Arizona State secondary emphasizing competition in 2016

With nowhere to go but up, a new position coach and an infusion of new talent has ASU's secondary focused on improvement.

In 2015, Arizona State had one of the five worst passing defenses of the last decade in college football.

Over the last 10 seasons, only Louisiana Tech's 2012 defense, Cal's 2013 defense and Cal's 2014 defense surrendered a worse total than the 337 yards per game the Sun Devils gave up last year.

While head coach Todd Graham spent the offseason searching for ways to improve ASU's secondary, sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said the Sun Devils have a chip on their shoulder heading into this season because of the poor results.

“We really want it this year, we’ve got something to prove," Orr said. "We were the worst defensive backs in the nation last year, we’ve got something to prove. We’re trying to come out here and show everybody we can do this."

Orr experienced ASU's defensive struggles first-hand, as an injury to safety Armand Perry forced Orr to switch positions less than a month into his freshman season with the Sun Devils. 

The Chattanooga, Tenn. native notched six interceptions en route to earning Freshman All-America status, but Orr played out of his natural position and will switch back to corner in an effort to help ASU improve its secondary.

Graham and Cal's Sonny Dykes are the only two coaches with a pair of passing defenses ranking among the decade's 10 worst, as Graham's 2010 Tulsa team finished last in the country in passing yards allowed per game.

The difference between 2010 and 2015 for Graham? The head coach wasn't tasked with cleaning up the mess at Tulsa, as he left for the head job at Pittsburgh prior to the 2011 season.

In a preseason press conference held last Thursday, Graham said injuries crushed ASU's secondary depth at the end of last season, which contributed to the Sun Devils' porous defensive backfield. 

Now in his fifth season at ASU, Graham is attempting to recover from the worst season of his tenure by restocking the secondary with talent capable of defending against explosive plays.

"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," Graham said. "It's a really explosive league, and there are going to be some bombs down the field and you have to be able to knock those down and not let those things happen."

Sealing the Leaks

Aside from Orr's return to the cornerback unit and Perry's return to full health, ASU has revamped its roster in the defensive backfield to help shore up its pass defense and seal off the leaks that plagued the team last season.

Senior Laiu Moeakiola is the most recognizable addition to ASU's defensive backfield, as Moeakiola is moving back from the Spur linebacker position to start at field safety. Graham has continually cited Moeakiola as one of ASU's smartest defensive players, but Moeakiola missed significant playing time over the last two seasons due to injury.

In moving Moeakiola back to the secondary, ASU is hoping it can keep one of its top communicators on the field while minimizing his injury risks. Without having to contest plays in the box on an every down basis as a linebacker, Moeakiola should have a better opportunity to stay healthy, which is significant for ASU from a talent standpoint and for Moeakiola from a personal standpoint.

"Just to get another opportunity to play out there, that's the biggest part, I just want to be out there, man," Moeakiola said. "Just sitting out spring, and just having that itch to go out there and play with the guys I've been here with, it's more important than anything. I enjoy it, I love it, I'm proud to be on this team." 

With Moeakiola, Orr and Perry set to start in the secondary, the Sun Devils are banking on three players with experience in ASU's scheme to lead the rebound. 

The other likely starter in the secondary is somewhat of a wildcard, as converted running back De'Chavon Hayes spent Thursday's practice with ASU's first team defense.

Hayes came to ASU from the junior college ranks as a scatback/hybrid type of offensive threat, and while Graham still wants Hayes to have a package of plays on offense this season, Hayes' primary focus is now on the defensive side of the ball.

"It's a little different but it's not that different because all my life I've been an athlete, so I was playing corner before so it was nothing I would say that was new," Hayes said. "It's just a little different coming out and playing with guys who have been playing receiver their whole life so jumping into the fire, it's pretty fun."

With ASU's veterans and newcomers split into two groups and practicing in different sessions through the first two days of camp, Hayes was one of just four cornerbacks who took reps on Thursday. Aside from Hayes and Orr, the Sun Devils gave junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes and Texas graduate transfer Bryson Echols the opportunity to rep with the first and second units during the first two days of fall camp.

Rhodes is familiar with ASU's practice routine and scheme because he participated in spring ball with the Sun Devils, whereas fall camp is Echols' first taste of ASU's routine. 

Because the Sun Devils were short on cornerback depth for the first two practices, Rhodes rarely came off the field, which allowed him valuable opportunities to rep against a talented wide receiver unit.

"It's really beneficial for my conditioning and my experience because I'm new to the scheme, so I like it," Rhodes said. 

On Friday, ASU should have more competition joining the cornerback ranks, as the veterans and newcomers will blend which will allow recruits like Maurice ChandlerChase Lucas and Robbie Robinson to compete for a spot on the depth chart.

