The Sun Devils return three starters along their defensive front with sophomore Joseph Wicker likely shifting from the end position to Devil backer. Senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu and junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood are two of the most experienced players on the roster and fit the scheme well for the type of players they are. They combined for 15.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks last season.
Smallwood's always had quick feet and been able to exploit a gap. He's worked on increasing his power, anchoring better against the run and being more capable at bull rushing. He's shown clear improvement in the latter regard in camp, moving linemen backwards into the quarterback on several occasions in a way we haven't seen in previous years. Latu doesn't have much wiggle, but his impressive get off and motor enable him to compress the line of scrimmage, and he gets unblocked and makes good secondary plays on the quarterback. Both players appear to be in the best physical shape of their careers for the roles they'll play.
Last season again showed a theme of the Todd Graham era, which is starting defensive linemen playing a lot of snaps as backups haven't been as reliable as the Sun Devils would like. Latu and Smallwood would really benefit if ASU could get into a three or even four-tackle rotation. The player who has the best chance of making that happen is redshirt freshman George Lea, who appeared headed for playing time last year before he got in trouble and had to sit out the season. Lea is capable of playing either the nose or 3-technique positions and has a nice combination of stoutness and foot agility.
It might be tough for the Sun Devils to get into a four-tackle rotation on base downs because the move of Wicker to Devil led the Sun Devils to bump sophomore Renell Wren to the first-team at end. But Wren has had a good camp to this point and continued to improve his pad level. He's one of the most physically impressive and strongest players on the roster at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds but hasn't translated it to the field as of yet, but is starting to show increasing signs of it. Playing with more of a violent disposition is perhaps the next step to Wren unlocking more of his talent.
Senior Edmond Boateng has mostly been with the second team at end but is an important player who has quite a bit of experience if Wicker remains at Devil. Assignment soundness was an issue for Boateng at times early in his career, but if he proves to be functional he has the ability to play well enough to help at the position because of the way he stays square and can hold the edge plus provide a serviceable pass rush. It may even allow ASU more comfort with leaving Wicker at Devil, and potentially even lead to Wren being able to take some reps inside.
Junior Corey Smith has bounced around a bit but is back at defensive tackle and taken some second-team 3-technique reps. He's battled hip flexibility limitations due to bone spurs that required surgery, and while that's improved, it's still somewhat of an issue. He is long and has very active, violent hands though which helps his cause. Perhaps Smith could push to get some game reps.
If there's a sleeper player who could factor in at tackle it's probably senior walk-on Tramel Topps, who doesn't look out of play physically among the scholarship players at the position and can probably hold his own as a fresh-legged option at nose tackle off the bench for a series here and there.
Junior college transfer Christian Hill is a phenomenal looking specimen but very early in his football development still. A redshirt year might be the best move if ASU gets enough from others to allow it. Redshirt freshman Jalen Bates is a natural edge pass rusher who has gained 25 pounds in the last year and uses his length well. Being better with his technique and recognition against the run is a requirement for more base down reps but he's a third-down option at minimum. After a redshirt year, Emanuel Dayries is on the second to third team margin and probably the fourth or fifth tackle option right now.
One possibility: if either junior Devil backer Alani Latu or redshirt freshman Devil backer Malik Lawal emerges as a strong option, it could lead to Wicker getting some reps at end and Wren kicking inside at times. Alani Latu has had a very good camp by all accounts, and Lawal is one of our sleepers on the roster for his explosive edge pass rush capability.
If 2016 junior college signee Doug Subtyl somehow gets academically cleared to play this year, that could also potentially shake up the ASU defensive front. Subtyl looks like a potential impact player at Devil backer when in shape and clear on the playbook.
Top players: Smallwood, Ami Latu, Lea
Freshmen who could play: None
In 2016 we're likely to see Wicker transition from one of the most promising young defensive players in the Pac-12 to one of its best pass rushers. He's going to be put into position to make a lot of plays at a Devil backer position that has consistently produced a lot of sacks and tackles for loss. As a true freshman last year Wicker had 7.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks. Since then, Wicker has lost 15 pounds or so and become even quicker, more explosive and more refined in his pass rush. He's a player with All-American potential as an upperclassman.
Alani (A.J. ) Latu has really impressed with his fitness level and potency from a 2-point stance on the edge. He was put into a difficult situation last year as he was caught between an end and Devil backer physically. This year he looks very much like a Devil backer in terms of body composition, and has a lot of comfort in the role. He is taking on blocks effectively, anchoring against the run, and making his presence felt from a physical standpoint. Like his brother Viliami, A.J. has a great motor and plays the game with a physical edge.
