Despite the vast turnover that occurred in the offseason both from a coaching and player standpoint for Arizona State, one position group has remained largely unchanged – the defensive line.
Returning all three starters from last year, the Sun Devils’ defensive line may not have the most veteran players in terms of seniority, but it does have a handful of players who are poised to be leaders on defense.
Junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood senior defensive lineman Viliami Latu and sophomore Joseph Wicker all return to the group as starters, in addition to redshirt freshman Jalen Bates sophomore Renell Wren redshirt freshman George Lea and senior walk-on Tramel Topps.
Junior college transfer Christian Hill is the only true newcomer to the group, and has been siphoning off some second-team reps during team periods media have been able to observe.
“We got more depth on the defensive line than we’ve had and I feel really good,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said Wednesday. “I think Tashon Smallwood is really maturing as a leader. He’ll be the first guy there and the last one to leave there every day. I think Ami (Latu) is a guy who other guys look to. I think we got some veteran guys in there. JoJo (Wicker), he’s really maturing there and looks like a seasoned veteran as well. We got three really good leaders and I think Tashon being the leader of that bunch and how he works, I like how none of them say anything, they just work.”
Last Friday, Graham said Wicker in particular is a “very gifted player.” Watching Wicker play and progress through the 2015 season as a true freshman, Graham said Wicker got “better and better” as he got more experience in ASU’s system.
This season, Graham said to look out for Wicker as a catalyst on the defensive front as perhaps ASU's best pure pass rusher. In addition to Wicker, Graham said his team's overall ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks is trending toward being an area of improvement.
“I do think right now if you ask me are we better at our individual pass rush than we were last year, yes we are,” Graham said. “I think JoJo (Wicker) is a guy that can beat 1-on-1 pass rush and I think Smallwood has been outstanding as far as his progression.”
Last year, ASU managed to sack the quarterback 46 times and out of those 46 sacks, 23.5 of them were made by members of the front four (including Devil). It's an indication that ASU had to blitz quite a bit to manufacture its pressure.
Under Graham, since 2012 ASU’s defense has been an attack-oriented one-gap scheme with a focus on trying to penetrate the voids, meaning the defensive linemen are aligned in between two offensive linemen and trying to break through to apply pressure.
While his philosophy hasn't changed, during spring football Graham's had his defense work on some two gap scheme – a 3-4 "Okie" or odd-front – which is about gap control, not gap penetration. In such a style, defensive linemen are asked to occupy and manage a gap rather than exploit it, and then be able to make tackles working to either side of them in order to stop the run.
Working on this 3-4 Okie front in the spring gives ASU an opportunity to show its offense a defensive approach that is employed by many of its Pac-12 peers. It also provides ASU increased flexibility to play odd or even front, one-gap or two-gap.
Essentially, ASU’s hybrid attacking defense becomes even more versatile with fluency of the 3-4 Okie front.
"What we've done is, the No. 1 front in this league is Okie front," Graham said. "Because we have four new offensive linemen, I did not want to come out (with) them trying to deal with what our base defense is. We're going to be movement and attack. We put in the Okie front and that system to help our guys. And we do run odd front. But that is an alternate front for us. The reason why I did it was I wanted to do it in the beginning because one, it gets us reps and we’ve gone eight practices, I think seven or eight practices, and we’ve gotten a look at what the teams in our league are going to play base-front wise, coverage-wise from Day 1.”
Graham said ASU’s defense is in essence an “alternate odd man front," which is to say that usually it will be in a 4-3 or what some might call a 4-2-5 formation with the Devil backer playing from a 3-point stance, but that sometimes it will use the Devil from a stand up linebacker position. This spring, the Devil backer has exclusively played as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 Okie formation.
Wednesday was the first day ASU utilized six-man pressure in team periods because Graham wanted to be smart in breaking in the young offensive line as well as eliminate big plays on defense, and really work on developing the five and four-man pressures.
But with ASU developing these more basic pressures and formations, Graham said the offense has been running the ball “ really well,” and in practice Wednesday, Graham yelled out to the defense they weren’t “setting the edge.”
Junior running back Demario Richard has been having his way with the defense, getting to the edge easier than normal with ASU’s defensive ends frequently in a 4-technique position under the 3-4 Okie front rather than 5-technique in ASU’s normal base defense, and with no Devil backer to help anchor. In ASU’s base defense, the offensive line would likely have more trouble sealing off the edge.
Lea is enjoying playing the nose tackle position in the 3-4 and sees himself as a 1-technique/0-technique player, so working in the scheme gives him a 1-on-1 opportunity with the center or the guard.
