ASU Football 2012 Breakout Candidate: Linebacker Kipeli Koniseti

Every defense needs an intimidator. A presence that puts fear and trepidation into an offense. A player that can dish out the crushing hits that will still be felt a week later.

For Arizona State, that role was supposed to be filled by Vontaze Burfict over the last two seasons, but for the most part, the Sun Devil defense lacked that ferocious element in 2011. That void may very well be filled this season by a player who has spent more than enough time waiting in the wings for his chance to wreak havoc on the field.

Junior linebacker Kipeli Kipeli's route to Tempe and the Sun Devil lineup was anything but typical.

Originally a member of ASU's 2009 recruiting class, the former California high school championship winning quarterback failed to qualify in time. He then embarked on a junior college career that took him to the College of the Sequoia's, where he played quarterback and outside linebacker.

Despite the long and winding road, ASU never lost sight of Koniseti. Finally, things fell in place and he finally joined the program last season.

He had finally arrived in the maroon and gold, but given the team's depth at the linebacker position last season, Koniseti saw scant playing time in 2011. He appeared in nine games and made six total tackles.

Even with his limited action, last season still served as a valuable experience, Koniseti recently told Hod Rabino of DevilsDigest.com,

"Being behind Vontaze (Burfict) was good for me because this was my first whole season of playing middle linebacker and I learned a lot from him. The more reps you get the more you can improve. I didn't get that many reps, but was able to learn the position by watching film and practicing."

That time that Koniseti spent learning now has him prepared for the tremendous opportunity that he now has in front of him.

The tremendous depth the team had last season has vanished, as the Sun Devils lost their top four linebackers from a season ago. While they will be bolstered by the return of Brandon Magee from a season-ending injury, the group presents several unanswered, and critical, questions.

The position is not only dealing with a loss of talent, but they are also learning an entirely new defensive scheme. New head coach Todd Graham and co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph have tossed aside the former bend-but-don't-break scheme of Craig Bray and are implementing an aggressive and attacking scheme for the Sun Devils. One of the core requirements of this scheme are linebackers who are tenacious, versatile and can take the fight to the offense.

That shift in mentality plays right into Koniseti's favor.

Another of his advantages comes in the form of his physique. Many of the other leading players vying for playing time at linebacker are very athletic, but lack the "prototypical" size. Israel Marshall is built like a safety at 6'2", 200 pounds. Brandon Johnson is just as tall and only bit stockier at 207, with Anthony Jones coming in 6'2", 218 pounds. Magee, the group's star, is a compact 5'11" and 230 pounds.

Koniseti sticks out from the group with his NFL linebacker build, standing at a stout 6'3" and 243 pounds. Taking a look at the premier middle linebackers in the NFL, such as Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis, and you immediately see that Koniset fits the physical mold.

He also has the closing speed, tackling ability and instincts to complement his size, making him a great fit in the new scheme. Add to the mix the hunger and desire he has to make up for his lost time during his odyssey to ASU, and the table is set up well for a major impact.

With the new coaching staff, Koniseti's ability now has a clean slate upon which to shine, and thus far, he is doing just that. During the six spring practices already completed, Koniseti has seen extensive time with the first-team defense at the middle linebacker spot, and made many impressive plays, while also becoming a vocal leader on a defense that needs them. While some of that is due to Magee's injury rehabilitation taking it's due course, Koniseti is leaving no doubt that he intends to be in the middle of the linebacker mix.

The competition at the position will ramp up significantly in the fall, when juco transfer Steffon Martin and three incoming prep recruits--Matt Rowe, Carlos Mendoza and Salamo Fiso--join the team.

By that point however, it may be that they will be competing amongst each other to join Koniseti in the starting lineup.

Follow me on Twitter @BDenny29 for the latest on ASU football

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