ASU Football: Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson assuming more control

As Arizona State breaks in a new quarterback and four new offensive linemen, head coach Todd Graham has ceded some defensive control to assistant Keith Patterson.

Like most football coaches, Todd Graham's career resume includes stints and stops at a plethora of different programs. 

As the Arizona State head coach embarks on his fifth season with the Sun Devils, his time accrued in the maroon and gold marks the second longest pit stop of his career. Save for a six-year assignment as head coach at Allen High School in Allen, Texas, Graham has never enjoyed stability at the same level he has experienced during his tenure in Tempe. 

The lives of football coach are often defined by change, and Graham's career has included few constants.

ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson happens to be one of those constants. Graham's college roommate at East Central University in Oklahoma, Patterson joined forces with Graham for two years at Allen High, all four seasons Graham spent with the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, a 2011 campaign with the Pittsburgh Panthers, and now again with the Sun Devils.

Graham hired Patterson prior to the 2014 season at ASU, and the pair are entering their third season working together on Graham's current staff.

Graham's current staff, though, includes five new assistant coaches after an offseason of coaching turnover. 

After the 2015 regular season concluded, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell accepted the head coaching job at Memphis, and promptly hired former ASU assistants Chip Long and Chris Ball. Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp left ASU for Missouri, while running backs' coach Bo Graham was replaced in the middle of last season by interim running backs coach Josh Martin.

As the Sun Devils prepare for a 2016 season that will feature a new quarterback, four new starting offensive linemen and a secondary trying to recover from a season in which it led the nation in passing yards allowed per game, Graham needed a constant at ASU.

While Graham's personal coaching resume won't gain a new bullet point this fall, five new ASU assistants' resumes will, which is why Graham is leaning on Patterson now more than ever.

While Patterson initiated play calls for ASU's defense last season, Graham is ceding even more defensive responsibilities to his long-time assistant. 

“It’ll go well, we’ve done it when we were at Tulsa and Pitt, we always did it that way,” Graham said. “I’ll still be very involved, there’s just some things with a lot of new parts and stuff like that, we have to make sure we get things evaluated and make sure that everybody is on the same page so that’s kind of why I’m moving the way I am. That’ll slow when we get closer to game time.”

Last year, Patterson was charged with making ASU's primary defensive play calls, while Graham was responsible for signaling the calls on the field and audibling when situations necessitated changes. In March, Graham said that system will change, and Patterson will assume on-field authorities as well.

"We were kind of in a transition last year where coach (Patterson) called a lot of the defenses last year, I was still involved with audibling on the field," Graham said. "I'm not going to do that this year. He's going to be the communicator on the field instead of me."

The change allows Graham more time to survey all facets of the team during camp, and keep tabs on the progress of players and coaches new to specific roles.

With a new offensive coordinator overseeing the program's first quarterback competition since 2012, Graham emphasized the importance of devoting time to some of the program's most pressing matters.

"The big thing is just where we’re at with four new offensive linemen, I want to be able to see the quarterbacks, obviously making sure everybody is on the same page as far as top to bottom staff-wise and I want to be able to move around a little bit, especially here early," Graham said.

Calling on the past

As Graham and Patterson transition back to the ways of their past when Patterson called plays, Patterson indicated ASU's scheme would reflect the change.

Last season, ASU frequently blitzed five and often six players with the goal of impacting the quarterback and disrupting rhythm in opponents' passing attacks. The attacking tendency backfired on the Sun Devils, as the team finished last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game.

After Thursday's practice at Camp Tontozona, Patterson said he wants the Sun Devils' defense to be more multiple this season. Instead of focusing on multiple pressure packages and selecting from a narrow slew of coverages in the secondary, Patterson hopes ASU can disguise its blitzes and coverages better this year.

"I think offenses allow you to be more multiple now," Patterson said. "Where you use to have a base-front coverage and have an alternative coverage behind it, so you had to be a little bit more simplistic. I think we're a lot more multiple up front, trying to be more multiple coverage-wise. The whole thing is trying to create doubt in the quarterback's mind. Is that gonna be a two-high safety coverage, is it a single-high safety concept? Put doubt in the quarterback's mind."

On the first day of fall camp, junior cornerback J'Marcus Rhodes said the Sun Devils began defensive practice with zone coverage work, which ASU rarely used last season. Sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said the Sun Devils' improvement this year will be tied to how well ASU can mix its coverages.

While so much is made about overall player development and improvement, junior Spur linebacker Marcus Ball credited ASU's coaching staff with taking initiative to tailor the team's defensive philosophy to allow the Sun Devils to be more complex defensively.

"Playing a little bit of cover three, switching it up a little bit," Ball said. "Like I said, that's why it makes us more multiple. A lot of different things. That's what's best about the whole team aspect. Not only have our players developed over the summer, but our coaches have developed. They're always upstairs thinking of ways how we can get better."