The Sun Devils are really just three players deep at Devil backer in terms of who works with position coach Shawn Slocum in practices on a day-to-day basis. The third option is Lawal, a redshirt freshman who missed his senior year of high school with an ACL injury. Though not big and in need of gaining more size to become a full service player at the position, Lawal has great initial burst off the snap of the football, especially from a 3-point stance. He will be more challenging to handle from a speed standpoint by opposing offensive tackles than just about anyone on the roster, save perhaps Koron Crump. Lawal has some aspects of his game that remind us of former standout Devil backer Carl Bradford.
Lawal and Crump -- not to mention Wicker -- have given ASU's offensive linemen a great test consistently in one-on-ones in practices. Crump spent time between Devil and Spur in the spring but has mostly been at Spur from what we've seen in August.
If A.J. Latu or Lawal end up playing at a high level, it could lead ASU to shift Wicker back to defensive end for some reps.
Top player: Wicker
Freshmen who could play: None
This is perhaps the strongest position on the ASU defense entering 2016. Returning starters Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam were both among the Pac-12 leaders last year in tackles-per-game (seventh and eighth respectively) and solo tackles (first and fifth) and finished first and second on the team with 99 and 96 tackles. A strong case could be made that Fiso and Sam are the best returning starting inside linebacker duo in the Pac-12.
Fiso had 20 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. He's a violent inside run stopper who is at his best playing against teams that want to run the football downhill. Fiso has worked to be better making range plays working toward the boundary, particularly against spread teams, and be more sound against the pass. There were clear improvements in both regards last season.
Sam is one of ASU's best NFL prospects entering his junior campaign, with the movement skills of a hybrid player and the size of an inside 'backer. He's worked to be more consistently physical and play with better pad level, displaying both last season. There's still more gains that can be made in this area though and Sam's ceiling is so high as a player that he still wasn't near his max performance last year when he was among the league leaders in multiple categories.
One of the challenges facing defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson this year is figuring out a way to get Fiso and Sam on the field at the same time as junior D.J. Calhoun. Even though he primarily only played on nickel downs last season Calhoun finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks and looked every bit the part of a starting inside linebacker in the Pac-12.
With Sam getting slowly re-incorporated into practices in the last week following off-season arthroscopic hip surgery, Calhoun took all the first-team reps at WILL backer on the boundary side of the field. That's where Sam played last season, but upon Sam's return he's primarily lined up on the field side at what's been typically labeled the Spur position. This year though, we've been told there are some defensive formations that are playing Fiso, Sam and Calhoun together in MIKE, SAM and WILL roles that would be most typically associated with a base 4-3 scheme.
Patterson told us he wants to get those three on the field together more and this is one way to make that happen. Sam and Calhoun had each played the Spur role earlier in their careers, but that was when they were each quite a bit lighter. Calhoun's gained 40-plus pounds since arriving at ASU, now at 230-235 pounds. Sam weighs even more right now, at around 240 pounds.
Behind those three players there's senior Carlos Mendoza, who was having a good camp with the second-team before missing the last several practices for an undisclosed reason. Mendoza has had a bad-luck career filled with injuries but when healthy is able to serve a backup role here with some level of effectiveness.
Sophomore Khaylan Thomas is returning from a meniscus tear suffered in the spring. He hasn't practiced fully yet and it's unclear if he'll be ready for the start of the season. He played last year as a true freshman on special teams and looked like someone who could play the WILL spot with continued maturity.
Top players: Fiso, Sam, Calhoun
Freshmen who could play: None
Graham and Patterson have planned to move senior Laiu Moeakiola from Spur to deep safety this season as they contemplate what appears to be a bit of a style adjustment, at least against certain types of opponents. Moeakiola began his career at field side safety for the Sun Devils so in that respect he's kind of coming full circle. Certainly he's been one of the key communicators on the defense in recent years, but played hurt for the last couple seasons due to a shoulder that required a second surgery in December.
If Moeakiola indeed ends up on the back end the Sun Devils will need to have someone elevate his play at Spur when the team isn't employing Fiso, Sam and Calhoun on the field together. Against spread teams we'll probably see more of a defensive back in the Spur role and there's a variety of players who could rise to the top of the depth chart in such a look.
Junior Marcus Ball was working with the first-team at Spur until Sam returned but has since been at a deep safety position. He played well in situations off the bench last year when Moeakiola couldn't go and has the athletic mobility of a safety with the size of a hybrid linebacker. Ball's increasingly looked comfortable from a play execution standpoint when in the lineup.
Crump is a hybrid linebacker who has moved between Devil and Spur, and is probably going to be primarily used as a situational pass rusher early in his career before earning an expanded role. On nickel downs we could see Calhoun, Sam and Crump on the field together, with other pass rushers including Lawal and Bates also candidates to play in the top pressure unit at a few different spots.
