Spring Review – Defense

ASU's defense topped the Pac-10 in 2009, and if spring practice is any indication this unit shouldn't miss a beat this season. Joe Healey examines this side of the ball and how its various position groups fared in the spring.

Defensive Line

At tackle, though a close eye is kept on the group's collective health status, the quality of the unit was not a significant concern prior to the start of spring drills and at the end of the session of practices no major question marks emerged.

Lawrence Guy remains on his way toward being one of the Pac-10's premier defensive linemen, while Saia Falahola is well-positioned to follow his quietly impressive junior season with a solid senior year.

Sophomore William Sutton, who was highly impressive during his first year at ASU, saw substantial action during the spring and has the versatility to be a major contributor as the Devils may employ multiple front seven formations due to tremendous depth along the line and at linebacker. Corey Adams, who like Sutton earned immediate action as a true freshman last year, saw action in practice this spring though not at full-speed each session as he continued to recover from offseason back surgery. A five-star prospect while at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro High School, when fully recovered Adams will be counted on to join Sutton as primary backups at tackle.

After being promoted into substantial duty last season primarily due to injuries suffered by his fellow tackles, Bo Moos performed admirable as a top reserve this spring and has the experience and physicality to be a stable backup as a junior in 2010.

Toa Tuitea saw action at defensive tackle this spring and can also play strong side end, while sophomore Zeb Togiai and redshirt freshman Chris Stevens also saw time at defensive tackle this spring and will round out the bottom end of the position's depth chart.

As the defense moves forward toward the remainder of the offseason, two major question marks that remain are the future availability of Jonathan English and Otis Jones, both of whom missed the entire 2009 season due to injuries.

Jones, who suffered a devastating knee injury last spring, encouragingly appeared in some drills this spring and remains hopeful to get back on track to resume his football career while English redshirted last season and possesses two years to compete at ASU. Both players would be excellent additions to the depth at tackle and the next four months will be critical for them to properly rehabilitate to remain confident in the ability to return to playing form for 2010.

The defensive end slots, as expected, saw multiple players see extended action as, among other objectives, the team strives to replace four-year starter Dexter Davis at weak side defensive end.

In addition to the loss of Davis, returning starting strong side end James Brooks missed ample spring action due to personal reasons, essentially opening practice reps for new first-stringers on both sides.

Junior Jamaar Jarrett played perhaps his best football since arriving on campus in the fall of 2008 at strong side end in place of Brooks and expectations are high for the big-bodied defender after two unspectacular seasons to start his ASU career. Though Brooks' is scheduled to return for fall camp his starting role could be tough to wrestle away, at worst Jarrett should be a solid piece of the Sun Devils' line rotation.

At weak side end, sophomore Gregory Smith and senior Dean Deleone were the primary combatants for time and neither player played poorly, yet neither seemed to noticeably set himself away from the pack. Jamarr Robinson, a tremendously athletic player that for several reasons has seen very scarce action during his first three years, remains in the equation because of his top-flight physical gifts.

Leading up to and likely through fall camp, the competition at weak side end is expected to grow even hotter as highly-touted true freshman Nduka Onyeali, a physically imposing pass rusher, will arrive and by all accounts is destined for early action as a Sun Devil. The top depth at strong side end is generally predictable at this point, however the weak side position may have up to four legitimate candidates working for time in the fall, and though one may assume that seniors Deleone and Robinson may have the experience edge, Smith and Onyeali boast every necessary qualification to become the top two options as the primary rush defensive ends.

Massive Calvin Tonga is perhaps the only true defensive tackle addition to arrive, pending his ability to qualify, among the fall's incoming crop of freshmen, while rookies Lee Adams and Joita Te'i have the ability to play virtually anywhere on the line. Local standout Jordan McDonald out of Scottsdale Saguaro High School will also join the team this fall after solid career at one of the state's top prep programs. According to most, each of these four may be subject to greyshirt or redshirt options in 2010 due to existing talent and depth along the line.

Offseason Questions:

• How be physically prepared for action will Jonathan English, Otis Jones and to a lesser level of concern, Corey Adams, be when fall camp begins?

• How will the depth chart sort out at defensive end, specifically at weak side end?

• Can Dean Deleone and Jamarr Robinson contribute as seniors after limited prior collective performances?

Linebacker

Travis Goethel and Mike Nixon were very solid players and excellent Sun Devils. Goethel has an opportunity to etch out an NFL career with the Oakland Raiders, while Nixon is undoubtedly onto bigger and better things regardless his career path.

But if any team, player or fan believes that ASU's linebackers unit will take even the slightest step back in 2010—even with the losses of two players that combined for 72 career starts—is in for a very rude awakening this fall.

The college football world got a quick and scary introduction to Vontaze Burfict (pictured) last season; seemingly from the point he massacred Idaho State quarterback Russel Hill with a late-game sack in the season opener, the former five-star phenom legitimized the hype that preceded his collegiate career.

Though Burfict is expected to man the middle at an all-conference level this season, some concern existed for those who may flank him at the two outside linebacker positions in place of Goethel and Nixon.

As expected, Burfict's former Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School teammates Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee entered spring drills as the first-string strong side and weak side candidates, respectively. However, what may not have been as fully predicted was the level of consistency each player showed, especially Lyons, and both he and Magee exhibited tenacious athleticism, range and versatility and the three long-time friends comprise feasibly the Pac-10's most dangerous linebacking trio entering 2010.

In addition to excellent play from the starting three, the rich seemingly got richer throughout spring drills as highly qualified reserves emerged, ranging from the savvy veteran Gerald Munns to the ultra-talented redshirt freshman Anthony Jones. In fact, the talent level runs so deep that the coaching staff tinkered with a four-man linebacker set, as Munns, a former starter, has the intellect and aggressiveness to see a great deal of action at middle linebacker beside or in place of Burfict.

