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Defensive line depth pays early dividends for ASU

by Mitchell Gladstone | September 7, 2022 at 3:04 a.m.
Footballs are shown before the start of a game in this Sept. 1, 2011, file photo. (AP/Andy King)

JONESBORO -- Nobody had to say the quiet part out loud last week when Kivon Bennett was listed as a defensive end on Arkansas State's initial depth chart.

Coach Butch Jones mentioned the need for more guys playing "winning football," but the message the Red Wolves sent was evident: ASU is still figuring things out on its defensive line.

"The formula for winning never changes -- it starts up front," Jones said. "You can never have enough competitive depth and you have to be able to rotate fresh and able bodies in there. And no matter who's in there, the play can never drop off."

Rotation was arguably the most critical issue last season. Bennett and Joe Ozougwu played more than 90% of ASU's defensive snaps on the edge, a possible reason why the defense struggled late in games.

Jones and his staff brought in two transfers with the idea of resolving that issue in 2022. Yet Blayne Toll played just six snaps during Saturday's 58-3 victory over Grambling State and Robert McWilliams did not appear.

When the Red Wolves' first-team defense was on the field, the only three players to take a snap at defensive end were Bennett, redshirt senior Thurman Geathers and redshirt freshman Dennard Flowers.

Maybe the most notable performance by an edge rusher came from freshman Keyron Crawford.

Not only did the Memphian lead ASU with five tackles -- on just 12 snaps, per Pro Football Focus -- but with three tackles for loss, Crawford became the only true freshman in the past 10 seasons with at least that many in a single game.

"Keyron is one of those individuals that ... we're going to continue to grow and develop," Jones said. "By Game 3, Game 4, Game 5, everyone's [going to be like], 'Well, where did he come from?' "

On the flip side, the Red Wolves do seem to have an established group at defensive tackle. T.W. Ayers started next to John Mincey on Saturday, with Vanderbilt transfer Terion Sugick and Tim Hardiman rotating in off the bench.

Before the first-teamers gave way to ASU's reserves, defensive coordinator Rob Harley cycled through all possible combinations of interior defensive linemen -- Mincey and Sugick were together on the second series, followed by Ayers and Sugick, Mincey and Hardiman, and Ayers and Hardiman.

Plus, sophomore Ethan Hassler -- who has worked as an outside linebacker and defensive end previously -- played in the middle when the Red Wolves went to odd-man fronts on third down.

The fact that Jones is comfortable rotating far more frequently than last season indicates a step forward.

"We've come a long way in a short amount of time," Ayers said of the defensive front. "We've got a ways to go still ... but we have some guys that are right there on the verge of being able to really help us and really contribute."

As is the case across the board, the challenge for ASU's defensive line will be that much steeper this week against No. 3 Ohio State. The Buckeyes' left and right tackles, Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones, were both recognized as preseason All-Americans.

If the Red Wolves are going to create any issues for Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, it'll be incumbent on ASU's defensive line to build on the havoc it wreaked against a much lesser opponent in Grambling State.

"It's one of the few times every year that you get a chance to see where you are compared to all these guys that you see on TV," Ayers said. "A lot of guys really look forward to ... [having] that opportunity to kind of put their name on the map."

Saturday’s game

Arkansas at No. 3 Ohio State

WHEN 11 a.m. Central

WHERE Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

RECORDS Arkansas State 1-0; Ohio State 1-0

TV Big Ten Network


Print Headline: DL depth pays early dividends for ASU


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