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ASU Football: Previewing the defense

How do the Sun Devils stack up on the defensive side of the ball

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It's unprecedented really; Jaxon Hood and Laiu Moeakiola are the only returning players that started on the defensive side of the ball for Arizona State against Sacramento State in last year's opener. Washington has the next fewest returning starters with seven.

The situation has become even more difficult to read over the past month after junior college transfers Darrius Caldwell and Dalvon Stuckey didn't qualify academically, but it opened the door for more young talent to see the field early in their Arizona State careers. All of this couldn't have come at a more difficult time either. The Pac-12 will be the most feared offensive conference in the country next year, littered with Heisman Trophy candidates including quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota and receivers Ty Montgomery and Nelson Agholor.

The Sun Devils are far from blind to their own situation. In fact, they knew it was coming and planned for it by adding JUCO transfers that unfortunately didn't work out. The addition of Keith Patterson to Todd Graham's staff as defensive coordinator is a move designed to help Arizona State turn a rebuilding year into a championship one.

Nobody said it would be easy, and with all the open spots it should be one of the most entertaining fall camps to monitor in recent memory. One accurate and fitting description? Camp Tontozona will be The Wild West.

Defensive Line

Replacing the production of Will Sutton, a two-time Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12, is an improbable but not impossible task. Junior Jaxon Hood, finally healthy, will get the first chance at the nose tackle spot, hoping to find the magic of his 2012 Freshman All-American season. Marcus Hardison saw first team repetitions at defensive end in spring ball and should be the favorite to start there this fall. He had hype similar to that of Dalvon Stuckey last season, ranked as the No. 5 JUCO prospect in the country by ESPN, but he had issues adjusting to the quicker pace of the Division I level and never got going. Now in his second season under Graham, he's hoping to improve his production and will certainly have the chance to do so.  Hardison's development is key to the Sun Devils success on the defensive line.

The competition at the Tiger spot, formerly occupied by Sutton, is wide open. JUCO transfer Edmond Boateng could get a shot because he was an early-enrollee, but he ran with the second team in the spring. Size is also an issue for Boateng, who could really use a year in the weight room if he is to stay in a three-point stance, but there's no denying his pass rushing skills are well suited for the Tiger spot.

The incoming talent is also promising in Tashon Smallwood, Connor Humphreys and Renell Wren. Smallwood, a three-star defensive tackle recruit, could battle for some time at the nose tackle spot with Hood, but Graham will likely want to wait and develop him. Three-star weak side defensive end Renell Wren could also challenge for one of the end spots with Boateng. Demetrius Cherry has experience in the system and has packed on muscle since arriving at Arizona State, and he may end up being the starter by default if Graham wants to redshirt Smallwood and Humphreys, or if Boateng is deemed too small for a starting job.

Linebackers (WILL, SAM, SPUR and DEVIL)

Anthony Jones, Carl Bradford, Chris Young and Steffon Martin were the core linebackers on this team in 2013. Only 31 percent of tackles, 15 percent of tackles for loss, and eight percent of passes defended return in the linebacking corps. Salamo Fiso is the only locked in starter at the SAM spot, the rest of the positions are open. D.J. Calhoun announced his arrival on campus in the spring, impressing at the WILL position and showing a lot of potential. If redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza can finally get healthy, he'll get his shot at starting at the WILL as well.

One of the more interesting prospects is Antonio Longino, the most experienced returning linebacker behind Fiso after playing in eight games last season. The redshirt junior finished behind Calhoun on the spring depth chart at WILL but the Sun Devils should take advantage of his experience and hem will challenge for starting spot. Longino also brings a similar set of skills that Young possessed, meaning he could be the primary backup at all four linebacker positions.

The Devilbacker spot is even more of a question mark. It's seemingly redshirt freshman Chans Cox's spot to lose headed into camp, but sophomore Viliami Latu should challenge Cox for the position. Doug Haller of AZ Central also recently reported that Todd Graham plans to give De'Marieya Nelson a look at Devilbacker which could change the dynamic at the position. Latu was making a great case for the job in the spring before an injury slowed him down.  Either way, the starter here is going to lack game experience, and that will be pivotal to watch early on.

Laiu Moeakiola, one of the two returning starters, will open camp as the starter at the SPUR linebacker.  A converted safety, Moeakiola looks like a prototype for the SPUR position, a hybrid linebacker/safety spot generally responsible for covering opposing tight ends and running backs. Christian Sam and Ismael Murphy-Richardson, two three-star linebacker recruits from the Sun Devils' 2014 class, could fight for some time at SPUR as well, and don't count out Longino in the race either.

Safeties/Cornerbacks

It speaks a lot to Arizona State's lack of depth at other positions that they could lose Osahon Irabor, Robert Nelson and Alden Darby and it's still going to be the easiest position to project for the season opener.

Marcus Ball, who had a starting spot at field safety locked up before a season-ending collarbone injury at Camp Tontozona last year, will move over to the boundary safety position formerly occupied by Darby. Redshirt freshman Jordan Simone laid some hard hits in the spring and should back up Ball. The true leader of this season's defense has also emerged in the form of Damarious Randall, who came on strong in the second half of last season. A redshirt senior, he'll return to his starting spot at field safety with James Johnson as the primary backup.

The picture at corner became a little more blurred when Rashad Wadood transferred in the middle of the summer. Lloyd Carrington is the only returning corner who has taken any meaningful snaps for the Sun Devils, and they'll rely on his size and physicality to replace Irabor at the boundary corner spot. Incoming junior college transfer Kweishi Brown should get the first look opposite Carrington in camp. His speed will play well on the open side of the field.

After those two, redshirt junior Solomon Means and redshirt freshman William Earley are in the mix, but there's no doubt corner is the weakest position on the depth chart, and Graham is going to be looking for someone to make an impact and contribute during camp.