Patterson ‘pleasantly surprised’ with Defense

When Arizona State hired Keith Patterson to take over defensive coordinator duties in February, it came with a large challenge. The former West Virginia assistant coach was given the task of getting an inexperienced unit, one that he hadn’t worked with before, up to speed after losing nine defensive starters from the season prior.

After nearly a week of fall camp, Patterson is surprised by the product he has seen on the field. Surprised in a good way.

“I’m pleasantly surprised with where we are,” he said after the second of two practices on Wednesday. “When you lose that many starters, I’ll be honest with you; I’m very pleased to be at this point.”

That point isn’t where the team needs to be for their season opener against Weber State in three weeks, as Patterson admitted that there is still a lengthy to-do list for the defensive coaches before the season begins. However, the team is getting closer to finding its starting defensive lineup.

“We’re evaluating, making sure guys are in the right spot, but I think you want to get past probably two weeks into fall camp, and then you have to get into a game preparation mode,” Patterson. “You can’t be moving people around and expecting them to be ready to play.”

Still, with so many new faces on the defense, and so little experience, the best approach is likely to pull back the reins a bit, right? To dial down a defense that has been known for its attacking style under Todd Graham?

“You know, I don’t think so,” Patterson said. “We might be leaning more the other way if anything.”

One reason for the optimism has been the strong pass rushing abilities shown by redshirt senior De’Marieya Nelson. After contributing as a tight end and running back in 2013, he has spent fall practices with the defense working at the Devil-backer position.

“That void of losing Carl [Bradford] doesn’t look quite as drastic now,” Patterson said of Nelson. “He’s very explosive. A big, strong athlete.”

While some players like Nelson are stepping into big shoes, Damarious Randall and Salamo Fiso have different shoes to step into. The only two returning starters from the 2013 season join Lloyd Carrington and Marcus Hardison as players that have thrust into leadership roles.

Roles that they have thrived in, according to Patterson. Singled out was the play of Randall, who has consistently received praise from coaches, including Graham who called him the best safety he’s ever coached.

“Randall has had an interception in every single day of camp to this point,” Patterson said. “He is tremendous. If you put that ball up in jeopardy, he is going to go get it. He’s an explosive athlete in the middle of the field.”

His forced turnovers in practice are especially impressive against an offense led by senior Taylor Kelly and a multitude of playmakers. Going against such a high-octane group on a daily basis has done nothing but help the inexperienced defensive side of the ball, according to Patterson.

“That offensive line is very strong, physical and athletic. Then D.J. [Foster] at running back, Taylor’s ability to hurt you running and throwing the football, receivers like Jaelen [Strong], I mean jeez. There’s no doubt it helps prepare you for what you’re going to see in the Pac-12.”

But before they’ll go against the Pac-12, there are still plenty of defensive packages that need to be installed. That’s a challenge that Patterson is confident his defense will be able to tackle.

“I really do like our kids. I really do like the effort that they play with…it’s phenomenal. I think they’re going to be a unit. You know there’s not a lot of great, big names; it’s just a group of kids that really strongly care about each other and are playing as a unit.”

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