Defense faring better with player changes?

The Pac-10's top defense last year is coming back with little changes up front, but with question marks in the backfield. In this feature, Devils Digest examines ASU's defensive departures, their replacements and how this side of the ball will be affected by the changes.

Departure: Dexter Davis

Replacement: Gregory Smith

Verdict: Downgrade

It can't be considered a surprise that the team stands to suffer a net loss when attempting to replace Davis, as he accumulated more starts (50) in school history while ranking third on ASU's all-time list in quarterback sacks (31.0).

A first-team All-Pac-10 member last year despite career-lows in all major defensive categories, Davis was a tenacious pass rusher and team leader whose presence will be missed in a variety of ways.

The competition to fill Davis' spot at starting weak side defensive end has the potential to be one of the stiffer ones among all defensive position battles, with as many as three candidates plausibly competing both in the spring and fall sessions.

The early edge goes to Smith, who earned action as a true freshman and showed intriguing promise in his limited time on the field last year, as he possesses and aggressive, athletic nature of play that can elevate him to a level of play deserving of full-time first-string duties. Though Smith has a high athletic ceiling, the proof simply hasn't been provided to support that he can seamlessly supplant a player of Davis' caliber.

If Smith is unable to compete at a level worthy of first-team status, senior Dean Deleone will push for time, and incoming freshman Nduka Onyeali is expected to be physically prepared for immediate time when fall camp arrives.

Departure: Spencer Gasu

Replacement: Zeb Togiai

Verdict: Even

Gasu came to ASU with four-star credentials but barely contributed a one-star career, as an injury-riddled two-year span allowed him only to play in three games and total one tackle.

Togiai did not play as a redshirt freshman last year and is among the very bottom of the defensive tackle depth chart this spring, which places him in a similar location as was Gasu during his brief and uneventful ASU career.

Departure: Travis Goethel

Replacement: Shelly Lyons

Verdict: Downgrade

Never a spectacular player—having topped out in terms of accolades by netting honorable mention All-Pac-10 recognition as a senior—Goethel provided a sturdy presence at strong side linebacker, starting 41 of 50 career games and collecting 228 total tackles and 19.0 tackles-for-loss.

Lyons has the talent to be a very solid linebacker, having played both MIKE and SAM positions during his first two years, but there is an apparent need for further improvement before he can unquestionably be considered a standout starter.

After notching 36 tackles as a true freshman in 2008, Lyons' productivity dipped to 17 tackles as a sophomore. On several occasions he has shown flashes of talent to be an exciting defender but needs to transform potential into performance now that he has his first legitimate chance to be a starter at ASU.

Lyons' will to develop may have to be largely intrinsic this spring as he likely will have to perform very poorly to be replaced in the starting lineup by backup Colin Parker, but Lyons—and the defense in general—will benefit by his advancement as he works to maintain the consistency Goethel provided.

Departure: Mike Nixon

Replacement: Brandon Magee

Verdict: Downgrade

The epitome of a true Sun Devil student-athlete, Nixon was a cerebral star for the Sun Devils over the past four years on the field and in the classroom.

A two-year full-time starter, Nixon boasted perhaps the greatest leadership skills on the entire roster and was skilled not only in the contributions he made on the field, but also in the ways he helped the development of his teammates. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection in 2009, Nixon started 31 of 50 games played and totaled 253 tackles, 25.0 tackles-for-loss and eight interceptions during his Sun Devil career.

The evaluation of this exchange is much more a compliment to Nixon than criticism of Magee, as the younger linebacker has a very encouraging athletic skill set—the main area of Nixon's game that lacked admirable quality.

A tenacious, versatile player, Magee has all the tools to carve out a stellar legacy of his own and showed several spurts of high-level athletic ability last year as he recorded 34 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for loss and 2.0 sacks in 12 games, primary in reserve roles.

Magee has been an exciting defender to watch during his first two seasons at ASU, but he also has substantial shoes to fill in his first year as a projected starter.

