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ASU Football: Previewing the 2016 Defensive Unit

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Can the Sun Devils defense find its balance again in 2016?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Arizona State Sun Devils defense will look to improve following its underwhelming showing last season.

Take a look at some of the numbers from 2015:

Statistic Value Nat'l Ranking
Total Defense 463.8 ypg 112
Pass Defense 337.5 ypg 127
Rush Defense 125.9 ypg 20
Opp. Pass Efficiency 145.04 107
Turnovers Gained 21 T-59

*statistics via NCAA.com

As coach Todd Graham joked during the opening day of spring practice, improving "shouldn't be too hard."

All jokes aside, there's reason to be optimistic heading into the new year. Here's what to keep your eye on for the defensive side of the ball as the Sun Devils look forward to the new season:

Who's starting in the secondary?

The Sun Devils will be tasked with replacing three of the four starting players from their 2015 defensive backfield -- all-conference safety Kareem Orr is the lone returner. This, of course, under the direction of a new, first-year secondary coach in T.J. Rushing.

Last season's group relinquished the most passing yards per game (337.5 yards) of any team in the nation, while conceding explosive plays to opposing offenses at a clip of 19.2 percent of total defensive snaps (2nd-worst rate in the country, according to Football Outsiders' FEI database).

All of that despite rotating five seniors.

Ironically, in 2016 the Sun Devils do not boast a *single senior listed in their defensive backfield, and only tout four secondary players listed as a junior or redshirt junior.

So how will the depth chart shape up?

Initially, we saw Orr slot back at field safety, joined by either Armand Perry or Chad Adams. Junior-college transfers Maurice Chandler and J'Marcus Rhodes, as well as De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes have manned the corner roles in recent practices.

However, Graham and Rushing are intent on having the players learn and feel comfortable in all four secondary roles through spring practice. This, presumably, to quell a lack of game experience with a tenable understanding of the many positions, coverages and reads embedded within Graham's playbook.

*Hayes is a redshirt senior, but is listed on the official team roster as a running back.

Who's the Devil?

Call it whatever you want -- Devilbacker, LEOOTTO...

Regardless of however you choose to interpret it (they are different positions, after all), in a blitz-happy system, the Sun Devils desperately need a dominant pass rusher to emerge by the start of the new campaign.

While it was easy to point fingers at the secondary for conceding so many big plays in 2015, much of the group's ineffectiveness was emanated by the ineffectiveness of the ASU pass rush.

Yes, Antonio Longino led the Pac-12 in sacks, but it was streakier than it was consistent. D.J. Calhoun is probably the team's most natural returning pass-rusher, but is still raw, and has filled in at the weak-side position as opposed to Devil because of his size.

Graham is in dire need of an athletic freak at Devilbacker who is not only able to set the edge against the run, but is a consistent force versus the pass, too.

Previously, Graham had success with Carl Bradford, and even found production out of Longino. But it's been two seasons since ASU has had the luxury of a player who completely altered opposing offenses' gameplans.

Spring practice may not produce the answer initially, but players like Doug Subtyl, Edmond Boateng, Alani Latu, and Koron Crump may all find themselves vying for the starting role, with at least one potentially emerging, proving their value as a pass rusher in the process.

Are the stars for real?

Linebacker Salamo Fiso was at the heart of the 20th-best rush defense in the country that allowed just 125.9 rush yards per game (26th-ranked rushing defense in the country last year, according to Football Outsiders' S+P database). He amassed 99 total tackles, including 20 tackles for loss (Pac-12 best) and 4.5 sacks.

Can he repeat or possibly improve on what was a breakout campaign?

Meanwhile, as members along the edge of the front-seven continue to be developed, defensive linemen Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker form arguably the best lineman tandem in the Pac-12.

Smallwood was solid last year (42 total tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks). Still, it's not farfetched to believe the junior is capable of more, particularly as a pass rusher. His trenchmate, Wicker, is coming off of an impressive true-freshman season himself (21 total tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks). In lieu of injuries, the Long Beach Poly-product displayed desirable athleticism which aided in his ability to disrupt the pocket.

Their styles of play complement each other, and more time on the field together could provide the duo a chance to blossom. If both players can take the next step in their growth during the 2016 season, the entire defense should be able to reap the benefits.