Three season ago, Arizona State won 10 games and the Pac-12 South, with defensive backs Alden Darby and Robert Nelson making the first-team all-conference team and Osahon Irabor earning second-team honors.
The fourth starter in the secondary for much of that year was Damarious Randall, who didn't even earn honorable mention honors despite finishing tied for third on the team with 71 tackles.
Randall of course went on to become a first-team all-league player as a senior in 2014 and a first-round draft pick in the 2015, No. 30 overall to the Green Bay Packers.
It's safe to say ASU's secondary was very talented in that 2013 season and it needed to be for the Sun Devils to win the South. This is an ASU defensive scheme that is more presser oriented than any of its peers in the Pac-12. A lot of responsibility comes with that.
The Sun Devils have led the Pac-12 in each of Todd Graham's four seasons in solo tackles as a percentage of overall tackles. Bringing more five and six man blitzes than anyone else in the league and perhaps nationally means there is less redundancy behind it, and a greater likelihood of giving up explosive plays.
ASU found this out the hard way last season. It finished last in the country in 40-plus yard plays allowed, and last in the country in passing yards allowed per game. And at 337 yards allowed per game, it wasn't even close.
Injuries played a role. Sophomore Armand Perry was expected to replace Randall at field safety but suffered a severe ankle injury that wiped out his season. Senior Jordan Simone went down with an ACL tear in the second-half of the schedule.
But more than anything, the Sun Devils just didn't have enough talent, or at least the right type of talent for their desired style of play. To play in the Cover 0 and Cover 1 shells that Graham relies on he needs a secondary full of players who can be relied upon to handle man coverage assignments without help. Last year, with cornerbacks Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington and his collection of safeties that saw the field after Perry went down, he didn't have that save true freshman Kareem Orr.
Even so, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson didn't make significant structural changes. Their personnel would have been better suited to playing a lot more conservative coverages, dividing the field into quarters or thirds in zone at depth. Instead, they were exposed time and again to big play vulnerability.
This year we'll likely see some increased zone coverages from the Sun Devils, such as Cover 3. First-year ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said the motto for his unit no receivers making catches behind the last level of defense.
"I don't want to see balls flying over our head," Rushing said. "You know what I mean? 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."
With Orr shifting to the boundary corner position and Perry at field safety, the Sun Devils have two players they should be able to rely upon to some degree in some of the more demanding coverages. Often, for example, Perry has to cover the slot receiver when the Sun Devils blitz the Spur. That's the defensive player they've tended to pressure with more than any other on base downs.
The rest of ASU's secondary is less proven from a coverage standpoint. Senior Laiu Moeakiola, who started the last two seasons at Spur but was moved to Bandit this season, is better served playing in the box and tighter to the line of scrimmage.
Moeakiola's great in that type of role as long as he's healthy, but in more open field he faces increased challenges to his athleticism even though he's an ultra-smart player; that's even operating at 100 percent, but Moeakiola has been dealing with a hamstring injury that led to him missing a few practices recently to see a specialist out of the state.
ASU's expected starting field corner, senior De'Chavon Hayes, has more than enough speed and quickness to play the position. But he's largely untested from a game standpoint still after being moved to the position from running back after the first month or so of the 2015 season. Man coverage situations should actually be better suited to Hayes at this stage of his development than playing zone.
The next tier of players the Sun Devils will count on at safety includes junior safeties Chad Adams and James Johnson, both of whom were used as fill in players at times the last couple years. They were on the field quite a bit during the team's worst performing games in passing defense last season.
If Moeakiola isn't able to play in the opener against Northern Arizona, Adams could be on the field in the Bandit role. That would provide a good early indiction of how he'll do against the pass because Northern Arizona has a good capability for an FCS squad. Johnson has been rehabbing a right knee injury and may not be ready to play.
Newcomer junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes was moved from cornerback to safety in preseason camp and is another safety option who could see the field Saturday, particularly as Bandit where he's battling Adams for the backup job behind Moeakiola. Athletically he's well suited for the position but again, another player who has yet to show he's ready to play at this level on the big stage.
