Tashon Smallwood committed to USC in February of 2013 following the team's Junior Day only to have second thoughts months later, ultimately de-committing from the Trojans in early September. After taking some time to re-evaluate his options, Smallwood committed to Arizona State in late December after a meeting with the team's coaching staff, but not before taking one last official visit to the local team, Fresno State, who made a last ditch effort to steal him away from the Sun Devils and keep the talented defensive tackle close to home.
"I committed to Arizona State because of their defensive schemes," he said. "I committed, I wouldn't say too early, but a long time before I signed and then Fresno State started talking to me, so it was really down to those two schools. It was like, just in case anything happened with Arizona State, I wanted to take my visit to Fresno State, so that's what I did. Then I figured that everything was going good with Arizona State, so there was no reason to de-commit or anything like that."
Despite starring at Central East High School just 20 minutes away from the Fresno State campus and holding offers from more than a dozen schools across the nation, including ASU, Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA, and USC, the Bulldogs did not begin their pursuit of the four star defensive playmaker in earnest until very late in the recruiting process, a tactic not all that uncommon to players in the region.
"They do that to everyone," Smallwood said. "They don't really recruit the valley. They like to recruit out of the area. Fresno State just started recruiting in the valley and they barely do it now.
"They came on late in the process so I had to show them some love. I had some deep thoughts about it but I wasn't really about to de-commit. I just thought about it real good and came to the conclusion that this was the right place for me."
Rated as the 20th best defensive tackle in the nation by Scout.com, Smallwood registered 40 sacks over his junior and senior seasons and helped anchor a Central defense that finished 9-4 last year while advancing to the third round of the CIF Central Section playoffs.
At 6-0 and 284 pounds and with an innate ability to get to the quarterback, Smallwood possesses both the size and speed to be an elite lineman at the three technique spot in the Sun Devil defense, a position formerly manned by two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton.
"Well considering that I'm going to be playing his position, it made a huge impact," said Smallwood of Sutton's success at ASU and its effect on him committing to the Sun Devils. "Just knowing that he'd only been in that scheme for two years and did what he did, I figure if I'm here for four, I can do better.
"It definitely motivates me. It's like, I'm not really nervous about it. I'm not nervous about it at all, actually. I know and believe I can make an impact on this defense and just filling his shoes is going to be some big shoes because obviously he was the two-time defensive player of the year and a third round draft pick, but I believe I can do it."
Aside from being similar in stature and sharing the same desire to chase down opposing quarterbacks, Smallwood will look to carry on another hallmark of Sutton's this fall - the menacing presence of the number 90 along the Sun Devil defensive line.
"I actually did not request that number," he said. "I'm not saying that it's a problem or anything, but I didn't request it. When they asked me what number I wanted, I told them six, seven, or eight, but when I came I saw number 90 in my locker. I asked them about it and they just told me they need me to take over his role now, so I guess that was the reason for it.
"It's pretty cool. I just figure I can't do exactly what he did, I've got to do better and there is no other option."
Like most members of the 2014 recruiting class, Smallwood arrived on campus just over a week ago for the start of summer school and organized team workouts. Despite having to deal with the typical Arizona summertime heat, the Bay Area native, who plans to major in Business Management and minor in Finance, says he's enjoyed his first week on campus while getting acclimated to college life.
"Where I'm from in Fresno, it's really hot down there too," he said. "It's the same type of heat, a dry heat, so it isn't too bad, but it doesn't get up to 117 or anything, so that's going to take some getting used to. But the campus, just as far as walking around and going to class, the campus is kind of dry because it's the summer, but I love it here. The staff is great. The support is great. The coaches, I love them. They're on you tough but they just want the best out of you, so I love it."
With just a little more than a month until the start of fall camp for Arizona State, Smallwood and his fellow freshmen have begun the routine of lifting weights at 6:00 am four days a week to prepare themselves for the grind that waits ahead while also attending summer school.
One class that many of the freshmen players have enrolled in is a Skill Development course that has carried over to social media where Sun Devil players have associated the hashtag #SunDevilChampLife to some of the values or goals they hope to carry out this season.
"We took our Skill Development class last week and figured that after every class we were going to tweet something about that day depending on what we talked about. We tweet it and then added #SunDevilChampLife," said Smallwood. "I'm definitely committed to the brotherhood. That was the first thing that I tweeted.
"I believe that's huge. I believe that plays a big part in winning and the closer you are with your teammates, the better you'll be on the field and hold each other more accountable. So I'm with that and Arizona State is all for it."
The defensive tackle got his first taste of Sun Devil football last week when the team participated in "Hell Week," a weeklong series of conditioning drills with Strength and Conditioning Coach Shawn Griswold to go along with a steady diet of team competitions which ultimately saw the offense emerge as the superior unit.
"Hell Week coming in that first week was, I didn't workout Monday but I watched it, and it was pretty tough. Players were throwing up and stuff," said Smallwood. "Tuesday, that's when I got in and it was conditioning day, so I went straight into condition day and that went pretty bad. I mean, it wasn't too bad, but I threw up once. And then there was a competition that was on Thursday night. We went in (the Verde Dickey Dome) and did sled pushes for competition and carried, like, 75 pound kegs and ran a relay with them and did a tug-of-war. It was pretty fun but it was more for the older players."
At 284 pounds, Smallwood says he's currently at his ideal playing weight and where the coaches would like him to be for the fall. The goal for now is to lean out while maintaining his speed off the line of scrimmage so that he can find his way into the opposing backfields this season.
"The whole defense revolves around the front line and the three shade (aka 3-technique), the position I play, is real active," he said. "There's a lot of moving and that's what I do. That's my game, to move left to right and get off real quick. I'm making sure that I'm in top of the line conditioning for the fall because when it comes to my game, I'm quick and move around a lot and use my agility.
"I've learned that I need to be conditioned for that and last year in high school I wasn't very well conditioned for that. Or maybe not as well conditioned as I should have or need to be, so I figure I've got to work on that. That's the main thing."
With nine starters to replace on defense, Graham and the coaching staff will have plenty of evaluating to do in the fall where Smallwood will look to compete for a starting spot at defensive tackle along with veterans Jaxon Hood and Mo Latu.
"He's a great coach," said Smallwood of Graham. "Everything he does he's fired up. He believes that we are the number one freshmen class in the nation and he holds us accountable to that. He makes sure that we're doing everything right and stays on us. He comes to watch us work out, watch us run, and he's just constantly in our ear making sure that we're ready to play this fall."
With opportunities abound and expectations from his head coach to be met, Smallwood insists he's looking forward to the start of fall camp while also raising the stakes for himself. Along with helping the Sun Devils repeat as Pac-12 South champs in 2014, Smallwood keeps another goal in mind that he hopes to achieve and that's to become a Freshman All-American by season's end.
"That's the goal," he said. "It's not even starting as a freshman or playing as a freshman. I want to be a Freshman All-American."