Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
It's all up to the defensive line. The linebacking corps,
despite some huge losses, will be surprisingly solid with Koby
McKinnon returning along with Ben Owens in the middle. The
safeties are tremendous with Tyrell Johnson and Khayyam Burns
each on the fast track to All-Sun Belt honors. The corners are
deep and potentially a major strength of the defense. And then
there's the line, which has to figure out how to get to the
quarterback at some point. The return of Brian Flagg and Brandon
Rollins from injuries will be a huge boost. The 4-3 alignment
works, and it should produce the league's best statistical pass
Brian Flagg, 5
Interceptions: Tyrell Johnson, Koby McKinnon, Dominique
Star of the defense: Senior SS Tyrell Johnson
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
DE Alex Carrington
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Ben Owens
Best pro prospect: Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Johnson, 2) FS Khyyam
Burns, 3) FLB Koby McKinnon
Strength of the defense: Safety, overall pass defense
Weakness of the defense:
Pass rush, backup linebacker
Projected Starters: Defensive tackle will be a little bit of an
issue early on after losing productive playmakers Jamarrow James and
Jeremy Wallace, so it'll be up to senior Curtis Bonds to quickly
play a big role after making 15 tackles and two sacks as a reserve. He's
a tough 6-4, 285-pound veteran who's been a key fill-in when needed, and
now he's a full-timer. Next to him is returning starter Prince
Hickman, a 6-1, 289-pound senior who turned into one of the team's
most active linemen last season making 21 tackles. He's not going to get
into the backfield on a regular basis, but he has the experience to be
the leader of the line and clog things up so others can make plays.
6-5, 267-pound senior Alex Carrington returns at one end
after missing the end of last year hurt. He made 14 tackles in eight
games, but failed to do much to get into the backfield with only one
sack. His size makes him potentially strong against the run, and now he
has to generate more pressure when he gets the chance.
On the other
side, the return of junior Brian Flagg after missing all of last
year hurt is a huge boost from the line. The former linebacker was
supposed to be ready to go after a little bit of time off, but it didn't
happen. Now he's 100% and should the team's premier pass rusher if he
can quickly regain the form that got him five sacks in 2005.
Projected Top Reserves: The loss of Flagg was big,
as was the absence of 6-5, 257-pound senior Brandon Rollins, who
missed all but three games finishing with six tackles. He had academic
problems in 2005 and injury issues last season. Now he'll be a bigger
backup behind Flagg and needs to use his size to be a force against the
Former Arkansas Tech transfer Stanley Wakwe will play behind
Carrington on the other side. At tackle, 283-pound sophomore Khari
Mays is a good-looking prospect behind Bonds on the nose. While he
has to prove he can hold his own on a regular basis, he has the build
and the strength to become a rock against the run. 6-2, 260-pound
redshirt freshman Bryan Hall is a smaller, quicker tackle behind
Watch Out For ... the ends to go from average to
great if Flagg and Rollins play up to their pre-injury potential.
Carrington has to be more of pass rusher, but the size and speed are
there to become dangerous pass rushers.
Strength: Defensive end depth. The injury
nightmare of last year allowed several players to see critical time.
That'll pay off in a huge way this season with a good rotation and
enough possibilities to make end a strength. However ...
Weakness: Sure-thing pass rushing. Flagg is a
terror, but the rest of the line is long on looks and short on backfield
production. Flagg has to be as good as he was before the knee injury and
at least one of the other prospects has to hit the quarterback on a
Outlook: The line was pathetic at getting into the
backfield last season with the team finishing with just 13 sacks and 55
tackles for loss. That should change with most of the banged up players
returning on the ends, but the tackle need to chip in, too. The run
defense could stand to be a bit better, and the size is there to hope
for a big improvement.
Projected Starters: The linebacking corps should be more
than solid even after losing Devrett Wade and Josh Williams. 6-3,
215-pound senior Koby McKinnon is a major-league playmaker on the
strongside finishing third on the team with 57 tackles, three sacks, and
5.5 tackles for loss. He's a do-it-all defender who can hold up well
against the run and cover like a safety, which he used to be, against
6-2, 223-pound junior Ben Owens will take over in the
middle after spending last year as a key reserve making 34 tackles and
two sacks. While he's not Williams, he has tremendous speed and range;
the production won't drop off.
Sophomore Matt Taylor bulked up to
get over 212 pounds, and now the former safety will get a long look on
the weakside. It's asking a lot for him to be Wade, but he'll have
plenty of time to get his feet wet with McKinnon and Owens helping out.
Projected Top Reserves: Redshirt freshman Javon
McKinnon will get every shot to take over the starting job on the
weakside if Taylor isn't up-to-snuff. While only 6-0 and 205 pounds,
he's extremely fast and should be great against the pass.
Greg Hardy saw a little bit of time in ten games last season making
three tackles. He's a smallish 215 pounds, so he has to show he can hold
up on a consistent basis in the middle behind Owens.
