Part I of a two-part look at the players Arizona State loses from the 2012 team and how they will be replaced. Part II will run Wednesday and examine the offense.
Entering the 2012 season, expectations for the Arizona State defense were not particularly high. The unit had lost a number of key talents, including current NFL rookies Omar Bolden and Vontaze Burfict.
But the defense surprised in new coach Todd Graham’s aggressive, attacking system, ranking 27th nationally in total defense and leading the nation in tackles for loss (9.0 per game) and coming in second in sacks (4.0 per game). The group also finished with the nation’s fourth-ranked passing defense and tied for the fourth-most interceptions in the country.
And there’s more good news ahead for the Sun Devils, as they are positioned to be just as good defensively in 2013 despite a few key departures — especially with Will Sutton’s somewhat surprising announcement that he will return for his senior season.
Here we take a look at the players the ASU defense loses from the 2012 team and how they will be replaced.
BRANDON MAGEE, LINEBACKER
After five storied years in Tempe, Brandon Magee’s career in maroon and gold is over. He has said he will pursue a career in professional football rather than baseball, for which he was drafted by and signed with the Boston Red Sox, and he recently received an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine.
Magee was the emotional leader of ASU’s defense in 2012 as well as the brain. Magee called plays on the field and kept the defense in check emotionally, helping to keep penalties and mistakes to an impressive minimum. He was also the team’s leading tackler with 113 tackles on the season, including 6.75 solo tackles per game, which ranked second in the nation. Graham has credited Magee heavily with making the transition to a new staff smooth and leading the early charge for player buy-in.
Replacing Magee’s leadership will be tough, as will replacing his ability, but ASU has a couple of candidates, starting with sophomore-to-be Carlos Mendoza, who got meaningful playing time early in the year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Coaches are high on Mendoza’s ability, though he has progress to make in understanding the scheme.
Senior-to-be Grandville Taylor should also have a shot at the starting spot. He’s a former walk-on who impressed enough early in 2012 to get put on scholarship and play in all 13 of ASU’s games, including the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in which he registered eight tackles, one for a loss.
KEELAN JOHNSON AND DEVERON CARR, DEFENSIVE BACKS
ASU’s secondary was a concern from Day 1 of the 2012 season, not because of its ability but because of its razor-thin depth. The unit lost key players from 2011 and then lost Devan Spann in fall camp and Laui Moeakiola two games into the year, both with injuries.
The secondary managed to stay mostly healthy after that, though, and proved a strength. With safety Keelan Johnson and cornerback Deveron Carr graduating, the unit loses half of its starters. Johnson was a captain this season and led the team in interceptions. Carr also played a key leadership role on defense, though he didn’t have quite the season he expected to statistically.
At Carr’s spot, the Sun Devils have a few immediate replacement options, starting with senior-to-be Robert Nelson, who backed up Carr this year. Nelson showed significant improvement in the final few games of the season and came up with a big interception late in ASU’s win over Arizona. He finished with three interceptions and looks poised to compete for a starting job, although he could use some refining of his technique.
Transfer cornerback Lloyd Carrington, who came to ASU after a season under Graham at Pittsburgh, will also be eligible to play next year as a redshirt sophomore. Carrington impressed coaches during bowl practices and was highly sought after out of high school, with offers from the likes of Oklahoma State and Baylor. He should also be in the mix at cornerback.
At safety, a couple options stand out. First in line is Ezekiel Bishop, who saw on-and-off playing time as a backup this season. He got into nine games but seemed to struggle with consistency. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore and one of the more experienced safeties returning. Moeakiola could also be an option if coaches are comfortable shifting him from boundary safety to field safety.
Recruiting efforts could also boost ASU’s secondary depth. A few defensive backs are already committed, and a few others remain top targets leading up to national signing day next month. Prominently, the Sun Devils are after local five-star cornerback Priest Willis, who is believed to have ASU among his favorites, and Damarious Randall, a junior-college cornerback who committed to ASU but decommitted to explore his options.