August 15, 2008

Bray: Defense 'mentally way ahead' of last year

Arizona State's defense has more than held its own in the vast majority of live 11-on-11 segments of fall camp to this point, a major caveat of course being that top skill players Mike Jones, Chris McGaha, Kyle Williams and Keegan Herring have been limited or held out of numerous practices thus far.

It's difficult at times to get a read on what defensive coordinator Craig Bray genuinely thinks of his group just by watching him coach on the field. He is a craggy sort who, like most good coaches, sees every play for what it is and has no fear of pointing out exactly what went wrong, no matter how minor.

But ask Bray where the defense is at compared to this point last August and his tendency to be brutally honest pays dividends.

"I think mentally we're farther ahead of where we were a year ago," Bray said. "We've got twice as much defense in as we played the whole year last year with. So mentally we're way ahead. Physically, it's like you always are in two-a-days."

Bray's defensive group seemingly had a solid overall performance in the scrimmage Tuesday, and then dominated the live segment Thursday, prompting head coach Dennis Erickson to express displeasure with the offense following the session.

After a closer look, however, Bray said it wasn't as impressive as it appeared.

"It looked [good] on the field, but you go in the film room, and you see we made some awful critical mistakes where if the offense was functioning well it wouldn't have been that pretty. So we have a lot that we need to work on, but that's always going to be the case."

Bray coaches the linebackers, a group that returns three of the top four players from last season, Travis Goethel, Gerald Munns and Mike Nixon. The missing element, WILL Robert James was the team's best blitzer off the edge and coverage player in space.

In the spring, the Sun Devils worked several raw but athletic younger players at the position, but didn't get consistent results, eventually sliding Nixon away from a more ideal position as the MIKE back up to fill the role.

That move appeared to stick initially in camp, but Ryan McFoy handled his second-team reps well and eventually got a shot to play with the first-group, which he's thus-far taken advantage of.

"I think with McFoy turning into a guy we think is going to be a player, it gives us some speed that we wouldn't have if he wasn't in there," Bray said.

Additionally, the group has been fortified by two freshmen who are athletically impressive and physically ready to play now, so long as they can handle their assignments with reliability.

"We've got a young middle backer in Shelly Lyons. If he can learn it he could add a dimension," Bray said. "He's a big, strong kid who really runs well and we didn't have that last year. We've got another freshmen Brandon Magee that's explosive but moving (SAM) Travis out of the lineup will be a hard thing to do."

The difficulty for the staff, Bray said, is managing how much they can get away with allowing athletic freshmen to learn on the job.

"It's hard because you know one thing, when they snap the ball, that everyone has to know what they're doing and if they don't you create big play opportunities for the offense," Bray said. "So that's always the tough part. You know you want to accelerate them into the package but you know you want to go in there on game day and trust that everyone knows what's going on."

In looking at the defense surrounding the position he works with on a daily basis, Bray said that there is room for cautious optimism, though there may be some stumbling blocks along the way.

"We've got a couple young kids we're real excited about," he said. "We've got four or five freshmen who might play for us. We've got more depth at d-line. We've got more depth at corner, we just don't have a (Justin) Tryon lock down guy right. But the depth is pretty good compared to where it was a year ago. Heck, we had one guy last year and that's why Omar (Bolden) had to play (as a true freshman). So we're looking OK."

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