Defensive line is perhaps the most important unit on the team from a depth standpoint, because coaches typically tend to rotate more players into the lineup here than anywhere else on the field. The Sun Devils have a lot of scholarship players across their defensive front, with roughly a dozen players in contention for a two-deep spot across four positions, including the Devil backer spot. That's a good thing for ASU from a depth standpoint, but also a bit of a concern because there hasn't been a lot of clear separation at the top of the depth chart.We can comfortably say that junior Edmond Boateng is going to be on the two-deep at defensive end and likely be the team's starter at the position, ahead of redshirt freshman Renell Wren. But Boateng has the ability to move to Devil backer in a bigger line configuration if coaches feel like going that way is in their best interest, be it for matchup purposes in a given game, or longer term. He played both positions last year. If that happened, Wren probably would move up to play end as the starter, but he or someone else would have to show capability in the role for it to be a consideration. And for Boateng, just playing one position is a challenge because he was prone to alignment and assignment errors, at times, in his first season with ASU.
At the nose tackle position, senior Demetrius Cherry is the presumptive starter going into camp but he could very well be pushed by junior Viliami Latu, or perhaps one of several others including junior college newcomer Deonte Reynolds. Cherry has adjusted to the big weight gain he made prior to last season but has tended to be prone to irregular practice intensity. Viliami Latu has added size, now 291 pounds, and capable of getting a good push and playing with an impressive motor on the interior.
Sophomore Emanuel Dayries played last season as a true freshman when coaches felt they needed him in the second half of the year, and is another depth chart option at nose tackle and certainly ASU added Reynolds from the junior college ranks in hopes of playing him, not to sit him on the bench. But Reynolds has had to finish his junior college degree and not worked with the team in its conditioning program so there's uncertainty about his physical conditioning entering camp.
Then there's redshirt freshman Connor Humphreys, who is a wild card. Shipp yanked guys all over the depth chart in the spring, and Humphreys went from third team to first team sometimes from one day to the next. Humphreys has needed to add strength and size -- as well as become more comfortable in his own skin -- to stay at the nose position, as he's someone who maybe doesn't have an ideal position but can play all three defensive line spots.
Senior Mo Latu is quite a talent, but only when he's healthy and in shape, and that's in doubt heading into August as his weight is still reportedly 390-plus pounds and he's had knee and foot issues that are potentially limiting. The foot, in particular, may be more problematic at this stage. Mo Latu played some 3-technique tackle last season when ASU went to a bigger lineup against pro-style teams, so perhaps he could reprise that role if healthy enough. He's certainly got the size to play the 1-technique position and be a gap anchor.
Sophomore Tashon Smallwood is the likely first-team player at the 3-technique tackle position when camp opens in about a week. He improved substantially through the schedule last season and in the spring looked to have reconfigured his body quite a bit. He has the foot quickness to be a good player in the role, but has needed to become more refined in his technique, stouter against the run, and develop more tackling ability with his arms extended.
Of all the true freshmen on defense, Joseph Wicker might have the best chance to find his way on the field immediately. He's a natural 3-technique tackle who can pressure form the interior, and in our estimation ASU's best defensive prospect in the 2015 class. Wicker's pathway to playing time may in part depend on whether fellow freshman George Lea -- a spring enrollee -- is suspended or not following his arrest earlier this summer. Lea impressed in spring football and could have potentially pushed Smallwood atop the depth chart this year at some point. Perhaps he still will, but his status is unclear at this point. It's also possible ASU considers going bigger up front, with Dayries, Mo Latu or Viliami Latu sliding to 3-technique tackle.
At Devil backer, with the status of Davon Durant now determined (he won't play for ASU), the returning options are primarily redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson and sophomore Alani Latu. Murphy-Richardson will probably be a defensive standout for the Sun Devils in time, but this will be a learning curve opportunity. He's going to make mistakes as he develops, and still needs to get stronger, but he's more dynamic and versatile athletically than Latu. Alani Latu is more of a defensive end playing Devil, but has a good bull rush and strong leg drive. As mentioned earlier, ASU could flip Boateng to Devil if Murphy-Richardson is slow to develop and Wren is ready to play.
Our best guess is that Sun Devil fans see a lot of the following seven players this season up front: Boateng, Cherry, Smallwood, Viliami Latu, Wicker, Wren, Murphy-Richardson.
Two-deep projections as follows:
Defensive End: Edmond Boateng / Renell Wren
Nose Tackle (1-technique): Demetrius Cherry / Viliami Latu
Tiger (3-technique tackle): Tashon Smallwood / Joseph Wicker
Devil Backer: Ismael Murphy-Richardson / A.J. Latu