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April 7, 2010Dennis Erickson won two National Championships and went 63-9 in six seasons at the University of Miami (1989-1994), where his teams were known as defensive powerhouses. So when he casually intimated following Tuesday's practice that this year's Arizona State defense could potentially be of that caliber, the significance was not lost on reporters in attendance.
"I thought defensively we just flew around," Erickson said of his film evaluation of Saturday's scrimmage. "We're fast. You can't compare it to anything yet, until we start playing but we've got a chance to be one of the better teams I've had defensively."
It was clear entering the spring that while the Sun Devils were losing all-conference end Dexter Davis, and two of their most cerebral, playmaking linebackers, Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel, they would see an increase in athleticism in the front seven, particularly at linebacker.
What was uncertain was how the defensive backfield would re-group after losing four players who started a majority of games for ASU last season. Saturday's scrimmage put the Sun Devils on a path to giving coaches greater confidence in the secondary.
"Probably the biggest thing that jumped out at me was the play of our safeties," Erickson said. "Run support-wise, the speed of the guys that are playing back there. How they tackled. I don't know that we got that consistent last year."
Sophomore Keelan Johnson was quite possibly the top defensive standout on the day, a continuation of his performance from the spring's outset.
"He's just such an athlete," Erickson said of Johnson. "He's so explosive. He's a 10.7 or 10.6 (seconds) 100 meter guy who's a football player."
Erickson is of the opinion safeties coach Craig Bray's move from linebackers had helped Johnson with the mental aspects of learning the position, which is where he struggled the most in his first two years in Tempe.
"I think I had to sit and red and diagnose the play better than I did last year," Johnson said. "I got in a backpedal and wasn't really sitting and reading. This year I've been sitting and reading, coming up and making more tackles and plays than last year.
"Coach Bray takes time. He's giving us our receiver reads, the line keys, the quarterback reads and just taking time reading the plays."
Johnson said the opportunity to secure a starting spot and be a key figure on a defense with significant potential has made him hungry for the opportunity.
"We had Ryan McFoy and Jarrell Holman, they left this year, so this year I felt there was a spot that needed to be taken," Johnson said. "We've got a lot of young safeties coming in, and I felt it was my time to shine."
Even though the Sun Devils didn't get much done on the ground in the scrimmage, and weren't scoring points all over the place via the air, Erickson said there were some strong positives to take, perhaps none more so than the pass blocking of the team's offensive line.
"We protected better than we've ever protected," Erickson said. "There were some pressures but not very many. I don't know whether that's because we're tired because of the no-huddle stuff, but it's the best I've seen from the protection. There's obviously a lot of things to iron out. We're a long ways away, but I like the progress we're making."
Junior quarterback Samson Szakacsy participated in quarterback drills involving making passes for the first time this spring on Tuesday, albeit into a net, more than into the hands of receivers during team segments of practice.
Szakacsy, who has participated as a quarterback handing the ball off prior to Tuesday, is recovering from shoulder surgery he had in the off-season to address some lingering soreness.