After finishing last in the country in passing defense in 2015, Arizona State inevitably had to hit the reset button in the secondary for its upcoming season.
However, the lingering question heading into week one is how big of a change ASU coaches are planning to implement to get results and preclude a repeat of last year’s injury-laden secondary performance.
“We kind of look at it as the past is in the past,” said ASU graduate assistant Jarred Holley, who works with first-year defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing. “Everyone kind of knows what happened last year, but we are moving forward. We talked about it before the season started, but we kind of closed that chapter in our books so from here on out we are focusing on getting better and getting ready for our first game.”
Already, one of the biggest personnel moves is senior Laiu Moeakiola switching from Spur linebacker back to safety--a position he first played when he came to ASU as a freshman.
And while this move did give ASU a solid pillar in the secondary, it also left a gaping hole at the Spur position in ASU’s traditional base defense.
The Sun Devils have multiple players who could potentially fill the role, but this season, ASU could be using a variety of looks on defense in order to best fit their personnel.
“Our guys on the back end have been doing tremendous,” Holley said. “Coachable, learning different positions, stuff like that. Coach Rushing, coach Graham are coaching those guys up so it’s good to have guys that are interchangeable on the back end so in case one guy goes down another guy can come right up.”
In viewing periods at practice open to the media, ASU has shown a base defensive look, a 4-3 set, and a nickel package and even a lighter, speed-oriented nickel package.
“We really work on adapting our scheme to our personnel, not really to what the other team’s offense is,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “You go in each week and you are going to game plan according to taking away their best run plays and pass plays and then their best players. You can’t tailor what you’re doing to someone else’s personnel, but you can game plan that way. We are just adapting what we are doing to our skills and talents of our players and what they can execute.”
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson introduced a true 4-3 look to the defensive scheme in fall camp which features a Will linebacker, Sam linebacker and Mike linebacker instead of the Will, Sam, Spur, and Devil-labeled linebackers Graham introduced in the beginning of his tenure at ASU.
In this particular 4-3 set, ASU aligns junior D.J. Calhoun at Will linebacker, junior Christian Sam at Sam linebacker, senior Salamo Fiso at Mike linebacker and Moeakiola back at field safety, which allows for four of ASU’s top defenders to be on the field at the same time.
In taking the Spur linebacker out of the picture in the 4-3, the Sun Devils are able to go against run-heavy, pro-style teams like Stanford and Utah with more power and bulk stacking the box.
Putting Sam, a 6-foot-1, 241-pound linebacker, at the Sam linebacker position is similar to 2012 when Chris Young first came to ASU and was slotted as the Sam linebacker in a 4-3 look. At 6-foot, 233 pounds, Young had the third-most tackles on the team that year with 88, only behind Keelan Johnson and Brandon Magee.
But with all these personnel moves, Moeakiola said it’s really about getting back to the fundamentals for a lot of the players and focusing on learning from the ground up across the defense as a whole compared to last season.
“I think a lot of it is the same, coverages and stuff we run is being adaptive to our skills and coach has been harping that this whole summer,” Moeakiola said. “The playmakers we got on defense, (sophomore cornerback) Kareem (Orr), the guys on D-line getting them situated.”
When ASU wants to defend against teams that run certain spread concepts like Washington, USC, UCLA, Colorado or Oregon State, it can operate out of its nickel defense which has four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs--including a Spur. The Spur in this look would most likely be a hybrid between a defensive back and a linebacker like junior Marcus Ball or sophomore Tyler Whiley, because ASU wants its Spur to cover slot receivers.
According to Graham, Whiley has looked good at the Spur position and Graham thinks they finally found the right place to utilize him on defense after While arrived at ASU as a wide receiver from Chaparral High School.
“Gump (Hayes) is such a great athlete,” Holley said. “He picks up on things quickly and it’s just teaching him the little things and the fundamentals of defensive back and that’s everybody.”
Echols has also made quite an impression on the coaching staff despite only starting at ASU this fall, compared to junior college transfer cornerback Maurice Chandler who came to ASU in the spring, but has been unable to stay healthy in fall camp.
"The adjustment is they're more aggressive here (vs Texas),” Echols said. “It's more in your face, bump and run. It suits me. I just have to get back into the swing of things because I went from doing it to not doing it to doing it again because of the coaching change at Texas. I've just got to knock the rust off and get back going."
At safety, Moeakiola-- if healthy--and sophomore Armand Perry appear poised to hold the starting spots followed by junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes and junior Chad Adams, who have practiced mostly with the second team.
“I think we’ve settled in with him (Rhodes) being a safety,” Graham said. “He’s played corner so he’s got some cover ability and that’s why we want to recruit big concerns so we can do lots of things with them. I think he’s settled in with free and bandit safety.”
Experimenting with five defensive backs
In addition to its base, 4-3 and nickel packages, ASU has also worked to incorporate a lighter 3-3-5 look best used against Air Raid offenses like Washington State and California. In this package, ASU will have its pick of Echols, Robinson or even Hayes moving from the field corner position to the nickel corner spot and serving as a fifth defensive back.
One of the main reasons this package is a lighter look is because of the personnel ASU is shifting in its front, as the Sun Devils have looked at using sophomore Joseph Wicker as a defensive end and junior college transfer Koron Crump and redshirt freshman Malik Lawal as Devil backers.
Hayes feels confident that in these situations, he will be able to counteract slot receivers as a nickel corner.
“Yeah definitely because in the game it is going to be more slot-type shifty fast guys, so I feel right now I’m the best for that position,” Hayes said.
If Hayes were to play nickel corner, Echols or Robinson could have a chance to play field corner or vice versa with Echols or Robinson at nickel and Hayes back at field corner like he would be in ASU's other coverage shells.
"It (the defense) is fast and you've got to think on the fly,” Echols said. “It's pretty good being on all those different packages. It's just about working hard every day and fighting through things when maybe you don't have the energy."
When ASU has five defensive backs on the field, the Sun Devils could stick with Moeakiola and Perry at safety, or they could go for more coverage safety players in Rhodes and Adams.
“I think he (Rhodes) is a guy that has had a great camp,” Graham said. “Just a great young man. Studying working hard and learning every day. He’s got a lot of reps with the ones and competing to be a starter.”
Rhodes has been able to get those first team reps at field safety in place of Moeakiola, who has missed multiple fall practices due to injury. Moeakiola’s health will be a key factor for ASU’s defense as a whole with Graham often emphasizing the importance of Moeakiola’s leadership on and off the field.
“We have a lot of guys who are just hungry,” Moeakiola said. “Just having that (last) year leaves a bad taste in your mouth so you go through that whole winter, the whole summer just thinking about that season, but new goals, same goal, new guys, same mindset and I mean we got guys like Kareem Orr coming back, who led the Pac-12 in interceptions, we got Armand who missed a year, was a freshman All-American the year before.”
With adaptability being a key mindset on defense, the Sun Devils have not only been showing multiple personnel groupings, but also coverages.
Since arriving to ASU, Graham has been known for his aggressive, blitz-heavy packages on defense, which often leaves defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. Zone coverages were often minimal at most, but so far in fall camp, media has seen glimpses of more zone looks.
“The most difficult position to play probably in football is defensive back, especially in this conference and this day and age,” Graham said. “We had put a lot of pressure on our guys back there for a lot of years and we’ve had a lot of success. Obviously had some challenges with big plays and things like that last year, but I don’t worry about that at all. I think every year is a new year and there’s a fine line between risk and reward and you just got to figure out where that line is at.”