Bowl season is the optimal time for NFL Draft prospects to show off their talents on a national scale, and Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton is one of many Sun Devils who plans on taking full advantage of the spotlight.
After turning down NFL aspirations last year to chase his dreams of a Rose Bowl and a degree from Arizona State, Sutton has one game left to play in a Sun Devil uniform.
Earlier this week, the redshirt senior made good on one of the promises he made in pledging to return to Tempe. Sutton graduated from Arizona State and became one of a growing number of Sun Devil football players to cap off his career with a degree.
Though Sutton won't help the Sun Devils win a Rose Bowl this year, the Southern California native still made an indelible mark on the Arizona State program. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound defensive tackle led the maroon and gold to its first 10-win season since 2007, and with a victory in the Holiday Bowl, Sutton and Co. can make it the first 11-win season since 1996.
Last offseason, Sutton's decision to come back to Arizona State drew praise from many. Head coach Todd Graham cited the choice as a mark of the defensive tackle's maturity, and his teammates considered it a move only a true leader would make.
But as Sutton prepares for the final game of his Sun Devil career, it appears as though he still has his doubters.
Here's what an NFL scout told analyst Daniel Jeremiah recently.
"There are serious questions about his character, fitness and athletic ability. He was out of shape this fall and wasn't nearly the same player that he was the year before."
Are questions about Sutton's fitness viable? Probably. Athletic ability? Not as much. Character? That can't be serious.
An NFL scout questioning Sutton's character shows how out of touch the national folks are with Arizona State right now. These are probably the same type of folks that think Todd Graham is jumping ship to his next "dream job" tomorrow.
Yes, Sutton's production is down this season. In fact, it's not uncharacteristic to see some of the best players in the country take a step back statistically a year after bursting onto the scene. Opponents adjust their game plans accordingly, and superstars play with a target on their back.
At the beginning of the season, Sutton did look a bit slower. Perhaps that's why his sack totals dropped from 13.0 to just 4.0 this year. Maybe that's why his tackles for loss count dwindled from 23.5 in 2012 to 11.5 in 2013.
Still, Sutton pushed through and made his presence felt in games. As a redshirt senior, Sutton faced consistent double teams and worked against some of the most physical offensive lines in the country (See Stanford and Wisconsin). The kind of grueling schedule Arizona State played takes a toll on a player's body, so Sutton will likely want to answer his doubters with a strong effort in the Holiday Bowl coming off weeks of rest.
But right now, the problem for Sutton isn't answering questions regarding his fitness and athletic ability. He can still do that. Instead, the issue is answering questions about his character. Because really, what does Will Sutton have to prove on that front?
A year after winning the Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award, Sutton won it again. Whether he was deserving of the award is for an entirely different debate, but the fact that his name was in the conversation goes to show what type of character he has.
This season, a year in which Arizona State enjoyed incredible success, Todd Graham put to rest any questions about Sutton's character. He called Sutton one of the best leaders he's ever coached.
Graham doesn't just throw that type of compliment around.
Sutton had to earn the praise of Todd Graham. Graham has reiterated that forcing Sutton to practice and compete with intensity was a challenge at times, but this year, Sutton has embraced it. Sutton has the will to win that Graham demands out of his leaders, and that's why he considers Sutton one of the best.
So what can Sutton do to avoid the "character" tag one analyst labeled him with? For someone who turned down the NFL to earn a degree, to help his team chase a Rose Bowl, and to lead his team to a Pac-12 South title, there's nothing else he can do.
Will Sutton has to be Will Sutton. If he does that, the odds are stacked in his favor that the comments of one NFL scout won't matter. Everyone in Tempe knows what kind of character Sutton has, and in due time, so will everyone in the NFL.