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April 3, 2010

Defense extremely impressive in first scrimmage

Following Arizona State's Saturday scrimmage coach Dennis Erickson said he was pleased to see his team complete more passes for touchdowns than it had in a long time. Of course, considering the Sun Devils had just two such completions, with one coming against a blown assignment and the other against a walk-on cornerback, it was a modest improvement at best.

The day's big story, as has been the case in most intra-squad scrimmages over the last several years, was the defense.

But while the outcome may have been familiar, the tenor was somewhat different.

Imagine last year's ASU defense, but faster.

Imagine last year's ASU defense, but harder hitting.

That's what was on display Saturday.

The Sun Devils may have finished first in the Pac-10 in three of four major statistical categories last season, but they weren't as athletic or as punishing as the team on display in front of dozens of fans on a beautiful morning at the Kajikawa Practice Facility Saturday.

Yes, it was impressive.

Linebackers Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel may have surprised some folks -- including us -- with their recent pro day performances, but they are not as athletic as the linebackers who will be replacing them this season.

In Shelly Lyons, Brandon Magee, Anthony Jones, Oliver Aaron and Colin Parker, the Sun Devils have improved speed and quickness.

Safeties Jarrell Holman and Ryan McFoy were not unimpressive in their ability to cover ground or make plays, but the players who will be replacing them are even more capable in that regard.

Keelan Johnson, Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd are looking like a very athletic top trio at the position group, with Matthew Tucker, Shane McCullen and Max Tabach also legitimately in the mix.

Certainly, some perspective is needed. ASU is implementing a new scheme after having a dreadful offense the last couple seasons and that is going to take some time. Additionally, defense is usually ahead of offense early in spring ball or fall camp.

As a result, it's probably a bit premature to call this defense completely dominant, but what we're seeing early this spring is hinting at that possibility.

"I thought it was about what I expected," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "Defensively as we know we're awfully good. We've got depth and we fly around. I thought we tackled extremely well. On the other side of the ball I expected that. First time we've done that type of thing. It's really going to be a good learning process for us with the offense."

Quarterbacks Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler took turns with the first-team and played to about a draw. Some may have scored it a close victory for Threet, others for Osweiler. There was no knockout punch. Threet completely 17 of 25 for 138 yards and a touchdown to receiver George Bell, which came against a walk-on cornerback. Osweiler completed 9 of 14 for 119 yards, a 70-yard touchdown to Jarrid Bryant on a seemingly blown coverage assignment, with one interception.

Defensively, Johnson was the player of the day. He had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown and no fewer than three impressive solo tackles in space, two of which were coming up into the flat on screen passes.

Other defensive players who showed well included cornerbacks Osahon Irabor and Josh Jordan, Edler and Floyd and virtually the entire linebacking corps.

ASU's defensive line was largely held at bay by the offensive front, and the quarterbacks completed a high percentage of their throws, but the vast majority went for very small gains. The two touchdown catches and a 27-yard reception by Kerry Taylor -- also against a walk-on cornerback -- immediately preceding Bell's touchdown accounted for 126 of the 257 passing yards.

The Sun Devils' other 23 receptions went for 131 yards (5.6 yards per reception).

Aaron Pflugrad led the team with six catches, but only totaled 13 yards. On numerous occasions he had the ball on screens or sweeps, but couldn't elude ASU's swarming defense.

With Cameron Marshall held out due to a sore hamstring, ASU gave running backs James Morrison and Marcus Washington all the carries, with Morrison gaining 20 yards on six carries and Washington gaining six yards on eight tries.

"I thought there were some good things we've got to run the ball better," Erickson said. "We've got to look and see why that's happening. A lot of it's because we split the front Our front guys aren't used to taking those big splits and we got a little tight I think."

ASU's defense is capable of doing that to offenses, especially its own. After all, that's who it gets the most cracks at.


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