TEMPE, Ariz. – Will Sutton has never been comfortable being a vocal leader, preferring to let his actions pave the way.
As one of college football's best defensive linemen, it was a method that always seemed to work.
That changed around the midpoint of Sutton's senior season.
Seeing their goals within reach for the 11th-ranked Sun Devils, namely the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl, Sutton began to assert himself in the huddle, on the sideline and in the locker room, adding some verbal heft to his on-the-field production.
"He's the best defensive player I've ever coached, hands down," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "And over the past three weeks, he's become one of the best leaders I've ever been around and he surprised me by that."
Sutton has been one of the nation's most disruptive defensive players over the past two seasons, an almost unblockable combination of power and quickness at defensive tackle.
He was a consensus All-American and the Pac-12 defensive player of the year as a junior after getting 13 sacks and 10.5 more tackles for loss despite missing most of two games with a knee injury. He had 63 total tackles and was second nationally with 1.92 tackles for loss per game.
Sutton bulked up more than 30 pounds to 305 this season, a move that some questioned after he didn't put up the same kind of prodigious sack numbers early in the year. That turned out to have more to do with a schedule front-loaded with power-running teams than any slowdown by Sutton, who seemed to get better as the season went along despite facing nearly constant double teams.
Stopping Sutton was the focal point for every opposing offensive coordinator during the season and he still managed to jam a stick in the spokes of what they were trying to do, finishing with 10.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks, and one big, game-sealing interception in a tight road win over Utah.
He became the second player in Pac-10/12 history to repeat as defensive player of the year, joining Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91), and is already being compared to some of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
"He's got John Randle-type explosiveness," UCLA coach Jim Mora said before the Bruins lost to Sutton and the Sun Devils two weeks ago. "He's got Warren Sapp-type pass-rush ability. He's absolutely for sure a first-round pick. He might be a top-five, top-10 pick."
Sutton has enhanced his reputation by becoming the look-and-listen-to-me leader of Arizona State's defense.
Last season and early in this one, Graham and his defensive coaches prodded him to become a more vocal leader. A humble person who didn't feel comfortable confronting his teammates, Sutton couldn't make himself slide into the role, taking the lead-by-example route instead.
That changed last month, when the Sun Devils bounced back from a couple of tough losses and put their goals within reach with a string of wins.
Sutton started to speak out, exhorting his teammates in the huddle and on the sideline during games, becoming the voice of inspiration in the locker room.
The Sun Devils responded well to their massive teammate breaking out of his shell, playing their best down the stretch and winning seven straight games — the program's longest winning streak since opening the 2007 season with eight consecutive wins — to earn a spot in Saturday's Pac-12 Championship game against No. 7 Stanford. Win that and Arizona State will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.
"I just had to get comfortable with it," Sutton said. "I'm not the type of person to go out there and jump in people's faces, but when I could see that we could accomplish our goals, I knew I needed to step up and do that."
And it's not just with his teammates.
Sutton has taken a bit of the leadership reins from his coaches, too.
In a tight game against UCLA, Arizona State had a hard time containing the Bruins as they raced back from a huge halftime deficit. Recognizing what UCLA was doing, Sutton told the coaching staff to change the defensive front. They did and the Sun Devils won the game, earning a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
Last week, Arizona State faced Arizona, needing to beat their biggest rivals to host the Pac-12 championship game instead of having to play at Stanford, where they were blown out earlier this season.
The Sun Devils blew out the Wildcats and one big key was stopping them three times on fourth down, including once in the first quarter as Arizona State raced out to a 27-point lead.
Sutton called the play on two of the three fourth-down stops.
"He said, 'Hey we ought to run this based on the way they're blocking it,'" Graham said. "So I guess I'm going to start having him call the defenses."
Might as well. After becoming more vocal, Sutton is doing just about everything else.