Coaches still trying to sort out DL rotation

There are more defensive linemen on the roster than ever who are capable of playing in the Pac-12 but a lot of parity and that's led to some real challenges as Arizona State coaches work to sort out their rotation for the Texas A&M opening on Sept. 5, and beyond.

Demetrius Cherry is going to be a starter for the Arizona State defense this season, it just isn't clear which position that will be at.

A senior lineman, Cherry has primarily worked at the field side 5-technique end spot in practice even though he's a one of the biggest players on the defense, at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds.

ASU coach Todd Graham and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp would rather have Cherry playing over the football, and he worked at nose tackle for the first time in camp Tuesday, but that may not always be possible. It depends on how others around him are performing and what type of opponent the Sun Devils are facing.

"Wherever he's at is going to be really strong," Graham said. "Ideally I like him inside. It depends on who we're playing. All the spread teams, stuff like that, I like him inside and more athleticism at the end. We toyed around today moving (true freshman) JoJo (Wicker) to the 5 (technique end) and him to the nose and if (true freshman) Jalen (Bates) can come on (at Devil)...

"We're really solid and big inside and really deep. We have a hard time repping the guys we have. We have guys that could have been in the starting rotation for us last year that's not in the three-deep. The biggest thing is the end position. We've got to continue to get better there. Today was an outstanding practice."

Part of the challenge is that nose tackle is one of the deepest positions, while the other spots up front aren't quiet as long on capable players.

Junior Viliami Latu was a starter last season at nose tackle and had what Graham described as, an "unbelievable practice [Tuesday]. Totally different level." Then there's redshirt freshman Renell Wren, who is up to 290 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. ASU also likes him at the nose position.

At the 3-technique tackle position there are two players who have separated themselves, sophomore Tashon Smallwood and true freshman Wicker. The potential problem with that is Wicker may be needed to play Devil backer in 4-3 alignments unless someone else rises to the occasion there, or play the 5-technique end spot in the two-deep if ASU bumps Cherry inside. That would leave an opening in the two-deep at the 3-technique tackle spot or force the Sun Devils to rotate move several players between multiple positions in the broader defensive line rotation.

Bates, a big-framed 6-foot-5, 240-pounder who will likely eventually grow into a 5-technique end, emerged from the third-team to get reps with the first-group at Devil in nickel situations (typically third and 4 or longer) after tearing up the scout team at Camp Tontozona and continuing his hot streak since returning to Tempe.

"Today, he got reps with the twos, sacked the quarterback so many times he ran with the ones," Graham said of Bates.

The first-year player out of Louisiana isn't setting expectations low even though he just arrived on the college campus this summer.

"My goals are to get 10 sacks and win my position battle and that's what Im still trying to do," Bates said.

"(He's) explosive in the pass rush," Graham said. "That's what we're needing. We're needing that defensive end, Devil backer that guy that can be explosive in the pass rush. He has shown that, so is (senior linebacker) Tony (Longino.

"I think we have some guys. A lot of that is the produce of the system. I'd love to have a Devil like Carl Bradford, I'd love to have a 3-technique like Will Sutton, I'd love to have a 5-technique like Marcus Hardison every year and it'd work a lot better. But we've got a lot of guys who I think will exceed what they've done. We've got a whole bunch of on the defensive line who will play football for a long time. You look at Renell Wren, that's a freshman. Guy's got four years of eligibility. Jalen Bates. JoJo Wicker, phenomenal. He's a true 3-technique who can jump out and play defensive end. There's a lot of talent over there in that group...It's just like Marcus Hardison, he didn't even start full time as a junior. You'll see guys emerge like that as well."

Graham calls Tuesday ASU's best practice

Earlier in the week Graham challenged his defense to show a greater sense of urgency and more passion and he's been thrilled with its response.

"That was the best practice we've had since I've been here," Graham said. "I don't know, for some reason they turned on the crowd noise and they got all cranked up."

Graham said Longino practiced like an All-American: "He set a new standard, best we've ever had a linebacker here."

Notes

  • Graham said no decision has been made as to whether true freshman running back Jason Lewis will redshirt or not this year. ASU is loaded in the offensive backfield with sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage looking like two of the team's better players and junior De'Chavon Hayes also very talented. Lewis was a late arrival to camp but has made a great impression, including a much-talked about 62-yard touchdown run Saturday in which he bowled over multiple players before reaching the edge and exploding up the sideline, away from a defensive back.

    "We haven't made a decision where we're at with him but he's only been here three or four days and he's looked pretty good," Graham said.

  • Junior wide receiver Tim White still had his left hand and wrist bandaged Tuesday after suffering what Graham described as a wrist sprain during the Camp Tontozona scrimmage Saturday.

  • Sophomore tight end Grant Martinez was no longer wearing the walking boot he's used for the last week after suffering an ankle sprain early in camp.

  • Junior wide receiver Frederick Gammage hasn't practiced for almost all of camp after suffering an injury described by coaches as a "ding" early in camp.


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