If there’s one group of Arizona State players most eager to start conference play, it’s hard to imagine a unit more excited than the Sun Devil defensive backs.
In back-to-back weeks, ASU faced run-heavy triple option schemes that rarely posed vertical threats, often leaving corners and safeties in situations where their most important responsibilities involved cleaning up perimeter plays in run support.
As a result of playing run-oriented opponents, the Sun Devils rank ninth in the country in passing yards allowed, surrendering an average of just 134.7 yards per game.
It will be nearly impossible for ASU’s defensive backs to sustain that type of average as conference play kicks into gear, but that doesn’t faze the unit. Instead, redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington said ASU’s secondary is preparing to prove itself, as the opportunities and tests are just beginning.
“We know we’re going to have a lot more opportunities to make plays on the ball, get some interceptions, and just more takeaways on defense so we’re looking forward to that,” Carrington said. “Pac-12 play is another level of play, and it starts for us now.”
After allowing 247 passing yards against Texas A&M, a team that runs the spread offense, in week one, ASU gave up a combined 157 yards to Cal Poly and New Mexico as the teams completed just 16 of their 37 passing attempts over the course of two games.
The Mustangs and Lobos rarely passed on first downs, and instead elected to throw downfield in obvious situations where ASU’s defenders could anticipate play calls. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson says he’s satisfied with the way ASU’s defense has responded against the run so far, but he’s curious to see how the Sun Devils will hold up against a team that approaches offensive possessions with a completely different mentality.
“It’s so different the last couple of weeks compared to opening weeks, so I’m curious to see versus you know, spread style offenses how we’re progressing in games,” Patterson said. “I think we’ve done a lot of good things, for the most part we’ve limited the runs, except for the one last week against New Mexico they just went right up the pipe, so we’ll see. I think it’ll be a great test.”
Against USC, ASU’s ability to anticipate play selection changes, as it must now expect a mix of run, pass, and play-action plays in any down and distance.
Freshman safety Kareem Orr, who made his first career start against New Mexico in place of injured sophomore safety Armand Perry, said there’s a much greater emphasis on dissecting plays at the snap of the ball against a team with a balanced attack like the Trojans.
“You just have to read your keys, stay deep when you need to and come up when you need to,” Orr said.
Though defending the triple option is a stark contrast from facing pro sets and spread teams, the transition back to creating a more conventional game plan isn’t as significant of an adjustment as it might appear.
In four years under Todd Graham, ASU has defended triple option teams four times now. In comparison, the Sun Devils have faced conference opponents like USC, UCLA and Utah on a weekly basis every season, and Carrington said it’s much easier to defend against a team whose tendencies are familiar.
“You understand what their tendencies are, what you’ll have to defend defensively, and you get into a rhythm during the game and that’s the main thing,” Carrington said about playing an opponent he’s faced before. “Just being able to go out, be comfortable, just play your style of play and make plays when the opportunity comes your way.”
While Steve Sarkisian is in just his second season as head coach at USC, ASU’s coaches’ knowledge of Sarkisian’s offensive philosophy and approach dates back to his days as the Washington Huskies head coach.
That type of experience allows for ASU’s coaches to make more refined game plans, gives the team a more extensive vault of film to draw from, and allows veterans to pass along lessons learned to newcomers who might otherwise be more mistake-prone.
Orr said the veterans in the defensive backfield like redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone, senior cornerback Kweishi Brown, and Carrington have shared tendencies they’ve picked up on with him. Furthermore, Orr believes ASU’s defense is better suited to face an offense like USC’s compared to Cal Poly or New Mexico, because the Sun Devils go up against an offense with some of the same basic principles in practice every day.
“Oh yeah, we’re way more prepared to face a team (USC) like this,” Orr said. “We go against our offense every single day, so we’re doing a lot of the same things basically.”
Most players don’t like to admit their practice habits change based on the week’s opponent, but Carrington said ASU’s defensive backs are glad the Sun Devils are once again preparing for a team with a downfield passing attack because it livens up the group.
After constantly focusing on getting off blocks and sealing the edge against pitch plays or sweeps from Cal Poly and New Mexico, the Sun Devils’ secondary has reverted back to emphasizing pass defense, and it’s forcing defenders on the back end of the defense to become more disciplined.
“Really, you see it (changes) everywhere,” Carrington said about the changes in practice this week. “Your assignments obviously change, you put more emphasis on the pass. Understanding what you’re taking away in the passing game while also knowing your assignments within the run game. Being a corner, you’re mostly a pass defender first, so the main thing is just staying disciplined with your eyes and feet and putting yourself in position to make plays and do your job.”
USC will test ASU in a way few teams can this season because the Trojans possess some of the most talented skill position players in the nation.
Sophomore Juju Smith-Schuster is one of the top deep threats in the entire country, boasting an average of 19.7 yards per catch on 22 receptions. Smith’s speed keeps defensive backs honest, and redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler takes advantage of that by checking down to his backs and receivers on underneath routes more often than most quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
For a team like ASU that blitzes on the vast majority of its defensive snaps, open field tackling will be at a premium this Saturday. Additionally, when ASU does bring six-man pressures, the Sun Devil defensive backs will have their hands full in man-to-man coverage.
Carrington said one of the positive takeaways ASU’s secondary gained from facing Cal Poly and New Mexico was the amount of Cover 0 man-to-man looks the defensive backs played, because that gave the Sun Devils an opportunity to practice their fundamentals and technique before facing faster and more skilled receivers in conference play.
“My whole defensive back group, it’s (confidence) something we have, and being able to play man-to-man for the last few weeks, it’s been great for me,” Carrington said. “You have to have a certain mentality, I’ve been working on honing my skills and perfecting my craft so once Pac-12 play starts, I can put it to work and apply it on the field.”
In his time at ASU, Graham has shown he won’t dial back blitz packages to play more conservatively against teams just because they possess better threats at skill positions.
Against teams like USC, the Sun Devils will still incorporate heavy pressure, and Patterson said that puts more of an onus on blitzers to reach the quarterback and disrupt timing so defensive backs aren’t left in man coverage for unreasonable amounts of time each play.
“Anytime you face a five-out team, you’ve got to be able to get pressure on the quarterback because they spread you out from sideline-to-sideline plus they’ve got receivers stretching you vertically so you have to be able to impact the quarterback,” Patterson said. “When they do try to get five out into the route, you’ve got to get that ball out of his hands quickly.”
In last year’s game at USC, ASU’s pressure didn’t force Kessler into throwing an interception, but the Sun Devils did spur 17 incompletions on 45 passing attempts from an accurate quarterback who is hitting on nearly 80 percent of his attempts so far this season.
A year after defeating the Trojans at the Coliseum, ASU’s defensive backs feel a sense of excitement building around this Saturday’s matchup once again. USC represents one of the most difficult tests the Sun Devil secondary will face this season, and it knows the result could hinge on one of the dozens of one-on-one situations ASU is likely to face against the Trojans.
After consecutive weeks of facing triple option foes, Orr said the defensive backs are finally ready to have a greater impact on the game.
“Us defensive backs are very excited for this game,” Orr said. “They pass a lot, so we’re ready to fly around and get some picks.”