In 2013, the defense that propelled Arizona State to the only 8-1 record in Pac-12 South history placed three members of its secondary on the Pac-12 All-Conference team.
The fourth starter in the defensive backfield for that team was Damarious Randall.
Randall ultimately proved to be the best of the bunch, a first-team all-conference player in 2014 and the lone NFL first-round draft pick from ASU since Todd Graham became its head coach. He's now starting at cornerback for the Green Bay Packers.
The other players, cornerbacks Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson and safety Alden Darby, were all seniors who had arrived at ASU prior to Graham. Irabor and Darby had 50-plus career starts between them before that season had even begun, while Nelson had been in the program two years already and played a lot the previous season.
Randall and Nelson are the two best coverage defensive backs the Sun Devils have had under Graham. Nelson just had an interception for the Houston Texans on Sunday after being called up from the practice squad. He had six interceptions for the Sun Devils in 2013, which tied for the Pac-12 lead that season.
ASU gave up a very respectable 26.6 points per game in 2013 and finished fourth in total defense in the Pac-12 at 372.4 yards. But Sun Devils were first in interceptions with 21, first in turnover margin at plus-15, second in opponents' first downs, and third in sacks, all indications of success within their preferred style of play.
But even as the Sun Devils were winning 10 games in 2013 and on the verge of doing just as well or better on defense in 2014, they were failing to secure the secondary talent required to sustain their success into the future.
In fact, their problems started even before Randall stepped foot on campus.
The lifeblood of a program
Graham arrived in Tempe in December of 2011 with a near-religious commitment to pressure-oriented defense. In the ensuing four years, he'd blitz more than any other Pac-12 team, and very frequently do so with six-man pressures. Occasionally, opposing coaches would even publicly bemuse at the insatiability of Graham before the two teams met on the field.
Structurally, behind that type of approach there's really no choice but to play a lot of man coverage in the secondary. It's a schematic philosophy that invariably puts a lot of stress on defensive backs to closely cover their wide receiver assignments without safety help. The goal is for an ASU pass rusher to get to the quarterback before he's able to find an open receiver, thereby generating sacks and forcing turnover-inducing mistakes.
Such an approach requires capable pass rushers, and also, an uninterrupted flow of coverage defensive backs athletically capable of handling such assignments. But Graham's staff didn't have the right approach, nor an appropriate sense of urgency with keeping the well of talent flowing to Tempe.
In Graham's first recruiting class, the Sun Devils did not add any defensive backs who'd play for the program other than current senior Laiu Moeakiola. They did sign Oliver Johnson, a holdover commitment from previous coach Dennis Erickson, but Johnson never suited up for the Sun Devils. Moeakiola has proven to be one of the team's key defensive players in recent years, but he is more of a hybrid safety/linebacker than a coverage defensive back.
Since Graham had just about six weeks to cobble together that recruiting class, a reasonable case could be made that they were too late in the process to secure any quality defensive back prospects. As a result of that unfilled void and a bare cupboard left by Dennis Erickson, the 2013 class needed to successfully replenish the roster. This didn't happen, even though the Sun Devils did sign Randall out of Mesa Community College as well as fellow junior college defensive back Solomon Means, who would go on to be a role player over a two-year period. Those additions created an obstructed look at the distant horizon.
The Randall signing allowed ASU to continue to play its desired style in 2013 and 2014, and it had a lot of success. Even in 2014, after the departures of Irabor, Nelson and Darby, the Sun Devils didn't backslide much at all defensively in their second consecutive 10-win season. That was largely due to Randall being one of the top defensive backs in the country, a player who often was left to a man coverage assignment as the Sun Devils blitzed their Spur as a fifth pass rusher on a majority of downs.
