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After Arizona State concluded its 2016 season with the worst pass defense in the FBS for the second straight season, head coach Todd Graham was left with no choice.
The Sun Devils' head coach knew change was inevitable, but how he would go about creating that change remained a mystery.
Less than two weeks after the Sun Devils' 56-35 blowout loss in the Territorial Cup against Arizona, SunDevilSource laid out the four potential paths Graham could take to rebuilding a defensive unit that desperately needed an overhaul.
Married to a hyper-aggressive defensive mentality throughout his career, Graham has called pressure-oriented defenses at each of his four head coaching stops, Rice, Tulsa, Pittsburgh and ASU. Along the way, Graham gave defensive coordinator titles to assistant coaches like Paul Randolph and Keith Patterson, but through the years, Graham himself was the architect of his teams' defensive schemes and his input served as the final say.
Upon arriving at ASU, Graham exerted widespread control over the Sun Devils' defensive game plans and play calls, but through his tenure, the Texas native attempted, at least in theory, to surrender some of his authority on the defensive side of the ball.
In 2014, Graham hired former West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson as a linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, and though Patterson held an important title, it was Graham who maintained control of ASU's defense.
After a 6-7 2015 campaign in which ASU struggled through the first losing season of the Graham era, Graham and Patterson agreed Patterson would take on a larger role, determining that Patterson would calls the Sun Devils' defensive plays while Graham would give input.
During ASU's 2016 season, though, the Sun Devils regressed defensively, finishing 123rd in scoring defense, 127th in total defense, and for the second year in a row, dead last in pass defense. The dynamic featuring Patterson as the team's play-caller and Graham as the team's defensive signaler yielded catastrophic defensive results, requiring Graham to perform a thorough evaluation of the Sun Devils' defensive failures.
On Wednesday, SunDevilSource reported that at the end of the 2016 season, ASU athletic director Ray Anderson asked Graham to provide a written assessment of the program and offer his perspective on what's taken place over the last two seasons. As part of the evaluation, Anderson wanted Graham to provide his plan to address the problems that plagued ASU's defense and the program as a whole over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Though Anderson did not mandate changes, when Graham was asked to provide his plan of action to fix ASU's defense, the Sun Devils' head coach had four realistic options. Graham could have re-exerted total control of ASU's defense, could have fired defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and then regained total control of ASU's defense, attempted to keep the status quo in place and allow for Patterson's transition to the play-calling role continue next season, or turn over control of the defense to a new defensive coordinator.
According to sources, Graham elected to pursue the final option, turning over control of the defense to an outside coach who he would not second guess and who he would feel comfortable with from a game planning and play calling standpoint.
Had Graham chosen a different path, sources indicated it would have reflected poorly on Graham to Anderson and ASU president Michael Crow, which would have set the bar for success even higher heading into the 2017 season.
Because Graham does not have extended experience grooming defensive assistants for coordinator roles, his ability to hire a coach whose defensive philosophy meshed perfectly with his own was understandably limited. Furthermore, hiring a younger coach or a coach who incorporates an identical schematic approach likely would have been perceived negatively by ASU's administration, given the fact Graham wanted a coach who he wouldn't feel the need to second guess.
As a result, Graham hired former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett as ASU's defensive coordinator on Wednesday, bringing in a coach with nearly four decades of experience at the FBS level to oversee the Sun Devils' defensive overhaul. According to sources, Bennett will have full control over ASU's defensive game plans and play calls, which is a stark contrast from how Graham has operated as a head coach throughout his career.
The decision to hire Bennett signaled a change in role for Patterson, who according to sources, considered retirement following the 2016 season before electing to return to ASU and accept a demotion. With Bennett on board, Patterson has been stripped of his coordinating duties, but will remain as a position coach and continue to lead ASU's linebacking corps.
With the dead period coming to an end Thursday, ASU will now have both Bennett and Patterson out on the road recruiting for the Sun Devils, as just 20 days remain until National Signing Day. This coming weekend, the Sun Devils are slated to host a number of priority recruiting targets, and the following week, ASU will host a pair of key local prospects, four-star safety K.J. Jarrell and three-star defensive end Odua Isibor.
Once ASU has its recruiting class wrapped up, Graham and Bennett will have an opportunity to determine exactly how the Sun Devils will begin to install Bennett's defense in spring practices. Like Graham, Bennett employs a pressure-oriented scheme built around creating turnovers, and in four of the last six seasons, Bennett's Baylor defenses finished in the top 30 nationally in takeaways. Still, there are obvious differences in the way each coach has structured their respective defenses, as neither coach has worked with each other previously.
Though the decision to turn over the reins to ASU's defense likely presents challenges for Graham both philosophically and ideologically, it's a gamble Graham deemed necessary in order to help steer his program back in the right direction.