ASU season preview: Defensive line

TEMPE, Ariz. — It might be hard to imagine Arizona State’s defensive line being much better than it was in 2012. After all, the line featured consensus All-American Will Sutton, who was also the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the year, plus a freshman All-American. It helped the Sun Devils rank first nationally in tackles for loss and second in sacks.

But coach Todd Graham raised the bar for ASU’s decorated defensive line this season, expecting better run stopping, greater leadership and even more tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

“No question we’re a lot better on the defensive line than we were last year, because our best players are better and we have better depth,” Graham said. “But we’re a long way away from being where I think we can be.”

That’s Graham’s feeling even now, a week before ASU opens the season against Sacramento State. First-year defensive line coach Jackie Shipp expresses the same sentiment, only admitting the line has gotten better with the caveat that it has much more progress to make.

But don’t mistake the coaches’ relentless demand for more out of their players for disapproval; this defensive line could be among the best in the nation this season. Here’s a look at what to expect from the group:

STARTERS

DT Jaxon Hood, NT Will Sutton, DE Gannon Conway, Devilbacker Carl Bradford

CAMP STANDOUT

Conway began working with the starting line in spring practice, making reporters wonder if returning starter Davon Coleman had done something to land in Graham’s doghouse. As it turns out, Conway has just taken the next step.

“Gannon Conway, if I picked a guy of (fall) camp, it’s him,” Graham said. “I really never, ever thought I would stand here and tell you Gannon was starting.”

Shipp said there’s no one thing Conway did to leapfrog into the starting lineup. He’s just doing it all better — run stopping, pass rushing, fundamentals, etc.

“I just worked hard to get more explosive and really gain weight, especially for those first five games, because you’ve got to bring the heat for Stanford and Wisconsin,” Conway said.

Conway says he has gained about 20 pounds since the end of spring practice, putting him at 280 for his senior season. He may not have the playmaking ability Coleman does, but Conway should be a help as ASU tries to improve its run stopping.

OUTLOOK

With Sutton, Hood, Coleman and Conway returning, ASU didn’t have many questions to answer on the defensive line coming out of spring practice, at least up front.

All the preseason chatter about Sutton has focused on what the senior can do to top his 2012 season, especially having decided to stay instead of enter the NFL Draft. Plenty of people seem to have an idea how he could do it, but Sutton has the simple answer: technique.

“Last year, I probably missed about eight sacks,” Sutton said. “If I don’t miss eight, I walk away with twenty-something. So I’ve just got to get better with technique. That’s the main thing.”

Sutton is currently playing around 305 pounds, which should help him beat some of the double teams he’s certain to face. But Shipp, who came to ASU in February after 14 seasons at Oklahoma, doesn’t put much stock in Sutton’s weight, nor does he focus solely on Sutton’s athletic talent.

“I hear everyone talk about his physical abilities,” Shipp said. “I never hear anyone talk about how well he knows the game mentally and what he does from a mental aspect. He understands the game well, he understands the playbook very well. He’s a very smart player. Put that with physical talent and you’ve got a pretty good player right there.”

It might be hard for Sutton to repeat as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, although repeat All-America honors seem entirely possible, but if Sutton has improved in the ways coaches say he has, he will be even more of a nightmare for opposing offenses.

Next to Sutton is Hood, who gained about 10 pounds over the summer in ASU’s strength and conditioning program. After he started every game and earned freshman All-American honors from FOX Sports Next last season, there’s no reason to believe Hood won’t take the next step.

The end spot could see a bit of rotating, as Graham sees both Conway and Coleman as starters. Conway appears the true starter, while Coleman may get first-team action situationally. Either way, ASU has a line Pac-12 opponents know is a force to be reckoned with.

On top of that group, ASU has junior Carl Bradford, the hybrid lineman/linebacker who mostly lines up on the line of scrimmage. Bradford could benefit more than anyone from the attention Sutton is sure to command, making it likely he’ll improve on the 11 1/2 sacks he had last season, especially after a phenomenal summer in the weight room.

Where ASU did have a question last year was in its depth, or lack thereof. Behind the starting line, there was little to inspire confidence last season or in the spring. Now, the consensus seems to be that has changed, though not as much as desired.

“We need to make more progress with that fifth, sixth, seventh guy,” Shipp said. ” At this point, it could be better.

“Marcus Hardison needs to develop more. I know Davon and Junior (Onyeali) have experience. Junior is more of a pass-rush guy. Davon has gotten better from what he was in the spring with what I’ve seen in the fall. And don’t forget big Mo Latu. He’s getting more reps at nose guard, and I think he can be a factor.”

Latu has dropped more than 10 pounds since coming to camp well overweight and figures to get 10-15 reps per game. Onyeali, meanwhile, won’t play defensive end this season, as Graham sees him as undersized there, but rather will see time as a third-down pass rusher. Shipp also mentioned redshirt sophomore Sean O’Grady as a player who is developing nicely, though he needs to add size.

Regardless of progress still to be made, ASU undoubtedly has greater depth on the line. That, coupled with increased size and strength, should bode well for ASU’s focus on stopping the run. Last season, the Sun Devils ranked 81st nationally in rush defense, allowing 182.85 yards per game.

ASU needs to be better at stopping the run — particularly with Wisconsin, Stanford and Notre Dame on tap early — and should be. That’s all before even mentioning the potential for ridiculous sack and tackle-for-loss totals with the same group back and physically better.

ONE TO WATCH

Hardison came to ASU touted as the best junior college defensive lineman in the nation. He was expected to compete for a key depth spot or even a starting job at defensive end. However, he has come on slower than coaches expected.

“We cannot have him being a backup,” Graham said. “He’s so much better than that, and that’s what I’ve talked to him about.”

Hardison is still adjusting to the pace of Division I ball and the expectation of perfection ASU coaches place on each player. He could eventually challenge to start, and early in the year, he should at least see action with the first team when ASU uses four down linemen.

COACH’S TAKE

“I’ve got good confidence in the group, but where do they stand? Shoot, we won’t know that until game day and the end of the season. Have they taken another step? Yes. Have they done enough to get where need to be and where they can be? No.” — Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp