Graham focused on defense yielding fewer explosive plays in 2016

Arizona State was the worst passing defense nationally in 2015 and its head coach knows that has to change in the year ahead.

Blown coverages, breakdowns, and critical errors.

All are words Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has used on numerous occasions to describe the performance of the Sun Devils’ secondary in a disappointing 2015 season.

And with ASU losing three key starters in the secondary due to graduation – bandit safety Jordan Simone, field cornerback Kweishi Brown, and boundary cornerback Lloyd Carrington – Graham said Monday the Sun Devils will have “three to four” new starters in the secondary for the 2016 season.

But for Graham, having to fill some positions with new players is something he sees as an opportunity to get better.    

“(It’s) probably not a bad thing,” Graham said in regards to the player turnover in the secondary. “I can tell you we’re not going to get any worse.”

Last year, the Sun Devils’ passing defense ranked last nationally with 337.5 yards allowed per game, averaging 8.5 yards allowed per play. ASU also ranked worst in the Pac-12 for passing yards allowed per reception with 14.9 per completion.

Time and time again, a basic quick slant route would turn into an explosive play, leaving ASU’s secondary in the dust. That's when opponents weren't simply throwing it over the top successfully due to a coverage bust or communication breakdown.

“The No. 1 thing on defense is eliminating the big play and a lot of those we went back and studied and lot of those have to do with busted plays in one facet or another, but the No. 1 emphasis on defense is continue to get better with the things we did well,” Graham said on Wednesday. “We played the run really well. Eliminate the big play. That means keep everything in front of us.”

With the addition of new ASU secondary coach TJ Rushing, the Sun Devils are looking to do just that.  

"We have to eliminate big plays,” Rushing said in late February. “That's our job. There's a couple times on film where we're there, we should make the play and a 10-yard gain turns into 60. That's the stuff we have to eliminate."

But with the three key secondary losses, the only two players left on the team who got time as a starter are current redshirt sophomore safety Armand Perry and sophomore safety Kareem Orr

Perry got the starting nod at free safety to start the 2015 season before going down for the rest of the season with an ankle injury in the second game and Orr took his place as a starter at free safety. This year, it appears Orr and Perry will look to lock down the two starting safety positions.

“We're just having fun with it,” Orr said. “We (Perry and I) are finally getting to play together so we’re just having fun with it and it’s a good time.”

Perry said it feels good to be back out practicing with his teammates, but he's still is working to get back in playing shape. He said it was a “pretty dark time” sitting out the year with an injury and his whole foot was swollen to a size a little bigger than softball. 

“I love this game and when you get something that you love get taken away from you it’s hard especially when I knew I could have been helping my team,” Perry said. ”It was frustrating, but I just tried to think positive.”  

Perry is currently filling one of the two starting safety spots for ASU in practice, but said coaches also have him working at corner and he thinks his position will depend on what teams ASU plays in the fall and each specific game plan.

“One of the things we are doing is dual-training our guys so what that means is during the season we play boundary and field and stuff like that and match up on personnel, but in the spring we do left and right so they can learn,” Graham said. “So (junior safety) Chad (Adams), Armand (Perry), and Orr are dual-training at safety and corner. And you can do that if you have some on the right and some on the left.”

Rushing said he doesn’t know yet who will fill all four starting spots in the secondary this year, – especially with the team dual-training the players in the secondary for the spring – but his plan is to “put the best four defensive backs on the field.”

“My job is to figure that out, which spots they'll help us best at,” Rushing said. “And then their job is to go out there and compete like crazy every day. It will be a competitive room. I'm not sure where they'll end up lining up, but the best four will be out there together.”

Along with Perry, Orr, Adams, senior De'Chavon Hayes redshirt sophomore safety Das Tautalatasi and junior safety James Johnson two newcomers joined in on the hunt to earn their starting roles in the secondary.

Junior college transfers J'Marcus Rhodes and Maurice Chandler are both early enrollees and joined the Sun Devils for their first spring practice on Monday.

“They (Rhodes and Chandler) going to make a big impact on the program,” Orr said. “We just got to get them ready. Get them into the system and once they learn the system they are going to get going and we’re going to be good.”

Chandler got first-team reps at corner to start ASU spring ball and was the only newcomer to get first team reps on either side of the ball during the portions of practice observed by reporters so far this week.  

“I feel good and I’m just grateful just to be in that position coming in,” Chandler said. “I always got something to prove coming out of JUCO. It’s just Graham having that much faith in me makes me want to play harder for the team.”

Orr said both Chandler and Rhodes come in as big, physical players – Chandler being 6-foot-1, 190 pounds and Rhodes being 6-foot-1, 195 – and he sees their speed as a key advantage for the team.

“I feel like I can get more physical with the receivers,” Rhodes said. “Slow up my back pedal, you know my arms are longer than most corners so I am able to touch them earlier than most corners, so I use that to my full advantage.”

Rhodes is currently taking snaps with the second team at cornerback and Rushing has reiterated to him that the depth chart isn’t finalized.

For Rhodes, he said coming to ASU has been the “best decision” he’s made in his life concerning football and academics and he loves everything about the program.

Rhodes said connecting with his teammates and coaches have gone well so far and he’s just continuing to learn the new system the defense has been implementing so far this spring.  

“Well we watched a little of the film from last year but coach Graham and coach Rushing and (defensive coordinator Keith) Patterson, we are starting anew and we are starting to expand,” Rhodes said. “We are starting more and being not just one-dimensional because teams are going to catch on so we are just starting to expand and do new things on the field.” 

Orr echoed Rhodes’ statements, and said the coaches have been putting in some new packages and playing with different fronts and coverages.

Additionally, Orr said in order to combat the explosive plays down the field that cost the Sun Devils’ last year, they plan to be “playing more zone.”  

With ASU’s reliably attack-minded defensive philosophy being employed the past four years, it often left secondary players to be in press coverage and a lot of one-on-one situations with no support in the event of a physical or mental error.

Last year, Simone led the Pac-12 for the number of solo tackles he had as a percentage of overall tackles he made with 81.3 percent.

Former ASU safety Damarious Randall holds the No. 1 spot in Pac-12 in the last four years for the number of solo tackles he had as a percentage of overall tackles he made in 2014 with 82 percent.

While those numbers may sound impressive, leaving defensive backs on an island in the secondary and forcing them to make that many solo tackles is leaving ASU more prone to be exposed on the back end. It's an inevitable trade off, yielding big plays in exchange for making big plays, but one Graham wants to improve upon in 2016.

Out of the 516 pass attempts ASU’s defense faced in 2015, 103 passes were defended or broken up – only 1 in 5. It's far from the team's best performance in the category under Graham, as ASU defended one out of every 3.1 passes thrown in 2012 and one out of 4.3 in 2013. 

“The guys we have, the defensive backs, they know the spotlight is going to be on them,” Rushing said. “It's good, I like the pressure aspect of it. As a coach, throw my on the hot seat with them. If we don't get it done, throw it all on me, it's my fault we didn't get them ready.”

But so far into the spring, Rushing has gotten high praise from Graham and players for his teaching abilities on and off the field. 

“Coach Rushing taught us a lot,” Chandler said. “Being under somebody that has already been there where you’re trying to get is a big key. Talking to him, every time being in his office, just him letting us know the keys and letting us know what we have to do to get to that level is really good.”  

Notes

  • Graham said after practice senior defensive lineman Edmond Boateng has been moved back to the Devilbacker position because of so many players competing for a role on the defensive line.  

  • Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Bo Wallace was not in attendance for the second straight practice.







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