After one year in Todd Graham's defensive system, the Arizona State defensive line earned the respect of its Pac-12 foes and the national media. The Sun Devils came into 2013 with one of the most highly regarded defensive lines in school history, anchored by returning Consensus All-American Will Sutton.
With so much expected of Arizona State's front three, could the Sun Devils possibly live up to expectations? Let's take a closer look.
2013 Expectations: Before we talk about the Sun Devils' defensive line, it's important to examine Arizona State's scheme and find out exactly who qualifies as a defensive lineman. Technically speaking, the Sun Devils run a 3-4 defense. So even though Carl Bradford lines up in a three-point stance and plays on the edge with regularity, Bradford is not classified as a defensive lineman.
With Bradford at linebacker, the Sun Devils still boasted one of the top talents in the country at defensive tackle in Will Sutton. The expectations for Sutton this season were through the roof, and there was no way he could possibly live up to them. As a defensive tackle, back-to-back 13-sack seasons is practically unheard of. Still, when you earn Consensus All-American honors and come back to school, people expect the most.
At nose guard, Arizona State began the season with sophomore Jaxon Hood in the starting role. Hood earned Freshman All-American honors, and his expectations were also very lofty. The Sun Devils' didn't have great depth at nose, so Hood staying healthy became a major priority.
The depth at nose may not have been strong, but Arizona State did have proven commodities at defensive end. Both Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman took reps at defensive end throughout fall practices, but senior Gannon Conway shocked everyone and won the starting spot. Conway was the lone defensive lineman whose expectations were tempered, simply because he was a relative unknown.
2013 Production: Almost immediately, we learned that it would be impossible for Sutton to replicate his numbers from 2013. Facing consistent double-teams and stronger offensive linemen gave Sutton fits, yet he still pushed through and gave the Sun Devils a menacing presence on the defensive line.
While Sutton finished with just 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, he still earned the Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award in a conference featuring All-American standouts Anthony Barr and Trent Murphy. The recognition served as a validation for the senior, who passed up the NFL to come back and try to help his team bring home a Rose Bowl title.
For Jaxon Hood, the season took a turn for the worst in the early going. In Arizona State's third game, Hood suffered a hamstring injury that limited his reps throughout the season. Hood would return to full strength, but he finished with just 3.0 tackles for loss after Davon Coleman took over his spot at nose guard.
Hood's injury nearly devastated the Sun Devils, but Todd Graham inserted Coleman into Hood's place and never looked back. Coleman racked up 15.0 tackles for loss and tied for the team-high with 8.5 sacks and proved to be the biggest surprise for the Sun Devils this season.
Arizona State didn't have depth at nose guard entering the year, but it was able to pluck from its deep ranks at defensive end and find a player who fit the scheme and brought the toughness to match.
Coleman's season was one to remember, and so was Gannon Conway's, the Sun Devils' defensive end. Arizona State didn't really know what to expect from a senior like Conway, but he turned in the best year of his football career with 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks at a position that required him to be an asset in stopping the run.
Much of Arizona State's final national ranking of 26th in run defense can be attributed to Conway's maturation on the edge, as he consistently forced running backs to turn up field and deal with the Sun Devils' linebackers.
With the way the schedule shook out for Arizona State, it would have taken a miracle for this team to match its 2013 numbers. Still, the defensive line held its own and played a key role in lifting the Sun Devils to their first 10-win season since 2007.
Yes, Arizona State's defensive line finished out the year with disappointment against Stanford and Texas Tech, but so did every other position group. Simply focusing on the final two games would be doing an injustice to a group that came into the year with an extreme amount of hype, and still managed to pull off something special.
Who's Returning in 2014?
Jaxon Hood: Starting nose guard
Marcus Hardison: JUCO transfer who can play all three defensive line positions
Mo Latu: Supremely talented nose guard who suffers with weight issues
Demetrius Cherry: JUCO transfer who plays on the interior defensive line
Will Sutton: The two-time All-American might come back (to have his jersey retired one day)
Gannon Conway: Senior defensive end
Davon Coleman: Played at an All-Pac-12 level before being suspended for the Holiday Bowl.
Jake Sheffield: Carried the American flag onto the field before games and provided depth at nose guard.