TEMPE, Ariz. -- Is there a better single unit in the Pac-12 than Arizona State's defensive line?
USC's wide receivers? Stanford's linebackers? Maybe ASU's own running backs?
Regardless of who takes how a fictional and irrelevant title, the front line of the Sun Devil defense is one of the most talented and fearsome groups in the conference.
In just one year in the new defensive system, they helped transform the Sun Devils into an elite defense and produced two players who earned All-American distinctions.
With all key players returning, and a powerful newcomer added to the mix, the outlook for even better things in 2013 is bright. The unit also has an accomplished new coach, Jackie Shipp, who comes to ASU after a brilliant run coaching the defensive line at Oklahoma.
We take a look at six key topics surrounding the defensive line as the season opener draws near.
1) Consensus All-American...now what?
The resurgence up front centered around Will Sutton. After years of waiting for him to unleash his potential, ASU fans bore witness to one of the most dominant seasons a Sun Devil defender has ever put together.
Sutton racked up 13.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles-for-loss en route to earning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award, the Morris Trophy, and he was named a consensus All-American, becoming just the 15th Sun Devil to accomplish that feat. His sacks and tackles-for-loss pushed back the opposition 232 yards.
He then surprised many by putting off the NFL Draft and returning for his senior year. An offseason of hard work in the weight room has Sutton stronger, bigger (now over 300 pounds) and yet retaining his hallmark quickness and explosion off the ball.
Sutton is the rare type of player that can singlehandedly change a game. Following his injury against Oregon, the entire ASU defense struggled to retain their effectiveness until Sutton was able to return to form.
He will once again be the linchpin for the entire scheme, and while he is a better player than he was a year ago (scary), his production may not yet reach last year's levels. Offenses will be loading up to stop him, so it will be crucial that Sutton's teammates take advantage of the extra room to roam.
2) Keep on keepin' on
Let's take a look at the stat book at some "splash" defensive categories.
ASU led the nation in tackles-for-loss and finished second to Stanford in sacks. The defensive line of the Sun Devils (not factoring in Devilbacker Carl Bradford who often lined up like a defensive end) produced 28.5 sacks and 47.5 tackles-for-loss.
Well, if it ain't broke...
All the key pieces are returning, and each now has a full year of experience in the defensive system, and is being coached by one of the nation's best in Jackie Shipp. Quite simply, this unit can attack an opposing offense like few fronts can, and are much better conditioned and prepared to do so in 2013.
3) Shore up the run
While the group was excellent at getting into the opponent's backfield with regularity, they also were deficient in the basic area of stopping the run.
With all those lofty stats in sacks and tackles-for-loss, ASU ranked 81st out of 124 teams against the run, allowing over 182 yards-per-game. Some of that was due to playing teams that heavily favor running offenses (Oregon, Navy, Illinois), but quite simply, ASU was gashed far too often on the ground.
ASU allowed over 200 yards rushing six times in 2012, with three topping 290 (Arizona - 292 yards, Navy 313, Oregon 406). The line's hallmark aggression sometime came back to haunt then, leaving them out of position and producing large running lanes through to the second level.
Stopping the run has been a major focus of both spring and fall camps, and it all starts up front with the defensive line. With running teams like Wisconsin, Stanford and Notre Dame on the early slate, we will find out quickly how much progress has been made.
4) Jaxon's jump
Sutton wasn't the only Sun Devil whose play earned "All-American" distinction.
Jaxon Hood impressed early and often during fall camp, earning a starting job. Hood went on to start 12 games, posting 26 tackles and three sacks. That performance earned him Freshman All-American honors, as well as an honorable mention on the All-Pac-12 team.
Like the rest of his linemates, Hood is now bigger, stronger, and in better shape than a year ago. He's up to 301 pounds, and the sophomore defensive tackle is primed to avoid the sophomore slump and rise to the ranks of the Pac-12's best.
5) This is the end
Sutton and Hood were the two certain starters on the line, leaving defensive end the only question mark.
Last year, Davon Coleman (five sacks) and Junior Onyeali (six sacks) split time there. When the team signed Marcus Hardison, the ultra-talented junior college transfer, many expected him to quickly win the job.
The smaller Onyeali (240 pounds) has since been moved to Devilbacker, and Coleman has found himself on the second team defense. Hardison has had some difficulty adjusting to the major college game, and the coaching staff has challenged him to bring greater effort on a play-by-play basis.
That has left senior Gannon Conway as the starter at the spot, and while some may think that the others have "lost" the job, that would greatly shortchange the great work put in by Conway.
Conway has been a tireless worker since coming to Tempe as a juco transfer in 2010, and he has quietly developed into a stout defender at end. He has great size (6-foot-4, 280) and power, and his bull rush moves have earned high praise from the ASU offensive linemen he faces in practice every day.
Conway doesn't figure to have the production potential of the others, he offers a gritty, dependable presence along the line. While the staff ultimately hopes that Hardison can claim the job, with Todd Graham saying, “We cannot have him being a backup," Conway will hold down the spot with Coleman also getting significant reps.
6) Less weight, Mo production
Mo Latu's potential has often been as big as his weight, and that's been the problem.
The redshirt sophomore has battled his weight throughout his time in Tempe, a career that has seen the defensive tackle move to offense to play center, before returning this offseason to defense. He has also seen his weight balloon up recently to 380 pounds, which has relegated him to the sidelines.
Latu has been working hard to slim down, as the coaches want him in the 330 range. He's made enough progress that he is now seeing practice time with the second-team defense.
If he can get into shape, Latu would offer a valuable run-stuffing presence to a unit looking for a gap clogger heading into their match-ups with run-heavy offenses.