TEMPE, Ariz. -- Last year, Arizona State's defense often indulged their inner Mr. Burns and released the hounds upon opposing offenses.
With a loaded front line that featured Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, Davon Coleman (8.5 sacks), Carl Bradford (also 8.5 sacks) and the stout Gannon Conway, the Sun Devils were a relentless group that attacked, attacked, and then attacked some more.
Now, all of those weapons are gone. An area of often dominating strength is now a cause for legitimate concern.
While many questions surround the rebuilding defensive line, the group's talent level is not among them.
Jaxon Hood is just one season removed from Freshman All-American honors, a trimmed down Mo Latu was a standout during spring practices, and the program is welcoming five skilled new lineman as part of the 2014 recruiting class.
Perhaps the most talented member of the group, and the one most capable of making or breaking the unit, is Marcus Hardison.
Coming to ASU last year as a 4-star junior college transfer from Dodge City Community College in Kansas, Hardison was expected to be a significant contributor in 2013.
Hardison made just five tackles and had one sack last year as he struggled to earn playing time. It served as a wake up call to a player ESPN ranked as the fifth-best player in all of junior college football.
“It was pretty difficult for me. I thought it would be pretty easy," Hardison said of his first year at ASU. "It took longer than I expected and than Coach expected for me to get comfortable in the system. I got a lot better towards the end of the year, after the beginning started off a little rough.”
One of the primary reasons for seeing so little time on game day came on the practice field, where Hardison often failed to meet standards set forth by the coaching staff.
“Practice, for sure. Practice, being coachable, and fundamentals," Hardison cited as his biggest challenges. "They (ASU's coaches) teach all of the little things and stress them and they strain you every day. Practice was the most impactful for me.”
Being such a highly-touted recruit put a lot of pressure on Hardison, and he feels that played a factor in his struggles.
“I felt like coming in a lot of things were said, what I was supposed to do and all this," Hardison said. "I felt like I had big shoes to fill, coming in. At the beginning of the season, things weren’t going right, and I just went downhill. Knowing that I wasn’t doing well and wasn’t in my zone made me go into that slump.”
It's now a new year and a new—and final—opportunity for Hardison, now a senior. He has all the tools and raw talent to be an impactful player for the Sun Devils in 2014.
Hardison has excellent size at 6-foot-5 and 298 pounds, and he combines that with the quickness to be an effective pass rusher off the edge. His skillset also provides versatility, allowing the coaching staff to use him at a few spots along the line.
What he has yet to establish is the ability to put his vast talents together with proper fundamentals on a consistent basis, although Hardison feels that he has made progress in that area.
“I feel like I started football all the way over this year," said Hardison. "My get offs, my first two steps, low leverage, that’s where I improved a lot. Right now, I’m working on my strength so I can be stronger for the next fall.”
That all-conference potential is clearly there. When asked about which player he expected to have a breakout 2014 season, ASU defensive assistant coach Paul Randolph quickly singled out Hardison.
"I think Marcus Hardison, I really do," said Randolph. "He started coming on here late in the season, finally understanding our system and our expectations of him within our system. I think he’ll have a great shot."
Hardison showed some progress during spring practices in April, and exited those sessions listed atop the depth chart at the defensive end position. However, his development into becoming a consistent playmaker remains a work in progress, and it is something the Sun Devil defense will desperately need this season.
As the season opener draws ever closer, Hardison believes that fans should expect to see a big leap from the man wearing No. 1 along the line.
“A new and improved player who is ready to play and win.”
For the Sun Devil defensive line to come anywhere close to the standard of the last two years, he will need to be just that.