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January 8, 2013

Defense bolstered across board by Sutton decision

Unsurprisingly, Alden Darby literally danced his way out of Carson Center following the announcement.

Robert Nelson took a call from a teammate in an elevator on the way out and somberly joked that the news was bad, very bad.

Except it wasn't. Not at all.

Arizona State's defensive backs were in a playful mood and how could you blame them? They'd just learned along with the rest of the Arizona State world that their best defensive teammate, All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, would return for another season in Tempe.

That roar you heard when watching ASU's live stream of Sutton's press conference Tuesday? That was them. Well, a good chunk of it anyway. And why wouldn't it have been?

Thing is, nobody will benefit more from Sutton's semi-surprising decision to stay in school than Darby and Nelson and their position-mates in the Sun Devil secondary. At least nobody on the playing field.

You can talk about the sacks and tackles for loss ad nauseam -- and we will do so in just a bit, trust us -- but you have to first start with what Sutton provides to his teammates who line up behind him.

In 2011, ASU finished 94th in the country in pass efficiency defense and 108th in passing defense, and in the final month of the season was even worse in both categories. Putrid, is really how one would appropriately describe it.

Contrast that against 2012, when ASU remarkably finished third in pass defense and 10th in pass efficiency defense and it's more than an eye opening improvement. It's jaw dropping, much like the look frequently captured on opposing quarterbacks' faces when they see Sutton approaching unabated; much like when he's posing for another of his patent-pending 'we eatin' celebrations following sacks, of which he had a full baker's dozen last season.

Sutton's ability to pressure opposing offenses in their backfield -- to the tune of 23.5 tackles for loss (second best nationally) and 13 sacks (third best nationally) in 2012 -- when combined with his teammates' complimentary skills and head coach-slash-defensive-architect-slash-playcaller Todd Graham's approach to defense is tremendously unburdening to defensive backs.

Quite simply, a lot of plays are done and over with before defensive backs have a chance to be exposed because Sutton has already put a fork in them.

This was the way former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson always envisioned it. He just never was able to see it to fruition. Even in the last week, as a guest on a local radio show Erickson said Sutton reminded him of former Miami Hurricanes and NFL great Warren Sapp, a player he successfully recruited out of high school.

At Miami in the early 90s, Erickson had the type of athletes that allowed him to play a lot of base and rush just four down linemen, often with an shifted under-front to help get Sapp isolated against a lone defender in an exploitable gap.

Sapp flourished to the tune of 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in his final college season in 1994, leading the Hurricanes to first place national rankings in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense and picked up a lot of hardware including the Lombardi and Nagurski trophies along the way.

But with the evolution of the college game and a less talented overall roster, the same conservative philosophical approach to pass rushing didn't yield similar results at ASU -- troubles with discipline no doubt adding an additional layer of challenge -- and Sutton had just 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in his first two seasons at the school combined. (Those two years were separated by a 2010 season in which Sutton didn't play due to academic ineligibility, a reality which makes his decision to return to school for his senior season all the more impressive, but we digress..)

In just one year Graham has been able to tap into Erickson's vision and put it into a clearer focus. All season, his defensive gamelans were specifically tailored to each opponent and frequently used Sutton in differing ways and the result improved ASU from 57th to first nationally in tackles for loss and 59th to second in sacks.

Graham likes to remind media members that his is a multiple defense. What that means in layperson terms is this: they'll line up with a variety of looks depending on the opponent, all designed to put their playmakers -- exhibit 1A: Sutton -- in a position to do their darnedest.

Sometimes they'll be in a three man front, more often a four man front, but whatever it is you can be sure that Graham's proclivity to pressure the opposition with five and six man blitzes will sustain and a basic resulting reality will emerge: It's going to be tough to double team Sutton when all five offensive linemen -- and sometimes a running back or tight end -- are needed to block the number of men moving in their direction.

And that's the reason for Sutton's success and why it isn't his alone. Devil backer -- a hybrid end/linebacker -- Carl Bradford, who will be a junior next season, finished 11th nationally in tackles for loss and 17th in sacks last season. No two players combined for more sacks or tackles for loss on any team than Sutton and Bradford.

Additionally, senior-to-be Chris Young, who plays the spur linebacker position and is most frequently the fifth pass rusher, had 14 tackles for loss, senior-to-be Davon Coleman, who plays defensive end, had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks, and third-down pass rush specialist Junior Onyeali, who will be a senior, had six sacks and eight tackles for loss.

So the bottom line is, you can expect ASU's success in these areas to not only be maintained, but likely improve in the coming year.

Sutton won't be the odds on favorite to win national Defensive Player of the Year honors. That will likely be South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, a potential future No. 1 NFL Draft pick and player who also had 13 sacks last season.

But Sutton may be the nation's second most highly regarded defensive lineman returning to college next season, at least from an expected productivity standpoint. Darby and Nelson certainly know the value of that. So too does Graham, who less than a month from National Signing Day landed his top recruit for 2013.

"He's the best defensive lineman I've ever coached," Graham said. "I think it speaks volumes about his commitment to our team. I think his teammates had a lot to do in that decision, and wanting to come back and lead this team to a Pac-12 Championship, a Rose Bowl Championship, and a National Championship. And wanting to get an education -- he's going to be able to finish his degree as early as this summer. He loves Arizona State University and his teammates, and obviously I'm excited because it's a big deal for us to have him back."

There was no player on the ASU roster capable of doing what Sutton does -- a program that doesn't reload all-conference talent much less All-Americans -- and his absence would have been surely felt in the win column next season. So too, we have to believe, will his presence.


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