5 Fall camp questions for the Sun Devil defense

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Can Jaxon Hood return to his All-American form? By Christian Petersen Can Jaxon Hood return to his All-American form? By Christian Petersen

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State football is nigh, with fall camp opening up on Friday Aug. 1.

We've reviewed the key questions facing the Sun Devil offense, where an abundance of experience and talent have hopes high.

That's not the case on defense. Nine starters from 2013 depart, and the recent failures of projected key contributors Darrius Caldwell and Dalvon Stuckey to qualify added more concern to an already uncertain situation.

ASU will score plenty of points in 2014, but it remains to be seen if they will be able to stop their opponents from doing the same.

Who step up at Devilbacker?

With Carl Bradford leaving for the NFL, the team needed to fill his spot at Devilbacker, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position he made into a lethal weapon. ASU thought they had filled that when they signed Darrius Caldwell as a member of their 2014 recruiting class, but that fell apart when Caldwell failed to qualify academically. 

That returns the team to the spot where they found themselves in the spring: worried. None of the trio of players tried at the position during spring practices—redshirt junior Eriquel Florence, sophomore Viliami Latu and redshirt freshman Chans Cox—managed to be overly impressive and take hold of the job. 

Florence (6-foot-1, 253) has the versatility and speed off the edge to be a factor, and he ended spring atop the depth chart. Latu (6-foot-2, 265) provides the best size and power of the group, but it may be Cox who could ultimately be the best fit. A highly-rated 4-star recruit, the athletic Cox (6-foot-3, 245) has been beset by injuries during his time in Tempe, but figures to be healthy and ready during fall camp.

True freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson will also join the team this week, but figures to be in line for a redshirt year to add bulk to his 215-pound frame. Head coach Todd Graham has said that tight end De'Marieya Nelson may also get Devilbacker reps. Nelson saw limited action as a pass rusher last season, taking advantage of his size, speed, and athleticism.

ASU's defensive scheme is built on attack, with the Devilbacker being the tip of the spear. For the Sun Devils to stay in the Pac-12 South race, they will need someone from this group to make an impact.

What's up with Jaxon Hood?

In 2012, Jaxon Hood was a Freshman All-American. Last season, he was injured before being benched in favor of Davon Coleman. Now? That's up to him.

Looking to put the disappointing 2013 behind him, Hood was slowed during the spring due to a hand injury. When he returned to action, he appeared out of shape and was unable to be a consistent force in the middle of a completely new defensive line. There has been talk that he has not adjusted well to Jackie Shipp, who took over the defensive line coaching duties last season.

With all four of last year's starters on the line gone, the team is needing Hood (6-foot, 300 pounds) to provide a strong veteran presence and disruptive interior playmaking. When he is playing well, Hood can be a stout force against the run, tying up blockers to free up teammates while also providing just enough quickness to shoot gaps and make some plays in the backfield. 

That is the player ASU so desperately needs. Whether he can make the comeback remains to be seen.

How fast can the new defensive lineman ramp up?

Hood may be the highest-profile hope in the trenches, but he won't be the only one. ASU welcomes in a trio of talented newcomers that should all challenge for meaningful—and crucial—reps.

Many eyes will be on a big-bodied duo in the middle.

With the loss of two-time Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, Graham brought in a player that he feels is "very, very similar on film" to the new Chicago Bear. Tashon Smallwood was a 4-star recruit that has the size, quickness, and pass rushing ability to develop into the kind of impact player the interior line needs. Connor Humphreys is a 275 pounder who could be a much-needed run-stopper at the nose tackle position. Stout at the point of attack, Humphreys will push 380-pound Mo Latu for reps. 

On the outside, Renell Wren is expected to push senior Marcus Hardison for the defensive end job. Wren brings the desired size and length (6-foot-4, 255) with some quickness and pass rushing ability. With the questions at Devilbacker, improving upon last season's sack production from the end spot will be important.

Who starts at cornerback opposite Lloyd Carrington?

The Sun Devils lost both starting cornerbacks from last year, first-team All-Pac-12 member Robert Nelson and second-team All-Pac-12er Osahon Irabor. Those losses leave quite a hole.

Last year's third cornerback, Lloyd Carrington returns and, after a good spring, has a strong hold on a starting job. Then what?

The ranks were thinned a little when Rashad Wadood, who ended spring atop the depth chart, transferred to Eastern Washington. Redshirt junior Solomon Means (6-foot-1, 174) played well in spring, showing good cover and ball skills, and will be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Will Early (6-foot-1, 204) also brings a physical presence to the position.

Among the newcomers, expectations are highest for junior college transfer Kweishi Brown. A 4-star recruit and juco All-American, Brown has a tantalizing size (6-foot, 198) and speed combination and a reputation as a playmaker. It would come as something of a surprise should he not earn a significant role by the end of camp.

Whose will will prevail at WILL?

One of the few "known" commodities on the defense is SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso, who made nine starts last year. After supplanting Steffon Martin at SAM during the first Stanford game, Fiso proved to be a tough-nosed player with a knack for tracking down the ball while mixing in an explosive play or two.

Other than Fiso, the other two linebacker positions are up for grabs, and perhaps no battle on defense may be as fun to watch as that at WILL, where true freshman D.J. Calhoun and redshirt junior Antonio Longino will compete.

Longino played sparingly last season, making six tackles and one sack, but the 6-foot-2, 235 pounder has the physicality and tools to excel, and the coaching staff has been excited about his potential. 

One of the brightest storylines during spring ball was the play of Calhoun, who graduated high school early and participated in practices at the ripe old age of 17. The consensus 4-star recruit wasted little time in making an impact, showing great range, hitting power, and playmaking ability. He is undersized at 6-foot and 205 pounds, but ASU has a rich history of small linebackers coming up big.