Despite Arizona State's defensive struggles in 2015, the Sun Devils still finished tied for first nationally in sacks per game and third in the country in tackles for loss per game.
This season, six of the team's eight leaders in tackles for loss return to the program, but only one of those six players is a defensive lineman.
Junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood finished fourth for the Sun Devils with 8.5 tackles for loss, and this year, Smallwood is tasked with leading the overall improvement of ASU's defensive front.
Head coach Todd Graham has emphasized his desire to generate more pressure with four-man defensive fronts this season, and it's up to Smallwood and his fellow defensive linemen to help Graham see that wish through.
While ASU is determined to blitz five and often six players to engineer defensive pressure and rack up sacks and tackles for loss totals, the Sun Devils want Smallwood to have some company provided by other defensive linemen in the stat column.
When former ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp left for the same role at Missouri this offseason, Graham hired former UNLV defensive line coach Joe Seumalo to take over the unit for the Sun Devils.
Aside from teaching the basic fundamentals and techniques, Seumalo's chief initiative through spring practices and fall camp has been pushing ASU's defensive linemen to understand the importance of re-establishing the line of scrimmage.
“That’s (re-establishing the line of scrimmage) one of the things that we have definitely improved," Smallwood said. "That’s one of the things that Coach Joe has really been harping on in film, on the practice field and all of that. It’s taking the offensive linemen and putting them in the backfield and creating a new line of scrimmage for us. That causes a lot of havoc for the running backs, the quarterbacks and it puts a lot of pressure on the offense.”
Seumalo is practically single-minded in his efforts to ingrain the significance of re-establishing the line of scrimmage in his player's minds, knowing what it could mean for ASU's defensive success.
If the Sun Devils are able to blow offensive linemen back off the ball, ASU doesn't necessarily need to blitz five and six players to achieve Graham's primary directive of creating pressure in an opponent's backfield.
While some of ASU's coaches can afford to be more detail-oriented with their instructions, Seumalo knows his unit's overall success depends on results. Major League Baseball's all-time hits leader Pete Rose used to say, "See ball, hit ball." ASU's defensive linemen might as well say, "See offensive lineman, move offensive lineman."
“I just think if you’re playing on your opponent's side of the ball, who cares?" Seumalo said. "I get it, pad level, but if you’re just winning your knock backs on their side of the ball, that gives you the best chance to transition to pass (rush). I’ve always done it that way, but obviously, you want great stance, great alignment, and you want all that good stuff — but at the end of the day, play on their side of the ball.”
A Player's Coach
In his short time at ASU, Seumalo has earned the admiration and respect of his players for his teacher's mentality.
Soft-spoken in nature and patient with his explanations, Seumalo has a way of getting through to players the Sun Devils' defensive linemen have found remarkably relatable. While Shipp was generally considered a task master armed with a tough-love approach, Seumalo has a markedly different yet equally effective way of administering coaching points.
"They’re definitely two different coaches, Coach Joe (Seumalo) is definitely a coach that focuses on player development, he really takes the time to teach," Smallwood said. "Coach Shipp was kind of an in-your-face kind of guy, great coach, but he demanded a lot of us. Coach Joe does too, but they do it in different ways. It’s been a great transition, it’s different, he’s just a more calmer coach. It’s been great and we as a defensive line have learned a lot from him, just as well as Coach Shipp.”
Sophomore defensive end Renell Wren credited Seumalo for his on-field development as a defensive end because of something Seumalo does off the field. Wren has an athletic frame and a NFL-like physique, but hasn't quite put all of his skills together yet.
Wren said Seumalo's willingness to talk with Wren away from the football field and outside a pressure-filled setting has helped him become more comfortable, and in turn, a better player.
"With Coach Joe (Seumalo), I love Coach Joe," Wren said. "We sit down and talk and go over the plays and everything. Just keep progressing, and I just love how he just calls me outside. He’s telling me what I need to do, the commitments I need to make, just keep progressing day by day.”
To this point in camp, Wren has played ahead of senior Edmond Boateng at defensive end and consistently takes first team reps with ASU's defensive front. If Wren is able to harness the potential within his 6-foot-5, 290-pound frame, Seumalo will have another player capable of moving the line of scrimmage backward at his disposal.
The type of relationship Smallwood and Wren enjoy with Seumalo reflects one of Graham's most important missions. Graham has talked openly about wanting to hire coaches who put player development ahead of other priorities, and Seumalo seemingly checks off that box.
"The one language that we (ASU coaches) all speak in common is, Joe (Seumalo) loves these kids," Graham said. "They love teaching and he’s stern and strong, but he’s just a great teacher, I think that’s what the players see in him and what I see in him.”
A two-way street
Seumalo didn't need much time to establish a positive rapport with players, and with less than three weeks to go until the season opener, ASU's defensive linemen now must earn the trust of Seumalo.
