Season Preview: Linebackers

It's safe to say that the most eagerly anticipated position group on the Sun Devil roster for 2009 is the deep and talented group of linebackers, consisting of established and stable veterans as well as athletic and hungry underclassmen.

Perhaps no position stable on the roster signifies the ideals of head coach Dennis Erickson; speed, tenacity and passion. The depth and talent of this group has the ability to enable Erickson and defensive coordinator Craig Bray to play a proverbial chess game with the Sun Devil linebackers, utilizing each player to his specific strengths toward the overall efficiency of the ASU defense.

A trio of seniors, led by reigning team Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Year Mike Nixon, looks to pace the unit. Potentially able to maintain a high level of talent throughout the entire depth chart, the Sun Devil linebacker unit figures to be perhaps the most prominent position on the roster.

Linebacker (listed alphabetically)

18 Oliver Aaron WLB 6-0 245 RS-So. Gainesville, Fla. (Gainesville HS)

30 Derrall Anderson MLB 6-2 231 RS-So. Tampa, Fla. (Armwood HS)

46 Jeff Bereuter SLB 6-3 233 RS-Jr. Irving, Texas (MacArthur HS)

7 Vontaze Burfict MLB 6-3 245 Fr. Corona, Calif. (Centennial HS)

37 Mike Callaghan SLB 6-2 211 RS-Jr. Scottsdale, Ariz. (Brophy Prep)

44 Travis Goethel SLB/MLB 6-3 237 Sr. Vista, Calif. (Vista HS)

41 Anthony Jones LB 6-2 218 Fr. Chandler, Ariz. (Hamilton HS)

19 Kipeli Koniseti LB 6-3 235 Fr. Sacramento, Calif. (Grant HS)

13 Shelly Lyons SLB 6-2 225 So. Corona, Calif. (Centennial HS)

48 Brandon Magee WLB 5-11 226 So. Corona, Calif. (Centennial HS)

47 Gerald Munns MLB 6-4 242 Sr. Queen Creek, Ariz. (Hamilton HS)

25 Mike Nixon WLB 6-3 224 Sr. Phoenix, Ariz. (Sunnyslope HS)

21 Colin Parker SLB 6-1 228 RS.-So. Chandler, Ariz. (Hamilton HS)

Despite an overall team performance that will be remembered as a noticeable disappointment, Mike Nixon's evolution into a team leader and one of the Pac-10 Conference's elite linebackers was one of the few major bright spots in 2008.

After earning action at multiple linebacker spots during his first two seasons, the Phoenix native started 11 of 12 games last year at weak side linebacker with excellent results, leading ASU with 90 tackles while also tying for the Pac-10 lead with five interceptions, an amazing feat by a linebacker. The fourth-leading returning tackler in the conference entering 2009, Nixon, a mature, 25-year-old former minor league baseball player, is one of the most golden student-athletes on the team, having earned first-team Pac-10 All-Academic honors last year.

Significantly slighted, in the eyes of many, for having earned only honorable mention All-Pac-10 recognition despite his rounded, efficient play, Nixon enters this season as one of the most seasoned and stable linebackers in the entire league. With career statistics of 180 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, 12 pass breakups, five sacks and five interceptions in 38 games with 19 starts, Nixon is positioned to start at weak side linebacker, providing a steady presence in game action, on the practice field and in the locker room.

Senior Travis Goethel (pictured) enters his final season at ASU having started every game of the past two seasons at strong side linebacker and has totaled 29 career starts, the most of any active Sun Devil linebacker. The question entering 2009 is not ‘if' Goethel will continue to start, but perhaps rather ‘where' he will start.

In the spring, the Vista, Calif., native earned first-team reps at middle linebacker; however with Gerald Munns having returned to the squad in full force and the possible arrival of mega-recruit Vontaze Burfict, the sensible thought is that Goethel will return to outside linebacker. A consistent although unspectacular defender, Goethel has played every game of the past three seasons, totaling 171 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two interceptions.

Gerald Munns' (pictured) 2008 season went from highly encouraging to very discouraging in seemingly an instant. Munns began the season in roaring fashion, earning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors after a standout performance in ASU's dominant week two win over Stanford, but left the team after the Georgia game on Sept. 20 for the remainder of the season due to unspecified personal issues.

To the benefit of the Sun Devil defense, Munns returned in the offseason inspired and determined to regain his starting middle linebacker position. A versatile, high-octane defender that was geared for major success on the field before his departure last year, Munns, who has collected 51 tackles in 26 career games, is likely to be among the top middle linebackers for the Devils as a senior in 2009.

