April 12, 2008

Mid-spring report: Secondary and Linebackers

Here is a comprehensive analysis of how Arizona State's linebackers and defensive backs are performing, and the depth chart is shaping up through the first three weeks of spring football.

Linebacker

In our spring preview written several weeks ago we noted the previous coach staff's recruiting strategy at the linebacker position differed somewhat from the approach taken by this staff. Some of those players recruited two or more classes ago to play outside linebacker are more suited to line up in the middle in this scheme. The net result is that ASU has ample talent at the MIKE position and perhaps not enough on the outside. Certain, there isn't enough proven talent on the outside.

In the middle, the official depth chart lists five scholarship players. It's the only spot on the defense with that many, which is very telling. The depth chart reads Gerald Munns with the first-team, Mike Nixon with the second-team and Morris Wooten with the third team, Chad Lindsey with the fourth team and Antone Saulsberry with the fifth team.

Lindsey hasn't gotten nearly as many reps as the others, and Saulsberry has gotten hardly any reps at all as a result of the abundance of players at the position. It probably isn't going to change any time soon either, unless there are injuries to the top three in the group.

Additionally, Jamarr Robinson was perhaps best suited to play in the middle, but he worked at outside linebacker last season due to the team's depth at the position, and has now been moved to right defensive end, where he is playing extremely well.

Among the top three at the position, Munns has been most impressive this spring, and he's been among the top performers on the entire roster.

"There are guys that are football players," coach Dennis Erickson said after a recent practice. "If you put them on a field and you time them in a 40 (yard dash) or things like that you say, 'Well maybe that's not exactly what we want.' But then when the lights go on he's better than what you want. That's what happened with Gerald."

Nixon has also had a compelling spring whether he's lined up in the middle, or on the weakside, where he has had a significant role despite not being listed at the position on the depth chart. He doesn't have ideal size or athleticism, but he makes up for it with his intelligence, instincts and toughness.

In Wooten, the Sun Devils have a player who is very good coming up against the run so long as he's filling the right lane. Certainly he's the most athletic of the three, and among the hardest hitters on the team, but he's with the third group primarily because he's not as consistent with his assignments, which is most noticeable against the pass.

The reason Nixon has had to spend time on the weakside is because the coaching staff isn't completely convinced as yet that any of the others at the position have sufficiently risen to the occasion to be thought of as a capable replacement to Robert James

"Right now somebody's got to step up at WILL (weakside)," Erickson said. "Our MIKEs are playing pretty good and we've got some depth. We've got to have somebody step up at WILL."

Freshman Oliver Aaron won scout team defensive player of the year award and was considered by some in the program to be the likely heir apparent to James at the position, but he's currently listed behind rising junior Ryan McFoy.

McFoy and Aaron and the smallest, fastest and most athletic linebackers on the roster and they'll likely be used as the most prominent blitzers from the group, but they'll also have to cover slot receivers in space and be physical against the run. It's a difficult position to play with a steep learning curve and neither player is consistent enough as yet. Both have substantial talent.

Current third-team WILL Colin Parker hasn't played a full game since late 2005 after knee injuries, but he's come back looking strong this spring. Parker is similar to Nixon in terms of his size/athleticism/intelligence package and more likely than not, he will eventually play his way onto the field despite not being the best athlete in the group.

At the strongside position, junior-to-be Travis Goethel is the team's leading returning tackler from last season. He may also be the team's best pro prospect among the scholarship linebackers on the roster due to his size and range. He plays the run and pass equally well, but has not done a consistently great job picking up some of the new coverages put in place by the coaches this off-season. Still, he looks to have the firmest grasp on a starting spot of all three positions.

Behind Goethel, the second-team SAM is Derrall Anderson, who, like Aaron, is a freshman from Florida. He's another good athlete, but with better size than Aaron., about 20 pounds heavier at 6-foot-1, 222 pounds. Anderson will attempt to hold off third-team SAM Jeff Bereuter, a sophomore-to-be who continues to improve his physique. In a pinch, Nixon is also capable at the SAM position.

Safety

Last season, Josh Barrett played the free safety position and Troy Nolan started at strong safety, where he led the team and was second in the Pac-10 with six interceptions. With Barrett having graduated, Nolan has moved to the free safety spot and the transition has appears to be rather seamless. He's having a solid spring and will anchor the secondary along with cornerback Omar Bolden.

Nolan's likely backup at the position is Max Tabach, who is the clear-cut No. 2 man on the depth chart through the first three weeks of spring ball. Tabach, at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, still appears quite lean, and it is apparent he'll easily add another 10-15 pounds on his terrific frame. His body-type and the way he carries himself actually reminds us a bit of former standout safety Zach Catanese, when Catanese first arrived at ASU.