In recent practices we've seen sophomore defensive back Tyler Whiley work with the first-team at Spur seemingly out of nowhere, and Graham mentioned Whiley as someone who has helped his cause in the last couple weeks. When the Sun Devils are looking for more of a coverage option with five defensive backs on the field including one at Spur, Whiley, junior J'Marcus Rhodes and sophomore Das Tautalatasi are all options.
We've seen so much intermingling of personnel usage across ASU's defensive backfield that it's very difficult to project and also a clear sign that nothing's really been fully settled on.
Sophomore newcomer Deion Guignard has some similarities to Ball from a size and mobility standpoint. If he plays with physicality and is reliable in his assignments he could be a surprise on the field, but he also has a redshirt as a four-for-three addition.
A deep sleeper here would be sophomore Coltin Gerhart, who is focused exclusively on football now and is thickly constructed with a lot of muscularity for a smaller-framed safety.
Top players: Sam (in a 4-3), Ball (unless Laiu Moeakiola moves back to the position)
Freshman who could play: None
The dreadful performance of ASU's secondary last season has been discussed ad nauseam. Sophomore Kareem Orr has been shifted to boundary cornerback after leading the Pac-12 last year as a true freshman with six interceptions at the field safety position. But Lloyd Carrington -- some big lapses aside -- played okay at the position last year and the Sun Devils still really struggled overall against the pass. Orr has looked the part of a high level cornerback in the making in camp this month but probably is one season away from being there. He's handling man and zone coverages but has had some receivers get behind him from time to time, mostly just reps he's been beaten on more than any mental lapse.
One of the surprises of camp has been the play of senior De'Chavon Hayes at field cornerback. He's plenty athletic for the role and when allowed to just focus on a man coverage assignment he's stayed tight to the receivers a vast majority of reps we've seen. The challenge will be what happens when ASU makes coverage adjustments on the fly, or if there's a difficult zone read that Hayes has to identify and react to quickly. That's going to be an unknown going into the season.
Texas post-graduate transfer Bryson Echols has shaken off some early rust and showed signs of being able to help the Sun Devils in his final season of eligibility, whether that's on base or nickel downs. He's more of a coverage defensive back than a physical player you'd expect to hold up well on screens and runs to his side, but that's probably going to be a concern with Hayes as well. Orr is more physical and stronger, hence more versatility and the boundary role going to him.
We haven't seen what junior college transfer Maurice Chandler can do here because he's been in a green non-contact jersey and limited throughout camp with an injury. The Sun Devils could really use Chandler in the secondary as he showed good movement skills and coverage ability at Northeast Oklahoma A&M.
Robinson is undersized at 5-foot-8 but well put together and very tough with great short area quickness. He's been scrappy throughout camp and is fearless, covering some of ASU's receivers as well as anyone according to a variety of sources.
Lucas is light at just 155 or so pounds, and will need additional size and strength, but he has the coverage range and mobility to play at a high level.
Top player: Kareem Orr
Freshmen who could play: Robinson, Lucas
Injuries proved crippling for the Sun Devils last year at safety when Armand Perry and later Jordan Simone were knocked out of action. Orr slid from cornerback to safety and was boom or bust. He had the aforementioned six interceptions but also gave up a lot of big plays and was forced to learn on the job.
With ASU shallow on returning talent in its secondary its coaches are looking at playing Moeakiola as a deep safety next to Perry and moving Orr back to cornerback. Closer to the line of scrimmage, Moeakiola is a great player when healthy. But that hasn't been the case the last two seasons due to a shoulder injury that was operated on in December. Handling coverage assignments in wider spaces of field will be a bigger challenge and one that will test his high football IQ.
Perry looked to be on the verge of truly breaking out last season as a replacement to first-round NFL pick Damarious Randall, but suffered a severe ankle injury in the second game of the season that led to a medical redshirt. He's bigger and stronger than ever now, but is going to have to handle some extremely challenging man conflict situations over the middle of the field with the way ASU blitzes.
All eyes will be on Perry and Moeakiola in addition to the starting cornerbacks as ASU looks to rebound from being the worst passing defense nationally in 2015. But there are other players that could factor in here as well.
Rhodes worked at cornerback and safety in the spring -- though he missed a handful of practices to attend to a personal matter -- and that's continued in preseason camp. At cornerback he might be the backup to Orr if needed there. Rhodes is long at 6-foot-1, and rangy, but has a lot to prove yet. He could be competing with Ball on the back end unless the Sun Devils use one of the players at Spur.
Junior Chad Adams has good mobility that hasn't always shown up on the football field. He's not played as freely due to a need to have football become less thought and more reaction. He played a lot last year when the Sun Devils were beset by injuries and it didn't go well. Junior James Johnson has played quite a bit the last couple seasons when called upon due to injuries. He is assignment sound and makes plays coming up but limited in terms of coverage range when put into man coverage situations.
Top players: Armand Perry, Laiu Moeakiola
Freshmen who could play: None