With the Bandit safety and both cornerback positions secured with veteran players, the field safety is the last component of the secondary to be solidified and so far in camp, it’s unclear whether anyone on the team has the full abilities to do so. That will be determined when the Sun Devils play real opponents.
ASU sophomore hybrid defensive back Armand Perry and redshirt sophomore James Johnson are both up for the job, but the athleticism and skills needed for the field safety position in ASU’s blitz-heavy defense are demanding and it’s still unclear if either player can handle broad challenge of the role.
“You have to be a really good guy in space and you have to be physical,” ASU secondary coach Chris Ball said. “You know, you have to be a guy that can support the run and then also be a guy who can take away the vertical passing game.”
ASU's attacking defense often forces the field safety into man coverage situations in open space and coaches expect a lot from the player. In this role, Randall used his speed, instincts and versatility to make game-saving plays and cover up potential blemishes by his teammates.
The question for this season remains if Perry or Johnson can adequately fulfill the role Randall has vacated and perform at the same level Randall did when put in man coverage situations.
“We expect no drop off,” Johnson said. “No change in production. Different type of style but we want to be better than last year. Ten times better than last year.”
However, if Perry or Johnson can’t handle the man coverage, it remains to be seen if ASU will have to tone down its blitz-heavy defense and give more help to the field safety.
So far in camp, Perry has held his own and been working with the first team at field safety for nearly two weeks.
The 6-foot, 191 pound player has been getting first team reps since August 9 over Johnson, even after Perry hadn’t even practiced in the spring due to offseason surgery.
As a true freshman, Perry played cornerback and nickel back – something that works to his advantage since he’s made the move over to safety.
“Damarious went and played corner in the league and our free safety has to have corner skills,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “I think Armand has to be more of a quarterback verbally and all that, but phenomenal athlete and has looked really, really good there and obviously James is competing there as well.”
With Perry making the switch from playing a physical game at cornerback to a more relaxed field safety position, his skills and techniques will take some time to fully develop. But, Perry does have some experience at safety, playing the position in high school at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“He’s smart and he’s extremely tough,” Ball said of Perry. “He comes from a tough program and he’s always been a good tackler. He’s never been afraid to hit people. He has all the traits we look for and he’s athletic.”
Perry said he embraces the pressure the field safety position brings and feels confident in his ability to master his craft and perform on the field.
While Perry might be confident in his abilities, Ball said there are obviously still some things Perry needs to work on in order to be a strong, solid leader on the defense.
“Armand needs to be a better, he needs to be a better communicator,” Ball said. “James Johnson is a great communicator. We talk about being elite. We need to be elite communicators. That’s an elite communicator. James Johnson is becoming an elite communicator, that’s what Armand needs to be.”
While Johnson is a good communicator, questions about his range as a coverage defensive back is what led ASU to bump Perry atop the depth chart.
Johnson is known as a utility safety and he has performed well in the box. Coaches have seen Johnson’s playmaking abilities at Spur, and so far have left him as a backup role to Simone at bandit.
“At the end of the day I still need experience I got my feet wet last year, but I just want more game reps,” Johnson said. “The more reps I get before Texas A&M the better I’ll be.”
If either Perry or Simone gets hurt, Johnson looks to be the probable third safety coming off the bench. Johnson said his offseason workouts have left him bigger, faster and stronger than he’s ever felt.
Walk-ons put on scholarship
When Graham delivered the news first to Fraboni and then to Brimhall in front of the entire team, both, but particularly Brimhall, were mobbed by teammates after the announcement.
“That meant everything to me,” Brimhall said. “These guys, I’ve got a couple sisters, but I don’t have any brothers so having these guys react like that, you know, I love these guys and I would do anything for them and for them to react like that, it meant a lot to me.”
Brimhall said coaches dropped some hints here and there about receiving a scholarship, but since school started yesterday, he thought his chance was lost.
“Everything with last year being on scout, just wanting to get the scout team as best we could and this year giving it everything I had, as soon as he said my name I just started crying,” Brimhall said. “I couldn’t hold it. It was special.”
Graham said awarding two scholarships was a big deal because ASU only had one scholarship for this year, so they had to use one initial counter in order to give both players scholarships.
This means ASU will only be able to enroll 24 2016 scholarships recruits in the next cycle, assuming grayshirt candidate Stanley Norman joins the program in January, as expected.
“Here’s what I tell you guys that are walk-ons out here,” Graham told his team after the announcement. “All that stay, all the guys that stay four or five years. All those guys have earned a spot and I promise you being a part of this team, starting and finishing a Sun Devil, you’re going to be a winner and a champion.”