CAMP TONTOZONA — As good as Arizona State’s defense was a year ago, it lacked in one area: rush defense.
“That’s our big focus,” head coach Todd Graham said when talking about trying to improve a defense that was the best in the country in tackles for loss, second in sacks per game and third stopping the pass.
But it was stopping the run where the Sun Devils struggled the most.
In Graham’s first season, ASU allowed 182.85 rushing yards per game, which ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 81st nationally.
“If you ask me, the number-one factor on rush defense was just the lack of depth,” he said.
That’s since changed, according to Graham.
Not only is his team deeper in year two, but bigger, stronger and faster.
“We used Will (Sutton) as an example,” Graham said. “He’s 305 pounds and night-and-day stronger in the weight room. I don’t know how many guys we have (that can) power clean over 300 pounds. We’ve never had a group like this that has developed like they have.”
Sutton is the leader of the group that includes Jaxon Hood and Gannon Conway along the defensive line.
A consensus All-American and the 2012 Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, Sutton was listed at 288 pounds a year ago. He’s now tipping the scales anywhere between 305 and 315 pounds.
“Just hitting the weight room; been eating better,” he said. “I guess when you eat better and lift real well you gain weight. It’s good weight. It’s not bad weight. That’s a good thing, so…feeling good.”
Sutton, who said he has “no regrets” about turning his back on the NFL to return for his senior year, agreed with his coach — stopping the run is key to having a successful season.
“That’s the number-one thing. That’s it. That’s all we need to do,” Sutton said. “Once we stop the run — because people already know what we can do in the pass game. We were top-three in almost everything when it came to the pass: sacks, interceptions and pass defense. We don’t have to worry about the pass, we’ll get to that quarterback. It’s just stopping the run.”
The ASU defense will be tested early with three of the first five opponents. Wisconsin, Stanford and Notre Dame all ranked in the top 50 in the nation in rushing offense.
Sutton, who can find his name on six 2013 preseason award watch lists, is embracing the spotlight calling the double and triple teams he undoubtedly will face a “better challenge for me.”
He then added, “If I don’t make plays, I don’t make plays. Just as long as my teammates are making plays and we’re getting Ws, that’s all I carry about.”
Said Graham about his stud defensive tackle, “I really believe he’s a lot better than he was last year.”
Just as the run defense should be better.