If there is one position group on the Arizona State defense that surpassed our expectations heading into fall camp with its actual performance in August, it was linebacker.
First-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Craig Bray is nothing if not demanding and blunt-spoken, but he's also highly knowledgeable with an eagle eye for detail and penchant for positive reinforcement.
Bray teaches the game in a way that is very refreshing. He's technically proficient and constantly making corrections. Get something wrong once and you'll hear it. Do it again and you're likely to get pulled out of the action, even if you are a star player.
Josh Barrett would know that as well as anyone after he got yanked from an 11-on-11 red zone session on Wednesday for not correcting a mistake he made on the very next snap, resulting in a touchdown catch by the receiver he was responsible for.
Players always know where they stand with Bray and he's apt to flip from being critical to full of praise from one play to the next. But it's a style that the players have seemingly taken to, and grown as a result of.
The first-team group of Morris Wooten in the middle (MIKE), Travis Goethel on the strongside (SAM) and Robert James on the weakside has been as consistently good as any starting unit on the roster.
Wooten was, in our option, the most impressive linebacker on the roster during spring ball, but if we were going to give a Defensive Camp MVP award, it would likely go to James, who has been outstanding in recent weeks.
After missing the final five games of last season due to headaches believed to be caused by a concussion, James attempted to come back in spring ball only to have the problem return. Heading into August it was unclear what, if anything, could be expected from him.
But after he sent running back Ryan Torain to the ground with a fierce helmet-to-helmet hit on the first hit of the team's Camp Tontozona scrimmage -- the team's first real full speed hitting exhibition -- we had a much better idea of where James' head was at, literally. The 5-foot-11, 229 pound senior immediately popped back to his feet and had a little bounce in his step as he returned to the huddle.
It was not the biggest hit of fall camp, but it was the one we'll remember most because of our respect for James' willingness to be truly fearless on the football field, even after experiencing weeks, if not months, of the most excruciating pain he's even encountered as a result of another such violent collision less than a year earlier.
Putting that aside, what James brings to the position, and considering the way in which he's going to be used by this coaching staff, he could potentially have as impressive a season as any player on the defense. Bray knows James is talented and versatile and he'll be used extensively as a blitzer, but he's also very physical against the run and athletic enough to do well covering receivers in space.
Goethel also is seemingly destined for a very good season. Like James, he's also extremely versatile, but he's rangier at 6-foot-3, 229 pounds and may have the best lateral mobility of any of the linebackers. He's equally good against the run and playing in space on passing downs. We believe him to be the best pro prospect on the team at linebacker excluding the freshmen, who we just want to see more of before bringing them into the discussion.
Wooten actually had some minor growing pangs during portions of camp after his extremely strong start in the spring. Technically he had some things to work on and fix, and still does, but he's a bigtime hitter with a natural instinct for the play. He has a tendency to sometimes overrun the play or hurry too much because he's so instinctual. Bray has been working with him on just relaxing and allowing the play to develop before he fills his lane or head-hunts the football.
At 6-foot-1, and 237 pounds, the second-team All-American out of Glendale (Ariz.) Community College still reminds us a bit of former Sun Devil Dale Robinson, and that's an impressive comparison to make.
The team's top backups are sophomores Gerald Munns at the MIKE position and Mike Nixon, who has the ability to play either outside spot, but will likely see more action at the WILL position. He may be first off the bench in the rotation at SAM as well, but redshirt freshman Jeff Bereuter is also in the mix for that role.
Munns missed about a week of action due to a foot sprain but other than that he had a very solid camp. After playing at the SAM last season as a true freshman, he's in what we have always believed to be his more natural spot in the middle this year. Like Wooten, Munns has great natural instincts and he's a playmaker who may be the best open-field tackler in the group. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, he has great size and is just a presence with his prototypical posture at the position. He's not extremely fast, but he's quick enough and smart enough to be a real talent as a defensive playmaker.
Nixon is incredibly smart and also a very sure tackler. He has a tremendous understanding of the game and makes up for his average athletic ability with a great approach to the position and technical fluency. You can trust when the coaches have Nixon the game, he's going to make good decisions and not make many mistakes.
Bereuter has improved substantially since the spring, in fact probably more than any other linebacker. We've always thought that he had the potential to become a good coverage linebacker and that's getting closer and closer to being a reality. He's also bigger, having gained probably 10-15 pounds to get to his listed 6-foot-3, 218 pounds.
The improvement by Bereuter has bolstered a group that has played without Ryan McFoy in the last two weeks due to a high ankle sprain. McFoy was at one point working in spring and early camp as the first-team SAM linebacker, but he figures to now be in a battle for the second-team spot there when he returns to full health and the practice field in the next week. McFoy has struggled a bit with some of the things he's been asked to do at the position from a technical and physical standpoint since moving to the position, but he's certainly got a lot of potential with his athleticism.
Chad Lindsey will look to put himself into the mix at some point, and Jamarr Robinson appears to be getting nearer to returning to full speed on-field activity after suffering a partially torn knee ligament in the Spring Game. JUCO transfer Anthony Reyes is one of the top walk-ons with the Sun Devils this season. Playing time isn't out of the question for him.
Linebackers Camp Grade: B
While this isn't going to be as good a group as say, USC, which features three potential All-Americans, it's a very respectable unit as far as talent goes in the Pac-10. James could have a big enough season to at least enter the discussion for post-season honors while Wooten and Goethel look as though they could become stars before their careers end in Tempe. Munns would likely start on at least several teams in the conference and Nixon is about as solid a reserve as many schools have, giving the group a top five that should be quite capable.
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