Todd Graham

Todd Graham's potential solutions for ASU's defensive problems

After a second consecutive sub .500 season, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has to find a quick solution for the Sun Devils' growing defensive issues.

Todd Graham's start as Arizona State's head coach was a bit like catching lightning in a bottle: 28 wins in the first 40 games of his tenure including consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in four decades at the school.

No coach in recent ASU history experienced immediate success to the degree that Graham did, and much of the program's success was due in large part to a defensive resurgence.

In Graham's first season with the program, the Sun Devils allowed just 350.8 yards per game, a stat that bears increasing significance as Graham's tenure continues.

Though ASU didn't improve upon that mark in 2013, the Sun Devils did finish with the 11th-best turnover margin in the country, and the best turnover margin in the Pac-12 thanks to a pressure-oriented scheme that put opposing quarterbacks under duress throughout the year. Additionally, ASU finished with one of the best three-and-out percentages nationally, getting off the field on three downs or less on nearly 44 percent of its opponents' drives.

As the Sun Devils evolved in Graham's vision, the emphasis on creating and forcing turnovers became a determining factor in the team's ability to contain opposing offenses.

By the time the 2014 season culminated, ASU had posted its second consecutive 10-win season thanks to a turnover margin that ranked sixth in the country and second in the Pac-12. On the surface, Graham's defensive approach helped ignite two of the program's most successful teams in recent memory, but beneath the glow of ASU's outstanding turnover margin, questions regarding the approach's sustainability began to mount.

Even though the Sun Devils were a game away from winning the Pac-12 South for the second straight year, ASU was undergoing a quiet defensive regression, masked by the team's ability to take the ball away from its opponents.

In 2014, an ASU defense that allowed an average of 350.8 yards per game just two seasons earlier allowed an average of 417.1 yards per game, a staggering drop off that left the Sun Devils with the 83rd ranked defense in the FBS.

Despite the program's impressive ascension within the Pac-12, ASU's success became almost completely reliant on the team's ability to force takeaways, setting the Sun Devils up for a harsh reality.

When field safety Damarious Randall entered the NFL Draft in 2015, the Sun Devils reached a defensive tipping point. Randall represented the final starter still on the roster from ASU's 2013 secondary that produced four All-Pac-12 defensive backs, and his loss proved pivotal.

Without a first round NFL draft pick patrolling the defensive backfield, a team that lived and died by the takeaway came up empty, and the Sun Devils have yet to recover from his loss. 

In the program's first post-Randall season in 2015, ASU finished dead last in the FBS, allowing 337.8 passing yards per game, which was more than 20 yards per game worse than the next closest FBS team. 

Graham's detail-oriented approach to crafting the Sun Devils' defensive scheme early in his tenure as a head coach wound up costing ASU dearly, as his narrowly-focused mindset prevented him from recognizing a long-developing issue.

With Graham dedicated to the defense already at his disposal, ASU's head coach failed to properly recruit the athletes needed to play his desired defensive scheme in the future, which left ASU's secondary searching for answers in 2015.

Though a 6-7 2015 campaign helped Graham realize the drastic oversight ASU's program committed on the defensive side of the ball, one recruiting cycle wasn't enough to create a solution for an emerging issue.

In 2016, the program with the worst passing defense in college football actually regressed, nearly becoming the worst passing defense in college football history if not for a season-ending contest against Arizona in which the Wildcats only completed three passes, in large part due to the school-record 511 rushing yards Arizona racked up on the ground.

Starting a converted running back at cornerback (senior De'Chavon Hayes), a player with a linebacker's frame and skill set at safety (junior Marcus Ball), and a true Bandit safety/Spur linebacker type of a player at field safety (sophomore Armand Perry), ASU surrendered 357.4 yards through the air, becoming one of just five teams in the FBS to allow more than 290 passing yards per game this season. 

If 2014 served as a warning sign to Graham regarding the future of ASU's defense, and 2015 served as the harsh reminder for past mistakes, what did 2016 say about the Sun Devils' defensive capabilities moving forward?

After a 6-7 season in 2015 convinced ASU it had nowhere to go but up, the Sun Devils' 5-7 2016 campaign that finished with a thud --six straight losses to end the year-- surely forced the program to reevaluate its foundation.

With his future as ASU's head coach now hanging in the balance, Graham practically has no choice but to commit to a significant defensive shakeup in an all-out effort to save his defense, and ultimately his job. 

What avenues can Graham take to rebuilding a defense that gave up more yards through the air in his fifth season than it did in total in his first? We evaluate his prospective options.

Option 1: Regain total control of ASU's defense

When Graham first arrived at ASU, assistant coaches Paul Randolph and Ron West served as co-defensive coordinators. 

Though Randolph and West seemingly carried important titles, the control they exerted over the Sun Devils' defensive scheme and game plans was minimal at best.

For most of Graham's career as a head coach, he has enjoyed a mandate regarding decisions on the defensive side of the ball, and has rarely yielded to outside perspectives.

