For now, it looks like all that preseason hype about the Arizona State front seven wasn't without merit.
Through five games, ASU's run defense (49.6 yards per game) is the second-best in the country, trailing only No. 3 Texas (46.2 ypg). Not to mention last week's 12-sack performance at Washington State.
"We just tried to stay relentless," sophomore defensive end James Brooks said of the contest. "It was a great momentum builder … We feel like we can come out here and pretty much control the game on defense."
But things get a lot tougher from here on out, starting with Saturday's matchup against Washington and its junior quarterback Jake Locker.
"He's different," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said of Locker. "He's like [Florida quarterback Tim] Tebow. Those two I put in the same category as far as tackling them. And Locker might be faster."
Erickson said it doesn't look like UW is calling as many direct running plays for Locker this season compared to the past couple of years. Instead of running frequent quarterback draws, Erickson said Locker is running the read-option more and moving out of the pocket on bootlegs under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.
The Sun Devils are yet to face a dual-threat quarterback this season, but will face one of the nation's best on Saturday.
Erickson employed scout-team running back Jamal Miles as the quarterback for some snaps Tuesday, in an effort to mimic Locker's running ability.
"We're trying to come as close as we can to be like Locker," Erickson said. "But that's one thing that will never happen."
According to Brooks, it will be crucial for ASU to stay disciplined and plug up any running lanes Locker might try to exploit. Brooks said his style of play won't be changed much on Saturday, as he said he likes to bull rush, but said Locker's running ability may keep senior weakside end Dexter Davis more honest.
After sitting out the first three games due to suspension, Brooks said he finally feels like he's in mid-season form.
"I don't want to make any excuses, but the first week I was kind of tentative, kind of getting the speed back," he said. "Last week I came out there and felt better conditioned just getting after the quarterback. Whenever you make plays, it's fun out there. You start going a little bit faster with a smile on your face. It was a better game for me."
ASU's front four has more than just Locker to worry about on Saturday, as redshirt freshman Chris Polk has emerged as a legit Pac-10 tailback. Polk is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and 81 yards per game.
As for the long-term future of the d-line, the forecast looks very promising.
Aside from departing senior Dexter Davis, the entire unit expected back next season. Davis will likely be replaced by junior Dean DeLeone or anticipated incoming junior-college transfer Bruce Irvin.
Freshmen William Sutton and Corey Adams are playing major roles in reserve at defensive tackle and either could rise to the top of the depth chart next season even without either starter departing.
"They're playing good for freshmen," Erickson said of Sutton and Adams. "They're not dominating guys, by any means, but they come in and play 20-25 snaps a game out of 60-65 and they play well. They hold their own, which is all you can ask."
Sutton said he's learned plenty in his few months since coming to Tempe, but more than anything, he's having fun. Whether it's in the film room, in the locker room, on the field or off the field, Sutton said the defensive linemen spend plenty of time together. And for all Sutton knows, Davis has always been a vocal leader.
"They say he was real quiet," Sutton said.
He also raved about the d-line's young core of talent, calling it "ridiculous." Between Sutton, Adams, Brooks and sophomore defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, Erickson has a very talented nucleus to build around over the next couple of seasons.
Junior kicker Thomas Weber (groin) was back in action Tuesday, kicking field goals in a t-shirt and shorts. He connected from as far as 37 yards out, but Erickson said he didn't know when Weber will be ready for a game. Weber hasn't played since the season opener on Sep. 5, when he went 5-of-6 against Idaho State.
Sophomore Garth Gerhart, who started at right tackle against WSU, was out of uniform and wearing a walking boot on his right foot. Erickson said he was holding out Gerhart (turf toe) as a precaution, but expects him to play against UW.
Sophomore guard Zach Schlink was in full uniform but didn't participate in any contact drills. Erickson said Schlink is doubtful for Saturday.