New defensive starters show great promise

Christian Sam and Armand Perry rose to the occasion as Arizona State's two new starters on defense in the team's season opener last week.

While Arizona State’s offense and special teams play fell flat against Texas A&M, its defense held strong in its first test of the season.

Even with ASU sporting nine returning defensive starters, it wasn’t only veteran playmakers who made a big impact. Considering their lack of experience, the most impressive performances may have come from sophomore field safety Armand Perry and sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam. Both excelled at their respective positions and proved their worth on a talented ASU squad.

“I mean they had 21 tackles between them,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “I know that Christian had two TFLs, a quarterback sack and a forced fumble, so for his first game at WILL linebacker, I thought he was pretty good. I thought Armand played pretty well too. He would have had a spectacular game, but he had a penalty on the quarterback and obviously the bubble (Perry made an alignment error which led to a 66 yard touchdown). It was a tough play to make out in space, but he played really well. I was proud of both of those young men.”

Filling in the spot once held by former ASU safety Damarious Randall, Perry proved he could play with the top dogs. The 6-foot, 191-pound safety managed space well in coverage, tackled efficiently, was physical when coming down to make plays in the box, and communicated well with his teammates.

While this was only the first test of the season for Perry, the future looks bright for the young playmaker. For as much as ASU blitzed against the Aggies -- putting its defensive backs in man coverage, which included a lot of Cover 0 -- Perry and the rest of the secondary held up extremely well.

Through the first three quarters, Texas A&M was averaging fewer than 4.2 yards per play and Perry led the team with 11 tackles on the night.

“Armand played really well, other than three plays,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference. “He's a newcomer. He had a couple of busted assignments on coverages… but that shows great promise, and those are things that are going to happen when you have newcomers in there.”

While its secondary shined in a tough matchup up against Texas A&M’s wide receivers, ASU’s linebackers -- mostly Sam and junior returning starter Salamo Fiso -- dominated the run game.

ASU fit the run extremely well, with credit also due to ASU’s defensive line, which includes junior Ami Latu, sophomore Tashon Smallwood, senior Demetrius Cherry and freshman JoJo Wicker. They kept Texas A&M's offensive linemen occupied and allowed Sam and Fiso clean up. Aggies' starting running back Tra Carson had 96 yards rushing in the game, but it took a punishing 29 carries, for just 3.3 yards a turn.

“We have the makings of a really, really good defensive football team because of the line and the guys we have up front,” Graham said.

The Sun Devils will look to get even better on the defensive front with redshirt freshman Devil backer Ismael Murphy-Richardson available to play against Cal Poly on Saturday after being suspended for the game against Texas A&M.

Murphy-Richardson will look to lock in the No. 2 Devil backer position on Saturday behind senior Antonio Longino. Graham said Thursday Murphy-Richardson would probably come in during third downs as an extra pass rusher opposite of Longino and maybe even take some snaps on bases downs to give Longino a breather.

“If he (IMR) does what he does in practice, he’s one of the most explosive pass rushers we’ve had through fall camp and what we saw this past week,” Patterson said. “It’s going to be a growing process for him from an experience standpoint, but he definitely has the physical talent to help us.”

With more help on the pass rushing front and the secondary holding up well, ASU's linebackers are the only other position group on the defense and they too are exceeding expectations.

Sam especially has earned heaps of praise from Graham. The proud head coach said Sam played “an incredible game” and it was probably the 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker’s best outing since he’s been at ASU.

“I mean, he (Sam) can run,” Graham said. “He can cover. He was really, really composed, and very physical. He played very physical. Obviously the front six they couldn't really do much running the football…Christian played a hell of a game.”

One of the best things about Sam’s performance Saturday was his patience in the run game. Sam didn’t try to jump any plays or make impatient decisions, instead gathered his feet and waiting for the play to develop before making any moves.

“Coach (Patterson) teaches us footwork and you try to control your feet and look where you’re supposed to look at,” Sam said. “If you look at where you’re supposed to work and read your keys, you can play fast, but things move slow to you. I just was doing what I was coached and I was emphasizing that.”

Last season, Sam played several linebacker positions and had 16 total tackles on the season, including five against Colorado playing Spur following a shoulder injury to junior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, and five against USC. Sam’s ability to be plugged into different positions on the defense as only a true freshman made him an ideal candidate to start at WILL this season.

This week against Cal Poly, ASU’s defense will face the triple-option. It’s a similar type of offense most of the players saw last year when ASU faced New Mexico on the road.

Sam said the team has just been focusing on making sure each player knows his assignment and sticks with it, because if not, that’s where things can go wrong. Despite the different look on offense, it should be an easy win for an ASU team looking to bounce back after a Week 1 loss. Sam said the defense is just looking forward to moving on to the next game and taking care of business.

“Our job is to stop the run in any form,” Sam said. “We emphasize that. Don’t let the ball run through the hole on our defense. It’s our job.”

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