Monday, July 23, 2007


Premature Premonitions, Part II: Defense & Special Teams

Remember that it’s still July so there are a ton of unanswered questions and the defensive side of the ball isn’t as shored up as the offense so there’s a lot of guesswork present. You can look at Coach Erickson’s two-deep on page two of the massive PDF right here but few jobs seem secure going into fall practice.

DL- Kyle Caldwell and Jordan Hill were three-year starters and while neither were Terrell Suggs-level superstars their presence will severely be missed. Hill moved to DT from linebacker and was undersized until his senior year, while a myriad of injuries kept Caldwell from reaching his true potential. The remaining starters look good and they’re surrounded by a lot of raw talent. BYU transfer Mike Marquandt was a lane-clogging beast from day one and Dexter Davis, last year’s supposed question mark as a redshirt freshman, became a bigger weapon at rush end than Caldwell by season’s finish. Marquandt will be helped at tackle by Florida transfer Tranell Morant, who transferred two years ago but made little impact at defensive end last year. Erickson has moved him inside but I wonder if he has the bulk to compete in the middle. Backups include seemingly eighth-year senior David Smith along with redshirt freshmen Jon Hargis, Zach Niusulu, and offensive line convert Saia Falahola. Highly touted JuCo transfer Luis Vasquez is penciled in as the other starter at DE, and his supporting cast features veterans Wes Evans and Kellen Mills who have seen little game time during their Sun Devil careers. Expect JuCo transfers Alex Asi and Eric Tanner to be featured prominently in the defensive end rotation.

LB- There is a glut of young talent at linebacker with an emphasis on young. Four of the top six LB’s return from last year but few have more than one year of experience in Maroon and Gold. Local boy Gerald Munns, Pat Tillman look-alike Travis Goethel, and former LA Dodger Mike Nixon stepped in as true freshmen and saw a lot of the field playing beyond the expectations of most. Ryan McFoy saw playing time as a nickel back last year as a true frosh and he will be thrust into the mix at LB along with JuCo transfer Morris Wooten, who some consider talented enough to be a starter right away. The three starting spots are up for grabs among Goethel, Nixon, Wooten, Munns, McFoy, and senior Robert James who is returning after recovering from chronic headaches. Backups that should be in the rotation will be Chad Lindsey, Garrett Judah, and redshirt freshmen Jamarr Robinson and Jeff Bereuter.

CB- Ah, the fun begins. Shockingly enough Keno Walter-White will be missed because nobody seems capable of starting at the number two corner sport. The good news is that Justin Tryon is as close to a lock-down corner as anyone at ASU in the last few years, even though the folks at Cal don’t care for him too much. Chad Green’s unfortunate car accident affects the depth chart but he was one of several that simply shouldn’t make the cut as a starter. Chris Baloney was the hero against NAU in last year’s opener, getting a pick-6 that sealed the win. Nagging injuries throughout the 2006 season kept his productivity down but he appears to be the best of the rest. Help could be on the way in the form of true frosh Omar Bolden, a highly touted recruit that has yet to be academically approved by the NCAA clearinghouse. Many believe that he possesses the physical tools to play corner in the Pac-10 right away, but the phrase ”counting the chickens before they’ve hatched” comes to mind. Travis Smith, Litrele Jones, Grant Crunkleton, and JuCo transfer Jarrell Holman will also be in the mix as back-ups.

Safety- Josh Barrett is racking up tons of preseason accolades and will be the anchor in the secondary. The departure of Zach Catanese leaves the other spot wide open but this looks like the best defensive unit on the team. I thought that Ryan McFoy’s solid play last year would be enough to garner the starting free safety spot but one of Dennis Erickson’s first actions this spring was moving him to linebacker. He did so because of the emergence of Troy Nolan, the defensive MVP of spring camp who will be in close competition for the starting spot with Jeremy Payton. Returnees Rodney Cox and Angelo Fobbs-Valentino will provide back up support while true freshmen Colin Parker and Oliver Aaron may see the field in case of injury.

The defensive unit as a whole is a giant question mark. Teams with multiple high-quality receivers (Cal, USC) will give the corners fits but the biggest question is at defensive line with all of the unproven players. The ability to pressure the opposing quarterback while rushing only four was the key to defensive success last year and problems typically occurred when the corners and safeties cheated in to help with the run leaving the DB’s in single coverage. As crazy and forward-thinking as it sounds, the ability to control the line of scrimmage will be paramount in the success of the Devil D. The early season schedule is soft enough that the team should be working together and picking up schemes by the time conference play begins. A longstanding issue in Tempe has been that the caliber of defensive players under Dirk Koetter was not up to the level of their conference foes. Better players were being recruited in the last two years and there was marked improvement from 2005 to 2006, but the personnel issue still remains: does ASU have the horses to run with USC, et. al?

ST- Four-year starter Jesse Ainsworth departs and while he didn’t win any awards he was, in a word, consistent. Kickoffs were always deep in the endzone and he was almost automatic on field goals inside of 40 yards. Thomas Weber arrives unproven and will have to adjust to big crowds quickly. Jonathan Johnson was solid at punter with zero blocked and big hang times, however he wasn’t immune to the occasional shank and outkicked his coverage a few times; hopefully an extra year will provide more consistency. Ultra-reliable long snapper Jason Burke will have to be replaced as well. Terry Richardson (left, saving Koetter's job in the 2005 Duel) departs as one of the best kick/punt returners in recent memory and his position is up for grabs among Kyle Williams, Rudy Burgess, and Chris McGaha. Coverage will be a wild card as Koetter usually used the top athletes on special teams and it is currently unknown how Erickson is going to fill those spots. Keegan Herring and Justin Tryon were excellent gunners on punts last season but no one really knows how kickoff coverage will be since Ainsworth allowed so few returns. Many people are happy to see Tom Osborne go but the punting unit was the only one of the four that had significant troubles during his tenure as special teams coach.

I'll take a look at the schedule and make a few predictions in Part III, which will be up within a couple of days.

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Look for Jon Hargis to be a huge load on the Defense in the next couple years. His cousin is one of my best friends that I grew up with and I was able to see Jon recently. He definitely looks like he can make a big impact on run defense.

P.S. It's nice to meet other ASU loyalists and Cat haters.
Hargis was a big recruiting get out of Mesa Mtn. View a couple of years ago. Someone will need to step up on the D-line, it might as well be him.
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