ASU defensive front beginning to take shape

Arizona State has spent the first half of the spring shifting and rotating personnel along its defensive front in base and nickel personnel packages to determine the most effective combinations of players.

The goal for any football program is to get the 11 best players out on the field at all times. For Arizona State’s defense, that’s easier said than done.

As the year unfolds, a scenario could emerge in which six players are vying for five spots, with different lineups likely in base and nickel situations. Junior Joseph Wicker, senior Tashon Smallwood, senior Koron Crump, redshirt junior Doug Subtyl, junior Christian Sam and senior D.J. Calhoun are players whose roles will be especially scrutinized. 

“In certain situations the best 11 may be five of my guys and fewer backpeddlers in certain situations,” ASU new defensive line coach Michael Slater said. “It may be trying to rush the passer and we want more athletic guys on the field or we may be in the situation where we need better cover guys. We have the capabilities in our package to get what we need done.”

There are multiple scenarios with these six players that ASU could try to execute. Subtyl is clearly a backup player on base downs right now, a newcomer who is learning the defensive end position behind Wicker. As he continues to develop, Subtyl may warrant more of an opportunity considering he led the California junior college ranks in sacks over a two-season period in 2014-15. 

One way to accomplish this would be moving Wicker inside next to Smallwood at the defensive tackle positions, where they'd be flanked by Subtyl and Crump at defensive end and Devil backer, respectively. It's a look the Sun Devils would be much more likely to use on nickel downs. Such a situation would likely keep Calhoun and Sam on the field in the sub-package. 

Wicker, who is 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, said ASU has also looked at moving him to the 3-technique in some packages - a position he was originally recruited at - and then moving Smallwood outside as ASU brings down a lighter linebacker to the line. Slater called Wicker his most complete defensive linemen, a player capable of playing all of the positions and alignments. 

“It’s like a move, an overfront where you just move,” Wicker said. “Where he (Smallwood) goes to end and I go to three. The whole line slides. Then it’s like a backer on the other side.

“I think they are going to have me do a lot more different stuff. They are going to have me do end, 3-tech, nose, different stuff like that.”

New ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has used lighter personnel groupings in the past, featuring players who are agile, rangy and not as hefty. But this lighter package really depends on several variables, including: whether any of ASU's defensive tackles are able to shine at the nose position, and how well Subtyl does with his assimilation to major college football. 

“We will all get on the field,” Wicker said. “We don’t have too much depth. Especially at my position right now, with Christian Hill moving to tight end. I don’t know what he is really going to do, but I know right now that it’s just me and Doug (Subtyl) at end right now on the depth chart. Doug is new so it’s kind of adjust. Especially at defensive end, it’s not easy.”

ASU senior A.J. Latu, who played Devil backer in the first half of last year, said he is currently practicing at Devil. But ASU has plans for him to also learn defensive end so that he can back up Wicker.

“They need more depth at D-end,” Latu said. “I mean, we have JoJo (Wicker), but then we have a lot of young guys after him that are still trying to pick it up. I’m learning both sides.”

Subtyl is the biggest wild card of the group and his success and abilities will affect the packages ASU will execute in the fall. The junior college transfer sat out last season after failing to academically qualify. Subtyl was hugely successful for his last team, collecting 52 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks in just 11 games during his sophomore season in 2015. In his freshman season, he recorded 45 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in nine games.

"Well he brings, I think, really good pass rush ability and great effort,” ASU outside linebackers coach Shawn Slocum said. “Now, he's behind a little bit in his physical conditioning and that process. He's a large, long guy. He's got the structure, the body type you want in that position. He's going to be a growth in progress I think the whole time he's here. He's talented and a fine young man and we're lucky to have him here."

With Subtyl as such an inexperienced player in a group with mostly veterans, Wicker and Smallwood are the rocks along the line. They will both almost certainly have a starting role, but their positions may vary like Wicker had previously mentioned.

