Alden Darby's performance could co a long way in determining how ASU fares in 2012 (Photo: ASU)
Currently, they have been spotlighting the "Most Important Player" for all 12 teams, and on Tuesday it was Arizona State's turn. (It should be noted that they wisely excluded quarterbacks from the mix)
Had Sun Devil fans been polled, their answer likely would have been in lockstep with ESPN's: senior linebacker Brandon Magee. While acknowledging his return from a serious Achilles injury, Mr. Gemmell spotlights Magee's leadership first.
He's a leader. That simple. He talks, the team listens. He says do something, the team does it. A locker room guy like Magee is critical to a team in transition. And right now, the Sun Devils are all about transition.
He is 100% correct. With the losses of leaders such as Omar Bolden and Brock Osweiler, Magee's ability to be rally his teammates and get them to follow his example will critical in the team's chances for success this season.
Magee has the charismatic personality that makes guys around him want to be better in everything they do. His return not only gives the defense a significant boost and a reliable replacement for Burfict, but he brings the on and off-field leadership that was sorely missing.
Again, entirely accurate. Before his injury, Magee was a dynamic playmaker. Many observers of the team even considered him to be a more invaluable piece of the defense than Burfict, who at that time was in the midst of his All-Pac 10 sophomore season.
Last season, his absence due to that season ending injury was damning. It's not hard to think that had a healthy Magee been in the lineup, the late-season slide that the defense suffered would have been mitigated to a large degree.
While Magee is a great pick for the title of "Most Important Player", I offer up another suggestion, not necessarily to replace Magee as the "MIP", but perhaps be a 1A to Magee's 1: safety Alden Darby.
Surprised? Here's why you shouldn't be.
While there can be no doubt as to the impact and importance of Magee's leadership and intangible qualities, his actual on-field performance remains in question. While his prognosis for the season is still to be at or near full-strength, until the games begin it is impossible to know for sure.
During spring practices, he has been understandably limited at times, although he has gradually increased his workload and recently participated in contact drills, which is a fantastic sign. However, those absences from the first-team defense have allowed other players a chance to shine.
Among the beneficiaries is linebacker Kipeli Koniseti, who we recently profiled as a potential breakout star. Koniseti took a long road to ASU, but so far this spring has earned time with the starters. He has NFL-caliber size (6'3", 243 pounds) and has earned high praise for his playmaking ability from the middle linebacker spot. Should Koniseti continue his strong play, he will earn significant playing time this fall, possibly at Magee's expense.
The position will also see the four new recruits come this fall, including juco transfer Steffon Martin who figures to be an immediate contributor. Another juco newcomer, Chris Young, has the size, skills and experience to play both safety and linebacker. If these players can contribute as expected, linebacker goes from a position of worry to one of strength.
The same can not be said for the secondary.
Any fan will tell you it was the disintegration of that unit that was the primary catalyst in ASU's 0-5 finish to the season. After allowing 240 yards-per-game through the air during their 6-2 start, the defense was riddled to the tune of 325 yards-per-game and 12 touchdowns during the losing streak.
One of the reasons for both the success and failure was Darby.
During 2011, he played cornerback, safety and even some linebacker and his playmaking ability and great athleticism shone through in spurts, such as his two-interception game against Oregon State. However, his inconsistency also was on display in moments such as the "3rd and 29" against UCLA.
In a pass-happy conference like the Pac-12, that is going to be a crucial task. Cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor have tremendous talent, but have been hampered by inconsistency throughout their career. The same can be said of fellow safety Keelan Johnson. As mentioned before, Young could see time at safety, but that will be his first FBS-level action.
The unit needs a stabilizing force, and Darby, now a junior, is the player most likely to provide it.
He is the team's top returning tackler, having made 51 stops last season. Darby also finished second on the team interceptions with three, broke up six passes and recovered a fumble.
For all his production potential he brings, Darby has also become a noticeably more vocal leader during the offseason and in spring practices, helping to fill that leadership void left by Bolden. In fact, on his recent appearance on the Speak of the Devils show, Darby was the first name that Bolden spoke of when asked which players are poised to become a breakout star this year.
In the end, the defense's story will come down to two plotlines, one that may be defined by Magee's intangibles and the other by Darby's production.
The front seven of the defense will be tasked with attacking the offense, and they have the talent to do so. The secondary will be tasked with becoming--at worst--an average unit, and they have the talent to do so.
Because if they don't, this season could get messy quickly.
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