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Midseason Review - The Sun Devil Defense

After examining the offense and handing out a mix of flattering and near-failing grades last week, it's now time to focus on the defense.

The unit has been ravaged by key injuries on all three levels, starting with cornerback Omar Bolden in April, then linebacker Brandon Magee was lost shortly before the season before defensive end Junior Onyeali went down earliy against Illinois. 

The result has led to a defense that more often than not bends but doesn't break, thanks to a recent explosion in forcing turnovers.

The Stats

Rushing: 60th (149.3 yards per game)

Passing: 62nd (226.4 yards per game)

Total: 59th (375.7 yards per game)

Scoring: Tied for 38th (22.6 points per game)

Key Stat: 20 - The number of turnovers forced by the defense.

Positional Grades

Defensive Line: B

The unit was already playing catch-up after starters Lawrence Guy (NFL Draft) and James Brooks (disciplinary actions that resulted in a transfer) left the team over the offseason with eligibility remaining.  However, it was expected that the return of Will Sutton from academic suspension and another year of experience for reigning conference Defensive Freshman of the Year Junior Onyeali would make up for it. That idea went out the window early in Week 3's game against Illinois, when Onyeali torn the meniscus in his knee and was lost for six weeks.

With those losses in mind, the defensive front has been generally solid.  They've had some tremendous highs, such as their pass rush against Matt Barkley and the dominate performance Jamarr Jarrett was able to have against Oregon State.

However, there have been some troubling issues.  

Sutton has not had nearly the impact that most expected from him (20 tackles, 4.5 for loss), the pass rush has completely disappeared at times, they've struggled mightily against bigger offensive lines and their lack of depth was exposed against Oregon, when the Ducks ran for 296 yards in the second half.

They will get a boost with the return of Onyeali next week against Colorado, but his work will be cut out for him to elevate this unit from slightly above average.

Linebacker: B+

Vontaze Burfict this. Vontaze Burfict that. Rinse and repeat.

That was essentially the gist of the national media's coverage of ASU football over the offseason, and with his inclusion on nearly every pre-season All-American list, the hype for Burfict reached Star Wars: Episode I proportions.

It's not surprising then that many people are labeling his season a bust thus far. His numbers are solid-36 tackles, 5.5 for loss, four sacks and an interception-but he's really been the Sun Devils' third best linebacker this season, as he's yet to have a truly dominate performance.

However, Burfict's "slump" has been offset by the better-than-expected play of his two fellow starting linebackers.

Colin Parker has been the team's quiet assassin, leading the team in tackles with 45 tackles and forcing two fumbles. He will never be a flashy playmaker, but he's the technically sound and stabilizing force the unit needed in the wake of Magee's injury. The best example of this was against Missouri.  While every other player was flying around trying to make highlight-reel tackles-and missing them-Parker was wrapping up Tiger after Tiger on his way to 10 solo tackles.

While Parker has the market cornered on substance, Shelly Lyons has handled the style.

He's been one of the principal catalysts in the defense's turnover surge over the last five games.  On the season, he has two interceptions, a forced fumble and a recovery, and his interception return for a touchdown to ice the win over USC may be the defense's defining moment.  He's also been excellent in pass coverage and has five passes defended, tied for second on the team, to go along with his 29 tackles.

Oliver Aaron has been solid as a reserve, making 26 stops, but beyond him the other backups-Carl Bradford and Anthony Jones-haven't made much of an impact, which is why cornerback Alden Darby has seen time at linebacker.

Secondary: B+

No area has been more ravaged, and not surprisingly more inconsistent, than the secondary. 

As if losing the First Team All-Pac 10 Bolden wasn't enough, the secondary lost cornerback Devan Spann for the season to a shoulder injury before he ever played a down.

Starting cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Oshaon Irabor have, to their credit, improved as the season has progressed. Carr has made several key plays, including a team-high seven passes defended, none bigger than a touchdown-saving deflection against USC.  Irabor has been less impressive, being victimized on several big plays but overall has played better in recent weeks.

Nickelback Alden Darby has been feast or famine, with the feasts having a slight edge thus far. He's made key plays-he's tied for the conference lead in interceptions with three-and shown great versatility, playing cornerback, safety and linebacker, but he's also made several costly mistakes by over-pursuing or being out of position.

The safety duo of Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd has proven to be very solid, if unspectacular.  They generally have played well and been in position to make plays more often than not, as evidenced by their tackle totals (Elder is second on the team with 42, Floyd is fourth with 36).  Floyd has picked up his play considerably from a year ago, and has help lead the recent turnover surge.  He has two interceptions and two forced fumbles thus far.  They've given up some big plays, but by and large, their play has served as a steadying force for the defense.

Kick Returns: A

One of the most consistently excellent aspects of Dennis Erickson's tenure in Tempe has been the return game, and that is no different in 2011. 

That started in the opener, when Jamal Miles took the opening kickoff of the second half 98-yards for a touchdown.  His success prompted many teams to kick away from him, but he's struggled in the last two weeks and his average has dropped from 28.0 to a pedestrian 22.2 yards per return.  Rashad Ross has had some good success on kickoff returns, averaging 26.8 yards on his six returns.

Miles has had great success on punt returns. It was highlighted by a 78-yard touchdown return against Oregon State, and his season average of 19.3 is second best in the nation.

If not for the recent struggles with kickoff returns, this surely would be an A+ grade.

First Half MVP: Shelly Lyons

First Half LVP: Will Sutton

High Point: With less than five minutes left in the third quarter of their critical road game against South division rival Utah, the Sun Devils trailed 14-13 and the Utes had the ball.  Five minutes and 40 seconds later, the defense had forced three turnovers among the next eight Utah plays and ASU was soon to take a 35-14 lead.

Low Point: Early in third quarter, the Sun Devils had limited the Oregon Ducks, the nation's fifth ranked rushing offense, to a mere 37 yards on the ground and only trailed 21-17.  On top of that, Oregon's dangerous quarterback Darron Thomas was knocked out of the game, joining lethal running back LaMichael James on the sideline.  Despite that, the defense was gashed for 296 rushing yards in the half as the Ducks pulled away for the 41-27 win.

Reason for Optimism: The return of Onyeali and maybe...just maybe...Bolden should be a major boost to a unit that is dangerously low on depth.

Reason for Concern: Despite repeated injuries, this unit has held it together for the most part. However, they are one twisted knee away from a total breakdown.