It is obviously a very difficult situation for a college football team when a position's entire starting lineup and key reserves all depart.
When you add in a new coaching staff and a radically new defensive scheme to that element, you have some rocky times ahead with an ever-present danger for disaster.
Welcome to the 2012 Arizona State Sun Devils linebacking corps.
Last season's group of starters--Vontaze Burfict, Colin Parker, Shelly Lyons--and top backup Oliver Aaron have left the program. Their loss takes with them four of the team's top six tacklers, 28 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and eight forced fumble from a year ago. Those are certainly some major production holes to fill.
Much like the situation at wide receiver, so many key departures also mean a wealth of opportunity for players to emerge as spring practice draws near.
With the new defense being installed under defensive coordinator Paul Randolph that, the linebacker position will require fast, aggressive and versatile athletes, which represents a bit of a change from the more passive schemes of recent years.
The addition of two impressive positional coaches in Ron West as inside linebackers coach and Joe Lorig to coach the outside ‘backers bodes well down the stretch, but their immediate challenges are immense.
Let's take a look at the position in three major groups.
The Returning Veterans
The major headline among the linebackers is the return of senior Brandon Magee. The dynamic Magee was overshadowed by the media attention that Burfict drew over the last two years, but Magee may just have been the superior player. Sadly, his 2011 season ended before it began when he ruptured an Achilles tendon in fall camp.
His return is both a major boost both on and off the field. Magee is a fantastic athlete, possessing great speed, hitting ability and range and has a great football IQ. As impressive as his physical abilities are, it is Magee's leadership skills which may prove to be the most advantageous to the entire defense, especially with the loss of a vocal leader like Omar Bolden. His recovery is not yet complete, and his action in the spring may be limited, making it a very interesting situation to monitor [Hear Magee discuss his comeback trail here]
One of the more talked about linebacking prospects coming into 2012 is redshirt sophomore Carl Bradford. A stout 6'0" and 240 pounds, Bradford is a versatile defender who saw action at defensive end last season, and while only making 12 tackles, he made them count by registering 3.5 tackles-for loss and notching 1.5 sacks. He is a high-motor player with good strength, and his ability to make plays in the opponent's backfield fits the mindset of the new defense perfectly. A strong spring showing by Bradford should lead to significant playing time.
Junior Brandon Johnson is the unit's top returning tackler from 2011. However, that only represents 13 tackles. He saw action in all 13 games, and chipped in two fumble recoveries. At 6'2" and 207 pounds, he is a speedy linebacker who has room to bulk up, but could find an expanded role in the scheme due to his athleticism and ability to cover a lot of ground.
The Unknown Talents
ASU has two linebackers that have yet to see any meaningful time, but boast impressive and intriguing skills that now have a chance to shine.
Junior Anthony Jones is an extremely athletic linebacker who has all of the tools in his 6'2", 218-pound frame to be a star, but has yet to deliver upon his potential. He saw action in a backup role in every game a year ago, making six tackles. His vast physical skills should make him a much better fit with the new defense than the previous scheme, and spring practices should provide a terrific showcase.
Another very talented player is Israel "Izzy" Marshall. At 6'2, 200" the redshirt freshman is noted for his ability to range from sideline-to-sideline, and indeed his build is more that of a safety. He is a high-octane player whose tenacious skills and ability to cover a lot of field should get a significant attention from the new coaching staff. However, with no on-field experience at the NCAA level, Marshall will need to step up in spring practices.
Beyond that pair are three linebackers who have a seemingly longer road to playing time, but each has talent, and most importantly, a clean slate with the new coaching staff.
Kipeli Koniseti saw action in nine games last season, and boast NFL-caliber linebacker size at 6'3", 243 pounds. A junior college transfer a year ago, Koniseti has some good tools and an impressive drive, as his lengthy and windy path to ASU illustrates.
Juniors Grandville Taylor and Matt Tucker both saw action in all 13 games a year ago. Tucker saw some action as a defensive reserve and both players contributed on special teams. They most likely project as depth players.
Coming This Fall
The team's need at linebacker was reflected in the 2012 recruiting class, as the Sun Devils signed four talented players.
Headlining the groups is juco transfer Steffon Martin, who should contribute immediately. At 6'3", 240 pounds with 4.5 speed, Martin is a ferocious playmaking presence at the linebacker spot. His sideline-to-sideline range and pass rushing ability should land him a starting job at some point this season--likely sooner rather than later.
Two of ASU's four players from Long Beach Poly in the 2012 class were highly rated linebackers in Matt Rowe and Salamo Fiso. Both are tremendous athletes with great tenacity. Fiso has good coverage ability, while Rowe has the edge as a pass rusher and each should have bright futures.
Carlos Mendoza is a talented pass rushing linebacker. At 6'1", 220 pounds, he has very good athleticism and a skillset that may garner him playing time as a true freshman.
The need for playmaking linebackers will be great in 2012 and there are no guarantees on the roster outside of Magee's leadership ability.
If all goes according to plan, Magee will begin to return to his former playmaking self. The coaches would then hope for that the development of Bradford, Jones and Marshall can hit a growth spurt beginning this spring. If so, the coaching staff can carry some confidence into the fall when Martin and the three high school recruits arrive.
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