Last week, we began our 12 Most Important Player countdown with defensive tackle Will Sutton. The talented junior has a chance to parlay a strong spring into the kind of production that many have expected over the early part of his career.
We now move to No. 11 our our list with a player who will be lining up to Sutton often, nose tackle Mike Pennel.
Under the previous defenses of Craig Bray, the Sun Devils ran a base 4-3 scheme. At the center of those defensive lines were tackles such as Lawrence Guy, Saia Falahola, Bo Moos, Sutton and Corey Adams. While having varying levels of talent, each of the players who saw regular action fell below the 300-pound mark.
Given the schemes run by Bray, that was not a major issue. With many responsibilities of the position predicated on quickness, including using shooting gaps within the offensive line, there was little need for a true "road grater" at the position.
When Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph took over, that defensive scheme and philosophy changed. While the team will still run some 4-3 looks, it will also incorporate many three-man fronts, either in 3-4 or even a 3-3-5 sets. That shift will require a true space-eating nose tackle to line up in the middle and wreak havoc with the interior offensive linemen, thereby allowing the players behind him a chance to make the play.
With no player on the roster well suited for such a role, Graham and Randolph made sure to bring one in as part of the 2012 recruiting class. They didn't have to look far to find their man, as they secured the services for the next two seasons of Pennel, most recently of Scottsdale Community College.
Last season at SCC, he played in nine games, made 13 tackles-for-loss among his 39 total stops and had two sacks. That resulted in a three-star prospect ranking and a spot as the 36th overall junior college prospect as ranked by Rivals. After some academic questions were cleared up, he's primed and ready to make an impact for the Sun Devils.
At 6'5", 350 pounds, Pennel is simply a beast. Unlike many players of his size, Pennel wears his weight very well and possesses tremendous athleticism. He's able to use his strength and size to manhandle offensive linemen, but quick and agile enough to shoot gaps and make those tackles-for-loss for which he is known.
Whether or not he is able to put his sizable (pun intended) talents to the same devastating effect at the Pac-12 level remains to be seen.
If he is able to become that disruptive force in the interior of the defensive line, the explosive playmakers such as Sutton, Carl Bradford and Brandon Magee around him should be able to put together impressive numbers, and the Sun Devil defense as a whole should be able to become the team's strength. If he struggles, the assimilation of the new scheme and overall effectiveness will suffer greatly.
It's a big responsibility, but the Sun Devils feel they have the right man for the job.