With just four starters returning from last year's squad—a unit that finished 91st nationally, by the way—and a whole new scheme and coaching staff, there was widespread belief coming into the season that the Sun Devil defense would struggle in 2012 adjusting to so many new elements.
Yeah...not so much.
Through the first half of the 2012 season, the ASU defense under new coordinator Paul Randolph has been phenomenal. Just look at the numbers.
Heading into the weekend, they ranked second in the nation in tackles-for-loss, third in sacks, fourth in pass defense, 10th in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Not too shabby.
Yesterday, we took a midseason review of the Sun Devil special teams, and now, let's take a look at this high-ranking unit.
Sutton, Sutton, Sutton.
After seasons that merely hinted at his vast potential, junior defensive tackle Will Sutton has finally begun to realize it on the field and the opposition has paid dearly. Sutton is having an All-American caliber year (if not Heisman consideration worthy), having 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss, both figures topping last year's team leaders in those categories. His tremendous numbers only hint at his dominance, as he's been nearly unblockable despite the extra attention lavished upon him by offenses.
Sutton's brilliance has overshadowed several other great performances on the line. At end, Junior Onyeali has had a nice bounceback season with four sacks and six tackles-for-loss, and Davon Coleman has been good, using his size to hold down the edges while racking up 2.5 tackles-for-loss. Coleman has also seen time as a goal line fullback.
At tackle, true freshman Jaxon Hood has started every game and been solid, with 13 tackles (two for loss). His accomplishment has been all the more impressive thanks to the situation of Mike Pennel, the 325-pounder who was thought to be a major contributor prior to the year, but made just three tackles before being suspended indefinitely.
Devilbacker Carl Bradford could be listed under the linebacker header as well, as the position has him performing both defensive end and outside linebacker duties, but we'll list him here as the team depth chart has him with the line. The sophomore has been a terror along the edge and filled up a number of stat columns: 32 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, three pass deflections a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. It was expected that he would take a major leap this season and he has. The trio of Bradford, Onyeali and Sutton may be the best pass rushing trio in the nation.
Depth along the line, like many positions, remains a concern. At rush end, running back James Morrison was moved over to help the situation, and Hood figures to be spelled more often in the coming weeks by Jake Sheffield. Gannon Conway has five tackles and a sack as a reserve along the interior.
No group has embodied the overall surprising turnaround of the team from uncertainty to strength better than linebacker. After losing all three starters from last year, plus top reserve Oliver Aaron, there were significant doubts at the defense's second level.
Brandon Magee's return from last season's Achilles injury has been triumphant. Showing the great athleticism, leadership and instincts that he had back in 2010—and then some—Magee has made a team-high 41 tackles (four for loss), 2.5 sacks and two interceptions, despite missing a game. If not for the ridiculous start of Sutton, Magee's play would be receiving more attention.
Joining Magee in the starting lineup have been a pair of newcomers, one who has exceeded expectations while the other has struggled.
Chris Young has been an absolutely dynamic force from his "spur" spot. Flying all over the field with his great closing speed, Young has made 40 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and two sacks. He's become one of the Pac-12's most dangerous defensive weapons after a slow start during camp.
Strongside starter (and Young's junior college teammate), Steffon Martin has yet to standout. He's started all six games of the season, but has made just eight tackles. Martin has tremendous talent to put up numbers similar to Magee and Young, and should he up his play over the second half, this unit could rank among the nation's best.
Limited depth is again a concern here. Anthony Jones has been the top reserve and started in Magee's place against Illinois. The athletic junior has 13 tackles on the season. Brandon Johnson and Grandville Taylor have seen action mostly on special teams after strong offseasons, but have seen some snaps on defense.
Statistically, the defensive backs have been great. Only three teams have better numbers in yards-per-game (137.0) and passing efficiency defense (90.25) than ASU. But what stock can we really put into that figure?
One of the most interesting quirks of the first half has been the opposing quarterback situation. Only twice among the first six games has ASU faced a starting quarterback for the majority of the game. Of the FBS teams faced, none has a passing offense ranked among the nation's top half entering Week 7. Illinois (81st) Missouri (76th), Utah (100th), Cal (66th) and Colorado (72nd) having hardly been putting on an aerial show.
Then again, a team can only play who's been on their schedule, and they secondary has done very well in the first six games. Cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor have been very good in coverage, knocking away a combined 11 passes. Each of them has the talent to be among the Pac-12's better corners, and the team will need them to continue to show the consistency they have had over the first six games.
Safeties Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson have been good along the backline. Darby has two interceptions on the year, and has showed off the great range and ballhawking skills he hinted at last season. Johnson has finally started to play to his potential. He has 38 tackles, many of them hard hits, and has been good against the pass with five break-ups.
Broken record here, but depth is an issue. At corner, nickelback Robert Nelson has been shaky, although he had an interception against Colorado. Behind him, injuries to Devan Spann and Rashad Wadood have forced the team to move receivers Kevin Anderson and J.J. Holliday over in recent week, this following Jarrid Bryant's move in the spring. The safety depth was bolstered by another move from offense, this time in running back Deantre Lewis, but is still shaky.
With teams like UCLA (20th in the nation in passing) Oregon State (eighth, although Sean Mannion's status is still unknown), USC (41st, but...Marqise Lee!), Washington State (15th) and Arizona (fourth) on the horizon, we'll find out exactly how good this unit has become.