December 21, 2008

Season review: Defensive line

In the recent past, Arizona State had not been known for its outstanding defensive line play.

But in 2007 the front four showed signs of improvement and expectations were high for this group heading into the 2008 season.

It didn't disappoint.

With a mixture of veterans and newcomers, the Sun Devils' defensive front generated pressure on opposing quarterbacks and did a good job stopping the inside rush all season long.

On the ends Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez performed at a high level as expected, but the real surprise came from the play of the defensive tackles. Before the season began, the tackle position was a bit of a question mark but senior David Smith played very well when healthy and Lawrence Guy had arguably the best season ever for a true freshman defensive tackle at ASU.

Davis, a junior, has been one of the most consistent players on the Sun Devils' roster since joining the program in 2005. The right defensive end redshirted during his first season in Tempe, but has been in the starting lineup every game since then and has improved every year.

This season, Davis proved once again that he is the best pass rusher on the team tallying a career and team-high 11 sacks, good for second in the Pac-10.

Davis isn't the most athletic defensive end on the roster, but he is very smart on the football field and has perhaps the best technique on the team.

At left defensive end, Vasquez came into fall camp noticeably bigger and stronger than he was a year ago and it paid off as he was noticeably better despite statistics that sagged a bit behind last year's production.

He finished the season with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss. The senior also forced two fumbles.

The top reserve defensive end this year was redshirt freshman James Brooks.

At six-foot-four, 275 pounds Brooks is very big for a defensive end, but he is incredibly athletic and may have been the most improved player on the team in 2008.

Coach Dennis Erickson admitted he recruited Brooks to come to ASU based on "raw talent" and that former Flagstaff High School star had poor technique when he arrived in Tempe.

But after a year on the scout team, Brooks got his pad level much lower, improved his footwork and hand speed, and as a result had arguably the best fall camp on the team.

Those flashes of brilliance Brooks showed in camp did not translate to game-time success immediately, but he seemed to get more comfortable on the field as the season progressed. He finished the year with one and a half sacks and two pass deflections.

With Vasquez graduating, it appears Brooks will start at left end next season, unless he is pushed by junior college mid-year transfer Dean DeLeone.

Across the line from Brooks, the second team right end was true freshman Jamaar Jarrett.

When fall camp closed, it appeared Jarrett, who was a third stringer at the time, would not see the field in 2008 and use his redshirt season. However, he continued to improve and saw his first game action against Stanford on Sept. 6.

Jarrett only had one sack on the year, but that was because Davis took most of the reps at right end.

The only other defensive end to see any playing time in 2008 was Jamarr Robinson.

Robinson moved from linebacker to defensive end last spring but the transition did not go as well as expected as he saw very limited playing time.

ASU's defensive tackles exceeded everyone's expectations in 2008.

When fall camp closed, Smith, who started every game in 2007, was the only clear-cut starter.

Early on, Smith was putting together a solid senior season before a series of severe stingers kept him out of three games, including the match up with UCLA on Senior Night.

Smith suffered his first stinger against Georgia on Sept. 20, but it was mild. He then suffered three more against Cal, the third of which Smith said felt "like a knife was stuck in my shoulder."

But Smith was determined to play as much as he could in his final season in Tempe, and did manage to start the final game of his college career.

Of the ten true freshmen that saw game action this season, none made a bigger impact than Guy.

Guy began the season as a defensive end with the second team, but was moved inside to tackle because of his size and strength.

After the position switch, it was only a matter of time until the 6-foot-5, 280-pound monster became a starter. Guy was moved into the starting rotation before ASU faced Cal on Oct. 4, and it became obvious that he was the most athletic and most dominant defensive tackle on the team.

He finished the season with 44 tackles, 10 for a loss, and two sacks. He also recovered a fumble that he returned 22 yards for a touchdown.

Guy can still become much more sound in his technique, but despite that shortcoming he was named a Freshman All-American by numerous publications.

Guy took the starting defensive tackle spot from Saia Falahola, a converted offensive lineman.

At 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, Falahola did a good job clogging up the middle when opponents ran the ball.

He lost the starting spot not because of anything he did wrong, but because Guy was simply that impressive at the tackle position.

After Guy became the starter, Falahola, Jonathan English and Paul 'Unga were the primary reserves at defensive tackle.

English, a sophomore, lost about 30 pounds since the 2007 season and was a much more effective defensive tackle this year.

English was listed at 292 pounds this season, but could still afford to continue to reshape his body a bit to become a more explosive player.

English was in the midst of a productive season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against UCLA, ending his season.

At 6-foot-3, 262 pounds, 'Unga is a little undersized for a defensive tackle, but he has a big motor which allowed him to be effective up front.

'Unga, a senior, actually started against UCLA when Smith was sidelined with an injury and recorded his first career touchdown on a 17-yard fumble recovery.

David Bertrand, a spring transfer from UA, saw some limited game action at defensive tackle too.

It appeared the top scout team players at this position were redshirt freshman Bo Moos and true freshman Otis Jones. Either player could earn a spot on the two-deep next season.

Grade: A- Even though four of ASU's top nine defensive linemen were underclassmen in 2008, this group performed as well as any on the team. Needless to say the defensive line has a very bright future. Next year's starting four should be one of the best in the Pac-10 with Davis and Brooks at the ends, and Guy at tackle. Many of the young defensive linemen are much more athletic than any linemen ASU has had in the past, and the Sun Devils have verbal commits from several more talented players at this position.

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