With base personnel on the field last year and this spring, Wicker has been at defensive end and Smallwood has been playing the 3-technique. ASU only started to take a look at its nickel installations in recent days, but hasn't shown that during sessions of practice observed by media.

Last year, Wicker played end on base and nickel downs late in the season. But he was playing into the boundary at the Devil position earlier in the year, before Crump really developed. At one point ASU coach Todd Graham called Wicker his team's best pass rusher.

Former ASU defensive tackle Ami Latu came off the field during nickel with Wicker moving from boundary to field as redshirt sophomore defensive lineman George Lea was brought on the field, and Crump aligned at Devil. 

Wicker had 39 tackles last season, 11 tackles for loss, which was good for second-most on the team. He added 2.5 sacks.

“We need to because we are out there and I’m thinking it’s a run play and they are doing pass plays,” Wicker said. “I want to do stunts and stuff like that. I know we are going to have a lot of that stuff though.”

In addition to movement on the defensive line in terms of positioning, another challenge for ASU will be figuring out the best combination of pass rushers on the field at one time.

"In a word it's called subgroups,” Slocum said. “We can put a lot of talented guys out there on the field together, it's all about where you line them up. You've got to put JoJo Wicker into that mix, Tashon Smallwood, so we'll find a way to put him in there. We've got a couple other guys who can do it as well outside of the guys you mentioned. I would say (sophomore linebacker) Malik Lawal, he's got a good speed set. We've got to get (sophomore defensive lineman) Jalen Bates back (from injury), I think he's going to be a talented pass rusher."

Crump is one of ASU's key pass rushers, coming off a season in which he took over the role of Devil backer for the second half of the year. In 2016, Crump was named to the second team All-Pac-12 team with 37 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, a team-high.  

“He's a unique player,” Slocum said. “He's got a nice skill set as a linebacker and a pass rusher, plus some of the things he did on special teams out wide. He's tough. He's got, I think, very good instinct. I think he sees it. I think he grew as a player through the season and I look forward to seeing him do it again. We had to use him in a number of different roles last year. That's what our team needed and he responded.

“Koron, (this year) he could rush the passer and play outside and all of a sudden he is playing some on the inside. So it changes."

Lawal was tabbed early last season by Graham as ASU’s third-down pass rusher, but that role didn’t materialize with Crump’s success on the field at Devil. Lawal only had three tackles on defense last season.

This spring, Lawal has been tried out at four different positions according to Graham. There's a scenario in which Crump, Wicker, Smallwood, Lawal and Subtyl all stay on the field on nickel downs, which could lead to Calhoun becoming a base-down only player. One consideration for ASU coaches is keeping players as fresh as possible, something that became an issue last year at linebacker when Sam missed the season with an ankle sprain and Calhoun and fellow starter Salamo Fiso rarely came off the field. 

“I mean, obviously the first thing is helping the team, finding a position I can get playing time at,” Lawal said. “But in high school, coach Bennett reviewed that stuff, he saw that I could do stuff like Devil, so he wants me to understand that position and study it. They want me in my preferred position right now to be Mike and develop as a Mike, but since we have all these injuries going around, along with guys like Deion (Guignard), we’re some of the smarter backers, so they want us to be be able to know all of the positions. So right now they have me working at Spur, understanding the scheme there, when everybody comes back healthy, who knows where I end up.”

During nickel, Lawal said he doesn’t know where he will fit into the picture quite yet. He’s still learning Spur primarily, but has his eyes set on MIKE linebacker and Devil.

Switching over to Bennett’s defensive scheme, Lawal said the “comfortability” of the scheme “feels kind of the same.”

“It is more simple,” Lawal said. “There’s less stress on the Spur and the Devil to be rotating across the field because we already know where we’re lining up. Whatever the formation is, that’s where we line up. We automatically know from the get-go that I’m to the field and he’s to the boundary and we just do our thing from there.”

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