Arizona State's defensive line faced stiff challenges from Wisconsin and Stanford, but this week against USC, the test won't be administered by the Trojans' offensive line. With injuries plaguing the Sun Devil front, Arizona State is focused on putting its best players on the field regardless of position.
Redshirt senior Gannon Conway has started all three games at defensive end while junior college transfer Marcus Hardison has seen a limited role on the interior. This week the pair is shifting roles after learning that starting nose tackle Jaxon Hood is doubtful for the USC game.
Conway weighs 280 pounds and is lauded by the coaching staff as an aggressive run-stopper. His five tackles so far are not exactly video game numbers, but he has still provided an upgrade in run defense. Conway now must contend with more physical linemen in the trenches and adjust his technique in a matter of days.
"We really appreciate Gannon moving down inside, that's not an easy thing," coach Todd Graham said. "It's going from defensive end from nose tackle, it's not a good thing."
Fortunately for Conway, his transition is made easier by the fact that All-American tackle Will Sutton has grown accustomed to dealing with double teams. This means Conway will find himself in one-on-one situations, albeit intensely difficult ones.
"Nose tackle is the one they don't want to play," Graham said of defensive linemen. "It's the hard one, it's the one that takes all the beating. He's done a great job."
When Hood went down with an injury at Stanford, senior Jake Sheffield replaced the sophomore nose tackle. Sheffield is technically behind Marcus Hardison on the depth chart, but the coaching staff was underwhelmed by Hardison's performance against Wisconsin.
At his Monday press conference, Graham announced that the coaching staff planned on moving Hardison to Conway's vacant defensive end spot in practice. After two days on the field, Hardison has received glowing reports.
"I'll tell you who's had a great week of practice is Marcus Hardison," Graham said. "We bumped him back out there to end and for the first time yesterday in practice he looked like the guy I recruited. That's what I told him today. So I'm excited."
The emergence of Hardison at end would give the coaching staff a sigh of relief. Hardison is a raw talent and still prone to making mistakes, but his freak-of-nature athleticism might provide an unlikely source of production.
"He just turned it on," Graham said of Hardison. "Most people don't know, the grind of practice and how we practice, the structure from which we do everything we do is extremely hard sometimes if you're not used to that."
If Hardison continues to progress, he will see playing time behind Davon Coleman who is penciled in as the likely replacement for Conway at end this week. Coleman started last season before losing his starting job to Conway in fall camp.
Hardison's transition to the Division I level has been among Graham's greatest frustrations so far. He traditionally recruits polished junior college players and Hardison is an entirely different beast. Still, Graham believes the coaching staff has done its job in helping Hardison adjust to the rigors of big time college football.
"The best thing we ever did was put him inside," Graham said of having Hardison play tackle. "It made him tough. He learned how to play. He had no fundamental skills coming in. He was very raw. He just, yesterday, he looked impressive. First day he's looked like that."
If Hardison and Coleman provide a consistent 1-2 punch at defensive end this week, the Sun Devils are confident that Gannon Conway can pass the test on the inside.
Practice Notes From Wednesday
- Todd Graham said that if the Sun Devils played today, Dom Vizzare would handle the punting duties. Vizzare holds a slight edge over Matt Haack and Graham acknowledged that many of the special teams issues are a result of poor blocking.
- Graham says some of the early-season struggles are simply a product of the Sun Devils' schedule. "There's not anybody in the country that's playing a tougher schedule than us. We played good people...All I care about is winning."
- Marcus Ball is still a few weeks away from returning from his shoulder injury.
- Ellis Jefferson is practicing at full speed and Graham has asked offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to incorporate Jefferson into the offense.