After leading the country in tackles per loss and finishing second nationally in sacks per game last year, what can Will Sutton and the Arizona State defensive line do for an encore this season?
If you ask Todd Graham, he thinks the unit has plenty of room left to improve.
"There's no question we're a lot better on the defensive line than we were last year," Graham said. "Our best players are better and we have better depth. But we're a long way from being where I think we should be."
The Sun Devils return every key player from a defensive front that racked up 9.00 tackles for loss per game and 4.00 sacks per game. If Arizona State improves this season, that means Consensus All-American Will Sutton and sack master Carl Bradford will have to stay hungry.
How exactly did the Sun Devils' dynamic duo prepare for this season? By putting their bodies in better condition to handle the rigors of a 13-game schedule.
"I think Will's a lot better than he was last year," Graham said. "Both him and Carl physically are better."
In the offseason, Sutton added an extra 20 pounds while Bradford put his name in the Arizona State weight room record books by power cleaning more than 400 pounds. The added strength will help, but these two can't do it alone.
On signing day, Graham landed the commitment of Junior College transfer Marcus Hardison, who is expected to make an immediate impact. But Graham says he hasn't seen enough from Hardison, and the progression has taken longer than expected.
"It's been slow going," Graham said. "You have to strain him. He's just not been coached the way we coach. He didn't come from a system like ours and he's fought it a little bit."
But that doesn't mean Hardison hasn't evolved as a player. His work ethic has improved, and his desire to become a member of the starting lineup has always been evident.
"I think that he's a good kid, and he's responding," Graham said. "We cannot have him being a backup, he's too good of a player, he's too good of a talent and he's so much better than that and that's what I talk to him about."
With Freshman All-American Jaxon Hood returning at defensive tackle, the Sun Devils want to make Hardison a part of the regular rotation to help free up Sutton and Bradford.
"We have to have Marcus be a starter with Jaxon inside," Graham said. "Right now, I think the key person on the defensive line that has to develop is Marcus."
The interior of the line is clearly a work in progress, but the Sun Devils have a budding star at defensive end. An unlikely candidate to grab a starting spot, Gannon Conway has impressed the coaches throughout camp to the point where he's seen as a difference-maker on every down.
"Gannon Conway, if I picked a guy of the camp, it's him," Graham said. "I really never ever thought I would stand here and tell you that Gannon is starting. Not only is he starting, he's getting a little jiggle in there and he looks like an athlete."
Conway appears to hold an edge over Davon Coleman for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at defensive end, but Coleman is another player who has made an impression on the coaching staff of late.
"I think Davon has been better, he just has to practice every day," Graham said. "He struggles with that at times, but he was one of the hardest working guys in our program this summer."
While the sack and tackles for loss totals were gaudy last season, the Sun Devils' rush defense wasn't exactly something to write home about. Arizona State finished 81st nationally and allowed more than 180 yards per game on the ground, so the defensive line has its work cut out.
If the Sun Devils can attack opposing ball carriers with the same relentless spirit that helped them get to the quarterback last season, then the improvements Graham hopes to see should come to fruition.