Spring evaluation: DL preparedness grades

There are no stars in Arizona State's defensive line, but a handful of competent players make up a group filled with a lot of parity. Here's our analysis of each player.

1. Demetrius Cherry (senior) -- One of ASU's best looking players on the hoof, Cherry arrived in Tempe from the junior college ranks about 50 pounds underweight and after adding it all over the course of about a year, took another year to adjust to playing at this level from a conditioning standpoint. Cherry has a lot of potential to be really good at this level. He is very long and uses his arms and a length advantage to displace and unbalance interior offensive linemen. His strength in the upper half appears to be really good as well. Cherry needs to be able to compete with a harder edge, better motor and finer focus because he tends to go through periods of inconsistency. One of ASU's most versatile players, Cherry is the type of athlete who can play any of the three true defensive line positions. But he's best served as a nose tackle because of how he can physically move an offensive center or guard around in a gap. He's capable of taking a big step forward this season and being an NFL free agent or even late round consideration if he puts it all together. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4

2. Edmond Boateng (junior) -- One of ASU's smartest players was incongruously as likely to have an assignment error as any of ASU's regular players on defense, and as a result, Boateng has appeared to frustrate coaches at times. He's so articulate and deep thinking that at times he's in his own head too much. He's had a tendency to try to do others' jobs instead of his own, and has been especially inconsistent with his eye discipline. Instead of looking at the ball and the surface area he's supposed to attack, Boateng tends to look into the backfield too much, a bad habit that has to be broken. But he's made some really good plays and has potential to be a very solid starter for the Sun Devils if he becomes more consistent. Boateng stays square to the line of scrimmage and can set an edge on the field side. He's now showing improved burst off the snap and more violence with his arms as a pass rusher. A swing guy, Boateng is better suited to be an end than Devil backer, but could move over and hold his own, particularly if ASU goes with a bigger front line against pro-style teams, including Stanford. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4

3. Viliami Latu (junior) -- Though he doesn't have as high an athletic ceiling for the position as a couple others in this group, Latu is no slouch in that regard. But what really sets him apart is his motor, which is probably the best among ASU's defensive linemen. Latu is relatively linear athletically, tighter in the joints and not as much wiggle as some others, but he gets off the snap really well and understands what he is, which is essential to success. Latu has good lower body strength and extremely active feet. He's hard charging and runs his feet through contact, which allows him to get a good push up front. He's as good or better than any of ASU's other defensive tackles at collapsing the pocket on the interior through physicality. Latu has added size this year, now above 290 pounds for the first time, and the former linebacker has really settled into his role. At a minimum he's a good rotational player at the nose tackle position, and as demonstrated last year, Latu can handle a bigger workload if needed. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 3.5

4. Tashon Smallwood (sophomore) -- Few defensive players improved their physique in the last year as much as Smallwood, a 3-technique tackle who especially appeared to made strides during the program's winter strength and conditioning period. When he arrived at ASU, Smallwood was loose-bodied and didn't have enough heft and size to capitalize on his impressive foot quickness. He would get a leverage edge off the snap that other players would be able to turn into a sack or tackle for loss, but then not have the strength, size and technique to finish the play and instead get pushed out of the play. In a similar vein, he would at times get a single hand on the player with the ball and not be able to make the tackle. Smallwood is never going to have an ideal defensive tackle body, but he's got a really low center of gravity and impressive feet, so as he gets stronger and is better able to sync his hand use with what his lower half is enabling, he'll make plays with increasing frequency. He's clearly worked hard and bought into the process. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4

5. Mo Latu (senior) -- Arguably -- and in our opinion -- ASU's defensive lineman with the highest ceiling, Latu has nevertheless battled weight and knee problems since his second year in Tempe. He's not been able to play a lot from a stamina and health standpoint within games, but in limited reps he's been remarkably effective for someone who has weighed close to 400 pounds, at times. Latu has rare quickness for his size, and is very difficult to move off his anchor when he keys the ball well and isn't beating to the spot off the snap. Latu fits into any scheme, but is a very good two-gap 3-4 nose tackle prospect projecting to the NFL level because of how he can control A-gap run lanes on either side of him. But in order to take advantage of his full potential, Latu is going to have to lose substantial weight and improve his overall conditioning and stamina. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential grade: 4.5

6. Emanuel Dayries (sophomore) -- As a freshman, Dayries was called into action in the second half of last season after ASU had some issues with healthy and available depth, and performed well for his relatively youth and lack of experience. Dayries isn't someone who is going to destabilize an offensive backfield with quickness, but he is stout and holds ground relatively well, which should just increase as he physically matures and gets more understanding and technical proficiency. ASU's scheme doesn't require really heavy two-gap nose tackles and the 6-foot-3, 295 pound Dayries is a fine fit for the position. Now it's a matter of greater refinement, and adding power so he can move guys around more easily and make it tougher for offensive lines to execute play design. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3

7. George Lea (sophomore) -- A natural gap exploitation 3-technique tackle, Lea is well suited to the ASU defensive scheme. He keys the ball better than others playing inside for the Sun Devils and is quick at getting into the contested area, where it's tougher for offensive linemen to get their hands up and feet set up quickly enough to out-leverage an interior attacker. This is particularly valuable against the run, and ASU coach Todd Graham does a great job understanding how and when to run blitz based on each opponents' play tendencies within a given formation and down and distance situation. Lea has a good frame but has got to get stronger and more violent with his hands to take better advantage of the quickness he has. Of course, his status with the team is is in question after Lea was suspended last month after an arrest. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4

8. Renell Wren (sophomore) -- One of ASU's best looking players from a physique-standpoint, Wren is angular and long, with a big frame and almost no bad weight on a 6-foot-5, 285 pound frame. He improved quite noticeably during his redshirt year, getting a good handle on his base set up and not popping up as vertically off the snap, which is leverage sapping. He'll have to continue that trend this year and start to better coordinate use of his long arms with the rest of his body in order to give linemen problems with holding their ground. If he can do all that and be aggressive and precise with his feet while being assignment sound, he's got a chance to become one of the team's best defensive linemen over the long run. Playing with a great motor is also key, as Wren's energy has ebbed at times. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4.5

9. Connor Humphreys (sophomore) -- Highly regarded as a recruit -- especially by us, in full discloser -- the adjustment to playing at this level has been a bit slower than anticipated for Humphreys. He's worked to add size and strength to unlock some of the skill and instincts he possesses, but does not yet have enough power to overwhelm lineman at the point of contact or enough quickness off the snap to gain enough of a leverage edge to create opportunities in the offensive backfield. He's gotten better in this areas though, and is working on becoming more precise with his movements to take best advantage of his current physical state. Preparedness Grade: 2 / Potential Grade: 3.5

10. Corey Smith (sophomore) -- After having surgery last year to remove bone spurs from his hip, Smith rehabbed and started to show better flexion in the joint toward the tail end of spring ball. Until Smith is able to set up with correct posture in a stance and access his lower body strength and play with proper pad level he's not going to be able to be effective in the Pac-12. There was some improvement in the spring but he still has quite a bit to go. Preparedness Grade: 1.5 / Potential Grade: 2

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American level performer

4: First/second team all-league level performer

3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer

2: Fringe Pac-12 performer

1: Non-Pac-12 level performer

Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.


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