But nobody in the program with any experience was remotely close to being able to fill the void of Randall's departure to the NFL the following year. In the 2013 class, the Sun Devils signed high school prospects Marcus Ball, James Johnson, Jayme Otomewo and William Earley. Otomewo and Earley didn't even make it through 2015 at ASU and neither had a future on the field at the major college level. Johnson has been a career reserve through this, his fourth year at ASU. Ball, also a fourth-year junior, has only recently entered the starting lineup, and is listed by ASU as linebacker on its roster even though he's playing the Bandit safety position. Like Moeakiola, he's a hybrid player.
None of the four high school 2013 signees would be described by ASU coaches or anyone else as coverage defensive backs well suited to be handling man assignments in the open field behind a presser-oriented defense. The Sun Devils also signed two-way prospect Ronald Lewis in the 2014 class out of high school in Louisiana, but Lewis tried wide receiver and cornerback, never stuck at either, and transferred.
In the 2014 recruiting class, which was signed after their staff had six months to evaluate its 2013 roster and realize their future success in the secondary was in jeopardy, the Sun Devils signed junior college cornerback Kweishi Brown and high school defensive back recruits Armand Perry, Chad Adams, Das Tautalatasi and DeAndre Scott. They also signed two-way prospects Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley, each of whom was being considered to play on defense.
Brown started for two years as a cornerback at ASU but proved to be an ever-increasing liability. Even so, the Sun Devils didn't have any real options to replace him with in 2014 or 2015 because they'd not signed any 2012 defensive backs, nor anyone in 2013 capable of playing cornerback other than their starting field safety Randall, and the marginal junior college transfer Means.
Indeed, over a three-class period that made up their 2012, 2013 and 2014 recruiting cycles, the Sun Devils signed exactly zero high school players who have demonstrated the ability to play cornerback successfully in the Pac-12. Of the defensive back signees who remain in the program from those classes, all are safeties, and only Perry -- and to a lesser degree Adams -- are even physically capable of playing the field side safety position as ASU prefers to use it.
This was the hand dealt to Keith Patterson when he accepted Graham's invitation to become ASU's defensive coordinator in February of 2014.
The Patterson years
One game after starting quarterback Taylor Kelly went down with a foot injury at Colorado, Arizona State suffered its worse home loss of the Graham era, a 62-27 thrashing at the hands of UCLA in quarterback Mike Bercovici's first career start.
What will be remembered about ASU's response to that 2014 game is the indelible "Jael Mary" touchdown walk-off a week later at USC. What won't be remembered is how Patterson authored a defensive change that helped save the Sun Devils' season. ASU went to a heavier defensive front and reconfigured its personnel against the Trojans in the 38-34 win, and continued to fine-tune the adjustment even more successfully in subsequent victories over Stanford (26-10), Washington (24-10) and Utah (19-16).
Bercovici helped steer ASU in the right direction, but it was really the ASU defensive moves that propelled the program to its second consecutive 10-win season. The Sun Devils severely curtailed the opposing run game with their personnel moves, and made opponents more one-dimensional in a way that serviced their ability to pressure quarterbacks and induce mistakes. There is no greater example of this than their fourth win in a row, a 55-31 deconstruction of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish rushed for 41 yards on 38 attempts and threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, one by Randall and another by cornerback Lloyd Carrington.
"Against Utah and Notre Dame, in a two week period, we brought five or six (rushers) 130 times and Damarious Randall never broke a sweat," Patterson said, an indication of how aggressive they were able to be with blitzing due to having Randall as a stop-gap in man coverage behind it.
Five weeks after the Sun Devils beat Duke 36-31 in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 27 to earn their tenth win, they signed their first recruiting class with Patterson on the staff. The 2015 signing haul included two true coverage defensive backs, Kareem Orr and Stanley Norman. A four-star recruit with offers to match, Norman never made it to Tempe due to academic and other off-field issues and a second serious knee injury. It left the Sun Devils with just one defensive back in the class, which certainly wasn't enough given the existing roster composition at the time.
