Player Capsule: Tashon Smallwood
Position: Defensive Tackle
Weight: 275 pounds
2015 season quick review: Smallwood led Arizona State's defensive linemen in tackles with 43, including 8.5 for loss, with two sacks. He was far and away the team's most productive tackle statistically. Even though fellow starter Viliami Latu had nearly as many tackles for loss and 1.5 more sacks, Smallwood has three times as many tackles.
2014 season quick review: A Scout.com freshman All-American selection, Smallwood started his first career game at the 3-technique tackle position, one of just eight true freshmen to ever do so in a Sun Devil uniform. For the season, Smallwood had 23 tackles including 5.5 for loss. Smallwood had perhaps his best game against Duke in the Sun Bowl, with six tackles.
Sports performance coach Shawn Griswold on Smallwood: "The other thing that's really developed with him is his leadership. The other kids, he's starting to become that guy we can kind of lean on defensively. We haven't really had that since Will (Sutton) left. He's not a talker, he's just about action. It's nice to see guys like that, as they mature. He's already a two year starter. I told him, 'it's time now.' I think he's ready to go. He finally benched 315 pounds the other day which is fine, he's not a big strong kid. But you have to remember, he wasn't training the same way with us last year because he had the hernias. He had his first summer, which you get a little strength in six weeks, he played, then he had one off-season, got hurt, missed a ton of time. He cleaned over 300 the other day which is big for him because he hasn't had time to train."
SunDevilSource.com analysis (06/2016): As a sophomore, Smallwood took a clear step forward by becoming a little more gap sound and productive against the run and better at finishing plays he put himself in position to make. Quick feet and low center of gravity have always been Smallwood strengths, and it's enabled him to be a destabilizing force as an interior gap exploiter against the run and pass. It's very much a marriage with the schematic approach of ASU coach Todd Graham, who favors a lot of aggressive slants and gap cancellation via pressure into the run fits.
Smallwood has overhauled his body since arriving at ASU, losing significant bad body weight and improving functional strength. He's now relatively light to be a full service player at defensive tackle and be able to anchor an interior gap against a double team, particularly considering this was already not his strongest attribute and he had a tendency to sometimes get his shoulders turned instead of keeping square to the line of scrimmage. Increased strength and better technique and approach should help to counteract this but Smallwood is a small framed player for a tackle and it's a difficult to have great body composition but also enough size to handle the physicality of the position.
This is why Smallwood is a good fit for the ASU scheme. He's usually asked to exploit a gap and try to destabilizing the offensive backfield, rather than anchor and read the play. The keys for his continued success and development are to keep adding strength and muscularity so he can increasingly progress in the more physically demanding aspects of the position. He'd often be in position to make a play but not be able to get the ball carrier or quarterback to the ground with his arms extended due to grip and overall strength. Smallwood works as hard as anyone on the team at developing technique, usually the last one to leave practices.
From a leadership standpoint, few players on the ASU defense are more credible and authentic than Smallwood. He's played extensively for two years, doesn't talk a lot, and works as hard as anyone on the team. That's a great combination to have your voice matter, and particularly on a team that doesn't have a lot of leaders with a long track record of playing at a high level.
(04/2015): The Sun Devils didn't have great options with experience at defensive tackle last season and as a result Smallwood and defensive tackle convert Viliami Latu were given a great opportunity to learn on the job. Results were mixed, but at a minimum the two players earned a lot of experience, and clearly got better. Smallwood was among the most improved players on the ASU defense from August to December, as he started to get a better idea of how to use his athletic gifts.
Smallwood is a bit undersized but has quick feet, his best attribute. He gets off the snap well and has enough burst to put himself into advantageous leverage situations, or occasionally even get clean through a gap in an way that enables him to make a play in the backfield. Now he'll have to take his game to new heights by improving from a technical standpoint and continuing to add strength. A lot of times last season even when he won a rep at the point of attack he wasn't able to finish a play due to not being strong enough to bring down a running back or quarterback with an outstretched arm.
This spring, Smallwood had reconfigured his body to some degree, getting a bit leaner and adding strength. As he continues that progression he'll make more plays, and also especially as he becomes more assertive with using his hands and arms in a technically proficient manner. Right now he'll get his feet and body in position to make a play initially off his first couple snaps, but then not be able to complete it with a forceful enough rip to power through a leverage advantage. Part of the battle is being more determined and having an even better motor and increased tenacity. He should be able to use better strength to hold his ground a little better when trying to anchor a gap. Too much last year he was moved right out of the area he needed to be as offensive linemen used his path of movement to steer him in that direction.
Projected depth chart status: Smallwood is the clear-cut favorite to start at the 3-technique defensive tackle position as he heads into his junior season. The most likely scenario is Wicker is part of a three or four tackle rotation that includes versatile redshirt freshman George Lea, and potentially, talented third-year sophomore Renell Wren off the bench.