August 30, 2008

Season Preview: LB

ASU should have a solid season from its linebackers in 2008, as all of the players who saw significant action return from last season, save Robert James, who was the team's leading tackler and a mainstay on the weak side.

If there is a major concern, it is what the Sun Devils will get at that WILL position. They've been trying to get Ryan McFoy up-to-speed for the last year, as the 6-2, 218-pounder is a speedy athletic specimen who has a chance to be very good as a versatile playmaker.

It seems as though McFoy is slowly winning the battle with himself to be more consistent with his assignments and technically precise. He played very well for the most part in the final two weeks of camp, and finally looks the part of a Pac-10 linebacker.

McFoy will likely share time, at the position, however, with fellow junior Mike Nixon. The 6-3, 227-pounder isn't as athletically inclined as McCoy (or even third-teamer Oliver Aaron) but his knowledge of the game and situational awareness help make up for his lack of elite speed.

Nixon likely won't provided the pass rushing ability of James, a very good blitzer who had 2.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss last season, but he's intelligent and extremely steady. He is the oldest player the roster, having spending four years playing minor league baseball before returning to college. He will celebrate his 25th birthday in the middle of the team's summer camp, on August 17th.

When the team is in its nickel package, it will play McFoy and Nixon on the field together.

On the strongside, junior Travis Goethel is the team's leading returning tackler and arguably its best pro prospect among all of the returning linebackers. He had 71 stops last season along with three forced fumbles, three pass break ups and one sack.

At 6-3, 233 pounds, Goethel is perhaps the most physically impressive and athletically versatile of the returning linebackers, though with McFoy's improved physique, it's now up for debate. Goethel is equally adept versus the pass and the run and he's very rangy with the ability to cover bigger receivers and tight ends in space.

In the middle, 6-4, 238 pound junior Gerald Munns is similar to Nixon in the sense that he's not the most imposing athlete, but has a very good grasp of the defensive concepts. He, as much as anyone on the defense, has a nose for the football and the ability to sniff out plays.

Munns truly came into his own in the spring after battling a sprained knee ligament last season. He wasn't as impressive in fall camp, and appeared to be down on himself at times, but it's primarily because he is his own worst critic, an accountability you'd like to see from more players at this level.

The most interesting development of camp has been the emergence of two true freshmen who played in high school together last season as second-team backups. MIKE Shelly Lyons stepped on camps as one of the most physically impressive linebackers on the team, a 6-2, 225 pound gifted athlete who likes to come up and hit.

Backup SAM Brandon Magee 6-0, 230, is probably gifted enough athletically to play all three of the unit's positions. He's more than likely the fastest linebacker on the team and he, like Lyons, has a joy for making big hits. With Lyons and Magee, it appears to be more a matter of when, than if they will be standouts at this level.

With the emergence of Lyons and Magee, others have fallen a bit by the wayside, though in no way does that mean they don't have a chance to re-emerge as the season progresses.

Chief among that group is Oliver Aaron, who redshirted last year and was the defensive Scout Team Player of the Year coming out of Gainesville, Fla. He's extremely fast and mobile for a linebacker with a natural playmaking ability and a willingness to hit even though he is undersized at 6-0, 200 pounds.

Others like Morris Wooten, Chad Lindsey and Anthony Reyes also have a chance to play roles on the defense as time goes by.

Camp Grade: C+ This group isn't as athletic as we'd like it to be at the top. Watching backups Lyons and Magee make that clear. But those freshmen aren't consistent enough with their assignments to be completely thrown into the fire right away. They have to tempered. Goethel and McFoy have a chance to be standouts and Munns needs to be consistent with his motor. Nixon is an overachiever. Aaron needs to bring his consistency up to match his ethic. The group as a whole still falls a bit short of what we expect from an elite Pac-10 level linebacking corps.

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