Spring Questions Revisited: Defense

DevlisDigest.com's Joe Healey examines some of the some of the questions each defensive group faces following spring practice, and how they may unfold during fall camp.

Defensive Line

Will Saia Falahola be able to cement his position as a first-string tackle?

With the signing of local five-star phenom Corey Adams from Scottsdale Saguaro High School this February, many believed Falahola, a likely incumbent starting tackle, would have his days numbered with the first-team. The junior from Euless, Texas needed a solid spring to carry momentum into the 2009 season and avoid being unseated by the highly-acclaimed rookie, and by most many accounts Falahola succeeded in that task. Originally an offensive guard upon his arrival to Tempe, Falahola switched to the defensive line prior to his redshirt freshman season and, at 298 pounds, he provides the Devils a stout, bulky presence in the middle to complement the versatile aggressors along the line such as starter Lawrence Guy.

Especially with junior Jonathan English – and now Otis Jones – sidelined due to injury, quality depth becomes an issue at defensive tackle, which Falahola must not allow to make him grow comfortably complacent in a starting role, because the landscape at defensive tackle may noticeably change come fall camp with the arrival of Adams – as well as talented classmate William Sutton – along with the probable recovery of English. Although Adams is still expected to battle for starting reps – perhaps not immediately, but likely as the season continues, much like Guy in 2008 – Falahola accomplished the task of remaining among the first-team throughout the spring and will enter the fall beside Guy as ASU's starting defensive tackles.

Will Otis Jones be able to emerge from the remaining depth as a top reserve?

Based on Jones' spring performances, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes', however it may not be until the 2010 season after he left the spring game with an apparent ACL injury. An ASU official indicated earlier this week that the severity of Jones' injury is not yet known, however it would appear that the physical setback would greatly impair – if not prematurely conclude – Jones 2009 season. When healthy, Jones boasts a sensational athletic upside, but it is essentially a waiting game for Sun Devil fans to see at what point Jones' career will begin for ASU.

Who will emerge as the second starter opposite Dexter Davis?

There was no shortage of standout play at the defensive end position in the spring, certainly a benefit as the Devils look to boost the overall ability and athleticism at each defensive position. Davis, the nation's only active defender with over 10 sacks in each of the past two seasons, has no need to look over his shoulder at risk of losing his starting spot, but the competition to start at left end, in place of departed two-year first-string Luis Vasquez, has been very heated.

The front-running candidate, Dean Deleone, like Vasquez joined ASU from the junior college ranks, and the former United States Coast Guard member has been exactly as advertised; a virtual athletic freak with a high intensity level and skill set. Not far behind Deleone is sophomore James Brooks, also with a steep athletic ceiling, who submitted impressive spurts as a redshirt freshman in 2008. When fall camp begins, Deleone will likely be the odds-on favorite to start opposite Davis, with Brooks – as well as fellow ends Jamaar Jarrett and Jamarr Robinson – as top quality reserves.

Will Jamarr Robinson be able to actualize his potential?

Much like Brandon Smith on the offensive side of the ball, Robinson has become well-known to provide stellar preseason performances but virtually fall off the map when the regular season action is live. Robinson is undeniably one of the most athletically talented defensive linemen on the squad; however he appeared in seven games last year with only one tackle to his name. With freshman and sophomore seasons clouded by anonymity on the field – due to injury, disciplinary actions and lackluster play -- Robinson stood out noticeably this spring, highlighted by a dominant, three-sack performance in the spring game. Robinson clearly has the athletic talent to be a force at end for the Sun Devils, but with pressing competition among the two-deeps at both left and right end, he will need to remain consistent, dedicated and disciplined to show his athletic prowess outside of the practice field.

Linebacker

How will Shelly Lyons respond to possibly earning substantial first-team duties?

With Travis Goethel's move to middle linebacker for the spring, Lyons was elevated to first-team strong side linebacker after primarily seeing action at middle linebacker as a true freshman in 2008. With a stockpile of talent at middle linebacker with Goethel, Gerald Munns, and the fall arrival of blue chip recruit Vontaze Burfict, the likelihood remains that Goethel will return to strong side ‘backer, where he has started all 25 games of the past two seasons. If Goethel returns to the position, Lyons will likely return to reserve duties in possible preparation for a starting spot in 2010; however if Lyons remains the top option on the strong side, he has the athletic ability to excel despite his inexperience.

Is Gerald Munns fully prepared to regain his position as one of ASU's top defenders?

