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 that position as a true freshman, 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. As a result of this, ASU has been using Wicker at Devil backer through preseason camp and he's extended to get a majority of his base down reps there, particularly with the status of junior college transfer Doug Subtyl uncertain.
Wicker 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. Alani Latu (junior) -- A year ago Alani (A.J.) Latu was in flux. ASU coaches had planned to move him to defensive end in 2015 and he spent the winter before spring ball getting bigger to execute that plan. Then former high profile junior college signee Davon Durant was dismissed from the program almost as soon as spring football had begun and Latu was asked to move back to Devil. That's easier said than done because the two positions have different physical demands.
Latu worked hard to drop weight and increase his explosiveness last summer in an effort to make the transition to Devil, but it was too much to get done over a few months. But having a full year to do it? That's entirely achievable from where Latu started, and one of the main reasons we've seen him look like a different player on the practice field in preseason camp. He is without question sporting a more streamlined physique now than he has the last year and a half or more, and it's yielding clear results on the field.
A two-point edge pass rusher, Latu is getting off the snap much better now and showing increased limberness along with it. He's not a speed rusher per se, but Latu has a nice combination of power and burst for a 250-pounder. He plays with a physical edge and is increasingly demonstrating more skill refinement and ability to win the battle for hand placement with offensive tackles. In practices he's showing sustainability with his output, which really appeals to coaches.
Devil backer is a position that lends itself to great pass rush athletes who struggle to demonstrate enough well-roundedness to be relied upon on base downs against the run. There's a legitimate question right now about whether several of the team's options at Devil this year will have that capability. But Latu should be able to set an edge and not get run off his anchor by physical teams looking to run at him. He's not as dynamic a pass rusher as others, but the trade off to his completeness as a player makes for an intriguing conundrum. He could even play end situationally because of his ability to handle the run without being washed off the line of scrimmage. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 3.5
3. Koron Crump (junior) -- Highly rated out of the junior college ranks because of his double-digit sack total in each of two seasons at Fort Scott, Crump was considered by some analysts to be the top pass rusher at that level nationally. A lot of what Crump does is just an innate gift. He's able to twist, shift and otherwise adjust his body remarkably well while also firing off the snap with a lot of suddenness. He can drop his weight well and simply out-leverage blockers at times without even needing to include a strong pass rush move due to how quick he gets depth and how well he bends the edge.
Right now, Crump looks more like a sub-package situational pass rusher than an every down player, though there are signs that may not always be the case. He's wiry strong but has a broad and long frame that can and should add quite a bit more weight and that's going to be a real priority transitioning to 2017. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Crump eventually play north of 240 pounds as an outside linebacker/hybrid rush end, and that's what he'll need to accomplish if he has aspirations beyond college.
At his current size, the questions will be how well he holds up against the run, will he be able to anchor and/or set the edge or get run off the line of scrimmage and easily attacked and absorbed in a way that makes him a liability on base downs. Even at the Devi backer position working into the boundary, Pac-12 teams do a tremendous job of generating numbers advantages in an effort to out-flank on runs or screens to that short sides and the edge has to be well set.
Crump isn't a coverage 'backer per se, but he can drop into zones and move to the flat. That enhances his ability to play in nickel situations and gives ASU an edge with keeping it unpredictable as to which players are pressuring. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4
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.