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ASU Football: Defensive notes from Thursday’s practice

Takeaways in the secondary, plus what to do at LB

Zac BonDurant

TEMPE Ariz. - When the team is not dressed in full pads, nobody expects the defense to “win” the day. The Arizona State defense did exactly that in Thursday’s practice.

“Defense got the best of the offense today,” coach Kenny Dillingham said. “We got turnovers today, which I mean, great for us, we got to get turnovers on defense, bad for the offense, so not quite as crisp as I would’ve liked for day two.”

There are six-to-seven starters to replace on the defensive side of the ball for ASU, including the entire starting linebacker group. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward comes to Tempe after leading the dynamic Washington State’s defense in 2022.

Trench warfare

While the defensive line will largely consist of new faces in 2023, the unit is in desperate need of an upgrade after allowing opponents to rush for 200-plus yards on five separate occasions last year.

Defensive line coach Vince Amey and special teams coach Charlie Ragle are tasked with refreshing this year’s group.

Senior Anthonie Cooper leads the returning starters on the defensive line after a 2.5-sack, 22 tackle performance in 2022. Senior Michael Matus will return after suffering a torn ACL last season. Junior BJ Green II, who also has 2.5 sacks last season, looks to make the full-time move to edge-rusher. Sophomore Gharin Stansbury (now wearing No. 49), freshman Robbie Harrison (now wearing No. 4) and senior Dylan Hall are big, physical practice standouts from last season that could make the jump to rotational players this year.

We mentioned Oklahoma-transfer Clayton Smith as a potential immediate impact-starter on Tuesday. That didn’t change on day two. He won back-to-back reps against tackle Emmit Bohle in competition drills. Also off the edge, four-star freshman spring enrollee Ashley Williams (No. 17), who is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, won multiple reps in the same drill.

Other standouts from the trench one-on-one drill were Idaho State-transfer Sam Benjamin, and Wisconsin-transfer Tristan Monday.

Full shift-change at LB

Gone are Kyle Soelle, his brother Connor Soelle, and Merlin Robertson, all of whom were starters last season.

“No question we are a little bit thinner (at linebacker),” Dillingham said. “But those guys are working hard. This system, defensively, plays with a MIKE (linebacker) and a WILL (linebacker), which are played a little bit differently. One guy is in more coverage, one guy is more true run-stopper, old-school MIKE, though not ‘traditional’ old-school, in today’s age you still have to cover, but a little more traditional. I think we’re getting better at that spot.”

Ward brought A.J. Cooper, his linebackers coach at Wazzu, to ASU. Transfer-linebacker Travion Brown joined them, and has already been seen as a vocal leader in the linebacker room.

“(Brown has) done a great job of coming in and kind of being the guy who kind of knows (the defense) already,” Dillingham said. “He already knows 85% of it, so he can come in and help get guys lined up and be that communication piece, that ‘coach on the field’ when he’s out there.”

Junior linebacker Will Shaffer (now wearing No. 8) returns to spring practice five pounds heavier and with a noticeably different frame from last season. Shaffer stood-out Thursday when he tightly defended tight end Jalin Conyers in pass-coverage during high-pressure one-on-ones.

Krew Jackson and Tate Romney lead the transfer-names, while Caleb McCullough and Zach Bowers received meaningful snaps in practice last season

Familiarity at DB

Jordan Clark will play safety/nickel. Ro Torrance will start at cornerback. Chris Edmonds will be on the field in a safety spot. Those are pretty much undeniable.

That leaves the No. 2 corner and a rotational safety as the clear spots left at defensive back, plus the rotational depth that will inevitably be needed as depth in DB-heavy packages and with injuries.

Corners Macen Williams, Ed Woods and Isaiah Johnson both received meaningful snaps in games last season, with Woods receiving multiple starts at outside corner. Williams’ 5-foot-11-inch frame is more optimal for nickel. His speed makes him a competitor in the slot. Johnson is one of the highest-ranked recruits on the team, but is yet to break into the lineup consistently.

Safety Alijah Gammage was awarded a scholarship last season, and he recorded an interception in practice Thursday.

Shemari Simmons was a standout-defensive back in junior-college for two years before transferring to Austin Peay, where he played in 16 games in two years. In 2022, Simmons intercepted three passes and two pass breakups, securing himself a All-ASUN Conference Award. He will fight for a corner spot.

Xavion Alford received playing time as a true freshman at Texas in 2020 before transferring to USC in 2021.

Alford played in 11 games (two starts) at USC as a safety and on special teams in 2021, collecting a team-high three interceptions — two of which came against ASU — along with three pass-breakups. He did not appear in 2022 due to a medical procedure.

Notes from the other side of the ball

  • Tuesday’s skill player of the day was wide receiver Xavier Guillory. Thursday’s offensive MVP was another receiver, Colorado State-transfer Melquan Stovall. Stovall recorded two deep catches in team drills, and won his one-on-one matchup against Edmonds. A 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound receiver, he combined for 1,170 yards and a touchdown on 121 receptions in four seasons at Nevada and Colorado State.
  • Offensive lineman Joey Ramos is back to true form after missing most of last season with an ankle injury. Ramos started at right tackle for an injured Des Holmes last year against Northern Arizona, but he was seen playing center and guard during drills Thursday. He was noticeably sturdy against multiple different ASU defensive linemen.
  • The play of the day came in-between practice segments. Dillingham started a 15-second clock, and the field-goal kicking unit, no matter where they were on the two-field practice facility, had to sprint to the far side to set up a mock hurry-up field-goal attempt. With one second left on the clock, the 11 players were set in time for Cal-transfer Dario Longhetto to drill a 40-plus yarder at the buzzer. Longhetto went 4-for-5 on the day.