Spring primer: Bandit/Spur
Marcus Ball: 64 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, two pass breakups, one interception
J'Marcus Rhodes: 30 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup
Das Tautalatasi: One tackle
Tyler Whiley: Three tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 1.0 sack
Deion Guignard: Five tackles
Spring additions (1)
Ty Thomas: Three-star recruit, No. 81 safety nationally, No. 13 safety in the Midlands Region
Anticipated fall arrivals (2)
K.J. Jarrell: 4-star recruit, No. 28 safety nationally, No. 5 safety in the West Region
Evan Fields: 4-star recruit, No. 27 safety nationally, No. 3 safety in the Midlands Region
What to expect: Arizona State suffered through the worst season of the Todd Graham era in 2016, as the Sun Devils dropped their final six games en route to finishing 5-7 and on the outside of college football's wide open bowl picture looking in. But believe it or not, it could have been worse.
If not for an early-season comeback victory on the road over Texas San-Antonio, ASU would have finished 4-8 with an embarrassing loss to a Group of Five opponent that in most years would have no business competing with the Sun Devils.
In fact, the Sun Devils probably would have lost to the Roadrunners in mid-September if not for a critical substitution that changed the course of the game.
In the middle of the third quarter, UTSA called for a play-action pass that ASU Spur linebacker Marcus Ball had trouble dissecting. Ball misread his key, came racing up to the line of scrimmage, and was completely out of position to cover a running back releasing out of the backfield who wound up catching a 24-yard touchdown pass.
The touchdown gave the Roadrunners a 28-12 lead with just over 23 minutes remaining in the game, and forced ASU to pull Ball from the lineup. Though Ball's replacement, senior Laiu Moeakiola, had yet to practice at Spur during the regular season and had battled a hamstring injury since fall camp, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson had no reservations about inserting Moeakiola in Ball's place.
One of the most trusted defensive players of Graham's tenure, Moeakiola had started at Spur for the better part of two seasons before planning to move back a level and play at Bandit safety during the 2016 season. But after Ball's critical error, ASU had no choice but to ride out the game with Moeakiola, and he proved to be a difference-maker.
Over UTSA's final five possessions, the Roadrunners finished with four three and outs, gained just 21 yards and struggled to slip anything by an ASU defense led by Moeakiola that keyed a Sun Devils' comeback. Instead of leaving San Antonio with an embarrassing blemish on its record, the Sun Devils emerged from the contest 3-0 and ready to begin conference play.
Though the Sun Devils began the season with grand plans to keep Ball closer to the line of scrimmage at Spur, ASU simply couldn't afford to have anyone other than Moeakiola aligning, communicating and playing at the position. While Ball would ultimately find a home at Bandit safety, starting at the back end of ASU's defense, the Sun Devils enter the 2017 spring slate facing an uncomfortable reality.
When ASU takes the field this fall, the Sun Devils won't have Moeakiola to fall back on, which forces the program to devote the spring to finding a new anchor at the Spur position.
Ironically, the leading candidate to play Spur this spring might again be Ball, who struggled with key reads closer to the line of scrimmage last season but has the best frame of any of ASU's Bandit/Spur candidates to handle the physicality required at the position.
Additionally, Ball is the only one of six Bandit/Spur options ASU will have at its disposal this spring who has started regularly for the Sun Devils during his career, and his experience could be a deciding factor in ASU's plans for the positions.
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Ball has the body composition of a hybrid safety/linebacker, but he also has the speed to be able to cover slot receivers and tight ends in the open field on passing downs. ASU defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing maintains that Ball could have been an effective Spur for ASU last season, but said the Sun Devils had to find a way to put him and Moeakiola on the field together.
"I’d say Marcus is, I think last year, he could have done either (Bandit or Spur) really well," Rushing said. "He’s like you said, blessed with great size, so everybody is like, golly, he should be in the box, he’s a big old kid. But he has fluid hips, good movement, faster than people realize, so he can play back there. That last year at Spur, he had Laiu (Moeakiola), and he’s a ball player, so there’s no sense in two really good football players sitting on the bench."
Spur is a more demanding position than Bandit in ASU's defensive scheme because of the added physicality, the dual-responsibilities of being a key run and pass defender, and the challenging coverage assignments, but Ball does have the tools to be effective for the Sun Devils in this role.
If the Sun Devils do want Ball to attempt to replace Moeakiola, though, they'll need him to become more consistent with his key reads, more assignment sound against the run and more sure in his tackles. Like many of ASU's defenders last season, Ball often attempted to deliver a crushing blow instead of wrapping up, and though he landed plenty of big hits, he missed too many opportunities to bring down ball carriers that will assuredly cost the Sun Devils if those mistakes happen closer to the line of scrimmage.
With Ball likely locked into a role starting at either Spur or Bandit for ASU this fall, the Sun Devils' will focus their attention this spring on finding their next most capable player at the position group to handle the role Ball does not fulfill.
The options ASU has are mostly veteran players, but contributors who have fulfilled minor roles at best to this point in their careers.
If the Sun Devils want to use Ball at Spur, former junior college transfer and senior J'Marcus Rhodes might wind up earning an extensive look as the team's Bandit safety.
A four-star recruit out of Kilgore College, Rhodes arrived at ASU with the expectation that he would contribute as a cornerback/field safety prospect but wound up playing Bandit safety at the beginning of last season.
