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Thursday, April 9, 2009
It's been a defensive spring for Arizona State

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The good news is Arizona State's defense has looked good this spring. The bad news is the offense hasn't.

The important question for the Sun Devils as they focus on erasing a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2008 is whether the defense looks good because the offense is bad or the offensive looks bad because the defense is really good.

 
  Nick Doan/Icon SMI
  Linebacker Mike Nixon earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2008.

"They're going through some growing pains," senior linebacker Mike Nixon said. "Hopefully it's more us playing really well right now than them helping us a little bit."

With just over a week until the April 18 spring game at Sun Devil Stadium, most are taking the optimistic approach: The defense is more athletic, experienced and deeper than it has been in recent years, so this crew could be one of the best units in the Pac-10.

With defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and end Dexter Davis, there are two certified stars -- and future NFL draft picks -- on the defensive line. The linebackers are running eight-deep with super-recruit Vontaze Burfict arriving in the fall. Coach Dennis Erickson says he's got "four or five" cornerbacks who can play. Replacing safety Troy Nolan won't be easy, but the coaches have been pleased with Ryan McFoy.

But it's not just about lots of bodies.

"We're getting close to the type of team speed we need on defense like my defenses have had over the years," said Erickson, referring to the sleek units he had at Miami and Oregon State.

Of course, the offense is breaking in a new quarterback -- senior Danny Sullivan is the decided leader to replace Rudy Carpenter -- and three potential starting offensive linemen are sitting out with injuries.

You may have heard ASU's offensive line struggles mentioned a couple of times over the past two seasons.

That's why a grizzled veteran like 25-year-old linebacker Mike Nixon, who played in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system until 2005, isn't ready to talk about the Sun Devils as the second-coming of USC, circa 2008.

Sure, the defense is having fun. Sure, it might talk a little smack to the offense, which seems overwhelmed at times. But these are not fall Saturdays.

"There's a fine line between being confident and being cocky," Nixon said. "We've got to be confident. But we've got to go out and prove what we think we're capable of this year. We had moments last year when we played great games defensively. But then you turn on the Oregon film or the [Arizona] film."

Nixon is recalling the 54 points and 537 yards the Ducks piled up. Or the 24 second-half points Arizona recorded that ended a three-year winning streak in the rivalry game and knocked the Sun Devils out of bowl eligibility.

 
  Tom Hauck for ESPN.com
  Coveted prospect Vontaze Burfict could be an immediate starter at middle linebacker.

The Sun Devils have been solid on defense the past two years -- ranking third in the Pac-10 in scoring defense in 2007 and fourth last year -- but coordinator Craig Bray said he's expecting a step up from solid to dominating.

A defense can't dominate without speed everywhere, and that's why recruiting speed has been the chief concern since Erickson arrived.

That also means no veteran starter is safe, even Nixon, who's being challenged by sophomore Shelly Lyons, despite earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2008 and tying for the conference lead with five interceptions.

Incoming freshmen defensive tackles Corey Adams and Will Sutton are expected to get looks for the defensive line rotation, and Burfict is practically being penciled in at middle linebacker, where the Sun Devils have Travis Goethel and Gerald Munns, who both have significant starting experience.

"There's definitely a position for [Burfict]," Bray said. "If we have one position that's lacking athleticism, it's our 'Mike' 'backer. If Vontaze can pick it up -- and we're pretty simple -- then he's going to make a big difference."

Bray added that the depth at linebacker could inspire him to adopt some 3-4 looks to get more of them on the field, though he's yet to use the scheme this spring.

After another practice when the offense only produced a handful of positive plays, it's hard not to acknowledge what's going on: "Yeah, we've been dominating," Bray said.

Arizona State has long been known for quarterbacks and offensive firepower, and for 2009 to be a dramatically better season than 2008, the offense will need to pick it up.

But it seems fair to say that Erickson subscribes to the hackneyed football cliche, "Defense wins championships."

Might the Sun Devils be building a defensive power in the desert?

"It would be nice, being a senior, for that to be our legacy -- when ASU turned into a defensive program," Nixon said. "I think we've got the talent to do that. I think we've got the depth to do that. Now I just think we've got to actually do it."