Spring Practice: Defensive Preview

Spring Practice: Defensive Preview

The Sun Devils lost one of the better defensive tackles in the Pac-10 in Lawrence Guy, who left early for the NFL Draft. They also lose part-time starting DT Saia Falahola but do have some experience to slide into the position, including senior Bo Moos, and the door will be open to see what signee Mo Latu can do.

Defensive Line

Along the line, there is a unique contrast of experience and the need for new top-level contributors, as the Devils figure to boast one of the best units of defensive ends but must replace both starting tackles.

At end, ASU features last year's Pac-10 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year Junior Onyeali, Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 recipient Jamaar Jarrett and physically gifted senior James Brooks, who collectively equaled 29.5 tackles-for-loss and 14.5 sacks in 2010.

Last season, Onyeali proved himself as a naturally dominant pass rusher, Jarrett was perhaps the team's overall most improved player and a force at end, while James Brooks, hero of ASU's Territorial Cup victory over Arizona, added 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.0 sacks.

With the loss of typical starting tandem Saia Falahola and Lawrence Guy, the onus of responsibility primarily falls upon the shoulders of a trio of players with merely five combined career starts among them.

Previously solid bench contributors, Corey Adams, Bo Moos and William Sutton will now be called to a higher level of action, as they stand to be the main combatants to supplant Falahola and Guy on the first-team.

Moos, owner of three career starts among 21 games played in three seasons, has shown the ability to be a gritty, high-effort reserve, but has never needed to be a consistent, full-time producer.

Adams and Sutton both bring tremendous intrigue to the lineup but have not yet been able to fully show their athletic ceilings as Adams has yet to start in his two years on the field, while Sutton was academically ineligible in 2010 after a strong true freshman season the year before.

What this all adds up to is first real opportunity for each member of this trio to claim a full-time role, but also the dire need for each member to play at a level deserving of such distinction.

With Onyeali expected to be unavailable this spring, the natural expectations is that Brooks and Jarrett will maintain first-team roles, but the question of the ability level of the depth will look throughout spring practices.

Though the top three members of ASU's ends depth chart collaboratively rival any group in the league, the lineup beyond those three is, at this point, suspect at best.

Gregory Smith plausibly will be the primary reserve in Onyeali's absence and though the junior brings game experience to the lineup, consistency and reliability remain an issue and he undoubtedly needs to have a chip on his shoulder this offseason. Smith quickly worked his way into the rotation as a true freshman and was in the conversation to replace four-year starter Dexter Davis last year, but as the season progressed he took a freefall down the depth chart.

Also included in the depth chart at defensive end is former local star Jordan McDonald of Scottsdale Saguaro High School. Though he had a high reputation as a pass-rusher at the prep level, McDonald arrived at ASU smaller than a handful of the Sun Devils' wide receivers, giving him a long road in terms of adding the physical power to be a factor on the defensive line.

Two potential factors in the battles across the whole line are Toa Tuitea and Joita Te'i, athletes with the physical versatility to contribute at tackle or end. With depth needs at all line positions, both players could feasibly capitalize and be steady utility linemen this season.

In all, ASU is tasked with replacing three of the top seven defensive line tacklers from 2010, as well as two others to earn playing time throughout the year.

Spring Questions:

  • How will William Sutton perform after a season-long ineligibility?
  • Is Corey Adams prepared to transition to a reliable starter?
  • How will depth at defensive end play out?

Who Needs it Most: Corey Adams and Gregory Smith

Adams, a five-star recruit as a high school senior, was expected to provide a potentially dominant ability to crash the pocket from the defensive tackle position. With a combination of injury and seniority ahead of him, Adams has yet to have the clear ability to be a top contributor as he will have this spring. His primary competitors will be William Sutton and Bo Moos, and neither should be expected to relent, so Adams will need a strong performance these next few weeks.

