Mid-Season Snapshot: ASU Defense

In the summer months it was impossible to read any preseason prediction regarding Arizona State that didn't repeatedly mention the inexperienced defensive unit the Sun Devils were going to field in 2014. Therefore, the growing pains of this group in its first five games should come as no surprise. As ASU enters its bye week let’s examine the defense by position group and review their performance.

Defensive Line

Coming into 2014 much was said and written about this group losing all of its starters, and possibly being the weakest link of this Arizona State defense. Unfortunately, five games into the season you would be hard pressed to dispel that preseason narrative.

The Sun Devils’ rushing defense ranks last in the Pac-12 and ASU is the only defense to have given up over 200 yards rushing a game (207.2). Its ability to pressure the quarterback isn’t much better as they rank 9th in sacks (10). The tackles for loss category is more a function of the collective effort of the defense, nonetheless as ASU is ranked 3rd in the Pac-12 and 15th nationally in tackles for loss (7.4/game) the defensive linemen (and Devil backers) posted 11 out of 37 such stops.

Marcus Hardison and in recent weeks Demetrius Cherry have emerged as the top performers in this group, but even that tandem hasn’t been all that consistent thus far. The rest of this unit showed even less flashes over the first five games, and the fact that a true freshman, Renell Wren, has a chance to make his season debut in the sixth game of the year naturally indicates the quality of depth here.

Based on this group’s performance to date, it would be hard to imagine a sharp turnaround from here on out that would significantly improve their level of play. More than likely this could be the classic “grin and bear” situation where the coaches hope that the defensive line can do just enough in spots in the later portions of contest to aid in a winning effort. That’s not an ideal expectation but also not an unreasonable probability from ASU’s defensive line.

Linebackers

Granted, a valid argument can be made that a good portion of the linebackers’ success is rooted in the level of performance exhibited by the defensive linemen. Yet, the woes ASU is experiencing in the areas of quarterback pressure and run defense obviously don’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the defensive line, as the linebackers share part of the blame.

SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso may be third on the team and first among his fellow linebackers with 30 tackles, but he hasn’t progressed since last season and when speaking about ASU’s run defense struggles his play has to factor in.

WILL linebacker D.J. Calhoun is a true freshman who has started every game and as such has displayed a lot of peaks and valleys. Yet he is one of the more dynamic players on defense and more often than not always seems to be around the ball.

The standout here is Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola who head coach Todd Graham sees as one of the best leaders on defense and case in point named him team captain after a few contests. A lingering shoulder injury has slowed him down and not allowed him to finish two of his team’s games. With a sizeable drop-off taking place when the backups spell Moeakiola, his Spur position could very well be a season long deficiency if his shoulder issues persist.

It has been a revolving door at Devil backer and the writing on the wall has existed ever since fall camp in this aspect. Edmond Boateng, Antonio Longino and De'Marieya Nelson have all played significant number of reps here, but none of the three has been able to distinguish themselves from the pack. Longino is one of the better tacklers on the squad with 27, but it’s actually Boateng that at least for now is probably the starter. 2.5 sacks have been collected between the three, and for a position that is primarily designed to impact opposing signal callers, it is just one more indication as to the present situation here.

Overall, we feel that this group, compared to the defensive line for example, does carry a better potential and probability for improved play the second half of the season. Again, Moeakiola’s health will be key in dictating the level of play at linebacker but improvement from this group is a reasonable expectation.

Secondary

Unintentionally we saved the best for last, as ASU’s safeties and corners have been the most formidable group on defense. In the pass happy Pac-12 the Sun Devils rank 4th among conference teams in pass defense, although their pass defense efficiency is 9th exhibiting the proverbial “bend but not break” mentality that quite frankly is characteristic of the entire ASU defense.

One of football’s common notions on this side of the ball is that anytime your safeties lead the team in tackles, that this is an unwanted achievement which indicates poor performance from your front seven. Then again some would argue that safeties being leading tacklers is just a sign of the times in terms of the spread offenses’ passing attacks defenses face these days.

Either way, if we are just looking at individual play, Damarious Randall leading all NCAA FBS teams with 47 tackles (9.4/game) and fellow safety Jordan Simone second on the team (12th nationally) with 32 stops, have been plenty impressive in 2014. Even in reserve duty James Johnson has shown more than just a few flashes on game day.

The Sun Devils only have two interceptions in five games, and their corners have been spotty in their play at times. Lloyd Carrington has been the mainstay at one corner and opposite him we have seen three newcomers: Solomon Means, Armand Perry and Kweishi Brown start at least one game this year, signaling another position on defense that is far from settling on an established starter.

Lack of pass rush and quarterback disruption has certainly made life harder for these corners who largely play man to man on an island. However, this a group that most would agree was able to get away with less than stellar performances against teams such as Colorado and USC and thus will have to step up their performance in the weeks to come.

Suffice to say that a defense ranked 10th overall in the conference in total defense and 9th in scoring defense isn’t helping the coaching staff rest easy these days. Therefore there is much work to do, but this group possesses the potential to improve its play and do more to support the offense the rest of the 2014 season and help ASU trens towards another successful season.


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