August 16, 2006

Tontozona Review: Defense

The Sun Devils are back from Camp Tontozona, where they displayed the makings of a much-improved defense. Here is a position-by-position review of how they looked and where they stand heading into the final Camp scrimmage at Sun Devil Stadium on Friday.

Defensive Line

If there was just one thing that became very clear to us in the last week of Arizona State's fall camp, it is this: The defensive line has much more talent on hand and should be extremely improved in the 2006 campaign so long as it is healthy.

Kyle Caldwell appears to be in good shape physically and he's more active and consistently productive than any time we've seen in the last year and a half or longer. David Smith and Will Kofe are improved, as is reserve tackle Shannon Jones and Division I transfer Michael Marquardt will be a key addition. He's looked very solid throughout camp.

At the end spots, Tranell Morant is beginning to come on strong and he's been lining up opposite Caldwell with the first-team in recent days. His battles with Andrew Carnahan have been interesting and exciting to follow.

Other defensive ends like Dexter Davis and Kellen Mills have played well in camp, giving this group strong depth.

And on top of all of that, the guy who may be the team's most physically gifted defensive end, Loren Howard is said to be about a week away from practicing as he recovers from a quad strain.

ASU will certainly be better and deeper here and that will translate to the rest of the overall defensive unit. Last season we saw defensive coordinator Bill Miller have to put together unique blitzing schemes like moving Dale Robinson up in order to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There won't be a need this year and that will take a load off the other players in the back seven.

Linebacker

You can sum up the Sun Devils' linebacking corps. in two words: Inexperienced and talented.

The MIKE position appears to be in the strong shape with two of the oldest players on the team, senior Beau Manutai and 22-year old walk-on freshman Mike Nixon playing well in camp. Manutai looks to be in better shape physically, having lost perhaps 10 pounds. He's still coming up and hitting and aggressively impacting the run defense, but he's also doing much better in coverage than last season, Nixon is a cerebral player with intensity, a great ethic and a mental approach and comprehension far beyond most freshmen. He's also physically mature despite not being really big size-wise and he likes to hit.

At the strongside position, true freshman Gerald Munns has impressed us more than we'd imagine heading into camp. We initially suspected he'd be best-suited for the MIKE spot and that still may be the case but he moved very well laterally, covers a lot of ground and has a real presence on the field. He may make some mistakes as inexperienced players do, but he's ultra-talented and physically and mentally mature. Garrett Judah is battling Munns on the depth chart and he also passes the eyeball test with a nice, long and lean frame. He's still picking up the nuances of the defense but he's quite talented and moves very well.

The anticipated starter at the weakside position, Robert James has missed the last week with a hamstring issue. He's doing a lot of running work on the side. Initially, true freshman Travis Goethel had replaced him with the first-string, but then Goethel got dinged up in the team's Saturday scrimmage and been running in an orange jersey every since.

As a result, the third-team WILL, Derron Ware has been playing a ton of reps and he's held up to the challenge quite well. In fact, we think Ware is one of the most improved players on the entire roster. He's physically in much better shape than his initial camp last season and he's mentally more in tuned to what's going on; both are very good signs. He'll be competent if called upon.

If there is a guy who has underperformed relative to expectations to this point by our judgment, it would be Chad Lindsey, but by no means are we counting him out. Rather, we're just pointing out that while big things were hoped for him this season, it doesn't appear to have completely clicked to this point.

Safeties

By far, the most solid position group on the defense is at safety where Zach Catanese and Josh Barrett are setting the tone for the entire unit. This may prove to be the best starting tandem at safety of any team in the Pac-10 as it combines Catanese's ball-hawkish abilities with the stunning athleticism of Barrett, who appears more and more willing to hit and mix it up now that his shoulder injuries are long behind him.

Many players are vying for the second team spots behind these clear-cut starters and the two most impressive to us have been starting nickel back Jeremy Payton and true freshman Ryan McFoy. Payton had one of the two top hits in he scrimmage on Saturday and he's very rangy and versatile, with an improving understanding of the position. McFoy is mature beyond his years and always seems to be around the ball making plays. He was significantly under recruited and may prove to be the steal of the class several years down the road.

Rodney Cox, Troy Nolan and Angelo Fobbs-Valentino are all in the mix for second-team status and have received such a designation at various points throughout the fall camp. They have all had their moments but overall, not been as consistently impressive as those we've mentioned before them.

Cornerback

The biggest revelation of camp on the defense thus far has been the play of Justin Tryon, who has to be considered the best cornerback on the roster at this point. He's only 5-foot-9 but very well put together and a bull physically. He never takes a play off even in practice and has broken up more balls by himself than the entire group did in camp last years.

His starting position-mate will probably be Keno Walter-White, who appears to be injury free. He's a great looking athlete with a 7-foot high jump and nice length for the position. As long as he's healthy, Walter-White can be a standout here and we expect he and Tryon to make the position much improved.

The third best cornerback on the roster is two-way player Rudy Burgess in our opinion. He's played with the defense the last few days and looked great doing so.

JUCO transfer Chris Baloney, injury-plagued Chad Green and redshirt freshmen Grant Crunkleton and Travis Smith have all looked good at times. Smith in particular appears to be much improved. Baloney is a great athlete with nice length and versatility.


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