Each week from now until the first game of the 2013 Sun Devil football season, the ASU media relations department will release a position group summary for every spot on the Sun Devil roster. These will provide in-depth detail on the top returners, promising newcomers and all you could need to know about each position as we head into what should be another exciting season under Todd Graham.
The first batch of summaries will focus on the offensive side of the ball, and this week we review the 2013 Defensive Line.
Recaps from previous weeks are available below:
by Jeremy Hawkes
Upon Todd Graham’s arrival to Tempe, he immediately set lofty goals for his players, coaches and the program in general. Many of those goals included being No. 1 in the country in a number of major statistical categories. They were goals that some may have thought were overly optimistic or that would take some years to achieve.
That might be the case in some situations, but the Arizona State defense wasn’t ready to raise any sort of cavil about the challenge. And where the pass defense was concerned, immediate amelioration was evident.
While we will discuss the secondary another day, much of the improvement in the pass game arose from the reemergence of the defensive line. Graham and then-defensive line coach Paul Randolph (who is now with the linebackers) took a group that had just three players who had seen significant playing time in their career and developed a formula for a line that was as aggressive, explosive and dynamic as any in the country.
The result? A group that helped to force 117 tackles for a loss of 497 total yards - a 9.00 TFL per game mark that led the nation. The Sun Devils had 52 sacks in 2012, a mark that trailed only the 1978 Sun Devils (64) and tied with the 2002 ASU team that also had 52. At 4.00 sacks per game, the Sun Devils finished just behind Stanford (4.07) for second in the nation in the category last year. The Sun Devils averaged a sack on 11.9 percent of all opponent passing plays last season, a tally that led the nation.
A year removed from combining for just 90 total tackles, 15.5 TFLs and seven sacks, ASU’s 2012 linemen (Will Sutton, Junior Onyeali, Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway) posted 155 tackles, 43.5 TFLs and 25 sacks. Additionally, true freshman Jaxon Hood came in and started right away and brought 26 tackles, four TFL and three sacks to the mix.
(SIDE NOTE: For the interest of this review, Arizona State doesn’t run a typical 3-4 or 4-3 front seven on defense. Instead they utilize a “Devilbacker” lineman/linebacker hybrid position, a spot filled admirably by Carl Bradford last season. Bradford will be included in the linebacker preview next week.)
Arizona State returns every member off of last year’s line this season, which certainly should make for a smooth transition for new defensive line coach Jackie Shipp. Shipp has spent the past 22 years coaching college football, including four national championship games. He has been a recipient of the American Football Foundation Mike Campbell Top Assistant Coach Award and in 2009 was named by Rivals.com as a Top 25 recruiter nationally and spent the last 14 seasons at Oklahoma.
The heart and soul of Arizona State’s defensive line comes in the form of Will Sutton. Sutton, who is one of just six defensive players, including four defensive tackles, on the Maxwell Award Watch List, became ASU's 18th Consensus All-American in 2012.
He was also the recipient of the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award and the prestigious Morris Trophy, as well as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Defensive MVP. He finished his junior year ranked second in the nation in 1.92 tackles for loss per game and third nationally with 1.08 sacks per game. He finished the season with 63 tackles, including 23.5 for loss and 13 sacks.
Sutton’s decision to return for his senior season was a coup for the Sun Devils, not just for the fact that one of the top players in the nation is coming back, but also for the leadership aspect he brings to the team.
Graham has been impressed with the leadership Sutton has brought in the opening weeks of Fall camp, noting the maturity he has shown early on by taking on a coaching role despite his player status. It’s not uncommon to see Sutton working to the newcomers after a play or shouting out instructions from the sideline.
Additionally, Sutton has packed on nearly 40 pounds from his starting weight in 2012, and it is good weight. Sutton started last season at 267 pounds and now weights in at 305 and Graham says Sutton is even more explosive and has the opportunity to be even better than he was last season.
