Sutton matures into elite defender for Devils
DEC 28, 2012 10:56a ET
"I talked exactly about what he's accomplished," Graham said. "Not in the summer, but when I first got here and back in the spring. I kind of sat back in the spring and watched, tried to evaluate and assess kind of what we could do, and I told him I thought he had that potential to be an All-American, but it was going to take a lot of work."
As for Sutton, a shorter-than-average tackle with an imperfect past at ASU, it turns out he didn't have quite the foresight of his coach.
"It's crazy," Sutton said after being named the Pac 12's Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year. "I just wanted to, as a goal coming into the year, get as many wins as we can. That was the main goal."
Sutton and the Sun Devils face Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. ET.
Nobody outside the program saw this coming from Sutton either. He was expected to be a key contributor, but there was no preseason acclaim, no inkling that he would be spending December debating the merits of returning for his senior season or declaring for the NFL Draft. He was not named to a single preseason All-Pac-12 team, let alone preseason All-America. His name was nowhere to be found on Scout.com's preseason list of ther top 30 players in the conference.
Sutton's transformation into one of college football's elite defenders and a potential high-round draft pick didn't come without a few twists and plenty of doubters.
At Southern California high school football powerhouse Corona Centennial, Sutton brought the same passion to the field that ASU fans have gotten used to in Tempe. But as he did in college, Sutton developed slowly.
"As a sophomore, he didn't play much on varsity," Centennial coach Matt Logan said by phone. "Then his junior year he was pretty good, and his senior year he was just lights out and earned himself a scholarship."
The scholarship offers, however, were limited. Division I schools were hesitant due to Sutton's size, seeing the 6-foot-2, 275-pound tackle as too small to play in college football's top conferences. Logan says "a ton of schools passed up" on Sutton because of his height.
Arizona State, however, was not one of them. In fact, former defensive coordinator Craig Bray, who helped recruit Sutton, says the staff under Dennis Erickson hardly thought about it.
"As far as a defensive lineman, especially an interior one, I don’t think height is that big of a deal," Bray said in a phone interview. "That wasn't an issue to us. We just felt when we saw him that he had those attributes, as far as that quickness and explosiveness. It's always a crapshoot with recruiting anyway, but we felt really comfortable with Will."
Sutton eventually received offers from the likes of Washington, Nebraska and Boise State, but he passed those up to join a host of former Centennial teammates at ASU.
ASU's confidence in Sutton showed when he got the start in the first game of his college career. Sutton finished his freshman season with 17 tackles, three for loss, a sack and a forced fumble, and the future looked bright.
But only temporarily. He was ruled academically ineligible and missed the entire 2010 season. It was a big step backward for a player for whom ASU had high hopes.
"He had lots and lots of maturing to do," Bray said. "It was just discipline, taking care of business. He came out of a situation where academically and everything else he really didn't have to be accountable. Those are the things that kind of screwed him up his first couple years. He would have played a ton. We were counting on him as a starter the year he had to sit out."
The lost season was a wakeup call of sorts. If he wanted to continue playing football, he'd have to get it together. When Sutton returned in 2011, he made more strides, starting 12 of ASU's 13 games and finishing with 33 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks.
But still, Sutton appeared limited by his emotions, which routinely led to verbal spats with coaches and teammates in practice or Sutton sometimes removing himself from drills. It didn't help that Erickson's coaching style encouraged edgy, emotional play. Though Sutton's academics were in order, accountability was still an issue.
Ultimately, it took Erickson losing his job after five seasons for Sutton to take the biggest step in his transformation.
From day one of his tenure in Tempe, Graham preached discipline and accountability. His new policies on behavior scared a handful of players away and left some uncertain if they wanted to buy in.
Sutton, though, realized it was time to be a leader for a young defensive line corps and chose to buy in. The structure and accountability Graham brought appeared to be the last piece of the puzzle.
"I think Coach Graham coming in there and establishing discipline and the way you have to do things without a lot of exceptions has really helped Will a great deal," Bray said.
