Phil Bennett implementing defensive changes at ASU

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said he hired Phil Bennett to coordinate the Sun Devils' defense because he's been stretched too thin in recent years, which he said impacted the team's performance.

This offseason, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham went through the sometimes-challenging decision process homeowners often face.

With a house, or in this case, a defense, in disarray, Graham had to determine whether to sell the property and start from scratch, or keep the foundation and structure intact while undertaking a serious renovation project.

Though homeowners often take months or even years laboring over such a decision, Graham had to reach his decision in a condensed timeframe, and he didn't think twice about which option he preferred. 

Instead of starting over with a new defensive philosophy, Graham opted for a remodel project on his current unit, and brought in veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to lead the renovation.

"I tried to go back and see when we were successful, I was able to dial in and focus," Graham said. "I made every script, I did everything, I dialed it, as a matter of fact, I ran defense and special teams until Shawn (Slocum) came here. Obviously as we got a lot of stuff happening, it was hard for me to be effective that way. Phil's (Bennett) personality and intensity was the thing, and then the fact, he and coach R.C. Slocum were my mentors, who I learned from. Wouldn't it be foolish (to change)? We recruited Tashon Smallwood to play three-technique, not to play four-I, why would we hire somebody and wholesale change what we're doing, especially with the landscape of college football and how you have change and all of that?" 

Graham's relationship with Bennett stretches back over 20 years, but the pair has never worked on the same staff. Both coaches were mentored by legendary Texas A&M head coach R.C. Slocum, the father of ASU special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. 

Though Graham didn't hire Bennett to reconstruct the Sun Devils' defense, at ASU spring media day Wednesday, Graham insisted he was turning over full control of the Sun Devils' unit to the 39-year coaching veteran.

Graham said that when he began the process of looking for a new defensive coordinator, he felt it was imperative to find a coach with the same intense demeanor and personality he brings to the table, and someone who could help the Sun Devils cut down on the amount of explosive plays they've surrendered in each of the last two seasons.

With Bennett on the market this offseason, Graham felt comfortable surrendering control of his defense for the first time in his 11 seasons as a head coach. 

"I go back to 1995 and 1996 studying defense and ball with him (Bennett) and then obviously, when we were successful, we had this type of personality," Graham said. "So I wanted to have that deal. If you ask anybody around what we needed to do, we needed to get better in the back end and not giving up big plays and that's a lot of components and not just the back end is involved in that. But his expertise as a secondary coach is one of the big things as well."

In each of the past two seasons, ASU has finished with the worst passing defense in the country, allowing over 337 yards per game through the air in 2015 and over 356 passing yards per game in 2016. The Sun Devils' greatest struggles as a defense came in the amount of explosive plays the team allowed, as only Rice allowed more 40-plus yard plays in 2016.

For much of the past two years, Graham has attributed ASU's defensive breakdowns to alignment and assignment errors, which are aspects of the Sun Devils' defense Bennett hopes to address immediately this spring.

"We (Baylor) could always get lined up," Bennett said. "Over the last four years, I would bet you we've given up the fewest explosion plays of any defense. Our kids knew how to line up. If there was ever a doubt, our alignment saved us. We were multiple, and because our offense was so fast, we played a lot of kids. It was just our system. We had to play a lot of snaps. We could take you out of your element. I'm not afraid to pressure, but I say this again, it's calculated pressure."

One of the first changes ASU players will notice this spring is some of the existing defensive terminology will be replaced with terminology Bennett has used throughout his coaching career. 

While Bennett plans on using a base 4-2-5 system with similarities to the scheme Graham has had in place since his arrival at ASU, many of the labels of the positions will change. Bennett said he will consider the Spur a defensive back in his base scheme and that the Spur will keep its name, but based on what's transpired over the last few seasons, Bennett believes it's time for a change.

"We're going to keep the Spur but I'm going to bring some of mine (terminology) because it's just simpler for me the way I call it," Bennett said. "And the other thing, with what's sort of happened, I wanted a little bit of a change. The Spur will stay, and we'll work off of it."

Under Bennett, ASU will likely refer to its field side safety as the "cover safety" and the boundary side safety as the "down safety." Additionally, the Devil backer will likely be called a "Buck" linebacker, and Bennett expects that player to have the versatility to rush the passer and drop into coverage on an occasional basis.

