August 10, 2007

Inside Report: Defensive position battles

We're through one full week of Arizona State's Fall Camp and beginning to get a better feel for the defense, which has several new key players, and others who have shifted positions . Here is a breakdown of each defensive position group and an inside report on depth chart battles, including which freshmen have impressed.

Defensive line

We've pointed out that Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez have tremendous foot speed and agility and it's showed on a regular basis since we arrived in the Payson-area. Davis is the most technically impressive player in the group and Vasquez isn't far behind. They are far and away the most complete defensive ends on the roster. With Kellen Mills nursing a mild ankle sprain, Tranell Morant has been consistently working with the second team, primarily behind Vasquez, and he's performed relatively well. He's improved his posture in his stance but still plays a bit upright. We're not sure if Morant has a legitimate shot to push past Vasquez on the depth chart, but at the very least he looks like he'll be a competent reserve. Backing up Davis, Unga has been solid, but he's not as athletic as the other three. Eric Tanner has been out of action, reportedly due to a knee issue.

At tackle, Michael Marquardt and David Smith remain the likely opening game starters. Marquardt has been very solid. He's in better shape physically this year, it seems and looks a bit quicker. Neither will be a big sack-man but if they can occupy their men and allow others to make plays they should be relatively competent. Jon Hargis was given the opportunity to mix in with the first-team a little bit on Thursday and he's held up reasonably well. He's got a bigger frame than most of the other tackles and yet he moves well for his size. Alex Asi has been working on the side due to a knee issue. Tashaka Merriweather has had an opportunity with the second team as times. Zach Niusulu has participated but not particularly stood out.

LB -- The first-team linebacker group is looking increasingly set so long as Robert James is healthy. James and Travis Goethel have flanked Morris Wooten in the middle. These are the three most athletic non-freshmen linebackers on the roster, and the coaching staff is very intent on getting speed in the lineup at every available opportunity. Wooten has had a few technical issues he's been working on after showcasing his impressive presence in the spring. If anyone could push one of the starters right now, it would probably be Gerald Munns at the MIKE position. Munns had been the most consistent second-team performer until he had his foot stepped on and sprained on the last day of practice in Tempe before Camp Tonotozona. With Munns out, and with Jamarr Robinson still on the shelf as he rehabs the knee injury, Chad Lindsey has worked with the second-team at the position. At the SAM, the backup is Ryan McFoy, a player with impressive potential but a lot of work to do to realize it. At the WILL position, Mike Nixon will be the backup. He's extremely smart and has great instincts but lacks the foot speed of those on the first-unit. Freshmen Derrall Anderson and Oliver Aaron have great updside as outside linebackers, but both will likely redshirt.

DB -- There has been more shifting around of depth chart here than anywhere else. Josh Barrett is a lock at one safety spots (most likely free safety) while Justin Tryon appears to be a lock at one cornerback position. Troy Nolan appeared to be a near-lock to start at the strong safety spot but he has a shoulder sprain and is expected to miss the next couple of weeks. When Nolan was in the lineup, Jeremy Payton was working as the first-team nickel back and second-team corner, but that has not consistently been the case with Nolan out. Payton has worked with both the first and second-teams at safety. He's played well wherever he's been. The most common safety twosome with Nolan out has been Barrett and Angelo Fobbs-Valentino. Jarrell Holman has primarily worked as a second-team safety since making the move from cornerback several practices into camp. After one of the biggest hits of camp on Tuesday evening, walk-on Brett Nenebar was given the opportunity to work with the second-team defense at times over the last two days. Rodney Cox has primarily been on the third-team. Putting it all together, it looks like when Nolan returns -- so long as he remains healthy -- Payton will go back to nickel and the battle will be for second-team safety spots, with Fobbs-Valentino and Holman the most likely candidates. However, true freshman Jonathan Clark has moved to safety after struggling a bit at cornerback over the first couple days of camp and it's not inconceivable that he could challenge for a second-team spot and get off the redshirt list.

Grant Crunkleton was the second-team nickel when Nolan was healthy, but he's seemingly shifted back to second-team corner with Payton moving off that spot. Omar Bolden[db] and [db]Chris Baloney split time a little bit at the corner spot opposite Tryon yesterday, but Bolden got most of the reps there. That battle should be expected to continue into the season. Crunkleton is backing up Tryon. Behind the top four of Tryon, Bolden, Baloney and Baloney are Travis Smith and Littrele Jones.

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