1. Joseph Wicker (sophomore) -- When Wicker initially signed with the Sun Devils out of Long Beach Poly he was viewed as a 3-technique tackle by Graham and the ASU staff even though Wicker moved all around the line in high school. It appeared Wicker could be in line to be the Will Sutton-like player that the Sun Devils haven't had since the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year left the program. But solid play from Tashon Smallwood at the position and promising hints of future success from George Lea, coupled with personnel questions at end led the Sun Devils to use Wicker at end, and it proved to be a good decision for the team.
Wicker has a versatile body type, which ASU has taken advantage of. He's streamlined his physique significantly in recent months and as a result was lighter and quicker in spring football than we've seen previously. There's little doubt at this time that Wicker is the Sun Devils' best pass rusher from a 3-point stance, and probably its best overall pass rusher regardless of position.
He has an explosive three step get off that allows him to exploit the edge against offensive tackles who struggle to manage his range and Wicker leverages this with rapidly developing skill. He started to display an inside spin counter that is quick and hard for linemen to check. Wicker also uses his extended arms very functionally as a pass rusher. He's proficient at attacking the arms of offensive tackles to prevent them from locating their hands on him properly.
As these moves continue to become more refined he's going to be very difficult for most college teams to manage in space. Wicker's also showed improvement at run recognition and making in-rep adjustments, and using his feet better in this regard. He's one of ASU's best overall prospects and will likely be one of its best players in 2016 even though he'll only be a sophomore. Preparedness Grade: 4 / Potential Grade: 5
2. Tashon Smallwood (junior) -- 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. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4
3. Viliami Latu (senior) -- In 2015 Latu continued to add size and look more the part of a defensive tackle. He's all the way there now. After arriving out of high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, as a 230 pound inside linebacker, Latu took about three years transitioning into a full sized nose tackle and a pretty respectable one at a well constructed 290 pounds. What's really stood out as he's added those 60 pounds is how his motor has remained unchanged. Latu plays really hard, which is a skill in and of itself. It's enabled him to play very heavy reps without rotation in a lot of games and hold up well through the fourth quarter even 70-80 reps in.
At the nose tackle position there's a lot of value in pocket compression, which makes for a tighter operating area for quarterbacks and forces more mistakes. That's something Latu provides relatively well with his motor and how much force he generates with his power and tempo releasing off the snap off the football. While he isn't especially limber, Latu has the ability to bull rush rather effectively due to aggressive, working feet, and he also uses his arms effectively as a pass rusher from a skill standpoint for someone who isn't more slippery athletically. These things make him a solid middle-tier level Pac-12 defensive tackle, even in an ASU scheme that is all about gap exploitation.
Another good thing about Latu is his lunchpail mentality and overall approach to football. He's consistent not just with his effort in games, but also in a practice setting. He's relatively quiet but leads through example at a position that seems a lot of variability with effort because of the physical demands in terms of conditioning and sheer will power. Latu's a great role model for younger players not just on the field but in the classroom and locker room as a result, even with his softer spoken nature. He's not going to beat guys with dynamic quickness or agility, and though he anchors reasonably well he's not someone who displaces bodies through engagement at a high enough level to be a star player. But he's a valuable asset and not physically or athletically overmatched as a starter in the Pac-12 as he enters his senior year. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 3.5
4. George Lea (redshirt freshman) -- Had Lea been able to play last season it's likely he would have carved out some type of role in the rotation because as a mid-year enrollee he'd gotten a jump on the learning curve and made a very positive impression prior to getting suspended. There was even some whispering behind the scenes that Lea could have challenged Tashon Smallwood for the starting 3-technique tackle position.
Lea and Smallwood have similarly quick, active feet and Lea has a little bigger frame and is a little more stout with impressive functional strength. As a result, he's a very good football prospect even though he's less experienced than Smallwood, which is a major factor in determining playing time. Smallwood also is at this point an unquestioned team leader who has the work ethic and overall buy in to self-improvement and team orientation, which is confidence inducing with coaches. Coming off a suspension, Lea has to demonstrate those things in order to put himself in position to take full advantage of his ample athletic gifts.
It's quite possible Lea has the best combination of pass rush potential and run stopping of all the ASU defensive tackles on the roster. He's got a powerful lower half with a stocky, low center of gravity for his height. He plays with impressive leverage and is difficult to dislodge or move off of his spot in run lanes in 50/50 situations after the snap. He may be the best defensive tackle on the roster at sitting into and eating double teams at the point of attack.
Lea also has the ability to exploit a gap with his low pad level and quick get off, which really enhances his versatility. For someone with four years of remaining eligibility, he's a very good college football prospect, and one who said he's really embraced playing for first-year line coach Joe Seumalo. It fits his personality type more than former line coach Jackie Shipp, and we'll see in time how that manifests. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4
5. Renell Wren (sophomore) -- Visually, Wren has the appearance of being an absolute physical specimen. He's huge-framed and long and yet has no excess weight even at 290-plus pounds. Everyone wants to have football players who look like Wren. He has an NFL defensive lineman body type. He's also one of the strongest players on the ASU roster according to Shawn Griswold, the program's head strength coach. All of this though has yet to translate to the football field with any real consistency.
Wren had just one tackle in four games last season and is still working to prove to coaches that he's ready to handle a greater role on the defensive line this fall. There are a lot of areas in which he stands to improve, particularly with regard to pad level and using his hands effectively. Being so tall and long is an advantage if used properly but can be a disadvantage until that time. Wren tends to provide too much blockable surface area to offensive linemen and has to develop a better sense of how to keep offensive linemen from getting their hands located on him where they're comfortable and can manage his length more effectively.
