Video by Justin Janssen | Sports Reporter
One number keeps popping up. Nine.
That’s the amount of defensive starters ASU will have to replace from last year’s Pac-12 South winning defense.
And this storyline will linger throughout the season.
How do the Sun Devils replace defensive tackle Will Sutton, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year? How about linebacker Carl Bradford, who had 19 tackles for loss and eight sacks last year? Or linebacker Chris Young, the team’s top tackler from last season? And 2013 all-conference defensive backs Osahon Irabor, Robert Nelson, and Alden Darby?
“Good programs and great programs, they reload, they don’t rebuild,” ASU coach Todd Graham said… “I’m not downplaying that we graduated some really good people.”
On the surface, the defensive attrition scares me. According to azcentral sports’ Doug Haller, the starting defense ASU lined up with on Thursday had 27 combined career starts, including zero from the defensive line.
“There is no substitute for experience,” Graham said.
Are three games against teams ASU should defeat (Weber State, at 3-9 New Mexico, at 4-8 Colorado) enough experience for the new starters to become acclimated in their role?
After those three games, the season gets tough. The Sun Devils then play UCLA and USC, both picked in the Pac-12 preseason poll to finish ahead of them. They’ll need to win at least one of those games, and probably both, to keep their Pac-12 championship goals alive.
Replacing the nine serves as quite a daunting task, but what we do know is Graham has exceeded expectations in both seasons as head coach. He did it partly because of a relentless, ball-hawking defense. ASU was third in the FBS in interceptions last year and sixth in sacks.
In Graham’s first season, the Sun Devils were picked to finish fifth out of sixth in their division. They ended up with a winning conference record. In the next, they were picked second, and won the division.
What we also know is Graham has gotten the most out of his defensive players. Of the nine starters gone, just one (Irabor) was rated better than a three-star prospect according to Rivals recruiting rankings. He was able to maximize the talent that he had and his 2014 recruiting class is the highest-ranked for ASU in the internet era, according to ASUDevils.com, the Rivals affiliate.
But the influx of talent may not translate into immediate success. It can take years before newcomers’ potential comes to fruition. Still, true freshmen will be thrown into the fire immediately. The defensive line is where the newcomers will make the most impact, a position which concerns the head coach.
“We don’t have a lot of experience and we don’t have a lot of guys, so we’re going to have to stay healthy and we’re going to have to get that experience,” Graham said on the defensive line. “The success of our defense will be predicated on how well we develop the interior of our defensive line and how well we can get pressure and get pressure on the quarterback.”
Quite frankly, we don’t know how the nine will perform in their roles. They’re unproven. But Graham has maximized his players’ talents before.
Reach the columnist at Justin.Janssen@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jjanssen11