ASU Football: Defensive position battles to watch this fall

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The Sun Devil defense is rebuilding and there's plenty of story lines to follow this fall.

After Tuesday's reveal of the top position battles to watch on offense at Arizona State this fall, it's time to break down where the most intriguing changes will happen on defense.

Offensively, Arizona State is focused on building depth while defensively, the Sun Devils are concerned about starting from scratch. After losing nine starters from the 2013 starting defense, spring practices afforded Todd Graham and his staff the opportunity to take an extended look at each player on the depth chart.

As some players began to gain an upper hand on playing time for this fall, others left their positions wide open and will enter camp with a lot to prove. In all likelihood, many of the Sun Devils' top recruits will need to step in and make an impact this fall because Arizona State is losing so much talent and veteran leadership.

So which spots are the most important to keep your eyes on come fall camp? Here's our top three.

Devilbacker

Is it easier to replace a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in Will Sutton, or a perfect system-fit in explosive linebacker Carl Bradford? If you took a hard look at Arizona State's performance this spring, it's clear that the Sun Devils are nowhere close to finding someone who can step into Bradford's role.

The defensive coaching staff tried three different players at the Devilbacker this spring, and each had difficulties grasping the challenging nature of the position. As a hybrid linebacker/rush end, the Devil backer must be agile enough to get to the quarterback on passing plays, strong enough to hold the edge on outside runs, and quick enough to cover a receiver coming out of the backfield when called upon.

Viliami Latu and Chans Cox began the spring in a two-way battle for Bradford's vacated spot, and Eriquel Florence eventually joined the fold after making the move from the Sam linebacker position. If the season began tomorrow, the Sun Devils would trot Latu onto the field as the starter, but they aren't exactly sold on his progress thus far.

In the fall, Arizona State will add recruit Darrius Caldwell to the mix, and most of the Sun Devils' current hopes for the position are hinging on his transition to the program. Caldwell was a late addition to the recruiting class as he pledged to Arizona State with junior college teammate Dalvon Stuckey at the very end of recruiting cycle.

With Latu struggling to master the nuances of the position, and Cox and Florence lacking the quick-twitch muscles to truly make a difference right now, it will be interesting to see how Caldwell pans out.

Nose Tackle/Tiger

The nose tackle and Tiger are the two positions on the interior defensive line for Arizona State and both are up for grabs this fall. Sutton played Tiger the last two seasons with Jaxon Hood spending the majority of his time on the field at nose guard.

Hood is back for his junior season, but he took awhile to get into the groove of spring ball because he was out of shape and held back by a hand injury that forced him to wear a club during practices. Hood was also hampered by injuries last season and Davon Coleman eventually became the Sun Devils' go-to player at the nose tackle spot.

We bunched these position battles together because the coaching staff tinkered with the defensive front this spring which made the positions practically interchangeable. Arizona State ran the nose tackle to the wide side of the field during Todd Graham's first two seasons, but the head coach decided to take a look at flipping his defensive front and moving the Tiger to the wide side of the field in various situations during spring practices.

There's a bevy of candidates who hope to win starting roles at these two spots, and it's likely that it could come down to the final week of practice leading up to the Weber State game before anything is officially decided. Mo Latu had an excellent spring, but needs to lose a significant amount of weight to earn consistent playing time. Demetrius Cherry took a number of reps in the spring, yet it's hard to envision a scenario where he sees extended playing time early in the season.

Newcomers to the interior line from this recruiting class include JUCO transfer Dalvon Stuckey, and key additions Connor Humphreys and Tashon Smallwood. In an ideal scenario, Stuckey would take over in Sutton's capacity as an immediate-impact player. If not, the Sun Devils could move Marcus Hardison inside from his spot at end and experiment with the entire defensive front throughout the first few weeks of the season.

Boundary Cornerback

The third most intriguing position battle could be the Will linebacker spot or the competition at Bandit safety, but we chose the boundary cornerback spot because there's more uncertainty at this position.

At Will, it would be amazing to see D.J. Calhoun start the season opener Will as a true freshman, and Antonio Longino has a lot of ground to make up to prevent that from happening. Calhoun is young and might not be physically ready to handle the starting role, so that could play a factor.

At the Bandit safety spot, Jordan Simone put his stamp on the job with an outstanding spring. Still, Marcus Ball is the superior athlete and James Johnson finished out spring ball well and all three players should compete for playing time.

So it's time to look at the boundary corner position, where Rashad Wadood spent most of the spring with the first-team defense. Wadood has worked for a starting job the past two springs, and he hasn't quite found the next level of his game in terms of man coverage.

Wadood was able to hold off Solomon Means for most of the spring, but Means put together an excellent final week and a strong spring game as Wadood sat with an injury. Neither player has inspired a definitive vote of confidence from Graham, but Means did draw some positive post-practice commentary late in the spring.

The X-factor at this spot, like it is at the other defensive positions we broke down, is the addition of a junior college transfer. Kweishi Brown was one of the top-ranked 3-star JUCO recruits in the country, and his Hudl film reveals physicality that translates well to the Sun Devil defense.

Brown explodes out of his breaks and looks like a strong tackler, which are great qualities to have on the boundary side of the field. Osahon Irabor excelled as a run-stopper coming off the edge in certain scenarios, and Brown looks like the type of player who could do the same if given the opportunity. Still, highlights are highlights, and we won't know much until Brown's arrival in the fall.

As is the case with many teams, the Sun Devils are hoping that the reinforcements their new recruits provide this fall will breed competition, and ultimately separate the players willing to go the extra mile to earn playing time.

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