December 11, 2008

Season Review: LB

They're not the fastest group, or the biggest, or the most athletic, but Arizona State's linebackers came to play in 2008.

The linebackers always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and were very effective in stopping the run and defending the pass.

They often sparked the Sun Devil defense and they played a big role in ASU's win over Washington that snapped the team's six-game losing streak.

The starting linebackers finished the season ranked first, second and third on the team in tackles and that starting group also accounted for eight interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

The beginning of the season was a little bit of a roller coaster ride for the linebacking corps. It began the year as perhaps the deepest position group on the team, then because of injuries, a suspension and an unusual circumstance in which one linebacker left the team, it found itself very depleted less than a third of the way through the season.

But the linebackers were able to rebound from that and finished the year as one of the most consistent and effective groups on the team.

"We just go out there every week and try to play assignment-sound football," weak-side linebacker Mike Nixon said. "We're not the flashiest guys but we get the job done."

Nixon, a 25-year-old junior, was the leader of the linebackers and finished the season as the team's leading tackler with 90, and had the most interceptions with five.

Nixon isn't the fastest or biggest linebacker on the team, but he makes up for that with his knowledge of the game.

Coach Dennis Erickson called Nixon, "really football smart," and said, "He just makes plays and knows where to be. We know that in practice when we go against him. He'll see our offense and know exactly what we're doing."

Nixon played all 12 games for the Sun Devils and earned honorable mention All Pac-10 honors.

He returned one of his interceptions 45-yards for a touchdown.

The other linebacker who was a staple of the Sun Devils' starting lineup was Travis Goethel.

Goethel started every game on the strong side and was third on the team in tackles to go along with his two picks. He too returned an interception for a score this season.

Goethel is one of those guys who isn't talked about much, but that is because goes out there every game and just does what he is supposed to do.

"It's good that we're not talking about him because that means he is steady," Erickson said of the junior. "He's so consistent. Him and Nixon have been in there every game and have really played very steady. They don't make very many mistakes.

"Travis, he played well. Consistent is the best way to put it."

Morris Wooten was the only senior linebacker who saw any significant playing time in 2008. He started the final eight games of the season after coming back from an early suspension.

Wooten only played in nine games this year, but still finished the season ranked second on the team in tackles. Perhaps his best game of the year came against UCLA, but his 17-tackle performance against the Bruins was overshadowed by the four touchdowns the defense scored in that contest.

Coming into the season, Wooten was primarily known for his run-stopping abilities, but he grew into a solid coverage linebacker which was evidenced by his two interceptions on the year.

Wooten took the starting middle linebacker spot from Gerald Munns, who left the team in late September due to personal reasons. It is not known whether Munns will return to the team in 2009.

Munns was on the roster for ASU's first four games, but only played in three contests. He missed the UNLV game following surgery on a broken pinky finger.

In three games, Munns totaled 16 tackles and one interception.

ASU's future at the linebacker position appears bright.

Two true freshmen, Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee, saw significant playing time in 2008 and are perhaps the two best athletes at the position on the roster.

Lyons and Magee, who were teammates at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., last year, were staples of the second unit and made an immediate impact for the Sun Devils.

Lyons, who played in all 12 games, is a middle linebacker who could play outside as well if needed.

In practice, linebackers' coach and defensive coordinator Craig Bray seemed to demand perfection from Lyons, but that was most certainly because Bray sees Lyons' potential and wants to get everything he can out of the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder.

Lyons finished the season with 36 tackles and could be the Sun Devils' starter in the middle next year.

Magee began the season on a high note recording five tackles against NAU in his first collegiate game, but then suffered a partially torn pectoral muscle just a week and a half later, forcing him to miss four games.

Magee, who can play any linebacker position but was primarily on the strong side with the second unit, never returned to his pre-injury form and finished the year with only 11 tackles.

The Sun Devils' other linebackers who saw playing time were Oliver Aaron, Colin Parker and Ryan McFoy.

McFoy actually started two games as ASU's weak-side linebacker, but then quickly fell on the depth chart and was actually switched to safety midway through the season following injuries to several players.

As McFoy fell on the depth chart, Parker moved up and filled the void. Parker's playing time increased as the season went on and he ended up being a top reserve at both outside positions.

Last spring, Aaron spent some time as the first team's weak-side linebacker, but he didn't come close to cracking the starting rotation this season and actually spent several weeks on the scout team. Aaron's presence was felt the most on special team where he made several huge hits.

Along with Wooten, Anthony Reyes, primarily a special-teamer, was the only senior linebacker on the team.

Derrall Anderson was the most impressive of the full-time scout-team linebackers.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder was moved to the middle late in the season, and appeared to flourish in that role. He could see some game reps there next season.

Grade: B+ This group did the most with the skill set they had. What the Sun Devil linebackers lacked in natural athleticism, they made up for in football smarts and hard work. Coach Bray does a good job of putting his players in spots to make plays and Wooten is the only player of significance leaving this group, so look for the linebackers to have another strong year in 2009.

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