Examining Arizona State's crippling struggles to defend pass in 2015 season

Arizona State was among the worst teams nationally at defending the pass in 2015. Why? We examine what contributed to this reality.

Arizona State finished last in FBS (No. 127) in passing defense in 2015 with 333.7 yards allowed, and no team within 24.0 yards of the Sun Devils. Only Louisiana-Lafayette, SMU, Rice and UTEP gave up more yards per completion to opposing defenses than the Sun Devils. 

This was, of course, a major factor in ASU's disappointing 6-7 season, which followed on the heels of remarkable back-to-back 10-win seasons achieved for the first time in program history as part of a Power 5 conference. 

The year-over-year differences were stark. In 2015 ASU gave up 4,392 passing yards compared with 3,376 in 2014 and 3,286 in 2013. It was an extra 1,000 yards allowed through the air than in either of the team's 10-win seasons. Only one other team in the country allowed more than 4,000 yards passing in 2015. 

Understanding how this happened requires looking at all of the contributing factors. Let's begin with a re-examination of the defensive back recruiting in each of the four classes of ASU coach Todd Graham's tenure, starting with the short-cycle 2012 class that was signed little more than a month after he was hired, and work our way through the most recently concluded class last February. We will include our independent evaluation grades of ASU's signed prospects for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 classes (with the key at the bottom). 

2012 Class 

Laiu Moeakiola -- Spur/Bandit

Oliver Johnson (never enrolled)

Analysis: Todd Graham arrived late in the cycle, ASU only signed two defensive backs, one of whom never enrolled (Johnson), the other (Moeakiola) evolving into a very capable starting Spur after initially working at Field/Bandit safety as true freshman. There is no subsequent down-the-line development of depth at corner/field safety positions from this class because there are no such players added.  

2013 Class (grade awarded by us upon signing next to name of player)

James Johnson 8  -- Bandit/Spur

Damarious Randall 7.5 -- Corner/Safety

Marcus Ball 7.5 -- Bandit/Spur

Will Earley 7 -- Safety/Corner/Nickel

Jayme Otomewo 6.5 -- Safety/Corner/Nickel

Solomon Means 6 -- Corner/Nickel

Analysis: Of the six players signed, one was a star player we undervalued (Randall) in part because Mesa didn't have full game film available on HUDL -- just highlights -- and we didn't access any via other means before signing day so we were ovely conservative in the evaluation; (two are sub-Pac-12 prospects (Means, Otomewo); one is just over the threshold (Earley) but doesn't demonstrate the intangibles to succeed in spite of that and was therefore also a recruiting reach; another has injuries and medical issues that contribute to slowing his development (Ball); the last is a Tillman Jersey wearer who has done fine when in games at safety but is an average athlete (Johnson), probably overrated by us a bit with our initial signing day grade. Once again, what's critical here is that there are no clearly above the margin high school corners/field safety players to be developed here (read: athletic but raw and/or underdeveloped physically, technically, etc). This is the second class in a row in which this is the case; a dangerous thing that ends up costing ASU on the field several years later. 

2014 Class (grade awarded by us upon signing next to player name) 

Tyler Whiley 8 (evaluated as athlete) Corner/Safety

Kweishi Brown 7.5 -- Corner

DeAndre Scott 7 -- Safety/corner

Chad Adams 7 -- Corner/safety

Das Tautatalatasi 6.5 -- Spur/Bandit 

Armand Perry 6.5 -- Safety/Corner

De'Chavon Hayes (evaluated as a running back, not a defensive back)

Coltin Gerhart (evaluated as athlete leaning toward QB) Bandit/Spur

Analysis: In addition to JUCO Kweishi Brown, ASU signed five high school defensive backs, only one of whom is a high school player that we evaluated to be better than a lower-middle tier Pac-12 prospect (Whiley). We underrated Armand Perry significantly, our biggest such mistake among all back seven players in the ASU defense in a three year period. Still, only Perry, Chad Adams, DeAndre Scott and Tyler Whiley were high school prospects capable of playing corner/field safety. Essentially that meant ASU signed three corners/field safeties from the high school ranks in a three year period and two of those players have seen the field rarely or never on defense. All three of these players were only in their second year of college in the 2015 season. ASU just didn't sign enough high school cornerbacks that it kept at cornerback over a three year period. 

2015 Class (grade awarded by us upon signing next to player name)

Kareem Orr 8.5 -- Corner/Field Safety

Stanley Norman (Has not enrolled)

Analysis: ASU signed a great class overall but only two defensive backs, only one of whom ended up enrolling. The other (Orr) ended up playing safety as a true freshman, moving from cornerback when needed due to Perry going down with what would eventually prove to be a season ending injury. 

