Q&A with Keith Patterson

DevilsDigest caught up with Arizona State Defensive Coordinator Keith Patterson to discuss the team’s overall defensive performance this season, some of the key players who stood out in 2014, and the progress of some of the team’s newcomers who have seen more reps in practice since the bowl preparations began.

DevilsDigest: Today we got to see the newcomers scrimmage for the first time as a group for an extended time. How would you assess their performance?

Patterson: “I’ll tell you, it was exciting because it gives those guys, number one, an opportunity to be evaluated in a game-like situation. You get to see guys who want to compete and get out and try to make plays. I think it was very evident that our guys got out there and played very aggressive. They were flying around and having a good time.”

DevilsDigest: Jalen Harvey came to ASU as a wide receiver but in the last week has moved from offense to defense and is now at SPUR, a position he played a bit in high school. Harvey ended things today with an interception but also made a number of other plays throughout the scrimmage. What have you seen from Jalen at the SPUR position so far?

Patterson: “I’ll tell you, he’s extremely talented. There are a lot of places that he can play on a football team. He’s very versatile and extremely athletic. He’s physically tough so we’ll make sure we get him in the right spot. We’re just trying to get a look at him on both sides of the football and where he ends up, we’re not sure yet but he showed some really good signs today.”

DevilsDigest: Aside from Harvey, who are some of the other newcomers that have stood out to you through these first three or four practices during your bowl preparations?

Patterson: “Obviously the young defensive linemen. Renell Wren, Emmanuel Dayries, and those guys. Connor Humphreys, Ismael Murphy-Richardson, all those guys. It’s been great to evaluate them. And then some of our young defensive backs. It’s been really good to get a look at them and we’ll continue to put them in situations over the next three or four days to continue to evaluate those guys and make sure we’ve got them headed in the spot going into spring ball.”

DevilsDigest: “Do you like this time of year where you’re sort of juggling two different things; wrapping up one season while looking ahead to the next?

Patterson: “One, it’s an evaluation period where we’re sitting here looking at things in the season. Two, you’re trying to begin your preparations for a bowl game. But number three, it just gives you an opportunity to get out here and work with some of our young guys and go over some of the basic fundamentals that may have fallen off throughout the course of the season. It just gives us a chance to re-start and get a jumpstart on the spring.”

DevilsDigest: Last year you inherited a defense that was looking to replace nine starters from the year before. This year you’ll only need to replace one, maybe two starters, going into the spring. That’s got to make things a little easier for you, right?

Patterson: “No doubt. It’s exciting because number one, the depth that we’re going to have up front and at linebacker next season. Knowing that everyone that you have will probably have the chance to be on the field next year, they’re getting 12-13 practices right here. They’re getting another 15 practices in the spring. There’s no doubt that we should be farther ahead than where we were at the beginning of this season.”

DevilsDigest: “The turning point of the season for you guys defensively was against USC when you made the decision to go with the two different defensive line sets with the jumbo package and the smaller line-up. Talk about the decision behind that schematic change and how do you think each line-up performed as the season progressed?

Patterson: “I think that’s what coaching is. Instead of trying to plug kids into a system, tweak the system or just try to set those guys up for success and when we did that and went bigger up front, it really tightened up things against the run. And then we were a lot more explosive. We made a lot more explosive plays.

“You look at the Notre Dame game and maybe even the game before that. Actually, I think it was the Washington game where we scored or set up the scores on defense from Washington all the way through the end of the season. We were able to make explosive plays and I think that was a direct result of being able to keep those guys fresh by going with the two different groups.”

DevilsDigest: Overall, what’s your assessment on how the defense performed overall from start to finish this year?

Patterson: “Well obviously I think we started out a little slow but picked it up in the middle part of the season. It wasn’t that we played bad the last part of the season but we tapered off and allowed too many big plays there coming down the stretch that ended up costing us. But if we can eliminate those things throughout the course of the spring and next fall, it could be exciting.”

DevilsDigest: The team had its annual end of the season awards banquet on Sunday night. Quite a few guys were honored. One of which was Marcus Hardison who had a tremendous season anchoring the defensive line. What was it that allowed Marcus to go from a guy who registered just five tackles last season to go who had 10+ sacks this year?

Patterson: “Once he started playing well, the defense really began to improve. It just took him a while to figure out the intensity that it takes to play at this level. You’ve got to bring it and once he did, he cut loose and was able to use his athleticism. And at that size you started to see him make a lot of explosive plays and impact the quarterback and I think the other guys up front fed off that.”

DevilsDigest: Another player who had a tremendous year was linebacker Laiu Moeakiola who was named a captain shortly after the start of the season. What is it about his style of play that makes him such a vital piece to not only the linebacker unit, but the entire front seven defensively?

Patterson: “It’s all of it. If you look at the Arizona game, we held them to 18 yards rushing at halftime and all of a sudden he’s off the field and two big plays happen for sure. You can’t take anything away from Arizona but when he’s out on the field, those things just don’t seem to happen. A lot of it is communication. A lot of it is being positioned and in the right place and making sure we’re all on the same page.”

DevilsDigest: And then Jordan Simone and Damarious Randall were named Co-MVP’s of the secondary which is fair considering the kind of seasons each player had. What makes them such a special duo at safety, whether it’s their play in the passing game or helping secure the edge against the run?

Patterson: “If you look at it, they really turned our season around. After the UCLA game, we really went back to stressing the fundamentals of tackling. Then when you look at the USC game all the way through, basically, the rest of the season, we became a much better tackling defense and so many of their tackles were in open space. Balls being thrown to the perimeter and they were coming up and making one-on-one solo tackles. It was very impressive to watch but there’s no doubt their improvement in open field tackling and making plays in space had a huge impact on the success of the defense.”

DevilsDigest: Simone’s probably another guy you wish you could have had out there against Arizona there at the end of the season…

Patterson: “Yeah, but that’s just football. Games 11, 12, the bowl games…it’s a physical game and you’re going to get beat up. You’re going to have guys get injured. It’s just the teams that can say healthy and minimize those types of injuries are typically the ones that are going to be successful.”

DevilsDigest: And then speaking of bowl games, what have you seen from the Duke offense on film?

Patterson: “You’re going to see a well-coached football team that plays hard and plays with a chip on their shoulder. They’ve done a great job turning that program around. They’re not going to do anything to beat themselves. They play hard. They play disciplined. They’re going to make you beat them.”

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