May 2, 2008

Spring Grades: Defense

ASU coaches built new blitzing schemes and zone looks into the defense this spring to keep opposing offense more off balance. The new wrinkles appear to have been effective and should go a lot way to make the defense more dynamic in 2008. Here is a review of how each defensive position group performed, as well as special teams, with a letter grade attributed at all spots.

Defensive Line

Starting ends Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez were extremely solid, especially Davis, who was arguably the top defensive player of the spring. No player is more technically proficient than Davis. If you were just to look at the defensive ends, there are three or four who are more physically imposing. But none play with better technique or economy of movement of Davis.

The biggest development, however, was the strong play of Jamarr Robinson, who is now backing up Davis at right end after playing linebacker last year. Robinson has good speed and a terrific motor as a pass rushing threat, with multiple sacks in the final two scrimmages. It's another example of this coaching staff's ability to figure out where players can be moved in order for them to be more impacting.

James Brooks has as much talent as any of the ends but he needs to continue to work on technique. He's taller and plays a bit upright, which leads to a loss of leverage.

At tackle, walk-on David Bertrand, who transferred into the program from the University of Arizona, rose from third-team status to start the Spring Game and work with the first unit in the final week. He's stout and very strong, bench pressing over 450 pounds.

Senior-to-be David Smith gave centers Thomas Altieri and Garth Gerhart fits. He plays to his potential and is the only guy who appears locked into a starting spot at tackle heading into summer ball.

Backups Saia Falahola and Jonathan English[/db] had their moments, but both will need to elevate their play in advance of the arrival of several high profile junior college additions in the fall. Falahola may not be quite as strong as he was physically prior to the arm injuries, but that will just take time. English is in better shape, having lost a reasonable amount of weight since he arrived. He's a little more explosive off the football and just needs to become more consistent.

Overall, the defensive tackle group probably leaves the most to be desired of any on the team in terms of athletic potential. Even if the group, as currently constituted, plays to its maximum capability, it will only be average when compared against other teams in the Pac-10. Grade: B- (The top three ends are solid, and the tackles played close to their capability but are only average in the talent department.)

Linebacker

The top linebacker group was perhaps the best performing first unit of any on the team during spring ball. In the middle, Gerald Munns truly came into his own. Though he isn't the most athletic player, his football savvy and playmaking skills are excellent.

ASU had hoped to have either Ryan McFoy or scout team defensive player of the year Oliver Aaron emerge at the weakside spot to replace Robert James, but neither played as consistently well as hoped. That led ASU coaches to work second-team middle linebacker Mike Nixon at the position with the first unit, even though he wasn't listed on the team's official depth chart at the spot.

Nixon has simply been too good to not have on the field more than as a backup. Munns and Nixon are two of the smartest players on the team and they come as close to maximizing their potential as anyone. Aaron and McFoy are both more athletic with greater upside, but they aren't as consistent with their assignments. Those assignments became more difficult with the zone blitz and coverage scheme additions put in this spring.

If anything, redshirt freshman Colin Parker was the second most consistent at the position in the spring. He proved that he's past the knee injuries that kept him out of action for essentially two full years, and he could evolve into a solid player. He's similar to Nixon in terms of style, athletic ability and approach.

Strongside linebacker Travis Goethel has the most athletic potential of the three anticipated starters and he's the most consistent in the group at playing both the pass and run equally well. Backup Derrall Anderson also has a nice combination of size and athletic ability, but he didn't particularly stand out in the spring. Again, it's a matter of being consistent with his assignments. Grade: B (Top group is very good, but play by backups was spotty.)

Safety

Troy Nolan has moved to free safety to replace Josh Barrett after starring at strong safety last season, when he led the Pac-10 in interceptions. The move was seamless, with Nolan having a solid spring, as anticipated. His leadership will be heavily counted on.

But the big news of the spring was at the strong safety spot, where Rodney Cox continued to rise as one of the top playmakers on the roster. After starting summer camp last year dead last on the depth chart, Cox rose to second-team status late in the year and is now the projected starter due to his dedication and intelligent approach to the game. He also lost upwards of 10 pounds at the behest of coaches, to improve quickness.

One of the biggest surprises on the team in spring was second string safety Jarrell Holman, who redshirted as a member of the scout team last season after transferring from the junior college ranks. Holman is fluid and mobile with good size. He's picked up the scheme now and looked very effective. He appeared to pass Jeremy Payton on the depth chart. Payton has as much potential as any of the safeties versus the pass, but he's less inclined versus the run and runs hot and cold in practice.

Mid-year junior college transfer Max Tabach has shown signs of the playmaking ability that led to a nation-best 16 interceptions as a high school senior, but he is still in the early stages of learning the system. As impressive, he enjoys coming up and hitting. He has a terrific frame and is a hard worker. He has a lot of potential as a backup to Nolan at the free spot. Grade: B+ (Outperformed expectations.)

Cornerback

Omar Bolden continues to be among the upper echelon talents on the entire roster after earning freshman All-American honors last season. He's as well-rounded and capable at the position as ASU has had in many years.

Opposite Bolden, mid-year junior college transfer Terell Carr has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Justin Tryon. Carr isn't big, but he's a sure tackler with blazing speed and the ability to make plays on the football; he just needs to be more consistent with his technique.

Travis Smith has separated himself from other reserves at the position, demonstrating a combination of good size and quickness.

Pima college transfer Pierre Singfield was among the top walk-ons during the spring, rising to second-team status ahead of Grant Crunkleton. Singfield is the biggest corner on the roster, but he moves well for his size, and he picked things up more rapidly than most newcomers. Grade: B (Solid showing overall.)

Special Teams

Graza Award recipient Thomas Weber returns for his sophomore year, but he will have a new holder and snapper. Danny Sullivan has emerged as the likely holder, beating out Chris McGaha, who didn't appear to particularly want the responsibility anyway. Freshman walk-on Thomas Ohmart, a product of Horizon High School in Scottsdale, is the leading candidate to be the long snapper. Weber struggled adapting to the changes early in the spring but by the end he was performing consistently well. Punting duties are still up for grabs, with Weber battling redshirt freshman Zach Richards in what looks like a toss up right now. Weber is listed atop the depth chart.

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