In two years under coach Todd Graham, Arizona State has become one of the Pac-12’s defensive powers, finishing second in total defense in 2012 and fourth in 2013.
As much as Graham’s attacking philosophy is responsible for ASU’s evolution into a defensive force, so, too, are the players executing it. Graham has admitted many times he inherited an outstanding group of players from the previous staff.
Now, the Sun Devils are faced with losing a big chunk of those players. Of the 26 seniors graduating, eight were defensive starters this season. Among the eight are two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton and seven who earned All-Pac-12 recognition in 2013.
Clearly the ASU defense will look very different come Aug. 28. What’s not clear, though, is how the revamped unit will fare. The task of replacing the seniors will be made more difficult by a thin junior class.
Here’s a look at who is lost on the defensive side and how ASU might fill their shoes.
Will Sutton’s disruptive presence enabled his teammates to roam freely and make plays.
There is no easy way of replacing a back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and All-American, especially one with the physical skills and motor like Sutton’s. Even with offenses double-teaming him on nearly every play, Sutton was still highly disruptive and created opportunities for teammates.
Replacement options: It might prove a challenge to find the right fit here. Junior Marcus Hardison has played the position some and was third on the depth chart last season. If he makes enough progress in the offseason, particularly in the strength and conditioning program, he might get first shot. ASU could also take a long look at a pair of incoming freshmen: Tashon Smallwood (Fresno, Calif.) and Connor Humphreys (Portland, Ore.). But they would have only fall camp to learn the defense and the position.
Davon Coleman’s emergence at nose tackle pushed Jaxon Hood to the second unit.
2013 stats: 58 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks
Coleman’s emergence was one of the surprises on ASU’s defense this season. It began about four games into the season, and Coleman wound up tying for the team lead in sacks. His presence was also felt in ASU’s steady improvement defending the run. But Coleman’s season ended poorly with his suspension from the Holiday Bowl after a violation of team rules.
Replacement options: Barring anything unexpected, Jaxon Hood should take over here. Hood started at the nose tackle spot all 13 games in 2012 but lost the starting job to Coleman this year after a leg injury and some inconsistency. As a junior, Hood will return as ASU’s most experienced linemen. Redshirt sophomore Mo Latu could be a presence here but still needs to drop significant weight before he can play enough snaps to make an impact.
Gannon Conway emerged from obscurity to become a steady contributor at defensive end.
2013 stats: 38 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks
Conway might have been the best story on ASU’s defense this past season. After very limited action in 2012, Conway started making an impression in spring practice and fall camp — enough to earn a starting job. Conway was a steady presence and a big part of ASU’s run-stopping efforts. He wasn’t a big playmaker in the offensive backfield initially but began to show progress there by the end of the season.
Replacement options: Hardison seems the obvious fit here. In his first season as a junior college transfer, he played here for much of the season in ASU’s nickel package. The Sun Devils also have New Mexico Military transfer Edmond Boateng coming in during spring practice, but Boateng is believed to have played organized football for only three years and has a lot of growing and development to do. Demetrius Cherry and Corey Smith have the size to play here, with Smith probably more likely of the two. There’s also some thinking that freshman linebacker Chans Cox could fit here if he added enough size.
Chris Young was the Sun Devils’ leading tackler and unsung defensive leader while masterfully filling Brandon Magee’s shoes at will linebacker.
Young might have quietly been ASU’s defensive MVP this season. He led the team in tackles by a huge margin and came in second in tackles for loss. As much worry as there was last year about replacing Brandon Magee at this position, it might be even harder to replace Young.
Replacement options: The will linebacker spot is a key to ASU’s defensive success. Starting sam linebacker Salamo Fiso seems likely to get a look in the spring and fall. Fiso played here in fall camp as a backup for when Young shifted to spur. Moving Fiso, however, would create another hole at the sam position. ASU’s other solid option here could be four-star recruit Derik Calhoun, who is expected for spring practice and could get a head start on learning the position as well as a summer of conditioning. Other possibilities include Antonio Longino and Carlos Mendoza, pending his health and development.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Ball could get first crack at replacing steady Anthony Jones at spur linebacker.
