ASU Football Spring Practice Primer: The Defensive Line

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

The road to the Rose Bowl starts in the trenches for Arizona State.

When Todd Graham first landed in the desert, he made it quite clear that it was his intention to mold the Sun Devils into a defensive juggernaut.

But at that time, no one, including Graham, knew that he was inheriting a player who could make his dreams a reality far sooner than anyone imagined.

Oh, Will Sutton...you're one sneaky bastard.

Fast forward to the present and the expectation surrounding ASU's defense are as high as ever largely due to the fact that the wrecking ball known as "Sweet Tea Willie" has decided to come back for his senior season. But even with that good news in mind, you still might be wondering how in the world can Arizona State improve on a season in which they lead the NCAA in tackles for a loss and had the second most sacks in all of college football.

Well, you're not alone but we all will be closer to discovering if that's truly a possibility once spring practice begins on March 19. But before then, how about you learn a little more about the men who will be doing all the dirty work in the defensive trenches for ASU:

Who's Back

  • Will Sutton (Pac-12 Player of the Year): 23.5 TFL, 13 sacks, five passes broken up, three forced fumbles & 63 total tackles
  • Junior Onyeali: Eight TFL, six sacks, two passes broken up, one forced fumble & 17 total tackles
  • Davon Coleman: 11 TFL, five sacks & 66 total tackles
  • Jaxon Hood (Freshman All-American): Four TFL, three sacks & 26 total tackles
  • Jake Sheffield: Eight total tackles
  • Gannon Conway: One TFL, one sack & eight total tackles
  • Sean O'Grady
  • Gonzalo Belloso
  • Cutter Baldock
Who's New

To no one's surprise, Graham's recruiting class for 2013 was heavy with defensive lineman. Marcus Hardison (JUCO transfer), Demetrius Cherry (JUCO transfer), Corey Smith, Nick Begg and Kisima Jagne were added to an already deep unit as Graham looks to go 3-4 players deep at every position along the line. Jagne is expected to participate in spring practice after enrolling in classes in January following his departure from Colorado.

Who's Gone
  • Toa Tuitea: Four total tackles
  • Corey Adams (Did not appear in a game due to a back injury)
Keep an Eye On: Jaxon Hood

If Sutton swung the other way and decided to go pro, much of the focus this spring would have been on Hood having to step up his game to replace the interior push that departed with Sutton. Luckily for Sun Devil fans, that's something they won't have to worry about until next year.

Then again, it's never too early to start prepping Hood for next season's changing of the guard, especially with Coleman and Onyeali set to graduate as well.

Coming out of Hamilton high, Hood was everything fans could have hoped for and more last season as he worked his way up the depth chart and never looked back. But with the big space eater set to eventually become the face of the Sun Devils' defense, he has to begin grooming his leadership qualities now. And that all starts by setting the tone in spring ball. Showing up in shape obviously helps but Hood would also be wise to squeeze every bit of information possible out of the aforementioned trio of seniors as he looks to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Even with their impressive defensive line depth, ASU can ill afford Hood becoming complacent in the film room or on the field.

Biggest Strength: Depth

Graham may only be in his second year in the desert but his vision as already coming to fruition. A huge factor in Graham's attacking, formation-flopping defense is having enough big bodies up front to get a consistent push. And when you look at what he's working with, the Sun Devils should have no problem collapsing the pocket in 2013.

But wait, there's more! This collection of linemen is comprised of its fair share of tweeners and hybrid players which will allow Graham to tinker with their positions and move them across the line. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Graham will try to experiment as much as possible to free up space for those athletes behind the d-line to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Biggest Concern: Life Without Sutton

If you somehow had any doubts that Sutton is at the foundation of this entire team, take a look back at the two game stretch from last season in which he was out with his knee injury. In handing the Devils two devastating losses, Oregon and UCLA combined for 618 rushing yards and six rushing scores while running through lanes so wide you could have backed an 18-wheeler through them.

While there's no doubting that the Devils have depth, you'd still be in denial to claim that they could ever compensate for the loss of Sutton if he were to go down with an injury again. Everything the Devils do revolves around Sutton being the force that he is. Without him, the gaps grow and the seemingly unlimited number of blitzing options that Graham once had dwindles as players such as Carl Bradford and Chris Young lose the ability to instinctively roam free.

With another offseason of Graham's schemes being pounded into their heads, it's doubtful that the rest of the ASU defense would crawl back into the fetal position like they did last year sans-Sutton. But it's still a scary thought when you consider that Sutton will surely not be as willing to rush back from an injury with his future NFL payday being as imminent as ever.

What It All Means

Graham will have his work cut out for him as he looks to repeat last season's success. That said, the rest of the Pac-12 is sure to be already losing sleep at the thought of facing a defense lead by this unit. Even if Sutton and company are unable to repeat their lofty numbers, the pass rush still should be in the top-5 territory since ASU is going through no major departures. But don't be surprised to see some school records broken if a majority of these players progress as expected once Graham opens up the defensive playbook a bit. Although coach is sure to field a high octane offense, the Sun Devils chances of capturing their first Pac-12 South title centers on the gentlemen we've discussed here today.

2013 Spring Football Primer Series

Running Back | Tight End | Linebacker | Secondary | Offensive Line | Wide Receiver | Quarterback

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