Arizona State started the season with numerous interchangeable parts on both sides of the ball, but after a physical battle against the Cal Poly’s triple option attack on Saturday, ASU’s depth is looking thin.
One of the most significant hits to ASU’s defense was losing sophomore field safety Armand Perry in the third quarter of Saturday’s game. Perry was hurt on a non-contact movement in which he stepped wrong and twisted his left ankle as he appeared to be making a tackle attempt.
Perry was seen after the game on crutches and a walking boot and his status was the same on Tuesday.
With Perry very likely out for this week and possibly longer, ASU moved freshman defensive back Kareem Orr from cornerback to field safety on Tuesday. Orr said he had taken reps at that position in a back up capacity on Monday, but this was the first time reporters observed Orr taking first team reps at that position.
Orr is the third player ASU had tried at the field safety spot since Perry was injured, a span of just a few days.“He (Orr) just gives that element that we had with (former ASU field safety) Damarious (Randall),” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “That speed and the athleticism, he has the ability to run and make plays. In our system we put those guys under a lot of stress and you got to be able to make plays in the open field and when you have his type of speed, it’s easier to handle sometimes.”
When Perry originally went out, it was sophomore defensive back Chad Adams who came into the game and played relatively well according to ASU coaches. But Orr may get the call to be the starter this week given his versatility and coaches' desire to get him on the field to see what he can do at safety due to his high potential.
"He's sat in meetings and studied it, we played him there a couple snaps in camp," ASU secondary coach Chris Ball said. "It's not all new to him. He's just got to be disciplined and do what he's coached to do."
ASU had sophomore safety James Johnson, who is known as an assignment sound player and great communicator who is good in run support, at first team field safety on Monday. Orr's versatility was too tantalizing for coaches to not take a lot at with the starting group a day later, however.
“Obviously, you’d like to have someone with more experience, but Kareem is, he has a chance to be a special player,” Patterson said. “We’re going to bring him along and try to put him in the right position to make plays and it’s obviously he’s limited experience wise, but we have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Though he's just a freshman, Orr said the transition to corner to safety has been smooth so far since he played safety for three and a half years in high school. The biggest challenge for him will be to making sure he knows ASU’s defensive scheme like the back of his hand.
“I have to be a general (on defense) so I have to make sure I know my calls, my coverages, make sure I know where to be at and my alignments and all that stuff,” Orr said.
While the pressure is on to be a leader on defense in only his freshman year, Orr said he’s prepared and has been talking to Perry over the past couple days on how best to attack this position.
For ASU, testing out Orr at the field safety position this week against a Group of Five opponent, New Mexico, allows coaches to see if he could possibly be their second best overall healthy safety on the team. Orr played field safety for both the nickel and base packages ASU showed on Tuesday.
With a key component of the secondary out, ASU also lost a major player on the defensive line. Junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu sustained a left ankle injury early in the first quarter of Saturday’s game and did not return. As of now, Latu looks improbable to play this week, a non-participant in practice thus far just three days ahead of Friday's game.
Before Latu went out, ASU had a three-tackle rotation that consisted of Latu, senior Demetrius Cherry and sophomore Tashon Smallwood. With Latu out, in the nickel defense, ASU had freshman Joseph Wicker play nose tackle with Smallwood at the 3-technique tackle spot. Wicker usually plays at the end position in ASU’s base.
Offensive depth thinning out
While ASU’s defense has multiple injuries to deal with, its offense is quickly thinning out at the skill positions in a way that presents as a challenge.
Junior running back De’Chavon Hayes sustained a hamstring injury in Saturday’s game and appears unlikely to play this week. Sophomore Kalen Ballage is already out for at least another week with mono, so the Sun Devils could be down two running backs Friday, leaving sophomore starter Demario Richard with a heavy workload.
Not only is ASU down two running backs, but junior wide receiver Fred Gammage's status is in doubt with a right arm injury. If Gammage isn't able to play and ASU coaches elect to increase senior D.J. Foster's workload at running back and reduce his reps at wide receiver with Ballage and Hayes out, it creates a potential void at the 2-receiver field-side position.
“Especially when its multiple guys at one position (that are hurt), you have to move things around and look at obviously how you’re dispersing the touches, the reps,” ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “Make sure that you’re keeping guys fresh, still down to play at a fast tempo.”
Foster had 216 rushing yards against New Mexico last year, so he's clearly capable of handling the role but it may come at the expense of a capability at wide receiver, particularly with Gammage out. Junior wide receiver Tim White is the only other player who has received reps at the 2-receiver position this season, and he's coming off a broken left hand that kept him off the field against Texas A&M.
“We need him (White) -- that's the biggest thing too,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “We need some explosive plays, and that's something that's been slow going that we should be able to generate with getting guys in open spaces. It's hard to go 13 plays and execute and score all the time. So that's something we've got to look at.”
Saturday against Cal Poly, White flashed big play potential late in the game with a long punt return and 59 yard reception. If Foster spends more time in the backfield, White could be in for substantially more reps against New Mexico, and he's worked with the first-team at times in practice this week.
“His (White’s) opportunity was coming, but he was limited because of the hand,” ASU wide receivers coach Del Alexander said. “He was limited because of Camp T injury so his progression was just slow, but now, it’s normal right now. He’s supposed to be doing what he’s doing now.”
One of the determining factors is whether ASU elects to let walk-on-turned-scholarship-player Jacob Brimhall carry the ball, and if so how much. Other than Richard, Brimhall and freshman Nick Ralston -- who has practicing all fall camp with the tight ends and is ASU's primary fullback -- are the only options save Foster, unless the school's coaches elect to burn the redshirt of freshman Jason Lewis’s. As of now, there is no clear-cut answer if Lewis will get any playing time this season.
“The number of reps when he (Jason) got when he immediately got here was not extreme because of the guys we had,” Norvell said. “He’s shown some great flashes, but now that’s his reps have kind of increased, he’s shown some really good things and we’re just going to play that as it goes.”
More touches for Foster wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing according to ASU's head coach.
“I think the key for us with D.J. is getting him the ball and trying to get him the ball in space as well,” Todd Graham said in his Monday press conference. “But he's a guy you need to hand it to, give it to him on a speed sweep. But he can run the ball inside as good as anybody. He's really tough and physical. He's got great ball security. But obviously I'd like to see him catch some hot passes, some screens, some bubbles and let him get out there and get running.”With Foster likely to spend more time in the backfield and Gammage out, junior wide receiver Eric Lauderdale is also slated to get a couple of chances on the offense behind White. Lauderdale was seen subbing in for White in the first team offense during the team tempo period on Tuesday.
“I think so,” Alexander said about Lauderdale playing on Friday. “I really honestly think so. It’s an opportunity for him to get out there and get his feet wet and say, ‘You know what, here I am.’”