Make no mistake, while Graham had a pair of defensive coordinators at his disposal in his first season with the Sun Devils, the scheme, game plans and play calls were all devised by ASU's head coach.

At a program like Rice or Tulsa, group of five schools requiring less time-consuming endeavors away from the field, Graham's maniacal focus on his team's defense was welcome, even warranted at times, if he wanted to ensure success.

But at a Pac-12 program like ASU, Graham's narrowly-tailored approach to defense came back to haunt him. 

By the time Randall became a Green Bay Packers' first round draft pick, Graham was nearly out of competent options in ASU's secondary, as evidenced by the significant drop off between 2012 and 2014 in ASU's defensive stats.

His decision to allow defensive backs coach Chris Ball authority in recruiting netted the Sun Devils prospects like Jayme Otomewo and DeAndre Scott, career reserves who never possessed the capabilities of developing into full-service defensive backs within a challenging defensive scheme like Graham's.

Graham's lack of attention to detail regarding the future of ASU's secondary proved a costly error early in his tenure, and he attempted to rectify it with the hiring of defensive coordinator Keith Patterson ahead of the Sun Devils' 2014 season.

Though Patterson alone couldn't fix ASU's defensive problems, Graham figured bringing in one of the few coaching minds he's ever entrusted his defense to in the past would allow him to dedicate more time and resources to crafting the future of the program.

While Graham maintained his position as an autonomous leader of ASU's defense through 2014 and 2015, the Sun Devils' complete implosion last season forced the head coach's hand.

Prior to the 2016 season, Graham and Patterson agreed that Patterson would make ASU's defensive calls, and that Graham would no longer exert total authority over ASU's defense.

Sound in theory, the plan never truly got off the ground, as Graham's overwhelming tendency to tinker with his team's defensive approach prevented Patterson from wielding true authority as a defensive coordinator. Though Patterson made play calls, Graham often audibled on the field, creating confusion among defenders as coverages and pressures switched moments before plays started. 

The result of Graham surrendering complete control of ASU's defense was catastrophic, as the Sun Devils finished the regular season last in passing defense and second to last in total yards allowed. 

While Patterson technically held the title of defensive coordinator, he and Graham both exerted influence over a historically bad defense, and now Graham must attempt to salvage the unit to save his job.

Based on Graham's career arc and his past tendency to directly shape his team's defensive approach, the most likely path to creating a solution for ASU's existing problems is that Graham decides to regain total control of ASU's defense. 

Even though Patterson would remain a coordinator in title, he would return to the previous role he held in 2014 as a glorified position coach, similar to the way Randolph and West operated under Graham during their first season at ASU. 

Even though the possibility exists that ASU could make similar recruiting mistakes or program-wide errors without the oversight Graham might provide by backing away from ASU's defense, Graham is likely swayed to view himself as the savior of ASU's defense.

By keeping Patterson on staff and reducing his role, Graham would return to the operating standards he used at the program's peak in an attempt to pull the Sun Devils out from the position they've fallen to, deep in the valley. 

Despite the obvious challenges ASU faced as a result of Graham's defensive approach during his early years within the program, the path Graham most likely pursues to save a now desperate defense is to take back command of the unit that was at its best when he had not just the final say, but all of the say. 

Option 2: Fire Keith Patterson, regain control of ASU's defense

For a coach who began his career with more victories in the first three seasons of his tenure than any other coach in ASU history, the state of Graham's program quickly turned chaotic after back-to-back losing seasons.

Boosters, fans and alumni want accountability for ASU's defensive failures, and if they don't get it, ASU could wind up paying a heavy price. 

Though Patterson and Graham were college roommates and have been coaching confidants for the better part of 30 years, Graham may decide he has no choice but to fire Patterson in the wake of the mess that's been created.

While Patterson isn't at fault for the recruiting failures that took place early in Graham's regime, he has --at least in title-- presided over two of the worst passing defenses in college football history. 

ASU's defensive failures are nothing short of catastrophic, and there's no doubt that if the Sun Devils don't experience a quick turnaround, that ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson will strongly consider firing Graham. 

Though it's likely not Graham's preferred method of salvaging ASU's defense, it's entirely possible the Sun Devils' head coach elects to fire Patterson and bring in a new defensive assistant to assume some of Patterson's responsibilities.

In this scenario, Graham would eliminate the influence Patterson held over ASU's defense, which likely convinced Graham to take a more conservative approach in 2016. In firing Patterson, Graham would allow himself to take over as the undisputed leader of ASU's defense, and put the fate of his tenure on his own shoulders.

For much of his career, including the first three seasons Graham enjoyed at ASU, this is the manner in which he operated. Though coaches like Randolph, West and Patterson have served as defensive coordinators in title, they reported to Graham, who held complete authority over his team's defensive approach.

With Patterson out of the picture, Graham would be free to hire a new defensive coordinator or elevate a coach already on staff, but like that coordinator's predecessors, he would serve first and foremost as a position coach.

A new defensive assistant could help handle the important aspects of skill development like tackling fundamentals that lacked for many of ASU's defenders this season, as well as serve as a key cog in ASU's recruiting efforts. 

