TEMPE, Ariz. -- After a banner year in 2012, Arizona State's defense looked to take their game to the next level last fall.
The strength of the unit appeared to be along the defensive line, which returned reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton and freshman All-American in Jaxon Hood, in addition to Davon Coleman. Add in Carl Bradford's return at Devilbacker, and the front line of the Devil defense was the talk of the town.
While Sutton's return for his senior year was the unit's most discussed storyline heading into the 2013 season, the addition of Marcus Hardison was not far behind.
Rated by ESPN as the No. 5 overall junior college prospect, Hardison came to ASU with the skills and potential—and hype—to elevate an already potent unit into something special.
However, it didn't happen that way.
Hardison failed to earn a role in the defensive line rotation coming out of fall camp, and he was used sparingly over the first half of the year as he struggled to adapt to the expectations of the coaching staff, as well as the level of play of major college football.
“It was pretty difficult for me. I thought it would be pretty easy," Hardison said of Pac-12 football. "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.”
Part of Hardison's struggles came from the pressure he placed upon himself from being such a highly touted recruit. When success didn't come, a snowball effect made the hill to climb that much steeper.
“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.”
That slump featured just a single tackle over the season's first seven games. However, slowly but surely, progress was made. After a few weeks, he began to earn more meaningful reps. Hardison then had his best performance of the year against Washington State on Oct. 31, notching the first sack of his career.
For the year, he totaled five tackles and that lone sack in 13 games, far from the type of numbers many expected before the year, Hardison included. Thankfully the emergence of Coleman (8.5 sacks) and Gannon Conway, along with the stalwart Sutton and Bradford, helped ASU field another strong front line.
Now, all four of those players are gone, leaving Hood as the only defensive lineman on ASU's roster who has started a game for the Sun Devils.
While the program brought in several key players in the 2014 recruiting class to contribute, Arizona State will be counting on Hardison—now a senior—to fulfill his potential and provide the type of playmaking presence up front that Sun Devil fans have seen in recent years.
With a year of experience under his belt, and a new and improved focus, Hardison feels he can do just that.
The biggest challenges he faced last season: “Practice, for sure. Practice, being coachable, and fundamentals. They teach all of the little things and stress them and they strain you every day. Practice was the mist impactful for me.”
What he learned from the veteran defensive linemen: “From Will, I learned about blocks and how the linemen are going to come. He taught me the ways of shedding blocks. Jaxon, he’s always there. He kept me on the little things and what not to do. Me and Gannon, we’re pretty cool and probably the tightest, We don’t talk about football much. We just joke around a lot. I have to say I learned more from Will about becoming more of a football player.”
Where he improved the most throughout the year?: “Fundamentals. I feel like I started football all the way over this year. My get offs, my first two steps, low leverage, that’s where I improved a lot. Right now, I’m working on my strength going into the spring so I can be stronger for the next fall.”
Working with Coach Jackie Shipp: “He’s a good coach. He’s hard, but he just wants his players to succeed. In school, out of school, everything every day. Whatever your weakness is, he plans on making it your strength. I can’t wait to get back to football with him.”
Focus of offseason work: “My main weakness was in the weight room. That’s my No. 1 priority. Pick up a little weight; maybe go from 280 to 290 or 295. That’s the goal weight. Get stronger, get bigger, and get ready to be coached.”
His goals for 2014: “I have the same goals from when I stepped on campus. I plan on accomplishing them. I fell a little short this year with some difficulties. But I have the same goals: First-team All-American, Pac-12 Player of the Year, beat Terrell Suggs sack record, Nagurski Award, and the Lombardi Award. Those are some top goals there.”
Coach's take: Recently, I asked ASU's defensive ends coach Paul Randolph for one player he expected to be a breakout performer in 2014. He quickly identified Hardison.
"I think Marcus Hardison. I really do. 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."
What Hardison thinks fans should expect from him: “A new and improved player who is ready to play and win.”