In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Arizona State's defensive effectiveness fluctuated largely based on the presence of one player.
When Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola was healthy, ASU was able to execute at a higher level against both the run and the pass, limiting opponents' abilities to secure the perimeter on the wide side of the field.
When Moeakiola was injured, though, ASU's defense suffered, unable to contain perimeter run plays and challenged to keep every defensive player on the same page.
Though Moeakiola attempted to play through a shoulder injury during the latter half of the 2015 season, his ability to impact the game deteriorated, and so too did ASU's defense.
Entering the 2016 season, ASU's coaches believed they had a solution that would keep one of their most important defensive assets on the field, and keep Moeakiola from experiencing the durability issues he faced earlier in his career.
Instead of starting Moeakiola at Spur linebacker for the third straight season, head coach Todd Graham devised a plan to shift Moeakiola away from the line of scrimmage to start him at Bandit safety. The position switch would allow ASU to benefit from Moeakiola's natural instincts and communication skills at a crucial defensive spot, while reducing the impact his balky should would be susceptible to on an every down basis.
With Moeakiola shifting to the secondary, ASU was free to insert junior Marcus Ball into the starting lineup at Spur linebacker, which the Sun Devils viewed as an added bonus of the move. Ball's frame and skill set provided the Sun Devils with a player who could handle the rigorous physical demands of playing closer to the line of scrimmage while also giving ASU an athlete trained with coverage skills at a position that requires players to excel against both the run and the pass.
While sound in theory, the plan to use Moeakiola at Bandit instead of Spur didn't even last into conference play.
In the third quarter of ASU's 32-28 win over Texas-San Antonio, a critical error from Ball on a missed key read on a third quarter touchdown pass led ASU's coaching staff to reevaluate the team's defensive makeup, and move Moeakiola back to the Spur linebacker position where his skill set was obviously missed.
Though Moeakiola had not practiced at Spur linebacker during fall camp or the weeks leading up to the game, his presence immediately changed ASU's fortunes. The missed assignment from Ball put the Sun Devils in a 28-12 hole, but Moeakiola's return to the position helped ASU's defense clamp down on the Roadrunners as the Sun Devils finished the game with 20 unanswered points.
Ball eventually found his way back into the starting lineup against UCLA, but with Moeakiola remaining the clear No. 1 option at Spur, Ball wound up finishing the season as ASU's starting Bandit safety.
In Graham's five years at ASU, a number of defensive players like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford have enjoyed outstanding careers that made their presences virtually irreplaceable. In fact, three years after their departures, ASU is still searching for the next Sutton and Bradford at their respective positions, and 2016 provided a glimpse into the challenges ASU will face post-Moeakiola.
Graham has long considered Moeakiola the "stabilizer" of ASU's defense, and less than three games into the year, ASU leaned on Moeakiola after an offseason insisting it wouldn't have to roll the dice at Spur.
Next season, ASU won't have the luxury of bringing Moeakiola back to the linebacker level, making the Sun Devils' next gamble at the position a bet they can't afford to lose.
What we learned
Three games is all it took to reinforce the notion ASU's Bandit safety and Spur positions suffered from severe depth issues that existed as a byproduct of recruiting mistakes early in Graham's tenure.
Many of the same mistakes SunDevilSource has written about extensively at the cornerback and field safety positions were also made at Bandit safety and Spur linebacker, putting ASU's razor-thin depth on display early and often in the 2016 season.
If not for the play of Ball and Moeakiola, an ASU defense that ranked 127th nationally in total defense during the regular season may have finished with even worse marks.
Though Moeakiola played at a high level for much of the season and earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention recognition for his efforts, ASU would have benefitted greatly if Ball proved capable of handling the responsibilities of the Spur position earlier in the season.
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Ball's frame is much better suited for the Spur linebacker position than the slighter Moeakiola, but his inability to process key reads in a quick, decisive manner forced ASU to pull him back from the line of scrimmage.
With Ball in the defensive backfield, ASU started a player whose skill set is geared for the hybrid safety/linebacker role of Spur in a position where coverage skills are a top priority, and Ball didn't have the capacity to play man or zone coverages with the level of effectiveness ASU needs from its defensive backs.
However, the greatest concern ASU faced at the Bandit safety position this season wasn't Ball's inability to play sound coverage, but that Ball was clearly the team's best option at the position.
Because sophomore Armand Perry, an obvious Bandit/Spur candidate, was forced to slide over to the field safety role to cover up ASU's deficiencies at that position, Ball represented the Sun Devils' best available Bandit safety.
With sophomores Tyler Whiley, Das Tautalatasi, Coltin Gerhart and junior James Johnson unprepared to contribute from a physical standpoint at either Spur or Bandit, and junior J'Marcus Rhodes unprepared to handle the assignments associated with the roles, ASU's depth chart featured glaring issues the Sun Devils must now rectify in recruiting if they want to have any hope of offsetting Moeakiola's loss this offseason.
Laiu Moeakiola: In a historically bad defensive season for the Sun Devils, Moeakiola was one of only a few bright spots as his return to the Spur linebacker position gave ASU a small semblance of stability on a defense that otherwise would have lacked it entirely. Moeakiola made a handful of critical plays that helped ASU notch victories over UTSA, Cal and UCLA this season, and he played a key part in keeping ASU in the game against Washington State as he recorded six tackles and one pass breakup. Over the last three seasons, ASU has struggled with controlling the perimeter when Moeakola's been off the field, and his loss will be one of the most difficult ASU has had to recover from under Graham because of his ability to communicate and his presence as a capable defender against the run and the pass at a hybrid position that requires players to be sound in both aspects of the game.