Lea said he believes the two-gap scheme will be something coaches may look at using on a game-to-game basis, and thinks it will work in certain packages.
Overall, Wicker said he thinks the fronts and formations they've been working on as a defensive line this spring have been an improvement from last year.
“I feel like where we have three down linemen, we have more athleticism on the outside,” Wicker said. “I feel like we can do both ways, we can get pressures on both sides. If you actually watch the practice we are in the four-front and we get sacks just as much as when we are in the three(-front), probably even more.”
Leaned down from a personally reported playing weight of 275 pounds last year, Wicker said he felt he was “too heavy” and it was hard for him to turn the edge and reach the quarterback quick enough. This spring, he weighs around 260-265 and sees it as his ideal weight for the fall and in ASU’s schemes.
As for his technique improvements, Wicker said he feels like his get-off, footwork, speed, and his handwork have greatly improved since the fall and Graham has been “cordial” with his praise at practice, but the praise has been noticeable.
Praise has also been noticeable for new ASU defensive line coach Joe Seumalo.
Wicker said the difference between former ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp and Seumalo is that Shipp was more aggressive in his teaching methods, while Seumalo’s focus is to get the point across in the easiest way possible.
“Obviously the job description that we have, has to be simple,” Seumalo said in early March. “I usually gauge so it so that if guys can handle a little more information I'll give it to him. If not, I'll keep that back a little. They have to have it simplified as possible. No different than what coach Graham explained in my interview. It's aggressive, like you're blitzing on every play. Sometimes you're blitzing with three guys, four guys, the fourth guy being the Devil. Get them to understand and buy in to that. And to listen. If we can do that then we've got a chance.”
Adding onto Wicker’s comments, Lea was a bit more blunt with his opinion on Shipp compared to Seumalo’s way of coaching, at least as he sees it.
“He (Seumalo) is way better,” Lea said. “He takes the time to teach us and not yell.”
Coming off a redshirt freshman year after being arrested for an on-campus BB gun incident last year involving a teammate, Lea said it was a very hard for him to overcome the suspension, but he feels fully prepared for the season ahead.
Lea has been getting second team reps at nose tackle, and when Ami Latu was absent from practice Monday, Lea got the nod to step in and take first team reps.
Also getting plenty of attention for his performance on the field – and not always in a complementary way – is redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jalen Bates.
Graham has said a couple times this spring Bates needs continued work on getting better against the run, an area that Bates is self-aware of his struggles. Last year, ASU only allowed opponents 3.6 rushing yards per play, the lowest so far in Graham’s tenure with the Sun Devils.
“I need to work on the run game because my run game is not to the level it should be, but other than that, I still keep on getting better with my pass game and getting to the passer, but my main focus this spring to get better in the run game,” Bates said.
As a pass rusher, Bates said he likes to get up the field fast and that notion is often stuck in his head for every play, so when he has to defend the run, his thoughts get scrambled.
Against the run, Bates said he has to work on shortening his steps and setting up, unlike taking long steps and exploding up field.
Working in the film room, Bates has been getting the chance to watch film from past and present college and NFL players like Warren Sapp, Dante Fowler and Jadeveon Clowney. Bates sees himself most similar to players like Randy Gregory, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys, and Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson from Clemson.
But while Bates has been watching films from other players on other teams, there’s one particular player he has paid close attention to during his time at ASU thus far.
“Watching Tashon and Ami, I watch Tashon mostly because he plays a more similar position like me in this defense, but Tashon is explosive and he plays fast, but he knows what he’s doing and that’s exactly what I want to be like,” Bates said. “So I watch Tashon a lot and I watch his film. I watch him and try to mimic what he does because when Tashon is playing, he is a productive player.”
-- Junior college transfer defensive back J'Marcus Rhodes was back at practice after missing the last four spring practices for personal reasons. Senior defensive lineman Viliami Latu and junior linebacker Alani Latu were also back in attendance after missing Monday’s practice.
-- Graham told reporters after Wednesday’s practice sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas is out for the spring after having surgery. Thomas has a meniscus tear in his left knee.
-- Junior linebacker Christian Sam (hip), senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (shoulder), freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nathe (knee), senior tight end Kody Kohl (leg), redshirt sophomore defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi, and redshirt freshman Jason Lewis were all in green non-contact jerseys. Sophomore safety Armand Perry wore a green jersey for part of practice.
-- New additions in green Wednesday were redshirt freshman offensive lineman Steve Miller and senior defensive lineman Edmond Boateng.