While the 2015 class included more four-star prospects than any at the school before it -- a historically significant and impressive accomplishment -- there was nonetheless some shortsightedness. At the position group Patterson coaches personally on a daily basis, the Sun Devils signed just one inside linebacker prospect, Khaylan Thomas. While this decision didn't hurt the program the following season, in 2015, it set a course toward some of the challenges now apparent in 2016.
A staff that had in earlier years turned to the junior college ranks to flesh out its secondary -- Randall, Means, Brown -- elected not to do so in 2015. But ASU didn't already have in its coffers enough talent to make such a decision. Graham, who'd personally spent a lot of time working with the defensive backs in practices early in his tenure, and then-secondary coach Chris Ball had to have known this, or at least should have. They'd seen Ball, Johnson, Otomewo and Earley in practices for two years, and Adams, Tautalatasi, Scott and Whiley for the last year. None of those players had, even in a practice setting, presented themselves as coverage defensive backs able to hold up to their schematic demands.
This is how the Sun Devils ended up in the 2015 season finishing last nationally in passing defense despite using the same philosophical approach that put them among the national leaders in three-and-outs and turnover margin just two years earlier. When Perry was injured and lost for the season in non-conference action, the Sun Devils had to play Orr as a true freshman at field safety. When Brown faltered, there was nobody to replace him at cornerback save converted running back De'Chavon Hayes, a position switch made out of desperation. When senior Jordan Simone was lost to injury against Arizona, there was a precipitous drop off to whomever trotted onto the field.
Certainly, injuries happen and are part of the game. But ASU shouldn't have needed to start Perry and Orr so early in their careers to begin with, and should have had other options available to them when Brown and Carrington struggled. The scheme is too reliant on its defensive backfield to overcome such a lack of talent in the unit, and especially when they remained as committed as ever to blitzing.
Even as Simone, Brown and Carrington moved on from the program, the self-inflicted wounds in ASU's secondary have continued to fester through this season. Finally cognizant of this, the Sun Devils signed no fewer than five defensive backs in the 2016 class to supplement their roster, including junior college players Maurice Chandler and J'Marcus Rhodes, and true freshmen Robbie Robinson, Kyle Williams and Chase Lucas. All but Lucas have played, but they've been forced to learn on the fly, a necessity caused by earlier blind spots and missteps.
Additionally, ASU even considered using star wide receiver Tim White, one of its most talented offensive players, at cornerback because of the lack of players ideally suited for Graham's preferred scheme. In spring practices this offseason, Graham looked at White high on the depth chart at cornerback, even as the Sun Devils were breaking in a new quarterback and four new offensive linemen.
Ultimately, the Sun Devils elected to keep White on the offensive side of the ball, but Graham made it clear that if White were to play cornerback, his skills would compare favorably to the players ASU specifically recruited to play in the defensive backfield.
The Sun Devils have now followed the same pattern at inside linebacker. Just as injuries and a lack of depth proved problematic in the ASU secondary, the suspension of senior Salamo Fiso for the first three games of this season, and high ankle sprain suffered by junior Christian Sam have left the defense in a compromised position. As Fiso and junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun huffed their way through 80-plus exhausting snaps at elevation in the team's 40-17 loss at Colorado last week, that reality became clear.
"If you would have told me before the season started that Salamo Fiso was going to miss the first three games and Christian Sam was going to be hurt pretty much most of the year and said, 'you're going to be 5-2,' I would have said you're a liar," Patterson said. "I'd have said, 'there's no chance.'"
One of the main reasons for such a perspective is ASU's style orientation with Fiso and Calhoun in the lineup. Even as the Sun Devils have faced Air Raid experts Texas Tech and Cal, and other very capable passing attacks, they've done so primarily built to defend against the run, and especially so with Sam on the shelf.
"He's so good in pass coverage," Patterson said of Sam. "He's so big and athletic. D.J. is a run stopper. I don't take anything away from him, he's a warrior and he's doing what he can do. But to say it doesn't hurt us is to have your head stuck in the mud.
