Tim Nelson/SunDevilSource.com

Spring primer: Arizona State defensive line

Arizona State returns a pair of multi-year starters, JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood, on its defensive line, but the Sun Devils are hoping their rotation will be deeper in 2017.

Spring primer: Defensive line

Returners (8)

Tashon Smallwood: 28 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks in 2016

Christian Hill: Two tackles in 2016

Corey Smith: One tackle in 2016

Joseph Wicker: 39 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble in 2016

Renell Wren: 16 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble in 2016

Emanuel Dayries: No stats in 2016

George Lea: 12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks in 2016

Jalen Bates: No stats in 2016

Spring additions (1)

D.J. Davidson: 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle, three-star recruit

Anticipated fall arrivals (1)

Shannon Forman: 6-foot-1, 296-pound defensive tackle, two-star recruit 

What to expect: Entering the spring, Arizona State's quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive linemen all share one trait that links the units together. For the third consecutive season, each of these groups will work with a different position coach, which highlights the massive amount of coaching turnover that has come to define the Sun Devils' most recent offseasons.

After being led by Jackie Shipp in 2015 and Joe Seumalo in 2016, ASU's defensive line is now headed up by former Kansas assistant and longtime Texas high school football defensive assistant Michael Slater. 

Under Shipp, ASU's defensive line drills became "can't miss" theater, as his passion and intense coaching style jumped out to onlookers who could hear his voice echoing from the field. Under Seumalo, position group breakouts became a more relaxed affair for the defensive line, as Seumalo emphasized teaching and instruction with a calm, straightforward demeanor.

The coaching styles of Shipp and Seumalo created a sharp contrast in the way ASU's defensive linemen received their teaching points. In the coming weeks, the unit will have its third different face in as many seasons passing along instruction, and Slater's ability to find common ground with the group should be critical for a unit that needs to demonstrate clear improvement in 2017. 

Though the Sun Devils return two of their three starters from last season's defensive line, ASU has a long way to go to make the strides necessary to return to the dominant form it held in the most successful years of Todd Graham's tenure.

In 2016, ASU finished seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 163.1 yards per game, while the Sun Devils ranked fifth in sacks, racking up 28 through 12 contests. Though the statistics fall in the middle of the road compared to the rest of the conference's teams, the success of Graham's scheme has always relied on his defense's ability to stop the run and generate pressure. 

The 163.1 yards per game ASU allowed on the ground in 2016 were the most since Graham's first season in Tempe, while the 28 sacks posted represented the lowest total of any Sun Devils' team during Graham's tenure. For the first time since Graham's arrival, ASU averaged fewer than 3.0 sacks per game as the program backed off from running many of its exotic pressure packages in an effort to mask deficiencies in the secondary with more conservative coverages.  

Coming off a disastrous performance in which the Sun Devils allowed over 500 yards on the ground in a 56-35 Territorial Cup loss against Arizona, the ASU defensive line is preparing to start with a clean slate this spring and develop a deeper rotation that makes the unit a more formidable force against Pac-12 foes this year.

The anchors of ASU's defensive line are a pair of multi-year starters, senior Tashon Smallwood and junior JoJo Wicker, both of whom have the positional versatility to align at end and as a three-technique tackle.

Smallwood entered ASU with great expectations, hoping to take over for two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton and develop into the unquestioned torch-bearer of the Sun Devils' defensive front. While Smallwood is a respected locker room presence and has emerged as a vocal on-field leader, he hasn't proven he can perform at an All-Pac-12 level yet.

Smallwood has battled various injuries throughout his career that have stunted his development, which has likely prevented him from taking a crucial next step in his game. Still, as a veteran leader with more live game reps than nearly every other ASU defensive player under his belt, Smallwood will be counted on as a key member of the Sun Devils' rotation along the defensive line.

The position Smallwood ultimately plays --and likely ends up starting at-- will likely be dictated by how ASU decides to use Wicker this season. 

The most physically gifted of any of ASU's scholarship defensive linemen, Wicker started as a defensive end last season and earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors for his efforts. While the Sun Devils were likely hoping to see more eye-popping stats from Wicker in his capacity as a pass-rusher, Wicker was stout against the run and has the potential to make a significant leap in production this fall.

The main question facing Wicker and the Sun Devils is how the team wants to deploy him this year. After shedding 10-to-15 pounds to play end in 2016, Wicker may be asked to put weight back on to play in the interior of the line as a three-technique. The Sun Devils might use this approach if they want to slide junior college transfer Doug Subtyl from Devil backer to end in order to keep senior Koron Crump in the pass-rushing role he thrived in last season as ASU's starting Devil backer.

In this scenario, the Sun Devils would align either Wicker or Smallwood at the nose tackle position and have the other play at the three-technique. A line of Subtyl, Wicker, Smallwood and Crump is probably the most potent pass-rushing combination ASU will find, but it could be too light of a personnel grouping to play on an every down basis. If the Sun Devils do use this package, they'll be gambling on either Wicker or Smallwood's ability to hold up at nose tackle against the run consistently which, given the size of each player, is a serious question mark. 

