Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez kept his answers to questions pertaining to in-state rival Arizona State to one word. So, when one reporter asked Rodriguez about the Sun Devils’ preseason All-American tackle, his answer was brief — but accurate.
“Awesome,” Rodriguez said.
Ok, so Rodriguez wasn’t entirely tight-lipped about Sutton. He did offer further elaboration.
“I wish he’d left [for the NFL],” he joked.
There are probably 11 coaches in the Pac-12 who also lament Sutton holding off on the NFL draft for a year, for the sake of their own backfields.
The Corona (Calif.) Centennial product said he tested the waters.
“It was a tough decision, [like the] recruiting [process] all over again,” Sutton said.
Surprisingly, Sutton said scouts had him projected as a mid-to-late round selection, despite flourishing as one of the game’s premier interior lineman.
But after both he and his Sun Devil teammates finished 2012 strong, there is also a sense of unfinished business lingering in the locker room.
“The deciding factor was my grade from the NFL committee and also what I needed to get done here at ASU,” he said. “We want to accomplish something that hasn’t been done here before and I want to be part of that.”
The uncharted territory to which Sutton refers is a national championship. Seventeen years ago, the Sun Devils played Ohio State in the Rose Bowl for a shot to win at least a share of the crown, but came just short.
By delaying his professional future, Sutton gets to play a key role in ASU’s pursuit of history. He will once again anchor one of the most aggressive pass rush defense in college football, this year with more muscle on his 6-foot-1, nearly 300-pound frame.
The Sun Devils ranked second in the nation in sacks per game a season ago, accruing four an outing. Only Stanford and Tulsa registered more than ASU’s 52 total.
Sutton accounted for 13 of them. He also recorded 23.5 tackles for loss; only Georgia’s Jarvis Jones had more.
As a result, his star is rapidly rising. Sutton appears on virtually every preseason All-America team, and is on the watch lists for numerous defensive player of the year awards.
All his new-found notoriety could be distracting, but the infrastructure surrounding Sutton has helped him deal with the attention.
“[Associate Athletic Director, Media Relations] Mark [Brand] and [staff] have done a great job growing him in how to deal with the media,” head coach Todd Graham said. “He’s handled it well and grown and matured over the summer. He’s handled it like a champ.”
Graham arrived at ASU in December 2011, and at his first Pac-12 media day, emphasized the need for ASU to improve both its on-and-off-field. The Sun Devils embraced his philosophy, going from being the most penalized team in 2011, to one of the nation’s least flagged in 2012.
The “core values” that Graham touts are especially evident in Sutton’s attitude, the head coach said.
Sutton and the ASU defense will get ample opportunity to garner more national attention, thanks to a brutal stretch of games in the season’s first half.
The Sun Devils face Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks.
“We approach it as a great opportunity: Big Ten champion, Pac-12 champion, team that played for the national championship,” Graham said. “That’s why you coach. There’s no team in the country that has a four-game stretch like that.”
ASU gets only a game with FCS Sacramento State to adjust before that stretch, and even that is no walk-in-the-park. The Hornets have beaten Pac-12 opponents each of the last two seasons.
And while the Sutton-led front seven is one of the most fearsome in the nation — also featuring linebacker Carl Bradford, who Graham says can be “one of the best in the nation” — the secondary is starting many new faces.
ASU’s new defensive backs have a steep learning curve. Fortunately, Graham has a surefire solution to assist in their maturation.
“What makes the secondary strong is when you’re knocking the quarterback on his can,” Graham said.
Rest assured, Will Sutton will be doing plenty of that.