"Salamo's strengths are stopping the run and D.J.'s strengths are stopping the run. To just drop back there, they've got to be really active. I've really worked hard with them this week to be more active with underneath zone coverage concepts and things like that. But it'd be like me trying to move with Tim White, trying to cover Tim White. It's a challenge."
It's especially a challenge because the Sun Devils don't have anyone else at linebacker they can turn to. Senior Carlos Mendoza is also a run-oriented inside linebacker, and Thomas is still returning to full speed for a meniscus tear suffered in the spring. ASU didn't add any other inside linebackers in 2015 recruiting, and are now playing Calhoun as much as 100-plus snaps. Last week, for the first time this year they looked at spelling Fiso with junior Alani Latu, who has taken his reps this year at Devil backer and defensive end.
Last year the Sun Devils used Calhoun to replace Fiso on nickel downs alongside Sam in a way that gave ASU freshness when pass rushing, and at the same time better coverage ability. They haven't been able to do that this year, and it's extremely limiting against potent pass-heavy offenses when the Sun Devils are already very vulnerable in the secondary. Fiso doesn't handle zone coverage assignments particularly well against teams that target the underneath middle of the field, and while improved, Calhoun has still had breakdowns with covering running backs out of the backfield.
It is a problem exacerbated by the injuries currently plaguing Perry and Orr, ASU's two best coverage defensive backs. Perry had to come out of the game at Colorado and is dealing with limited mobility, while Orr played throughout but at a self-described 60 percent of full health.
"What has been really frustrating from a coach's standpoint is, it's never been the same guys," Patterson said. "It just seems to be one thing after another. It's just a different group of guys...Not one time have we played the same guys in the secondary all year long (at the same positions)."
The result? Even at 5-2 and with a real chance to win at least seven or eight games this season, the ASU defense is on track to be worse than any other in FBS history against the pass.
Tackling the problem
Players like Randall make it look easy, according to Patterson. But the ability to make solo tackles with no immediate help in wide open swaths of field is far from simple. Even so, the Sun Devils have asked their players to do it more than any of their peers in the conference.
A remarkable 87 of Randall's 106 tackles in the 2014 season -- 82 percent -- were of the solo variety. Not far behind that rate, 74 of Simone's tackles were solo stops. In fact, Randall and Simone finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the Pac-12 in solo tackles as a percentage of their overall tackles among players with 75 or more tackles on the season.
This wasn't a coincidence, nor an aberration.
In 2015, 81.3 percent of Simone's 91 tackles were solo stops, and 78.7 percent of Fiso's tackles were all on his own. Simone and Fiso finished No. 2 and No. 3 in the Pac-12 in solo tackles for the season, behind only Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie.
The plain reality is that as a byproduct of their blitz-heavy approach to defense, the Sun Devils put more pressure on their linebackers and safeties to make more solo tackles than other teams. When those players are like Randall, it works out very well. When they're less athletically gifted, it hasn't led to the same results.
Missed tackles contributed to the Sun Devils' last place finish (No. 128) in passing defense and 40-plus yard plays from scrimmage last season, and have again been a problem this year as ASU is on pace to do even worse in the two telling categories.
There's no bigger factor in this than the personnel being asked to make such plays not being well equipped to do so. But focus, effort and technique have also contributed to ASU's struggles, as evidenced last week in the team's loss to Colorado.
"Most missed tackles don’t have really anything to do with the physical aspect of it,'' Patterson said. "It’s the angle to the ball carrier. And if you look at every one of those tackles (last week), the majority of them are the angle of approach to make the tackle. This week, we went back to our team settings, chasing the football and getting guys to finish the play."