Though the timing of such a change could be delayed until after National Signing Day on February 1 to preserve the relationships Patterson has built with defensive recruits, Graham may consider this a necessary option to rid the program of the stigma developed by such poor performances in the last two seasons.

If Graham turned his entire focus to re-mastering ASU's defense, a new assistant would need to possess a strong ability to identify and recruit the proper defensive prospects for Graham's scheme, to avoid the type of failure the Sun Devils are already experiencing. 

Option three: Maintain the status quo

Could Graham take an honest look at the Sun Devils' performance the last two seasons and believe that the status quo is acceptable? 

In all likelihood, absolutely not. 

However, Graham could view 2016 as the inevitable "rock bottom" his program had to hit after lapses in judgement earlier in his tenure and believe ASU is now headed in the right direction.

There's a possibility that Graham sees the mistakes made between 2012 and 2014 as errors that the Sun Devils have already begun to rectify, and in that case, he may believe it wouldn't make sense to make systematic changes.

Through Graham's 11 seasons as a head coach, he's enjoyed five 10-win campaigns and almost always stuck to the same formula. A high-octane offense coupled with a pressure-oriented defense mixed in with a rigid, disciplined approach has worked for Graham in the past, so why would he give up on that vision in the future?

With Patterson now by his side, Graham could feel ASU is headed for an immediate recovery from the depths it hit in 2015 and 2016, especially after landing recruits like cornerback Kareem Orr, defensive back Chase Lucas and cornerback Robbie Robinson in recent cycles. All of those players have the potential to develop into strong defensive backs for ASU and all were recruited with Patterson on staff, so the Sun Devils may be headed for a turning point in the near future. 

With the Sun Devils focused on more high-profile defensive back recruits in the Class of 2017 such as Bishop Gorman (Nevada) cornerback Alex Perry and local Mountain Pointe prospect Isaiah Pola-Mao, Graham may elect to keep the status quo if he feels the Sun Devils are on the precipice of a breakthrough.

As a head coach, Graham has only allowed three assistants, Randolph, West and Patterson, to hold the title of defensive coordinator, and through the years, only Patterson has reached a level with Graham that has allowed the Sun Devils' head coach to give up some of the freedoms he enjoys as a defensive play caller to focus on other aspects of his program.

By keeping the status quo, Graham could also cede more responsibility to Patterson as a defensive coordinator, truly allowing him to fulfill all of the responsibilities the job entails. In looking back on the season, ASU's coverage breakdowns and consistent assignment errors could help Graham realize the complex nature of his and Patterson's involvement in the Sun Devils' defense created a convoluted situation that led to frustration on the part of coaches and players, and by keeping Patterson in the role he's intended to play, ASU could streamline its defensive approach next season.

If Patterson took on more responsibilities, the approach would create a slight deviation from the status quo, but build on Patterson's increasing level of involvement in ASU's defense which would allow Graham to continue overseeing the aspects of the program he overlooked earlier in his tenure. Though Graham expressed hope that Patterson would make all of ASU's defensive calls last offseason, the Sun Devils' obvious struggles likely forced ASU's head coach to increase his level of involvement beyond what Graham had planned. 

If Graham believes a major shakeup to the manner in which ASU is currently operating threatens the possibility of success in 2017, he could decide the complicated relationship he and Patterson share on the defensive side of the ball is worth continuing so long as the program is moving forward with progress Graham views as sustainable. 

Option four: Surrender control of ASU's defense

The most unlikely of the four options, Graham may ultimately surrender control if Anderson indicates the Sun Devils' head coach has no other choice.

As ASU's Athletic Director, Anderson has rarely demonstrated patience with matters away from the Sun Devils' football program, so it's unlikely Anderson is going to remain content with the department's bread and butter.

If Anderson performs a thorough evaluation of the manner in which Graham's defense has operated over the past two seasons and comes away dissatisfied, he could decide to force Graham to surrender control of ASU's defense in order to preserve his job as head coach.

In this scenario, Graham would likely be forced to fire Patterson as defensive coordinator, hire a new (likely proven) coordinator who promises to take a different direction with ASU's schematic approach, and focus his attention on other matters within the program.

It's uncertain Graham would even agree to surrender control of his defense, given it's the side of the ball he's worked with throughout his coaching career, but this scenario could serve as a last resort option for Graham to remain in charge at ASU.

This is the least likely of the four options Graham has to create a solution for ASU's defensive struggles because it would come into play only if Anderson forced Graham to turn the defense over to different hands.

Without a defensive assistant Graham has groomed for a bigger job on his staff or an assistant waiting for a larger role on another FBS staff, Graham would likely have to pursue an outside option who he's never worked with before, which would then place the fate of Graham's tenure at ASU into a largely unknown figure.

Because Graham has never demonstrated a willingness to surrender defensive control, even to coordinators he's personally hired to aid his own efforts, Graham is most likely to search for a solution to ASU's catastrophic failures on his own, the only way he's shown he knows how. 

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