Coltin Gerhart: Gerhart began his career as a quarterback at ASU, but transitioned to the defensive side of the ball after his freshman season and earned most of his playing time on special teams. Gerhart didn't demonstrate the quick closing speed required of a perimeter run defender and likely wasn't physical enough to play up in the box at Spur, which probably made him a more likely candidate to try to play Bandit. However, when ASU suffered a series of injuries at the quarterback position this season, Gerhart returned to offense to lead the scout team. After three seasons in the program, Gerhart announced via Twitter his intention to graduate this fall and pursue his football career at a different school.
Marcus Ball: The type of player who has the athleticism to plug in and play at a few different positions in ASU's defensive scheme, Ball's greatest challenge is improving the speed at which he processes the game. When Ball played Spur linebacker early in the season, he had a difficult time handling key reads and was often deceived by the movements of players at the line of scrimmage. Ball's decision-making didn't necessarily improve when he retreated back to Bandit safety, but in playing further away from the line of scrimmage, he had a split-second longer to decide where to pursue. Earlier this season, Graham characterized Ball as a "Sam linebacker," which suggests ASU could eventually move Ball to inside linebacker to add depth, but to be able to do that, Ball must improve his run fits which regressed during the second half of the season. Though Ball put up big tackle numbers in a few games and demonstrated a level of physicality few other ASU defenders played with, ASU would probably like to capitalize on those skills by using Ball at a position closer to the line of scrimmage. Whether that's at Spur or at Sam remains to be seen, but Ball's ability to be flexible switching among positions could be critical for ASU's defensive makeup next season.
Armand Perry: We'll discuss Perry's season as a field safety when we review ASU's field safeties and cornerbacks, but moving forward, ASU should look to transition Perry to a Bandit safety or Spur role to help put its best players on the field in more natural positions. If Perry could slide over to either Bandit safety or Spur next season, ASU would have an immediate impact player at one of the two positions who could serve the team as a coverage-first player that doesn't shy away from contact at the line of scrimmage. Perry was bigger and stronger as a sophomore after sitting out the majority of last season with a severe foot injury, and if he continues to add to his frame, he projects well to either the Bandit or Spur role. Perry's fundamental approach to tackling needs to improve this offseason, but he does have a knack for diagnosing plays and processing movements quickly that makes him well-suited to either role.
Das Tautalatasi: A 6-foot, 195-pound Bandit/Spur prospect, Tautalatasi has spent most of his playing time on special teams to date. Though he's even more slightly built than Moeakiola, Tautalatasi does play without hesitation and appears to process key reads better than some of the other Bandit/Spur types buried below him on the depth chart. Is Tautalatasi fast enough to play all of the coverages required of a Bandit or big enough to make an impact in the box at Spur? With Moeakiola gone, he'll likely have an opportunity to answer those questions this spring if he's recovered in time from an injury he suffered at practice late in the season that left him on crutches.
J'Marcus Rhodes: A junior college transfer who was expected to step in and make an immediate impact at either cornerback or Bandit safety, Rhodes struggled from many of the same processing issues that Ball did early in the season and never recovered from his early mistakes. By the end of the year, Rhodes found himself near the bottom of the depth chart at Bandit safety, as he didn't receive many opportunities for playing time after the Sun Devils were trounced by USC on Oct. 1. Rhodes has the size to contribute at Bandit and has coverage skills in his background from playing cornerback in junior college, so it's possible things could begin to click for him in his second year in ASU's system.
Tyler Whiley: A highly touted local recruit out of Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Whiley transitioned between wide receiver and cornerback during his early years in the program before moving to the Spur/Bandit positions. Whiley settled in at Spur behind Moeakiola at the beginning of the season and even earned playing time at the position this year, but when Whiley was on the field, he was clearly overwhelmed by the demands of the position. While Whiley has filled out in college and actually possesses the right combination of size and speed to help ASU at Spur, he must improve his awareness and his fundamental approach if he wants to make an impact down the line.
James Johnson: Johnson has flipped back and forth between safety positions at ASU, and did so this season as well. Johnson was injured for parts of the year with a knee injury, but ended up earning repetitions as a reserve Bandit safety when he was healthy enough to play. Johnson doesn't possess the athleticism to become a full-time starter, but he can help his cause by fixing alignment, assignment and pursuit errors that have limited his effectiveness on the repetitions he has received. Too often, Johnson takes poor pursuit angles, especially against running backs, and those angles have led to explosive plays for ASU's opponents.
Deion Guignard: A junior college transfer who signed with ASU after National Signing Day, Guignard came to the Sun Devils with four years to play three seasons and had his redshirt burned midway through the year so that he could aid ASU's special teams units. Guignard is somewhat similar to Tautalatasi in their frame and the tenacity with which they attack special teams assignments, but it's unclear if Guignard can develop into a full-service player at either Spur or Bandit because of the limited repetitions we saw him take this season. ASU's decision to play Guignard as oppose to redshirt him suggests the Sun Devils likely don't see him developing into a starter in the future, but it's possible Guignard could become one of ASU's better depth options.