A season after Arizona State's defense finished last in the FBS in passing yards allowed, surrendering an average of more than 337 yards per game, the Sun Devils' secondary actually regressed.
With a new position coach, T.J. Rushing, and a new slate of defensive backs primed to start for the first time in their careers, the Sun Devils entered the season hoping to turn the page after catastrophic coverage errors proved to be ASU's downfall in 2015.
Even though ASU seemingly possessed more talent in its secondary with sophomore Kareem Orr transitioning back to corner after playing safety last season and sophomore Armand Perry returning from an injury to claim a starting safety spot, many of the same issues that plagued the Sun Devils last year grew more concerning as 2016 rolled along.
Though the Sun Devils' secondary was likely patrolled by better overall athletes this season than it was in 2015, ASU struggled as it scrambled to put players in the right position to make plays.
Opposite Orr, the Sun Devils started senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes, a junior college transfer recruited to the program to play running back. While Hayes was one of the better athletes on ASU's team, he lacked proper coverage and tackling fundamentals, making his side of the field susceptible to big plays.
With Perry at field safety, ASU started one of its best defensive back recruits of the early portion of the Todd Graham era, but it was starting a player ideally suited to play at Bandit safety or at Spur linebacker at one of the most demanding coverage positions on the field. Built like an in the box safety, Perry's strengths as a defensive back didn't translate to the field safety position, but with ASU's depth issues, the Sun Devils were practically out of other options.
At Bandit safety, the recruiting mistakes made by Graham and former defensive backs coach Chris Ball became blatantly obvious as the season wore on. The Sun Devils attempted to mask their depth issues by converting senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola to Bandit safety during the offseason, but by the time conference play started, ASU was already forced to move Moeakiola back to his old position, stuck with the reality that no other player on the roster was capable of handling the demands at Spur.
As a result, the Sun Devils started junior Marcus Ball at Bandit safety for most of the season, a player who began the season working at the linebacker level due to his size and physicality. With Ball at Bandit safety, the Sun Devils sacrificed coverage skills in favor of putting one of their better athletes on the field, but ultimately, all of the sacrifices ASU made to put its best athletes on the field caught up to them.
With Hayes, Perry and Ball in the starting lineup for much of the year, three quarters of ASU's secondary was playing out of its natural positions, a ramification of the serious depth issues that left the Sun Devils without the proper number of scholarship contributors in the defensive backfield.
Early in Graham's tenure, the head coach's dedication to crafting ASU's defensive scheme led to recruiting mistakes from assistant coaches, namely Chris Ball, that were largely felt in a historically poor defensive campaign this season. In 2015, those mistakes left ASU without defensive backs who could demonstrate competency playing the man coverage techniques Graham's scheme required of them. In 2016, the mistakes left ASU with a general shortage of athletes capable of playing any coverage Graham dialed up, as the Sun Devils' secondary was stocked with players out of position, called upon to fix leaks that have grown larger with each passing year.
What we learned
SunDevilSource has written extensively about the recruiting mistakes ASU's coaches made in identifying and signing defensive back prospects early in the Graham era, but it's impossible to analyze the Sun Devils' defensive struggles in 2016 without highlighting those disastrous mistakes.
Even though ASU's defensive backs did little to help their cause this season with breakdowns in coverages and fundamental tackling, it's impossible for players like Hayes and Ball who shifted positions in an attempt to help mask their team's growing issues to shoulder most of the blame.
Instead, the fault for their breakdowns in coverage, consistent errors with alignments and assignments, and overall failures against the pass is shared by a coaching staff that never developed the depth chart in the manner it needed to enjoy success.
When Perry was limited with turf toe this season, or Orr was hampered by a knee injury, ASU's coaches were left with no choice but to keep their injured defensive backs in the lineup, because even at less than full strength, they represented the Sun Devils' only capable options.
As Hayes and junior college transfer Maurice Chandler went back and forth attempting to hold down ASU's starting field cornerback spot, neither player performed with the consistency demanded of a first-string option, but the Sun Devils had no other players to call upon.
As ASU moves forward, the Sun Devils have begun to address some of the errors that contributed to such a precipitous downfall by identifying and recruiting more capable defensive back targets. In the Class of 2016, ASU brought in freshmen Chase Lucas and Robbie Robinson, a pair of defensive backs who are much more natural fits for the type of scheme Graham wants to play.
With Orr and Perry, ASU has two players built to succeed on the boundary side of the field, so long as they can stay healthy and are allowed to flourish in their natural roles. Slowly, ASU is attempting to rectify its mistakes on the recruiting trail, but after back-to-back sub .500 seasons, patience surrounding the program is growing thin.
De'Chavon Hayes: One of the fastest players and best athletes on ASU's team, Hayes' natural abilities never translated to the field where he struggled on offense before becoming a full-time starter on defense in his final season with the program. While much of ASU's secondary was probably best suited to play conservative zone coverages, Hayes lacked the situational and spatial awareness to be an effective zone defender, and was responsible for far too many breakdowns when ASU switched between coverages on the fly. A cornerback capable of staying in phase in man coverage, Hayes' biggest struggles came when the ball was thrown in his direction as he tended to slow up and turn his head when the ball was thrown toward his receiver in coverage. This issue led to too much separation late in plays, and allowed opponents to pick on Hayes for much of the season. Though it's not entirely Hayes' fault that playing cornerback didn't come naturally to him, his emergence as a clear-cut option near the top of the depth chart perhaps best highlights ASU's recruiting failures from 2012-2014.
