Each week from now until the first game of the 2013 Sun Devil football season, the ASU media relations department will release a position group summary for every spot on the Sun Devil roster. These will provide in-depth detail on the top returners, promising newcomers and all you could need to know about each position as we head into what should be another exciting season under Todd Graham.
The first batch of summaries will focus on the offensive side of the ball, and this week we review the 2013 Linebackers.
Recaps from previous weeks are available below:
Heading into the 2013 season, head coach Todd Graham has made it no secret that he means for the team to fare better in defending the run this year as opposed to last season. Despite a dominate pass rush and gaudy numbers in pass defense, the Sun Devils struggled against the run in finishing 81st among 120 FBS teams last season in run defense.
ASU gave up 182.85 yards per game to the opposition on the ground, a tally that ranked 10th in the conference. It was the worst year as far as yardage since the 1995, when the team gave up 186 yards per contest.
So, with a renewed interest in stopping the run, much will fall on the backs of the 2013 linebackers to accomplish the feat. With a solid combination of returning standouts and promising newcomers as well as a new position coach in former defensive line coach Paul Randolph, the pieces are in place to make the goal of improving in rushing defense becomes far more realistic.
Randolph took over the helm of the position group during the offseason and is faced with the challenge of replacing All-Pac-12 performer and team leader Brandon Magee at weak side linebacker. But Randolph is no stranger to taking an unheralded group and making them into a group of studs. One need look no further than last year’s defensive line.
That group helped to force 117 tackles for a loss of 497 total yards - a 9.00 TFL per game mark that led the nation. The Sun Devils had 52 sacks in 2012, a mark that trailed only the 1978 Sun Devils (64) and tied with the 2002 ASU team that also had 52. At 4.00 sacks per game, the Sun Devils finished just behind Stanford (4.07) for second in the nation in the category last year. The Sun Devils averaged a sack on 11.9 percent of all opponent passing plays last season, a tally that led the nation.
A year removed from combining for just 90 total tackles, 15.5 TFLs and seven sacks, ASU’s 2012 linemen (Will Sutton, Junior Onyeali, Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway) posted 155 tackles, 43.5 TFLs and 25 sacks. Additionally, true freshman Jaxon Hood came in and started right away and brought 26 tackles, four TFL and three sacks to the mix.
In Arizona State’s unique defense, the Sun Devils utilize a Devilbacker position – a dynamic position that blends the qualities typical of a defensive end with an outside rush linebacker to make a formidable defensive weapon.
Last year, Carl Bradford filled that role admirably as he put up stats that would have ranked as some of the most eye-popping in the conference if not for Will Sutton’s All-American campaign. He finished the year with 81 total tackles (fourth on the team), 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks (both second on the team behind Sutton).
A freak of an athlete (in the best possible sense of the word), Bradford was a weight room monster during the offseason as he cleaned 400 pounds, squatted 659 pounds and benched 385 pounds. With a year of experience in his belt, one can only help to be excited about what he can bring to the table this year.
Even with all the positives, coaches have challenged Bradford to improve in run defense. Graham noted that Bradford relied so much on his athletic ability last season that he let some of the more technical things go and that’s one area that he will need to improve this season, especially when it comes to setting the edge against the run.
There are a trio of Sun Devils vying for playing time behind Bradford at the position with none taking official control of second-team reps as of this writing. Former Pac-10 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Junior Onyeali figures to be in the mix, though his strength lies more in his ability to be a great rush-end and he figures to play heavily into third-and-long situations. Onyeali finished last season with 17 tackles, with eight of those being tackles for loss and six of those coming as sacks.
Kipeli Koniseti is another guy that adds depth to the position and has the experience with the program and the work ethic that will continue make him a valuable special teams contributor, where he has made his bread the past couple seasons.
Incoming freshman Chans Cox was an early arrival and was on campus for Spring ball but was limited due to injury. The top-ranked Arizona high school recruit last season, Cox has the size to be a force on defense and has played several positions over the course of Fall camp as the coaches look to find the spot that suits him best. For now, he is listed on the depth chart at the Devilbacker position but that could change before the season is over.
One of the keys to containing the run is having a strong weakside linebacker and ASU had a great one last season in Brandon Magee. Through much of the Spring and into the Fall, the coaches put that responsibility on senior linebacker Chris Young, who was admirable in his role at at the Spur position last year. Young has the capability of playing both Spur and Will and Graham isn’t totally set in moving him out the position where he was third on the team with 82 tackles last season with 14 TFLs.
As such, Graham believes Young will play at both positions depending on the opposition but his work in stifling the run game will be pivotal this season. An exceptional high school running back himself, Young believes he knows how a running back thinks and has an advantage as such. In the offseason, Young watched film on Magee to help him prepare for the role and also put on over 20 pounds to help him fare better against bigger lineman.
As far as who would cover the role of SPUR should Young be handling his role at WILL, Anthony jones seems to have the early edge in the competition over JC transfer Antonio Longino and redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza.
Jones is an athletic player with a lot of ability but has yet to really showcase that ability to date. He filled in admirably in reserve duty last season and even earned a couple starts on the season en route to 26 tackles and a pick-six. His 26 tackles were the most by any non-starter on the roster.
The ability to fare well in the passing game is important in the SPUR position, which functions as a linebacker-defensive back hybrid that needs to be rangy and athletic enough to play well in coverage.
Mendoza was solid in two appearances last season, logging seven tackles and two interceptions in those games before suffering a year-ending shoulder injury. Mendoza earned a medical redshirt for the year and maintains his freshman eligibility this season. The coaches credit Mendoza for his passion and work ethic and he figures to see the field in some role or another this season.
Longino is a 6-2, 228 hard-hitting backer who came to ASU with three years to play three out of Hutchinson CC in Kansas who is aggressive and has seen reps at several positions during camp. He is a player fans can expect to see leave it all out there when he is on the field, having to be warned several time in Fall camp not to hit ASU’s skill players as hard during practice.
Back over at the WILL position, assuming Young starts at Spur, redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso currently finds himself leading the pack in the battle to be a starter. But Fiso is also listed as being in contention to start behind Steffon Martin at the SAM position, showing off his versatility. Coaches have stated that Fiso is making it hard for them to not put him on the field and he is showing that in being listed as a potential starter at two positions.
Grandville Taylor is next on the depth chart at WILL and has seen his fair share of first-team reps at the position as well during camp. At one point last week, Graham said that if the season were to start then, Taylor would start. Taylor is a true feel-good story as a former walk-on who will be competing for a starting role this season and is one of the elder statesman on the Sun Devil roster and he will also serve an important role on special teams.
Mendoza has also taken reps at WILL and finds himself behind Taylor on the depth chart.
Senior Steffon Martin started 10 games last season at SAM linebacker and has been challenged with improving his run defense this season. The competition with Fiso at SAM has certainly pushed Martin to play harder and he had an impressive interception and overall performance in a scrimmage earlier this camp season once Fiso had worked his name into the mix.
Martin finished with 27 tackles last season and 6.5 tackles for loss and will certainly see his fair share of playing time this season.
Behind Martin and Fiso, true freshman Viliami Latu is the lone true frosh to crack the preseason depth chart as he competes for reps at the SAM position. Latu has excelled despite his youth and has largely lived up the expectation of him coming out of high school where he was a four-star recruit at Rancho Cucamonga high school.