What a difference a year can make. Last offseason, much of the optimism surrounding the Arizona State Sun Devil football team was based on the extensive veteran experience the team returned.
This year? Not so much.
The losses can be felt strongly in every area on the team except running back and the two kicking spots. Even the coaching staff is all new.
But two spots stand out among the absences: wide receiver and linebacker.
With the departures of Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Mike Willie and George Bell, the Sun Devils are losing two-thirds of last season's receiving yards. Their leading returning receiver, Jamal Miles (60 receptions), does not fit the mold of a true wide receiver, as evidenced by most of his catches coming off of swing passes from the backfield. In fact, the top returning "true" wide receiver is senior Rashad Ross with just 18 receptions.
Yet the situation at linebacker makes wide receiver seem like a group of elder statesmen. Last season's top four linebackers--starters Vontaze Burfict, Colin Parker and Shelly Lyons, and top reserve Oliver Aaron--are all gone. Senior Brandon Magee is the key cog to not just the linebacking corps if not the entire defense, but he missed all of last season due to a torn Achilles, and is still not yet at 100%.
With spring football ready to ramp up in force next week, where should ASU fans place more of their worry?
Thankfully, for as many questions as each group has, they also have a near equal number of talented players.
Ross came on particularly strong down the stretch last season, and has the type of elite deep speed that could create fits for opposing secondaries. Kevin Ozier is a former walk-on who has done nothing but impress during hsi career, and should see plenty of action due to his solid all-around game. Juco transfer Alonzo Agwuenu is a more polished product that figures to challenge for a starting spot come fall.
Beyond Magee, the closest thing to a certainty is juco linebacker Steffon Martin. Arriving this fall, Martin is coming off a dominant season and his NFL-caliber tangibles (6'2", 225 pounds, 4.5 speed) should find him a starting spot. That leaves a lot of players tagged with the dreaded "P" word: potential.
Kipeli Koniseti has the size (6'3", 243 pounds) and skills to make an immediate impact after a long road to ASU. Anthony Jones and Israel Marshall are two incredibly athletic players who have a great opportunity to make a statement this spring. Brandon Jones saw some action last season, and Carl Bradford could become a fearsome stand-up pass rusher from the spot when he is not playing defensive end. The situation becomes more crowded this fall when three members of the 2012 recruiting class--Matt Rowe, Carlos Mendoze and Salamo Fiso--arrive on campus.
Beyond the talent, scheme plays a major role.
The Sun Devils' new offense last season was a pass-heavy attack that featured three and four-wide sets constantly. This year, the focus will return to the running game, with a lot of two-back sets with tight ends playing a more prominent role. The passing game will be built off of play-action passes and will strike downfield with greater frequency than in previous years. With a new starting quarterback in place, finding consistent wide receivers will be critical in making this transition.
On defense, the mindset shifts from a bend-but-don't-break 4-3 scheme to one featuring multiple sets and an emphasis on attacking offenses. In these cases, a premium is placed on versatile and athletic linebackers who can cover a lot of ground and make plays sideline-to-sideline. The Sun Devils will also blitz from the linebacker spot much more than in the past.
While the talent of the players in both positions could ultimately lead to one or both areas becoming areas of strength come fall, the sheer number of questions surrounding the unproven players and new schemes is immense.
However, for the wide receivers, they will not be the focal point of the offensive attack, whereas the linebacking corps will be the tip of the pitchfork for the Sun Devil defense. While both groups will warrant serious and long looks from coaches, players and fans over the next several months, it is indeed linebacker spot that takes the title of "position most likely to keep the coaching staff up at night".
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