Like most of the Arizona State defense, the linebacker room is defined by age and experience. The veteran trio of Merlin Robertson, Kyle Soelle and Darien Butler are set to start for Antonio Pierce’s defense. All three are in at least their third year in the program.
The linebackers, and the front seven as a whole, figure to be a strength for the Sun Devils in 2021. A key for the group will be minimizing the big play and shortening opponent’s drives.
Last season, ASU ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, while somehow ranking 9th in both rushing and passing defense. Long drives, even if they don’t result in touchdowns, can be backbreaking for a defense over the course of the game.
When it comes to takeaways, Pierce mentioned the importance of the linebackers forcing the envelope and creating loose and tipped balls. The Sun Devil backers will look to improve pedestrian takeaway turnover numbers
Arizona State will employ a 4-3 defense for the majority of its snaps. When they do shuffle to a 4-2-5 set, Butler and Soelle will likely be the lone backers on the field. A defense that prides itself on stopping the run, the 4-2-5 sets will test this prowess. Butler and Soelle will be tasked with filling gaps that may be left open with an extra man in the secondary.
In 2020, Soelle led the group with 14 solo tackles, while Robertson and Butler tallied 10 and nine, respectively. Even in a four game season, those numbers are below what the linebackers would like to see. While a strong defensive line accounts for some of that, the loss of Jermayne Lole in the middle should give the LBs more opportunities to plug gaps and stuff the run.
In addition to the starting trio, redshirt freshman Jordan Banks has been opening eyes with his performance in camp. The Harbor City, California native checks in at 6”1’, 245 pounds, and will see the lion’s share of second string snaps when needed.
Fellow redshirt freshmen Will Shaffer and Caleb McCullough have also seen an increased role and are impressing Defensive line/linebackers coach Robert Rodriguez. While a revolving door type rotation is not in the cards for this year’s defense, a surplus of game ready talent will be ready to step in if the group deals with injuries or matchup issues.
Pass coverage has been a bit of a hole in recent years for the Arizona State linebackers. This season, speed and agility are on display for the group, specifically Soelle and Butler. Look for those two, along with Robertson at times, to be a factor in pass coverage
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