From last spring to the end of the 2010 season, Smith went from a potential starter to a non-factor on the depth chart. To his benefit, senior reserves Dean DeLeone and Jamarr Robinson exit from last year, while Onyeali is expected to be on the injured list this spring. In theory, Smith should be the top backup end and the most experienced reserve. Coach Erickson has praised his offseason gains and expected development, but it will have to be shown on the field. Once Onyeali returns and junior college transfer Davon Coleman arrives on campus in the fall, Smith will already have to have asserted himself as a consistent performer, which must be exhibited this spring.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

  • ASU is able to find consistency at the top of the defensive tackle depth chart.
  • Reliable reserves can surface at defensive end.
  • James Brooks can match his stellar natural athletic talents with concentration and consistency.

Linebacker

It really is amazing to consider how quickly time has passed recently in the context of Sun Devil football, as the youthful group of Corona Centennial High School linebackers, expected to materialize the future of a dominant defense at ASU, now stands at the final stage of their collegiate career together.

In all, the group has been good—not to be evaluated as any measure of a disappointment—but this spring and throughout the offseason, work can and needs to be done for this group to punctuate its collective legacy at ASU as one that is truly great.

The on-field headliner, without question, is Vontaze Burfict, the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2009 and an All-American as a sophomore last season, who has earned a reputation as one of the most fearsome, vicious defenders in all of college football.

However, in addition to the reputation as a devastating linebacker, Burfict has earned a stigma as a penalty flag magnet and often times has been targeted by officials and baited by opponents into penalties and other breaks of discipline.

In Burfict, ASU boasts the school's most talented overall linebacker perhaps in decades, but the final piece of the puzzle to complete him as a Sun Devil legend—which he absolutely can be—is to improve his focus on the field and be impervious to the mental traps that are often placed in front of him.

Though Burfict has received the vast majority of the publicity and fanfare, fellow Centennial grad Brandon Magee has been one of the unsung producers at linebacker, finishing second behind Burfict with 73 tackles in 2010.

Fast and physical, Magee has become a high-level outside linebacker and reliable starter, with the skill set to make sideline-to-sideline plays and stops behind the line of scrimmage. Also a member of the Sun Devil baseball program, Magee started 11 of 12 games on the gridiron last year and expectedly will remain in that role as a senior in 2011.

The primary competition in terms of the starting three at linebacker comes on the strong side, where seniors-to-be Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker both earning starting reps last year, with Parker ending up on the first-team in five of the final six games.

In essence, Lyons and Parker have flip-flopped as their careers have progressed, as Lyons showed the talents to start as a true freshman and sophomore, while Parker primarily appeared on special teams. In 2010, however, Lyons was challenged by inconsistency and injuries, and Parker was one of the team's biggest surprises, ranking fifth on the squad with 57 total tackles while playing tremendously sound and intelligent football.

Entering 2011, Parker would have to be presumed as the leader in the bout to start at SAM linebacker, but the gap is certainly not insurmountable for Lyons, likely creating a position battle many will keep a close eye on this spring.

A fairly unheralded breakout contributor in 2010, outside linebacker Oliver Aaron quadrupled his productivity in terms of tackles from the combination of his freshman and sophomore seasons to his junior year, ranking fourth among ASU linebackers and seventh on the team with 47 total stops.

Though greatly undersized, Aaron has zero lack of athleticism and tenacity, making his 208-pound frame a formality when coming head-on with ball carriers. With his senior season on the horizon, Aaron's likely role is to remain Magee's top reserve at WILL linebacker, but the Florida native undoubtedly will have a strong presence in the lineup regardless how many snaps he plays.

With a slew of seniors topping the depth chart, underclassmen Anthony Jones and Carl Bradford are the main components on this year's team that will help create the future of ASU's linebackers beyond the 2011 season.

Jones, a local product of Chandler Hamilton High School, has shown the ability to be a formidable outside linebacker on either side; however he was unable to showcase his skills in 2010 after being ruled academically ineligible. With that span behind him, Jones enters the spring in competition for time and has the physical talent to run step-for-step with many of the upperclassmen ahead of him on the depth chart.

