Position review: Defensive line

An Arizona State defensive line that began the season with high expectations underperformed for much of the year as the Sun Devils' defense struggled to contain opposing offenses.

It didn't take long for Arizona State fans to learn what type of an impact a disruptive defensive line could have in head coach Todd Graham's defense.

In Graham's first two seasons with the program, defensive tackle Will Sutton brought home back-to-back Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year awards and was twice named an All-American.

Sutton's presence on the Sun Devils' defensive line dramatically improved the capabilities of a pressure-based scheme, as the one-man wrecking crew swallowed up offensive linemen in pursuit of ball carriers and quarterbacks.

Since Sutton's departure, though, ASU has yet to have another defensive lineman come close to replicating his success, as the Sun Devils have struggled with physicality and depth along their defensive front.

In the immediate aftermath of Sutton's departure from the program following the 2013 season, Graham attempted to help defensive linemen generate more pressure by implementing even more exotic blitz packages to create one-on-one situations at the line of scrimmage. 

While that strategy aided the Sun Devils' defense at times during the 2014 season, the high volume of blitzes left an undermanned secondary exposed in 2015, as ASU's passing defense ranked last in the FBS in yards allowed per game.

With a front that was unable to impact the quarterback and a secondary that struggled to handle man coverage situations, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson elected to dial back their pressure-heavy approach heading into this season.

That decision put an onus on ASU's returners, sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker, junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood and senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu to make up for the scheme adjustment and take care of business up front.

The problem for ASU? Wicker, Smallwood and Latu rarely impacted opposing quarterbacks on three or four-man rushes this season, and the Sun Devils' defensive backs still couldn't cover opposing receivers.

Regardless of what type of coverage ASU played --and it often sat back in conservative zone looks -- offenses torched ASU's secondary and the Sun Devils once again finished with the worst passing defense in the country.

Up front, ASU's trio of returning starters lost steam as the season chugged along, failing to anchor at the line of scrimmage and lacking the physicality to handle assignments in the Sun Devils' one-gap approach. 

Save for Wicker, who earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors for an 11.5 tackle for loss season, ASU's defensive linemen rarely demonstrated the ability to move the line of scrimmage backward the way previous defenses under Graham have been able to do.

As a result, even though it was ASU's passing defense that came under fire for much of the year, the run defense was still exposed whenever opposing offenses felt the need to keep the ball on the ground. Whether it was a 245-yard rushing effort from Oregon, a 315-yard outing from Colorado's rushing offense, or a school-record 511-yard track meet Arizona's run game held at ASU's expense, the Sun Devils' front caved under pressure.

Though it was ultimately ASU's struggles at the back end of a historically bad defense that forced Graham to ask for more out of the Sun Devils' defensive line, the group up front couldn't live up to its coach's expectations.  

What we learned

Throughout Graham's tenure, the Sun Devils' head coach has insisted that ASU needs four capable defensive tackles to form a dependable rotation up front. 

During the early years of Graham's tenure, Sutton gave ASU the luxury of playing without much depth along the defensive line, because he was an every-snap type of player who changed the game with his quick-twitch athleticism and great motor at the line of scrimmage.

Three seasons after Sutton's departure, Graham's assertion that ASU needs four defensive tackles is correct, but in the style of defense Graham wants to play, at least two of those tackles must be more than capable. 

In defensive line coach Joe Seumalo's first season with the program, ASU did use four tackles for much of the year, as Latu and Smallwood rotated with sophomore Renell Wren and redshirt freshman George Lea. However, despite glimpses of promise from Wren and Lea, ASU remained reluctant to stick with a true rotation, often leaning on Latu and Smallwood for extended periods of action even as their conditioning suffered.

The Sun Devils' reluctance to rotate more frequently exposed Smallwood and Latu at various points during the season, especially against up-tempo offenses.

In ASU's two upperclassmen defensive tackles, the Sun Devils had capable players who didn't necessarily have the size or strength to withstand opposing offensive linemen for more than a few plays at a time. In ASU's two underclassmen defensive tackles, the Sun Devils had players with more size and strength, but players ASU's coaches didn't necessarily deem overly capable.

Ultimately, the Sun Devils were caught in between, and for a group that didn't receive help from pressure packages as ASU's defensive lines of 2014 and 2015 did, the unit's final output fell short of expectations.

Departing personnel

Viliami Latu: A four-year contributor along ASU's defensive line who became a full-time starter in 2016, Latu finished the season with 24 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. At 6-foot-2 and 296 pounds, Latu was ASU's most consistent option on the interior of the defensive line this season, often forcing quarterbacks out of the pocket or re-directing running backs off of their tracks. While Latu often showcased a strong first step at the line of scrimmage, he sometimes lacked the foot speed and quick-twitch athleticism to move off of blocks and finish plays, which made him a more blockable target for opposing offensive linemen.

