ASU football’s young defense aims to build on year of growth

Sun Devil safety Jordan Simone leads an ASU defensive unit that in 2015 returns all but two starters from 2014.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Any preseason apprehension about how Arizona State football’s program would fare in 2014 probably had to do with how little was known about its defensive unit.

And so any surprise about how successful the Sun Devils became thereafter had everything to do with Todd Graham’s youthful defensive players growing into roles vacated by a large senior class.

Mike Norvell’s offense hardly skipped a beat this season (and next year should do the same) but it was ASU’s defensive unit that developed quickly after losing so many talented pieces. No, the defense wasn’t completely to blame as UCLA dropped 62 points on the Sun Devils during their fourth game of the season, but that marked a turning point.

The Sun Devils — adopting a more aggressive approach — responded with five wins in a row, four against ranked opponents, while allowing 20.2 points per game. The numbers became more modest through the final stretch of the year for a few reasons, but there will always be "what-ifs" thrown about had the defense been less banged up in a Territorial Cup loss to Arizona that ended the regular season.

It wouldn’t be wrong to believe ASU’s defense will take another step forward in 2015, even if it loses the production from departing safety Damarious Randall and defensive line standout Marcus Hardison. The Sun Devils should return nine starters, and incoming defensive recruits will be hard-pressed to wrestle away regular reps.

Here’s a look at the defensive outlook for next season with the required asterisk of pointing out that spring ball has yet to occur.

Let’s start up front, where the Sun Devils will have to replace the biggest gap-filler in both the literal sense and in regards to solidifying a young line that lost all-everything tackle Will Sutton a year prior.

Marcus Hardison’s senior season was impressive. He led ASU in tackles for loss, had 10 of the team’s 39 sacks and forced three fumbles from his defensive end position.

There’s continuity inside with sophomore Viliami Latu, redshirt junior Demetrius Cherry and tackle Tashon Smallwood, who had an impressive freshman season. Mo Latu will add to the experience on the interior.

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Graham could opt to move one of the veterans into Hardison’s spot, or he could fill the vacancy with a youngster. Expect freshman end Renell Wren, redshirt freshman end Corey Smith and freshman tackle Connor Humphreys to battle for attention. Wren’s size (6-5, 255 pounds) and athleticism make him an on-paper favorite to replace Hardison.

Now to what could turn into the most compelling position battle for spring. 

The Devil-backer spot that was never quite filled once Carl Bradford left after the 2013 season, and if that problem persists, Graham could again use a more traditional look with two defensive ends.

Edmond Boateng saw some time at the Devil-backer position, and ASU also went with Cherry as a bigger, more traditional defensive end opposite Hardison.

The darkhorse to take the Devil-backer spot is 5-star junior college commit Davon Durant, who will be able to fight for that position in spring ball.

Finally, a complicating factor on the line. The unknown status of junior nose tackle Jaxon Hood, who missed the final five games of the year with a personal issue, could alter the depth chart if he finds his way back onto the team.

BIG LOSSES

Marcus Hardison (DE), Damarious Randall (S)

KEY RETURNERS

Kweishi Brown (CB), Lloyd Carrington (CB), Demetrius Cherry (DT), Salamo Fiso, (LB), Viliami Latu (DT), Antonio Longino (LB), Laiu Moeakiola (SPUR), Jordan Simone (S), Tashon Smallwood (DT)

The defensive backs dominated ASU’s statistical production in 2014 after Sutton and Bradford stuffed the box scores a year before that. Safeties Randall and Jordan Simone were one and two in total tackles for the Sun Devils, which is not exactly how Graham drew things up.

ASU’s biggest loss outside of Hardison is Randall, barring the NCAA granting him another year of eligibility because of a injury-filled freshman season. He frequently attacked the backfield on blitzes and led the Sun Devils with nine pass breakups in 2014. If he doesn’t return, freshmen Deandre Scott and Chad Adams are among the candidates to compete for his boundary safety position.

Simone, who missed the Arizona game, returns as the starting field safety after posting 100 tackles on the year, his first playing for ASU after transferring from Washington State.

The corner spots will see the returns of Kweishi Brown, who grew considerably in his first season since transferring from junior college, and Lloyd Carrington. Freshman Armand Perry and redshirt junior Solomon Means are back as second-teamers, but also keep an eye on the physical Ronald Lewis, a redshirting freshman receiver who is expected to become a fulltime defensive back.

Redshirt freshman Marcus Ball could also have an impact in the defensive backfield at a position yet to be determined.

The starting spots at both linebacker positions and the Spur are filled, and that’s good news for the blitz-happy Sun Devils.

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Laiu Moeakiola will be back at the Spur — ASU missed him dearly when he went down in the Arizona game — while Salamo Fiso (Sam linebacker) and Anthony Longino (Will linebacker) also return.

Their familiarity with one another should propel them toward becoming a more decorated unit moving forward.

True freshmen D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam also return after solid debut seasons and should work their way into more snaps in 2015. Redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson could throw his name into consideration after having strong bowl practices in December, as could Durant if he’s not needed at Devil-backer.

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