Everything that Arizona State has tried to do on the defensive line in the past two seasons has centered around Will Sutton, who graduated in December. Gannon Conway, Davon Coleman and Jake Sheffield also finished their time in maroon and gold with the 2013 season coming to a close. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, as is the beauty of recruiting, they able to bring in some fresh blood.
It's important to note that the Devil backer position in Todd Graham's offense will often sneak up into a three-point stance on the line, but for all intensive purposes "defensive line" means just the big boys up front.
The only returners to the trenches who saw legitimate time on the defensive side of the ball are Marcus Hardison and Jaxon Hood. Hardison played in 13 games but recorded just five tackles as he shuffled between defensive tackle and defensive end. Hood fought through injuries to play in 12 games and was much more efficient with 17 tackles including three for a loss of yardage.
"The big thing is just learning our system," head coach Todd Graham said. "That's going to be the big thing is that with all the new ‑‑ with new players, we got Marcus, we've got Jaxon, we've got guys that are coming back and guys that have been here, that red‑shirted, that understand our system."
Arizona State signed four players on Wednesday that could contribute or start next season in Dalvon Stuckey, Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren. Edmond Boatang also signed as an early-enrollee giving the Sun Devils plenty of options on the defensive front next season. The only problem is that only three of the aforementioned men will be able to take the field for the first play of the season next year.
"I think they'll be hard to keep off the field," Graham said of his new recruits. "There's not any of the guys we signed up front that I don't think could have contributed on our team this last year."
Stuckey only has two years of eligibility left and as a 4-star junior college recruit, he is also further along in his development than any other defensive line signee, so he will probably get the best look at a starting spot come fall camp. Graham compared Stuckey to Sutton, but also mentioned that Smallwood had a very similar playing style to Sutton as well.
Humphreys was another big signing for the Sun Devils. He stands 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds so weight gain should be a priority for him in the offseason. He was the No. 1 player in the state of Oregon and Rivals had him as a 4-star recruit. Come fall, Humphreys could get a look at the nose tackle position as well but the physicality and experience of Hood may win out. The same can probably said for Smallwood who could start at the 3-technique, but when he's coming out of high school and there are players with more experience in front of him, it's tough to see him earning a starting spot right off the bat.
"He's a guy that'll play nose tackle for us, big, physical, inside guy, and a guy that we think can come in and be impactful for us," Graham said of Humphreys.
The defensive end spots are more open-ended and up for grabs. Hardison saw time there last season but didn't make the most of it. Wren stands 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds so he could probably afford a little more food in his belly as well but runs a 4.69 in the 40-yard dash so he can certainly explode off the ball.
"We want guys that obviously have great length and size, but we want speed and explosive power," Graham said. "We want guys that can impact the quarterback and guys that can attack and work in the backfield. Renell is going to be a guy that can come in and be able to compete early at the defensive end position."
Boateng might be just a more experienced clone of Wren at the strong side defensive end spot. He also stands 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 275. He also has a leg up on his competitors for starting spots. As a mid-year signee, Boateng will be able to participate in spring practices.
"He's (Boateng) is all about the discipline, and he loves that about our program, and he's one of the best defensive ends coming out of junior college," Graham said. "Again, another guy that's got that size and length. You see almost 6-foot-5 and got the length that we want, and batting those balls and narrowing those throwing lanes for quarterbacks."
In a very early look at how the defensive line could shake out when the depth chart gets released in the fall, Stuckey should have a very good chance to earn a spot at the 3-technique. Smallwood could surprise there as well but don't be surprised if Graham tries to save him up and let him learn behind Stuckey. Humphreys is in a similar position to Smallwood behind Hood, but either player could be the first man off the bench in any 4-3 schemes that the Sun Devils may run next year as well.
"When you look at the interior defensive line, that was something that we thought was very, very important to address, and we felt like we knocked it out of the park with those young men there in guys that fit what we're about," Graham said.
Wren, Boateng and Hardison will be an interesting battle at the defensive end spots. Don't be surprised if Humphreys gets a look at defensive end down the line as well given his size and ability with his hands if not just for a little more exposure. There's no doubt Hardison will certainly have his hands full trying to obtain a solid starting spot. Regardless, all of these players have the ability to grow into a starting role at the Division I level so the defensive line situation next year will definitely be more fluid than in the past.