CULVER CITY, Calif. — There are a few things Rich Rodriguez is loathe to discuss: Todd Graham, Michigan football and opposing players. But the Arizona football coach softened his stance when asked to assess Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton.
“Awesome,” Rodriguez said between bites of lunch at Friday’s Pac-12 media day at the Sony Picture Studios. “I usually don’t talk about guys on other teams, but he should have came out early.”
The statement was intended tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a sentiment many Pac-12 coaches likely share after Sutton came out of nowhere to earn conference Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors with 63 tackles (41 solo) and 13 sacks last season — despite missing almost two games with a knee injury.
“He’s a game-changer,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said, shaking his head. “He almost single-handedly altered that game against us last year in Corvallis.”
With Oregon State facing a third-and-10 on its own 16-yard line on its first drive of that Nov. 3 game, Sutton beat the guard, squirted through the gap and literally scared the ball right out of quarterback Cody Vaz’s hands. Vaz fumbled and Junior Onyeali jumped on it to give the Sun Devils a quick 7-0 lead.
It was one of many game-altering plays that Sutton made during a superlative season that might have ended in a Pac-12 title-game berth had he not missed the team’s crucial home game against UCLA, which decided the South Division title and was decided on a last-minute Bruins field goal.
But more startling than all those games Sutton altered was the way he altered himself.
“You have to remember, this guy wasn’t even honorable mention in the conference the year before,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “The improvement he made was, one, because he worked his tail off and, two, because he has input into the scheme. We listen to him because he’s smart and he has a great understanding of the game of football.
“From the moment we arrived to take over this program, Will wanted to be a part of that. He wanted to help recruit and be a leader and he wanted to get better.”
Even so, Sutton was taken aback by just how much better he got. He liked hearing Graham tell him at the start of the season that he could be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American, but he didn’t fully believe it.
“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “I kind of shocked myself with how successful I was last year. Everything coach said came true.”
And yet, Sutton opted not to turn pro after his junior season, a decision that had Sun Devil nation rejoicing with so many other parts of an 8-5 team returning for another crack at that elusive conference title game.
“It was a tough decision — recruiting all over again, picking what school to go
to,” Sutton said. “The deciding factor was my grade from the NFL committee and also what I needed to get done here at ASU.
“I’m nine credits from graduating and I will be done in December. I love my teammates, the coaching staff and the atmosphere around here. We want to accomplish something that, once again, hasn’t been done here before, and I want to be part of that.”
To achieve that, Sutton has added about 20-25 pounds from his regular-season playing weight and 10 pounds from where he said he played the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last December when ASU throttled Navy 62-28.
“I just ate,” Sutton said, laughing. “I used to spend my money shopping for clothes and eat one meal a day. I spend more of my money on food now — potato salad, barbecue, almost everything. The good thing is it hasn’t affected me running and lifting-wise. Still got my speed. Still got my quickness.”
No player has ever been named the outright Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in two straight seasons (Washington’s Steve Emtman shared the honor in 1990 and won it again in ’91). Sutton admits it would be cool to be the first, but he told Graham at the start of the season that there are bigger fish to fry when Graham asked him how he could top 2012’s performance.
“‘Win a Rose Bowl’ is what he told me,” Graham said. “So I told him, ‘If you hold that Rose Bowl trophy above your head, you’ll be a top-five guy picked in the draft.'”
There will certainly be more attention paid to Sutton this season, more game plans altered because of his presence.
“He makes you carefully consider every blocking scheme that you use,” Riley said.
But Graham genuinely believes Sutton can be better than last year while also opening things up for players such as linebacker Carl Bradford and defensive end Davon Coleman.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface here,” Graham said. “To me, he’s Warren Sapp. He’s that kind of a player. He’s really a good one — the best I’ve ever coached.”