For a week leading up to the first scrimmage of fall camp it's been building to this: Arizona State has a defense its fans can proudly enjoy watching, and perhaps even more important than that, have some confidence in. The Sun Devils have increasingly demonstrated that they have talent and depth along the defensive line, young, skilled athletes at linebacker and the best defensive backfield of the Koetter-era, hands down. And that can potentially translate into a lot of victories.
We'll start by touting the play of that secondary on Saturday, which is undoubtedly led by senior Zach Catanese, whose lead-by-example style has seemingly permeated the entire back seven starting unit. Catanese and Josh Barrett form what has to be considered among the top safety tandems in the Pac-10.
Both players have performed exceedingly well in recent days in all facets of play. Catanese is almost a given at this point; a player whose excellence is taken for granted. He forced a fumble on Saturday and was in on so many plays one might think there were several No. 5 uniforms out there, but nope, not the case.
Always a mind-bogglingly gifted athlete, Barrett is more willing to hit this year it seems, and he's showing increased football savvy, something we attribute simply to getting a lot more reps at game speed in the year following persistent shoulder trouble earlier in his career. He's taking better angles to the ball and making reads quicker and more confidently.
But as good as those two are and have been playing, they were a side-show today to the starting cornerback duo of junior JUCO transfer Justin Tryon and senior Keno Walter-White. These guys stepped their level of play up a notch the day before, in the Friday morning session, and that was only a warm up, it seems, for their outstanding play on Saturday.
As long as it's harnessed properly, you want your star cornerbacks to be extremely confident, and almost cocky to the point that they feel nobody is even good enough to catch a football against them or perhaps even be on the same field, and both of these guys have that mentality, that swagger, but it's portrayed in different ways.
Tryon is a bullish, fierce cover corner who isn't the trash-talking sort. He'll keep a receiver in check all day and just go about his business without much outward display of emotion. But he's darn good and he knows it. He played great on Saturday save one play and any of the reported 800-900 fans in attendance that didn't know him before today certainly do now. If there is one guy on this team that you could be confident in putting on an island against a talented receiver in man coverage, it would be this guy, no doubt.
Walter-White is the emotional antithesis of Tryon. He's prone to breaking out an impromptu celebratory dance after what most people would consider a routine pass break-up, and he'll get after a receiver verbally if he's getting the better of him, or even if he thinks it can get in the guy's head. He looked good on Friday and followed that up with another solid performance on Saturday. Health issues have held back Walter-White, a player we've been fond of since his initial camp last year, but when he's feeling good, he can be very good.
Almost as encouraging as seeing Tryon and Walter-White play well, the reserve cornerbacks had easily their best day of camp to this point, especially Travis Smith and Grant Crunkleton. We didn't see Smith make one mistake on the field and Crunkleton had maybe one minor error and both players had a pass break-up and provided good coverage.
The top reserve safeties that took the field on Saturday were Jeremy Payton and a guy we've been singing the praises of for a full week, Ryan McFoy. Payton had one of the top two or three hits of the day and he was active and enjoyable to watch after grimacing through a large chunk of practice all week with what appears to be a minor nagging issue with one of his legs.
In the case of McFoy, we come to practice every day expecting to maybe see some youthful mistakes, and every day we leave shaking our head at how under recruited he was, and how correct Dirk Koetter was when he effusively praised the youngster on signing day. Working quite a bit with the second team, McFoy was credited with three pass break ups and he's a full service type of safety who almost undoubtedly will play a significant role on the field in reserve this season, and be a factor as soon as next year.
But it wasn't just the defensive backfield that showed well on Saturday.
With Loren Howard still sidelined with what is being reported as a minor quad muscle strain, and Tranell Morant still seemingly less than full strength and playing with the second and/or third teams, other player had the opportunity to shine at defensive end and Kellen Mills, who delivered a bone crushing sack of Rudy Carpenter, delivered. This was the most active and competent we've seen Mills be this camp, but granted, it did come against the second-string offensive line, and versus Richard Tuitu'u, a player that has struggled in spots the last few days.
Kyle Caldwell had a solid, if unspectacular day but he continues to look healthy and active and as long as that remains the case we have few doubts about his ability to impact the squad in a positive way. Dexter Davis had had some great practices recently and today he wasn't quite as impressive, but he still was solid and reliable.
The defensive tackles had a better day than the ends, and in particular we were really impressed by Will Kofe, David Smith and Michael Marquardt. All three were getting a nice push and being very aggressively impacting on what the offensive linemen were attempting to accomplish. Marquardt had a quarterback sack and there were a a few hurries mixed in there as well.
Between those three players and Jordan Hill and Shannon Jones, it really looks as though ASU will be improved in the middle this season, and especially considering they'll be working alongside a better group of defensive ends.
At linebacker, Robert James was held out of the scrimmage with a minor, unspecified nagging issue that he was also dealing with on Friday, and his absence allowed the Sun Devils to run two true freshman out with the first unit. Travis Goethel took the place of James at the WILL position and Gerald Munns was at the strongside position. Both players fared adequately and didn't have any glaring mistakes, though on the whole it was kind of a ho-hum performance.
The real big news at this position is the continuing emergence of senior Beau Manutai in the middle. Manutai looks to be a good 10 pounds lighter this year and he's running better and seemingly more confident than ever out on the field. He doesn't appear at all slowed by the injury he's been recovering from, and that kept him in an orange jersey to start to week.
Manutai was in on a number of plays and aggressively hitting, but he also looked competent playing in space which was extremely encouraging. He and Mike Nixon appeared to split first-team reps at the position and Nixon was doing some heat-seeking of his own with one "de-cleater" and several other nice plays.
Garrett Judah had a fumble recovery and it looks as though his battle with Munns for the first-team spot at the SAM position might go on throughout camp and into the season. Both players have looked quite good in spots and understandably raw at other times.
On the whole, while the linebacker group may have been the least impressive on the defense on the morning, it's important to point out that James wasn't playing, and at least four of the newcomers that figure to be counted on heavily (Nixon, Judah, Munns, Goethel) have had pretty good camps overall. It's difficult to expect any more from these players than we've seen to this point and we expect there to be a lot of growth and development that can be measured in weeks if not days over the early portion of the schedule.
And the best part is that so long as the other position groups are as competent as they appear to be, it should help make the job of the linebackers unit that much easier. While last year, the linebackers were forced to do almost too much, this might be a season where they'll be able to gradually come into their own, provided the strong play of the defensive line and secondary continues.