Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has emphasized the importance of adapting schemes to the skill set of players, and so far this season, Graham has accomplished that on defense. With his youngest secondary during his tenure in Tempe, Graham has scaled back the pressure for more variation in coverages to help out on the back end.
In examining ASU’s sack totals throughout Graham’s five years with the program, the statistics reveal that he is indeed scaling it back.
In 2012, Graham’s first year as the head coach of ASU, he said he used a more simplistic scheme. That year, the Sun Devils actually finished with 52 sacks, the most of any season under Graham thus far. From there, ASU’s sack numbers took a dip down below 40 with back-to-back seasons of 39 sacks in 2013 and 2014. And then last season, Graham’s defense had 46 sacks, representing a slight jump.
With youth and inexperience in the secondary this season, Graham said ASU will continue to adapt to its players by staying multiple with coverages and using less pressure to help them out.
“I think that we’ve tried to be adaptive,” Graham said. “We’ve spent a lot of time researching. Not researching plays, we researched our players. We also knew coming in we were going to have a young secondary. This is the youngest secondary we’ve ever had. We’ve always had a more veteran group. I thought Laiu (Moeakiola) played one of his best games. I think Armand (Perry) is playing really solid. So, Armand, Laiu and Kareem Orr are all guys with experience. The other two positions are guys who don’t have experience, so we’re learning as we go and we’re getting better. The good thing, we’ve been able to do that and win."
Graham mentioned that playing against high powered offenses through ASU's first four games — especially Air Raid offenses used by Texas Tech and Cal — has contributed to calling less pressure-heavy looks.
Through four games, ASU has 11 sacks this year. If the Sun Devils continue that rate over a 13-game season, Graham's defense will finish with about 36 sacks, representing the lowest total in his five-year tenure.
"We’re getting back up there, we’re moving up in the sacks, we’re moving up in the TFLs (tackles for loss) — and we pressured a little bit more last week — but it’s really, we try to look at, and I thought we thought we had to look at that bunch," Graham said. "Just adapt to what we’re doing. And then, you know, it’s difficult because the less you pressure, obviously you need to be a little bit more diverse in your coverage packages.”
Throughout fall camp ASU was working on moving senior Laiu Moeakiola back to bandit safety, which he played earlier in his Sun Devil career before switching over to Spur linebacker. But after a lingering hamstring injury during the first few weeks of the season limited his mobility, the defense seemed to stabilize with one of their leaders moving back to his old position.
Moeakiola did not play in the season opener against Northern Arizona, and then after receiving playing time against Texas Tech and UTSA as a safety, ASU's coaching staff moved Moeakiola moved bandit safety to Spur in the third quarter against the Roadrunners. From there, one of ASU’s two key defensive communicators has continued to knock the rust off.
Graham said Monday Moeakiola’s switch back to Spur has helped the defense, and he will continue to play him there for the foreseeable future.
With ASU's defensive line and linebackers serving as a strength of the 2016 defense, especially with the amount of depth at both, Moeakiola's return to Spur opens up new lineup possibilities.
With junior linebacker Christian Sam going down with an ankle injury in the first half against NAU, the linebacker corps is still not at full strength — but senior Salamo Fiso did make his season debut Saturday which included a fourth quarter interception when he dropped back into his zone.
Sam's status is still uncertain heading into this week against USC, but Graham said that he continues to improve week-to-week.
Having Sam, Fiso, Moeakiola and sophomore D.J. Calhoun on the field together is something that ASU was planning on doing with Moeakiola at safety, but their various absences over the first four weeks has prevented the Sun Devils from using all four players at the same time.
“Yeah, depending on the grouping I’d love to have all those guys on the field at the same time,” Graham said. “We planned on that, we’ve just go to get them all healthy. I really just don’t know. We think Christian (Sam) was getting better last week, and we’re hoping he’ll be ready to go this week. I don’t know, though.”
Heading into the meat of the Sun Devils' Pac-12 schedule with USC, UCLA and Colorado as their next three opponents, Graham said the defense needs to focus on its fundamentals.
Even if it’s only a few plays a game where there’s either a miscommunication or breakdown, Graham said opposing offenses are continually capitalizing on the Sun Devils' critical errors.
“The biggest thing that I can assess to this point is just we need to really focus on fundamentals,” Graham said. “The thing that happens to us is just critical errors. We’ll have some guys playing really well, all but three plays, but those three plays they give up 14 points or something. It’s just kind of one of those things. I think that we were probably trying to do too much earlier in the season maybe for where we’re at. We’re just trying to find that happy medium is.”
In the second half against Cal, ASU found a happy medium by sending more pressure and it made a difference against Webb. Sending five to six-man pressures flustered the graduate transfer, which led to two interceptions that ultimately led to ASU’s 51-41 victory.
Graham recognizes the importance of cutting down on critical errors, but he also said the Sun Devils need to be able to execute complex schemes, because as conference play rolls along and ASU takes on superior opponents, simplicity will be taken advantage of.
“You can’t just be completely simple, but you’ve got to be able to execute what you’re trying to execute," Graham said. "I think we’re figuring out what we can do, and those types of things.”