With veteran communicators like senior field safety Laiu Moeakiola, senior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso and junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood in line to start, ASU has players with multiple years of starting experience at every level of the defense.

Patterson believes having experienced leaders on the field will help the Sun Devils achieve their goal of creating more schematic versatility, because a coaching staff's playbook is only as deep as its players allow. 

"The kids I think are farther along in understanding and developing our scheme," Patterson said. "That's what's important, it really doesn't matter what the coaches know, it's really important what the guys out there playing and making plays (know)."

Last season, Graham was the manager who left his starting pitcher in too long. After developing a habit for finishing among the nation's best teams in sacks and tackles for loss during Graham's tenure, an ASU defense that worked well in the past garnered too much trust from its coach.

While injuries left ASU's bullpen bleak and perhaps left Graham with no choice but to leave his starter in the game, opposing offenses began to master the scouting reports against the Sun Devils' five and six-man pressure packages.

This year, with Patterson serving as Graham's pitching coach, the Sun Devils' defensive coordinator is set on calling offerings that keep offenses off balance.

"If you give them a steady diet of something, well eventually it's like the pitch count in baseball," Patterson said "If you leave your starter in the whole game, he'll get beaten up in the 7th, 8th, 9th inning obviously. So, it's the same thing. You've got to have enough defense to where you can give multiple looks, even late in games. Make something look like something, when it's really not. It's an illusion. We really chart that, and I think not allowing offensive coordinators to draw a beat."

Outlining change

Even though Graham and Patterson foresee a more multiple defense, ASU isn't abandoning its calling card this season. Graham's attacking philosophy precedes him, and ceding play-calling control to Patterson won't change the Sun Devils' propensity to blitz.

Pressuring the quarterback is paramount for Graham, but it's how the Sun Devils generate pressure that makes a difference in the outcome of a given play. If ASU sends six players and doesn't impact the timing of a quarterback and receiver, there's a greater likelihood the Sun Devils will surrender an explosive play than there would be if ASU pressured with four players. 

The number of players ASU pressures with correlates with Graham's faith in his defensive front's ability to accumulate sacks and tackles for loss. In 2015, ASU lacked depth up front, so Graham responded with more six-man pressures. In 2013, ASU could depend on players like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford to control the line of scrimmage, so the Sun Devils were able to use more four and five-man pressures.


Heading into 2016, Graham said the Sun Devils are closer to achieving the type of requisite depth on the defensive line to impact the quarterback the way the team did in 2013. 

"I think we're closer to being there, we'll have to see," Graham said. "JoJo (Wicker) is special. I think Tashon (Smallwood) can be special. We'll see. I'll tell you a guy that intrigues me as a pass-rusher is Jalen Bates. I really worked at trying to adapt some things there, you know. Yes, we definitely want to be able to line up and rush four and play two-man we'd love to do that, or play key coverage in the backend. I'd like to rush five and play man-free everyday."

In any scheme, a stronger defensive line makes for a stronger defensive unit as a whole. But in Graham's scheme, the defensive line takes on a heightened responsibility because it has a greater potential to ease the pressure on defensive backs. 

With Moeakiola and Perry manning ASU's safety positions, Patterson is confident the Sun Devils' defensive backs will be able to communicate coverage responsibilities and checks, but the key to the defense's overall success is cutting down on explosive plays.

"Secondary-wise we've got to be able to cut people off vertically, no matter what the coverage concept is, stay sound, and challenge the ball when it's in the air," Patterson said. 

With new assistants, new personnel and a new emphasis on versatility within ASU's defensive scheme, Graham is once again surrounded by change.

For the ASU head coach, change is nothing new, and neither is the idea of leaning on Patterson, a near-constant throughout Graham's career. And much like Graham, Patterson is always determined to keep ASU's opponents' guessing. 

"Our whole thing is, it's a chess match, you know?" Patterson said. "You better not be thinking about the current call. You better be thinking two-to-three calls down the road."

 

Notes

  • ASU practiced at Rumsey Park in Payson on Friday morning instead of Camp Tontozona because of wet field conditions. Practice concluded 20 minutes early because of lightning in the area, which forced ASU's players to run off the practice field and board team busses.
  • When asked if ASU would hold Saturday's practice at Camp Tontozona, Graham said the field conditions must improve because it's not safe right now. 
  • Graham was asked which freshmen have stood out through three days of practice, and after a long pause, Graham said, "Cohl Cabral. I had to think about that one a bit, but Cohl Cabral."
  • Junior WILL linebacker Christian Sam was in green for the second practice in a row. Sam is recovering from hip surgery this offseason, but practiced on Wednesday morning.
  • Friday's practice was the first time veterans and newcomers blended in the same practice as ASU held separate sessions for the first two days of fall camp. N'Keal Harry was the only freshman who earned an offensive rep with the first team, and Harry saw just one rep.


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