Arizona State coach Todd Graham has called run defense one of the most important statistics in college football. The idea is, make an opponent one dimensional. Make it have to throw the football a lot in order to win.
It's easy to tell how important it is to Graham. He sends pressure on first and long and second and long/medium situations more than anyone else in the Pac-12. That isn't just about trying to get to the quarterback though.
Graham wants to contain, pressure and channel ball carriers toward gaps that are closed. His defense aggressively slants on its pressures more than any other in the league in order to help achieve this. A look at last season's run defense reveals what appears on its surface to be a good result. ASU finished third in the Pac-12 in run defense at 126.2 yards per game, and also yards per rush, at 3.6.
The Sun Devils actually stopped the the run better than they did any of Graham's previous three years, and yet their record and overall defensive performance was far worse. How come?
The first reason for this is obvious. ASU's secondary finished last nationally in passing defense and 40-plus yard completions allowed. But a big part of the problem was that Graham felt like he needed to pressure as much as he did. Maybe that's because he felt like with his secondary he had to try to get to the quarterback even more quickly than in previous seasons. Maybe he felt he needed to have even more success on first and second downs both against the pass and against the run. Maybe he felt like if he didn't pressure that much his front four wouldn't be able to make enough plays on its own merits.
Graham's strategy backfired. Though the Sun Devils did better than ever agains the run, they were far too exposed against the pass and that's all that mattered in the end, with 33.5 points allowed per game.
Being conservative isn't in Graham's DNA. He's not going to sit back and be dictated to, is how he'd described it. ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson isn't quite as aggressive-minded though, and Patterson will have more control over the play calling than ever before this season.
Ultimately, what may to some degree determine their approach this season is how competent their defensive front is at stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback without bringing as many five, and especially six man pressures. Graham candidly said that he didn't zone blitz as much last season as in years' past. They sold out more and it didn't work.
In defensive tackles Viliami Latu and Tashon Smallwood and defensive end/Devil backer Joseph Wicker, the Sun Devils have three returning starters that Graham and Patterson have a lot of confidence in, and rightly so. Latu is a senior who had 14 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season. Smallwood, a junior, had 43 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 2.0 sacks. Wicker, as a true freshman in 2015, had 21 tackles, 7.5 for loss with four sacks.
The building experience of this unit up front may provide more confidence to Graham and Patterson. Perhaps they'll consider playing just a little more conservatively in a way that puts an unproven defensive backfield into fewer dangerous situations. This balance -- and the decision-making of coaches -- will be critical in determining how successful the Sun Devils ultimately end up being on defense.
Wicker should become a budding star this season, and will bounce between end and Devil depending on where ASU needs him most and likely based in part on the type of opponent it will play.
Smallwood has fully recovered from two hernia surgeries he had in the offseason between 2014 and 2015 and is showing greater physicality and strength. Latu is a physical cog with an impressive motor and an ability to dent the pocket.
ASU will need to support this top trio of players with another three or four guys who will be able to play effectively. The most likely candidates are sophomore Renell Wren, who can move between field side end and the 3-technique tackle, redshirt freshman George Lea, who should be able to play either tackle position, and junior Devil backer Koron Crump, who is a talented speed rusher from the boundary.
Keith Patterson: “When [Renell Wren] does come off the ball he can be so disruptive and he can be a force inside and I really like what we’ve seen from him from this point. He just wants to be good so that’s helped in his progress as well.”
Shawn Slocum: “I think players make jumps, large jumps in production from year one to year two. [JoJo Wicker's] a talented young player and can be impactful. He’s worked really hard this offseason to improve his body, and it’s showing up on the film.”
Shawn Slocum: “Well, we’re a multiple front team, and we have the capabilities of doing it all. I help wherever I can help. I’ve coached everything on defense, so what I’m coaching, who I’m coaching, is not as important as coaching and getting production out of the players.”
Todd Graham: "JoJo (Wicker) is a catalyst for us, he needs to be. He needs to take his play to a lot higher level this year. He played really, really well as an All-American freshman last year. He’s a guy that really needs to be impactful. What we’re hoping is that we’re able to impact the quarterback with those guys, even more so than what we’ve done in the past.”
Todd Graham: "The one language that we (ASU coaches) all speak in common is, Joe (Seumalo) loves these kids. 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.”
Joe Seumalo: “I just think if you’re playing on your opponent's side of the ball, who cares? 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.”
Keith Patterson: “I do think you have a great mixture of experience and talent, even some of the younger guys, the guys like A.J. Latu, who has been having a great fall camp, guys that are big, strong, explosive guys like Renell Wren who have gotten better."
Joseph Wicker: “As far as when they go fast or something, we just have to get the subbing right, but that’s just going to happen, that’s just part of the game. We did a lot of different stuff with different people, so it’s kind of hectic.”
Tashon Smallwood: “That’s (re-establishing the line of scrimmage) one of the things that we have definitely improved. 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.”
Tashon Smallwood: "I have to just keep working. My goal is just to be the best player that I can be. Whether that’s the defensive player of the year or MVP, or whatever it is, then thank God. Really I just want to maximize my opportunities, not so much looking for a trophy or honor. I just wanna be the best player I can be, and put my team in the best position to win. I’d rather have a championship than defensive player of the year.
Tashon Smallwood: "Great player, [Ami Latu is] our bulldozer in the middle. A guy who’s really strong and he can take on blocks. And he can move really well. He’s somebody who’s gonna have a big season this year and I’m excited to what he’s gonna do."
Ami Latu: "Just power and hit, clogging holes, making room for our linebackers. I'm there for the team, so I'll sacrifice my body any day."
Renell Wren: "Coach Seumalo is more calm but intense too and everything. He's like a laid back but good coach and everything. He gets you hyped up and stuff. I would say he's strict to a point but he understands where you're coming from too and he likes to talk to you about it through individuals and all that. I really like him and hope to see great things in him through the years he's here."
Koron Crump: “I’m very comfortable right now, they’ve moved me a lot of places, a lot spots. I played both positions (Devil, Spur) through spring. So, as time passed, I’m comfortable now.”
Malik Lawal: "Obviously when it’s third down and it’s deep and they need a pass rush, they’re going to obviously have guys like me, (Koron) Crump, A.J. (Latu), JoJo (Wicker), Tashon (Smallwood), all of those guys to come in and just utilize the scheme to make it happen."