Against pro-style teams and on run downs, the Sun Devils may instead slide Smallwood to the three-technique, Wicker to end, Subtyl to the Devil backer spot and find Crump a home at the linebacker level. 

Regardless of how the Sun Devils choose to use Wicker and Smallwood, ASU will need to find a third and fourth tackle capable of contributing in the Sun Devils' defensive line rotation. 

Because neither Smallwood or Wicker are ideally suited to play nose, ASU is hoping sophomore George Lea can handle those duties, as Lea demonstrated potential as a third tackle in the Sun Devils' rotation last season. Lea will have to improve his motor and needs to play with a lower pad level more consistently, but has the power and get-off speed at the line of scrimmage to be a serviceable starting nose tackle in the Pac-12. 

A player's third year in the program is often when they make their biggest leaps in skill development, so both Lea and Wicker could be poised for breakout seasons if they find roles that suit their skill sets well.

After losing multi-year starter Viliami Latu to graduation, one of the keys for ASU this spring is creating more depth along the defensive line so that the Sun Devils don't have to rely on Smallwood and Lea on an every down basis. In games ASU played against up-tempo opponents, particularly against Colorado and Arizona, the Sun Devils' primary tackles wore down over the course of the game and couldn't play with the same energy and physicality.

For the Sun Devils to make serious strides on run defense against up-tempo offenses, ASU needs options behind Smallwood, Wicker and Lea. 

Of the returning scholarship players, sophomore Renell Wren is the top candidate to take on an expanded role in 2017. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Wren boasts intriguing size as an interior defensive lineman, and has the flexibility and versatility to play end in heavier packages. 

Wren is most likely to contribute at the three-technique or nose tackle positions, and has the skill set to make a serious push for a starting role this spring if ASU wants to use a heavier package and keep Wicker at end. Wren bends and moves well and uses his hands to his advantage, but didn't play with enough consistency last season to take more reps away from Smallwood and Latu. 

If Wren harnesses his raw potential, he could develop into a rugged physical force that creates matchup issues against the run, so his progress this spring will be monitored closely. 

Behind Smallwood, Wicker, Lea and Wren, ASU has four scholarship players returning and one spring addition who will likely benefit from enrolling as a mid-year transfer and earning additional practice reps.

In senior Christian Hill and junior Jalen Bates, ASU has a pair of big-bodied linemen who worked as defensive ends last season in practice settings, but never saw the field as part of the Sun Devils' rotation during games. 

A junior college transfer, Hill had his redshirt burned primarily so he could block on the offensive side of the ball in ASU's "Sparky" package. At the beginning of conference play, Graham said the Sun Devils considered Hill as an option as a third down pass rusher, but those plans never came to fruition.

Bates also played behind Wicker last season at defensive end, but suffered a serious leg injury in pregame warmups against Washington that will prevent him from participating in spring ball. 

Both players have intriguing raw potential, but both face obstacles they'll need to overcome in their development to make an impact this season. For Hill, 2017 represents his final season of eligibility, and even though he has a monstrous frame, he needs to make marked advances in his technical approach to see the field. For Bates, without the spring to hone his skill set, he'll lose out on a key opportunity to showcase the strides he made as a pass-rusher last season, and will need to make up for lost time in fall camp assuming he returns with a clean bill of health. 

The other two returners, senior Corey Smith and junior Emanuel Dayries, can't be counted on to contribute in 2017 unless they make unexpected improvements this spring and again in fall camp. Neither Smith or Dayries is athletic enough or fluid enough to move and generate a push at the line of scrimmage, and even though both have earned limited repetitions on the defensive line in the past, ASU should now have enough scholarship talent to rely on ahead of Smith and Dayries. 

With Smith and Dayries unlikely to earn serious consideration for spots at the bottom of ASU's rotation, the wildcard along the Sun Devils' defensive line this spring is mid-year enrollee D.J. Davidson.

In 2016, Davidson signed with Central Florida, but wasn't an academic qualifier. Instead of going the junior college route, Davidson boosted his academic profile in time to re-classify as a mid-year enrollee, and wound up signing with ASU. 

At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Davidson carries his weight well and demonstrated a quick first step and good reaction times at the line of scrimmage at the high school level. By enrolling ahead of spring ball, Davidson may have the ability to take advantage of ASU's offseason training program, get stronger, and use the experience he gains this spring to make a push for a spot as a rotational nose tackle this fall.

In the past, ASU has struggled to acquire athletes with Davidson's natural size who move as well as he does, so if ASU believes it can get meaningful production out of him as early as this fall, the Sun Devils may take an extended look at Davidson at the nose tackle position this spring. 

Though ASU seemingly has enough capable players to fill out a strong two-deep, whether or not the Sun Devils will be able to establish a deeper rotation they feel comfortable using this fall largely depends on the way certain players progress this spring.

Additionally, whether new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett considers lighter or heavier personnel groupings along the defensive front should also dictate how ASU's players fit into the eventual rotation the Sun Devils settle on. While the program knows what it has in players like Smallwood and Wicker, the experiments ASU devises this spring to test out different players at various positions figures to be one of the more intriguing storylines to keep tabs on.


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