When Arizona State begins its spring practice slate this March, the Sun Devils will have the opportunity to evaluate two new defensive additions who have the potential to play immediate roles this fall.
Neither junior college transfer Doug Subtyl or former Desert Ridge (Mesa) defensive tackle D.J. Davidson played football this fall, but after working to become academically eligible, both players joined ASU's 2017 recruiting class as mid-year signees.
While each player possesses impressive individual potential, the prospects are intriguing for another important reason: If Subytl and or Davidson can develop into an immediate contributor along the Sun Devils' defensive front, ASU will have a variety of options to explore with other key defensive personnel.
Since arriving at ASU in December of 2011, head coach Todd Graham has routinely highlighted the importance of having a strong rotation of tackles and ends along his team's defensive front. However, in Graham's five seasons at the helm of the ASU program, the Sun Devils have rarely been able to play more than three tackles with regularity over the course of games, as the program has struggled to recruit a full compliment of players with the requisite frame and athleticism to contribute effectively at the Pac-12 level.
Though the additions of Davidson and Subtyl still won't allow the Sun Devils to field a defensive rotation on par with the depth certain juggernauts such as Alabama and Clemson have showcased in recent years, their presences, and ultimately their ability to play at a high level, could provide immediate benefits to ASU at every level of the team's defense.
At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Davidson will immediately become the heaviest defensive player on ASU's roster, outweighing 305-pound senior Corey Smith, 297-pound junior Renell Wren, 285-pound senior Christian Hill, 284-pound sophomore George Lea and 274-pound senior Tashon Smallwood.
Though Davidson's size is important, it's the athleticism he possesses that makes his size increasingly valuable for the Sun Devils.
Davidson's quick first step and strong get-off at the line of scrimmage allow him to use his weight effectively, which is something many heavier defensive tackles struggle with. It's for this reason that ASU has often been forced to ask smaller linemen to carry more weight, because some of the players the program has recruited in recent years such as 308-pound junior Emanuel Dayries haven't been athletic enough at their size to provide much help at the line of scrimmage.
In many recruiting cycles, ASU has faced challenges attracting players who possess the ideal frame and athleticism to compete on a series-by-series basis against Pac-12 caliber offensive linemen. That's one of the reasons that under Graham, the Sun Devils have needed to play linemen like Viliami Latu, a converted inside linebacker, and Smallwood, a smaller-bodied defensive lineman, on the interior of the line of scrimmage.
Asking players to add weight to their frames to become defensive tackles has worked for ASU in certain cases like those of Viliami Latu and Demetrius Cherry, but it's not a model built to ensure long-term stability at a position group.
When Davidson takes the field this spring, he'll have the opportunity to compete with Wren and Lea for a role along ASU's defensive front, which means ASU will have a trio of players who naturally boast the type of frames and athleticism practically required to compete with at a high level in the Pac-12.
Davidson, Wren and Lea all possess the attributes ASU needs from its 1-technique tackles, while Smallwood is best suited for a 3-technique or 5-technique role. If ASU can rely on those four players to man the 1-technique and 3-technique positions, though, the Sun Devils will have a four-tackle rotation without needing to ask other players to carry additional weight or bulk up because of a deficiency within the rotation.
However, if Davidson isn't ready to contribute immediately and Wren and or Lea struggles in an expanded role in 2017, the Sun Devils may be forced to use junior defensive end Joseph Wicker as an interior lineman.
At 6-foot-3 and 263 pounds, Wicker earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors as a defensive end this season, and appears comfortable playing with a more streamlined physique on the perimeter of the line of scrimmage. Still, if the Sun Devils are short of quality defensive tackle options next season, ASU may explore the possibility of adding weight to Wicker's frame because like Viliami Latu, he would likely be able to maintain much of his quick-twitch athleticism with more bulk.
On the surface, asking Wicker to play inside may appear like a last-resort option for the Sun Devils, but there's another scenario in which electing to move Wicker inside may actually indicate ASU's depth is stronger than it appears.
If the Sun Devils land multiple high-priority targets at the Spur/Bandit position during the 2017 recruiting cycle, and potentially add four-star junior college transfer, inside linebacker Gary Johnson, ASU could have a scenario on its hands where shifting Wicker inside more sense.
Should the Sun Devils land some combination of four-star Spur/Bandit Isaiah Pola-Mao, four-star Spur/Bandit K.J. Jarrell, four-star Spur/Bandit Evan Fields, and Johnson, ASU may have multiple players prepared to provide immediate depth at key positions across its defensive backfield.
Ultimately, the key to ASU's defensive flexibility in 2017 is whether or not the Sun Devils can find a reliable option at the Spur linebacker position. Senior Marcus Ball began his 2016 season at Spur before transitioning to Bandit, while junior field safety Armand Perry has the body type and skill set of a Spur linebacker, but has yet to play at --or even practice at-- the position during his career.
If ASU doesn't recruit an immediate impact Spur prospect and neither Ball or Perry can transition to the role, the Sun Devils may be forced to use senior linebacker Christian Sam at the position this fall. Though Sam is probably better suited to the Will linebacker role, his ability to cover receivers in space while maintaining an effective edge against the run makes him a candidate to take over at Spur.
Should the Sun Devils play Sam at Spur, ASU may be forced to move senior Koron Crump, its best pass-rusher, back to the linebacker level. Crump has the speed and athleticism to play at every linebacker spot, but if Sam aligns at Spur, the Sun Devils would likely use Crump as a Will linebacker while starting senior D.J. Calhoun at the Sam position.
Whether or not ASU needs Sam to start at Spur next season greatly impacts how the Sun Devils will orient their defensive personnel in 2017, a process that will begin in spring practices and assuredly continue through much of fall camp. Though ASU may prefer to keep Sam at an inside linebacker position which would allow Crump the opportunity to play in the pass-rushing role he excelled at for much of 2016, the presence of Subtyl provides the Sun Devils with additional flexibility.
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Subtyl has the size and speed to play at either Devil backer or defensive end, even if his frame and athleticism make him an ideal candidate to fulfill the Devil backer role ASU recruited him to play.
Should ASU fall short of landing immediate impact players at Spur/Bandit, the Sun Devils may need to use Sam as a Spur linebacker, which would force the team to pull Crump back to the linebacker level. In this case, assuming Subtyl can play immediately, ASU would likely align him at Devil backer, opposite Wicker, the team's starting defensive end.
Should ASU accumulate a handful of immediate impact players at Spur/Bandit, the Sun Devils may have the luxury of leaving Sam as an inside linebacker, which would then allow Crump to remain at Devil backer. In this case, the Sun Devils could align Crump at Devil, Subytl at end, and move Wicker inside to defensive tackle (likely the 3-technique) which would allow ASU to use all of its most dynamic pass-rushing options on the field at once.
Still, the latter option is probably best-tailored for nickel and obvious passing downs, as Crump and Subytl may be too light to fulfill the Devil and end roles, respectively, on an every down basis.
Nevertheless, the long-term ramifications of ASU signing both Davidson and Subtyl are important to keep in mind as the Sun Devils begin to orient their defense for the 2017 campaign. Signing big-bodied athletes like Davidson at defensive tackle has long been a challenge for ASU, while signing versatile players like Subytl who can project to multiple roles gives the coaching staff flexibility.
While it's too early to say whether either player will be able to contribute immediately and impact the depth chart in 2017, their status as mid-year enrollees allows ASU to learn what type of prospects they're working with earlier on in the process which should ultimately set the wheels in motion for the Sun Devils to begin tinkering with various personnel packages this spring.