After departing from the team during the early half of the season last year due to personal reasons, Munns returned during winter conditioning activities to prepare for his senior season at ASU. Technically listed at the bottom of the middle linebacker depth chart due to his season-ending absence, Munns entered the spring determined to regain his duties as top middle linebacker, and likely succeeded in that endeavor. Although two-year starter Travis Goethel was relocated to middle linebacker in the spring, Munns' talent level and dedication since returning may be enough to push Goethel back to the strong side for 2009. Keeping a grip on first-team middle linebacker rights won't get much easier for Munns as fall camp approaches, when five-star and unanimous top-rated linebacker prospect Vontaze Burfict – if academically qualified for the fall – will unquestionably challenge for playing time upon setting foot on campus.

Will Travis Goethel make a significant impact at middle linebacker?

With tremendous talent – both now and potentially in the fall – at middle linebacker and limited experience at strong side linebacker, Goethel's switch inside is likely a product of Munns having to earn back starting duties and not immediately be inserted into a first-string role. Make no mistake about it, Goethel has the skills to thrive at either linebacker spot if called upon to do so, but few would be surprised to see Goethel return to the strong side, backed by Shelly Lyons, while Munns competes with Burfict at middle linebacker.

What can be expected from sophomores Oliver Aaron, Derrall Anderson and Colin Parker?

The trio of linebackers from Dennis Erickson's first signing class at ASU made a minimal impact as redshirt freshmen in 2008, however as sophomores, there could be greater opportunities on the field for this group.

Unquestionably, the player of the three with the highest upside is Oliver Aaron, solely a special teams player last year, but a dynamo all over the field this spring. With exemplary athleticism and jarring tackling skills – despite a lean, 6-0, 205-pound frame – Aaron will likely battle neck-and-neck with sophomore Brandon Magee for second-string duties behind starter Mike Nixon at weak side linebacker.

Anderson did not see action on the field as a redshirt freshman, but excelled in practice, earning ASU's Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year Award. Relocated last year from strong side linebacker to middle linebacker, Anderson has shown the talent to be a contributor, although with a loaded lineup in the middle, his best chance to showcase his skills may come on special teams.

After appearing in nine games in 2008, Parker spent the spring as a top backup to Shelly Lyons at strong side linebacker. Similar to Anderson, Parker will be more likely to see action on kick and punt teams, but with three seniors across ASU's group of linebackers, development as a sophomore is integral to Parker's chances to compete for future defensive snaps.

Cornerback

Will Omar Bolden continue to progress and become a leader in the secondary?

In the view of many, Bolden's sophomore season was less than what was expected of the aggressive, athletic cornerback after a standout true freshman season as ASU's second starting corner in 2007. He was praised last offseason for adopting a leadership role despite entering just his second year on campus, but his consistency and discipline was not stable enough for him to match his elite athletic ability with sound technical cornerback play. Spring drills would have been an excellent chance for the Ontario, Calif., product to continue to refine his talents, but injuries prevented him from competing.

The cornerback position at ASU in 2009 is expected to be as deep and capable as it has in several years, making Bolden's position as a starter not guaranteed. With solid spring performances from seniors Terell Carr and Pierre Singfield, sophomore Josh Jordan, as well as speedy junior college transfer LeQuan Lewis, Bolden has the tools to return to the top of the lineup but will need to learn to be consistent to maintain a starter, both in fall training and as the 2009 season progresses.

Will Terell Carr be able to hold on to his starting position?

Even if Bolden hadn't missed spring drills due to injury, Carr's performances would have warranted a solid first-string role. A feisty athlete that improved as the 2008 season advanced, Carr played at a level throughout the spring that will likely enable him to carry first-team responsibilities into the fall. However, ability at cornerback is not a limited commodity for the Sun Devils, creating a requirement for Carr to remain hungry and focused throughout the preparation and duration of his final of two seasons at ASU.

How will Josh Jordan and Pierre Singfield improve in their second seasons at ASU?

Both athletes played very well in the spring, especially Jordan, who at worst will enter fall camp as the third cornerback and top nickel defensive back. A high-character student-athlete, Jordan has the work ethic and skill set to possibly be in the mix for a starting position in 2009 after earning ample action as a true freshman last season.

