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November 26, 2010

Senior defensive players look to finish strong

In football, teams are often only as strong as their depth.

With injuries an all-too-common part of the sport, units that can continue to thrive when top players go down tend to find success.

Arizona State fans will say goodbye Friday to a collection of senior defenders who have helped provide the depth that has made the Sun Devil defense among the tops in the Pac-10 the past few seasons.

Safety Max Tabach, a local product out of Scottsdale Saguaro High who began his college career at Glendale Community College, has saved his best performance for his final season as a Sun Devil. Injuries have kept Tabach mired at the bottom of the depth chart for much of his ASU career, but this season, playing as healthy as he ever has, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound defensive back has been one the team's most consistent performers. Tabach is second on the team in tackles with 56, and he recorded his first career interception in ASU's season opener against Portland State. He also has a sack.

Though he is not the outspoken type, Tabach has become a leader for young players on the defense.

"I try to help the young guys whenever I can," he said. "I know when I first got here (former ASU safety) Troy Nolan was a big help to me, so I try to help however I can. They definitely look like they'll be a force to be reckoned with next year."

The performance he has turned in this season makes one wonder what Tabach could have accomplished had he not been injured for much of his career, but the safety said he isn't soured on the past.

"It's definitely frustrating, but I'm not going to sit here and whine about it," he said. "It is what it is. Who knows what I could have done with an extra year, I've just got to focus on these next two games that are guaranteed."

Another senior who has been aided the team's depth is defensive tackle Saia Falahola. The Euless, Texas product who attended the same high school as former ASU running back Dimitri Nance has been a steady force along the defensive fron the past two seasons. With defensive coordinator Craig Bray constantly rotating fresh bodies along the front line, Falahola's consistency has been welcomed.

Standing on the practice field following one of his final practices, he said it's hard to believe his college journey as nearly reached its end.

"It's really coming down to it," Falahola said. "It hasn't really filled my head, but it's slowly creeping in."

There was an adjustment period to go through for Falahola when he arrived at ASU, because as an all-state guard in high school said he hadn't played defensive since middle school.

"When I came up here it was all new to me, so basically I was playing all on ability and skill," Falahola said. "As soon as you start becoming more aware of what you need to do at your position, you become a better player."

As is the case with many defensive tackles, Falahola's stats (11 tackles on the season) don't the full story of his contribution. It is often his job to draw double teams, allowing one of ASU's talented linebackers to roam free and make plays. It is frequently a thankless job, but work Falahola enjoys.

"With defensive tackle, it kind of reminds me of my O-lineman days," he said. "Just being a hog and grinding it out. What that means to the team, it's just an unselfish mentality, working down in the trenches just to let the guy behind you run 10 or 20 extra yards. (As a defensive tackle), it's taking up two blockers to let Vontaze (Burfict) and Shelly (Lyons) and guys like that to run around and make plays."

LeQuan Lewis, like Falahola, prides himself on doing the dirty work necessary to help his team win. In his two years at ASU after transferring in from Cerritos (Calif.) College, Lewis has gone from playing cornerback to wide receiver back to corner, where he has come into his own in the latter part of the season.

He has made perhaps his biggest mark on special teams, where his average of 29.4 yards per return is fifth in the nation. His 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown against USC tied a school record and helped ASU turn the momentum late in an eventual losing effort.

"It's been a lot of fun," Lewis said. "I just want to keep playing and get in this bowl game. But it's been awesome. I haven't had too much playing time, but I've made the most of it."

With the obstacles Lewis said he had to overcome on his journey to ASU, he has remained perpetually positive even when he hasn't been on the field.

"I had a tough road to get to where I am now," he said. "Just being humble, and being a changed person through what I've been through … being able to not only be a student but be able to play football has been my motivation."


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