1. Kareem Orr (sophomore) -- It appeared likely he would arrive on campus at ASU a year ago as a talented player given how seriously Orr was pursued by Ohio State in the recruiting process, even visiting the school multiple times before choosing to play in Tempe. To finish the season with more interceptions than anyone else in the Pac-12 is something that couldn't have been predicted.
Orr was initially set to play cornerback but ASU transitioned him to safety following the injury to Armand Perry in the second game of the season. Truth be told, Orr was out of place and fortunate to have the ball inaccurately thrown on at least several of his interceptions. His overall play was mediocre and a contributing factor in ASU's nation-worst passing defense. But Orr learned a lot by being thrown into the fire and that experience is going to benefit him tremendously through the rest of his career.
Key read awareness in zone coverage was a challenge for Orr as a rookie. Opposing offenses deceived Orr, manipulating him out of position with play action, pre-snap motions and challenging route combinations. He was more prepared to handle man coverage situations as long as he kept his eye discipline sound. At times he'd get his eyes away from what he was supposed to be focused on and that caused most of the issues.
There's no doubt Orr has very good man coverage ability and terrific ball skills. In the spring and through camp he was the defensive back that generated the most turnovers. He showed improved ability to manage space and use his eyes properly in zone coverages. His assignment soundness should improve significantly as a percentage of his overall reps as a sophomore. He has the athletic mobility to play the position at a high level.
The Sun Devils are using Orr at the boundary cornerback position, where there's a need for increased physicality. That position has to hold up well against the run into the boundary, and not be washed out of plays attacking the boundary on the ground or in the quick screen game. Orr is stout and well put together for a cornerback, at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, with a frame that reminds of former ASU defensive back Omar Bolden. ASU also uses the boundary corner as a blitzer at times so a physical attack of blocks is necessary in such a role.
Overall this is one of the team's best and most versatile defensive back prospects and he should elevate his play in 2016 to be among its best players in the defensive backfield as well. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4.5
2. Armand Perry (sophomore) -- Perry played a role as a freshman, primarily on third downs, and then transitioned from cornerback/nickel back to safety ahead of the 2015 season, where he was set to replace NFL first-round draft pick Damarious Randall. The Sun Devils were limited with their options in the secondary going into the season and were heavily reliant on Perry being able to pick up where Randall left off without a lot of drop off.
Perry looked pretty good at the position in camp and the team's first game and a half before he suffered the ankle injury. He was able to get a medical waiver granted so the year essentially became a redshirt. Now he'll get another shot at the position. ASU struggled mightily in the secondary, finishing last nationally in passing defense. Not having Perry on the field was a major factor, it appeared.
With the status of senior Laiu Moeakiola uncertain due to an apparent hamstring injury, and sophomore Kareem Orr moving from the field safety position, where he had six interceptions last year as a true freshman, to cornerback, Perry is again the focal point of ASU's secondary entering the season. He's added a fair amount of size and strength since arriving at ASU and physically looks more like a safety now than a cornerback. But Perry has coverage skills and athleticism and that's essential at the position.
A lot of the challenge will come down to how instinctual Perry is at play identification and getting to spots on the field where he'll need to be in order to make plays. There's a major range requirement for the field safety in this position as it's almost like the center fielder of the defense. We'll see some additional coverages this year, so he'll have to be adept in man and zone situations and also being physical and smart coming up in run support.
Perry has the physical tools to do all of this. In the past he's had a tendency to be a bit uncomfortable when playing in relaxed man coverage, preferring the feel of close contact. Managing that buffer distance is going to be a challenge at field safety but he has the ability to get his hips around and run with vertical threats and is a physical player coming forward for a safety.
This is one of the key players to ASU's overall defensive success in 2016 because the front seven should be pretty good, particularly against the run, and Graham is going to bring a lot of pressure on passing downs. That puts the safety in a lot of man conflict in wide swaths of field and Perry will need to perform. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4
3. De'Chavon Hayes (senior) -- After a season in which Hayes underperformed internal expectations on offense he was moved to the defensive side of the ball for bowl practices. Since then he's primarily practiced at cornerback, and showed a lot of potential on defense. Hayes is going to have a limited role on offense according to ASU coaches, but spend the vast majority of his game action in the ASU secondary.
Hayes is arguably the fastest player on the ASU defense and probably top-3 on the team along with running back Kalen Ballage and wide receiver Cam Smith. Hayes has really good close area acceleration and adjustment quickness. He's able to overcome split-second reaction errors that would ruin the chances of less athletic players on any given rep. So he has a wider margin for error on the field, which is a huge advantage.
Man coverage ability on the field side is Hayes' strength. In a stripped down style of playground football, he's going to be great. In Cover 0 and Cover 1 situations he should hold up well, and ASU runs a lot of both. The more layers of processing that are put upon him -- coverage reads in zone, communicated pre-snap adjustments based on motions and shifts, etc. -- the harder the challenge of assignment soundness will be.
