Largely on the strength of its defensive front, Arizona State ranked 21st in the nation against the run last season, giving up just 116.2 yards per game, including the net 300 yards on the ground given up to Texas in the 2008 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.
From that team, the Sun Devils return three of four defensive line starters, including ends Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez, who combined for 15 sacks and 25 tackles for loss last season.
Davis has been named to the Watch List for the 2008 Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award, following a sophomore campaign that saw him finish third in the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks to go along with 33 tackles, three forced fumbled and one pass breakup.
Having started all 26 games of his Sun Devil career, Davis is one of the most proficient technicians of the game at any position on the roster. The 6-2, 252 pound Phoenix Thunderbird High School product had a fantastic spring and looks to be among the top players at the position in the conference after earning second-team all-league honors a season ago.
There is an economy of movement Davis possesses that makes him as impressive to watch as anyone on the ASU roster. In athletic measurements such as a 40-yard dash or shuttle run or vertical jump, Davis probably isn't among the top ends in the league, but few if any have his combination of footwork, hand speed, understanding of leverage and situational awareness.
Vasquez certainly is no slouch either. He arrived 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.
Both players were extremely solid in the spring, especially Davis, who was arguably the top defensive player on the roster.
The biggest development at end, however, was the strong play of Jamarr Robinson, a 6-2, 245-pounder who is now backing up Davis on the right side after playing linebacker last year. Robinson has good speed and is relentless as a pass rushing threat, with multiple sacks in the final two spring scrimmages.
The Robinson move is another example of this coaching staff's ability to figure out where players can be shifted to in order for them to be more impacting, as they were able to make similar adjustments work with Jon Hargis, Saia Falahola, and Dane Guthrie, among others, last year.
Huge redshirt freshman James Brooks, at 6-5, 283 pounds, has as much talent as any of the ends but he needs to continue to work on technique. He's taller and plays a bit upright, which leads to a loss of leverage and some inconsistency as a result. He came on strong in the spring game, however, with two tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry.
Eric Tanner is coming off a redshirt season post-transfer from Phoenix College. He missed the 2007 season due to a knee injury, but appears ready to resume full contact workouts.
On the inside, the Sun Devils have to replace Michael Marquardt at one spot while David Smith returns for his senior year after starting all 13 games in 2007, registering 22 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one pass break up. In the spring, a polished Smith at times gave centers Thomas Altieri and Garth Gerhart fits.
Smith, 6-3 288 pounds, isn't the biggest or most athletic tackle in the league, but he plays to his potential and is the only guy who appears locked into a starting spot at tackle heading into camp.
The other tackle spot seems somewhat up for grabs between Jonathan English, Falahola, junior college transfer Spencer Gasu and walk-on David Bertrand.
Bertrand transferred into the program from the University of Arizona, and rose from third-team status to start the Spring Game and work with the first unit in the final week. He's a stout 6-1, 283 pounds and very strong, bench pressing over 450 pounds.
Falahola and English each had their moments in the spring, but they will need to elevate their play in order to stave off Gasu.
Falahola, a 6-2, 310 pound sophomore, 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.
English, 5-11, 204 pounds, is in better shape, having lost a reasonable amount of weight 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.
Gasu, a 6-2, 295-pounder who played at Santa Ana Community College, has a chance to earn immediate playing time and possibly even start at a position that overall perhaps leaves the most to be desired of any on the defense in terms of athletic potential.
Two others, Paul 'Unga and Bo Moos could also be in the mix for playing time. 'Unga played in 10 games last season as a reserve and totaled 11 tackles. At 6-3, 270 pounds, he's a swing player who can line up inside or outside. Moos, a 6-0, 285-pounder, looked good at times in the spring coming off a redshirt season.
Even if the group, as currently constituted, plays to its maximum capability, it will probably only be average when compared against other teams in the Pac-10.
There is even an outside a possibility that true freshman Lawrence Guy, a 6-5, 270-pounder out of Las Vegas Western High School, or classmate Otis Jones, a 6-2, 275-pounder out of Lawndale, Calif., Leuzinger High School could factor in the mix for playing time. Both come highly regarded out of high school, especially Guy, who was among the top defensive tackles in the west and a standout performer in the U.S. Army All-American Game earlier this year.
What to watch in Camp:
Davis and Vasquez should be upper level Pac-10 performers this season, but ASU needs them to be able to dominate opponents, which will allow the inside players to be more effective.
Brooks and Robinson are high potential backups so it will be a big boost if they can provide quality depth behind what looks like a defensive strength.
Does Gasu have what it takes to immediately impact the two-deep and perhaps earn a starting nod? That would really be a big lift to the defense.
Can either Guy or Jones earn playing time as a true freshman?
Will there be a surprise performer in camp from an overlooked player at tackle?
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