Since 2015, the Sun Devils have taught the rugby-style, near-hip tracking approach to tackling popularized by the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll. They start practice each day working on the techniques that have helped enable the Seahawks to annually be among the most physical and technically proficient tackling teams in the NFL. But they've done so with mixed results, at best. Two weeks ago they did well against UCLA -- Patterson called it their best tackling effort of the season -- only to relapse into a woeful performance against the Buffaloes.
"The whole philosophy behind it is it allows you to be more aggressive," Patterson said. "Because now you’re keeping your feet alive and you’re lowering the strike zone and you’re being aggressive, running through.. Kids don’t get brought up learning that. They were always taught, 'Get your hat across the bow,' which is really an old philosophy when the game was played in a phone booth. Now, all of a sudden the game is played in angles, and when you’re an attacking style of defense, those angles are always changing.
"That’s what’s modern-day football has created, man, The nights you make those plays, you look really good. The nights you don’t, you look really bad."
Too often, the Sun Devils haven't looked good enough in this area, but as much as anything, it's not having the personnel to be successful.
An eye on the future
With five regular season games remaining and injuries to Sam, Perry and Orr hampering ASU's defense, it's unlikely we'll see significant improvements with the team's passing defense. But the Sun Devils have likely already hit their low point defensively and should be in better shape for 2017 and beyond. There are a number of reasons for this.
Even though they'll lose Fiso and Moeakiola after this season, they'll return Calhoun and Sam as quality starting inside linebackers and Perry and Orr as good and experienced defensive backs. They'll also have Chandler, Rhodes, Robinson, Williams and Lucas in their secondary. That's as many as seven players who have the athletic capability to handle the coverage assignments ASU regularly puts its defensive backs. In recent years, they've only had a few players who could fulfill such demands.
That's essential, because whether they're playing as much man coverage as they have in past seasons, or more of a mix between man and zone as they've shown this year, there's no substitute for defensive backs who can athletically meet the demands of modern football. Simply going to more zone coverages and blitzing less frequently doesn't in and of itself provide significant relief for an ailing secondary because of how offenses now adjust on the fly and force defensive players to keep pace.
"These receivers are so trained now," Patterson said. "All they do all summer long is sit out there in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt with a quarterback and they throw it four and five days a week, and they're just running these routes. When I played, if they ran curl/flat, I'd drop under the curl (as a zone defender) and the guy pretty much stayed in the curl and they'd throw it to a guy in the flat. It was such a different day and age. Nobody is standing still. They run a curl, you're in the curl, they're moving it to a dig. Everything is sight adjustment. They're running the seams, you're playing loose coverage, they're sitting it down at the sticks. People are going, 'why can't you cover them?' It's easier said than done."
Disguising coverages is a necessary component in success against today's offensive systems like the Air Raid, which try to force a defense to line up so quickly it reveals itself. It's what enabled Moeakiola and Fiso to get their key second half interceptions of veteran quarterback Davis Webb in ASU's 51-41 win over Cal a month ago. On both of those plays, Webb thought he identified ASU in one type of coverage pre-snap only to realize after he'd thrown the football that they were playing a different type of approach on the play.
This is something Patterson and first-year secondary coach T.J. Rushing have helped the Sun Devils incorporate more of this season. While still new, and something they haven't been able to fully take advantage of yet due to personnel limitations, it's a stylistic shift that opposing coaches have taken note of, including their opponent this week, Washington State coach Mike Leach.
"They'll definitely play man, and they like man, they play a little less man than it looks like because they'll press some of their zones and then they're aggressive within their zones," Leach said. "So, the first time you watch, it looks like it's mostly man, but it's really about half. A little less probably."
What Leach is essentially saying is that the Sun Devils have played more Cover 3 and quarters coverages this year than in the past, but don't reveal it as transparently pre-snap because of how they align defensive players. To be sure, they still will telegraph blitzes, particularly when overloading the field or boundary side, but there's enough variability that opposing quarterbacks have to stay on their toes, and the odds are this will only increase as their personnel enables it.
