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August 6, 2011Former defensive line coach Grady Stretz endowed successor Scott Brown a cupboard filled with fixings that, in the words of TV Chef Emeril Lagasse, "kick it up a notch."
Missing however is close to 900 pounds of beef largely responsible for anchoring the conference's best run defense for two consecutive years -- holding opponents to under 3.4 yards per carry in 2009 and 2010.
With the graduation of Saia Falahola (300 pounds) and the decision of both Lawrence Guy (300 pounds) and James Brooks (280 pounds) to seek greener pastures, it's as reasonable for members of the Arizona State football team and its faithful to ask "what gives?" as it is to ask "how much give?"
Brown is less skeptical.
"We're not a small football team; we're a pretty good sized football team and a very fast defense," Brown said.
Through the first week of fall camp, sleek and lean are the two trending words inside the Verde Dickey Dome. The ASU defensive line looks as though it's group dieted since the end of last season.
"Bo (Moos), Corey (Adams) and everybody slimmed down," junior 3-technique William Sutton said. "We just felt like we could do better with our speed."
Each day's 1-on-1 pass protection drills between offensive and defensive lineman tempt the idea that the weight loss was a net-plus. Whether it's senior weakside end Jamaar Jarrett cleanly spinning around Aderious Simmons for an unabated attack on a tackle-dummy, or juniors Gregory Smith and Corey Adams combining with fluid precision on a stunt in team drills -- the Sun Devil front is quicker and more explosive than last season.
"The only difference (this year) is we have a better pass rush," said sophomore Junior Onyeali. "It's as simple as that. We have better pass rushers this year and we've got a good scheme, ya know."
Onyeali, one of the few linemen to maintain or even add weight in the offseason, is an amplified terror from his freshman year, now sounding as much like a Tasmanian devil as he moves like one -- screeching and howling after every raid into the backfield and never satiated.
"The next step is to practice perfect," Onyeali said.
But while it seems likely that Onyeali establishes himself as a premier college pass-rusher in 2011, moving up from last in the conference in sacks last year will largely hinge on Sutton, who is all the way down to an unblockable 265 pounds, and whose potential disruption to offensive lines could create the sort of chaos everyone on the Sun Devil defensive line can feed on. His return, combined with the improved quickness of teammates, changes the entire dynamic for ASU's pass rush.
"It is really exciting because it takes a lot of pressure off our 'backers because they don't have to blitz every time," Sutton said. "We can just run four man rushes and get to the quarterback."
Brown, who lauded Stretz for giving him technically proficient, "fundamentally sound" players, has two guys who could make his, as well as coach Dennis Erickson and defensive coordinator Craig Bray's jobs much easier on third down.
"They have an innate quickness and an ability to change direction which obviously gives them an edge," Brown said.
But it is after Sutton and Onyeali that the Sun Devils are seeking to define themselves. Seniors Jarre and Moos are established, reliable components in a rotation, and each could have their best years yet, but who is behind them?
First, the "if" players." If junior Corey Adams is healthy, he could be a rock at either tackle position. If junior Toa Tuitea becomes more consistent, he could be a pass rusher from the interior. If junior Gregory Smith finds the motor to match his athleticism, he could complement Onyeali and Jarrett at end.
The rest are question marks.
Brown is impressed with the strength gains of redshirt freshman Jordan McDonald. He calls sophomore transfer Davon Coleman "a powerful, powerful human being" with "better than average speed," but one who remains a mystery against live FBS competition. Redshirt sophomore Gannon Conway, a 250-pound walk-on defensive end fresh off a year mission, seems to be the Sun Devils' stoutest strong-side end among second-teamers, and freshmen Joita Te'i and Mo Latu are promising, but unknown commodities.
While the gains in speed for the unit are obvious, the potential downside in weight loss and depth loss may not be noticeable until late season, perhaps throughout. It's true: Guy, Falahola and Brooks did not always astound with consistent pressure, and the latter often lacked the ability to beat his opponent in key 1-on-1 pass rush/protection battles, but they were all cogs on a team that held up against the run all season, helping the defense yield just a handful of sustained drives. In 2010, the average touchdown drive for an ASU opponent was just over 6 plays long, both a testament to a defense that won most of the hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage, and an indictment against the unit's focus, committing rash penalties and allowing explosive plays.
While it is yet to be seen whether the 2011 defensive line has exchanged strengths and weaknesses with the 2010 line, if it is true or at least partially true, the Sun Devils defense will need to leverage an offense that can both open up leads and consume clock -- allowing its lighter, vertically-inclined lineman to go to work and avoid the kind of drawn-out grudge matches that could favor bigger foes.