September 30, 2004
They have fans talking about them like they are offensive players.
The linebacking trio of Justin Burks, Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams have made watching defense at Arizona State something to do.
The 21st-ranked Sun Devils (4-0) are among the national leaders in scoring defense — the most important statistic there is on that side of the ball — largely because of the play of the linebackers. Opponents are averaging only 12.3 points.
"That’s the whole key to our defense is how those three linebackers are playing," ASU coach Dirk Koetter said.
They’ve melded together as a strong, determined group bent on destroying opposing ball carriers.
"More than anything, they’re doing their job inside the scheme and when it’s their turn to take on two blockers or spill a block to the next guy, we’re getting that done," defensive coordinator Brent Guy said. "There’s not selfishness or any of that. They want to do their job and win. That’s what’s working for everybody on defense right now."
They each have different roles. Williams plays the new Devil linebacker position. Burks is the "mike" or middle linebacker, while Robinson plays the "sam" or strongside backer.
"Dale is the big-play guy," Koetter said. "Jamar has made a lot of big plays the last two weeks.
"But the guy that holds it all together is Justin Burks standing right there in the middle of the formation, making the calls. He’s the tough guy. He’s the enforcer."
Burks had a career-best 13 tackles in Saturday’s 27-14 victory over Oregon State.
"Justin is in so much better shape than he was last year," Koetter said. "Moving from the 4-2 to the 4-3 (formation) benefitted him more than anybody else. That’s what he’s been (middle linebacker) his whole life."
Williams is the reigning Pac-10 defensive player of the week after a two-interception performance against Oregon State. Dale Robinson earned the honor for his performance against Northwestern.
"It’s my turn this week," Burks joked.
There’s an unstated competition among the three. Who will be the leading tackler? Williams said the running back decides which backer will make the hit.
"We don’t say it, but I know it’s like that," Robinson said. "It’s cool. It’s fun. Everybody is just coming out to play."
Burks and Williams played together last year. The newcomer Robinson has exceeded their expectations.
"I knew he was going to shock a lot of people because he was making good plays in camp," Burks said. "But I didn’t know he’d ball out like he is now."
The transformation to the 4-3 defense is reflected in the tackle chart.
In the 4-2-5, free safety Jason Shivers led ASU in tackles for three successive years. Robinson (39), Burks (29) and Williams (21) are currently the top three tacklers.
"I was talking to (safety) Riccardo (Stewart) the other day and he said he’s bored out there. He’s not used to not getting so many tackles. It’s great to be an actual factor in the running game," Williams said.
Interestingly, the trio of Williams, Burks and Robinson weren’t what was on the drawing board after the final defensive meeting following spring practice.
Matt Fawley was supposed to play Devil back. But Fawley was suspended for the season by the NCAA. Instead of another former safety playing the position, Williams was moved to Devil and Robinson dropped into the starting lineup at Williams’ spot.
Guy said had Fawley been available, he would have rotated the four linebackers.
He was unsure how Fawley would have handled pulling offensive linemen, just as there are questions about Williams having to cover receivers and backs.
"People will continue to attack us in the flat to see if that guy can run and make that play," Guy said. "We’ll see the best of that ahead of us, starting this week."
Williams, who didn’t like playing inside linebacker, says he has enough speed to be a pass defender.
"I’m a lot faster than people think, and I can make plays in the open field," Williams said. "So far, I’ve liked the challenge and I’m waiting to be tested."
Robinson leads the team with 7 1 /2 tackles for losses and 3 1 /2 sacks. Burks shares the team lead in pass deflections with three.
"We’re having so much fun," Williams said. "This is the funnest time I’ve had playing football since high school. It’s fun to play with guys who are fast to the ball and are playmakers."
Said Robinson, "I never played on a team where everybody cares; everybody is running to the ball. On defense everybody just loves the game."
Burks said the best is yet to come.
"Definitely. We still have a lot of things to work on," he said. "By the seventh, eighth game, we’ll be balling out of control."