ASU may have to play more conservative zone coverages at times this season if others in the secondary aren't able to handle the athletic demands of so much man coverage. That's where we'll have to take a wait-and-see attitude with Hayes' effectiveness. A lot was expected of him on offense last season, and it wasn't an athletic limitation that stopped him from fulfilling it. He's now going to get a chance to show that it won't be the case on defense.
There's enough of a physical disposition that Hayes will compete and won't shy from contact. Getting off blocks and being stout against the run won't be his strengths but shouldn't be huge liabilities either as far as coverage corners go. But he's going to have to earn his keep by being able to fill his role on passing defense, where ASU had a disastrous 2015.
Hayes could also be ASU's punt returner. He averaged 8.7 yards per return on 14 attempts last season, and is one of several players in the mix for the job this year. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3.5
4. Robbie Robinson (freshman) -- Great cornerbacks tend to be supremely confident and fearless, with an ability to quickly forget a bad rep. They're also almost always some of the best athletes on the football field. Robinson fits that mold very obviously. He combines tremendous belief in himself and very impressive short-area quickness in a way that makes him a quality cornerback prospect.
Robinson is one of the quickest players on the team. He has a great ability to change directions and accelerate in a way that allows him to close down daylight to get back in phase with wide receivers. His recovery ability is borderline elite and he has enough speed to carry receivers vertically with effectiveness as long as he's not severely beaten early in the rep. A hard-nosed player, Robinson is also going to drop his shoulders and be fearless as a tackler, and fight to get off blocks and hold his ground on the edge of the field.
Long-term, the biggest limiting factor with Robinson long term is his height. There are very few 5-foot-8 cornerbacks who make it to the NFL. Even when playing in phase Robinson is going to be giving up seven or eight inches to a lot of taller wide receivers. There were at least a few times in camp in which Robinson was in ideal positions and yet the ball was thrown so perfectly that it was completed over the top of him. That's going to happen sometimes but be less of an issue in college football.
Robinson's length could also present some challenges with handling blockers who are longer-limbed. It will make it tougher to get unblocked at times even though Robinson is well put together and a physical player. He has the quickness and moxie though to potentially be a quality player in college and it appears he'll get a chance to show that sooner than later. Preparedness grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4
5. J'Marcus Rhodes (junior) -- ASU knew it needed junior college help last year when it experienced major depth and talent issues in its secondary during the season. It eventually signed mid-year enrollees J'Marcus Rhodes and Maurice Chandler, with both players enrolling for the spring. Neither participated through the entire spring period, with Chandler injured and Rhodes missing about half the team's practices due to what was termed a personal matter.
In the spring Rhodes worked at cornerback but as practices got underway in August he transitioned to safety, and that's where he figures to get an opportunity to see the field early in the season. A bigger defensive back, Rhodes is angular, lanky, and more of a glider than a quick twitch athlete. His length is an asset in terms of coverage ability and range on the field.
Rhodes fits the ASU scheme as a versatile defensive back who can run with receivers and close down space, but he'll need to be a very cerebral player to make a major impact in the Pac-12. He doesn't have the margin of error of others in the ASU secondary because he doesn't re-direct quite as well from an athletic standpoint.
When his technique is good, however, Rhodes has a chance to be very effective, particularly as he has the size and ball skills to be disruptive when in phase, and the capacity to come downhill and make tackles due to his length and heft. He's largely untested and we've seen almost none of Rhodes in a true football setting, so there's still much to learn about him from an evaluation standpoint. Preparedness grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3.5
6. Bryson Echols (senior) -- We didn't get to see a lot of Echols in August with the Sun Devils but he appeared to be rusty early on -- and admitted as much -- before starting to get more in the flow of things as camp unfolded. A reserve at Texas, Echols didn't get a lot of reps at the school and that inactivity probably contributed to some degree to his slower start this month, coupled with having to learn and adjust to the scheme.
Early on at Texas his coaches had a style that was more aggressive but that changed, and getting used to playing more bump and press coverage techniques again was part of the challenge. Echols took most of his reps in camp that reporters observed with the second-team at field corner, but he did get some opportunities with the first-unit ahead of senior De'Chavon Hayes.
Our expectation is Echols will begin the season with the second-unit even though he's listed as a co-starter with Hayes at the position. One of the lighter corners on the roster, Echols is a cover corner type player and that's why he's better suited for the field side, where there's not quite as much physical demand from a strength and size standpoint. Still, that's going to be worth watching both in the screen game and how he handles hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage with bigger receivers he's trying to keep from accessing their desired releases. Preparedness grade: 2 / Potential Grade: 2.5
Preparedness/Potential Grade Key
5: All-American level performer
4: First/second team all-league level performer
3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer
2: Fringe Pac-12 performer
1: Non-Pac-12 level performer
Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.