Despite relatively light recruitment, with no completing BCS conference offers to ASU's, Shelly Lyons (pictured) immediately established himself as a key contributor upon his arrival to ASU and saw playing time early and often as a true freshman in 2008.

Able to play either middle or strong side linebacker and rated by Scout.com as the No. 24 strong side linebacker as a senior, Lyons appeared in all 12 games last year with 36 tackles and 1.5 tackles-for-loss. Lyons' development advanced significantly over the offseason, earning stable first-team action at strong side linebacker when Travis Goethel was moved to middle linebacker, and as a sophomore in 2009 Lyons is likely to be among the team's top linebackers, either in a starting or reserve role.

A two-sport athlete at ASU, having also played for ASU's Pac-10 Conference Champion and College World Series participant baseball squad, Brandon Magee joined his former high school teammate Shelly Lyons as true freshman contributors for the Sun Devils in 2008.

Able to play either outside linebacker position, Magee fought through injury but totaled 11 tackles in eight games of reserve duty last year. A powerful and aggressive defender with excellent, sub-4.5 40-yard speed, Magee missed some spring action due to injury but is expected back at full health in the fall and plans to be one of the top alternatives to Mike Nixon at weak side linebacker.

One of the surprise impact players this spring was sophomore Oliver Aaron(pictured), who routinely displayed ferocity and dynamic tackling skills far beyond what is normally expected of a 6-0, 205-pounder. ASU's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year as a true freshman in 2007, Aaron appeared in all 12 games last year, primarily on special teams, finishing the year with eight total tackles.

Due to Aaron's determination and intensity, one of the intriguing position battles to watch this fall will be the competition behind Mike Nixon at weak side linebacker, as Aaron is expected to elevate from a special teams player to a formation contributor.

Sophomores Derrall Anderson and Colin Parker (pictured), both entering their third season in the program, will provide depth at middle and strong side linebacker, respectively. Parker, one of Arizona's top linebacker prospects during his career at Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High School, appeared in seven games with three tackles last year, while Anderson was moved from outside to middle linebacker and earned ASU's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year in 2008 and figures to make his way into live duty in 2009.

Junior Jeff Bereuter provides additional depth at outside linebacker, having collected five tackles in 16 games during his first two seasons at ASU, while walk-on Mike Callaghan, who played in all 12 games on special teams in 2008, shifts from safety to outside linebacker.

Three linebacker prospects – including the most decorated prospect ever to sign with ASU – joined the Sun Devils as members of the 2009 signing class and each boasts unique talents for both the present and future of ASU football.

One of the most newsworthy stories of National Letter of Intent Signing Day this year was Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School linebacker Vontaze Burfict's (pictured) decision to ‘Give ‘Em Hell' and not ‘Fight On', becoming an Arizona State Sun Devil, not a USC Trojan.

Joining a total of five former high school teammates now on the Sun Devil roster, Burfict was unanimously rated the top middle linebacker prospect in the nation and was regarded by Scout.com as the No. 29 overall prospect in the 2009 class. A vicious, devastating defender, Sun Devil head coach Dennis Erickson perfectly summed Burfict's style of play on signing day by stating, "When he hits you, it hurts."

The impact Burfict can have on the football field can't be understated, however his academic status remains unknown and could extend into August until clarified – either good or bad. If cleared, Burfict has the talent and intensity to star from day one and elevate the overall level of play of the entire defense. Sun Devil fans now wait with eager anticipation and fingers crossed that Burfict will suit up in maroon and gold in 2009.

The top linebacker prospect in the state of Arizona last year, Anthony Jones (pictured) was the defensive leader for Chandler Hamilton High School's state championship squad in 2008, recording 78 tackles and three sacks for the Huskies.

Versatile and physical, Jones was rated by Scout.com as the No. 32 weak side linebacker prospect last year and will join a capable and competitive position group at ASU. A hard-hitting playmaker, Jones likely will redshirt in 2009 but has the tools to create a prominent future for himself as a Sun Devil.

A gritty competitor and a potential underdog story, Kipeli Koniseti (pictured) was the driving force on Sacramento (Calif.) Grant High School's state champion squad in 2008. A dual-threat quarterback at the high school level and rated by Scout.com as the nation's No. 93 quarterback prospect, Koniseti was issued a scholarship offer from ASU in the waning days prior to signing day but has the talent and drive to make an impact at the college level.

A versatile, rugged athlete, Koniseti joins the Sun Devils listed with a non-descript ‘athlete' position label, but all signs have pointed to his career beginning on defense, specifically at outside linebacker. Similar to Burfict, Koniseti has academic hurdles to clear before beginning his collegiate career.

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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