Todd Graham's defense no longer resembles what we're accustomed to recognizing as Todd Graham's defense.
Or maybe it still does; however, the Arizona State head coach would be quick to tell you this year it's much less aggressive and much more conservative.
No longer are there five-, six-, or seven-man blitzes being executed on nearly every snap. Now there are mostly four Sun Devils sent in pursuit of the opposing quarterback or ball carrier, while the remaining seven players sit back in coverage.
While this paradigmatic shift has tempered ASU's pass rush, the responsibility of the four down-linemen is as important as its ever been.
The vital cog in it all: the interior defenders.
There’s depth at the position, too. Two veterans primarily man the inside for ASU: Tashon Smallwood and Viliami “Ami” Latu. Redshirt freshman George Lea and redshirt sophomore Renell Wren also contribute, however it’s the combined experience of Latu and Smallwood which makes the pairing so effective.
“Just feeding off of each other’s experiences, and his strengths and my strengths—we’ve kind of used that together,” Latu said. “It’s helped us both on the playing field.”
For Smallwood and Latu, this season marks the third the two have lined up beside one another, working to plug up gaps and disrupt the pocket. Smallwood said they have grown within the game together.
“That experience comes with the way we talk like when we run different stunts and the way we can read the offensive line, blocking schemes,” he said. “That helps a lot between me and him, and it makes the game easier. It slows it down.”
Smallwood, a six-foot, 274-pound junior, lines up at TIGER. In Graham’s system, he’s positioned in a 3-technique alignment, which is placed over an opposing guard. Latu—a 6-foot-2, 296-pound senior and former linebacker—plays nose tackle, a position designated as a 0- or 1-technique in which he is aligned over an offensive center.
Smallwood says he doesn’t mind where he’s lined up, while Latu said he enjoys being positioned in-between the gap.
“It’s a lot harder going up against a man one-on-one,” Latu said. “But those are the fun parts of the game where you get to show your skills against another man, instead of making it free for you to get in the gap.”
Latu’s presence was missed during the first game of the campaign due to suspension. However, during his second appearance against UTSA, he demonstrated his impact as he consistently disrupted the middle of the line, driving opposing linemen into the backfield. During the fourth quarter, Latu even muscled a UTSA lineman into the quarterback for a game-cinching sack (one he wasn’t officially credited for).
Said Graham of his performance: “I thought Ami played exceptional.”
It's not all too often that ASU’s interior players fill the stat sheet. That’s been especially true this season. Through three games, the four rotational players on the inside—Latu, Lea, Smallwood, and Wren—have combined for only 1⁄2 sack of the team’s six total.
That said, they’ve managed to create good amount of pressure from the middle without capturing the signal-caller. Graham says he’s hoping for more, emphasizing a need for the quarterback to be impacted.
“They’ve done good,” Graham said of his four-man rush. “Obviously, we’ve not pressured as much, and that’s had a toll on that, but… you’ve gotta impact the quarterback. That’s something we’ve gotta get better (at) with a four-man rush.”
With more and more offenses adopting run-pass option concepts, quarterbacks are getting the ball out quicker, making it harder for defensive linemen to influence the passing game.
“It’s tougher to defend the pass stuff,” Smallwood said. “In this league, teams get the ball out quick. You’ve got the Air Raid teams that just like to throw screens and things (where they) step back, drop, throw it in the air. It’s just tougher for us because the ball comes out quick.”
The Sun Devils’ conservative approach against teams implementing a quicker passing game hasn’t disheartened either player, even at though it’s done at the expense of their stats. Smallwood said he and his teammates just follow the coaches orders.
“We want to be able to rush four,” Smallwood said. “I think we can. Actually, I know we can do it.”
Regardless, the stalwarts of the inside have found other ways to impact the game.
Last season, ASU’s rush defense ranked among the best in the nation. Despite the linebackers having less influence this year, it’s a phase of the game the Sun Devils have not seen much, if any decline in, ranking 20th nationally in rush yards allowed per game entering Pac-12 play.
“(Against) inside read, you know, me and Tashon, I feel like we’ve got that locked down,” Latu said. “I feel like our interior defense is really good.”
Against the pass, the interior unit’s focus has shifted to being creators for the edge rushers to get to the quarterback.
Sophomore defensive end JoJo Wicker has recorded 1.5 sacks this season and two tackles for loss. Despite being regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the conference, he said it’s the abilities of the inside guys which have helped generate his success, and vice versa.
“Their play definitely impacts my play,” Wicker said. “Just from the angles, to the frenetic pass rush—it helps me out, and mine helps them out. So if they’re flushing (the quarterback) out, I’m getting him. And if I’m making him step up, they’re getting him.”
“They’re great speed rushers,” Smallwood said of the edge group. “We kind of just let them do their thing. If they run pass the quarterback, we’re right there in the middle when the quarterback steps up.”
Just three games into the season, the pass rush hasn’t been as furious as in previous seasons, but the middle of the Sun Devil defensive line is performing well.
Smallwood says that despite the low sack numbers, the goal is still clear. “We just gotta get to quarterback,” he said. “Simple as that. We just gotta get to him.”
There’s plenty of season left to make that happen. Nevertheless, to argue this group has underperformed to this point is simply false.