Arizona State finished last in the country last season in passing defense, and through three games in 2016, the Sun Devils' pass defense has regressed statistically.
After surrendering more than 337 yards per game through the air last season, and this year, the Sun Devils have allowed an average of 379.3 yards per game against three opponents.
On Saturday, a high-flying Cal offense comes to Tempe boasting the nation's second ranked passing offense, behind only Texas Tech which amassed 540 yards through the air against the Sun Devils in week two.
Even though ASU's struggles against the pass are well documented, head coach Todd Graham said some of his most consistent defensive players line up in the team's secondary.
"Secondary, Kareem (Orr) has done really well, Armand (Perry), Laiu (Moeakiola) has played well when he's been in there, he's played limited," Graham said. "De'Chavon (Gump) Hayes, he played outstanding last week, he shut his guy down."
Graham said the primary issue with ASU's passing defense this season has been consistency, as the Sun Devils have allowed five long touchdowns on coverage breakdowns. Graham said part of the challenge for ASU is facing some of the nation's top-ranked pass defenses, while another factor is playing without one of the team's top defensive communicators in senior linebacker Salamo Fiso.
"We've had a lot of really good individual performers, our biggest thing on defense has just been blown coverages," Graham said. "35 of the total points we've given up have been off of just leaving somebody, just blowing a coverage. We're also facing, after this week, we'll have faced the No. 1 and No. 2 offense in the country. It's not really that as much as the tempo, and we're young, we've made some youthful mistakes, but linebacker is obviously great to get Salamo (Fiso) back."
Fiso missed the first three games of ASU's season due to a disciplinary suspension, but Graham said Fiso will return for his first action against Cal. Even though Fiso is more effective at stopping the run than defending the pass, Graham said the linebacker's communication skills are pivotal for ASU's overall defensive success.
"He (Fiso) repped the entire camp and all of training camp he was with the ones the whole time and then he repped with the twos up until the week before the first game," Graham said. "He has gone with the scout team the last two weeks so he's repped against the first offense. He's a veteran so you know, it'll be a little bit of a curve. I know one thing, it's nice having him back."
With Fiso back, ASU has its top returning tackler from a season ago on the field with a unit that has struggled to track receivers and ball carriers in the open field.
Aside from missing Fiso, ASU has been without junior linebacker Christian Sam, who was injured early in the Sun Devils' season-opener against Northern Arizona and was held out of action against Texas Tech and UTSA. On Thursday, Sam walked through the injury line at during warmups at ASU's practice, and Graham did not specify after practice whether he expected Sam to be available on Saturday evening against Cal.
Though Sam is likely doubtful for Saturday's game, Graham said he's in a much better mood this week because he knows Fiso's return will provide an immediate boost for an ASU defense searching for improvement.
"The biggest thing on defense, we've got to get takeaways and we've got to tackle better," Graham said. "And so much of what we're doing is the fundamentals, just tracking and taking the proper angle and those things. But defensively, we've played well at times, the key is consistency. It's been different, we've been different in what we've been doing."