Keith Patterson intrigued by defensive synergy exiting spring

As Arizona State concluded its last official practice until the beginning of preseason camp in August, the program's defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has a good feeling about his unit.

While spring practice ultimately may not be indicative of how Arizona State will look in the fall – especially on defense with multiple injuries and newcomers still learning the ropes –  the positives of the spring came in the form of experience for players and evaluation time for coaches.

ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson left the final practice on Saturday with the thought his defense accomplished everything he wanted it to achieve this spring.

The emphasis on limiting explosive plays was noted and exemplified on the field, and ASU’s red zone scoring defense was “solid all spring,” according to Patterson. With these two key goals set and executed in the spring, Patterson can now look to toward Camp Tontozona and into the fall on how best to prepare his players for the 2016 season.

“We’re excited and it really doesn’t have to do with any scheme or anything other than the fact I like this team,” Patterson said. “I like the chemistry. I like the synergy. I’ve said this more than once. There is just something about this group. They have come to work 15 practices as a group and I can’t remember one day when we walked off the field and went, ‘Wow we let that one get away,’ and that’s what intrigues me and gets me excited about next season is if they continue to take that approach into fall camp.”

In ASU’s final spring practice there were a handful of defensive players making their last impressions before heading off to their summer workouts. ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker went as far to say he thought the defense won the day overall. If it did, Wicker certainly played an integral role.

Noted as the team’s best pass rusher from ASU head coach Todd Graham this spring, Wicker once again shined in another spring practice. Getting to the quarterback twice and having his way with some of the offensive linemen during team periods on Saturday, Wicker said he felt like he made a couple good plays and is still continuing to improve on his pass rushing skills.

“Boy he (Wicker) has got a good upside,” Patterson said. “He’s had a good spring and the thing I like about him is the work ethic that he brings to practice every day. I mean, he just comes everyday and he’s one of the most hard-working guys on our team.”

From a defensive line standpoint, Wicker said he felt like the group took “big, dramatic steps” this spring in both the run and pass game.  

“We understand our scheme a little bit better now,” Wicker said. “We are doing the same stuff just a little bit different. I understand it better. It’s a little simpler. I feel like we are all comfortable considering that we are all basically veterans on the d-line so I’m comfortable with it so they definitely better be comfortable with it because they’ve been here longer than me.”

This summer Wicker said he’s going to focus on getting faster and even more in shape after already losing about 10 pounds prior to spring ball.

In addition to the progression of Wicker, another player also singled out by Graham this week is junior outside linebacker Koron Crump. On Wednesday, Graham said Crump was the most impressive newcomer this spring and on Saturday, Crump showed even more versatility, playing with his hand in the dirt at the Devil position.

Before Saturday, media had not seen Crump line up in a three-point stance and play with his hand down, since Crump was normally playing in a two-point stance at Spur. But for Crump, he said he played in a three-point stance in junior college so under ASU’s system, he’s comfortable doing the same.

“Yeah we’ll give him that option at times,” Patterson said regarding letting Crump play with his hand down. “If we know it’s a certain situation that will allow him to do that and he’s explosive either way and man, he’s like an energizer bunny.”

Both in a two-point or a three-point stance, Crump said he is able to get to the quarterback, but the biggest focus is working on his get off out of the three-point stance and how that changes from a two-point stance. Crump, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, said this summer he is aiming to add an additional 10 pounds after adding seven pounds since the start of spring.

And with Crump – in addition to redshirt freshman Malik Lawal, junior Marcus Ball and junior Alani Latu all making strides as outside linebackers – the group may lose linebacker Laiu Moeakiola to field safety starting in fall camp due in part to some depth concerns in the secondary.

Moeakiola, recovering from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the team's Cactus Bowl game against West Virginia in December, didn’t even taken the field for spring practice but was looked at as a key member of the group for 2016.

Now, Moeakiola, since transitioning to the Spur position during the 2013 season, will move back to field safety where he initially practiced at ASU as a freshman out of Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. This move will also allow sophomore defensive back Kareem Orr to transition over to corner alongside senior De'Chavon Hayes or whomever ends up winning the job.

“It’s all situational obviously and grouping oriented and things like that,” Patterson said regarding Moeakiola playing at field safety. “The thing that Laiu has that makes him such a good football player is one, he’s extremely smart. Two, he relies on unbelievable technique so he’s always under control. He’s always in position to make plays so it’s not always about speed to just the physical characteristics as it is the technique he brings to the table and he just understands pass route concepts.”

In addition to the move of Moeakiola to the secondary, senior wide receiver Tim White has been taking reps at cornerback – a move Graham referred to as probably not permanent, but could be a spot White plays on third downs or in ASU’s nickel package.

On Saturday, White took basically all of his team reps on the defensive side of the ball.

White said Graham told him Friday that would be the case. According to White, last Wednesday he played all of his snaps on offense so Saturday served as the practice to balance it on the defensive side.

“I feel it’s good,” White said. “It’s just transitioning on the field and communicating with everybody and hopefully we can get a lot of work this summer but I feel pretty confident about it. Just go out there and make plays and do my job.”

Relying on his athletic abilities and instincts as White said, he feels like he has the natural ability to play cornerback and his confidence will help him lead the way. And with the ASU secondary appearing thin with two walk-on safeties almost regularly getting reps in with the second team, looking at White as an option in the secondary is just another idea.

Especially in ASU’s defense, the secondary is a key component. If the front four can’t get to the quarterback by themselves and if the players on the back end aren’t dependable or experienced enough to deal with one-on-one situations in press situations, ASU’s system can be vulnerable at times.That’s why the influx of newcomers and injuries in the group has caused multiple position changes, to explore a variety of combinations. The Sun Devils still don't really know what they have to work with in junior college transfers J'Marcus Rhodes and Maurice Chandler. Both cornerbacks were with ASU for spring ball, but Rhodes missed a handful of practices for personal reasons and Chandler has never been full go due to a nagging leg injury.

“We’re always going to be an attacking aggressive style defense,” Patterson said. “It’s just being calculated when you take those risks and try to minimize those risks on the back end. Take the pressure off some of those guys and put them in situations that set them up for success so I think we’ve done that. I like the way our system looks and I like the way our kids have adapted and I feel good where we are.”

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