Mid-Season Q&A with Keith Patterson

Many anticipated a young and inexperienced Arizona State defense to struggle in 2014 and in many contests thus far this theory has come true. We caught up with the Sun Devils’ defensive coordinator to get his take on his group’s performance five games into the season.

DevilsDigest: This is your first time coaching in the Pac-12 conference, defending these caliber of offenses has to be quite the challenge…

Keith Patterson: “It is, because it is so wide open. It’s also a tough year to come into with inexperienced people facing many experienced quarterbacks coming back. Those quarterbacks and the skill players can expose you in a hurry, it’s phenomenal the talent. That’s probably the biggest difference I see in a lot of the other conferences. You can have the right call and be in the right position and still not make the play. Through experience and kids maturing, hopefully we will make those plays. But you know what, three years from now, people will be looking at all of the experience we have on our defense. That’s the way I try to look at it, the big picture.”

DevilsDigest: How have you balanced managing skill development versus game preparation?

Keith Patterson: “Well, that’s the thing about inexperienced players where in certain positions you sit there and you are so focused trying to get them up to speed game plan wise and you tend to let some of the fundamentals and the things that really matter slip. You only have so much time in a day. You just kind of have to choose, is it scheme or fundamentals? “

DevilsDigest: How much of an improvement was the USC game from a defensive stand point compared to the UCLA game?

Keith Patterson: “I think the one thing that we did until the last stages of the game was eliminating the big plays and the ones that have absolutely been catastrophic. What you saw up until the USC game, when we had a breakdown and we gave up those big plays it seemed like there were three in succession. I think we got better there, and a lot of that is we had a very sound game plan against them and our kids executed it. I thought they did a great job of staying sound vertically and stopping the run for the most part till we gave up some of those cheaper ones towards the end of the game.”

DevilsDigest: Do you feel that the USC game was your group’s best tackling effort all season?

Keith Patterson: “Up until the UCLA game, I thought the tackling was improving each and every week. And then we got exposed out in space a little bit against UCLA. I did think that we did a better job (against USC) and I think you'll see a much better tackling team against Stanford than you saw against USC.”

DevilsDigest: Todd Graham has talked about this defense maturing every week. How much confidence can a three and out late in the USC game help this group going forward?

Keith Patterson: “It's definitely something to build on. Most teams would have surrendered, they would have just said, 'Aw man we are down and time is running out and we have no timeouts.' You look for every reason in the world to just say it's over. And that is just nothing more than the character of those young men. Any time you have young men with this type of character and a desire to win, you have got a chance. They just went out there and we had eight or nine guys swarming to the ball carrier and then getting back and saying ‘snap it again.’ We did exactly what we had to do to win that game. ”

DevilsDigest: In your opinion, what was USC trying to do defensively on the last second Hail Mary?

Keith Patterson: “They were trying to get someone from over on the right side of the end zone so the guy over to the ball was trying to wave him over – what he was supposed to be doing I don’t know. Then they had people up 5-10 yards in front of the goal line, and I was thinking, ‘Boy, that’s a weird deployment.’ You could just tell as I took my eyes from Jaelen to their defenders you could just tell they were uneasy about that. Boom, the rest is history. ”

DevilsDigest: Pass rush is an aspect typically leads to turnovers, and both categories have been down for this group this year. How do you go about improving both of these components?

Keith Patterson: “The disrupting and the impacting of the quarterback that Carl Bradford and Will Sutton did – that quarterback was under a lot of stress and they had that locked down with just a four-man rush. That’s the biggest difference, we just don’t have that. So therefore, what we have to try and do is impact the quarterback with second level players. Now, when you do that, you break yourself down coverage wise. When you can rush four, play in coverage with seven and still impact the quarterback, that’s going to lead to more turnovers. Any time you vacate a zone, that just thins you out.

“It runs in cycles; there have been years where we force 36 turnovers, and a year later with the same defense and same calls, not. I really believe it’s personnel. If there are two or three people up front that can pressure the quarterback and we can stay sound in coverage we have got a chance. ”

DevilsDigest: Typically you don’t want to have your safeties leading your team in tackles. What do you attribute that to?

Keith Patterson: “When I played football, that was not a good thing when your safeties led your team in tackles. In modern day football, that’s just going to become more and more a part of it. For example, let’s say one of these teams put two receivers in the boundary, a lot of times we will just match the boundary. So therefore you have got safeties out there, they throw the ball to the number two receiver, the safety makes the tackle out there. That’s what happened a lot of times on Saturday. And they did a really good job of tackling in space (against USC) . ”

DevilsDigest: How is Marcus Ball progressing at Spur linebacker?

Keith Patterson: “Good. He has tremendous upside. I think he’s right where he needs to be. He has a lot of linebacker skills and is a seeker of contact. He wants to learn and is a sponge as far as that goes. The biggest challenge for him, when you sit back there in the secondary you have more time to react, your legs are all locked out and you’re straight up and your pad level is high. All of the sudden, the closer you move to that line of scrimmage you have to play with a power base, your pad level low to play behind your pads. It sounds easy but it is a process, but I like where he is. ”

DevilsDigest: What are some of the areas in which the Stanford offense poses challenges?

Keith Patterson: “With Stanford, they are so different and have become unique because they are playing football -- the tight ends and both running backs. Now what they’ve done by just playing old school football is they’ve made themselves unique. That’s one challenge – you’ve been build to defend spread offenses and now you have got to completely switch gears and be able to defend multiple tight ends, wing sets and things where normally you start early in fall camp. They understand how to run the football. You can’t stay blocked and you have to have guys up front who can get off blocks and make plays. ”

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