Will Sutton doing work against Missouri in 2011. He is the key to the defensive line in 2012. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
For every football team, scheme changes are part of the natural ebb and flow of the sport. But when it comes to a metamorphosis in the philosophy of the defensive side of the ball, more times than not these perpetual progressions can be turbulent.
Like trying to fit square pegs in round holes, expecting the assets of a speed-based defense such as a Tampa 2 to evolve overnight into a more physical 3-4 can be an extremely frustrating endeavor. But then again, for every 2007 Jim Bates/Denver Broncos crash and burn there’s a 2011 Wade Phillips/Houston Texans revival story.
When it comes to ASU football and their 2012 makeover to head coach Todd Graham’s aggressive 3-3-5 design though, Junior defensive tackle Will Sutton feels the Sun Devils have a chance to be something closer to the latter.
2012 ASU Season Preview
"We’re beginning to feel comfortable with the speed of this defense," Sutton said. "All this blitzing that we have going on is new but a lot of fun."
And nowadays, calling Sutton a "defensive tackle" might be a tad inaccurate. Due to the fact that Graham only has one recruiting class under his belt, the first year head coach has been forced to be creative with his resources, relying on players like Sutton to learn a variety of different positions on the fly.
"Having three down linemen, I’ve been asked to play [defensive] end," Sutton said. "I haven’t played end since high school so it’s still different for me being out there in space and having to track the quarterback a little more."
With this versatility being asked of them, Sutton says his fellow linemen have been focusing more on conditioning. The results? A unit in which the 6’2", 270-pound trench brawler calls "faster, stronger and healthier than I can ever remember."
"Conditioning and weights have been completely different for everybody," Sutton said. "We’re seeing the results."
But the real question is, will the fans see the results?
Beats me. Then again, I don’t practice every day with these behemoths, so allow Sutton to break it down for you.
Corey Adams "A big guy but a phenomenal athlete."
Those were the short but sweet words Sutton had for the senior nose tackle. But it doesn’t take someone who plays the same position to realize how big Adams is. Weighing in at a stout 283, the home grown product is the heaviest returning linemen the Devils have in their rotation, giving him in the upper hand in battle to eat space in the middle over newcomer Mike Pennel.
If Pennel does manage to win out, Adams could always slide over to either end position much like Sutton. Adams has always been known for his instincts and intelligence, key aspects in a gap-oriented scheme like Graham’s, making it likely he’ll see the field one way or another. That is unless the Scottsdale native is once again hindered by one of those nagging injuries that have always seemed to keep him from his full potential. And already this year, Adams has been held out of practice for over a week with back issues. But he did play in every game last season. That’s has to count for something right?
Davon Coleman "As long as he gets his act together and comes to play, he could be a top defensive end in the country."
While that may seem like a subtle knock to some, Sutton’s critical appraisal was meant as more of a testament to Coleman’s incredibly high ceiling. The former junior college transfer, Coleman showed some serious flashes of an uncanny swiftness last season, compiling 42 tackles including five in the backfield.
Since that time though, Coleman has struggled with his weight and missed some practice time for failing "to meet a team standard." Sad too as he seemed like a lock for one of the DE positions with his mass amount of natural ability. Still, if Coleman can straighten everything out, it’s possible the Devils could have a star pass rusher in 2012.
Toa Tuitea "Just a consistent playmaker"
But is this the year the Tuitea consistently shines? There’s no doubt his versatility will be valuable but Tuitea might have to make the most out of his limited playing time if he’s going to get his big break as a Senior.
One thing Tuitea does have going for him is his progression as a contributor. His stats have steadily increased since coming in as a freshman from making three tackles to appearing in all 13 games last season and making 3.5 tackles for a loss. While those numbers provide hope, it’s likely that Tuitea will be buried underneath Adams and Pennel at the nose tackle position for much of the year barring an injury or two.
Gannon Conway "A big, strong, well-rounded athlete"
You can never have too many of those right? Conway saw action in six games last season, registering his first career sack in the process. Overall though, it’s easy to see he’s still a work in progress.
Conway did show some run-stuffing ability in 2011 and could work his way into the top of the rotation if he can step up his quarterback hunting abilities. If he doesn’t, he might be only called into battle if desperation strikes as the Devils are in need of some serious pass-rushing prowess if they’re to compete in the Pac-12 immediately.
Jake Sheffield "A scrappy fighter"
And Sheffield is a fighter in more than one way. The junior-college transfer spent 18 months serving in Iraq for two tours with the United States Marine Corps before beginning his college football career. Now, he’s looking to catch the eye of the man who proudly recruited him, coach Graham, as progresses as an all-around solid player.
It’s not as if Sheffield is lacking experience either. The 6’4", 280-pound hybrid defender earned first-team Southern California Football Association Central Division East Honors by showing a knack for blowing up plays (24 tackles, four for loss). He’s working an uphill battle but don’t be surprised if he’s a reoccurring playmaker this season as long as he can hone in on his fundamentals and adapt to Graham’s 3-3-5 smoothly.
The Newcomers Mike Pennell and Jaxon Hood "They will really have a chance to make an impact across the d-line."
Sutton may have chose to bunch these two together but their immense talent levels should make them standout from the pack shortly.
Hood has already made it clear to Graham and his staff that he doesn’t plan on taking it easy and learning from the sidelines in year one. The former Hamilton high school stud has climbed the depth chart early, working with the first teamers up at Camp T and turning some heads in the process. So much so that Graham has already said he "expects" Hood to be a starter when the season kicks off on Aug. 30, according the Arizona Republic’s Scott Bordow.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pennel’s debut hasn’t gone exactly as plan. Once considered a lock for the nose tackle job at a dominating 6’5", 340-pounds, some minor injuries have kept Pennel behind the learning curve while simultaneously allowing Hood’s ascension. Even if he’s not up to speed, necessity could push Pennel into the trenches with his monster frame being more ideally suited for the middle than Adams or Tuitea.
Much like Hood, it’s likely that when Pennel gets his chance, his tremendous ability will make him too much of a force to keep off the field. And for ASU fans, watching these two players grow next to each other could be one of the highlights of the season.
And last but not least…Will Sutton
Didn’t think we were going to leave out the man of the hour did you? Arguably the most gifted of the bunch, it seemed like Sutton was destined for greatness after the memorable freshman year in which he collected at least one tackle in 10 of the 12 games he played in.
Sutton then carried that momentum over to fall practice making the defensive tackle position seem like a legitimate area of strength to most heading into the 2010 season. Only a few days before the season though, Sutton would take a step backwards, being ruled academically ineligible for the entire year.
Sutton returned in 2011 to start 12 games but his play wasn’t quite what fans recalled it could be. Inconsistency plagued the talented tackle for much of the year, being remembered, possibly unfairly, more for the plays he should have made than the ones he did.
If anything though, it’s clear that all of that has made Sutton nothing but more motivated. Expressing his excitement for the 3-3-5, Sutton feels like its fast-paced ideology suits him better than schemes of the past. And Sun Devils everywhere better hope that’s the case as Graham needs Sutton to be a dependable anchor with all the moving parts along an undefined defensive line.