August 3, 2008

Camp Preview: LB

At linebacker, the Sun Devils return all of their players who saw significant action last season excluding leading tackler Robert James, a mainstay on the weakside in 2007. His vacated position appeared to be among the most contest on the squad, with Ryan McFoy, Oliver Aaron and Colin Parker all getting first-team repetitions in the spring.

Then, the coaching staff appeared to go in a completely different direction, sliding Mike Nixon to first-team status on the weakside late in the spring schedule after he'd spent much of the period as the second-team middle linebacker.

Heading into camp, the school's official depth chart does not reflect the move, but throughout the team's informal workouts in July, Nixon was regularly on the field alongside projected starting middle linebacker Gerald Munns and strongside linebacker Travis Goethel.

Nixon isn't as athletically gifted as several of the other options at the position, and he won't provided the pass rushing ability of James, a very good blitzer who had 2.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss last season, but he's intelligent and extremely steady.

During spring ball, Nixon was simply too good to not have on the field more than as a backup. The 6-3 227-pounder is the oldest player the roster, having spending four years playing minor league baseball before returning to college. He will celebrate his 25th birthday in the middle of the team's summer camp, on August 17th.

More than likely, as long as Munns and Goethel remain healthy, Nixon will be the team's weakside linebacker on non-passing downs at the very least. Last season, Nixon finished fourth on the team with 58 tackles to go along with one sack, four pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.

McFoy and Aaron are excellent athletic specimens who are both more in the mold of what a Dennis Erickson-type team will typically have at its outside linebacker positions, but neither player was consistent enough in the spring to lock down the starting weakside spot.

The 6-2, 214 pound McFoy initially played safety and started as the team's nickel back as a true freshman in 2006 before going through a transition period with a move to linebacker last season. He's gained 15 pounds and looks very quick and increasingly comfortable in the new role, no doubt planning on improving his 15 tackle total from a season ago.

Aaron redshirted last year and was the defensive Scout Team Player of the Year coming out of Gainesville, Fla. He's extremely fast and mobile for a linebacker with a natural playmaking ability and a willingness to hit even though he is undersized at 6-0, 205 pounds.

Parker was among the most pleasant surprises on the entire roster this spring after missing essentially two years due to knee injury. The 6-1, 220-pounder is the most similar weakside linebacker to Nixon. He played with poise, aggression and intelligence in the spring, and was the second most consistent at the position. He also can play on the strongside.

With increasingly difficult assignments due to new zone blitz and coverage schemes built on top of the defensive foundation, steady play is going to be critical when game snaps are awarded at this position.

In the middle, the Sun Devils have a lot of talent, with Munns, Nixon and Morris Wooten all capable. Munns truly came into his own in the spring after battling a sprained knee ligament last season. Though he isn't the most athletic player, his football savvy and playmaking skills are excellent and the 6-4, 238 pound junior could significantly improve on a 2007 campaign in which he had 20 tackles in ten games with one start.

Wooten, 6-1, 235 pounds, started eight games at the position last year after transferring in from Glendale Community College before losing the job late in the season. A hard-hitting player who is most effective in between the tackles, Wooten excels when he plays with poise against the run, allowing the play to develop ahead of him. He displayed a tendency to hurry a bit and as a result would sometimes wind up in the wrong lane coming up against the run.

Against the pass, Wooten was not quite as effective dropping into coverage, and defending in open space, which is an area he attempted to address by slimming down in the off-season. In the team's informal workouts, it appears as though the decision may have worked, as Wooten looked leaner and quicker to the play.

On the strongside, junior-to-be Goethel is the team's leading returning tackler and arguably its best pro prospect among all of the returning linebackers. He had 71 stops last season along with three forced fumbles, three pass break ups and one sack.

At 6-3, 233 pounds, Goethel is the most physically impressive and athletically versatile of the returning linebackers. He is equally adept versus the pass and the run and he's very rangy with the ability to cover bigger receivers and tight ends in space.

Derrall Anderson, 6-1, 222 pounds, could push for playing time at the strongside position after redshirting last year, with Chad Lindsey, Jeff Bereuter and Anthony Reyes also competing on the depth chart at the spot. Lindsey is also a back-up option in the middle.

The Sun Devils are expected to benefit from the arrival of a pair of linebacker teammates from Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. Close friends Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee signed with the program in February. Lyons has the versatility to play either the middle or strong side position, while Magee is viewed as a James-type weak side linebacker who can become a pass rush specialist.

What to watch in camp:

ASU would like to have a dynamic weapon on the weakside, especially as a blitz option. Nixon isn't that type of player. Someone else needs to step up if that role is to be filled. With James departure, ASU may not have a similar pass rushing threat.

New blitzing schemes involve this group both coming after quarterbacks and also in zone underneath coverage and these are perhaps more difficult assignments than was generally the case last year.

McFoy and Aaron have major potential but need to be more reliable with their assignments.

Will any of the younger players surprise and earn playing time?

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