"It's all about hard work," said senior Clint Floyd after practice Wednesday on the effort of the Sun Devil defense this season. "Everybody's been just running to the ball and trying make plays and force turnovers and put our offense in the best position to score."
The Sun Devil defense, or "D-Side" as they like to call themselves at practice, have come alive as of late as they've now forced 10 interceptions on the season and have recorded seventeen sacks. It's an aggressive bunch of ball-hawkers and big hitters who, after having suffered through three consecutive lackluster seasons, have Arizona State currently sitting atop the Pac 12 South division.
"Overall, I think this year's squad is different than the past year's; we're just more hungry," commented Floyd. "Some of us have been here since 2008, or even 2007, and we haven't been to a bowl game since the 2007 season. We're all just out here working hard, as hard as we can, practicing everyday just like we're in a game, and that's been the big difference for us."
Aside from the recent surge in forced turnovers, another contributing factor in the defense's impressive 2011 campaign has been its effectiveness in 3rd down situations, where the team currently ranks third in the country, allowing their opponents to convert at a 25% clip.
"To us, third down, that's something we take real personal as a team," said Floyd. "We all just try to step up and get off the field. It's a pride thing. Coaches say 'hold your own,' so that's what we try to do."
What makes the effort by the defense so far this season even more impressive is the fact that they've continuously had to mix and match in order overcome injuries and other losses to the unit. But despite being down an all-conference cornerback and reigning conference freshman defensive POY, they've managed to stay on course.
"Oh yeah, everybody has been stepping up," remarked Floyd. "Our backups are even like our starters now. So now, if somebody goes down, we have somebody else who can come into the game and make big plays.
"Like I said, in practice we work hard and the backups show up in practice and are ready for the games, as you can see."
The Sun Devils' full defensive arsenal was on display last Saturday as they overwhelmed an inferior Utah squad on road, forcing five turnovers and turning a once competitive game into a laugher by the day's end. Floyd helped pace the defensive attack by intercepting a Jon Hays pass late in the third quarter, turning the momentum in the Sun Devils' favor as they pulled away.
"I thought the quarterback didn't see me because I was covering their tight end on the play," he said of his interception. "He kind of bodied me in the beginning, but I just tried to get off that and went for the ball."
The pick was Floyd's second of season, to go along with his 31 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. He's been pleasant surprise to the Sun Devil secondary, which at one point was considered a cause for concern, but has turned in an impressive first six games of the season as a unit.
"For me, I've just become more focused on what I need to do," said Floyd of his play so far this season. "I've been learning offenses better. I learned our own defense a lot more. I've been learning what everybody's assignments are on certain plays; knowing when and where I have my help and don't have help, and all that has helped me on the field."
Floyd credits a lot of his improvement to the tutelage to Craig Bray, who not only serves as the team's defensive coordinator, but also as the safeties coach.
"I'm not going to lie, he's tough on us, but that's what you want as a player," said Floyd with a grin. "You want your coach to be tough on you. He's just a great defensive coach, and a great coach overall too.
"He just always teaching us everything, as far as what the line is doing, what the linebackers are doing and where all our help is," he added. "He's always teaching about the whole defense overall and helps us study our position."
The Sun Devils and its defense now have their eyes set on this Saturday's primetime matchup with the ninth ranked Oregon Ducks. Floyd says last season's closely contested game in Tempe with Oregon has given the Devils a game plan to follow as they try to take down the high-powered Ducks.
"We're going to use our speed," he said. "We've got to be tough and fly to the ball. We're just going to try to hit those guys and force some turnovers like we've been doing."