Of the 24 players who represented Pac-12 football teams at the conference's media day in July, only two play defensive tackle. Arizona State has one of those rare players in junior Tashon Smallwood.
Smallwood is juggling two different roles this upcoming season. Not only is he improving his own game, he’s also taking on a leadership role with younger players on the roster. These are opportunities Smallwood is openly embracing heading into a pivotal 2016 campaign for him and the Sun Devils’ defense.
The defensive tackle from Fresno Central East (California), committed to USC on its Junior Day in February of 2013, and then flipped to ASU a year later in 2014. Scout ranked Smallwood as a 4-star recruit, and he added much-needed depth to a recruiting class that included fellow defensive linemen Renell Wren and Edmond Boateng.
Now, going into his third year in Tempe, Smallwood is ready to make a name for himself not only in the Pac-12, but throughout the country.
Sophomore offensive guard Sam Jones goes up against Smallwood in practice every day, and is one of many teammates expecting a major impact from him this season.
“Man, that kid is special,” Jones said. “I got to be completely 100 percent focused on every play going against Smallwood. He’s hands down one of the best defensive linemen in the Pac-12, or if not, in the country.”
Head coach Todd Graham has told the media on multiple occasions he wants to create more pressure with four to five players instead of having to bring additional bodies up from the linebacker and secondary levels. Smallwood has taken those words and retooled his game to make that possible for Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who’s in his first season calling defensive plays.
Smallwood has been putting in tireless work to become a force on the inside. Throughout his career, he has stayed long after practice to work on skill development. He works around the tackling dummies honing his repertoire and building on ways to get to the quarterback.
One area of Smallwood’s game that has seen vast improvement in fall camp is attacking offensive linemen straight on, with bull rushes. From the first few weeks of practice, Smallwood seems to be creating great leverage with his explosion at the snap of the ball into his gap. He has won most of his one-on-one battles, which is a good sign for Smallwood’s capabilities of improving his ability to impact the quarterback from the 3-technique position.
First year defensive line coach, Joe Seumalo, doesn’t see the one-on-one move by a defensive lineman as a ‘bull rush’, though. Seumalo sees the move as a ‘physical rush’, with the lineman's main goal being able to penetrate and play on their opponent’s side of the ball.
“It’s so funny, because the cool thing about the group as a whole, the emphasis is being able to win your knock backs on their side of the ball. That makes it easy to transition the pass rush,” Seumalo said. “I get it, people call it bull rush, but to me it’s a physical rush. It’s a physical rush. It’s a combination of speed and power. So, when you bring that momentum with you, get them on their heels — whenever you make them on their heels, to me that’s a good thing. That’s what you’re seeing with Tashon, that’s what you’re seeing with Ami (Latu). Just that consistency to be able to play on the opponent’s side of the ball with that power.”
During his sophomore season, Smallwood had 43 tackles, with 8.5 of those behind the line of scrimmage. He also added two sacks as well. With his improved pass-rush skills on display throughout camp, especially during a fantastic week up at Camp Tontozona and in Payson, he has the potential to double or triple that sack total.
Alongside Smallwood on the interior of the defensive line is senior Viliami Latu. Latu added 7.0 tackles for loss last season, and they tout their chemistry off the field as the reasoning behind their effectiveness. However, their chemistry on the field is what makes them such a dynamic duo in the trenches.
“Our relationship is so close,” Latu said. “Our communication together, it’s like nothing else. I feel comfortable playing with him. We feel comfortable exchanging ideas with each other. We kinda of share that kind of relationship, we’re kind of like brothers right now. I’ve played with him for two-plus years, we’ve just been off the bat.”
Smallwood’s not just building relationships with Latu and others along the defensive line, he wants to be a player everyone on the roster can look to as a vocal leader and somebody anyone can ask for advice in the locker room. Following in the footsteps of players he looked up to like Jamil Douglas and Taylor Kelly, Smallwood is building his own resume of leadership abilities that makes him stand out in that capacity.
“Yeah, great leaders like Taylor Kelly, Jamil Douglas,” Smallwood said. “Guys that I came in that I really looked up to. Guys that helped me out with my transition. It was a struggle for me my freshman year. Those guys set the bar, set the tone. Coach Graham will even tell you those were great leaders. Leaders, for me, that will be remembered forever. Those guys I definitely try to emulate, try to do things like them or better.”
What does Smallwood see his main role as on this year’s team, though? As a leader first, and a pass rusher second, and he’s fully embracing it.
“My role? A leader. With that being said, leading by example,” Smallwood said. “Setting the bar, setting the tone when it comes to attitude, the way I play, and how I handle things. As a leader, I get looked at for all of those things,” Smallwood said. “It’s like a slippery slope. I’m looked at, I set the bar for it. If I don’t, it’s going to trickle down to everybody else. So, I see that as just attacking it. As far as like my attitude and how I approach different things. The way I do it, and the way that other leaders do it, is how the team’s going to do.”
To eventually lead the whole ASU team, Smallwood has to start at his position group, the defensive line. This fall, he’s mentioned how he’s giving out pointers and advice to Wren, sophomore Devil backer Joseph Wicker, and freshman George Lea.
This type of mentoring role is something Smallwood takes pride in. It’s not just players at his position group he’s willing to gives pointers to, this goes for anyone on the roster.
Since appearing in the spotlight at Pac-12 media day, Smallwood realized the time to lead is upon him, and the defensive tackle has rapidly embraced the opportunity.
“It’s been cool, man. It’s an honor,” Smallwood said. “JoJo was going through some things his freshman year, just like I did. To be able to talk to him, give him advice on what I had done to get through that, it’s definitely a blessing,” Smallwood said of taking a mentor-like role with Wicker. “He listens really well, and he actually wants to learn more so it’s been fun to take on that role — and I would do that for any player, not just JoJo.”