Jaxon Hood was impressive alongside Sutton at defensive tackle as he became just the third true freshman in ASU history to start in the season opener of their first year on campus. He finished the year with 25 tackles and three sacks and earned FoxSportsNext Freshman All-American honors, starting all but one game. He was also an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection.
Hood, too, has beefed up slightly in the offseason as he is now playing at 301 pounds. He has been impressive in Fall camp thus far, successfully holding down the second tackle position on the line. He had three sacks and five total tackles for loss in a recent scrimmage and looks to improve upon a solid year by any true freshman’s standards last season. Shipp said he was the most improved lineman following Spring practice and has continued to improve in the Fall.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the offseason has been senior Gannon Conway’s rise from reserve to potential starter at defensive end. Conway added 15 pounds in the offseason and was recently named by Strength and Conditioning coach Shawn Griswold as part of the team’s “Dirty Dozen” – the 12 hardest workers in the weight room during the offseason.
Conway has just 13 career tackles, nine of which came last year, but looks to have the speed and quickness necessary to come off the end and be a hassle in the opponent’s backfield this season, especially in the run game.
The squad also boasts two seasoned ends in seniors Davon Coleman and Junior Onyeali. Coleman has appeared in all 26 games in his two seasons at ASU and was sixth on the team last season with 66 total tackles. He was one of five players on the team to post double digits in tackles for loss with 11 and had five sacks on the season. He has 108 career tackles and 16 tackles for loss as well as a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and blocked point-after attempt last season and even saw time at fullback, showing off his versatility.
Coleman started 10 games last season at end and was also named to the team’s “Dirty Dozen”. His knack for getting into the backfield will certainly have him in the mix for playing time this season.
Onyeali is back in action after missing the spring to injury. The former Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Onyeali is among the league’s elite pass rushers and will likely be used in third-down passing situations often this season as a result of that. He appeared in all 13 games last season, making five starts. He had 17 tackles last season but eight of them came for a loss and six of those were sacks, showing off Onyeali’s influence on the passing game.
The team also returns U.S. Marine Jake Sheffield this season at tackle. Sheffield was solid as a reserve in his first season last year with eight total tackles and he looks to continue to fill that role at tackle this season.
One of the Sun Devils’ biggest struggles last season came in defending the run and the coaching staff has taken steps to alleviate that this season, including moving big offensive lineman Mo Latu into defense. The largest player on the team and among the strongest (he did 40 bench press reps at 225 pounds at the team’s final lift to lead the team), Latu is someone that can come in and plug some holes.
Latu weighed in at 380 pounds at the start of camp after receiving minor knee surgery during the offseason and has spent much of the first couple weeks working on conditioning. Latu hopes to get down under 340 this season and understands that hard work is the way to get there, but he has been impressive in him limited role on the line so far in the Fall.
ASU will also get some depth out of Sean O’Grady this season with the redshirt sophomore finishing the Spring second on the depth chart behind Jaxon Hood at tackle. O’Grady was limited in the Spring after breaking his hand and missed the 2012 season to injury as well, but Shipp noted that O’Grady showed flashes and could play a role in things if he continues to improve.
Among the newcomers, junior college transfer Marcus Hardison seems the individual most likely to make an immediate impact. The junior out of Dodge City Community College was ranked by ESPN as the No. 5 overall junior college prospect in the country and the No. 3 JC defensive end in the nation by Rivals.com. He had 50 tackles and four sacks as a sophomore and with at 6-5, 290 and a 4.7 40-yard-dash time, has the makeup to play a significant role as a pass rusher this season.
Graham has noted the Hardison still needs to work on adjusted to the pace and getting in shape to play the kind of game the Sun Devils play at an FBS level but there is no doubting the talent is there.
Kisima Jagne, Corey Smith and Demetrius Cherry will also add depth this season. Jagne was rated the No. 52 defensive end product in the nation by ESPN out of local Chandler High School but missed the Spring due to injury. Smith was rated the No. 33 weak-side defensive end prospect in the country last season and is the tallest person on the Sun Devil roster at 6-foot-7 while Cherry is another junior college transfer that adds to the mix.