Bryson Echols: A graduate transfer from Texas, Echols played as the fourth cornerback this season behind Orr, Hayes and Chandler. Echols came to ASU to provide immediate help in a secondary that needed an infusion of talent, but Echols consistently allowed far too much separation against wide receivers and rarely appeared comfortable in coverage. Instead of developing into a much-needed contributor, Echols became another liability in ASU's secondary who suffered far too many lapses in coverage to supplant either Hayes or Chandler on the depth chart.
Eric Lauderdale: A former 4-star junior college wide receiver recruit, Lauderdale never panned out on offense and ended up transitioning to defense in hopes that ASU might be able to use his speed at safety. However, Lauderdale didn't wind up cracking the rotation as players like Adams and junior safety James Johnson remained ahead of him despite their struggles in ASU's scheme.
Kareem Orr: Injuries forced Orr to shift from cornerback to safety as a freshman, and the Tennessee native performed well in his role at the back end of ASU's defense, nagging a team-high six interceptions in 2015. With ASU's cornerback depth depleted heading into this season, Orr would immediately serve as the Sun Devils' No. 1 corner and ended up shadowing some of the Pac-12's best receivers this year. In a conference loaded with NFL-level talent on the perimeter, Orr performed well when healthy, but struggled following a knee injury that left him playing closer to three quarters speed. Orr has already demonstrated a strong fundamental base at cornerback that should allow him to continue developing, but he'll still need to work on sticking with receivers who try to stretch the field vertically against him.
Maurice Chandler: A junior college transfer who battled injuries for much of the year, Chandler has decent ball skills and a strong ability to run with receivers in the open field. Chandler is probably more naturally suited to the field side than the boundary side, which gives ASU a potential starting option opposite Orr in 2017. Chandler's biggest issue transitioning to ASU this season was staying healthy, as he was sidelined for much of fall camp and the early part of the season with various injuries that limited his practice opportunities. If Chandler can get a full offseason of training in, he has intriguing raw potential and good size for a position ASU desperately hopes to shore up.
Armand Perry: Though we wrote about Perry in our Bandit/Spur review as a potential option at one of those positions next season, ASU could wind up keeping Perry at field safety in 2017 if it feels he's the only player who can handle all of the open field assignments associated with the role. Though Perry demonstrated a tendency to drop his head on tackles or go for a big hit instead of wrapping up, he does have better natural instincts than most of ASU's defensive backs and consistently puts himself in better positions defensively than most other ASU defenders. Perry isn't ideally suited for man coverage situations on the back end against elite speed, but he does have the ability to help in coverage over the middle of the field because he processes the field quickly and has good spatial awareness. ASU is likely hoping it can convert Perry to Bandit or Spur next season, but his experience at the position makes him a candidate to remain at field safety.
Chad Adams: Adams will enter his senior season in 2017 hoping that the switch finally flips for him at a field safety position that has been a challenge for him to learn throughout his career. Adams came to ASU with the expectation that he'd develop into one of the Sun Devils' fastest and rangiest defensive backs, but Adams hasn't demonstrated an ability to process the field in a way that allows him to use his speed to his advantage. Adams has started a handful of games in his career due to injuries to ASU's other defensive backs, and he hasn't performed well in those opportunities because he's late arriving at assignments and has a difficult time dissecting plays as they unfold. Like most of ASU's defensive backs, Adams needs to improve his pursuit angles and tackling against the run if the Sun Devils want to see an improvement in the number of explosive plays they allow.
Robbie Robinson: During Robinson's freshman campaign, the 5-foot-8 defensive back appeared sparingly in ASU's nickel package, and could have likely benefitted from a redshirt season. However, the Sun Devils insisted on playing Robinson early in the season, and in his limited opportunities, demonstrated a decent ability to remain in-phase against opposing receivers, especially late in games in obvious passing situations. ASU's handling of Robinson was somewhat surprising considering he fell behind Echols, a graduate transfer, on the depth chart, in a season where the Sun Devils were rebuilding the secondary. Though it may have made more sense to give Robinson more opportunities in an attempt to build the secondary for the future, ASU didn't pursue that option, and now Robinson enters the offseason looking to compete with Chandler for playing time opposite Orr at cornerback.
Chase Lucas: A 4-star local recruit out of Chandler High, ASU was able to preserve Lucas' redshirt this season despite the fact the Sun Devils were short on depth in the defensive backfield. At 6-foot, 156 pounds, Lucas was probably too slight to be able to contribute much during his freshman campaign, and now he'll enter the offseason with an opportunity to add to his frame in ASU's strength and conditioning program. Lucas is a pivotal player for ASU because the Sun Devils need one of their top 2016 recruits to become an impactful defensive back as soon as possible, and it's possible Lucas could jump into the starting lineup at either field safety or field cornerback as soon as next season. In the limited opportunities we saw Lucas take at practice, he showcased good ball skills and the speed to be able to handle man coverages down the field, which is imperative for ASU's defensive backs moving forward.