With a tip of the cap to the NFL's Bill Barnwell, who assembled the team triplet rankings for pro football, we decided to do the same with the Pac-12. Here are the parameters: We’ve selected a trio of skill defensive players from each team in the conference.
The rules: Each player comes from a different position group, so the defensive version of this series features a player from the defensive line, linebacker group and secondary. We then ranked each program’s troika against the others in the Pac-12, and we’ll be unveiling and writing about each in reverse countdown order. We continue to No. 8 with the Arizona State Sun Devils.
DL JoJo Wicker
This is really an either/or situation between Tashon Smallwood and Wicker. Smallwood is more established, having tallied 43 stops with 8.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks last year. He will be Todd Graham’s defensive rep at the Pac-12 media days next month and widely considered a team leader. But Wicker might have the higher ceiling. He exploded on the scene as a true freshman with four sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and 21 stops. Word is he’s filled out his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame and the coaching staff is thinking he’s got all-conference potential.
LB Salamo Fiso
The Sam linebacker (not to be confused with fellow LB Christian Sam) is coming off an outstanding year where he finished 12th nationally with an average of six solo tackles per game. His 99 stops were a team high (Sam finished with 98) and he was second with 20 tackles for a loss. With 197 tackles between them from last season, Fiso and Sam make up the top returning linebacker duo in the conference. Fiso works very well sideline to sideline, but can also make plays in coverage, having picked off one ball last season with a pair of pass breakups.
DB Kareem Orr
As a true freshman, Orr led the Pac-12 with six interceptions last season, returning one of them for a touchdown against Arizona and earning consensus freshman All-America honors along the way. His six picks were an Arizona State record. There was some thought to putting safety Viliami “Laiu” Moeakiola in this space. The consensus is that ASU’s defense is much better with Moeakiola on the field. But since he’s transitioning from linebacker to safety, we’ll give it to the guy who has the bona fide stats.
By now we all know what Arizona State’s defense is about -- playing offense. The pressure-happy scheme, which annually involves more blitzing than any other Power 5 program, has shown both the risks and the rewards of such an aggressive undertaking. The reward? The Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in sacks with 46 and were tied for third nationally. The risk? ASU was burned one too many times, giving up 88 plays of 20-plus yards. That was the worst among all Power 5 schools and second-worst nationally only to Tulsa’s 89. No doubt, there were leaks last year. The Sun Devils gave up 33.5 points per game, the highest average yielded in Todd Graham’s four years at the helm. (Their best was his first year, when they allowed 24.3 points per game and it’s gone up incrementally each season.) Graham said he has no plans to scale back the pressure. This is a very talented defense with upper-echelon potential, especially along the defensive line. The question for 2016 is whether they can downplay those risks while still maximizing the rewards.