August 30, 2008

Season Preview: DL

Arizona State's defensive line hasn't exactly been a team strength historically, but the trend may be headed in the right direction after an improved 2007 season that ASU rank 21st in the nation against the run and start two defensive ends who combined for 15 sacks and 25 tackles for loss.

Three starters return to the defensive line from last season, and there is more quality depth at the group than any season in recent memory, as the group was fortified with strong recruiting additions in the last two cycles.

The defensive end positions are particularly strong, where junior Dexter Davis and senior Luis Vasquez are expected to be among the team's top performers in 2008, and backups James Brooks, a redshirt freshman, and Lawrence Guy, a true freshmen, are extremely gifted athletically.

At right end, Davis didn't have a particularly compelling fall camp (perhaps in part due to the strong play of left tackle Jon Hargis), but he's a proven performer at this level following a sophomore season that saw him finish third in the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks.

Davis has started all 26 games of his career and he's on the Watch List for 2008 Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year after earning second-team all-league honors last season.

The 6-2, 252 pound Phoenix Thunderbird High School product isn't the most athletically impressive specimen on the roster but few if any of his teammates have his combination of footwork, hand speed, understanding of leverage and situational awareness.

Vasquez had a compelling first season in Tempe after a two-year career at Arizona Western College, where he led the nation with 31 sacks from 2005-2006 and would have likely had an even more impressive initial season at ASU had he not played a portion of the season at less than full strength due to a high ankle sprain.

As it was, the 6-3, 260-pounder, who hails from Gales Ferry, Conn., started all 13 games and finished with 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, second only to Davis in both categories on the team. Vasquez is powerful at the point of attack with a good motor and strong hands that seemingly latch onto anything they touch. He's bigger and stronger this year and had a terrific fall camp.

In the spring, one of the big stories at end was the strong play of Jamarr Robinson, a 6-2, 242 pound converted linebacker. Primarily a pass rush threat, Robinson didn't really fall off in the fall as much as Brooks and Guy proved themselves to be too dynamic to leave off the two-deep.

Brooks, 6-4, 270 pounds, dropped over 10 pounds and is quicker, but most impressively he's significantly improved his pad level, playing less upright and using leverage far better than at any point in his career. He's also improved his motor, and is playing at full speed more consistently.

Guy, 6-5, 276 pounds, is just a tremendous natural athlete who, while still in the early stages of learning the position, is so talented that he can't be kept off the field.

At tackle, there is no superstar and maybe not even a star period, but there is one high quality starter, David Smith and a handful other players who should be serviceable, at worst. The key thing with the tackle position is there is pretty good depth, which will allow the team to keep fresh bodies on the field, a large component to having success along the line.

Smith started all 13 games last season, when he had 22 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one pass breakup. He's a steady veteran who understands his assignments and plays hard on every down and does his job by allowing others around him to be playmakers. In the team's key scrimmages of camp, you didn't see offensive linemen get to the second level on the interior largely because of Smith, and linebackers were able to more easily make plays as a result.

The guy who will start next to Smith is Saia Falahola, a 6-2, 304 pound sophomore who was perhaps not completely healthy in the spring, after undergoing an operation to repair a torn tendon in his arm following the season. A former offensive linemen, Falahola was deemed too athletic not to be worked on the defensive side given the roster composition last season, and that move stuck.

Backing up Smith and Falahola are sophomore Jonathan English and senior Paul 'Unga.

English, 6-0, 292 pounds, is in better shape, having lost probably at least 30-40 pounds since he arrived. He's stout and a little more explosive off the football, but now just needs to become more consistent. If he can be disruptive against the run and collapse the pocket, allowing others around him to play more freely, he'll be getting the job done.

'Unga, at 6-3, 262 pounds, is undersized to be playing inside, and he'll primarily be used with the nickel formation, we believe. But he can be disruptive against the pass with the quickness he has inside.

We believe at least one or two others will be a lot of action here, especially junior college transfer Spencer Gasu, a 6-2, 301 pound junior college transfer who is still acclimating to the program and learning to be more consistent with his assignments.

Redshirt freshman Bo Moos impressed us as much as any player at this position during camp. He has a very good motor and is leaner, at 6-0, 282 pounds, making him much quicker (surprisingly so actually) and more explosive.

Camp Grade: B Was is some freakishly amazing performance from this group in camp? No. But how much of that is a product of some measurable improvement and (gasp!) the possibility that the top offensive line unit is actually pretty decent? We'll find out. This group has come a long way in the last couple years and that trend may continue.

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