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November 29, 2013

Sutton leaves mark on Sun Devil football

In January, senior defensive tackle Will Sutton had one decision to make.

To stay or to leave. Either way, he would be pursuing a dream.

He could choose to try to lead Arizona State to the Pac-12 Championship game alongside the teammates he forced permanent bonds with over a four year period, or he could take his chances in the NFL Draft.

He could leave it all for the bright stadium lights in the NFL and the huge paycheck or he could stay with the school that captured his attention with not only its football program, but with its academics as well.

Or, there was another option. Delay one dream to achieve another, and get his degree in the process. After all, that's what led him to choose ASU in the first place.

"The thing that won me and my parents over about ASU was how they really came at me with the academics," Sutton said at the time of his commitment on Dec. 14, 2008. "The football part will fall in but I was blown away by the academics. I know they are preparing the players there to be well-rounded and do good things on and off the field."

Sutton, 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds at the time, arrived at ASU from Centennial High School, in Corona, Calif., the same school that produced Sun Devils Ryan Bass, Jarrid Bryant, Vontaze Burfict, Michael Eubank Shelly Lyons, Brandon Magee.

Bass, Lyons and Magee, a year ahead of Sutton and Burfict, all earned playing time their freshman year and Sutton, the No. 44 ranked defensive tackle prospect in the nation and No. 43 overall prospect in California, would go on to do the same.

Still only 17 years old, Sutton started the first game of his career in the 2009 season at defensive tackle on Sept. 5 against Idaho State. In that game, Sutton had four tackles to help the ASU defense shut down Idaho State's running game.

Even in just the starting moments of his monstrous career, Sutton said he had been learning a lot, but most importantly he was having fun.

His dad, former NFL cornerback Mickey Sutton, attributed his son's almost prodigious play to the athleticism he displayed when he was growing up.

"The first thing is, he didn't really want to play football early on," Mickey Sutton said. "He just started playing right when he got to seventh grade. So when he did while playing in seventh grade, you could see he loved it. He was an athlete growing up, he was a little bigger, a bigger kid. He's always been a pretty good athlete. He played baseball, he played soccer, he played basketball, he was a very good athlete.

"His first year was a learning experience on a really good team, a Pop Warner team. He did a really good job for a first year player. I think he got a little more confident. The next year he played a little bit better. He really hit his stride his first year in high school. I think the two years in Pop Warner really gave him some confidence, he stated growing a little bit more, and going into ninth grade, he asked me what position he should play and I said 'What position have you been doing?' and he said 'Defensive line' and I said 'Okay, you're going to play defensive line.'"

Sutton's strong play contributed to a 2008 state title for Centennial and a fair amount of recruiting attention, though not as much as his college player would suggest he should have received.

After playing in all 12 games as a true freshman at ASU, including two starts -- rare for linemen -- the future looked very bright. But then, a major setback struck.

Although Sutton was impressed by ASU's academics as a recruit, his attention to the books wasn't on par with his play as a freshman, and he was ruled academically ineligible for the 2010 season.

Players are required to have completed 24 units in order to participate in the fall semester of their second academic year, but Sutton fell short and the NCAA waiver petitions were not successful.

Then-ASU head coach Dennis Erickson said at the time that Sutton's ineligibility definitely hurt their depth at defensive tackle, but all the team could do was worry about the players that playing, not the ones that weren't.

Though obviously a disappointment for Sutton, he continued to grind and while on the scout team the following season earned Hard Hat player recognition for his work in ASU's offseason strength and conditioning program.

"It was hard because I did all that hard work but they shot me down," Sutton said of his summer efforts to remain eligible.

But Mickey Sutton saw his son's year of ineligibility as one of the most important times of his young son's career.

"As you get older you start maturing and the year he had to sit out I think he learned a lot from that year," Mickey Sutton said. "He was young. He started college at 17 and it was an adjustment. He went through that which was a great learning experience, it doesn't sound that way at the time, but it was a good learning experience. I think looking back on it, having time to sit out that year helped him when he was young."

The year counted as a redshirt season for Sutton, who was then eligible to play as a sophomore in 2011.

"I just had to go out there and make my teammates better," Sutton said during spring practices in 2011. "It was for a good cause. I had to go out there and work real hard, give the offensive linemen a good look and prepare them for Saturdays."

One of the players joining Sutton in 2010 on the scout team was current-senior defensive end Gannon Conway, who came into the ASU football program that year and also redshirted as a member of the scout team.

"I love Will, I've known him ever since I've got here," Conway said. "He's been a very consistent player and great teammate."

Conway remembered a particular moment during the 2010 season when Sutton stood out to him the most and when he knew Sutton would go on to be a great football player.

"When he redshirted, I also redshirted that year and we were both on the scout team," Conway said. "I remember just...there were sometimes when Will would get off on the ball and just destroy our starting offense and he'd be screaming. He would be screaming, 'C'mon guys lets get going!" I just remember that the people on the offensive line, they'd be upset about it, because it's a scout team player. But, it's Will Sutton. He used to kill it on the scout team some days."

