(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Defensive Tackle – Jaxon Hood
When Hood arrived at Arizona State last year, nobody really expected him to contribute as a freshman. He was too small to play tackle, too slow to play end and not strong enough to play Pac-12 Football as a true freshman. What do the experts know? Hood played his way out of a redshirt and into the rotation, aided by former Sun Devil Mike Pennel’s inability to keep his mouth shut, and therefore stayed on the field. Hood showed great instincts and better-than-expected athleticism. Word is he is much stronger now (a year in a BCS strength program will do that), and expectations are soaring for the Chandler, Ariz., native. Hood’s continued development will play a huge role in whether or not Arizona State can improve against the run this season.
Nose Tackle – Will Sutton
Does this one really need an explanation? Sutton is more than just the best defensive player on the Sun Devils. He is the best defensive player in the Pac-12, and in my opinion, the second-best in the country, behind some fellow at South Carolina named Jadeveon Clowney. If you don’t believe it, take a look at Arizona State’s two most important losses last season. Sutton left the Oregon game after forcing a fumble on the opening possession, and Arizona State was torched from there on. And against UCLA, the Sun Devils kept scoring, but could never get a stop, and Sutton’s absence was the biggest reason. I’m drinking the Kool-Aid on this one, and I think Sutton plants himself in the conversation with Pat Tillman and Terrell Suggs for greatest Sun Devil defender ever.
Defensive End – Marcus Hardison
The transfer from Dodge City Community College in Kansas will line up all over the line for Arizona State, playing the edge in the base formation and moving inside with Sutton to form a terrifying pass rush duo up the middle on third down. Hardison is another junior college recruit that is ready to play and has NFL potential. His presence should make Sutton and Carl Bradford grin before every snap, because he is one more player that opposing lineman have to account for. If head coach Todd Graham and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp would have sat down and designed the perfect defensive end for this scheme, Marcus Hardison would have been the result.
Devilbacker – Carl Bradford
Attention Pac-12 quarterbacks: Carl Bradford got bigger…and faster…and stronger. And no, life insurance is not an option for college quarterbacks. Bradford received almost no attention nationally last season (thanks Will Sutton), but he is every bit the pass rusher that Sutton is, and Arizona State is so good at moving Bradford around and disguising how he is going to attack, it makes him almost unblockable. The Sun Devils use the devilbacker much like Texas A&M used Von Miller, only A&M called him the joker. But devil is probably the right term for Bradford, who makes opposing lineman drop to their knees and say a prayer before each snap. Graham has reiterated so far that Bradford must improve against the run if Arizona State is going to become a complete team, and Bradford took that to heart, going from being the team’s biggest workout freak to…well, being the team’s biggest workout freak by a mile. Good things are in store for this young man.
Sam Linebacker – Steffon Martin
Martin isn’t particularly flashy, but he is a solid tackler with a nose for the ball, perfect for the Sam linebacker spot. With help from the safety or spur linebacker in coverage on most plays, Martin is left free to roam and go to the ball, and that is what he does best. It’s safe to say that he will get the least amount of media attention on defense this year, and that’s exactly how the Sun Devils want it to be.
Will Linebacker – Chris Young
Young was a bit erratic during his first season at Arizona State, but the senior showed immense talent and will move from the Spur linebacker spot inside to the Will, replacing longtime Sun Devil star Brandon Magee. Those are some pretty big shoes for Young to fill, but he has the talent to do so. Actually, on pure football talent alone, Young might be the best linebacker on the roster. A converted safety, Young can absolutely fly for someone his size. Young also possesses good strength, allowing him to jam opposing tight ends and slot receivers at the line of scrimmage. Two areas that Magee really struggled last season were tackling and man coverage. As it turns out, Magee had the shortest arms of any linebacker at the NFL combine, by over two inches, which explains his inability to wrap up the ball carrier. Young won’t have that problem, but he does need to learn from Magee and become a better leader. If he can be consistent, Young has a chance to have a great season and put himself on the NFL’s radar.