A feel-good story among an otherwise forgettable 2008 season for the Sun Devils, former walk-on turned scholarship contributor Pierre Singfield became a quality defensive back in his first year after transferring from Pima (Ariz.) Community College in Tucson. With a year of experience under his belt, Singfield, who has overcome many odds during his collegiate career, will be challenged to return to the starting lineup where he appeared on four occasions last year, but his work ethic and athletic ability will likely enable him to at worst remain a top reserve in the secondary, competing with the likes of Jordan, LeQuan Lewis and possibly incoming freshman Osahon Irabor for time.

What presence will LeQuan Lewis provide?

The ink on Lewis' letter of intent to ASU still hadn't fully dried when Dennis Erickson anointed the Cerritos (Calif.) College transfer as the Sun Devils' fastest athlete, and from a physical standpoint, Lewis did not disappoint this spring. Although he is on the short end of an exchange with Kerry Taylor in what became a nationally televised YouTube clip from practice, Lewis has excellent ball skills and the physical makeup to be a difference maker, whether at cornerback, on special teams returns or both.

Safety

Is Clint Floyd prepared to be a full-time starter?

If injuries hadn't sidetracked Floyd midway through his true freshman season, there would likely be no doubt to his talents as a starter, however due to a lack of game time for him to fully develop; it can be considered an uncertainty. Pegged throughout the spring as ASU's top free safety, Floyd's spring performances reaffirmed his potential to be a high-caliber starter for the Devils. Despite having been on campus only one year, Floyd's main competitors in the spring were Jarrell Holman, strictly a reserve, and Matthew Tucker, who although athletically gifted, is very raw and has only been on campus since December after concluding his high school studies a semester early.

Who will emerge as the second starter?

One of the larger shockers of the spring was the consistency of senior Ryan McFoy, who has floundered the past two years in a failed attempt to become a dynamic linebacker. A promising safety as a true freshman in 2006, some viewed McFoy's return to the secondary as possibly being ‘too little, too late', but he quickly nabbed first-string action at strong safety and showed a very complete presence with a sense and a sense of urgency to make an impact in his final collegiate season. After being a non-factor as a sophomore and a junior, McFoy enters 2009 as a plausible ‘breakout' candidate for the Sun Devil defense.

Several observers predicted redshirt freshman Keelan Johnson would have the inside track to top strong safety snaps, however the Mesa (Ariz.) High School alum fell behind McFoy in the depth chart and wasn't able to recover and rejoin the equation to be a starter, but is still expected to be a key component of the safeties lineup this season.

Will Matthew Tucker be able to acclimate to college football quickly and make an impact?

When a football player sees action at a variety of positions in high school, it can be a physical benefit, as the athlete learns the game from several angles, but it can also be a developmental set back – see Gerell Robinson – as refinement and specificity are needed to thrive at any position, especially as a true freshman, at the Pac-10 level.

After splitting time as a dual-threat quarterback and defensive back at Aurora (Colo.) Grandview High School, Tucker has the frame, talent and acumen to shine in the Sun Devil defense, but it may be a learning process. While Tucker will unlikely dethrone Clint Floyd as starting free safety, he has the potential to surface at second-string. Arriving in the spring versus being a traditional fall arrival will prove to be an immeasurable benefit to Tucker, who is seemingly on the brink of either redshirting in 2009 or earning time as a true freshman.

With Floyd and Ryan McFoy essentially locked in as starters and Keelan Johnson likely a top reserve, the ‘X' factor for Tucker may be the health progress of junior Max Tabach, who was unavailable for the spring after missing the final seven games last year due to injury. If Tabach is able to return to form in time for fall camp, Tucker may have a challenging time cracking into the two-deep at safety, which would possibly make him a likely redshirt candidate, however with the uncertainty of Tabach's health and inconsistent play of Jarrell Holman, Tucker will have an open window for early action.

Can Ryan McFoy re-learn the safety position quick enough to be a factor?

If spring drills are any indication, McFoy is hell bent on making his final season with the Devils a memorable one. Although the experiment to move him to linebacker generally was an unsuccessful one, there are tools that McFoy picked up over the past two years that he has applied to his approach to the safety position, making him a well-rounded defender with big-play skills. Although McFoy began the spring as somewhat of an unknown commodity, he enters preparation for the fall basically cemented as a starting safety and a player to keep an eye on as a senior in 2009.

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and a guest contributor to Devils Digest. He is also a feature writer each month in Maroon and Gold Illustrated and has contributed to ASU media guides, press releases and other official athletic publications. He can be contacted by email at josephwhealey@hotmail.com.


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