TEMPE, Ariz. -- For many junior college players, the jump up to major college football requires a lengthy adjustment period.
Regardless of the number of stars they get from the recruiting services, the move to a new school, learning a new system, and facing drastically improved competition presents a high hurdle for any player.
This has been true of Arizona State defensive end Marcus Hardison.
Hardison was one of the most highly rated junior college prospects in the nation, ranking No. 5 in the nation according to ESPN, and he ultimately chose to come to ASU. With the return of Will Sutton, it was expected that Hardison would team with the All-American to provide an unstoppable force along the defensive line.
So far, it hasn't happened like that. Hardison has taken some time in getting used to the way the Sun Devil program is run, and the expectations it places upon the players.
“It’s being focused and learning how to watch film,” Hardison said of his primary challenges. “Really being a player of the game by learning new things and being on top of my stuff. I have the tempo stuff down, it’s just being a player of the game.”
Hardison's toughest, and perhaps most influential teacher, has been defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.
“He’s helping me. I’m a little hardheaded, but I’m coming along," Hardison said of Shipp. "Everything he is teaching me is for the good of me, and I’ve improved a lot coming from juco.”
Slowly but surely, Hardison's improvement grows closer towards fulfilling his potential.
Last week against Washington State, he had his best game as a Sun Devil. He made two tackles, including his first career sack.
“It was a four-tech. I was thinking it was a run play, but I recognized it was pass," Hardison says of his sack. "I spun out, and came in the quarterback just happened to come my way, and I made the play. It happened so fast that I couldn’t even celebrate. I didn’t know what to do."
The play helped defuse a Cougar drive and helped give ASU great field position on their next drive, which would be converted into a touchdown. It also helped to served as confirmation that Hardison is making progress.
"It made me feel good to know that I am getting better, getting along, and getting plays down. It makes me more motivated to go out there and get more sacks.”
Hardison's quest for more sacks has yet to get him into the starting lineup, but it has earned him more snaps each week.
“Right now, I’m still backing up Gannon (Conway), but I’m getting more snaps," Hardison said. "I'm working and learning my stuff. If I work harder in practice, the plays will come in the game.”
Along with Hardison's upswing, the entire Sun Devil defense is rolling over the last three games. ASU has held opponents to -3 yards rushing over the past two games, while limiting them to just over 19 points per game. The key, according to Hardison, is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We see the bigger picture. It’s getting closer to the end of the season, and we’re very confident we can win the Pac-12," Hardison said. "That’s the goal. We’re stepping it up, trying to be the best defense in the Pac-12 and the best in the nation.”
This Saturday, Hardison and the Sun Devil defense will be looking to shut down the Utah Utes on the road. Hardison says that the defense is looking for a heavy dose of the Ute ground attack.
“They run a lot. We run a lot of five and four technique," Hardison said. "We’re recognizing run first before we can go play the pass.”
The Ute offense also has a talented X-factor in quarterback Travis Wilson. In addition to being a capable passer, the 6-foot-7 sophomore is a dangerous runner. Wilson is currently second on the team in rushing with 342 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
Even with Wilson's mobility, Hardison feels the ASU defense will conduct its business as usual.
“We’re just going to rush the quarterback, as it’s what we do best," said Hardison. "A lot of the season, we’ve put pressure on the quarterback each game. This week, this quarterback wants to run, so we’re going to pressure him and do what we do best.”
As for what Hardison has planned for an encore to his best game to date he is keeping it simple.
“Key the ball and destroy the line."