'Monster' Sutton the heart of ASU's defense
TEMPE, Ariz. — If you imagine the Arizona State defense as a human body, it's easy to identify some key body parts.
Linebacker Brandon Magee is the brain, calling plays, coordinating his teammates' efforts and making sure everybody is on the same page.
Alden Darby is the mouth, communicating every thought that enters his mind, from reads in the secondary to opinions on opponents' mamas.
And Will Sutton? That should be obvious to anyone who has watched the Sun Devils defensive tackle flex, sprint and scream after he makes a tackle in the backfield. It might sound clichéd, but Sutton is the heart of this defense, and when he makes a play and celebrates with unbridled passion, heavily oxygenated blood starts pumping to the rest of the unit.
"We want him to get excited when he makes a play, because our defensive team draws off of that," defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said. "He's the catalyst. The love he has for the game and making plays and showing his exuberance — it gets everybody pumped up and into the game."
Sutton's nonstop motor and passion for playing have been his calling cards since he arrived at ASU and started the first game of his career as a true freshman under then-defensive coordinator Craig Bray. But it might surprise you to know that his current coach no longer views those as his greatest assets.
"His smarts, no question about it," Randolph said when asked Sutton's top asset. "It's the reads. It's the plays he makes because he understands what the offense is doing based on down and distance, based on personnel, based on whatever.
"He's taking the information we're giving him during the week and he's applying that to game day. It's paying off. It really is."
That should delight ASU fans, because that is the sign of a maturing player, one who hits the film room and practice fields as hard as he does opposing linemen.
That wasn't always the case. After a promising freshman season in which he recorded 17 tackles (three for loss) with a sack and a forced fumble, Sutton sat out the entire 2010 campaign after being ruled academically ineligible.
He also struggled with his emotions. It wasn't uncommon at ASU practices to see Sutton remove himself from drills after tiffs with the coaching staff or teammates. It was also common to see Sutton sit out drills with various injuries whose validity even media members began to question.
That doesn't happen anymore. Some of the credit goes to first-year coach Todd Graham's disciplined, accountable approach. Much of the credit goes to Sutton.
"I just decided it was time I go out there and prove I'm a really good player," Sutton said. "It's just me getting older and my mindset getting different."
Sutton didn't make any drastic changes this offseason. It was a case of doubling down on the things he already knew was supposed to do.
"I'm considered a leader on this team now," he said. "I had to act like it — come out with intensity."
The early returns have been promising for the Sun Devils (3-1). Entering Saturday's game at California, Sutton is 19th in the Pac-12 in tackles (26), tied for seventh in sacks (3.5) and tied for eighth in tackles for loss (six), earning him a spot on the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given each year to the best defensive player in the country.
His best game to date might have been the 45-14 win over Illinois, when he recorded seven tackles (three for loss) and disrupted the line of scrimmage all day, but Sutton has posted at least half a sack in every game this season while playing with the consistency coaches always cite as a hallmark of mature players.
"I can't imagine there's a defensive tackle in the country that has played better than Will Sutton has," Graham said at his weekly news conference. "(And he) is just scratching the surface. We challenge Will to practice and to walk, talk, everything exactly like we want him to do it. He's starting to do that."
Nothing gets Sutton quite as fired up as a sack.
"A sack is what every D-lineman wants," Sutton said. "The sack and tackle for loss get you so excited because it's a lot of hard work to make a play like that. The guys on the other side of the ball are D-I scholarships, too, so it's a battle."
Sutton's ability to make those plays has some teammates jokingly envious.
"I think I'd have some more sacks, but big Sutton gets them," defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said. "I'll be right there, and he'll just come bullet in and take it. It's definitely a race to get to the quarterback."
But there's a flip side to Sutton's effectiveness at the point of attack.
"I don't have to do anything," Magee said. "I just let him make all the plays. Will Sutton is a monster, point blank. Have you seen him? They can't even block him."
Sutton understands that his main job is to get off the ball quickly and get penetration, but he admits there is another play he'd like to make before his college career is done.
"I want an interception," he said. "I want to show my versatility so when we play teams that are running screens, I'm trying to get an interception."
The greater goal for Sutton, as for most college players, is the NFL. But it's too early to tell what Sutton's chances are. His body of work is incomplete. And if you ask Randolph, ASU's 6-foot-2, 271-pound defensive anchor hasn't scratched the surface of his capabilities.
"No, we're not at that high point yet," Randolph said. "Every day he's getting a little better, but I hope I never see his best. I hope I never see the high point of Will Sutton's game because I want him to keep climbing every day."
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