Interior defensive linemen are tone-setters. They battle to move the line of scrimmage into the backfield off the snap, and how that battle goes can determine the ensuing action throughout the play.
Although Arizona State will feature three new starters in the secondary, the defensive line is one of its most experienced units, and in the middle of it all is potentially its most impactful player, junior Tashon Smallwood.
Smallwood was a four-star recruit out of Fresno, California, and committed to the Sun Devils after getting looks from USC and Oklahoma. Upon arrival, expectations were high when he began his freshman campaign in 2014.
Undersized at 6-feet tall and a stout 280 pounds, it didn’t help that Smallwood wore No. 90, which just so happened to be most recently worn by two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, and also had a similar physique.
Early in his career and as one of eight Sun Devils to start as a true freshman in 2014, Smallwood admitted that he tried to be the next Sutton and struggled.
“I can’t ever be like someone else, ever,” Smallwood said. “The only thing I can do as a player is be the best that I can be. There’s nothing wrong looking at what he does and trying to do emulate those things, but I can never be like Will Sutton.”
Nonetheless, and after a slow start, Smallwood began to make his presence known from the three-technique position. He finished his freshman season with 23 tackles, including 5.5 for loss.
Throughout last year, Smallwood working on his own well after practice had ended became a regular sight, and the extra work paid off. His numbers spiked to 43 tackles (8.5 for loss) the next season.
As he enters his junior season, Smallwood has amassed 24 games, and he knows he has to step up as a leader on the team.
“I definitely just matured,” he said. “The more games I played, the more experience I have with the coaches and the practicing, I start to get the feel of everything. As the years go by, I start to grasp all of that and put it together. I grasp all the knowledge into this and hopefully that can trickle into everybody else.
“It would be kind of a bummer to not grasp all the knowledge that I can from all the games that I’ve played and everything that I went through.”
He isn’t the only player stepping in and leading. Senior defensive lineman Ami Latu, playing right next to Smallwood at nose tackle, has been right there through it all with Smallwood.
“Our relationship is so close,” Latu said. “The communication together, it’s like nothing else. I feel comfortable playing with him, feel comfortable exchanging ideas with each other. We kind of share that kind of relationship where we’re kind of like brothers right now, and I’ve played with him for two-plus years, and we’ve just been off the bat.”
Together, Smallwood and Latu want to lead by example, and that means holding each other accountable as well.
“We just know when somebody is down, somebody’s not trying too hard or if I know his energy is low, I tell him,” Latu said. “It’s just that relationship that we have with each other after playing two-plus years, and it’s just something we just know about each other, and when I know his energy is low, I tell him ‘Hey, come on. Pick up your energy. I know you can do better than that.’ And I know he’ll let me know if I’m doing the same.”
Another element in this year’s defensive line is a new position coach in Joe Seumalo, who replaced Jackie Shipp after Shipp left to coach the defensive line at Missouri.
According to Latu and Smallwood, the difference between Seumalo and Shipp is night-and-day. Seumalo takes a calmer approach than their stern and disciplined former coach.
“Coach Joe is a coach that focuses on player development,” Smallwood said. “He really takes the time to teach. Coach Shipp was kind of like an in-your-face type of guy, great coach but demanded a lot from us. They both do.”
On the same note, Seumalo has taken notice of the leaders he has now inherited and how that can be of advantage to him in his first season in Tempe.
“(Smallwood) brings leadership. Guys look to him,” Seumalo said. “There’s evidence of him doing things consistently, which we really like in terms of the output. He’s done enough of that. Ami has done just as well. Guys want to be able to mimic good behavior and what right looks like.”
Regardless of who his position coach is, Smallwood is clear in his desire to improve as a leader, citing former Sun Devils Taylor Kelly and Jamil Douglas as leaders he wishes to be like.
“Those guys set the bar, set the tone,” Smallwood said. “(Head) Coach (Todd) Graham will even tell you those are great leaders, leaders for me that will be remembered forever. Those are guys I definitely try to emulate and try do things just like them or even better.”
On the field, though talented, the ASU defensive line isn’t stacked with experienced and proven players in its two-deep roster. Latu said he and Smallwood watch plenty of film together and have learned over the years how to play with and off each other.
More of a straight-up power lineman, Latu said he likes freeing up Smallwood to use his quickness to wreak havoc inside.
A 6-7 season left plenty of question marks to be answered, and an offseason filled with various changes on the coaching staff didn’t do any favors. However, with the season just under two weeks away, Smallwood is certain and set on what his expectations are for 2016.
“Putting offensive linemen in the backfield, playing on their side of the ball, causing a lot of havoc,” he said. “Just look for something great this season.”