Q&A with Coach Craig Bray

Coming into the 2009 season much was expected from the ASU defense, and consequently this unit delivered finishing atop the Pac-10 in total defense. The always candid Sun Devil defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Craig Bray talked to Devils Digest and assessed the defense and the linebackers' performance last season, lined out areas for improvement, and goals going into spring practice.

DevilsDigest: Coach, Nduka (Junior)Onyeali is listed as a defensive end/linebacker on ASU's 2010 recruiting class. Where do you see him lining up this year and what skills does he bring to the table?

Craig Bray: "Right now we are going to use him as defensive end. We have to utilize him in what he does well and that is put his hand on the ground and make things happen. We will use him as linebacker in certain situations, that's definitely a possibility. He's an extremely active player. The only reason why he wasn't recruited by a lot of major colleges, although he was recruited by several, is his height (Onyeali stands 6-1). But he's a 240, 245 lbs. guy.

"He's a guy that can really run. He ran a 10.8 in the 100 meters. So he's player that can play either position and we'll evaluate him as he gets in here. But with our depth at defensive end it's prudent that we play him there."

DD: Carl Bradford is another interesting newcomer. He played fullback in high school but is coming here as a linebacker. How would you assess his skills?

CB: "He's probably one of the most explosive kids I have seen. When you watch him on offense, he doesn't block - he hits and destroys. We had him in camp and took him through linebacker drills, had him do sled work and he showed unbelievable explosion. So if he can put all his qualities together, not just as an athlete, but also as a physical person, he could be a very good linebacker."

DD: Obviously you had a chance by now to review the linebacker's performance from last season. What are some of the positives and negatives that jump at you as you evaluate this group?

CB: "Most of it was all positive. Gerald Munns was an extremely solid player for us and as you watch him on film you know that he's a guy that we have to find a place for him to play and be on the field as much as possible. Obviously Vontaze (Burfict), with the lack of experience that he had, to come in and do the things that he did…he's a very instinctive player and he has a lot to learn. But his upside is tremendous.

"Brandon Magee probably wasted his true freshman year because he got injured and wasn't able to be out there all the time, but he played a lot for us last year showing his athleticism, speed and explosiveness. If he can learn the system as well as he needs to he can be a very special player.

"Shelly Lyons – I wouldn't say he was a disappointment, but I had anticipated and expected more of him. Once he had that knee injury in fall camp he never really came back like I thought he would and yet he still played fair amount and still has a trmendous upside.

"Oliver Aaron didn't play much. He was pushing for a starting position when he dislocated his elbow. He has a lot of positives like speed and quickness, but we like to get more size on him. Anthony Jones who we redshirted – we are extremely excited about. He might be the best athlete of the whole bunch and we just have to see in spring ball how he learns, how he performs and what his toughness level is. Overall, it's very bright at the linebacker position."

DD: You mentioned Burfict and the fact that even though he had a solid season he still has some room for improvement. With the all the lofty accolades he came with do you feel that he played as well as can be expected for a first year player?

CB: "He played well. I don't think you ever say that a kid played as well as expected, because then you're underestimating him and underestimating your abilities as a coach. Did he do some good things? Yes, very much so. Did he cause us some penalties? He's a high energy guy, he kind of got marked a little bit and there was a (negative) perception that really wasn't there. But he's a very very good football player and obviously has the potential to be extremely good.

"It's all a growth process. He has to go to class and study. He has to go into the weight room, which he hasn't done before. He has to learn the techniques that will allow him to get better. If he's willing to do all that, which I'm sure he is, his upside is big time. "

DD: What are your thoughts in general on the 3-4 alignment, and with the personnel ASU has in place is it a scheme you could see the defense going to in the future?

CB: "It's something that we looked at and something that we have used before. It's something that as we evaluate our personnel for the next few weeks, that we are definitely going to look at. The key is do you have the right mix of linemen and do you have enough depth at the linebacker position?

"One of our weaknesses is that we never had enough defensive backs to be in nickel scheme and when you start spreading out four linebackers suddenly having six linebackers doesn't seem too deep. Whenever you look at a certain package, you have to have depth throughout the whole package to make sense in using it.

"So when we look at the 3-4, we look at it as a variable and a change-up, until we establish where our personnel is going. Everything we do around here is always based on what we think our kids can do. One of the reasons that we haven't been a big pressure team is because the linebackers and the athletes we played in the last three years didn't lend the talent to do that. To ask Mike Nixon to be a pressure linebacker…you might as well try and to predict the weather. But he's an extremely smart player. So we will evaluate our talent and come up with what we feel we need to do to be good and it will always be based on the players we have and not schemes that everyone else runs."

DD: When you look at the defense as a whole and their performance in 2009, how would you rate this group. Just by the mere stats that they put up last year, you must be extremely pleased…

CB: "I am and yet when I go back and look (at film) we could have played better. We have to play better in the secondary. We have to get better safety play. Just in tackling alone our safeties probably gave up a couple hundred yards. We're excited about the defense. Anytime you're number one in the league, number 10 to 15 in the country, you've done some good things. But again, even though we are pleased we have a long way to go and if you don't look at that that way you will never continue to improve. "

DD: Aside from the secondary, any other areas on the defense that you look to improve on in spring practice?

CB: "We're going to try and improve at every single position. If you don't improve that means you're getting worse because your opponents are improving. So if you look back and point out where our weaknesses were last year, you would probably point to the backfield. Yet, we lost an awfully good defensive end (Dexter Davis) and we don't have a guy to replace him right now.

"We lost two linebackers that are proven good football players that helped us be a pretty good darn defense for the last three years. How do you replace them? We have athleticism, but do we have athleticism with the mental capabilities to make them better.

"We lost four kids in the secondary…so there a lot of variables out there that give you a lot of question marks. So we have to improve in all those areas or we can't be what we want to be.

"We have to win next year. There are no bones about it and for us to win we have to be very very good on defense and we have to start scoring some points and have ball control on offense. Once we put those two variables together we are going to win a lot of football games."

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