Since the conclusion of Todd Graham’s first season as head coach, no position group at ASU has produced more NFL talent than its secondary, where the Sun Devils have had five different players matriculate to the professional ranks in the past three years.
Despite the departure of key personnel, ASU's secondary has remained well stocked in talent throughout Graham’s tenure. This year’s unit is no exception, as three seniors with legitimate All-Pac-12 aspirations lead the group.
Senior cornerback Kweishi Brown, redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and redshirt senior Bandit safety Jordan Simone are all poised to continue their successful ways, but the coaching staff isn’t planning on using any of the three veterans to offset one of the program’s most substantial losses under Graham.
When Damarious Randall became the first ever first round NFL Draft pick to play under Graham this spring, many believed the Sun Devils would try to reshuffle the secondary to allow Simone and redshirt sophomore James Johnson to play alongside one another and fill the void.
However, the ASU coaching staff had a different plan, and approached sophomore defensive back Armand Perry about the prospect of changing positions immediately following the 2014 season.
“Right after last year’s season, Coach Graham came to me and said, ‘I’m going to need you to step up and fill in for Damarious (Randall) and play the free safety spot,’ so I’ve known about that,” Perry said.
ASU already knew replacing Randall would be a significant challenge, and its coaching staff has seemingly make the task more daunting by asking a player with limited experience -- and none at safety at the college level -- to shift positions and see the field from a brand new angle.
Less than a full year after recording just 34 tackles primarily as a nickel cornerback, Perry is now expected to step in among one of the oldest, most experienced positions groups on the team and make up for the loss of a player making his living on Sundays.
As daunting as the assignment appears, Perry believes he has the capability to make a smooth transition because of the experience he gained playing safety in high school.
“The safety work has been real fun, you know I played safety in high school, the coaches saw that so they felt like they could move me back there for the betterment of the team,” Perry said.
While the speed of the game is remarkably different at the college level, Perry does have the advantage of coming from one of the most disciplined high school programs in the country, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nevada.
At Bishop Gorman, Perry played safety under first-year UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez and competed against nationally touted teams on a regular basis. Though the position isn’t completely new to him at ASU, the expectations and responsibilities the coaching staff has set forth with his new role are clearly a step up.
“Armand Perry needs to be better, he needs to be a better communicator,” defensive backs coach Chris Ball said. “James Johnson is a great communicator, when we talk about being elite communicators, there’s an elite communicator. James Johnson has become elite, now that’s what Armand (Perry) has to become, an elite communicator. If we’re all communicating, we’re all calm and confident and if we’re all on the same page, it makes us confident and that’s the only way we can function.”
Ball’s praise for Johnson raises the question as to why ASU doesn’t plan on inserting Johnson, instead of Perry, into the starting lineup at the field safety position.
Johnson has extensive experience practicing at both safety positions, and he logged 25 tackles last season, mostly in situations where he filled in for Simone and Randall.
Johnson might have been the most logical choice to replace Randall, but ASU likely sees a handful of potential benefits in moving Perry further away from the line of scrimmage.
ASU often likes to use its field side safety almost like another cornerback on the field, so moving Perry to the field safety position perhaps affords more options in the types of coverages it can play. As a converted nickel cornerback, Perry proved his versatility in man coverage against slot receivers last year.
Now, the Sun Devils will count on Perry to not only play centerfield in zone coverage, but to pick up and run with receivers in open space which is a skill that helped convince the coaching staff to move Perry. Graham is an extremely aggressive play caller defensively and ideally wants to be able to utilize numerous coverages to keep opponents off balance. To give coaches the type of comfort needed to maximize ASU's schematic versatility, they'll need Perry or someone else to demonstrate capability in man coverage situations.
“No question, those are the things we’ve got to figure out and what better than to move a kid that played corner last year for us to safety to be able to do some of those things we ask him to do,” Ball said.
As a true sophomore, Perry already has in-game experience against some of the Pac-12’s top teams, and ASU coaches hope the switch will allow their defense to gain stability at one of the most important positions for the next three seasons.
Furthermore, Perry generated buzz last season for his physical style of play, especially in press coverage and with his blitzes, and ASU is hoping Perry can shore up the Sun Devils’ open field tackling at the back end of the defense.
“It’s a big difference playing in space,” Ball said. “You’re up on them and you can get your hands on them at corner, that’s not always the case at safety and you’ve got to be a really good guy in space and you’ve got to be physical. You’ve got to be a guy that can support the run, but you’ve also got to be a guy that can take away the vertical passing game.”
With Perry being the only non-senior expected to start in the secondary, ASU also knows it can count on team leaders Simone and Carrington to keep the new safety focused on his assignments. Perry said through camp, the other members of the defensive backfield have given him plenty of tips and guidance, but he’s learning quite a bit about the position from another trusted source.
Though Randall is set to embark on his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers, Perry said the former first-team All-Pac-12 safety still makes time to impart wisdom on his old teammate.
“Damarious (Randall) is my big brother,” Perry said. “I talk to him every day, I was Facetiming him last night. He just keeps my head on straight and tells me the ins and outs of what he did and what I can be better on because he wants me to be better than him at the end of the day. I really look up to Damarious and I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps.”
Randall was lauded for his closing speed at ASU, and in 2014, the second-year starter notched three interceptions while leading the Sun Devils with nine pass breakups and 12 passes defended. Interestingly, Randall arrived at ASU after leading the nation with nine interceptions in a season at Mesa Community College only be be converted to safety and then back to cornerback by the Packers. That's a sign of how the Sun Devils like to use the field-side safety position and why they seem to believe Perry is the best fit.
Perry said aside from talking to Randall, he has also spent a considerable amount of time watching film of his mentor. Those study habits are something his teammates have taken note of, and Simone said it’s not just the coaching staff that has big expectations for Perry this season.
“We have all of Damarious’s (Randall) film and what he was able to do, and A.P.’s (Perry) been able to mimic most all of that,” Simone said. “The areas where Damarious left as far as man coverage skills, A.P. I think is just as good of man coverage guy as him. He does a great job. He’s a great tackler. Really, not a step down. Just watch, A.P. is going to be a big dude on this team.”
Randall had some hiccups early on for the Sun Devils, and Perry likely will too, especially early in the season. In the long run, though, the Sun Devils believe the move makes sense, and they've had a lot of success with personnel decisions in the secondary. They're probably also preparing for the future, as 2016 will require replacing three starters, Brown, Carrington and Simone next fall.
If Perry can successfully navigate the challenges of playing in the open field this fall, ASU has an even better chance of being able to offset next year’s losses by plugging in the likes of Johnson and highly regarded freshman cornerback Kareem Orr into the defensive backfield in the year ahead.
The coaching staff will certainly monitor Perry’s progress closely at the outset of the season, but Ball is confident the coaching staff tabbed the right player to pick up where a first round draft pick left off.
“With him (Perry), he’s smart and he’s extremely tough, he comes from a tough program, he’s always been a good tackler, he’s not afraid to hit people, he’s got all the traits we look for,” Ball said.