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ASU football defense breakdown: Picking up the pieces

One of the most intimidating defenses in the PAC-12 last year, the Sun Devils look to not rebuild, but reload to support a stout offense attack that could be at the top of the conference this season. With only four returning starters and little proven talent on the defensive side of the ball, Coach Todd Graham has his work cut out for him.

Coach Todd Graham with Senior #3 Demarious Randall
Coach Todd Graham with Senior #3 Demarious Randall
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

For a look back at the offensive preview of ASU, go here!

From the cornerstone to the question mark, a lot has changed in just a year for Coach Graham's defense. Losing seven starters, including stars like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, is a blow most SEC teams would struggle to handle. Yet with CTG's deep obsession interest in his defensive units and bringing in close friend Keith Patterson as co-defensive coordinator, the Sun Devils are looking to quickly reconstruct a stellar defense to pair with their high flying offense. Offense might fill stadiums, but defense wins championships. Without a quick turnaround on the defensive front, ASU's hopes of winning a conference title in Levi's Stadium may already be sunk. Here's the key defensive players who will dictate if our season ends at the top or on the outside, looking in.

Field Safety: Damarious Randall #3
5'11" 189 lbs, Redshirt Senior

From relatively unknown to taking the field safety spot by storm, Damarious Randall BURST onto the Tempe football scene last year. In his first start as a Sun Devil, he racked up a game high 17 tackles... and did I mention that was on national television against a Notre Dame team one year removed from the BCS Championship game? (As a Roman Catholic  Irish boy from Massachusetts, dominating Notre Dame will never not impress me.) Of the defensive players returning, he tied with Salamo Fiso for most tackles in 2013... which Randall did in two less games. Add three picks on the stat sheet and ASU has an elite safety on their hands. Fiso (stay tuned for him) may have an extra year repertoire with his teammates, but with a ball-hawking, play-making talent who seems to step up when the lights get brighter, Randall seems to be the next in line to lead the Sun Devil defense.

Sam Linebacker: Salamo Fiso #58
6'0" 236 lbs, Redshirt Sophmore

(Don't ask me to pronounce that name, because I definitely can't.) The only other proven talent, Salamo Fiso will have to anchor the defense as the strong side backer. A ten game starter last season and tied with Randall for lead returning tackler, Salamo has spent the last two years with big Will Sutton and Bradford, obviously picking up some of their quarterback hunting talents, racking up three sacks in 2013, and hopefully their vocal tendencies. The young linebacker does have a year on Randall in terms of familiarity with CTG and could be his hand picked defensive captain. No matter who becomes captain, both Randall and Fiso will have to grow up fast to lead an inexperienced group into the future. Expect Fiso to be around the ball, just as much as (if not more than) Randall.

Will Linebacker: DJ Calhoun #4
6'0" 205 lbs, True Freshman

Has anyone in the PAC-12 had a better off-season than DJ numero dos? Bails early out of high school, commits to a rebuilding ASU defense, immediately shows he can compete, and is the even money favorite to start on the weakside come August 28th. With three years experience in CTG's system by both Fiso and Moeakiola, Todd Graham can risk starting a true freshman next to two backers he trusts. A wise, young player who has great football instincts and can absolutely unleash the hit stick, expect this kid to only get better with time. The high school All-American is the player to watch in Tempe this season.

Who else will be featured on the retooled ASU defense? I'm glad you asked...

#92 Jaxon Hood (Tiger) - Would have had his own little feature if he a. had started participating in fall camp before yesterday and b. was more productive last season. Jaxon takes over Will Sutton's lineman spot and has a similar scouting report. Will's old role suits Hood better than his run clogging spot last year; expect him to get after the QB much more this time around.

#98 Mo Latu (Nose) - 398 lbs. Yup, that is a lot of hog molly. The hole clogging role didn't fit Jaxon, but Mo will have to be accounted for in the running game. He won't pad the stat sheet, but the double teams he draws will help the rest of the front seven rack up tackles.

#12 De'Marieya Nelson (Devil/TE/FB) - Do not adjust your screen. This is the same De'Marieya Nelson who is on the Mackey Award watch list. He's tried playing Devilbacker in camp, in response to no potential linebackers separating themselves from the pack. While I LOVE two-way players, Nelson is way too valuable to the offense for CTG to let him play significant starting snaps on defense. If the need at Devilbacker is indeed this desperate, expect him to solely play there. Otherwise, he may take some snaps now and again, but expect another to start (my money's on Chans Cox).

#17 Lloyd Carrington (FC) - While the battle rages as to who will start at boundary corner across from him, Lloyd Carrington has quietly locked down his starting spot. With Robert Nelson Jr & Osahon Irabor gone, Lloyd will be the Devil's rock at CB this year. The question is, is he up to the task?

#28 Villami Moeakiola (SPUR) - For those unfamiliar with football position names outside of Madden, the Spurbacker spot is usually a combo linebacker/safety player, similar to Tampa 2 cover middle linebacker role. Villami predominantly played at safety last season and occasionally at Spur. If DJ Calhoun is to start however, Moeakiola must play like a seasoned veteran, not an adjusting tweener.

#1 Marcus Hardison (End) - Another wild card player on this Sun Devil team. Despite playing only sparingly in his first season with the Devils, ESPN ranked him the #5 JUCO prospect before signing with ASU. A 6'5" 298 pound end that can run a 4.7 40 time; I can't WAIT to see him showcase that physical talent this season.

Current position battles with their contenders and my pick to win:

Devilbacker: De'Marieya Nelson, Chans Cox, Eriquel Florence & Viliami Latu - Winner: Chans Cox

Boundary Safety: Marcus Ball, Jordan Simone, James Johnson - Winner: Jordan Simone

Boundary Corner: Solomon Means, William Earley, Marcus Melhof-Brown - Winner: Solomon Means