A former fullback blocking for Sun Devil running back Deantre Lewis while at Norco (Calif.) High, Bradford nearly earned immediate playing time at linebacker as a true freshman last season before ultimately redshirting. In recent workouts, Bradford reportedly has entered the school record books for certain weight lifting efforts by a linebacker, exhibiting the brutal force that he will be working with when his on-field career begins this fall. Bradford brings the ability to play either strong side or middle linebacker and appears to have a very high physical ceiling on defense.

Also on the depth chart at linebacker this spring is senior Derrall Anderson, who appeared in all 12 games last season but only one combined appearance during his freshman and sophomore seasons, as well as walk-on Brandon Johnson, who appeared in all 12 games on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2010.

Walk-ons Charles Beatty, Jesse Clark and Grandville Taylor are also currently listed on the roster and are expected to vie for reserve snaps this spring.

Spring Questions:

  • Will Vontaze Burfict take on a leadership role and play with greater discipline?
  • Will Shelly Lyons be able to work his way back into the starting lineup?
  • What will be seen out of underclassmen Carl Bradford and Anthony Jones?

Who Needs it Most: Shelly Lyons and Vontaze Burfict

A contributor as a true freshman but inconsistent as his career has progressed, Lyons faces the urgency of whether he will be a starter or reserve as a senior in 2011. In addition to his own performance issues and injury concerns, the emergence of Colin Parker as an intelligent, reliable linebacker makes Lyons' mission even more challenging. A solid spring effort could vault Lyons back in to competition to start, while anything short of that likely will position him as a backup to conclude his collegiate career.

It may seem borderline crazy to pinpoint Burfict, a legitimate All-America candidate, as one of the players most in need of improvement this spring, but he has yet to reach his full potential despite quickly becoming one of the nation's most feared defenders.

Barring injury, it is fairly safe to predict that this will be Burfict's final year in Tempe, so improvement is necessary—mainly on a mental focus level than merely on-field efforts—for Burfict to fulfill the lofty expectations he brought to Tempe as ASU's most highly-acclaimed high school recruit in school history.

According to team sources and coaches, Burfict has gotten off to a very good offseason start and has been proclaimed as a leader among the defense, which hopefully will enable him to polish himself as a dominant, unflappable linebacker deserving of national notoriety.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

  • Burfict emerges as a leading force, both in terms of talent and on-field discipline.
  • Bradford and Jones show consistency and the ability to contribute among a senior-heavy lineup.
  • ASU is able to adequately replace Gerald Munns behind Burfict at middle linebacker.

Secondary

Due mainly to a combination of spring injuries, departures from last season and inconsistency at safety, the secondary positions will likely be some of the most closely-watched position groups of any on either side of the ball this spring.

With safety Max Tabach and cornerback LeQuan Lewis gone from last year, cornerback Deveron Carr and safeties Eddie Elder and Keelan Johnson likely to be unavailable or at best greatly limited this spring, and a series of question marks with some starters and most depth in the secondary, there is definite work to be done and areas of opportunity for players willing to seize them.

Thankfully, the accelerated heartbeats were calmed by yet another Omar Bolden press conference surprise, as in January the First-Team All-Pac-10 cornerback catered to the dramatic by faking to declare early for the NFL Draft before announcing he will return, similar to how he selected ASU as a high school senior.

By many accounts, Bolden carried some question marks into the 2010 season as his previous two—one of which ultimately counted as a medical redshirt—were very much up-and-down after a greatly encouraging true freshman season.

As a redshirt junior last year, however, Bolden put fears to rest by unanimously receiving First-Team All-Pac-10 honors at cornerback, while being named a Second-Team member at kickoff returner to boot.

With Bolden still in the fold as a fifth-year senior in 2011, ASU has not only a stellar athlete in pass coverage, but a bona fide team leader and the source of a virtually unmatched sense of swagger and enthusiasm on the practice field.

