Tim Nelson/Sun Devil Source

Arizona State focused on rebuilding defensive backfield in 2016

Arizona State finished dead last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game last season and Todd Graham has spent the offseason analyzing why.

All eyes will be focused on the battle for the starting quarterback job during fall camp at Arizona State, but across the field, another unit will host a competition figuring to to be equally intense.

In 2015, the Sun Devils finished last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game, as ASU's defense surrendered 337.8 yards per contest. ASU was repeatedly burned in the secondary last season, and to put the situation into perspective, only two other teams (Oregon, Indiana) allowed an average of more than 300 yards through the air.

In the days leading up to the start of ASU's fall camp, head coach Todd Graham addressed concerns about ASU's defensive backfield at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles and at a preseason press conference in Tempe. 

Graham said ASU's staff spent the offseason analyzing what went wrong in 2015 and determining how the team can correct its fatal flaw this season when the Sun Devils will replace three starters in the secondary.

“It depends on the situation and what game you’re looking at," Graham said of ASU's struggles against the pass. "We did not have many big issues with it until the end of the season. I think injuries really contributed to it and what happens with the injuries is about how you adapt to it. Depth and personnel play a lot into it and the main thing is being adaptive to the guys that we have and what we can do with their skills and talents."

Even though ASU lost Lloyd CarringtonKweishi Brown and Jordan Simone to graduation, the Sun Devils will benefit from the return of safety Armand Perry who missed most of last season and earned a medical redshirt. ASU will also shift sophomore Kareem Orr back to cornerback, where he began his career before switching to safety to offset Perry's loss.

Perry was hurt in ASU's second game of the season, which put the Sun Devils in a bind as Graham expected Perry to step in for 2015 Green Bay Packers' first round draft pick Damarious Randall at field safety. 

"Losing Damarious (Randall) was huge," Graham said. "Losing Armand (Perry) I think really hurt us because we actually had to move a guy who was playing corner over to play safety. He (Orr) did good, got a lot of interceptions, made freshman All-American, but still it was tough. Losing safeties is really tough."

With Perry set to return to the field safety position and Orr manning one of ASU's cornerback spots, the Sun Devils have a pair of voids to fill in the secondary. 

After watching ASU's depth deplete last season, Graham wants to ensure the Sun Devils have more talent at their disposal in the defensive backfield and plans to move senior Laiu Moeakiola away from the SPUR linebacker role to the bandit safety position.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Moeakiola has been one of ASU's top defensive players over the last few seasons when he's been on the field. The key, for Moeakiola, however, is staying on the field. In each of the last two seasons, Moeakiola has missed playing time due to various injuries and in Graham's words, spent the final weeks of last year playing at around 75 percent.

If ASU was plagued by injuries in the secondary last season, why would it choose to move a player with a fragile past into one of its key positions? Graham said the transition for Moeakiola is about capitalizing on his experience, and easing the load on his body by moving further back from the line of scrimmage. 

"Laiu (Moeakiola) can cover," Graham said. "We know Laiu can play there -- but we know obviously we think that he can play safety -- stay healthy, so smart, can really help us so we'll see how that works."

Moeakiola, Perry and Orr have all started games for the Sun Devils, so the lone spot in ASU's defensive backfield lacking an experienced player is the cornerback position opposite Orr. At Pac-12 media day, Graham indicated senior De'Chavon (Gump) Hayes would have the inside track at earning the starting job, but also mentioned a handful of other players who could factor into the competition at cornerback.

"We got Maurice [Chandler], J'Marcus (Rhodes), Robbie Robinson, Chase Lucas he'll be at corner, Gump (De’Chavon Hayes]," Graham said. "Tim (White), his role will be very limited, if any on defense. He is a dynamic player. I also believe there's things we can do with a Gump (Hayes) as a running back that can help us. First day of camp he'll be learning the package we'll be doing with him on offense. He's really one of the starting corners. So him and Orr."

Hayes began his career at ASU as a running back, but transitioned to cornerback during the season last year and worked his way up to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Hayes is the only cornerback of the group Graham singled out who practiced at the position last fall, as Chandler, Rhodes, Robinson and Lucas are all newcomers. 

ASU will continue to sort through personnel in hopes of finding the right mix by the time the season starts September 5, but the Sun Devils will also tinker with a philosophical shift in the defensive backfield this fall.

Previously, Graham has treated the SPUR as a linebacker, but beginning in camp, the SPURs will follow Moeakiola and train with the safeties.

This change is in response to teams using three or four wide receiver sets to spread the Sun Devils out defensively. When offenses like Washington State and Oregon face ASU this season, Graham will play with five defensive backs on the field and he wants a player who knows the coverages and communication ASU's secondary players use to play SPUR.

"When we play a three wide receiver set team or four wide receiver set team, we will play five defensive backs," Graham said. "We know that Laiu (Moeakiola) can be that Spur if we need him to be, but we wanna try we think we can keep him healthy and then see how he looks. I know he can play up there, but I'm gonna maybe look at like a J’Marcus [Rhodes], Coltin Gerhart, some guys that have a bit more cover ability there."

Configuring a defense based on an opponent's offensive scheme is a similar tactic to what ASU used earlier in Graham's tenure. When the Sun Devils faced run-heavy opponents like Stanford and USC, Graham often used bigger players at positions like Devilbacker and SPUR. A SPUR like Anthony Jones was often lost in coverages, while a player like Moeakiola wasn't quite durable enough to act as a linebacker and consistently stop the run.

Now, ASU can adjust its SPUR on a game-by-game basis, and when the team uses a safety to play SPUR, that player will be well-versed in defending the pass. 

Graham also specified how the coaching would shake out in the defensive backfield, now that ASU is committed to changing its personnel on an as-needed basis.

"We're gonna put the Spur with the safeties," Graham said. "We'll have a strong safety (SPUR), a free safety, a bandit safety, and then we'll have two corners. I think obviously we've got Coach (Jarred) Holly that'll work with the safeties a lot and then Coach (T.J.) Rushing -- he'll coach the whole backend. He'll work with the corners more, and then obviously I'll work with all of them back there, overseeing them a little bit."

In theory, shifting the SPURs from practicing with the linebackers back to the safeties appears conservative for a coach like Graham whose defense is predicated on attacking. However, Graham indicated he still wants the SPUR to play a role in run support, and of course, Graham still wants the SPUR to blitz.

"I kinda like taking a look at J’Marcus (Rhodes), a big guy there that can force the blitz off the edge and do some things there (at SPUR)," Graham said.

Rhodes will push Hayes at cornerback, and the 6-foot-1, 195-pound transfer from Kilgore Junior College will apparently also compete with 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior Marcus Ball for time at SPUR. Ball has the size and the speed to play in the box when called upon, and Graham probably likes the fact Ball has trained at safety for much of his career.

Though ASU will be inexperienced at SPUR and will spend time determining the proper way to train SPURs for different situations, the players who play the position and the coaches who coach it may not notice much of a difference from previous seasons.

That's because it doesn't really matter what you call the position or where the players train, what matters is the role the SPUR ultimately plays. Moeakiola and Jones were both SPURs by definition at different points in their careers, but the two obviously had different body types and served in different capacities. 

If Graham is serious about a philosophical flip, then Ball or Rhodes or anyone else that ends up playing SPUR won't blitz or play in the box as much as SPURs of the past. But until that flip manifests on the field, we can only assume the changes in training and practice are geared toward making sure the SPUR is as technically sound with ASU's calls and coverages as possible. 

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