"When there's a way out, sometimes guys won't do everything that they can. And when it looks like there isn't a way out, I think they're going to do a lot more in regards to being accountable."
Teammates say they saw Sutton working harder than ever over the summer. Accordingly, they weren't particularly surprised by his dominance.
"A lot of people don't see how much he's worked," junior safety Alden Darby said. "Just seeing how hard he worked in the offseason and seeing him progress to what's going on now -- I saw it coming."
Sutton got off to a fast start, collecting 13 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, during ASU's 5-1 start. His next tackle for loss, which forced a key fumble, would come at a cost.
While tackling Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota on ASU's second defensive play of an Oct. 18 game, Sutton injured his knee and missed the rest of the contest, a 43-21 Oregon win.
"You’re not going to replace someone that's that good," Graham said after the game, visibly worried that Sutton's injury could be season-ending. "So much of what we had planned was around him, and you have to have a Plan B, and it took us well into the game to figure out what to do there."
It became remarkably clear just how important Sutton was to the ASU defense. Fortunately for ASU, Sutton's injury, a bone bruise, wasn't as severe as originally feared. He missed only one more game, though that proved costly, as ASU lost to UCLA 45-43 and fell out of Pac-12 South contention.
Sutton finished out the regular season strong, ending with 20 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. His 1.82 tackles for loss led the Pac-12 and ranked third in the nation, and his 0.92 sacks per game were third best in conference and 12th the nation. It was enough to earn him All-America honors from 10 outlets and the Pac-12's top defensive award.
"I would have been surprised if he didn't get it," senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. "I would've had to tweet something, and it wouldn't have been a nice one."
After playing through a sprained toe in ASU's regular season finale against Arizona, a 41-34 win, Sutton heard chants of "one more year" from Sun Devil fans in Tucson. Asked then if he would return for his senior season, Sutton said only that he would decide after ASU's bowl game.
Sutton, soft-spoken and reluctant to give interviews, typically deflects credit for his big year to teammates and coaches. Prime among those he credits is co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, whose greatest work might have been in keeping Sutton motivated.
"He brings the best out of you every day," Sutton said. "He doesn't let you have an off day.And he repeats himself more than anybody I've ever heard in my life. It gets to a point to where it's just like 'OK, I'm going to do it so I don’t have to hear him repeat himself.'
"You can't tune him out. He's so passionate for the game."
As much as Sutton grew and learned this season, though, he had probably as much impact on teammates, who saw Sutton as a leader of the defense as well as a teacher.
"Will knows all the tricks, he's been around the block a few times," freshman nose tackle Jaxon Hood said. "Will was a great help and I'll love him forever for that."
Naturally, teammates are hoping Sutton decides to stick with the Sun Devils for one more season. Hood said he has bugged Sutton about it all season when the pair roomed together on the road and now chants -- to Sutton's dismay -- "one more year" each time Sutton enters a room.
Graham recently told reporters he believes Sutton will return, fulfilling his desire to complete his degree while raising his draft stock even more.
"I really believe we've just scratched the surface of what he can do," Graham said. "As much improvement as he made this year, I think he could make even that much improvement next year."
Graham said he has encouraged Sutton to make the best decision for himself and his family but admits he's biased in wanting Sutton back. He's not alone.
"I'm always of the standpoint that you should finish your degree, go get what you came for," Logan said, adding that he hadn't spoken to Sutton about the decision. "I understand the other aspects of it, but I hope he stays and plays. You only get to play college football once.
"If he had that much development between his sophomore and junior years, why can't he have the same development between his junior and senior year and come back that much better?"
Sutton filed paperwork with the NFL for a draft evaluation, and early analyses project him to be taken as high as the second or third round. He will have one more opportunity to display his abilities before making a call sometime after the Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, weighing the merits of leading the Sun Devils to greater heights agains the risks of another injury that could have major financial implications.
"He'll be the best defensive player in the Pac-12 coming into the season if he comes back," Magee said. "It would be absolutely huge if he did. Everyone in Sun Devil nation is praying he comes back.
"But whatever happens, he's going to be a beast here next year or a beast in the NFL. Either way it's win-win."