Like many of ASU's defensive backs, Rhodes was hindered by his inability to rapidly dissect plays, and the 6-foot-2, 200-pound transfer ended up switching positions. Rhodes has the potential to make the first to second year leap many junior college prospects end up making, but if he's going to do so, he'll need to do a better job playing and reacting faster.
At the junior college level, Rhodes' best attributes as a corner were his ability to orient himself quickly against receivers' routes, and the physical tackling style he brought to the position. If Rhodes is able to regain some of the fluidity he demonstrated entering ASU, he could make a push at Bandit this spring.
Another player ASU has had on its depth chart at Bandit for the last few seasons is junior Das Tautalatasi, who has spent most of his time with the program contributing on special teams. Tautalatasi has been plagued by various injury issues throughout his career, including a season-ending hamstring injury he suffered in practice last season that left him on crutches for the final portion of the year.
Tautalatasi has strong natural instincts, but isn't a great man coverage defender and doesn't have the size to support his strengths as a football player. If Tautalatasi had Ball's frame, he'd be an obvious candidate to play Spur because he's sees the game well and wants to be physical. However, at 6-feet and 195 pounds, Tautalatasi is probably too slight and too injury-prone to play with with punishing style he wants to bring to the table.
This is an issue Moeakiola struggled with at points during his career, and it's why ASU wanted to move Moeakiola away from the line of scrimmage entering his senior season. As a result, the more ideal fit for Tautalatasi could be at Bandit, where he may have his best opportunity yet to climb the depth chart this spring.
The other two returners at Bandit/Spur this spring are junior college transfer Deion Guignard and former four-star recruit Tyler Whiley, a pair of junior who have the versatility to play either Bandit or Spur.
At 6-foot-3 and 197 pounds, Guignard has the frame to carry additional weight and play at the linebacker level, and could be using this offseason in ASU's strength and conditioning program to do so. Guignard is similar to Tautalatasi in that he's a capable special teams contributor, but he's different because he's a bigger-bodied player who looks like he can add bulk to his frame and play with a physical approach without subjecting himself to injury.
It's unlikely ASU would rely on Guignard to become a full-time starter at the Spur position and leave Ball back at Bandit because Guignard didn't play any defensive snaps for the Sun Devils last year, but if he shows well this spring, he could carve out a role as a subpackage defender or a rotational player.
The final returnee is Whiley, who worked his way into the two-deep at Spur last season and drew praise from Graham for his work ethic during the early portion of the regular season.
Whiley didn't find a home at Bandit/Spur until fall camp in 2016, as he bounced around at wide receiver, cornerback and field safety spots during his first few seasons with the program. Whiley shed a bit of weight last offseason to get down to close to 200 pounds, which allowed him a bit more mobility after admitting he wasn't comfortable practicing with the weight he added earlier in his career.
Whiley has the flexibility to play Bandit and Spur, but to fit in at either spot, he'll need to be able to play faster and prove that he still has the speed to keep up in coverage. Though he's a better natural athlete than Guignard and Tautalatasi, Whiley doesn't bring the same attacking mindset to the table which has held him back at various points during his development.
If Whiley can demonstrate consistency this spring, ASU's coaching staff likes his athleticism and may work to find a spot for him on a depth chart loaded with uncertainties.
Without many experienced options at Bandit/Spur this spring, the door is cracked open for mid-year enrollee, freshman Ty Thomas, to earn serious consideration from ASU coaches.
The nephew of former Miami Dolphins' linebacker Zach Thomas and the son of former Texas Tech player Bart Thomas, Ty Thomas is a prototypical Bandit safety who has the instincts and agility to potentially help ASU right away.
Because Thomas enrolled in January, he has a leg up on four-star recruits Evan Fields and K.J. Jarrell, both of whom project as Spur/Bandit prospects and both of whom could force their way into the competition come August. However, Thomas has the benefit of training at ASU and working to get in shape under the direction of ASU's coaching staff, which should provide an advantage for him this spring.
Because the Sun Devils have a shortage of experienced veterans in the defensive backfield, ASU may also attempt to get creative with how it deploys its personnel to mask some of its depth deficiencies.
If ASU feels redshirt freshman Chase Lucas is ready to handle the field safety role, the Sun Devils could move junior Armand Perry from field safety to either Bandit or Spur, allowing one of the most physical tacklers in the defensive backfield to play a position that's better tailored to his skill set.
Bumping Perry over to Bandit or Spur would require ASU to feel confident about its cornerback and field safety depth, though, which is something the Sun Devils may have trouble doing after being exposed in the air so frequently over the last two seasons.
Additionally, the Sun Devils may also consider looking at senior Chad Adams as a Bandit safety this spring, as Adams has experience playing both safety spots during his career at ASU. Though Adams isn't a strong tackler and hasn't demonstrated a propensity to step up in the box and make plays from his safety position, he does have more experience in coverage than many of the program's other options.
Regardless of how the Sun Devils orient their personnel this spring, ASU needs at least one or two of its inexperienced players to assume larger roles, given the overall depth issues the program has at the back end of its defense. If the Sun Devils manage to successfully implement new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's schematic changes and find more reliable, consistent players at Bandit/Spur and the rest of the program's defensive back positions, ASU will be able to enter the fall with a lot more confidence than it likely has coming into this spring.