The battle to start opposite Bolden may be a heated one, however with Carr likely shelved this spring that duel likely will have to wait until August, as currently the clear-cut starter would be Osahon Irabor, who took Carr's place on the first team for the final seven games of his redshirt freshman season last year.

Last season, Irabor showed the ability to be a major factor in all facets of his defensive responsibilities, while Carr brings superb athleticism though he has been hampered by injuries which prematurely concluded both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Between the two, the physical talents are in place to merge to an all-conference level, but further development is still necessary to reach that point.

This spring, Irabor likely will be unchallenged to start at cornerback and can use this opportunity to continue to refine his game, and upon his return from injury, Carr will likely have ample ground to make up to return to the starting lineup.

At safety, it can confidently be said that little will be predictable for the spring, as two of the top three returners from last year likely will be sidelined in the spring and, even with Elder and Johnson, the position group has a noted need for overall improvement.

With the two absences, the only safety on the roster with any sort of adequately measurable experience is senior Clint Floyd, who throughout his first three seasons has spent time split as a starter and reserve, though by the admission of Defensive Coordinator/Safeties Coach Craig Bray, Floyd was a disappointment in 2010.

The contrast in the field of competition at safety from the spring to the fall could be a night-and-day difference, with as many as four players either currently unavailable or not yet in the program that may be contributors in 2011.

Essentially, though Floyd likely will suffer little resistance as a starter this spring, when Elder and Johnson return and junior college transfer Kevin Ayers and talented freshman Ezekiel Bishop arrive on campus, the landscape of the position likely will be noticeably different. For this reason, and the overall improvement of the position as a whole, Floyd will need to contribute a better overall effort than he has as a spot starter during the first three years he has played at ASU.

Though the position is yet to be fully established, a favorite to join Floyd in the starting lineup this spring may be Alden Darby, an all-purpose defender able to also play cornerback, who showed tremendous athletic gifts as a true freshman last year that primarily contributed on special teams.

Also in the equation will be senior Jonathan Clark and sophomores Shane McCullen and Matthew Tucker. All three players appeared consistently on special teams in 2010 but have yet to prove themselves as viable starting candidates or even top-level depth players.

Behind Bolden and Irabor this spring, the scholarship athlete expected to be a full-time cornerback is redshirt freshman Devan Spann, who missed time last year as a true freshman due to injury and though he brings an intriguing athletic reputation to the field, he may experience a bit of a learning curve this spring. On the bright side, however, the likelihood of Spann earning substantial practice reps this spring could help quickly fill the experience gap and make him compete for frequent reserves reps in the fall, as even with Carr back in the lineup, quality depth remains an issue.

Rounding out the depth in the secondary are a group of walk-ons, which currently includes Harrison Evens, Preon Evans, Ronald Kennedy, Jr., Jeremy Sawyer and Austin Williams.

Safety Ramon Abreu, who was suspended indefinitely this offseason due to violations off the field, is no longer listed on the team's official roster.

Spring Questions:

  • Will Clint Floyd be able to play with a senior-level sense of consistency as the only experienced safety likely to be available this spring?
  • How will the depth at cornerback look, especially with Deveron Carr likely to be unavailable?
  • What sort of impact will the underclassmen at cornerback and safety create?

Who Needs it Most: Clint Floyd

Similar to a handful of players on the defensive roster, Floyd earned immediate time as a true freshman in 2008 but has yet to become a greatly improved, consistent starter.

Though Floyd has started 12 career games, including seven at safety in 2010, it is not set in stone that he will be a full-time first-teamer as a senior. With Elder and Johnson on the injured list this spring, however, it would be highly surprising for Floyd to be out of the starting lineup throughout spring drills, but his play will be closely monitored when helping determine who will start as the regular season draws closer.

Spring Will Be a Success If:

  • Clint Floyd is able to play at a consistent level at safety and cement himself as a starter for 2011.
  • Depth players at cornerback and safety are reliable and improve to be able to contribute during live action.
  • Bolden and Irabor remain healthy and continue to collectively become one of the conference's better starting cornerback duos.

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