Chandler has had moments of solid play in recent weeks after being injured throughout the year. But it's Robinson, Williams and Lucas who are the most promising players for the Sun Devils other than Perry and Orr, and all three are freshmen. Robinson has impressed on nickel downs this year, while Williams is one of the most athletic players on the roster regardless of class and Lucas has shown the movement skills to project to either cornerback or safety.
The Sun Devils should be able to pair two or three of those players along with Perry -- who could remain at field safety or easily move to Bandit or even Spur next year -- and Orr to put a more talent group on the field in the secondary in 2017, with the ability to get continuity and additional experience projecting to 2018, when all should still be part of the program. That sets up very well for ASU heading into the next several years, particularly as they've enhanced their approach to blitzing.
A big challenge they will have is to get Thomas or another of their current linebackers ready to play next season, and to supplement their roster via successful 2017 recruiting efforts at the position. ASU can't afford to ignore or miss on inside linebackers in 2017 the way they did in the secondary in several recent classes.
"I've been here two years so I've only been in two recruiting cycles but obviously the pattern is to move to -- I always look for multi-sport athletes, one, I look for physical toughness," Patterson said. "I like Wildcat-type quarterbacks on offense, zone-read, run-oriented quarterbacks or tough running backs that maybe they're mid-major running backs but can be a Power 5 conference [defensive players.] At one point in my career at Tulsa I'd coached 14 all-conference players, 10 of which were high school running backs, or receivers or quarterbacks. We haven't quite gotten there yet."
The 2017 class represents an opportunity to take an appropriate step in that direction at the linebacker position, and the Sun Devils already are trending toward continued improvement not only in the secondary but along the defensive line. With junior Tashon Smallwood, sophomores Renell Wren, George Lea and Joseph Wicker and juniors A.J. Latu and Koron Crump all returning to the front next year after starting or playing significant roles this season, there shouldn't be any drop off along the line of scrimmage.
Finishing the season strong
ASU's had a history of bouncing back from tough losses in the Graham era and winning games the following week. They've already done so once this season, responding to the 41-20 loss to USC with a 23-20 home win over UCLA two week ago.
Now, they'll try to do so again versus Washington State in the comfort of Sun Devil Stadium after a bad performance at Colorado. Patterson said the team has practiced extremely well and is ready for the test.
"We had a great team meeting on Monday defensively and we just reinforced the fact that man, we believe in each other, we believe in what we do," Patterson said. "The kids have a great mindset. They have absolutely practiced harder Tuesday and Wednesday than I've seen them since I've been here. Because they know...we watched a very limited number of plays from the Colorado game and made our point and they get it and I didn't say one word. I just showed the clips. I didn't have to say anything. A picture paints a thousand words.
"We've been to battle a lot of times and been in far worse situations than this. We just want to break another rock and put it in the win column."
Washington State is another Air Raid team that ranks among the Top-25 passing offenses in the country nationally. Already this season they've faced the No. 1 (Texas Tech), No. 4 (Cal), No. 16 (UCLA) and No. 23 (Colorado) passing offenses nationally. Now they get the Cougars, ranked No. 7 in the category, with a quarterback in Luke Falk who threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns against the Sun Devils last year in Pullman.
So the Sun Devils know what they're up against. But they're also mindful of the great range of offenses they have to successfully defend in the Pac-12. In their previous four years, the league title has tended to go through Stanford, which is extremely pro-style and run-oriented. That's just another aspect of what makes winning in the league so difficult, and perhaps why nobody has done better than their 2013 8-1 conference finish since the league expanded to twelve teams and split into two divisions.
"But then you go through this conference and all of a sudden you've got to stop Stanford in a conference championship game, so you have to have different skill sets within that group, which we do but we're just sort of heavy with guys within a certain skill set," Patterson said. "We've got to get guys more like Christian Sam, big and athletic, good versus the run but can also, if you can't cover in this league you won't be in this league long."