Playing time is a two-way street in college football where players and coaches meet in the middle, and fortunately for ASU, the Sun Devils already have two players parked in the center of the defensive line.
Aside from Smallwood, senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu was part of ASU's three-tackle rotation last year that also featured graduated senior Demetrius Cherry.
Latu finished 10th on the team with four tackles for loss, but if ASU hopes to achieve Seumalo's goal of re-establishing the line of scrimmage, it will need Latu to improve upon that total in what should be an expanded role this season.
"Just power and hit, clogging holes, making room for our linebackers," Latu said of his responsibilities this season. "I'm there for the team, so I'll sacrifice my body any day."
Graham has been forthright in expressing the need for ASU to bolster its depth on the defensive line, especially at tackle. In an ideal world for ASU's coaches, the Sun Devils would be able to rotate four quality defensive linemen without losing any production or efficiency.
One of the leading candidates to add to the Sun Devils' depth behind Latu and Smallwood is redshirt freshman George Lea, who took first team reps in ASU's nickel package at Tuesday's practice. Outside of Lea, another player on the radar for playing time on the interior line is also one of the biggest surprises of fall camp in walk-on defensive lineman Tramel Topps,
During a team scrimmage on Saturday, both Lea and Topps caught the eye of Seumalo in their reps behind the two anchors of ASU's defensive front.
"Tashon (Smallwood) had great moments, Ami (Latu) had great moments, George (Lea), Topps had great moments out there in terms of effort, playing beyond the whistle, in terms of finishing at the play," Seumalo said. "So, that’s good to see."
ASU's defensive line is still in flux at this point in camp in part because the coaching staff moved sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker to Devil backer to give the team a more dynamic edge rusher. Though he's lighter this year, Wicker still has the ability to play end and has taken repetitions there in ASU's nickel package. For the most part, though, Wicker's position switch has led to an open competition at defensive end.
Wren, Wicker and Boateng have all been spotted with the first team defense at defensive end at various points in fall camp, and redshirt freshman Jalen Bates has caught the coaching staff's attention with his pass-rushing abilities.
If ASU can find dependable production from a Devil backer outside of Wicker, perhaps Alani Latu or Malik Lawal, the Sun Devils could begin to adjust their depth along the defensive front by sliding Wicker to end and moving Wren back inside to defensive tackle, where he practiced earlier in his career.
Wren said he prefers playing end, but playing tackle was crucial in his development because it forced him to learn to play with a lower pad level and to refine his technique instead of relying solely on his size.
"Freshman year I played as a defensive end and like my pads were all the way high," Wren said. "So Coach Shipp, my freshman year, moved me to nose, three-technique and I had to learn the hard way engaging with the offensive tackles. I got pancaked and everything, but I learned from that. So, as I’m progressing during the years, me playing end now I can stay low and attack the tight ends."
Throughout fall camp, ASU has rotated defensive personnel groupings with more frequency than the Sun Devils have shown in the past. This is a clear indication ASU wants to mix and match its personnel and use a variety of sub-packages to create more favorable matchups.
It's likely the Sun Devils will have personnel groupings that use players at different positions along the defensive front, so Wicker could end up playing both Devil backer and end and Wren could end up at end and defensive tackle.
ASU has a number of options in terms of how to line up and who to play where, but the Sun Devils still have one singular goal in mind up in the trenches: Play on their opponent's side of the ball.
"Up front, we set the tone for the rest of the defense, running the ball, they have to get past us to everybody else," Smallwood said. "Throwing the ball, how the quarterback throws, it’s what type of pressure are we getting. That’s just the bar that we have."
News and Notes
- Junior defensive back Marcus Ball arrived at practice Tuesday in a walking boot and did not walk through the team's injury line in warmups. Ball spoke with Graham off to the side as the rest of the team warmed up.
- Junior safety James Johnson was not wearing a green non-contact jersey, but wore a bulky knee brace similar to what offensive linemen wear and after warmups, Johnson went over to Muscle Beach and did not participate in individual drills.
- Senior safety Laiu Moeakiola was not wearing a green jersey, but after warmups, Moeakiola went inside the ASU practice bubble as the rest of the team stayed outside for what may have been tests to see if Moeakiola is back at full strength. Moeakiola suffered a lower body injury last week.
- Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey remained in a green jersey, but was a full participant in individual drills and in the team's 11-on-11 two-minute drill period.
- Junior college transfer Maurice Chandler remained in a green jersey, but participated with the second team defense during the 11-on-11 drill. Chandler wore a knee brace Monday, but was not wearing the brace Tuesday.
- Senior linebacker Salamo Fiso arrived at practice after the media viewing portion concluded wearing an ASU hoodie and gym shorts. Fiso was in a green jersey on Monday, but worked out at Muscle Beach during the team's individual periods.
- Junior college transfers Alex Losoya and A.J. McCollum practiced with the second team offense in the team's 11-on-11 two-minute drill with Losoya taking reps at left guard and McCollum playing center.