Sun Devil coaches and fans all exhaled a massive sigh of relief in January when Consensus All-American Will Sutton (pictured) chose to return for his senior season, giving hope that ASU's defense could become even more fearsome than the already lethal version seen last year.
In Sutton, ASU has one of college football's most dominant linemen and a player difficult for any blocker to keep out of the backfield. After his jaw-dropping breakout junior season, Sutton's challenge in 2013 will be to respond to the inevitability that week-in and week-out he will be the focal point of every single team's blocking schemes.
Sutton has the strength and athleticism to basically embarrass offensive linemen, and with an offseason that has seen him bulk up to the 300-pound mark should enable him to continue to wreak havoc on the Pac-12 Conference.
A lightly recruited player despite being highly productive for one of the nation's most prominent high school football programs, Jaxon Hood made the Signing Day decision to attend ASU after Todd Graham noticed the talent Dennis Erickson didn't.
Though at the time Hood seemed to be a decent depth addition and a chance to rebuild a pipeline to Chandler's Hamilton High School, by the time the 2012 season concluded Hood became one of the top true freshmen defensive linemen in the nation as he nabbed Freshman All-America honors. Entering 2013, Hood is a known commodity and will be expected to further evolve into a dominant defensive lineman.
Though solid at the top level, depth was a major concern last season, as evidenced by the gut-wrenching loss to UCLA in Tempe. Hopefully, this concern can be remedied by a combination of incoming talent and growth by returning players.
Beside Sutton and Hood, the battle for the third routine first-team lineman figures to be fierce and could consist of as many as four legitimate options.
In the spring, former walk-on Gannon Conway assumed the first-team position at defensive end and head coach Todd Graham insists Conway will be a difference-maker as a senior in 2013. Davon Coleman has no shortage of talent and has been a workout warrior in his final offseason as a Sun Devil. Junior Onyeali, the ever-enigmatic former Pac-10 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year, has had yet another challenging offseason off the field and with injury issues but has the athleticism to dominate at any given time.
The wild card in the defensive line competition this fall figures to be Marcus Hardison, an elite JUCO transfer with the ability to play multiple positions. Though it is always dicey to label junior college additions as "can't miss" players, but Hardison comes to ASU with tremendous potential and expectations to hit the ground running. Hardison should see time at multiple positions along the line, whether with the first team or as a first reserve off the bench.
Mo Latu, a dominant high school two-way lineman, makes his way back to defense after a switch to offensive line last year. A huge body prototypically fit for the nose tackle position, Latu hopes to be a key reserve as a defender in 2013.
Senior Jake Sheffield and sophomore Sean O'Grady figure to fill out the depth chart and will use fall camp to earn time in the top rotations.
Though Hardison is the headliner among ASU's defensive line additions for the 2013 class, fellow JUCO transfer Demetrius Cherry has the frame and athleticism to provide the Sun Devils with a solid reserve lineman in 2013.
Chandler High School product Kisima Jagne joined the program this spring after originally signing with Colorado in 2012. A physically impressive athlete, Jagne has the capability to jump into the mix right away but likely would benefit greatly from a redshirt year after missing most of spring due to academics.
Corey Smith, a high school arrival from Louisiana, brings massive physical upside with his 6-foot-7 frame and ability to play multiple line positions. Smith is a fringe player in terms of whether he will redshirt or play right away and fall camp will be the proving ground to make that determination.
Burning Fall Camp Question: How good will Marcus Hardison really be?
Hardison comes to ASU with some lofty goals and expectations and thus far no coach or critic has extinguished the hype. The Sun Devils have two starters locked in on the defensive line in Will Sutton and Jaxon Hood, but the third spot could be a logjam competition between Gannon Conway, Davon Coleman, Junior Onyeali and potentially also Hardison. Whether he earns a first-string role or serves as a top backup, initial expectations are for Hardison to be a defensive Marion Grice in the sense of being a dynamic immediate impact JUCO transfer.
At the four linebacker positions ASU returns several talented key players and welcomes a bevy of potential instant-impact defenders, so if the pecking order can take form in fall camp the group could be highly qualified for potency in 2013.
Carl Bradford returns for his junior season at the "Devil" linebacker position and after a smash hit breakout year in 2012, Bradford is now known as one of the most fearsome edge rushers in college football.
A versatile second-year starter, Chris Young (pictured) was the main "Spur" linebacker in 2012 but might move inside to the WILL position previously occupied by Brandon Magee.
Steffon Martin had a quiet but solid debut season after transferring to ASU from Arizona Western College and he is the odds-on favorite to retain his first-team SAM ‘backer role.
In Magee's absence, one starting spot is available, which will surface at either "Spur" or WILL, depending on where Young is located.
Among the options to occupy the first-team openings are senior Anthony Jones, redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza and senior Grandville Taylor. Junior college transfers Eriquel Florence and Antonio Longino also have the dynamic skill sets to make a quick impression on the Sun Devil defense. Jones is the likely favorite to being camp as a starter but the competition will undoubtedly thicken as the practices continue.
