ASU's defense aims to be best in the nation

Even the novice Sun Devil fan knows that the strength of the ASU football team lies in its defense. This unit ranked first in the Pac-10 and 10th nationally in 2009, and if spring practice is any indication those rankings could repeat themselves in 2010. Yet, the hunger for improvement is stronger than ever and this group's goals are set as high as one could imagine.

"We actually talked about that today," said safety Keelan Johnson. "We talked about what we need to do to be one of the top defenses in the country this year. We were 10th in the nation, first in the Pac-10 and that is a reputation that we want to keep and for us to do that we have to feed off each other's energy."

Head Coach Dennis Erickson agrees with that aspiration.

"Our goal should be the best defense in the country," remarked Erickson. "We're not there yet but that's what we have to stretch to."

The Sun Devil skipper was extremely pleased with his defense's performance this spring, including last Saturday's scrimmage where he felt that the group's overall speed was prominently on display.

"Can't compare it yet to anything until we start playing," said Erickson, "But we got a chance to be one of the better teams I have had defensively. If you stay healthy…and we've got some depth. We lost a couple of good players but we have depth at a lot of positions on the front seven.

"Probably the biggest thing that has jumped out at me is the play of the safeties. Run support wise, the speed of the guys playing back there, how they tackled…I don't know that we got that as consistently last year.

"I look at us as having chance to be better there than we have ever been, since I have been there."

Offense getting its due as well

Granted, the offense for the most part was overshadowed in Saturday's scrimmage, but Erickson did point out some positives from that side of the ball.

"I thought the offensive front play pretty good," commented Erickson. "I thought we protected better than we ever protected. There were some (defensive) pressures but not many. I know if that's because we are tired because of the no huddle stuff, but it's been the best I've seen protection wise.

"Obviously there is some stuff we have to iron out. We are a long ways away, but I like the progress we are making. The quarterbacks both had some good and bad. They only threw one interception in the scrimmage which is a plus. We missed some throws and some reads, but we made some good plays too. It's just a work in progress offensively."

Wide receiver Kerry Taylor is trying to bounce back from a subpar junior season. Three catches from 64 yards in the scrimmage are definitely a positive sign of improvement for the senior.

"Kerry is what he is – he makes plays," explained Erickson. "He catches the ball extremely well and we have to use him in the right situation, move him around…the bottom line is that in this no huddle stuff those guys are begging to come out they are so tired. But out of all our receivers I thought he played the best."

Keelan on key

A good portion of the aforementioned improvements Erickson mentioned at safety can be attributed to the play of sophomore Keelan Johnson. The former Mesa High School standout has been excelling at his free safety role ever since spring practices began.

Erickson acknowledged that Johnson's potential level is virtually limitless.

"He's such an athlete and so explosive," stated Erickson. "He's a 10.6 100 meters guy that is a football player. He has the mental aspect of it but has to continue and learn. But physically he has a lot of tools. You'll see him getting better and better with time."

Johnson feels that off the field preparation has helped him advance his skills.

"I've been watching film and Coach Bray has been helping me make the corrections I have been making from last year and correcting them this year," said Johnson. "I'm diagnosing the play better than I did last year. I was just backpedalling, and not really sitting and reading it. This year I'm sitting and reading it, making more plays, more tackles."

The safety added that off-season footwork drills with the team's corners and safeties has carried over and helped him with his man coverage skills. He also cited Bray's coaching as an aspect that has played a role in his current level of play.

"He takes his time, gives us his receiver reads, the line reads, the quarterback reads," said Johnson of Bray.

"That's what Bray does the best – coach those guys," stated Erickson. "That's what he has always done. He's always been a secondary/safety coach. So to put him back there I think has helped. He understands what he wants."

Johnson knows that with the relative low level of experience at safety, he must take advantage of this opportunity and carve himself a niche as a starter.

"I felt that there was a spot that needed to be taken," claimed Johnson. "We have a lot of young safeties coming in and I felt it was my time to shine."

Improving communication with strong safety Clint Floyd is one goal that Johnson would like to achieve by the end of spring. "You have to let the corners and linebackers what you are doing out there," he explained.

Punting game gets extensive practice reps

The importance of special teams is something that can never be overstated and after losing two homes games last year, Arizona and Oregon State, because of punting miscues, no one needs to remind the ASU coaching staff of the validity of that fact.

In Tuesday's practice there was fair amount of drills involving the punting unit. "Punt is really kind of the key of all of it (special teams)," said Erickson, "and you work from there."

Sparky's Sundries

- Erickson stated that both wide receiver A.J. Pickens and running back Cameron Marshall will continue to be held out due to hamstring injuries and are unlikely to play in this Saturday's scrimmage. "I'd like to see Cameron because he gives us productivity speed wise," said Erickson. "A.J. is getting better all the time and he was just starting to make a lot of plays."

- The linebacker position, compared to last season, is inexperienced. However, based on its performance it's quite evident that this group isn't been hampered by that fact. "We have a lot of talent, a lot of speed there," said Erickson. "We're two-deep in guys that can play and we can probably go further than that. I'll tell you who was playing good in that scrimmage – Colin Parker. He did some awfully good things. Brandon Magee and Shelly (Lyons) are better than they have ever been."

- While JC transfer Brice Schwab was penciled at starting left tackle in the beginning of spring, it was believed that he could eventually be moved to right tackle, his natural position, because of the emergence of redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg. These days, Schwab is staying put while it's Finkenberg who has been moved to right tackle. "We just have to find the best two guys," said Erickson. "When we get Simmons in we have to see where he is at too. There is some competition which is good."

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