Despite not making as many big plays as the coaches would have liked, Jones provided a steady presence at spur. He may not have been the ideal fit at a position that calls for a lot of playmaking ability but made the best of the situation and filled a need. He also led by example with a consistent work ethic and resilience.
Replacement options: Todd Graham likes the idea of freshman Marcus Ball playing here. Ball was in position to start at free safety before getting hurt in fall camp and redshirting, but Graham likes Ball’s playmaking ability. He’ll likely get first crack at this job unless ASU decides he is needed in the secondary. Villiami Moeakiola could be in play here as well. The redshirt freshman moved to spur during the season but was hurt in the one game he started and was limited the rest of the year. Other possibilities include Antonio Longino, Carlos Mendoza or perhaps one of the Latu brothers.
Alden Darby leaves a significant void as the Sun Devils’ spiritual and emotional leader.
If any player was the heart and soul of ASU’s defense the last two seasons, it was Darby. An endlessly energetic leader, Darby was the voice of the defense and came to be known as "the juice man" for the energy he brought. While Darby was prone to mistakes at times, he was also prone to bigtime plays. His leadership will be hardest to replace.
Replacement options: Replacing Darby may require some shuffling in the secondary. Free safety Damarious Randall could move to cornerback out of necessity. That would leave two open safety spots. The top returning options: Freshman James Johnson, redshirt sophomore Ezekial Bishop and Moeakiola. It’s a good bet Johnson starts at one of the safety spots, as he is highly regarded even without having played a game. Marcus Ball could end up here as well if someone else emerges at spur.
Osahon Irabor quietly went about his business of being one of the Pac-12’s best cornerbacks.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this loss. It isn’t ASU’s biggest, but it’s very, very big. Irabor, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection this season, was quietly one of the best Pac-12 cornerbacks over the past two seasons and was the definition of reliability in ASU’s secondary. He didn’t make a ton of flashy plays — save his interception return for a touchdown against Notre Dame — but nearly always got the job done.
Replacement options: If ASU wants to keep some experience at this position, it could try moving Randall here. That, though, might be more of a contingency plan for if no one else emerges. From an experience standpoint, redshirt sophomore Rashad Wadood has a leg up, but he has a good deal of progress to make before starting. Redshirt sophomore Solomon Means has better size but remains a bit of an unknown. ASU could try to add a cornerback from the junior college ranks, as its two high school cornerback commits appear unlikely to play right away. With all that uncertainty, Randall might end up being the best option.
Robert Nelson blossomed from uncertain starter to bigtime playmaker with a team-high six interceptions.
2013 stats: 57 tackles, 6 interceptions
No player on either side of the ball made as much progress during the season as Nelson. After battling to win a starting job in fall camp and struggling early in the year, he landed on the All-Pac-12 first team and led the Sun Devils in interceptions.
Replacement options: It’s probably a no-brainer that redshirt sophomore Lloyd Carrington steps in here. He nearly won the job in fall camp, played in every game and finished the year with 25 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble all as a reserve. Carrington’s presence should make this a hole ASU doesn’t have to worry much about filling. Depth, however, could be a concern.
*Carl Bradford, LB: Bradford has yet to decide whether he will return for his senior season or enter the NFL Draft early. The decision looms large over the defense, as his return would be momentous and his exit would create another huge hole to fill with an inexperienced player.
Jake Sheffield, DT: Sheffield proved a key depth piece the last two seasons, regularly stepping into difficult situations when starters were injured.
Grandville Taylor, LB: Taylor was a little less involved this season, but the former walk-on did collect an interception that nearly went for a touchdown and recovered two fumbles.
Steffon Martin, LB: Martin lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso early in the season but still played a key reserve role in every game. He should be counted among the junior college successes that Graham has brought to ASU.