For as much attention as Arizona State’s disruptive defensive line and often-dominant secondary received last season, its linebacker group was just as solid at times. Most of that unit returns this season, so it should be even better.
While Brandon Magee is a significant loss, ASU returns the rest of its starting linebackers and adds at least three key contributors in its fall recruiting class. Those already in place had an impressive spring and will be key to fulfilling one of coach Todd Graham’s biggest stated goals — stopping the run more effectively.
With the offseason underway, here’s a look back at how things developed with ASU’s linebackers this spring.
Most were surprised last season when spur linebacker Chris Young’s name did not appear among ASU’s Pac-12 honorable-mention honorees. The junior-college transfer from Arizona Western adjusted quickly to the Division I level, finishing the season third on the team in tackles (82) with 14 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.
Perhaps the snub stemmed from Young’s late-season fade, but whatever it was, Young still stood as one of ASU’s top linebackers last season.
“Chris had a really good three-fourths of a year, and the other quarter was kind of up and down a little bit from what we want,” Graham said. “He has had a great spring every day bringing it, a guy that has potential and has done very, very well.”
Young impressed greatly this spring, enough to earn ASU’s No. 42 Pat Tillman practice jersey honor for the final practice along with three others. Perhaps most impressive of his spring was that he stood out while shuffling between positions.
A spur linebacker all last season, Young spent time at will linebacker this spring as ASU sought a replacement for the graduated Brandon Magee. Young spent time at both positions, but by the end of spring, he was projected as the starting will in the fall.
“He’s taken to it extremely well,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph said. “On the knowledge side of it, it’s a lot like the spur position but on the weak side, so there’s a lot of things that carry over in teaching it. I think that helped him learn and understand the position.”
Randolph, speaking after one of ASU’s last spring practices, wouldn’t say Young’s move to will is a done deal, as there are a few other options ASU still wants to evaluate at the position. Right now, though, Young looks like the frontrunner to replace Magee, ASU’s defensive brain in 2012.
“Brandon Magee was a big part of the defense last season,” Young said. “I’ve definitely got big shoes to fill.”
Young said the transition has been more about increasing his physicality than anything else, as he’ll encounter bigger linemen at the new position. He’s also had to develop a greater understanding of Graham’s aggressive, attacking defense in anticipation of a bigger role his senior season.
“This spring, the intelligence part has been my biggest improvement,” Young said. “Just understanding what to do on certain keys and everything else. That’s been the main thing I’ve focused on, and obviously getting into physical shape.”
With a year under his belt and a move to the position where Magee led the team in tackles last year, Young could very well find himself on the All-Pac-12 first or second team in 2013.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Spur linebacker: Chris Young OR Anthony Jones, Dwain Bradshaw Sam linebacker: Steffon Martin, Salamo Fiso Devilbacker: Carl Bradford, Kipeli Koniseti OR Chans Cox (injured) Will linebacker: Chris Young OR Grandville Taylor, Matthew Rowe OR Carlos Mendoza (injured)
HELP ON THE WAY
Chans Cox arrived in the spring hoping to get a jump on his college career but was sidelined for most of the spring with a foot injury. Still, he’s expected to compete for a backup spot and get time at Devilbacker this season.
ASU also has four other new linebackers coming in the fall. Eriquel Florence and Antono Longino, both junior-college transfers, are expected to compete for playing time right away. Florence projects as a sam linebacker and should compete immediately for a spot behind Steffon Martin. Longino should compete to replace Brandon Magee at will, and should he prove himself, Chris Young could stay at spur.
ASU also welcomes twins Viliami and Alani Latu from Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High School. Evaluators have said the brothers are underrated and could develop into big-time players, with Viliami expected to play inside and Alani projected as a will.
At the start of spring, Graham made replacing Magee at will one of ASU’s top priorities. Right now, it looks like Young has presented a promising solution. If Young’s move from spur to will does stick, ASU will then have to determine his replacement at spur.
Anthony Jones is listed as a co-starter at the position right now, but it sounds like he will have competition in the fall. Redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza, who played impressively in two games last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, played spur during ASU’s last two spring practices.
“Carlos surprised me how athletic he was at spur,” Graham said. “We’ll probably start Carlos out at spur in the fall.”
Mendoza was originally thought to be an option to replace Magee at will. Jones obviously has the experience advantage and should be considered the favorite to start if Young is at will, but Mendoza might have more pure playmaking ability, a huge plus in Graham’s defense.
The shuffling this spring took place under new supervision, as co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph gave up his defensive line duties to coach linebackers, replacing Ron West, who took a job at North Carolina. The switch made room for new defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, a big-time hire after 14 seasons at Oklahoma.
Randolph should be a solid fit with the linebackers, having played the position in college and the Canadian Football League and coached it previously. Graham has praised Randolph’s transition to the new position group, and if the linebackers excel under Randolph the way the defensive line did last year, ASU’s defensive front ought to be rock solid.
Also standing out this spring was sam linebacker Steffon Martin. The junior-college transfer had his moments last season but was often inconsistent. Now, he looks primed for a big senior campaign.
“Steffon’s had a really solid spring, he’s much improved,” Graham said. “He’s really trained well. You can tell physically he’s a lot better.”
Carl Bradford, the starter at Devilbacker, may have had perhaps the most impressive spring of any linebacker — but not for on-field reasons. His performance early on was inconsistent, but that wasn’t altogether surprising considering Bradford’s father died less than a week before spring practice opened.
Despite the surprising tragedy, Bradford didn’t miss a single practice, displaying incredible dedication. He heated up the second half of spring practice, and the expectation is that he will challenge All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton as ASU’s top defensive player in 2013.
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph on how the linebackers developed in spring practice: “The biggest thing we had to do was get physically tougher and mentally tougher. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s with strain. I think the guys have gotten better. Are they where we want them yet? No, but the best thing about that is we have 29 practices in the fall before we kick off.”