The backups won't
likely be solidified until this fall when five key high school recruits
come in along with JUCO transfers Charlton Hankston and Vernon
Catlin. Hankston brings some desperately needed size to the mix at
256 pounds, while Caitlin, a 6-4, 225-pound former wide receiver, brings
Watch Out For ... the newcomers to make a huge splash
in the rotation. Linebacker was a recruiting priority for the coaching
staff, and they got several good prospects. They might play sooner than
Strength: McKinnon. The corps is good, but a
little bit green. McKinnon is the type of player who can make up for
everyone else's mistakes and be the one the rest of the linebackers rely
on for a big play.
Weakness: Experience and size. Unless the JUCO
transfers are big factors from day one, there's almost no size to rely
on with a bunch of former safeties trying to hold up against teams like
Texas and Tennessee early on. Uh oh.
Outlook: You don't get better by losing players
like Wade and Williams, and it might take a month before the right
combination is found, but the cupboard isn't bare of talent. There are
plenty of good athletes that should make up for their mistakes in Sun
Belt play by simply being more athletic than most conference teams.
Projected Starters: The cornerbacks are good, but they can
be better. Senior Montis Harrison returned from a shoulder
problem to regain his form making 18 tackles and an interception. He's
extremely fast with good tackling skills, but he needs to make more big
plays in coverage. Fellow senior Darren Toney has even better
speed having been fast enough to become a sprinter on the track team. He
made three interceptions, 39 tackles and broke up five passes as he grew
into the starter's role as the year went on.
The safeties are among the best in the league. Senior strong safety
Tyrell Johnson and senior free safety Khayyam Burns are each
all-stars who'll be among the team's leading tacklers once again.
Johnson led the team with 63 stops to go along with an interception and
four broken up passes on his way to First Team All-Sun Belt honors. He's
a consistent player who's always on the field starting 34 games with a
whopping 269 career tackles and seven interceptions. There are few
better open-field tacklers in the league. Burns finished second on the
team with 60 stops and led the way with four interceptions and seven
broken up passes. He's a big hitter who makes plays all over the field
with the speed and skill to play either safety spot.
Projected Top Reserves: Along with Harrison and
Toney, junior Dominique Williams can be considered a starting
safety after seeing plenty of time throughout last season making 24
tackles and three interceptions to go along with six broken up passes.
While he's inconsistent, he's aggressive and isn't afraid to go make the
big play. However, he'll get beaten more than Harrison and Toney.
Sophomore Daylan Walker is another veteran corner in the rotation
making six tackles and an interception in a limited role. He's only 5-9
and 166 pounds, but he's quick.
The backup safeties aren't as set with
6-2, 199-pound sophomore Evan Van Dolah, the team's biggest
defensive back, playing behind Burns and redshirt freshman M.D.
Jennings getting his feet wet behind Johnson. Van Dolah's a
phenomenal athlete who can jump out of the stadium and has sub-4.4
speed. Jennings is only 6-0 and 165 pounds, but he's expected to be a
Watch Out For ... the starting foursome to be as good
as any in the league. This group can do it all. Run, hit, pick off
passes, it'll be a shock if this secondary doesn't dominate the weak Sun
Belt passing games.
Strength: Experience. Johnson and Burns have been
around forever, while there are three starting-caliber corners who've
all seen more than enough time to be rock-solid.
Weakness: Backup safety experience. Van Dolah's a
big-time prospect, but he hasn't done much of anything yet. Jennings is
a smallish strong safety who'll have to prove he can hold up.
Outlook: Was the pass defense great because teams
spent so much time running the ball, or was it because no one in the Sun
Belt could throw, or was ASU just that good? All three. All the teams
with decent quarterbacks (SMU, Auburn, Troy) threw without a problem on
the ASU secondary, and all the good passers on this year's schedule will
also throw at will. Everyone else will be shut down.
Projected Starters: Both kickers are back,
for good and bad. Josh Arauco was decent in his freshman year
hitting 12 of 16 field goals, but he doesn't have much of a leg topping
out just over 35 yards. He got three kicks blocked and didn't hit a
field goal longer than 38 yard. Even so, he's reliable. Junior Brent
Shrable is a former linebacker, and he often punted like one
averaging just 38.1 yards per kick. He showed good direction putting 13
inside the 20, but he has to get more hang time and far more blast. The
kick return game was mediocre last season averaging 19.16 yards per try.
Darren Toney was the number two man averaging 21.7 yards, and now
he'll be the main returner. The punt returns were non-existent averaging
just 3.78 yards per return with Kevin Jones averaging 4.2 yards
per try. He'll give it another shot.
Watch Out For ... Shrable to do more. He doesn't have
the biggest leg around, but he's shown the potential of being a whale of
a directional kicker. Experience should mean more consistency.
Strength: Short-range kicking. Shrable should
start putting everything inside the 20 and Arauco is automatic inside 35
yards. While it would be nice to have more overall distance, most
coaches would take ASU's short-range consistency any day of the week.
Weakness: Proven returners. Considering ASU lives
and dies with the running game, field position is everything. Getting
something, anything on returns would be a huge bonus.
Outlook: There's nowhere to go but up on the
return game. The coverage units will be fine and the kicking game won't