April 11, 2008

Mid-spring report: Defensive Line

Here is a comprehensive analysis of how the Arizona State defensive line is performing, and the depth chart is shaping up through the first three weeks of spring football.

Defensive Ends

One of the strongest elements of the returning team is the talent and proven success of its defensive ends, specifically Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez.

As a sophomore last season, Davis expanded on the surprising success he experienced in 2006 as a redshirt freshman. He finished tied with two other players for third in the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks and also had three forced fumbles and 33 total tackles.

Physically, Davis is not nearly as impressive looking as several of the other players at the position group, but his understanding of the position and technical proficiency make him a superior performer. If going up against Davis every day in practice isn't going to get converted defensive tackle Jon Hargis ready to play left tackle at this level, nothing will.

Davis has had an excellent spring, feasting on Hargis' inexperience, but that is nothing you wouldn't expect. He's an honors candidate in the conference and playing like one.

In Vasquez, the Sun Devils have a player who wasn't even at full strength all of last season as he dealt with a high ankle sprain, and yet he tallied 43 tackles, including 11.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. Keep in mind, it was also his first year in the program. He's looked good on the field this spring, but he again tweaked an ankle and has been out of action for a couple of days. If he can remain healthy, he should also be poised for a solid season.

Converted linebacker Jamarr Robinson has backed up Davis on the right side, and been one of the most pleasant surprises of spring ball for ASU's coaches. If sacks and quarterback hurries were tabulated throughout the spring, Robinson may have more than any other player on the Sun Devil defense. As a pass rusher, he's already showing great promise, and technically he's beginning to pick up some of the subtleties that make Davis such a well-rounded player.

Behind Vasquez on the left side is the team's most physically gifted end, James Brooks, who redshirted last season. At 6-foot-4, 283 pounds, Brooks is an athletic specimen to behold, but he's similar to former Sun Devil Tranell Morant in the sense that he plays upright, which negates a lot of that natural ability. He must continue to work on lowering his pad level and playing with better leverage to maximize his athletic talent. It's a work in progress.

Beyond the two-deep, ASU has only walk-ons. In the fall, Eric Tanner will be back in the mix as will 2008 class newcomers, most notably Eugene Germany who can play end or tackle.

Defensive Tackle

David Smith returns for his senior season after starting all 13 games last season and finishing with 22 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, 3.5 of which were sacks. He's played in 37 games in his career, missing just one contest due to injury.

Smith has probably had a lot of fun going up against centers Thomas Altieri and Garth Gerhart in practice every day, because he has frequently abused both players in position drills and full team work.

It's a similar situation to what Dexter Davis is in going up against Hargis every day. Mike Pollak and Brandon Rodd were two veteran, long term starters, and more difficult assignments to go up against every day as a result of their experience. For guys like Altieri and Gerhart, it's just part of the learning process and it will only hasten their development.

Smith is neither the biggest nor most athletic tackle you'll find in the Pac-10, but he probably maximizes his natural talent about as well as any of his peers, and ultimately that's the best compliment you can pay a player and most you can expect from him.

As it stands now, Smith is the only player that looks to have a starting spot relatively locked up heading into summer camp. He has missed the last few practices due to a concussion, and will not be in action Saturday because he has a class, but he should be ready to go for next week.

The spot next to Smith is extremely up for grabs. As it stands now, walk-on David Bertrand may, surprisingly, have the upper hand. Bertrand, a 6-foot-1, 283 pound junior who transferred from the University of Arizona prior to last season, is not dissimilar from Smith in terms of style or substance.

Bertrand is currently listed behind Smith on the depth chart, but in Smith's absence, he has played solidly, and will be in a three-man battle with Jonathan English and Saia Falahola for the first-team spot. One of the things working in Bertrand's favor is his strength. He is said to benchpress 450 pounds.

English is currently atop the depth chart at one position, ahead of Falahola. English has lost a little more weight and his burst off the snap appears to have quickened some. He's now listed at 5-foot-11, 304 pounds. One of just a couple players on the team to see the field as a true freshman last season, English is looking to take his play to the next level as a sophomore in part due to his improved conditioning and added explosiveness.

In Falahola, the Sun Devils have a converted offensive guard who is probably the best athlete currently at the position group. But he hasn't completely acclimated to the position, perhaps due in part to the torn triceps issue, which knocked him out of action last year. He now looks to be nearing complete recovery, so certainly by summer camp, he will be at a legitimate 100 percent.

Other returning players who have a chance to earn a spot on the two-deep are Paul 'Unga, who had 11 tackles last season while playing at end, and Bo Moos, who redshirted as a member of the scout team.

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