TEMPE, Ariz. -- Call it a sophomore slump. Call it a year derailed by injury. Perhaps it was a numbers game. In the end, it really just amounts to one thing: disappointing.
After bursting onto the scene during a 2012 season that saw him earn Freshman All-American honors, Jaxon Hood was primed to position himself as one of the Pac-12 elite defensive linemen last year. Unfortunately, it did not work out like that.
Hood suffered a hamstring injury in the first half during Week 3's loss to Stanford, and things never got back on track. His injury opened the door for senior Davon Coleman, who in turn stepped in and took full advantage.
Finally tapping into his potential, Coleman became a playmaker for the Arizona State defense, ultimately tying for the team lead with 8.5 sacks. Even upon Hood's return, Coleman maintained his hold on the nose tackle job, starting eight of the final nine games of the season. It was only Coleman's suspension for the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech that allowed Hood back into the starting lineup.
For the year, Hood made 12 appearances—five starts—and totaled just 17 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and no sacks. That's not exactly the production that anyone had hoped for coming into the year, and not what the Sun Devils are looking for moving forward.
Only two full time defensive starters from last year—linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall—return, and with the departure of the entire starting defensive line from last year, there is a need for that Hood to rebound and become a stabilizing presence for an inexperienced unit.
However, the results from spring practices did not bolster confidence in a return to form. Yet.
A hand injury sidelined Hood for several practices, but that didn't turn out to be the most concerning physical issue.
Listed at 6-foot, 300 pounder, Hood entered the spring out of shape, although he was not alone in that regard. At one point during spring, head coach Todd Graham told media “We are out of shape and fat on the defensive line. We’ve got to get in shape so we can execute what we’re doing."
As a result, Hood spent time on"Muscle Beach", the area at each practice where injured players work on conditioning. When he finally did participate, it was clear that there remained much work to be done for him to reach the level needed, although he did end spring listed as the starter at Will Sutton's vacated "Tiger" position.
When fall camp opens next month, Hood will continue his battle to regain his spot and impact player status. Beyond the returning interior linemen, the unit will be bolstered be newcomers Dalvon Stuckey and Connor Humphreys. While there will be no shortage of talented options, perhaps no one will have more pressure to perform than Hood.
Should Hood get back on track, it would provide a powerful boost to the defense. Hood has shown an ability to be a stout force at the point of attack, able to shutdown opposing running games. He also has the moves and agility to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield (three sacks, four tackles-for-loss in 2012).
Quite simply, he has the talent to be the difference maker the defense needs. The road back will not be easy, but it may be necessary if ASU wants to hold on to their Pac-12 South title.