Pretty soon, the requirement for playing cornerback for Arizona State may simply be to show up in full pads.
An already thin group was dealt another blow this week when redshirt freshman Devan Spann reinjured his already ailing shoulder for the third time in a month, meaning surgery was required. He will miss the entire 2011 season.
Of course, this is in the wake of Omar Bolden, a unanimous All-Pac 10 first-team selection last season, tearing his ACL in April. While the door is not totally closed on a return at some point, it was a tragic blow for the defense.
The injuries are not limited to the season-ending variety, either. Junior Deveron Carr, perhaps the most talented remaining cornerback, had his 2010 season ended by a shoulder injury after only five games, a condition that has kept him out of much of fall camp. When healthy, the 5'11", 193-pounder has shown flashes of becoming one of the conference's top corners, and in light of Spann's injury, his return is all the more paramount.
Sophomore Osahon Irabor replaced Carr in the starting lineup last season and battled through the inevitably freshman struggles to consistently improve throughout the season. His improvement has been taken to new heights during camp, earning praise from his head coach Dennis Erickson.
"You talk about pleasant surprises, defensively he might be the most pleasant surprise. He's taken over that corner position," said Erickson.
Behind the starters, there is hype surrounding converted safety Alden Darby. He saw limited action in all 12 games last season, making 14 tackles. The 5'10" sophomore has the talent to become a playmaker in the secondary and will now have the opportunity. The one upside to Carr's injury was that Darby was able to run with the first-team defense in his place during camp. With so many teams now favoring spread formations, Darby will see a lot of action as the nickel back. True freshman Rashad Wadood is the other cornerback who is likely to see time early in the season.
Things are just as unsettled at safety.
Senior Eddie Elder established himself as a playmaking strong safety last season, his first in Tempe after coming over from the junior college ranks. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, intercepted two passes and notched a sack. Elder did allow big plays throughout the year, but now with a full year at the FBS level under his belt, the expectations are rightfully high.
Outside of Elder, there are question marks along the defense's backline.
Starting alongside Elder at free safety will be Keelan Johnson, a junior, and backing up Elder at strong safety will be senior Clint Floyd. Both players saw action in all 12 games last season, with Floyd making seven starts and Johnson two. However, both failed to hold down their jobs, and the duo of Elder and now departed Max Tabach assumed the safety jobs down the stretch.
On a team so loaded with experience and talent in almost every position, the fate of the 2011 could hinge upon the play of this beleaguered secondary. If players are able to step up their games, this could be the final piece to an otherwise imposing defense. If not, it will be Sparky's Achilles' heel.