High rep count, thin depth pose challenges for ASU defense

With an injury keeping junior Christian Sam off the field, Salamo Fiso and D.J. Calhoun have been forced to play nearly every defensive rep for Arizona State.

In Arizona State's 40-16 loss to Colorado Saturday, the Sun Devils' defense was on the field for 84 plays and struggled to keep a balanced Buffaloes' offense from moving the football.

The Buffaloes' tempo wore down the Sun Devils' defense at altitude, as the combination of Colorado's fast-paced offense coupled with a stagnant ASU offense helped Mike MacIntyre's squad play 21 more offensive plays than Todd Graham's. 

Facing the challenges of defending against an up-tempo scheme and playing with limited depth, the Sun Devils wound up giving up 6.9 yards per play against the first-place Buffaloes.

"When they don't make a sub, when they don't change personnel, you can't sub," ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Because they're going at a good tempo, it's smart. At the end of the day, here's what I think I chalk it up to. You've got to give Colorado credit. They're hungry, they're playing well, they're playing with a lot of confidence so I don't want to take anything away from what they were able to do. That night, they were a better football team."

Throughout the season, ASU's defense has struggled with tackling ball carriers in open space, and that trend continued on Saturday night in Boulder. Patterson said after watching the film he could cite a number of reasons why ASU's defense fell flat against Colorado, but focused on the Sun Devils' tackling issues.

"That's a great question," Patterson said when asked why Colorado was so successful. "I think honestly a culmination of a lot of things that we probably don't have time to get into but you know, I don't know if anybody can watch that and go, here was the problem. Because it wasn't obviously, I didn't like the way we tackled. Multiple missed tackles, opportunities and then there's a plethora of things I could point out but we don't have time."

Many of the Sun Devils' missed tackles came during the second half of Saturday's game, when ASU's defensive personnel was winded as a result of being on the field for so long against a fast-paced unit playing at altitude.

Patterson and Graham were largely resistant to making defensive substitutions unless injuries forced their hand Saturday, and part of the rationale behind deciding when to substitute is a reflection of ASU's thin defensive depth.

The Sun Devils began the season without senior Sam linebacker Salamo Fiso, who missed the team's first three games due to a suspension of a team rules violation. During that time, ASU was also without junior Will linebacker Christian Sam, who suffered an ankle injury in the first half against Northern Arizona in the team's season-opener. 

Sam has yet to return to the field since his injury, which has force junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun to play in both ASU's base and nickel defensive packages throughout the season. Calhoun has rarely come off the field this season, and on Wednesday, Patterson said the high rep count probably effected Calhoun's overall capabilities against the Buffaloes.

"If you really think back to a year ago when we played Sam on base downs and Fiso on base downs and bring in Calhoun, he was very productive and explosive in the nickel," Patterson said. "Now he's playing every base down plus the nickel downs, when you look at it from the Cal game I think he played 101 plays not counting special teams and then you know, 80 something the next week, 80 something the following week. D.J. has to speak for himself but that would be one way it could possibly effect you."

On Monday, Graham said Sam's recovery from his injury is moving along at a "turtle's pace," and on Tuesday and Wednesday, junior Devil backer Alani Latu worked with the second team defense at Sam linebacker, which may signal ASU is considering swtiching Latu to the linebacker corps to add much-needed depth.

News and notes

  • Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins arrived at ASU's practice in running shoes Wednesday and did not take any reps during a team tempo period open to the media. Wilkins spent the individual periods throwing with ASU's other quarterbacks.
  • Sophomore safety Armand Perry also arrived at practice in running shoes and participated in team warmups before heading over to Muscle Beach for the individual and team periods.
  • Sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr wore a compression sleeve around his right knee which he injured against UCLA, but Orr was a full participant in individual and team drills.
  • Junior wide receiver Cameron Smith warmed up normally, but spent team and individual drills at Muscle Beach stretching.
  • Sophomore left guard Sam Jones wore a walking boot on his right foot for the second straight practice after being injured on the final play of ASU's loss to Colorado. 
  • Calhoun wore a green non-contact jersey for the second straight practice, but Calhoun participated in individual and team drills and intercepted freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole during the team tempo period. 
  • After missing Saturday's game due to a suspension, sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson was working with the second team offense at tight end.
  • Senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes worked with the first team defense at cornerback ahead of junior cornerback Maurice Chandler, who wore a bulky knee brace at practice after being injured in the first half of Saturday's game. 

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