Jones, the top linebacker in the state of Arizona during his high school career, seemingly brings limitless potential to the defense and can play either outside linebacker position. Athletic in coverage duties with quickness from sideline to sideline and a penchant for big plays, if give the repetitions, Jones could be one of the top impact freshmen on the team this year.

Junior Colin Parker, who much like Jones and Munns starred at Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High School during his prep tenure, also showed promise as a capable reserve while Oliver Aaron has a physical nature in great excess of his relatively limited size and both players could carve out a role this season. Derrall Anderson, who joined Parker and Aaron among Dennis Erickson's initial signing class at ASU, will likely remain the third option at middle linebacker behind Burfict and Munns.

In many ways, what was seen in the spring is what can be expected in the fall, as only one freshman linebacker—Carl Bradford of Norco (Calif.) High School—will join the roster and while he has the advantage of practicing with perhaps the Pac-10's premier defensive units, he will be hard pressed to leapfrog his teammates and earn time as a true freshman.

The moral of the story at linebacker for the Sun Devils that there is talent, tenacity, athleticism and depth that has not been seen on ASU's roster in many years and if the group can remain healthy and focused it has all the components of a game-dictating defensive unit.

Offseason Questions

• Will outside linebackers Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee continue to be consistent, well-rounded starters?

• Can Anthony Jones show the same talents this fall as he did in the spring and be a significant factor as a redshirt freshman?

• What will be seen of Oliver Aaron, Derrall Anderson and Colin Parker—three of the most experienced yet least established linebackers on the roster?

Cornerback

Similar to the story at linebacker, though there are some noteworthy departures, in the form of departed seniors Terell Carr and Pierre Singfield in this case, there is still a high level of upside for the position as a whole and there were signs of that overall talent that emerged routinely throughout the spring.

One of the most reassuring spring storylines was the return of Omar Bolden (pictured), who after missing the vast majority of the 2009 season came back not just healthy, but hungry and competitive and prepared to become a steady leading force among the defensive secondary. After an up-and-down first two seasons, expectations for Bolden fluctuated from all-conference and eventual NFL aspirations to simply trying to maintain a role in the starting lineup. With a passion that is matched by view on the defense, Bolden performed very well this spring and figures to be a driving force in the back end of the Devil defense.

A compelling competition to watch throughout the remainder of the offseason will be the depth at cornerback. Deveron Carr came on tremendously strong near the end of his redshirt freshman season last year before suffering an injury that greatly limited him in the spring, while senior LeQuan Lewis, junior Josh Jordan and redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor have the needed tools to merge into the conversation for worthwhile playing time.

Of the trio, Irabor appears to have the greatest upside and gained quite a bit of attention this spring, though he is still in the early stages of his development after missing action as a true freshman due to a hand injury.

Perhaps the most athletically gifted cornerback, Lewis showed marked improvement in his defensive skills this spring, while Jordan is a heady, tough and confident veteran that will undoubtedly serve a role in some capacity.

When fall camp arrives, freshmen Alden Darby and Devan Spann are scheduled to join the competition for time but in all likelihood will observe the 2010 season as redshirts as the depth at cornerback carries high potential.

Offseason Questions

• Will Deveron Carr be able to solidly secure a starting spot?

• Can Omar Bolden fully live up to his tremendously high athletic potential?

• How will the depth unfold with three qualified competitors vying for time?

Safety

The recurring theme that was seen at linebacker and cornerback continued at safety, where though vacancies existed at both starting positions, the overall level of athletic talent noticeably increased and provided high hopes for the position in 2010.

The combination of Ryan McFoy and Jarrell Holman, though serviceable and at times showed big-play abilities, was never a true strength of the defense last season.

If the spring is any indication, the play of the safeties has the potential to escalate to largely unexpected levels, as the combination of Keelan Johnson and Clint Floyd (pictured), as well as the addition of junior college star Eddie Elder, creates a formidable lineup.

Simply put, Johnson was perhaps the talk of spring camp from start to finish, showcasing his nearly unparalleled athleticism and an advance cognitive understanding of the safety position. The former Mesa (Ariz.) High School standout combines a full arsenal at free safety, and if he continues to play at the level he did in the spring, Johnson could be one of the surprise defensive emergences in the Pac-10 Conference.

Not very far behind Johnson is fellow starter Floyd, a cerebral and athletic presence that has seen substantial action during his first two years at ASU and is in prime position to merge into a quality starter on a full-time basis now that the opportunity is in his hands. A reserve and spot starter the past two seasons, this spring Floyd displayed the talents required to be a reliable starter.

Adding high quality depth to the secondary is first-year Sun Devil Eddie Elder, one of the top junior college defensive backs in nation while at the College of San Mateo (Calif.). A midyear transfer, Elder showed his natural knack for finding the ball and likely will be a quick-impact addition to ASU's defense. Elder earned a great deal of practice time this spring and at many junctures showed his innate ability to be a difference-making defender.

Redshirt freshman Shane McCullen was often applauded for his efforts this spring and likely has given himself an early edge to enter the two-deep at safety, while classmate Matthew Tucker also has a high athletic ceiling and high expectations for his Sun Devil career.

Veterans Jonathan Clark and Max Tabach likely will round out the active lineup at safety and in the fall local stud Ramon Abreu of Tempe's Marcos de Niza High School will enroll and begin his collegiate career but in all likelihood will redshirt.

Offseason Questions

• Can Keelan Johnson and Clint Floyd continue to be impact starters?

• What role will redshirt freshmen Shane McCullen and Matthew Tucker play this year?

• Will Eddie Elder be able to provide the ball-hawk type of presence at ASU as he did at the junior college level?


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