Edmond Boateng: A junior college transfer from the New Mexico Military Institute, Boateng started three games during his junior season but fell back in the rotation as a senior at defensive end. Boateng was a lighter defensive end who didn't have the speed to make up for his slighter frame, and like a handful of ASU's defensive linemen, didn't bend well enough to generate great explosiveness off the ball. Boateng finished the year with six tackles and 1.0 sack, which came at the end of ASU's victory over UCLA.

Tramel Topps: A backup defensive end who transferred to ASU from Arizona Western, Topps only played defense in a handful of games this season. Topps didn't have the strength to be much of a factor at the line of scrimmage, but he was the rare reserve player who became a team leader and one of the most respected voices in ASU's locker room.

Returning personnel

Tashon Smallwood: After battling injuries for the better part of his first two seasons at ASU, Smallwood entered the 2016 season with a clean bill of health and with high expectations for improved play along the defensive line. After recording 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman and 8.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore, Smallwood improved statistically with 9.0 tackles for loss this year but didn't make the jump that he and ASU's coaching staff likely anticipated. Smallwood is lighter than many of ASU's defensive linemen at 275 pounds, and because of that, he often wound up playing at defensive end when the Sun Devils would use a heavier personnel package up front. The outside of the line of scrimmage proved challenging for Smallwood because his foot speed is better suited to work against guards and centers, and his lack of familiarity with setting the edge cost ASU on perimeter run plays. 

Joseph Wicker: Wicker began fall camp training with ASU's Devil backers, but following the emergence of junior college transfer Koron Crump, Wicker transitioned to defensive end where he played most of the season. In certain situations when ASU used heavier personnel, Wicker slid out to Devil backer, but for the most part, he played defensive end. Wicker was ASU's most consistent lineman this season, but an underwhelming sack total hurt the overall perception of his season. Wicker sets the edge well against the run and has a solid motor when attacking the quarterback, and should continue to develop his pass-rushing skills through spring practices and fall camp. 

Renell Wren: The most impressive physical specimen ASU has on its defensive line, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Wren is a freak in the weight room who has yet to demonstrate he can transition the power and strength the Sun Devils know he possesses onto the field. Wren has the quickness to play end and the size to play tackle, and if he demonstrates an improved ability to anchor at the line and generate a push against opposing guards and centers, he's the type of player who could become a nightmare for offensive linemen. ASU probably needs Wren's size on the interior of the defensive line, but it also needs him to make a sizable jump with his fundamentals and technique so that he can begin unleashing the power and speed he has at his disposal.

George Lea: With a frame ideally suited for the interior of ASU's defensive line, Lea likely would have played as a true freshman last year if not for an off the field incident that forced him to take a redshirt season. Lea stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 285 pounds, but looks heavier on the hoof than Latu does and probably projects as a more capable two-gap player than anyone ASU currently has in its rotation. Lea has a wide base and looks like a nose tackle, but moves relatively well for his size when he keeps his pad level down. At this stage of his career, Lea doesn't have the conditioning to be an every down player like Latu or Smallwood were this season, so this offseason will be pivotal in Lea's development. If he can learn to play with a lower pad level on a more consistent basis, Lea has the ability to help ASU's defensive line take the next step.

Christian Hill: A massive junior college transfer from Glendale Community College, Hill used up one of his two seasons of eligibility this season primarily as a special teams contributor for ASU. Hill has as impressive of a frame as anyone on ASU's team, but he's not nearly technically sound enough to make an impact on a consistent basis up front. Hill bends well for his size and should possess great explosiveness given how well he moves for his size, but it will take a lot of specialized skill development work for Hill to crack the rotation in 2017. Hill could end up at defensive end or defensive tackle next season depending on where ASU thinks it could use the depth, but he's likely headed for a backup role.

Corey Smith: A former offensive lineman who transitioned back to the defensive side of the ball for ASU, Smith has a huge frame at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds but an unfortunate inability to make the most of his size. Smith struggles with flexibility and can't bend properly, so his fundamental approach at the line of scrimmage will likely always lack compared to his peers. Smith played in a handful of games this season for ASU as a rotational defensive tackle, but if the Sun Devils recruit the position well during this cycle, it's unlikely Smith will see the field much next season. 

Jalen Bates: A redshirt freshman defensive end out of Louisiana, Bates took the coaching staff by surprise with his performance in fall camp in 2015, and nearly forced the coaches to burn his redshirt that fall. That didn't end up happening, and after his second season in the program, Bates still hasn't become more of a factor in ASU's rotation. While he plays the same position as Wicker, Bates couldn't beat out Boateng for much of the season and needs to improve his ability to move off of blocks at the line of scrimmage to earn more consistent playing time in the future. Bates suffered a season ending leg injury in warmups against Washington that will likely force him to miss spring practices, which are a critical time in a young lineman's development.

Emanuel Dayries: After playing a handful of snaps against Notre Dame during his freshman season in 2014, Dayries redshirted in 2015 and returned to ASU for his sophomore season this year. Dayries did not make an appearance for the Sun Devils this season, as he was the last scholarship member of ASU's defensive line rotation. It's unlikely Dayries will receive any extended playing time in the future, as he doesn't possess the requisite speed or strength to play on the interior of the defensive line. 

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