ASU spring review: Defensive line

Return, development of entire unit, including All-American Sutton, makes line ASU's biggest strength.

This is the second in a series of reports reviewing Arizona State's spring camp and where the team stands heading into the summer.

4/22: Offensive line
4/25: Defensive line
4/29: Offensive backfield
5/2: Linebackers
5/6: Receivers
5/9: Defensive backs

The Los Angeles Clippers have Lob City, and NCAA tournament darling Florida Gulf Coast has Dunk City. It might be time to coin a term in the football world for Arizona State's exceedingly disruptive defense: Sack City.

With All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton and the starting defensive line returning and a host of aggressive playmakers around it, ASU is poised to be even more troublesome in opponents' backfields this season.

"We’ve got a lot of potential," coach Todd Graham said. "We were No. 1 in the country last year (with) 117 (tackles for loss), second in sacks and fourth in interceptions. Those are the things we want to do, and it's exciting."

The defensive line looks to be ASU's greatest strength in 2013, so let's take a look back at how things developed this spring:


Will Sutton, defensive tackle

Sure, the spotlight has already been on Sutton plenty during and after an All-American season last year, but no defensive lineman impressed coaches more this spring. Graham said he saw Sutton work harder than any time previously, setting the tone in his first practices since deciding to return for his senior season.

"I've seen a huge difference in him this spring," Graham said. "He's been bringing it every day. He's coaching the other guys, he's telling guys, 'This is not acceptable.' He didn't do that last year. He was a great player last year, but he didn't do all those things. If he'll do all those things then I think he can take over and lead that defense."

Sutton is admittedly a quiet leader, preferring to let his big plays -- rather than his words -- fire up his teammates. If he improves on the 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks that made him the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last year, fellow defensive players should have plenty of inspiration on which to draw.

After such a season, though, success will be harder to come by in 2013. Sutton will face more double teams from opponents who know better now how to plan for him. Sutton knows he'll have to work harder, and that showed in the spring.

"The standard, the bar is set a lot higher than last year, not just for me but for everybody," Sutton said. "It just happens that mine has to be set higher than everybody else's, and I accept the challenge. I'm not scared."

Can Sutton top his 2012 season? He thinks so and believes it will come down to technique and fundamentals.

"Last year I probably missed about eight sacks," Sutton said. "So next season, if I don't miss eight, I walk away with twenty-something."

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART (starters are bold)

Tackle: Jaxon Hood, Sean O'Grady
Nose: Will Sutton, Jake Sheffield
End: Gannon Conway, Davon Coleman, Junior Onyeali (injured), Kisima Jagne (injured)


The depth coming this fall could very well put ASU's defensive line among the best in the nation if it isn't already. Junior-college transfers Marcus Hardison (Dodge City Community College, Kansas City, Mo.) and Demetrius Cherry (Contra Costa College, San Pablo, Calif.) are expected to have an immediate impact.

Hardison was one of the nation's top junior-college recruits and should help ASU remain near the top of the national list in sacks and tackles for loss. Cherry, too was also heavily recruited last year for his athleticism and versatility, which allows him to play any spot on the defensive line. Both players will certainly have an adjustment period as they make the leap to Division I, but once they are caught up, ASU's line should be downright frightening.


With the dominant starting line returning, there was not a whole lot of development to be expected this spring beyond continued growth and improvement. But a few developments did take place, and Sutton's expanded leadership and boosted work ethic were chief among those.

That Sutton is setting an example for the defensive line and the entire defense -- essentially saying even an All-American has to work harder -- is significant. If the best player on a team sets a high standard for work, the whole group benefits as long as it is willing to strive for that standard.

Around Sutton, a few things developed as well. On the positive side, there was visible improvement in Jaxon Hood's technique. He surprised people a bit with a strong freshman season that saw him start every game, often playing nearly every snap. While Hood's individual numbers should improve, he's also excited for the depth help coming in new recruits.

"They're going to play a lot of snaps, and that's exciting, because last year we played the whole game," Hood said. "I was playing 85-90 snaps at nose guard. You can play more freely knowing you've got another player that can come in and give us some big plays."

It was astounding at times this spring to see how much Hood has developed from a technical standpoint. If his strides on the field this season are as great as they've looked so far, the line is that much more solid all the way across.

The confounding development of spring camp was the limited role of Davon Coleman. Coleman started 10 games last season after jumping Junior Onyeali on the depth chart, had the fourth-most tackles among returning players and tallied 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. However, he spent all spring working with the second team except in certain third-down packages.

Former walk-on Gannon Conway jumped to the top spot on the depth chart, over Coleman and Onyeali, who was still recovering from a shoulder injury this spring. Graham praised Conway's development and hard work this spring, but that he overtook a returning starter after limited reserve use last year was unexpected. There could be more to this situation than is known publicly, and the spot will be one to watch in fall camp.

Graham put a great emphasis this spring on stopping the run, something it struggled to do last season, particularly amid a four-game losing streak. He said strides were made this spring, but clearly needs to see more come fall camp.


Graham, on the defensive line's role in 2013: "I'm telling you, the key to us winning a championship next year is going to boil down really to one very simple thing: how well we run the football and how well we stop the run. We're going to do those things (sacks/TFLs), we're going to create those things. And those are important, but we've got to get better at the other stuff."

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