TEMPE, Ariz. — As he prepares to play what could be his last home game at Arizona State, defensive tackle Will Sutton knows exactly what he wants people to remember about his time as a Sun Devil:
“That we were Rose Bowl champions, Pac-12 champions,” Sutton said. “That’s it. ‘Will Sutton was on the Rose Bowl champ team.’ That’s all I care about.”
Sutton has the opportunity to help write such an ending to his ASU career, though regardless he will leave a legacy of defensive dominance and a place among the best defensemen to wear the maroon and gold.
“He’s the best defensive lineman I’ve ever coached, hands down,” ASU coach Todd Graham said.
Graham, of course, has a limited perspective after just two seasons at ASU. He has seen Sutton’s best and pushed him to become a leader. The early part of Sutton’s ASU tenure, under former coach Dennis Erickson, was complicated.
Sutton, a Long Beach, Calif., native, showed promise his freshman season. He recorded 17 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack. He didn’t capitalize on the momentum, though, because he missed all of the 2010 season after being ruled academically ineligible.
Sutton also garnered a reputation early on for how he handled his emotions. He argued with coaches and teammates and didn’t always appear to go full speed. He posted decent numbers in 2011 — 33 tackles, 5.5 for loss and two sacks — but it wasn’t until Graham arrived that things really clicked.
“I just decided it was time I go out there and prove I’m a really good player,” Sutton said last season, in which he earned consensus All-American honors.
In a breakout 2012 season, Sutton registered 63 tackles, including 23.5 for loss and 13 sacks. He was selected for the All-Pac-12 First Team and became the fifth Sun Devil to win the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award, joining elite company in Dale Robinson (2005), Terrell Suggs (2002), Adam Archuleta (2000) and Pat Tillman (1997), who all won the Pac-10 award. He surprised many by returning for his senior season after he did not receive the NFL draft evaluation he’d hoped to get.
Sutton’s 2013 season has not been as impressive on the surface. He enters Saturday’s regular-season finale against rival Arizona with 39 tackles — 9.5 for loss and three sacks. But those numbers may belie his overall impact.
“I think he’s had a better year than last year, in my opinion,” Graham said. “I mean, it’s not all about somebody’s individual statistics.”
Sutton has been at least as effective this season as he was a year ago, albeit without the stats to prove it. His statistical decline largely can be explained by a combination of elite offensive lines (Wisconsin, Stanford, Notre Dame) and constant double teams. But the focus on him has created opportunities for teammates.
Critics pinned Sutton’s fewer sacks and tackles for loss to “bad weight” added in the offseason. He entered the season at 305 pounds, and there were questions of whether he’d lost some his signature explosiveness. Sutton tuned out the criticism and returned to form during ASU’s six-game winning streak to a Pac-12 South title.
Where Sutton became exponentially and unequivocally better this season: leadership. Coaches pushed him in spring practices and fall camp to be a more vocal and emotional leader on the field. Sutton resisted, preferring to lead by example, but he couldn’t hold out forever.
As the Sun Devils prepared to take the field against Washington on Oct. 19, Sutton stepped in front of Graham in the tunnel to lead the team out. Then last week against UCLA, Sutton addressed the team before it headed to the locker room at halftime, something Graham usually does. Further, Sutton led efforts to keep the team fired up and determined as it staved off UCLA’s comeback attempt.
“I was very impressed,” Graham said. “Where he is as a player … he was a great player a year ago. Where he is as a leader, he has grown leaps and bounds. That was the most impressive performance that I think I’ve ever been around from a leadership standpoint.
“I’d tell you in the last three weeks he’s developed into one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached and has surprised me by that.”
What sparked the change in Sutton? A realization, he says, that the Sun Devils are on the brink of greatness.
“Guys on the team look up to me,” Sutton said. “It’s not that I have to do it, but we are close to accomplishing our goals, and since they look up to me I have to step up.”
Sutton will graduate with his name sprinkled throughout ASU’s record book. His 41.5 career tackles for loss already rank ninth in school history and his 20 sacks rank seventh. His sack and tackle for loss totals in 2012 were both fourth most in a season since ASU joined the then-Pac-10.
While Sutton’s numbers stack up among the best, it is difficult to determine where he rates among the all-time greats to play at ASU. He is in exclusive company as a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, of course, but the award has only been given since 1983, after the likes of cornerback Michael Haynes and linebacker Ron Pritchard, both college football hall of famers.
It might be easier to consider Sutton among the schools best defensive linemen ever. There’s Suggs (2000-02), of course, and Al Harris (1975-78). Shante Carver (1990-93) and Derrick Rodgers (1996) would merit discussion as well, but as pure linemen go Sutton may just be among the best few ever.
Such conversations concern Sutton very little, especially right now. He is focused on beating Arizona to lock up home-field advantage in the Pac-12 title game.
It’s in the Territorial Cup series, too, that Sutton could leave a lasting legacy. Sutton turned in a memorable performance last season, battling multiple injuries to play nearly every snap and record five tackles, two for loss.
In Saturday’s game, which he says will be his second to last in Tempe, Sutton has the chance to build on what some players consider the most significant part of their ASU legacy.
“Growing up in California, I didn’t really know about this rivalry,” Sutton said. “Once you get here you become a part of it. It’s just tradition, and you know you’ve got to play with passion. You’ve got to bring something different when you play UA.