Evaluation Key

10 -- Elite NFL Prospect

9 -- Very Good NFL Prospect

8 -- NFL Potential

7 -- Pac-12 prospect 

6 -- Group of 5 Prospect 

5 -- Fringe Division I recruit

In the 2012 season, ASU had quality starter-caliber Pac-12 player Keelan Johnson, Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor, Deveron Carr and Robert Nelson in its secondary, so a lot of talent and experience returning. ASU understandably tried to finish Graham's first class by addressing immediate needs. There was't much depth in the secondary but it ultimately wasn't needed, as guys stayed healthy enough. 

In the 2013 season ASU had Darby, Nelson and Irabor returning and added to that an elite newcomer, junior college transfer Damarious Randall, as well as quality starter Lloyd Carrington, who had practiced with the team in 2012 while sitting out post-transfer. There was also Laiu Moeakiola to play Spur. Once Randall settled in, the secondary was in very good shape. But again, who was developing behind the top group, especially considering ASU added no well regarded high school corners in the 2012 or 2013 classes? It wasn't happening to the degree that it should have been. 

In the 2014 season, Darby, Nelson and Irabor were gone but Randall and Carrington returned and ASU was fortunate that it got a lot from safety Jordan Simone post-transfer as a former walk-on who followed secondary coach Chris Ball to ASU from Washington State. That solidified their secondary even though the fourth starting spot was kind of shaky. Junior college transfer Kweishi Brown and freshman Armand Perry were thrown into action as first-year players with mixed results. Brown had a good second half of the season for a newcomer and Perry showed flashes of being a future standout. Then-redshirt freshman James Johnson was in the fold as a safety backup. Who were the young corners though? Rashad Wadood had transferred. Then-junior Solomon Means shouldn't have been more than a backup. Will Early and Jayme Otomewo couldn't do it. Really, there was nobody else because the players had not been added in the previous two years. 

In the 2015 season this all came to a head as Randall departed, Simone and Perry got hurt and the bottom fell out of Brown's season when his confidence left him and opponents figured out how to exploit him in the broader context of ASU's scheme. Chad Adams and DeAndre Scott played safety but neither ready enough to do so effectively, and they'd moved from cornerback, as did Perry and Orr before them. There just weren't enough options for ASU in the secondary to be able to play the same style without having a significant drop off in productivity given the holes that existed. Tyler Whiley wasn't ready, Das Tautalatasi wasn't ready. All of these 2014 signees were in their second year of major college football. Only Whiley was rated as a Pac-12-plus prospect by us, but he was injured and bounced between offense and defense in the prior year and developed slowly. 

Importantly, ASU didn't take any junior college defensive backs in 2015, which in retrospect was a mistake despite what overall was the program's best class. Kareem Orr was thrown into the mix and that'll pay dividends down the line but his season was a mixed bag despite the freshman All-American honors and all the interceptions. Stanley Norman never enrolled.  ASU just didn't have many options and almost none were good options when Brown started falling apart in the second half of the season and Simone and Perry went down. In the previous three seasons ASU had never had to deal with multiple significant injuries to starters on the secondary, and if it had, it probably would have also been exposed. 

At some other position groups on defense, ASU didn't have this problem and certainly not to this degree. There also was better young talent being developed at defensive line, inside linebacker, Devil backer, etc., than in the secondary. ASU's done well in recruiting overall under this staff and in particular 2015 was a great class, but secondary recruiting has lagged behind as evidenced by the grades we've given signees. That's one of the main reasons ASU's already signed two junior college mid-year transfers and taken commitments from two high school defensive backs, and is still recruiting at the position. It might take five or more defensive backs in a row for the second straight class, and it should. 

ASU's personnel challenges in the secondary were exacerbated by Graham's preferred playing style. Being one of the most aggressive teams in the country has its advantages and is a big reason the team has generated so many turnovers, forced so many three-and-outs, gotten so many sacks and tackles for loss, etc. But the style also has its disadvantages, which includes given up more bigger plays, and ASU was last in the country in 40-plus yard plays allowed in 2015. At no time has the drawbacks of Graham's defensive approach been more apparent than in the recently concluded season, in which the Sun Devils just didn't had good enough personnel to enable as much man coverage without zone safety help behind it. 

Graham said ASU wasn't really built to play more conservatively on defense and with its coverages, but blending in more Cover 2 and cloud/sky Cover 3 couldn't have been worse than what ASU faced at the tail end of the season, when four of ASU's last five opponents had 500-plus yards from scrimmage. Brown couldn't cover anyone vertically down the field in man coverage and there was extreme tentativeness when covering at safety. Graham did pull back somewhat on the blitzing six and played a little more Cover 3, but it wasn't a drastic change. 

ASU has made impressive defensive changes within a season in the past, including in 2014 when it shifted Antonio Longino to WILL and went with a bigger four-man front through the heart of last year's tough schedule. It was a move that precipitated a lot of the success the Sun Devils had an the whole and deserved to be commended. But in 2015, ASU found no such fix and its defense seemed to hemorrhage more and more as the year of painful lessons drew to a close. 

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