Leading nation in TFLs, ASU defensive front feels it is just scratching surface

Arizona State's defensive front is seeing a marked uptick in its statistical productivity this season and the group feels its best is yet to come.

Under the direction of its head coach Todd Graham, since 2012 Arizona State's defense has developed a reputation for creating chaos for opposing teams in the backfield. So far through seven games in the 2015 season, the Sun Devils have done exactly that.

ASU is averaging a nation-leading 9.9 TFLs per game in FBS and is No. 1 in the Pac-12 with 24 sacks.

But, while Graham has been known to dial up a bevy of blitz packages composed of five or six players in order to impact the quarterback, one of the pivotal reasons for ASU’s defensive success this season has been the play of the its defensive front.

Accounting for 41.3 percent of their total tackles for loss (28.5 out of 69) and 37.5 percent of the team’s total sacks this season (nine out of 24), the Sun Devils’ defensive front has been able to win the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield.

Starring a starting defensive line primarily composed of senior Demetrius Cherry, junior Viliami Latu, sophomore Tashon Smallwood, freshman Joseph Wicker and senior Devil backer Antonio Longino, ASU’s defensive front four have averaged 4.1 TFLs per game this season as well as a combined 15.9 tackles per game.

“I could say that probably out of those guys up front, I could probably say in the seven games, most of them probably played their best game five times so that group has really been the anchor of our defense,” Graham said on Sunday.

With ASU’s defensive front -- including the Devil backer -- able to generate enough push on the line of scrimmage to frequently get into the backfield themselves, Graham told reporters they “feel good about a four-man pass rush” and that the team might need to do more of that as the season progresses.

With such confidence in the unit, Graham even went so far to call the front four the best collective defensive front he’s had at ASU.

“We’re the best we’ve been up front, that’s how good this group is and that’s saying something,” Graham said. “We had (former two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year) Will Sutton who was a dynamic player, I don’t know if we could say anybody we have is better than him, but collectively as a group, this is the best enforcing unit we’ve had.”

On a record-breaking pace for tackles for loss and sacks on the season, ASU’s defense has bounced back from the past two years in which the team saw its tackles for loss and sacks productivity decline.

In 2012, Graham took over the program and had Sutton and (former all-league Devil backer) Carl Bradford at his dispense. With two tackles for loss machines, the Sun Devil defense was able to rack up 117 tackles for loss and 52 sacks in 13 games. Just along the defensive front alone, the team recorded 68 tackles for loss and 39.5 sacks.

But as the next two seasons went by, ASU’s ability to get in the backfield began to falter. In 2013, ASU saw a 12.5 percent drop in tackles for loss production from the defensive front and a 33 percent drop in number of sacks compared to 2012.

In that season Sutton saw his numbers decline and endured a lot of conversation about weight being a factor, though he still earned Player of the Year honors in the league. Meanwhile, Bradford set a public goal of breaking an NCAA sack record that he ultimately never got close to. It was also the duo’s last year donning ASU uniforms.

After the 2013 season was over, Sutton and Bradford both left to the NFL and in 2014, ASU had no clear options to replace either player at their respective positions.

In turn, ASU’s defensive front paid the price in terms of its statistical productivity. The Sun Devils saw a 37.8 percent drop in tackles for loss from the defensive front players and a 37.7 percent drop in sacks on the season compared to 2013.

Instead of having a solid four-man front that could create pressure, the Sun Devils had to bring a lot of blitzes to generate plays in the backfield.

But, now looking at the numbers and personnel through seven games of the 2015 season, it appears ASU’s defensive front has finally gotten back on track and overcome some challenges.

Not only did the Sun Devils lose their best defensive lineman Marcus Hardison to graduation from last season, but with top junior college recruit Davon Durant’s suspension and ultimate dismissal, the Sun Devils lost a potential immediate impact player at Devil and were forced to move Longino – whose ideal position is seemingly WILL – over to play Devil.

Longino played WILL for the majority of 2014, but with the linebackers corps already filled to the brim with talented players like junior Salamo Fiso, junior Laiu Moeakiola and sophomore Christian Sam this year, the move was seen as a way to put ASU’s best 11 players on the field.

Despite the multiple moving pieces, ASU has found a way to get the right combination of players on the field and is finally seeing the play from its defensive front trending upwards once again.

The only stat lagging behind in 2015 has been ASU’s sack generation along the defensive front – 1.29 average per game compared to 1.9 in 2014.

But, despite the Sun Devils' lack of an established true pass rushers along the front this season, coaches are encouraged by what they see from younger players who haven't played much, or at all as yet. They haven't been needed because of the production of others ahead of them.  

“Yes we are building,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “We want it to be special. We want it to be great. That’s where we want to get it. We haven’t gotten there yet and that’s what we’re going to dang sure get.”

A clear example of ASU developing young players is the progression Wicker has made to get himself a spot in ASU’s starting defensive front.

“I feel myself getting a lot better and I’ll especially be next year because I’ll be used to everything, but I feel like I’m getting a lot better now just in terms of run and pass,” Wicker said.

Looking ahead for ASU with Wicker only a freshman, Smallwood just a sophomore, and Latu only a junior, the Sun Devils will have some key experienced players at their disposal for next year.

The only players ASU will lose on the front next year are Cherry and Longino and the players looking to take over those roles are considered very promising.

Freshman defensive lineman George Lea appeared in-line for playing time this season before an arrest led to a season-long suspension. He figures to be one of the top candidates to replace Cherry in the tackle rotation next year, as Lea was actually challenging Smallwood in camp at the 3-technique tackle spot before his off-the-field incident.

At Devil, ASU should have a few talented options who really fit the role. Starting off the long list of candidates is redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson, who has come in on nickel downs for ASU and so far this season has recorded six tackles, .5 TFLs and .5 sacks, but hurried opposing quarterbacks on a number of occasions.

Standing on the sidelines, freshmen Jalen Bates and Bo Wallace both showcased their talents in camp at the end and Devil positions respectively, and either could be elevated into a major role next season.

Even players who haven’t stepped on campus yet are feasible options to take over the starting Devil position.

ASU’s newest verbally committed recruit – four-star defensive end Dougladson Subtyl – is currently playing for Victor Valley College in Victorville, Calif., and in seven games, Subtyl has 16 sacks. He leads the California Community College Athletic Association.

So, with ASU defensive starting to find its rhythm once more and a list of talented young players waiting in the wings, it appears it just might be able to continue its upward trend of tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in seasons to come.

“I feel like we basically are just scratching the surface of what we can do,” Wicker said. “We’re really dominant I feel like we can be the best in the league some day."

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