After not being able to take the field for a year, Sutton returned in 2011 and started all 13 games, becoming a key member of the defense. He tallied 33 tackles, five and a half tackles for loss and two and a half sacks on the season.

Still, nobody could have guessed what would have come next.

In 2012, Sutton was named consensus first-team All-American, Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Defensive MVP and he led the team with 23.5 tackles for loss and to 13 sacks, among the national leaders in both categories.

After the hiring of current ASU head coach Todd Graham following the 2011 season, Sutton exploded onto the radar of the college football world as he and his defensive teammates put up impressive numbers.

With any change, specifically a coaching change, comes good and bad, but Mickey Sutton saw the hiring of Graham as a huge help for Sutton and the ASU defense.

"I think it was the scheme more than anything that coach Graham brought it," the elder Sutton said. "He (Graham) really helped him and utilized his talents. But as far as the coaching change, I've always told him and his mom has always talked to him about you know, you work hard no matter who the coach is. There's a way you need to do things and in order to win football games you have to be disciplined. You talk about Alabama, you talk about the Patriots, or you talk about the local high school team, those are the things that go hand in hand with winning at any level."

Alongside Sutton during the 2012 season was then-true freshman defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, who started 12 games and earned freshman All-American honors.

"You know Will and me, we're pretty cool," Hood said. "I'm gonna miss him next year.

"He (Sutton) leads by example and goes out there and plays with passion and just plays his butt off. That's what you want your whole defense to do so everyone just follows him."

Hood remembers the specific moment when Sutton impressed him most during his freshman year. It was when ASU was playing Arizona in the Duel of the Desert in Tucson late in the third quarter, with ASU down 24-17.

The Wildcats drove down the field and were in position to make it a two-touchdown game, but after reaching the red zone, Sutton had a huge momentum swing tackle for loss on Arizona's then-junior running back Daniel Jenkins.

After an incompletion on third down, Arizona made a field goal to put the Wildcats up 27-17, but ASU had made a good stop. A 10 point deficit was easier to overcome than being down two touchdowns.

"We were so dead tired and we were in the red zone and I looked to my left and I had no idea how Will had that goal-line stand because we couldn't even breathe," Hood said. "After that little series, that's when I was like Will is like...he's…Will Sutton."

To Hood, Sutton and the whole defensive line have become a family, a brotherhood and a support group.

"The D-linemen are just characters," Hood said. "If you came into our meeting room where we just fool around you would understand. I can't explain it with words, just the biggest character group; always is on every team.

"We're all just a group of brothers together. We're thick as thieves."

When the 2012 season was over, it was time for Sutton to make that potential life-altering decision. He had done so well the past year. Was there anything left to do in college?

Almost everyone thought he would leave. He had the talent, his Draft stock was solid, he'd just come off best season at ASU to date, as good as one could go, probably.

What else could he possibly do at ASU that he couldn't do in the NFL?

Smell the roses in Pasadena, Calif., and play in the Rose Bowl.

On Jan. 8, 2013, Sutton held a press conference and announced his decision to stay at ASU for one more year to continue the legacy he was already building.

"I'm going to do some great things," Sutton said during the press conference. "We're going to do some great things. … Getting more wins is the main thing. Just like this year, time will tell, and if I make as many plays as I did, then good things will happen. But the main objective is just to win."

Sutton wasn't alone in his belief in the promise of ASU's team in 2013.

"He has some great players around him," Graham said at the press conference. "He believes we can be Pac-12 champions next year and compete to win every game we're in. … We have some unfinished business. I'm proud of him, because I do feel that the best thing for him was to come back.

"The easy thing to do was to come out. He chose his team and his family, and their wanting him to finish his education. That's a great story because a lot of people don't make that decision."

During the press conference, patiently waiting in the back of the room was a few of Sutton's teammates. All they could do was wait and see what their defensive leader was going to decide.

When Sutton finally announced his decision to stay, Devil backer Carl Bradford, who himself had 20-plus tackles for loss and 10-plus sacks in 2012, couldn't have been more excited for the season ahead.

"I'm happy, the dynamic duo is back," Bradford said after the press conference. "It's going to be a wreck next year with us two."

And just like that, Sutton, Graham, and ASU had the Rose Bowl on their minds.

During spring practices in preparation for the 2013 season, Sutton was only the second player in the Graham era to be given the honor of wearing the Pat Tillman practice jersey.

"I didn't really know anything about [Tillman] until I got out here and then just how big of an idol he is out here," Sutton said after earning the Tillman jersey. "To people who knew Pat Tillman and what he stood for and everything, and hearing people talk about him, because he's somebody who did a lot to work hard for this university and our country, so it means a lot."

Sutton also has had the challenge of working with his fourth defensive line coach, new addition Jackie Shipp, since joining the program.

"It's been a hard [transition]," Sutton said at the beginning of the season. "The style is different. This is my fourth d-line coach since I've been here so learning new techniques and new styles every time, it's difficult at first but you get to know him and it gets easier. I just don't like the down ups when I mess up. I didn't have any today.

