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September 20, 2013Will Sutton understandably received a lot attention from national media following a breakout junior season that saw him earn consensus All-American honors.
Others took note as well.
The 6-foot-1, 305 pound Arizona State senior defensive tackle has been the focus of opposing offenses at the point of attack through two games this season.
With that extra attention comes added scrutiny, and pundits have zeroed in on Sutton's reduced production from a year ago and drawn some conclusions, fair or not, accurate or not.
A hot topic is Sutton's weight. Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham said last month that Sutton has added some size to increase his versatility, a comment which Sutton echoed. While he was among the most elite interior pass rushers in the college game, Graham felt Sutton had more room for growth as a run stopper. The Sun Devils ranked No. 81 nationally against the run last season and it was a major emphasis team-wide in the offseason.
Finding the right balance can be a tricky thing though, and after evaluating film from several games, ASU is still trying to fine tune Sutton, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
"Body composition wise I think he can lose a few pounds," defensive lineman coach Jackie Shipp said Thursday. "I think he needs to lose a few pounds and hopefully we'll get him to do that."
For context, it's important to convey Sutton's weight evolution accurately. It's something that hasn't been widely done, as ESPN broadcasters calling last Saturday's game said on air that Sutton played last season at 267 pounds and was "noticeably heavier" from the team's appearance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
That information isn't entirely accurate, however. Actually, it's quite misleading. Sutton's listed weight of 267 pounds was in the spring or early summer, months in advance of ASU's first game last year, but it's what was widely distributed when networks like ESPN built out their player graphics for the year.
By the time the season started, according to multiple team sources with first-hand knowledge, Sutton weighed in excess of 280 pounds. At its conclusion, when ASU beat Navy on Dec. 29, Sutton -- who had 2.5 sacks in the contest -- weighed between 290-295 pounds.
Instead of being heavier by what's been reported as 30-plus pounds since last season, Sutton actually weighs a much more modest 10-15 pounds more now than at last season's conclusion nine months ago.
It's impossible to say how much that added weight has impacted Sutton's explosiveness or quickness, if at all, but what is very clear is that a lot of people are speculating about it.
The reason for this is clear: Sutton has had a rather ordinary production of three tackles, including half a tackle for loss, and no sacks, through two games, far off his pace of last season, when he finished the year with 63 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
What's received less attention than his weight, however, is the way he's been used and schemed against in those two against. Against Sacramento State, Sutton played directly over the center in a 0-technique -- something he never did last season -- instead of his normal attack-friendly 3-technique alignment.
Graham said following the game he was impressed by Sutton's unselfishness, because he was essentially asked to do the thankless job of eating up space in the middle and eliminate runs in the A-gap as opposed to doing the more glamours job of sacking quarterbacks.
According to Graham, ASU wanted Wisconsin to see that look and have to prepare for it even as sort of a bait and switch. The Sun Devils didn't use the formation at all against Wisconsin a week later.
But that doesn't mean Sutton had it any easier in that game. The hefty Badger offensive front, which averages 320-plus pounds, capably double teamed the ASU star a majority of his reps in the game, so he couldn't exploit the B-gap between the guard and tackle as he was attempting to do.
On reps where Sutton was going up against one offensive line, Wisconsin often resorted to cut blocks, several of which were dangerously low and close to laterally impacting his knee. One of those blocks in particular left Sutton on the turf until trainers came from the sideline to retrieve him.
"Sutton has done well with it," Shipp said. "People are keying up on Sutton so other guys have to step it up. But Will is doing well. If you're a good defensive lineman you're going to get double teamed. Those things are going to happen."
With Sutton being the focal point of opposing offenses each week, the opportunity for others to make plays increases and those players are looking to take full advantage.
"I think we saw that in the last game," senior defensive end Gannon Conway said. "People that wouldn't normally make great plays like (senior boundary corner) Osahon Irabor coming off the edge for a quick stop is big. There's so many threats on our defense that if you try to double team one person, somebody else is going to come through and make a play."
Coaches fully intend to attempt use this unique opportunity to further develop some of the younger undeveloped talent on the roster.
"I've seen some guys that have played better," Shipp said. "(sophomore defensive lineman) Jaxon Hood and Gannon (Conway) have played better. We need some of our other guys like (junior defensive lineman) Marcus Hardison to play better. (Sophomore defensive lineman) Mo Latu and (senior defensive lineman) Jake Sheffield need to step up and play. We're making improvements but the other guys need to make some improvements as well."
A different but similar offense
The offensive line units for Stanford and Wisconsin are both wide, stout and a tough. While the Wisconsin line was bigger and sought to rely on that advantage against ASU, there will be more technically sound football coming against the defensive squad this weekend. At least that's what the Sun Devils are anticipating.
"We've been watching them on film and Wisconsin had these big guys just trying to wall you off," Conway said. "Now we feel like Stanford, even though they have big guys too and aren't small by any means, their footwork is a lot better and they are a lot more physical. Basically what we worked on this week is making sure our fundamentals are always correct, we're staying low, and we're moving our feet. If we do that, we'll win our side of the ball."
Last week, ASU's run defense was challenged to the outside frequently and didn't necessarily step up to meet the challenge. This week, it knows that it will face the running game again, except that it likely will be right up the gut opposed to the edge.
"Very good football team," Shipp said. "First thing you have to stop the run against Stanford. They are going to try to run the ball right at you and control the clock. You have to stop the run and put them in passing situations, then do well with our pass rush and put pressure on the quarterback. But the main thing with Stanford is stopping the run."
If the running game is firing on all cylinders for Stanford, chances are that its passing game will also go well, as it builds its passing game around being able to run the ball and then be able to get clean, quick and efficient throws down the field via the play action.
"They bring some of the same challenges that Wisconsin," Conway said. "They like to run power ball but I think it's going to be a little different and more difficult in the fact that most of their passes are play action. It's all the same though in the end. If you read your keys and get off on the ball you're going to make plays regardless of what they do."
On top of everything else, Stanford also brings a read option capability the Sun Devils have yet to see this year. Coaches and players agree that limiting the Cardinal offense starts with being assignment sound as a requirement.
"We're playing it the same way we always have," Conway said. "What you have to do is stick with your assignment. You have your read, your key and doing your job. That's actually something we've worked on a lot and especially [Thursday] which is the zone read. We to make sure we know that the running back can run it but the quarterback can as well, so we have to be able to stop both of the threats."
Redshirt likely for Cox
Though he was called one of the best 11-to-13 defensive talents on the roster by Graham early in ASU's fall camp, freshman Devil backer Chans Cox may end up redshirting.
The adjustment to playing with his hand down for the first time in his career has been substantial, and then there's the fact that Cox is behind one of ASU's best players on the depth chart.
"Just being behind (junior Devil backer) Carl (Bradford), you know," Cox said. "They really just want to save my season because I wouldn't get that many reps and they don't want that. They want to save me so if Carl were to ever get hurt or be put in a position where he couldn't play that's when they would use me so that's kind of what we're looking at right now. Then after the season if I don't [play], then I'll use my redshirt."
Cox didn't practice and was in a green jersey Thursday after suffering an apparent arm injury a day earlier in practice. He wore no brace or other visible support, however.
During the punting period, true freshman Matt Haack took first team reps over walk on junior Dom Vizzare.
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