Player Capsule: George Lea
Position: Defensive Tackle
Weight: 280 pounds
2016 season quick review: Lea played in 10 games last season including four starts: Texas Tech, USC, Oregon, Utah. He finished the season with 12 tackles, three of which were for loss. Lea's best production game came in a start against Oregon, when he was credited with five tackles. When he played, often it was as part of a heavier front that ostensibly included three tackles, Lea, Viliami Latu, and Tashon Smallwood.
SunDevilSource.com analysis: After a forced redshirt in 2015 due to an arrest and suspension in June of 2015, Lea played quite a bit for the Sun Devils last season. Most of Lea's action came when the Sun Devils used a bigger defensive front that shifted Tashon Smallwood from tackle to end, with Lea joining Latu inside at tackle.
Now that Viliami Latu has exhausted his eligibility, Lea has more of an opportunity to earn increased reps in the 2017 season. He's currently the odds-on favorite to start at nose tackle with Smallwood, a senior, at 3-technique tackle (Tiger) and junior Joseph Wicker at end.
ASU coaches were very encouraged by Lea's improvement through spring football. First-year coordinator Phil Bennett told SunDevilSource that Lea lost 22 pounds from the beginning of the year and was back to his high school weight of about 275 pounds, with the type of quickness he showed earlier in his career. Bennett wants lighter, more athletic linemen in the aggressive scheme and Lea's helped his cause by getting into better shape.
One of Lea's advantages is that he's stout and well balanced for his size. He's got shortish legs for his height and is stockily put together, an advantage for a defensive tackle who also has decent arm length. He plays with a wide base and good pad level, staying square through engagement against the run and difficult to move backwards or even get twisted off laterally. He keeps his shoulders square and maintains an ability to free up either hand to make a play.
Lea can be a disruptive player against aggressive zone blocking because he's difficult to move off the ball, but he hasn't been as adept at collapsing the pocket through force in the A-gap. He's more inclined to play reps to a draw, or win by not being moved and disrupting plays that way, than he is by running offensive linemen backwards with active feet through the engagement.
When he's lighter, Lea has foot quickness that is relatively comparable to Smallwood, but with better anchoring force. It makes for a pretty versatile player, someone who can occasionally exploit a gap as a pass rusher and as a result move over to play some 3-technique tackle.
Lea has quite a bit of room left to develop from a technical standpoint with his hands and arms. When he succeeds as a pass rusher, it's usually because he's slipped through immediately off the snap with a swim move. He's rarely demonstrated the ability to disengage through force, or to exploit a slight leverage advantage by riding through a rip move. Stamina both within reps and overall through games has been somewhat limiting for Lea. There's been a diminishing return when he's had to be on the field a lot, as a result, and his conditioning needs to be boosted to address it. Losing a lot of weight will help.
Lea has the potential to be a good and well-rounded Pac-12 defensive tackle, and this is a critical year for him to take a positive step in that direction.
Projected depth chart status: Lea is primarily battling junior walk-on Jordan Hoyt for the starting nose tackle spot, a battle that went back and forth through the spring. It's possible that junior Renell Wren, primarily a back-up to Tashon Smallwood, could also steal some nose tackle reps, and true freshman D.J. Davison practiced with the team as a spring enrollee so he has a chance as well. The most likely scenario is Lea ends up starting, but he's going to be constantly facing pressure to keep or improve whatever role he is given early in the season.