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September 21, 2011

Defense working to overcome injuries

Arizona State defensive coordinator Craig Bray doesn't mince words.

If he wanted, he could surely tap into his vast knowledge to polish the proverbial, eh, lincoln log that is another injury to his unit. He could talk about scheme adjustments, or the upside of players stepping in to fill the void.

But for a candid man, it's difficult to sugar coat such a bitter state of affairs.

"We've had a lot of big injuries," Bray said. "We have had (senior cornerback) Omar (Bolden). We had (senior linebacker) Brandon (Magee). Now we have (sophomore defensive end) Junior Onyeali. It hurts, a lot."

Yes it's obvious, the loss of Onyeali, far and away the team's best pass rusher, appears to be another devastating blow to a unit looking to shore up it pass defense from 2010, the relative weak spot compared to its dominant run defense last season.

What's the impact of losing your best pass rush end, and arguably your best blitzing linebacker and cornerback?

It's hard to say. Any attempt would be wild speculation.

But there is last Saturday. It should give Sun Devil faithful hope, if not measured optimism.

Excluding penalties and the Fightin' Illini's kneel-down possession at the end of the game, the Sun Devils held the Illinois offense to 132 yards on its last 37 plays.

That's 3.5 yards a play.

For those who continue to underestimate the Illinois offense, consider that the Sun Devils' second half performance was better than what the No. 2 ranked Ohio State defense did last year in Champaign.

"We started kind of slow," junior defensive tackle Corey Adams said. "They got that touchdown and that was a wake-up. This week we're definitely going to come out and play the kind of defense we're supposed to play. It was just figuring out their scheme, shutting down the run and the secondary coming in clutch."

Adams, along with sophomore William Sutton and senior Bo Moos, helped shut down a vaunted interior running game that utilized a strong lead blocker and a big, powerful running back. On the outside, junior end Gregory Smith and sophomore Davon Coleman (in place of Onyeali), held contain lanes and kept the squeeze on dual-threat Nathan Scheelhaase, holding him to a measly 3.7 yards a carry.

"We did good," Coleman said. "But I still feel we have areas we need to improve in to be a great defense instead of being good."

It's interesting to note that Coleman's response to the question was reflexive and did not sound a bit rehearsed. The Sun Devils defense hasn't lowered the bar on its expectations one bit.

"We all expect injuries to happen," Adams said. "This is a contact sport and it's going to happen. Speaking from experience, it's tough. That's what depth is for. That's why we have second depth and third depth."

Much of the depth behind Bolden at cornerback was known. Sophomore Osahon Irabor, junior Deveron Carr and sophomore Alden Darby have demonstrated either in games or long stretches of camp that they're more than capable of playing at a high level. And even though the group has had breakdowns and tackling issues in three games, it's hard to imagine their performance not improving as the season wears on, based one what they've shown in the past.

What has now seemed to become a known known is the play at linebacker, where senior Colin Parker has perhaps been not just the defense's most consistent performer, but the team's. The abilities of seniors Shelly Lyons and Oliver Aaron seem to compliment each other.

Heading into Saturday, the depth behind Onyeali and the overall ability of the defensive line appeared to be the one known unknown.

If Adams and Smith can play at the same level they did Saturday, the wealth of appreciation from the Sun Devil nation will be hard to ignore.

As for Coleman, the assessment of his first game was positive.

"He can run," Erickson said. "He is everything that we thought, he is just kind of learning to play the position."

Despite occasionally getting out of position and not sticking to his gap assignment, Coleman had seven tackles in what essentially amounted to his first start.

"He is getting better every week," Bray said. "He is a new guy. They all make mistakes.

"(He's had) to learn a whole new system. He's doing good. He makes a few mental errors each game, hopefully none of them hurt us."

This week, the Sun Devils face a brand new kind of challenge: an NFL-style quarterback with NFL-caliber receivers.

It's likely to elicit a new approach from the defense, one that could provide a verdict of sorts on its overall ability (given what it has shown against a run-based team).

"You know, in the past two weeks we've really had to deal with active quarterbacks and it has really made us tentative as a defensive line," Adams said.

In its first test against a standing target, and without its best edge rusher, both the Sun Devils strategy and physical performance will be must watch.


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