Sophomore Das Tautalatasi missed a significant portion of practices this month due to an undisclosed reason but is another safety option. He's bounced around from field to Bandit to Spur but seems to be battling true freshman Kyle Williams for the backup field side job behind Perry. Williams has only been practice on defense for two weeks but is a more athletic coverage option at a position group that doesn't have enough of those types of players to handle the stress that may be put upon the secondary by the play-calling.
At cornerback, there are two very good young developmental players, true freshman Robbie Robinson and Chase Lucas. The diminutive Robinson, who stands 5-foot-8, is going to play this season at the nickel corner on passing downs and back up Orr at the boundary position on base downs. That's where junior college transfer Maurice Chandler will likely line up, but Chandler's only started practicing fully in recent days after being non-contact all camp due to injury. Lucas is light, with a weight that's listed at 156 pounds. He's best served redshirting and may be able to, but he fits the scheme very well as a cornerback/field safety.
Senior post-graduate Texas transfer Bryson Echols played very sparingly last season for the Longhorns but is a backup option behind Hayes at the field corner posiiton who could even move up if Hayes struggles.
Overall this until likely won't be like the 2013 secondary that had four all-league caliber starters. But for the Sun Devils to have a better outcome than their 6-7 record last season they'll need clear improvement from their defensive backs and it's just not something that's been demonstrated as likely entering the season.
Todd Graham: “The most difficult position to play probably in football is defensive back, especially in this conference and this day and age. 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.”
Todd Graham: "Am I concerned (about secondary injuries)? Oh obviously, I would like to be 100 percent healthy. But, that's kind of part of it, I'm not one to really make excuses there even though that's something that yeah, I can tell you that where we're 100 percent healthy I'm not near as concerned."
Todd Graham: "He's (Moeakiola) got a hamstring issue and we're trying to work on it, trying to get it, just kind of a nagging thing, not a reoccurring thing, just a nagging hamstring deal so that's where he was [through the weekend] is seeing a specialist." Graham said.
T.J. Rushing (secondary coach): "That's our dang motto, I don't want to see balls flying over our head. You know what I mean? 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."
Jarred Holley (graduate assistant): “We kind of look at it as the past is in the past. 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.”
Laiu Moeakiola: “We have a lot of guys who are just hungry. 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 (Perry) who missed a year, was a freshman All-American the year before.”
Kareem Orr: “We really want it this year, we’ve got something to prove. 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."
Armand Perry: "My thing is why not me? I want to be that guy who makes that solo tackle. I want to be the guy who makes the big play. It's a high risk defense but coming here you know what you signed up for. We don't really think about that. We're tweaking some things schematically, trying not to put some our guys in quite as many situations. We're cutting down on that a lot and we're doing that with our alignment and our technique and our assignments."
De'Chavon Hayes: "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. 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."
Bryson Echols: "The adjustment is they're more aggressive here (vs Texas). 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."
Todd Graham: "One, [Kyle Williams is] a great athlete, he's going to play a role for us this year for sure. We've got some guys missing practice so we're taking a look at him there but he still is a wide receiver, we're just taking a look at him there. But he's doing a great job, really a tremendous athlete."
Chad Adams: “The new motto for our group is the dark side. We kind of set the burden aside, picked dark side. Not a bad boy motto, just a motto for us. I think it was Kareem who came up with it honestly. We were trying to come up with something new. Coach (Chris) Ball left (to Memphis), and coach Rushing coming in, a lot of people left. Just wanted to have something fresh and new.”
Chad Adams: “It’s pretty much our whole defensive thing, relentless effort. That’s why we take the field how we do, run off the field. It’s a mindset, really. Our defense just trying to take over, be relentless. A thing we’ve had a lot of is turnovers. This fall, I feel like we’ll be a part of that with relentless effort, getting people to the ball, causing takeaways and turnovers.”