Becoming quicker and more violent with his hands and understanding how and when to coordinate his movements will be an important part of Wren's development. He's also got to be better at violently disengaging from lock up situations. Wren's a hard guy to move off his anchor and at this point in time uses his length better as a two-gap read and recognition player. He gets his hands up to bat down throws and can make reach plays with his long arms on running backs in his lane. But this is a very aggressive one-gap scheme and one that defenders like to play in as a result. What it means, however, is that more dynamic playmaking will have to be demonstrated for Wren to get the bounty of reps he no doubt hopes for. Playing with a more consistently higher revving motor is one thing that should help. The physical tools are there. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4
6. Edmond Boateng (senior) -- A lot of playing time in 2014 in his first year at ASU no doubt led Boateng to a hope that he'd be more relied upon in 2015. That never materialized, however, as freshman Joseph Wicker showed glimpses of being a star player and senior Antonio Longino won out at Devil backer, where he was statistically productive.
Boateng has to some degree been disadvantaged by ASU not being able to fully commit to whether he's an end or Devil, and he's been kept in limbo physically from a weight standpoint kind of in between the two. We think he's better suited to be a true defensive end but he's been lighter than he should be to play the type of role he's best suited for and that will probably remain the case moving forward as ASU has to hedge its bets at the Devil backer position.
There were a lot of fundamental and key read issues with Boateng's game upon arrival at ASU that he's worked to iron out and in the spring there seemed to be a lot fewer of these instances and a better position-specific and role focus on display. Some of those things probably were confidence sapping from the decision makers on snap allocation and contributed to him not playing as much last season. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3
7. Jalen Bates (redshirt freshman) -- There are some innate tools Bates has to work with that just can't be taught. He's extremely long-limbed on an angular 6-foot-4 frame, with enormous hands that required ASU to special order size 4x gloves. He covers tremendous ground with his long, aggressive strides getting off the football, and has quite a bit of suddenness for a 250 pounder.
Whether you call it a Buck, LEO or Elephant at the NFL level, ASU hasn't had anyone during the Todd Graham-era who physically looks more like a prototypical outside linebacker pass rush specialist than Bates. He's a little tightly wound, and as a result might even be better operating out of a two-point stance on the edge. It's one of the things that makes him potentially a better candidate to be a bigger Devil backer than a 3-point defensive end. It's an intriguing thing to consider, particularly if there is a need at the position in August. On the flip side, Bates has a big frame and can easily support 275 pounds in the long run, and be a versatile 3-4 or 4-3 strong-side end projecting beyond college.
Right now, Bates is a lot further along as a pass rusher than he is against the run, and that's holding him back from more playing opportunity. He has such long strides and a hyper-focus on getting to the quarterback that he can be manipulated in the run game, run directly at, and is an execution risk from a containment standpoint. This shouldn't always be the case, however, as his size and length should eventually benefit him in this regard. But he just needs more situational understand and split-second run recognition and the ability to adapt on the fly. It comes down to knowing when and how to chop his footwork and not get his shoulders turned away, and not letting linemen use his momentum against him as easily.
Where Bates excels is using his length and very good explosiveness to win the edge as a pass rusher and he converts well to the pocket for a guy of his size, even though he needs to work on being able to drop his center of gravity to do so even more effectively. He's a candidate to out-run the pocket and be pushed behind the play as a result. But when he wins reps he does so with violent impact at the quarterback, and there's a very high ceiling here that he's working toward in the long term. He uses his length well at times hand displacement of the setting offensive tackle. Added flexibility work and strength training is going to help unlock a lot of his potential, the rest will come with time and experience. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4.5
8. Emanuel Dayries (sophomore)-- ASU coaches were able to redshirt Dayries last season after he was pressed into action out of Louisiana as a true freshman. Dayries has enough of a physical presence to play the position at this level but needs to continue to get stronger and more skilled in order to do so effectively. As a one-technique tackle playing off the center he tends to do a pretty fair job of hanging in there and not getting run off the ball. That's a solid start, but there's a wide gap between that and being able to semi-regularly collapse the pocket, or exploit a gap and make plays and Dayries isn't yet demonstrating enough of that in a practice setting to warrant extensive action.
Athletically there are some limitations as it relates to fit within the scheme, as Dayries' quickness isn't on par with several fellow ASU defensive tackles, for example. But he has the ability to square off at the line of scrimmage and sit in against the run. If he can build off that by adding more power and be increasingly able to compact the interior of the offensive line he has the potential to become a serviceable rotational player. Preparedness Grade: 2 / Potential Grade: 2.5
9. Christian Hill (junior) -- Though he's one of Arizona State's oldest football players, Christian Hill is one of its least experienced. He didn't play football in high school after his sophomore season on junior varsity. Then Hill joined the Air Force after high school, where he spent five years in active duty before again taking up football at Glendale.
This was all apparent in spring football, where Hill got a jump start as a mid-year transfer. Everything about his game is an early work in progress, from his set up position in a 3-point stance to how he uses his feet and hands after the snap. He tends to be too narrow with his base, which creates balance and other functional issues.
The good news for Hill and ASU is that he has some great physical gifts to work with. He's absolutely huge and yet extremely lean at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds. He also can really run when he gets out into space. It's just going to be a challenge to refine his raw materials into anything close to resembling a finished product in such a short two or three year span.But Hill is a disciplined guy who approached spring ball with a great work ethic and more mature approach than most, a benefit of his age and journey. Those things give him an edge. It is a race against time though and how quickly he progresses will be something to closely follow. Preparedness Grade: 1.5 / Potential Grade: 3.5
Preparedness/Potential Grade Key
5: All-American level performer
4: First/second team all-league level performer
3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer
2: Fringe Pac-12 performer
1: Non-Pac-12 level performer
Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.