacker prospect by Scout.com, is known as a tenacious blitzer and capable of performing highly at either outside ‘backer spot. Depending on how the current upperclassmen perform in the spring, the two freshmen, especially Magee, may have a window of opportunity to see action in the fall.

Defensive Tackle

Spring Participants: Alex Asi, Sr., Jonathan English, So., Saia Falahola, Soph., Bo Moos, RS-Fr., Zach Niusulu, Soph., David Smith, Sr., Paul ‘Unga, Sr.^

Fall Arrivals: Spencer Gasu, Jr., Eugene Germany, Jr.^, Lawrence Guy, Fr.^, Otis Jones, Fr., Zeb Togiai, Fr.

Departures From 2007: Michael Marquardt (11 starts, 23 tackles, two fumble recoveries, 1.5 tackles-for-loss), Tashaka Merriweather (nine games, four tackles), Jon Hargis (moves to offensive tackle)

Spring Competition to Watch: Who will play at first-string defensive tackle; Jonathan English vs. Saia Falahola

^-may play defensive end and/or defensive tackle

Spring Outlook

As is often times the case with several positions at this early point in the preseason, the depth chart at defensive tackle could look noticeably different in August from how it currently does in March. As this unit enters spring practice, the tallest task at defensive tackle is to replace former Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 recipient and two-year starter Michael Marquardt.

Looking ahead, the 2008 Sun Devil defensive line figures to include significant upgrades over last year's unit, however a handful of those improvements will not arrive until fall practice.

Simply put, there are more than a few players fighting for their football lives this spring, as current first-stringers have to compete at a high level to prevent being knocked down to the second, or even third-team status come August.

Senior David Smith, a hard-working Chandler native who started all 13 games last season beside Marquardt, totaled 22 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks in 2007 and looks to maintain his first-team status. A player who maximizes his abilities and has been solid, if not spectacular, during his three-year career, Smith's experience gives him a stable lead over his teammates competing for action.

With Jon Hargis, who appeared in all 13 games with two starts at defensive tackle last season, moving to offensive tackle, the competition for the second defensive tackle spot is virtually "up for grabs" among a pool of players.

The two main competitors in the spring will be sophomores Jonathan English and Saia Falahola, each of whom saw time as freshmen last season, however a third candidate is likely to enter the mix once fall training rolls around, in the form of highly-acclaimed junior college transfer Spencer Gasu.

"Tank" English is a massive prospect, although his "mass" has decreased to slightly over 300 pounds from closer to 330 last year, which has improved his conditioning and athleticism. English is a player for whom ASU fans have been very excited since his commitment in 2007, traveling to Tempe from Kenner, La., as a product of John Curtis Christian High School, one of the elite prep programs in the nation. "Tank" earned playing time in all 13 games as a reserve during his true freshman season last year, and ASU fans anxiously await seeing his improvement as a sophomore in 2008.

After originally arriving at ASU as an offensive guard, Falahola was switched to defensive tackle last spring, but suffered an arm injury – which was later re-aggravated – and reduced him to very minimal game action, as he was only able to remain healthy enough to appear in three contests last year.

Falahola and English will likely battle tooth-and-nail for their spots on the depth chart, which will likely prove crucial in the fall when Gasu joins the team, a four-star prospect with the size (6-2, 295) and athleticism (4.8 40-yard dash) to burst onto the scene in the Valley of the Sun.

Gasu, who had originally committed to Oregon before switching his pledge to the Sun Devils, was rated as the No. 6 junior college defensive tackle in the country by Scout.com and earned Second-Team All-America honors at Santa Ana College last season, is expected to immediately upgrade the defensive line talent level.

Competing for a second-team spot in the spring is senior Paul ‘Unga, a versatile lineman who made 11 tackles in 10 games at end last year, but due largely to limited depth on the interior during the spring, will primarily compete for time as a reserve tackle.

Added into the mix is senior Alex Asi, who appeared in one game last year, along with athletic redshirt freshman Bo Moos and sophomore Zach Niusulu, both of whom participated on the scout team last season.

Forecasting ahead to the fall, a depth chart scenario of Smith and Gasu starting, Falahola and English as back-ups and ‘Unga and Moos with the third team is not out of the realm of likelihood, which adds emphasis for virtually every player in the group to perform at a high level during the spring as to not lose ground in the depth chart battle when August rolls around.

The fall arrivals of junior Eugene Germany and freshman Lawrence Guy (if academically eligible) will provide the Sun Devils with a plethora of options all along the defensive line, as both players have the capacity to play end or tackle. However, it has been declared by the Sun Devil staff that both athletes will begin their ASU careers at end, but will be placed in whichever position they can most effectively boost the Devils' pass rush attack.

