As Dennis Erickson named Steven Threet Arizona State’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s game, the focus has shifted toward total game preparation for the Portland State Vikings.
With the first of two Football Championship Subdivision teams on the slate, many fans are expecting big numbers from the Sun Devils; however, one area of the team that will be trying to limit the big scores and high statistical performances will be the Sun Devils defense.
There are many local and national media experts predicting the ASU defense to be nearly as good as last season, but with another year of experience, and key starters lost to graduation, a slight decrease in production is expected. Although I don’t know if I would count myself in that mix, and say a decrease in productivity is around the corner.
In previous seasons, the Sun Devil defense played a very aggressive style from the linemen up front, to the defensive backs, and with last fall’s arrival of Vontaze Burfict, that “in your face” style was elevated a few more notches.
Sure the losses of Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel will be irreplaceable, but do not overlook the ability of Burfict’s high school teammates Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons. Both outside linebackers have been in Erickson’s program for three years and undertook reserve roles behind Goethel and Nixon in previous seasons, but now is their time.
The reason why the Corona Centennial linebackers were not featured more was due to the fact that Goethel and Nixon virtually made every single play the past few seasons; not because Magee and Lyons are garbage, but because the starters were that good.
Sure, it would be appetizing to see Nixon and Goethel anchored in the middle by a more mature, smarter, sophomore version of Burfict, but with Magee and Lyons changing their jersey numbers to eight, and six respectively, the six, seven, eight linebacking sequence might be haunting quarterbacks and offensive gurus in their sleep. Oh, and they are also pretty big and pretty darn fast.
Everyone says, “If you look good, then you play good.” These three linebackers certainly took that to heart, and fans at Sun Devil Stadium will be able to see why there is so much promise with these three linebackers. The speed from the “Corona three-pack” probably can’t be matched in the Pac-10 Conference this season, and with the solid front four in front of them, this defense will be just as stout as 2009.
By the way, I have not even mentioned quite possibly the most complete linebacker on the squad yet. Gerald Munns, at 6'4", 242 pounds, has all the measureables and intangibles that a defensive coach desires.
Beyond the look, Munns has the brain to play football, the knowledge of what needs to get done on defense to stop the opposition from scoring. In terms of assignments, Munns is on his game and comes with full force every play.
Back in 2006, when then-coach Dirk Koetter introduced his signing class, Goethel and Munns were supposed to be the foundation of a solid linebacking corps for years to come. And to some extent, the two held up their end of the bargain.
Goethel stepped on the field as a bright-eyed, long blonde haired surfer tough guy, and in his four seasons in Tempe, he only left the field on offensive possessions.
In Munns’ case, he came in as a middle linebacker, and with his size, speed, toughness, and mental capacity, the coaching staff got it right.
Unfortunately, the path to the field was not clear-cut. Names like Robert James, Derron Ware, a freshman Mike Nixon, and 2006 defensive surprise Beau Manutai made it difficult for Munns to make an instant impact. But in his reserve role, Munns made the plays that eventually earned him a starting spot.
Even with the arrival of Burfict last fall, Munns was leading the race to win the starting job, and did so for the first three. Although due to major family and emotional strains Munns informed Erickson and the team that he needed time away.
Everyone who followed ASU last season knows how productive this defense was with Burfict, Nixon, and Goethel at linebackers, so Munns’ body was not missed. However, as this offseason has unfolded, the defense might have missed his leadership qualities.
In 2010, the defense should not be a step below 2010’s numbers, in my opinion. The athletic talent on defense is the best I have seen in the past five years, and that is a fact. ASU has four men who can start at linebacker, and in some situations, don’t be surprised if ASU looks to be in a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Do not adjust your television, defensive coordinator Craig Bray is just utilizing his best talent and athletes, whether it is utilizing three defensive linemen and four linebackers, or four linemen and three linebackers.
One other question worth explaining: How are opposing offenses going to run up the middle on Arizona State? Just to start, Sai’a Falahola and Lawrence Guy both command big-time attention by the offensive line, and just five or six yards behind them, is Burfict and these linebackers to clean up the garbage.
Where are the offenses going to run, outside? I like ASU’s chances relying on their overall team speed on the edge. Also, I am sure fans are anxious to see how ASU replaces sack-master Dexter Davis. Senior defensive end Jamarr Robinson looks to be ready for a breakout season opposite the athletic 6'5", 272 pound James Brooks.
The front seven for ASU looks to be in great shape other than a few injuries exiting fall camp, but the Sun Devils secondary looks to be garnering the most questions. Omar Bolden is one starter, and since his Freshman All-American season in 2007 the production has certainly dropped off, albeit due to injury, but nonetheless a big-time season is needed from the junior corner.
Opposite Bolden has been an ongoing competition between Deveron Carr and LeQuan Lewis. Both have showed promise last fall and throughout training this offseason. With increased production at this level, including a possible rotation of four safeties that Erickson likes, the ability to be a solid man-to-man coverage defense will be imperative with this squad.
Erickson already stated that he wants to be better defensively against the run, mentally tough, and pressure the quarterback more in 2010. Whether the Sun Devils, boasting the best run defense in the conference in 2009, can add even more improvement in that department this season might be a stretch.
However, when talking about pressuring the quarterback, the coverage has to be tight, and with the speed ASU has, the coverage unit will determine how much the team blitzes or not.
For the first time in a long time, the talk was not about the quarterback position, and I am sure that the Sun Devil defense likes it that way. With the coaches and players expecting the offense to be much improved come Saturday night, fans in attendance will be looking to see that same dominant defense of 2009, although with another year of seasoning and coaching, this ASU defense might actually be better in 2010.