For the last five seasons, the Arizona State defense under defensive coordinator Craig Bray featured a traditional 4-3 look that often times gave presented a "bend but don't break" approach.
With the new high-octane approach to, well, everything about the program under head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, that style of defense is now a thing of the past. In its place is an aggressive mindset that will feature multiple defensive sets. At times this season, the Sun Devils will run a 4-3, 3-4 and 3-3-5 set, among other situational defenses. While the schemes will vary, the ideology of attacking opposing offenses will be a constant.
One of the critical factors needed for the success of a defense featuring so many sets is versatility in it's key players, especially in the front seven. Thankfully, the Sun Devils have two players whose skills are a great fit for this style.
With the team running the 4-3 last season, Will Sutton made 12 starts at defensive tackle, racking up 33 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. While solid, those numbers and his overall play were something of a disappointment, as Sutton's vast potential was a source of great excitement coming into 2011.
At 6'2", 272 pounds, Sutton has the size and strength to man a tackle spot in a four-man front. Those same skills allow him to slide out to defensive end when a team moves to a three-man front, where the end's responsibilities are designed more for engaging linemen to allow the linebackers to make the majority of the plays. Sutton also has the quickness to be an effective playmaking presence in attack in either set, adding a further element to his potential.
At Tuesday's practice, the team began installing a 3-4 scheme after spending much of the spring in a 4-3. As many have expected, Sutton moved from his familiar spot at tackle to end. With a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle in 6'5", 340-pound Mike Pennel coming into the fold this fall, Sutton's ability to play multiple positions along the line only makes the Devil defense that much more dangerous.
In the situations in which the team shifts to a 3-4, Sutton's move to end results in another position shift by one of the team's most promising players.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2011, Carl Bradford saw action as a reserve linebacker, but with his stout build at 6'0" and 240 pounds, he shifted to defensive end to help fill a team need. Although his tackle total was modest--12 total stops--he managed to show glimpses of his playmaking ability with 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles-for-loss.
Should that ability to get into an offense's backfield continue to develop, Bradford figures to become a deadly weapon no matter the look ASU presents.
Throughout the spring, Bradford has emerged as an impressive and disruptive presence as starter at defensive end in a 4-3, sometimes from a standing position in passing situations. During Tuesday's 3-4 defense installation, he moved to outside linebacker with the starters. As perhaps the team's best pass rushing threat, the ability for Bradford to play in either situation is a major advantage.
This fall will see an on-going process of changes for the defense. While the road ahead will undoubtedly be rocky for both the players and coaches, the ability of two of their most potent and dangerous playmakers to remain on the field at all times figures to be a stabilizing--and productive--asset.
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