"The bar has been a lot higher than what it was last year. That's not just for me, that is for everybody. It just so happens that mine has to be higher than everybody. I accept the challenge. I'm not scared."

Throughout the season, Sutton has been a focal point of many offensive gameplans. More times than not, teams have schemed for him and because of this, he has had to play unselfish football and even take a step back statistically.

"I think he understood what was going to happen this year," Mickey Sutton said. "There was going to be a lot more double teams, offensives are paying a lot more attention him, and hopefully he can do his part, and then hopefully other guys on the defensive line will get opportunities to make plays.

"He get's a little frustrated with the cut blocks and the holds but what I always tell him is my experience in NFL, 'Hey, that's what happens.' They're not just going to let you do what you're going to do. They're doing all they can to stop you and I always tell him, 'You know they heard your name all week in the media, the last thing they want to do is hear your name again so they're looking forward to the opportunity.'"

In addition to the countless hours of work Sutton puts in on the field, he knows the importance of bonding with his the rest of the defensive line and building up that connection that matters on game day, and will last a lifetime.

"We all love each other," Conway said. "We're all comfortable with each other, we really understand each other's weaknesses and strengths and it's really helped us as far as having success as a defense."

There's no real way to describe Sutton's skills and leadership on and off the field, but Conway took a crack at it after a recent practice.

"He's a passionate player and when he wants to get off on the ball he can," Conway said. "He can make some things happen and he really hypes up everybody and makes sure that we're really on point, every single player on defense.

"Will Sutton is one of the greatest assets we have."

This season, Graham wanted his team to be better against the run, so Sutton gained 15 pounds and made a commitment to being a more versatile player. Often, he took on double teams and blew up the line of scrimmage instead of pursing the quarterback.

Sutton's numbers decreased as a result of that and the increased attention paid him, to 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks through 11 games, but the defense became more stout against the run, better overall. The great asset achieved fewer accolades so his team could get more.

Graham said in the offseason he wanted Sutton to take on more of a leadership role. To that point, he wasn't named a full-season captain -- senior safety Alden Darby and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly were the only two bestowed with the honor -- following the team's training camp.

But Sutton evolved dramatically in that regard as well, become a huge mentor figure for junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and others.

"He has just taught me to be more focused and he tells me what to do during certain plays," Hardison said. "Now, I don't depend on him, but I still look to him for advice and tips."

Hardison still finds ways to joke around with Sutton, going along with the close bond the defensive lineman have, calling him a child at times in a recent conversation with a reporter.

Maybe a child at heart, Sutton is nothing like a child when leads the defensive line onto the field. The defensive line has such a strong bond that wouldn't seem complete with Sutton heading the charge.

"Camaraderie is always important, not only for the front seven, but the whole defense as unit," Hood said. "It's always about communication and playing for the guy next to you.

"Our motto is yesterday wasn't good enough."

In a season full of heart-stopping moments, the Sun Devils have clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game. All that's left now in the regular season is Senior Night on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium against Arizona, where Sutton will have the chance leave his mark in what could net another home game a week later against Stanford in a battle for the roses.

"We're very proud of him," Mickey Sutton said of his family. "We're very excited. Senior day, it's probably going to be a little sad. Going to games, coming over to Arizona for the last five years has been a big part of our life. We're going to have a lot of emotions going, crying, going oh man, this could be Will's last…hopefully we can get one more game at Sun Devil Stadium. But yeah it's been a huge part of our lives also."

Coming to ASU as a young 17-year-old boy, Sutton has grown into a man and with all the challenges he's faced, the decisions he's made, the leap of faith he took playing one more year as a Sun Devil has finally prevailed.

"He as a leader, he has grown leaps and bounds," Graham said of his increasingly vocal star, who now addresses the team weekly at halftime. "He's the best defensive lineman that I've ever coached, hands down and in the last three weeks he's developed into one of the best leaders that I've ever coached and has surprised me by that."

After the UCLA game last weekend, even UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr. had nothing but good things to say about Sutton.

"I want to give them credit. Their defensive front is special," Mora Jr. said. "Will Sutton is a big-time player. It's not often after the game I'll seek someone out, but [Kelly] and Will Sutton, I wanted to shake their hands. I have a lot of respect for those guys."

All the respect Sutton has gained over the years can be attributed to Sutton's focus, his determination, his willingness to put himself on the line for the team, play unselfishly, and help his teammates become better players in order to create the best possible defensive line.

"He wasn't really worried about stats, or anything like that," Mickey Sutton said. "He was just worried about going out there and doing a good job and helping the team win."

Sutton has done more than help ASU win this season. He has brought that spark, that energy and emotion that ASU needed to get it done this year and whether the Territorial Cup is Sutton's last game at Sun Devil Stadium, one thing is for certain.

Life is all about chances and because Sutton took a chance and decided to stay in the desert, ASU is now champions of the Pac-12 South, looking to become Pac-12 champions and head to the Rose Bowl.

Sutton's dreams remain intact, just more within reach than ever.


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