Freshmen Otis Jones, ranked as the No. 71 defensive tackle prospect in the nation by Scout.com and Zeb Togiai, listed as the No. 61 defensive tackle recruit in the country by Scout.com, will also be welcomed to Tempe in the upcoming months, but are expected to redshirt as true freshmen. Togiai also saw action at defensive end while at nearby Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, but expects to shift inside to tackle for his Sun Devil career.

Defensive End

Spring Participants: James Brooks, RS-Fr., Zach Brown, Soph., Dexter Davis, Jr., Jamarr Robinson, Soph., Eric Tanner, Jr.*, Paul ‘Unga, Sr.^, Luis Vasquez, Sr.

Fall Arrivals: Eugene Germany, Jr.^, Lawrence Guy, Fr.^, Jamaar Jarrett, Fr., Toa Tuitea, Fr.^

Departures From 2007: Kellen Mills (10 games, two tackles, one tackle-for-loss), Dane Guthrie (moves to tight end)

Spring Competition to Watch: Who impresses more; James Brooks vs. Jamarr Robinson

^-may play a different position
*-injured and will not participate in spring drills

Spring Outlook

Unlike the remaining parts of the defensive front seven, the spring competition at defensive end will unlikely determine the starter at either side, as the Sun Devils are well stocked with junior Dexter Davis and senior Luis Vasquez, who combine to form one of the most disruptive pairs of ends in the Pac-10 Conference, joining Oregon's Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu as the only returning defensive end teammates in the league to have both earned All-Pac-10 honors last season.

The two combined for 76 tackles, 25 tackles-for-loss, 15 sacks and four fumble recoveries last season and will unlikely be beaten out for their jobs, as Davis and Vasquez started all 13 games as ASU's defensive ends last year.

Two athletes that face a crucial spring are redshirt freshman James Brooks and sophomore Jamarr Robinson. Both players are tremendous physical specimens that pack a dual punch of strength and speed, however each of the two lacks game experience, as Brooks has redshirted as a true freshman in 2007 and Robinson was recently switched from middle linebacker to defensive end and also lacks the experience of most sophomores after only appearing in three games as a redshirt freshman last season due to an injury suffered last spring which held him out until late October.

Brooks and Robinson will likely serve as the back-ups to Davis and Vasquez in the spring, but the fall arrivals of junior college transfer Eugene Germany and freshman sensation Lawrence Guy are expected to greatly shake up the depth chart, so Brooks and Robinson will have to avoid a lackluster spring to stake claim to playing time in the fall.

ASU marks the third Football Bowl Subdivision stop for Germany, after signing a letter of intent with USC and later attending Michigan, before ultimately leaving the Wolverines to get a fresh start at the junior college level. Now a redshirt junior, Germany maintains the qualities that made him an elite high school prospect in 2004, and will be expected to immediately upgrade the pass rush – whether from the defensive end or tackle position.

Guy, similar to Germany, has the ability to play end or tackle, and was rated as the No. 7 defensive tackle in the country and the nation's No. 67 overall player in 2008 by Scout.com after totaling almost 240 tackles and over 30 sacks in three years at Western High School in Las Vegas, Nev. Although his academic standing is presently uncertain, Guy is an exciting prospect with the talent to earn significant playing time right away.

Senior Paul ‘Unga saw action at end last season, but will begin the spring at tackle and based on the defensive line additions that the team will gain in the fall, he likely faces an uphill battle to earn significant time.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle may be Eric Tanner, who redshirted last season after joining the team last spring as a transfer from Phoenix College. Praised for his athleticism but limited in terms of experience, Tanner will be unable to participate in the spring due to injury, and breaking into the three-deep at defensive end may prove challenging in the fall.

Sophomore walk-on Zach Brown appeared in 12 games on special teams last season and adds depth at defensive end.

Joining the squad in the fall are true freshmen Jamaar Jarrett and Toa Tuitea. Jarrett was a last-minute addition on signing day for the Devils, ditching Oregon for ASU, and was rated as the No. 35 defensive end in the country by Scout.com. Tuitea may play defensive end or tight end at the college level but saw more action on the defensive side of the ball at the prep level, collecting 74 tackles and 12 sacks as a senior and earning recognition as the No. 69 defensive tackle in the country by Scout.com.

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and will be a guest contributor to Devils Digest during the 2007 football season. He currently writes for ASU's Maroon and Gold Illustrated and his work has also been featured in Sun Devil football media guides and other official team publications.

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