Preparing to play its first Pac-12 game of the season, Arizona State is continuing to tinker with its defensive personnel after struggling through its first three non-conference games.
After moving senior Laiu Moeakiola from Spur linebacker to bandit safety at the beginning of the year, ASU’s defense has been in constant rotation, trying to figure out which player is best fit to replace Moeakiola at Spur.
In ASU’s 32-28 win over University of Texas-San Antonio last week, Moeakiola started the game at bandit safety, but after multiple defensive breakdowns, was moved to Spur linebacker in the third quarter, replacing junior Marcus Ball.
Junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes replaced Moeakiola at bandit safety and UTSA went three-and-out four times in a row after the personnel change.
“You get moments like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what you’re supposed to do,” Moeakiola said about being inserted at Spur. “But in the heat of the moment it was kind of second nature to me, it was exciting, but then once you get to the sideline and coach corrects you…it wasn’t perfect.”
Following a second shoulder surgery in December, Moeakiola went into the season expecting to play at safety due to a perceived strength of the linebackers corps and the weaknesses in ASU's secondary. Last year, Moeakiola played 11 games and had 51 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks at the Spur position.
“Yeah, it stabilizes us I think,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said about Moeakiola at Spur. “We’re still talking about that. Obviously he will do whatever we need him to do. He hadn’t practiced any at Spur, he just went over and played it. Pretty good likelihood that’s probably how it goes.”
Against Texas Tech in week two, Moeakiola split reps at Spur with Ball and sophomore Tyler Whiley, but on Friday against UTSA, he finished the game with the first team defense playing the majority of his reps at Spur.
“I just go out there and just try to get the guys confidence up because I’ve been in the same situation,” Moeakiola said. “We were down and guys were kind of, we needed stops so basically I was trying to get the energy up and the other guys, we were just feeding off of each other.”
Despite getting replaced by Moeakiola in the third quarter, Ball led the team with seven tackles. However, UTSA was constantly targeting Ball with passes to its running backs into the flat or on wheel routes out of the backfield.
Facing an Air Raid offense in California on Saturday, the Sun Devils have a greater need for a quick-read defender at Spur and a better coverage player at bandit safety. As a result, there is a good chance Moeakiola continues to mostly play at Spur against the Bears and a trio of safeties will get looks at bandit.
"J'Marcus (Rhodes) and Chad Adams will play back there (bandit safety), possibly (freshman safety) Kyle Williams maybe a little bit, he's getting a little closer, but Laiu (Moeakiola) will play both based on what package we're in,” Graham said.
Rhodes finished ASU’s game against UTSA with three tackles and had a near-interception that would have prematurely ended the Roadrunners final drive, if not for the call being reversed after review.
After being fourth on the depth chart to start camp, Rhodes said he has been working on practicing his technique, especially man coverage and backpedaling.
“It's whatever coach Graham wants,” Rhodes said about whether he will get the start against Cal. “I just go out and execute whatever he says and just whenever Saturday comes, whoever starting is starting and I just play my role.”
Williams took first team reps at bandit safety at Tuesday’s practice while Moeakiola took first team reps at Spur and Rhodes took second team reps at bandit. Sophomore safety Armand Perry was working normally at field safety.
Tuesday was the first time Williams has worked at bandit.
"I really like what I've seen from Kyle, if he would have been over there the whole camp, he would have probably been playing by now,” Graham said. “He is really a smart, gifted athlete, but he's just learning. He's trying to learn everything. I think he'll definitely play before the year is out."
Williams said both Graham and ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing approached him about making the move to bandit Tuesday morning and a lot of veteran players, like Moeakiola, have been helping him out as well.
“They (Rushing and Graham) were both talking to me earlier in the meeting today and before practice they were talking to me and just talking about how they were going to try me at Bandit for a little bit.” Williams said.
The 5-foot-10, 178-pound player already burned his redshirt in ASU’s season opening 44-13 win over Northern Arizona after participating on the kickoff team.
“It’s just learning different positions and kind of just venturing around and working really hard and studying hard so it’s a little change, but I’m here to help the team out so I’m studying up and learning new positions,” Williams said.
Williams said he didn’t know who would ultimately get the start at bandit, but he’s focused on “trusting the process” and continuing to learn the nuances of ASU’s defense.
“It will definitely be really cool,” Williams said about playing against Cal. “It’s a blessing to be able to play as a true freshman so I’m just excited to see where the rest of this week is going to go and I’ll continue to work hard every day.”