Local prep superstar Chans Cox will battle for time behind Bradford and despite a spring injury for the midyear arrival, Cox is expected to be fully ready for fall camp and is poised to see the field as a true freshman.
Further down the depth chart, senior Kipeli Koniseti brings two years of experience to the 2013 defense, while redshirt freshmen Salamo Fiso and Matthew Rowe will vie for roles this year.
True freshmen twins Viliami and Alani Latu will debut with the Devils this fall and were two of California's top linebackers as seniors in 2012.
ASU's linebackers as a group bring tremendous potential for sensational first-string talent and excellent depth across every position. If that potential can be reached, the Sun Devil defense as a whole will greatly benefit, mainly in terms of quarterback pressure and the team's attempt to fortify a below-average run defense from 2012.
Burning Fall Camp Question: How will the starting lineup look?
Carl Bradford, Chris Young and to a slightly lesser extent Steffon Martin can have their names written in pen on the depth chart but the other two spots might need pencils with fully capable erasers.
Anthony Jones has all-world athleticism and the fifth-year senior could be on the brink of his first taste of full-time contributions, while former walk-on Grandville Taylor has grinded his way into a legitimate role. Carlos Mendoza, a contributor as a true freshman last year before suffering a season-ending injury early in the year.
Joining the equation this fall are JUCO transfers Eriquel Florence and Antonio Longino, players with differing skill sets but ones that are an excellent fit for the Sun Devils' schemes.
Bradford is locked in at the "Devil" linebacker position and should be one of the nation's better pass-rushing linebackers while Young will eventually find a home at either MIKE or "Spur". Martin returns as the first-team SAM ‘backer, so ultimately an opening likely will exist at the position Young does not occupy.
To start camp, Jones may be the favorite to run with the first-team but the aforementioned laundry list of competitors will all push for time in the starting lineup.
Statistically one of the very best pass defenses in the nation last year, ASU returns experienced and talented defensive backs but also is charged with the task of replacing two starters. Thankfully, the coaching staff acquired several versatile players for the secondary with the skills to quickly enter the lineup.
Alden Darby (pictured) made the full-time move from cornerback to boundary safety last year with sensational results as he earned Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors. A leader on the field and in the stat column, Darby's teammates expect that he should rise to become one of the league's elite defenders as a senior this year.
At cornerback, Osahon Irabor returns as a fourth-year starter and appears ready to elevate his game to a level comparable to the league's top corners. One of the league's most experienced players, Irabor has been a solid corner for three years and based on his performance in the spring, his best is being saved for his last season at ASU.
At the second cornerback, Deveron Carr must be replaced, and the competition to fill his void that began in the spring figures to carry into the fall.
Robert Nelson, a playmaking reserve last year, has the game experience and physical traits to become a full-time starter, while Rashad Wadood is back after being sidelined due to injury in 2012 and was one of the breakout performers in the spring. A pair of FBS transfers will also battle for key reps as former Pittsburgh Panther Lloyd Carrington as well as Marlon Pollard, formerly of both UCLA and Eastern Michigan, have shown promise.
In February, ASU signed JUCO transfer Solomon Means and Texas prep standout William Earley at cornerback; however both players will have to acclimate immediately to be factors in 2013.
Beside Darby at safety, a wide-open battle will ensue to replace starter Keelan Johnson, with Ezekiel Bishop filling the role in the spring. Bishop showed major potential in his first fall camp after his summer arrival in 2011, but a season-ending injury that year and a competitive depth chart last season has kept him far under the radar.
Bishop will be heavily pushed by big-play JUCO transfer Damarious Randall, an option at either field safety or cornerback, as well as Marcus Ball, one of the key high school signees of ASU's 2013 class.
Viliami Moeakiola returns to full health after being pulled from game action due to a season-ending injury last season and at worst he figures to be Darby's top backup at boundary safety.
Shane McCullen returns for his senior season as a veteran reserve, while Luke Williams joined the team shortly before fall camp last year and will battle for a depth chart position.
In addition to Randall and Ball, ASU signed high school safeties James Johnson and Jayme Otomewo this February. Both players will have a shot to impress early on, but have their work cut out for them to bypass redshirting in 2013.
Burning Fall Camp Question: Who starts at field safety?
With Keelan Johnson off to pursue a pro football career, the battle is wide open for first-team reps at field safety. Though only three starters departed from last year's defense, the battle for first-string reps at field safety is an important one as ASU works to maintain its nationally prominent pass defense from 2012.
Ezekiel Bishop saw a large portion of first-team reps in the spring, but the fall will introduce a host of other candidates into the fold. The two primary options are ball hawk JUCO transfer Damarious Randall and ultra-versatile prep product Marcus Ball. Viliami Moeakiola also has an outside shot of competing for the role but might be more suitable as Alden Darby's top reserve at boundary safety.
The popular opinion is that either Randall or Ball will claim the starting spot, with Randall having outstanding ball skills after picking off nine passes for Mesa (Ariz.) Community College while Ball has the frame to potentially grow into a linebacker later in his college career.