An Arizona State defense that wreaked havoc on opposing backfields for the last two seasons is undergoing a major reconstruction project that will make or break the Sun Devils' bid for a repeat as Pac-12 South champions.
In case losing two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton wasn't enough, Arizona State said goodbye to linebacker Carl Bradford on Monday. The All-Conference honoree and Sun Devils' tackles for loss leader opted to bypass his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.
With players like Carl, Will Sutton, Chris Young, Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby we built the No. 1 defense in Pac-12 Conference play and one of the top rated units nationally. We want to be known for tough, stout defense at ASU and Carl helped us achieve that in 2012 and 2013. We appreciate Carl for being a great Sun Devil and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors.
The names Graham mentioned—defensive tackle Sutton, defensive backs Darby and Irabor, and linebacker Young—were all seniors. They were also just a few of the many upperclassmen who closed their Arizona State careers with the conclusion of the 2013 season.
|Key Departing Arizona State Defensive Players|
|Player, Pos.||Total Tackles||TFL||Sacks||INT||FF||Passes Defended|
|Carl Bradford, LB||61||19.0||8.5||1||3||5|
|Davon Coleman, DE||58||15.0||8.5||-||-||1|
|Gannon Conway, DE||38||7.0||3.5||-||-||2|
|Alden Darby, CB||72||2.0||-||4||2||13|
|Osahon Irabor, CB||54||5.5||1.0||3||-||8|
|Anthony Jones, LB||38||2.5||1.0||1||1||3|
|Steffon Martin, LB||34||1.5||-||-||-||1|
|Robert Nelson, FS||57||-||-||6||-||12|
|Will Sutton, DT||48||13.5||4.0||1||-||4|
|Chris Young, LB||112||17.5||7.5||-||2||1|
Statistically, the departing upperclassmen set an incredibly high bar for the remaining Sun Devils. But more importantly for their run to the Pac-12 South championship, and a more difficult attribute to replace, the seniors and redshirt junior Bradford excelled with veteran savvy.
Graham celebrated his seniors' willingness to lead throughout the 2013 season—he credited Sutton's taking charge in the locker room as a reason for the team's success on a December teleconference call—and that attitude showed on the field.
Each unit fed off the others. The secondary locked down opposing passing attacks much of the year, with All-Pac-12 selections Darby, Irabor and Robert Nelson leading. Their play early in the season was crucial to picking up the run defense production.
And pick up it did.
The Sun Devils shook off a slow start to finish the season allowing just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. Sutton was key at the point of attack, occupying blockers to allow teammates Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway room to operate.
And with both the run and pass limited, the blitz-happy Sun Devils teed off on opposing quarterbacks 40 times, of which outgoing players accounted for 34.
Perhaps more than any other Sun Devil, Bradford exemplified the tenacious style co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph employed. Graham praised Bradford's ability to blitz any gap out of the hybrid Devil position on a November teleconference call.
As a result, Arizona State was the nation's No. 2 overall sacking defense in 2012, and despite a slow start, finished ranked No. 6 nationally in 2013.
Recreating that level of production is a cumbersome chore. Linebacker Salamo Fiso is the returning sack leader with three in his redshirt freshman season. He entered the starting lineup for the Sun Devils' Pac-12 showdown with USC and never looked back. His 71 tackles are also most among 2014 returners.
Defensive back Damarious Randall was also a standout in his redshirt junior season with 71 tackles and three interceptions, including his pick returned for a touchdown in the Sun Devils' rout of rival Arizona.
Arizona State will need more immediate contribution from first-year players similar to Fiso's in order to compensate for the departing class. That could include redshirt freshmen, like linebackers A.J. and Viliami Latu, two contenders to fill Bradford's vacant position, or members of the incoming true freshman group.
The more youngsters Arizona State can get acclimated, the better. The Sun Devils see three of the conference's contenders early in the 2014 slate, with UCLA, USC and Stanford in consecutive games from Sept. 25 to Oct. 18.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.