Aside from having a base 4-2-5 defense, Bennett wants the Sun Devils to be multiple and be able to adapt to opposing offenses, so he'll also implement a three-man front and in lighter packages, the Spur will be more of a true nickel corner. 

"I'm thinking we'll probably be more like a 4-2-5, we'll have an open side end, with the ability to also have a three-man package with it," Bennett said. "One of the things right now, one of the things I thought we did good, with the spread, we can show you different looks and be multiple within the base packages. Spur, Mike, Will, Buck or Devil, whatever you call it, nose tackle, tackle, and the Buck sometimes is going to be a dropper. Then we can also, we have a 'posse' package that's still the same look, but we put skill in there. I think it's a game of matchups." 

Under Graham's guidance, the Sun Devils have used four-man fronts and three-man fronts, considered the Spur more of a linebacker in some years and more of a safety in other years, and used the Devil backer as a hand-in-the-dirt pass rusher and as an edge player aligned from a two-point stance. Under Bennett's watch, ASU will continue to be adaptive to its personnel, but Bennett wants to ensure the personnel that's on the field in his base package is more comfortable with alignments and assignments so that the Sun Devils can cut down on the critical errors that have plagued them in recent seasons.

On National Signing Day, Graham reflected on ASU's goal of becoming more explosive as a team and said the players the program recruited during the 2017 cycle helped the Sun Devils achieve that goal. Of the 19 players ASU signed in 2017, three are Bandit/Spurt prospects, including four-star prospects Evan Fields and K.J. Jarrell

On Wednesday, Bennett said one of the first changes he hopes fans see in ASU's defense is that the players manning the Spur position are more athletic than they have been in the past, saying, "I will take speed over size every day." 

Bennett also said one of the most important goals for ASU and its coaching staff this spring is determining the best five defensive backs on the roster and how the Sun Devils can put those five players on the field at the same time. Regardless of what positions ASU players have manned in the past, Bennett said he's not married to the idea of keeping those players in the same spots, indicating he's willing to juggle personnel to improve ASU's defensive capabilities.

"The thing that I'm a believer in and I know Todd is too is we've got to find our best five guys," Bennett said. "I'm not locked into anything right now. The best five guys, it could be Kareem (Orr) at safety, it could be Armand (Perry) at boundary corner. The other thing too, don't be afraid to try some people. It's spring. That's where you have to find some guys where you can say, I can put him in a position to be successful. That Spur is going to be crucial. I look at Marcus Ball, he's made for Spur."

With Bennett assuming control of the defense, Graham has bowed out of certain responsibilities like signaling and audibling. However, Bennett and Graham both said that Graham will play an integral role in helping design ASU's defense, as the head coach will dictate the parameters of the system Bennett will operate.

"We'll do things, but one of the things that was fun is this has been a 25-year interview, he (Graham) knows me and I didn't come here, he knows what I do," Bennett said. "I also know that Todd has always had some great ideas too. It's always a partnership." 

For Graham, the idea of handing over the reins to his defense is somewhat foreign. Even though he's had defensive coordinators like Paul Randolph and Keith Patterson by his side since he began his career as a head coach, Graham has always maintained authority on the defensive side of the ball.

However, toward the end of the 2014 season, Graham began to realize that coordinating a defense prevented him from handling other aspects of an increasingly demanding role. After two seasons with sub .500 records, Graham recognized adapting his role within the Sun Devils' defense was necessary for the unit to progress and evolve, and he elected to pursue change.

After a 5-7 finish in 2016, Graham demoted Patterson from his defensive coordinator role and hired Bennett to oversee the Sun Devils' overhaul.

While change may not come easily to Graham, his decision to bring in Bennett to fix a failing unit is reflective of a decision many of the game's wisest coaches would make. Essentially, Graham realized, if he doesn't accept change, the Sun Devils won't get back on track. 

"You adapt or you die," Graham said. "And what we did at the end of this year, just like we did at the end of 2013, man, you start over completely. Just like you walked in the door. You get the same book, our coaches do the same deal, and I've learned that from guys, whether it be coach (Nick) Saban or coach R.C. Slocum, the guys that I've looked at, that's how you have to do it, every year is a new year. You have to learn, you have to adapt, you have to be willing to change." 

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