Spur Linebacker – Anthony Jones
I think Jones ends up starting here only because Young has become too valuable at the Will linebacker. Jones’ spot is far from guaranteed, though, and he will no doubt be in a constant rotation with Grandville Taylor and Carlos Mendoza, keeping all three, plus young and even Martin fresh throughout the game. Jones has some talent, but nothing jumps off the board at you. The Spur position is a hybrid between a weakside linebacker and a safety, leaving Jones to play a lot in space and forcing him to make a lot of reads at the line of scrimmage. The key to a successful season at the Spur position will be smart, consistent play from the rotation.
Boundary Corner – Osahon Irabor
Irabor’s talent is unrivaled amongst Sun Devil corners, but he has to drive co-defensive coordinator and Chris Ball crazy. One week Irabor shuts down the passing game, the next week he opens it up. If the consistency and production finally match the talent, Irabor should lock down the short side of the field on his way to being drafted in the middle rounds of next year’s NFL Draft. If the consistency is lacking, it could be big-play city for the bevy of talented quarterbacks and receivers in the Pac-12.
Field Corner – Lloyd Carrington
As he did in the April, Carrington continues to shine in camp for the Sun Devils. When I first watched the transfer from Pitt, my immediate thoughts were “this is the starting field corner, not Rashad Wadood or Robert Nelson.” I wrote about him after the spring game, praising his great size/speed combination and his ability to reroute receivers and then turn and run with them, essentially taking a receiver out of every play. He also plays the run like a linebacker, which is vital for a field corner, who is often left on an island to defend any sweeps or stretch running plays. I would not be the least bit surprised if Carrington is the best corner for the Sun Devils in 2013.
Boundary Safety – Alden Darby
Like Sutton, not much needs to be said about Darby. Fans love his flair, the media loves his personality and the coaches love his ability. He has also developed as a leader; when Alden Darby talks, the Sun Devils listen, period. Darby is a player coaches dream about, charismatic and talented, charming and competitive, a winner in every sense of the term. Look for a big season from the senior that bleeds Maroon and Gold, floating around as a center fielder and making big plays in both the run and pass game.
Field Safety – Marcus Ball
Surprise! I can actually envision Laiu Moeakiola starting the season opener against Sacramento State, but I think Ball steals the job from him before Wisconsin comes to town on September 14th. That being said, if the season started tomorrow, I think Ball would get the call. He is huge for a true freshman and has great physical talent. Ball just looks like a star-caliber safety, cut from the same big, athletic molds as current NFL players Dashon Goldson, Eric Berry, Kam Chancellor and Adrian Wilson. If coach Graham wants to play it safe, Moeakiola is the guy. But if Graham wants to swing for the fences, and trust me, Graham is Barry Bonds in that regard, Ball should be the starter.
Kicker – Zane Gonzalez
Alex Garoutte is a lost cause and Jon Mora lacks real power. Gonzalez was hand picked by Graham, who loves to coach special teams, to be the kicker of the future in Tempe. Well, the future is now if Arizona State wants to see Pasadena, Calif., and the Rose Bowl more than once this season. This job is Gonzalez’s until he proves he can’t do it, in which case everyone should put their soccer cleats on and prepare for the open tryout.
Punter – Matt Haack
Josh Hubner graduated, and Dom Vizzare is just here for an education. Haack, like Gonzalez, was hand picked by Graham. Show me you can’t punt, and then we can talk about what the other options are. Until that day arrives, and I don’t think it will, Sun Devil fans should feel confident when Haack takes the field.
Kick Returner – D.J. Foster
Punt Returner – Rick Smith
You don’t want to overwork Foster, so Smith gets to handle punt return duties, where his quickness will be better utilized. Foster and Smith should combine to put the Sun Devils near the top of the conference in return yardage and each has the potential to spring one or two returns for six points.
You can reach Jason Galvin on Twitter @Jason_Galvin or by email firstname.lastname@example.org