Growing up with nine siblings and playing alongside All-American Will Sutton sometimes causes Gannon Conway to get overlooked. But when you look closely, you'll realize it's hard to top Conway's fascinating and improbable journey to the top of the ASU depth chart.
The Higley, Arizona native graduated from high school in 2008. Afterward, Conway went on to play defensive end for Mesa Community College from August-December in 2008. The next step? Normally it would either be another year of community college ball or the chance to move on to a four-year university.
Conway didn't take the typical path. Instead, he went on a Mormon mission trip for two years. During the time away from home, Conway learned many valuable lessons while also attempting to cope with tragedy.
"I feel like I matured a lot more. I was a 19-year-old kid leaving and came back a 20-year-old man," Conway said. "A few things that happened out there, my mom passed away while I was on my mission. And I kind of had to deal with that and it really helped to rely on the lord. When I got home from my mission, I thought, I'm going to walk-on to ASU and work my hardest for my mom and for my family and set that example. Leave the rest up to the lord and whatever happens, happens."
Nobody can go through that kind of emotional stress alone, so Conway leaned on the support of his family. Conway's wife (Ashley Marie Conway) and father, always made sure he felt comfortable by providing consistent guidance.
"My wife, she has definitely been a huge supporter of everything I do: football, education, everything," Conway said. "But my dad, he is also the one that basically really encouraged me to really play D-1 football."
I asked Conway if he ever thought his football days were over after junior college. Conway stopped, said "tough question," and proceeded to carry on about his drive to make it happen. In reality, the possibility at least crossed Conway's mind.
Defying the odds was customary for Conway, and making the Sun Devil roster was just the beginning. In the 2010 season, Conway drew the dreaded redshirt tag. Since then, Conway rarely saw the field and sat near the bottom of the depth chart. Prior to 2013, the coaching staff, media and fans expected Conway's fate to be eerily similar.
Conway shielded the outside noise and let his playing and tireless training do the talking instead. The dog days of summer are supposed to provide a break, but Conway worked harder than ever during the supposed down time.
"I'm a lot bigger now, I'm a lot more mature, I understand what coach Graham and the defensive staff expects of me," Conway said. "I'm faster and more explosive, and also another thing is the relationship with the other teammates. We've been together for a year now, I feel a lot closer to them and that helps us win a championship."
Conway earned the starting defensive end spot over proven veterans Davon Coleman and Junior Onyeali. Not only will Conway be starting for a division one school, but he will be doing so as a key member of one of the nation's best defensive lines.
"I wouldn't put it at that way man, a little pressure," Conway on garnering first team repetitions. "It makes me really happy and excited. Jaxon, Will, Carl, I'm just going to try and do my best so I can hold down the line with them."
Within the X's and O's, Conway specializes at stopping the run, which was arguably ASU's biggest defensive weakness. Putting Conway into the lineup makes sense. The Sun Devils face two of the better ground and pound teams in Wisconsin and Stanford, and Conway's stellar ability to clog the lanes could pay huge dividends.
"Attacking the offensive linemen, coach (Jackie) Shipp always harps on that," Conway on run defense. "It's getting off the ball and causing disruption in the backfield. So as long as I can beat my offensive tackle off the ball and drive him into the backfield, I'm helping my team win."
Above all, Conway stressed the direct correlation between religious faith and success on the field. Religion requires heavy belief and trust, and Conway applies those aspects into his football career.
"Everyday I have got to come in here and have the focus on the field to do what I can with my abilities. But really just relying on the lord," Conway said. "Hey, this is what I really want to do in life and this is what I want to succeed at. I hope that you (lord) can help me."
If anyone deserves some assistance from the lord, Conway would be among the top options. The never-ending trials and tribulations Conway overcame exemplify a great example for future generations.
Names to Know
Will Sutton- Redshirt Senior- 6'1", 305 pounds: Coach Graham said Suttton may be the best player he has ever coached, and rightfully so. Sutton led ASU with 13.0 sacks, ranking fourth best in the entire nation. By doing so, Sutton earned the Pac-12 Pat-Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Award. Nose tackles rarely get as many opportunities to bring down the quarterback, which proved how dominant he was. Most analysts expected Sutton to depart to the NFL, but he surprised us by returning for his senior campaign. Sutton didn't like the late-round grade he was given by scouts, and also wanted to earn a degree in communication and sociology. Scouts believed Sutton lacked the ideal size to excel at the next level, so he bulked up to 301 pounds from about 285 pounds. Sutton may be the best defensive lineman in the country this side of Jadeveon Clowney, and his expectations for 2013 will be through the roof.
Jaxon Hood- Sophomore- 6'0", 301 pounds: The stay true to ASU campaign revolves around guys like Jaxon Hood and D.J. Foster. Without the success of Hood, it's likely hometown hero Chans Cox would be somewhere else. Hood bursted onto the scene by garnering Freshman All-American status. In conference play, Hood was placed on the Honorable Mention team. Hood gained the neccesary experience in 2012 and made significant strides in the offseason, placing himself right in the hunt for even more accolades. Lots of opponents will double team Sutton, granting Hood with opportunities to shine and make their decision backfire. The Chandler, Ariz. native uses his strong lower body to explode off the line of scrimmage.
Gannon Conway- Redshirt Senior- 6'4", 280 pounds: Excelling on the practice field is a good omen for Conway. However, as Allen Iverson once famously said: "We're talking about practice, practice, not the game but practice!" Conway needs to translate that success onto Thursday's and Saturday's, otherwise the feel good off-season story may get swept under the rug. As I said above, Conway takes pride in his ability to stop the run. Defensive ends are usually judged by sack totals, but that won't be the case for him. Sutton, Carl Bradford, and Chris Young will take care of the sack department, but will rely on Conway containing the outside. Coach Graham recently said Conway was one of ASU's three most improved players.
Davon Coleman- Graduate Student- 6'2", 283 pounds: It's rare to lose your starting spot coming off a productive season. Davon Coleman now knows the feeling, but he will still be counted upon regularly. Defensive linemen often rotate in and out of the game, meaning Coleman should see plenty of time on the field as the main backup. Sutton got around 90 plus snaps per game, and Graham wants that number to get down to about 75. Coleman in the two-deep scenario proves how far ASU has come in just one season under Graham. If Conway subsides to an injury, Coleman is capable of stepping up. Throughout the season, the battle between Coleman and Conway will be fun to watch.
Marcus Hardison- Junior- 6'5", 290 pounds: Before stepping foot into the valley of the sun, Marcus Hardison received rave reviews from ASU's defensive staff. Since then, Hardison has struggled to live up to the expectations. However, according to Graham, Hardison looks much better of late. Hardison was the fifth highest rated junior college product in the nation. At 6'5" and 290 pounds, size will clearly not be the issue. In spite of the behemoth like frame, Hardison surprises opponents with 4.70 40-yard-dash speed. Pretty unreal. Hardison may not be ready to play with the one's, but as Graham said, the Sun Devils will need his talent on the field.