Like Rhodes, Chandler is also a junior college transfer who enrolled at ASU in January, but an injury sidelined him for much of the spring which limited his on-field assimilation into the Sun Devils' system.

Robinson and Lucas both spoke about the excitement of competing for playing time against more experienced corners, as the freshmen spent much of Thursday's newcomers' session trying, and struggling, to shut down freshman receiver N'Keal Harry.

"They (ASU's veterans) know that I'm going to compete at the highest level and I know that they're not going to give up the position easily" Lucas said. "So it's very intense to see them practice before I go to practice because I feel like I've got to go raise the bar a little bit more, but they're great dudes."

Varying Coverages

Aside from adding personnel to its roster in the secondary, ASU also added a new defensive backs coach to its staff in T.J. Rushing. A former defensive assistant at Stanford, the 32-year-old Rushing spent time in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, which is experience his players respect.

"He’s (Rushing) a real technical coach, a real up-tempo guy, there’s no walking anywhere, he’s always got energy, you’re not going to give him half effort, it’s 100 percent effort and he’s making you better," Robinson said. "You go 100 percent in practice and 100 percent in the game, it’s as simple as that.”

Rushing inherited a dire situation, but he believes in the background of Graham and ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and asserts they have a plan to help the Sun Devils improve on 2015's disastrous defensive results.

"These are two really great defensive minds," Rushing said of Graham and Patterson. "When we go through hideaway, they assess last year and they assess our personnel, figuring out what's going to be best for this team--and that's the fun part. That's what makes these guys and always having success wherever they've gone. It's because they do a great job of assessing their talent and assessing what schemes that we need to be playing and that's how we get good."

In 2015, the main coverage schemes ASU played were Cover 0 and Cover 1, both man coverages that leave cornerbacks and safeties isolated in one-on-one situations against receivers.

When Graham, Patterson and Rushing collaborated this offseason, they acknowledged the importance of varying coverages and showing offenses different looks from the defensive backfield, and the changes have materialized in the first few days of camp. 

On the first day of fall camp, ASU began its practice focusing primarily on zone coverage schemes, which allowed players to become familiar with lining up and defending against formations using zone principles.

"Yesterday we started off with zone, we worked so much zone because it's the Pac-12, you're going to need it," Rhodes said.

Orr said ASU's defensive backs are excited about the philosophical shift, saying the Sun Devils can only improve defensively if they're able to be less predictable in coverage.

"Most definitely, we're trying to mix it up and show people we've got different schemes," Orr said. "We're putting a lot of stuff in this year."

Graham's defensive emphasis has traditionally centered on varying pressure packages and deploying what he considered exotic blitzes in an attempt to disrupt a passing attack's rhythm. Graham has also said for his defense to function at its highest level, it needs to be able to generate pressure with four pass rushers. 

If ASU can find a happy medium between adjusting pressures and varying coverages, the Sun Devils stand to improve their schematic versatility, which should challenge opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators in different manners.

"We're doing a couple of things differently, but obviously, everyone knows that we're coming for you," junior Spur linebacker Marcus Ball said. "We're blitzing. We're a multiple team, and we have a lot of guys who have a lot of talent who can do a lot of things at different positions. We're just utilizing all of our tools to essentially down the road win a championship."

Statistically speaking, ASU has nowhere to go but up. After finishing dead last in the FBS in passing yards allowed, the Sun Devils are positioned to improve. But it's how drastically they improve that will ultimately make a difference in the team's overall record.

Players like Hayes, Moeakiola, Orr and Perry are allowing ASU to mix and match its personnel to find a versatile combination in the defensive backfield. Now, the Sun Devils appear set to mix and match their coverages in hopes they can cut down on the explosive plays that gave the team nightmares a season ago.

"That's our dang motto, I don't want to see balls flying over our head, you know what I mean?" Rushing said. "That's something I can't tolerate. Makes me sick even thinking about it. That'll be the motto for the rest of the year." 

Notes

  • JayJay Wilson did not practice for the second straight day. Junior offensive lineman Tyson Rising was in a green non-contact jersey and did not participate, while cornerback Maurice Chandler and linebacker Khaylan Thomas were both in green jerseys and limited in their participation.
  • Christian Sam was in a green jersey and did not play today after taking first team reps at WILL linebacker on Monday. Sam is still rehabbing his hip, which he had surgery on in the offseason.
  • Manny Wilkins and Bryce Perkins split first team reps with the veterans at quarterback on Thursday while Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole split reps during the newcomers' session. Wilkins and White split first team reps on Wednesday as Perkins and Sterling-Cole played with the newcomers.
  • Sophomore Devil backer Joseph Wicker had his way with ASU's offensive tackles on Thursday and was the top standout from day two of camp. 

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