Sun Devil Six Pack: ASU linebacker preview

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- In the Arizona State defense, you need versatile and athletic linebackers that can do a number of different things on the field.

The current depth charts seem to have those players, but the right combination has yet to be found.

Half of the lineup is set. Carl Bradford is one of the Pac-12's best pass rushers, and few players in the conference are able to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as well as Chris Young.

But then what?

We take a look at the six biggest issues surrounding the second level of the Sun Devil defense as we head into the season opener.

1) Carl the freak

Sometimes, being a freak is a great thing. Just ask Devilbacker Carl Bradford.

Coming off a breakout year in which he tallied 11.5 sacks, Bradford found place on CBS Sports columnist Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks List", spotlighting the best athletes in college football. It's easy to see why.

Bradford has a rare blend of size (6-foot-1, 241 pounds), speed, and strength, and with his production now matching his talent, the junior is poised for an even better year.

From his spot at Devilbacker (think defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid), Bradford is lined up in various spots in the alignment during a game, but his mission is always the same: Make plays, which he does very well.

While often overshadowed last year by the play of All-American Will Sutton, Bradford could very well steal the spotlight for himself.

2) Attack!

ASU's defensive has quickly established the reputation as one of the most relentless attacking units in the country, with much of that pressure coming from the second level. Sun Devil linebackers accounted for 22 sacks and 57.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012.

With most of the group returning, armed with better physical conditioning and experience in the system, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph has plenty of weapons. The veterans have been joined by a talented group of newcomers that give Randolph the ability to mix-and-match and put different pieces into the fold depending on match-up and game situation.

With such success, look for the linebackers to take it to another level this fall.

3) Chris Young is in, but where?

The only other certainty on the second level is that senior Chris Young will be on the field.

Young had a great year in 2012 after coming over from the junior college ranks, making 82 tackles, including 14 for loss, while starting all 13 games at SPUR.

Over the offseason, Young bulked up by over 20 pounds, and the 6-footer is now a stout 245. He added the muscle with the idea of taking over Brandon Magee's old spot at WILL linebacker, where he will take on more blockers than at SPUR.

But due to uncertainty with the other players in the mix, Young has seen time at both WILL and SPUR during camp, and on last week's depth chart update, Young is listed as a co-starter at both spots.

Regardless of where he lines up, Young should provide an presence capable of playing at an All-Pac-12 level. He has good speed and closing ability, and his nose for finding the ball is second-to-none.

4) Can Martin play to his potential?

When Young came to Tempe last year, he brought along his friend and teammate from Arizona Western, fellow linebacker Steffon Martin. Martin was a highly accomplished player at the juco level, and quickly won the team's starting job at SAM.

However, the season didn't work out like many thought.

Despite making 10 starters and playing in all 13 games, Martin made just 27 tackles and had one sack. The 6-foot-1, 231-pound senior is now fighting for his job.

While Martin has shown improvement throughout camp, he is now being pushed hard by redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso for the SAM job. Fiso is a tough minded 'backer, who has shown the ability to cover a lot of ground and find the ball. So impressive has Fiso been, that he is listed as a co-starter with Martin at SAM.

The competition between the two has helped each player, and while Martin should open the year with the job, expect Fiso to see a larger role and perhaps unseat the senior down the road.

5) Depth shakeout

There remains several other players fighting for job on the two deep.

The biggest battle is at WILL. Fiso is a major factor there, with his range and closing ability a good fit for the position. Heady senior Grandville Taylor is also in the mix. While not an elite athlete, Taylor is a technically sound and smart player who has continually impressed the staff.

At SPUR, veteran Anthony Jones will see action, either as the starter or top backup behind Young. At just 215 pounds, Jones doesn't have great size, but has good speed and range, and has plenty of experience with 25 appearances over the last two seasons. Newcomer Antonio Longino (6-foot-2, 228), is raw, but has great athleticism and has often been the team's most fearsome hitter during practice.

Behind Bradford at Devilbacker is Chans Cox, the 4-star recruit. Cox was hobbled by injury and missed much of spring practice after graduating from Blue Ridge High School early, but has a wealth of athleticism in his 6-foot-3, 240 pound frame. He figures to be a fixture in the Sun Devil linebacker corps for years to come.

One X-factor in the group is Carlos Mendoza, the talented but oft-injured redshirt freshman. Mendoza managed a pair of interceptions a year ago before his injury, and was in line to push for a starting job in camp before injury woes hit him again. Should he get healthy, he will add a versatile and playmaking presence to the lineup at either SPUR or WILL.

6) Leadership void?

The Sun Devils lost just one starter from last year among the front seven, but it was a big one.

Linebacker Brandon Magee was one of the team's top players, leading the team with 113 tackles and adding 6.5 sacks from his spot at WILL.

But even beyond his dynamic play, Magee's leadership ability may be what is missed most. Quite simply, he was the heart and soul not only of the defense, but of the entire team.

 Who will step up in his absence?

Young would be the obvious choice, but he is a lead by example type.

"I’m trying to lead my team vocally, but I’ve not really been the leader type," Young told me.

While players such as safety Alden Darby and cornerback Osahon Irabor are stepping up, the linebackers will need a leader to emerge from their ranks.