Departure: Terell Carr

Replacement: Deveron Carr

Verdict Even

Unrelated but sharing the same last name, by most expectations this season will see one Carr swap lanes with another, as Deveron has shown to be fully loaded with athletic talents and is generally expected to start as a redshirt sophomore in 2010.

Terell Carr came to ASU as a four-star junior college transfer from Pasadena (Calif.) City College and provided the Sun Devils with two steady seasons, starting 17 of 23 games and collecting 80 tackles and 10 pass breakups.

Due to injuries and suspensions, Deveron Carr worked his way from the lower end of the depth chart into the starting lineup for three games, and in the process he showed sensational promise and was heralded as one of the team's most notable surprises in 2009.

Unfortunately, Deveron Carr will not participate in spring drills as he continues to rehab a season-ending injury but his combination of speed, size, coverage skills and man-to-man moxie make him a strong candidate to fill Terell Carr's void in the starting lineup this season.

The main questions that persist are to what degree Deveron Carr's injuries will set back his development and how he will handle the rigors of maintaining a first-string position, but if his play in 2009 is any indicator, Carr should be up to the challenges.

Departure: Pierre Singfield

Replacement: Osahon Irabor

Verdict: Even

A former walk-on, Singfield was a two-year feel-good story during his time at ASU, going from a virtual nobody to a starter in 15 of 24 games played. Singfield became a reliable defender in pass coverage and collected 68 tackles and sEven

pass breakups in his two seasons, filling in as a consistent starter as a senior after fellow cornerback Omar Bolden was sidelined by injury early in the season.

The polar opposite from Singfield, who arrived at ASU with total anonymity, Irabor was one of the most talented high school cornerbacks on the west coast during his career at Upland High School and came to the Sun Devils with noteworthy credentials and high expectations.

Those expectations likely would have materialized in a quick manner had Irabor not been stalled by a preseason injury, which ultimately forced him to redshirt last season. Irabor is listed among the second-team corners in ASU's initial spring depth chart, but once he returns to consistent live duty, he has the talent to push for steady reps at cornerback, similar to the presence Singfield provided during the past two seasons.

Departure: Jarrell Holman

Replacement: Keelan Johnson

Verdict: Even

Holman was one of the surprise stories of ASU's 2009 squad, having tallied 46 tackles and three interceptions while starting 10 of 12 games played after playing a minor role as a junior in 2008.

Though he provided a small handful of highlight plays at safety, he had moments of inconsistency and was replaced in the starting lineup by Clint Floyd for two games late in the year.

With Holman exhausting his eligibility and Floyd listed atop the depth chart at strong safety to begin the spring, Johnson is expected to take the first crack at filling in for Holman after serving as one of the top safety reserves as a redshirt freshman last year.

A former all-purpose standout at Mesa (Ariz.) High School, Johnson is highly gifted on a physical level but is still catching up on some of the technical aspects of the position. In reserve play last season, Johnson collected 11 total tackles while also serving as a standout special teams performer.

If Johnson is unable to grasp firm control of a starting position, ball-hawking junior college transfer Eddie Elder will push for time with the first-team, providing encouragement that the level of play at free safety should not decline significantly in Holman's absence.

Departure: Ryan McFoy

Replacement: Clint Floyd

Verdict: Downgrade

After bouncing around between safety and linebacker during his first three seasons, McFoy settled in at strong safety last year and had a commendable season in a full-time starting role, totaling career-highs of 40 tackles and three interceptions.

The drop-off between McFoy and Floyd doesn't figure to be a remarkable one, but Floyd needs to prove he can provide a reliable presence in a full-time starting capacity after starting five of his first 19 games at ASU.

Also affecting matters is a lack of proven depth at strong safety, with redshirt freshmen Matthew Tucker and Shane McCullen as the two backups to begin spring drills, creating an increased need for Floyd to perform at a high level.

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