Through the first four games of the season, Arizona State’s secondary has been thoroughly tested.
Whether it be Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes or a former Texas Tech quarterback, Cal’s Davis Webb throwing it deep against the Sun Devils, they have had their share of explosive plays allowed in the back end.
This year’s group in the secondary is head coach Todd Graham’s youngest to date. There is only one senior starting at in the defensive backfield, with the most experience provided by a sophomore cornerback who spent his freshman season at safety, Kareem Orr.
Having youth at a position is a double-edged sword.
A team has a group of capable players being developed for the years ahead, but some have been immediately thrown into the fire -- and that’s led to the Sun Devils allowing 404 yards per game, an NCAA worst.
First-year secondary coach T.J. Rushing has made this a featured pitch to potential recruits. Not only will there be early playing time, but a player’s skills on the perimeter will be continuously tested in the Pac-12.
“That’s the beauty of playing out here,” Rushing said. “You get to go against the best wide receivers, best quarterbacks. I always tell recruits this, ‘You’re going to come out here and get your skills tested, come on.”
That statement holds true for freshman Robbie Robinson, who is a part of ASU’s nickel package as a nickel corner.
Robinson, the No. 45 cornerback recruit in the country, has been thrown into the fire and played well in limited action.
Rushing mentioned how ASU has tinkered with utilizing Robinson in multiple roles at practice -- and that means the 5-foot-8, 172 pound corner could appear matched up on the outside later on in the year.
Robinson’s film junkie mentality coupled with an appetite for academics -- he boasted a 4.2 high school GPA and is a Barrett, the Honors College student -- has put the Sun Devils in this position less than two months after ASU trekked up north to Camp Tontozona in early August.
“He’s smart, very smart,” Rushing said. “He watches tons of tape. He gets to know receivers tendencies, routes before the game starts. So, he’s mentally prepared, and that’s why he’s extra quick out there on the grass. A lot of it is preparation, but he has all the quickness that you need in a DB. Short area, short burst quickness.”
Even with a talented, young unit, ASU is still allowing over 100 yards per quarter through the air, which is something that will need to be corrected heading into games featuring receivers like USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster.
The Sun Devils’ secondary seems up to the challenge. though.
Last week, Cal junior wide receiver, Chad Hansen, who is currently the leader in receptions in the country at 50, was continuously beating man-to-man coverage from Orr and Hayes in the first half, but after the first half, he was handcuffed to limited openings in space and held to two catches.
Adjustments, especially in the last 30 minutes of play, have been critical to why ASU has gone a month into its schedule unscathed in the record column.
ASU’s hardest hitter in the back level, Perry, and the rest of the team have possessed a 1-0 mentality all season. This week, it’s no different -- and Perry says that wins matter more than stats, which helps because the Sun Devils are 4-0.
“There’s always stuff you can get better on throughout the week, week to week,” Perry said. “I mean, at the end of the day, we’re winning ball games so we just play one team and then after we play them they’re kind of erased after this and we go to the next team. This week, it’s USC. You’re treating it like the Pac-12 Championship. All we’re focused on is going to the Coliseum and just getting the 'W.' That’s the most important stat. Everybody always talks about pass yards, this and that, but the most important thing is getting the 'W' and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Heading into the season, ASU was expecting senior Laiu Moeakiola to transition back over to Bandit safety, but his impact from the Spur position has moved him back to his old stomping grounds. That left junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes to fill the void alongside Perry at safety.
Rhodes, a junior, has seen action in all four games so far, and he is tied for fifth on the team in tackles with 14.
“(J’Marcus Rhodes), he’s doing a good job,” Rushing said. “All of our guys are. I love the competitiveness. I know I’ve said that a lot during camp, I love competition, love breeding competition, and that’s what it’s been. Even throughout the weeks, the guys know everyday, ‘Hey, I got to go out there and bring it on the practice field or there’s a guy dying to come get my reps.’ So, I love that. Wherever Laiu (Moeakiola) plays, position flexibility is another thing I always harp on, those guys are interchangeable. So, whatever gives us the best five guys out on the grass at that time, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Aside from receiving instructions from Rushing, Graham offers individual tips which have helped the group improve each week in practice.
“Yeah, most definitely,” Perry said of the secondary’s weekly improvements. “I feel like all the guys are. It’s just a thing with getting them experience, because a lot of them come from (junior college) and they’re not use to playing in packed stadiums when the pressure is on. Coach Graham is our coach, so whenever you've got the head coach that’s your position coach, it makes it a little tougher but all the guys, they’re handling it really well.”
How does Rushing feel his group is doing through four weeks? He's positive, but said there’s always room for improvement, especially as the country’s bottom feeder in pass defense.
When there are mistakes made on the field in the secondary, they have usually turned into points through the first four contests.
Explosive plays allowed on throws or miscommunications in coverage, which have lead to breakdowns, have been a weekly occurrence, and it’s something that Rushing hopes fades away in the coming weeks.
Rushing and the youthful secondary will continue to hunt for improvement, but heading into the main portion of conference play, there will be some urgency.
Simply put, the former NFL cornerback is looking for greatness from his secondary.
“It’s been good. Not great, but good,” Rushing said. “That’s the difference, right? So, if it’s not great, it equals points. I’m always telling them, ‘Hey, we’re hunting. We’re searching for greatness.’ We’re good, no bones about it. I just want to be great.”
Having gone up against two different variations of the Air Raid already, twice in three weeks, the film is out there on his players, but the battle-tested secondary will stay just that with teams likely looking to exploit ASU’s defense through the air the rest of the season.
“No doubt, because you’re battle tested,” Rushing said. “I mean Gump (Hayes), Kareem, all of those dudes, they’re battle tested. They've got a lot of pass plays on film already. They’ve been attacked everywhere you can be attacked. Now, it’s just honing in our skills, seeing what we need to get better at, and making a good game plan.”null