While Arizona State's last head coach, Dennis Erickson, had an offensive background, new coach Todd Graham's specialty is defense. Last season, ASU focused on using a traditional base 4-3 defense, bringing them great success for eight weeks in which they started the season 6-2. Unfortunately, as we all remember, things then took a severe turn for the worse.
Washington State's backup QB Connor Holliday threw for 494 yards, and that unusually poor effort became the norm. The problem was ASU's inability to get after opposing quarterbacks. With a renewed focus on the blitz and showing different defensive schemes, that issue should no longer exist.
It's no secret: we expect defensive coordinator Paul Randolph to dial up the blitz early and often.
Putting pressure on the quarterbacks does leave the secondary vulnerable, but also means they do not have to chase receivers around as long. Arizona State's new 3-3-5 scheme should lead to at least four or five defenders attacking regularly.
"For everybody on the defense we are very explosive and we like to attack the offense, we don't like them to dictate the game, we want to take control of the game," linebacker Brandon Magee said.
After being forced to sit out last season with an Achilles injury, Magee gained some insight from the sidelines.
"I learned how to stay positive and always keep pushing," Magee said. "I learned how leadership plays a big role between wins and losses, so does effort."
2012 ASU Season Preview
Magee's recovery has not been easy, being forced to do major rehabilitation. Throughout spring camp his participation was limited, yet now appears to be 100 percent.
"Zero limitations and honestly I have not even thought about my Achilles," Magee said. "So I am running around like I was before I got hurt, feels good."
The talent Magee posses is known beyond the confines of Sun Devil country, being placed on the pre-season watch list for the Dick Butkus award (nations best linebacker.) Despite this honor, Magee has bigger goals in mind.
"The honor meant a lot, but I am not really worried about the awards," Magee said. "I just want to get a team championship...and help my teammates improve."
ASU fans know they can count on Magee, but have questions about the supporting cast around him. Magee took the time to help us break down some key members of ASU's linebacker corps.
Kipeli Koniseti "That guy is an NFL prototype line backer."
Koniseti stands it at 6'3" and 244 pounds, proving Magee right. His frame is definitely ideal fit to play on Sundays. This season will be Koniseti's first as a key contributor to the defense. Last year he was mainly a special teamer, recording his first tackle in the blackout victory over #19 Missouri Tigers.
From being around Koniseti, I can tell you he is one of the most intense people I have ever met. Koniseti's work ethic is outstanding, possessing an extreme desire to do whatever it takes to win. He is fast enough to cover sideline-to-sideline but also strong enough to deliver prime time hits. Amongst ASU's linebackers, Koniseti may be the most athletic. What does this mean on the depth chart? Magee and Bradford are inked as starters; Koniseti will be in the mix with Steffon Martin to land the 3rd starting linebacker position.
Bradford is only a redshirt sophomore, has only started one game and is undersized for a linebacker. So what is the hype all about? His debut with the 1st teamers was solid, making his first start in the bowl game versus 6th-ranked Boise State. Coach Todd Graham will be blitzing Bradford a lot; his speed is a very tough assignment for any tackle. As a former fullback, Bradford has a nose to find the ball and make game changing plays.
Last year Bradford collected 12 tackles with 3.5 for loss and one sack. I would not be shocked if those tackle numbers quadrupled while possibly leading the team in defense. His physical, aggressive brand of football suits Graham perfectly.
Grandville Taylor "Continues to get better everyday"
Although Taylor does not have the most prominent role, he still makes a conscious effort to improve. Taylor is currently Magee's back up, soaking up all the knowledge the wily veteran has to offer. According to the official ASU athletics website, Taylor is "Solid tackler and works well in space...can read linemen and fill his gaps adequately...uses good leverage when going against bigger linemen and can deliver a blow to oncoming running backs or returners."
All camp long, every coach has raved about Steffon Martin. Some have even hinted that he is not only going to start, but also may be the best player on this defense. The 6'2" tall, 230 pound JUCO transfer from Arizona Western College earned an abundance of awards for his superb play. Rivals rated him as the 3rd best junior college linebacker, after recording 108 tackles with 17 of going for negative yardage.
With 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, Martin is quick enough to play wide receiver, making him a physical freak of nature. Martin earned a spot on First-Team All Arizona Community College Athletic Conference and All-Western States Football selections. Recruiting wise, there were plenty of teams chasing his services including Ohio State, Arkansas, Texas A&M and more. Many experts compare him to Vontaze Burfict, minus the bad attitude and lack of discipline.
Brandon Johnson "One of the smartest linebackers on our team"
Special teamers are not talked about around the water cooler, but are vital to win football games. Johnson has garnered plenty of respect from his teammates based on doing the little things. His success and hard work doing the under-appreciated things on special teams has given him a legitimate shot to break into the linebacker rotation.
Coach Graham spends tons of time dealing with special teams; having this type of weapon will only make him happier. As a walk on, nothing came easy to Johnson; his true passion for the game is a blessing and sadly a rarity.
Fiso averaged nearly 11 tackles per game in his senior campaign at Polytechnic High School. ASU's limited depth at linebacker could mean Fiso seeing action as a true freshman. At 6'1" 220 pounds, the reports on Fiso praise his ability to cover the entire field.
Mendoza comes from the prestigious Oaks Christian Academy, playing linebacker and running back. The scary part is, he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash -- he could catch up to anyone in the open field. Mendoza's strength is at stopping the run, while he needs to improve in pass coverage.
As Asher Roth would say, "freshman, freshman do something crazy" in this case not a keg stand, rather helps fill the voids when players get tired or injured.
Finally, the end is near, with ASU's Brandon Magee on the hot seat.
Magee is one of the many Centennial alums on the ASU roster, and boy are we thankful to have him. As mom always says, save the best for last. His athleticism is unprecedented, already being drafted three times by MLB teams, recently signing with the Boston Red Sox.
The 2010 season was the last time he has suited up for the Devils due to the Achilles injury; in his junior campaign he had 73 tackles, which were second most on the team. It would not be a stretch to say Magee notches over 100 in the heart of ASU's defense in 2012. Magee is truly a student of the game, unquestionably the leader and defensive signal caller for the Sun Devils.
Across the nation there are players who are more flashy and talented, but Magee's blue-collar play puts him in elite company. Who could not like a guy that has never had alcohol or done drugs? Football has lost role models throughout the years; Magee is the type of guy I would want my kids to look up to.
ASU missed his leadership on the field big time during last years downward slide. Expect Magee to have a tremendous year and carry his talents on to the NFL come this time next year.
That is a wrap for our linebackers breakdown. Among the 1,300 words I wrote, the main one to remember is PRESSURE.