Tabach may actually have a better burst than Catanese, but we've yet to see him hit the way Catanese did. That said, Tabach has in no way been shy about initiating contact. He's not just some ball hawkish type player by any stretch, though he certainly has great instincts for making plays on the football, as evidenced by his multiple interceptions this spring. Our early opinion, is that after a year, he'll be a solid replacement for Nolan.

After Tabach, Angelo Fobbs-Valentino and Jonathan Clark appear to be battling it out for the third team. Of the two, we've actually be more impressed with what we've seen from Clark thus far in the spring. He has substantially improved over his play at the position last fall as a redshirt. A mild back injury may or may not keep him out of the scrimmage Saturday.

At strong safety, Rodney Cox has really stepped out of his shell and is playing more of a leadership role and also playing with more outward emotion than at any time in his career to this point. Perhaps it's a realization that he will be a senior and/or the fact that he finally appears to have a true edge at earning a starting nod.

When you speak with coaches about Cox, they tell you that he's worked himself into this role. He was dead last among scholarship players at safety last summer entering camp, but spent extra hours studying, asked all the right questions, and just consistently performed with energy and attention to detail in practice. He's also lost weight, down to 210 pounds, he said, after being asked by the coaches to do so.

Cox had arguably the most impressive performed in the first Sun Devil Stadium scrimmage this spring, and that showing reflects the job he's done in most other workouts over the last few weeks.

Second-stringer Jeremy Payton has more range and is a more fluid, naturally gifted athlete than Cox, but as he has acknowledged, his consistency of effort and focus has not been as good as it needs to be in order to maximize his ample potential and earn a starting nod. Payton also needs to continue to work on being equally consistent against the pass and run.

In recent workouts, the player listed at third-string on the official depth chart, Jarrell Holman, has also seen second-team reps, and that battle with Payton appears quite close. Among the defensive players on the roster, Holman has been one of the biggest surprises, along with Parker. Holman runs really well with good change of direction and fluidity and he looks the part of a playmaker. He just needs to continue to become more refined with his technique and understanding of the position. With Cox and Payton heading into their senior seasons, it wouldn't surprise us at all to see Holman starting alongside Tabach in 2009. But we know that's looking pretty far into the future.

Holman is currently the first-team nickel back when the team has an extra defensive back on the field and Payton is a backup at the position.

Cornerback

Not much needs to be said about the talent of Bolden, who earned freshman All-American honors by several publications, including Rivals.com last season. To sum it up, Bolden is our pick as the best pro prospect currently on the roster. Period. One time I asked Bolden what goes through his head before a play, and he said it's the same thing on every play. "I gotta get this money." And he will, no doubt. It's just going to be another two or three years before it happens. We look for Bolden to eventually be remembered as one of the best corners in ASU history.

In spring ball this year, quarterback Rudy Carpenter and Bolden have had a running, seemingly semi-joking feud. Basically, Bolden continuously lets Carpenter hear about the fact that he doesn't feel enough ball are being thrown to his side of the field. And there definitely have been a lot more ball thrown to the other side, but can you really blame Carpenter?

The real competition on the left cornerback side is for second on the depth chart. Grant Crunkleton started out as the backup this spring, but in the last several practices, that role has been filled by first year walk-on Pierre Singfield. For someone who has been in the program for two years, and played under this staff for a full year, Crunkleton has not improved enough. We're not writing Crunkleton off, as he looked quite good through a large part of camp last year, but Singfield has been more impressive in the spring, made more plays, and with his size, at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, he's bigger and more physical than Crunkleton, and probably as fast.

Quite honestly, we're relatively shocked that Singfield did not pick up any scholarship offers coming out of Pima Community College. He's a steal for ASU as a walk-on. With his size, he also has the ability to play as a nickel, and when Holman was out of action due to back problems on Thursday, Singfield stepped into the first-team role at the position for the workout.

The biggest question though is who will play the majority of the team's snaps opposite Bolden. Travis Smith started out atop the depth chart in the spring but he's been passed by newcomer and mid-year JUCO transfer Terell Carr in recent days. We're calling this competition even thus far.

Both players have had good days and not-so-good days. Smith has nice length and recovery speed, and he's more technically proficient and better at the line of scrimmage as of now. Carr is faster and quicker with ball skills that are on part or better than Smith. He's not as big, but he has appeared to be a sure-tackler. Carr may have a higher ceiling but he's prone to making more mistakes at this juncture than Smith. This battle will almost certainly go into summer camp and perhaps beyond.

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