Tim Nelson/SunDevilSource

Spring primer: Arizona State cornerbacks/field safeties

After posting the worst pass defense numbers in the nation for the second straight season, Arizona State is once again attempting to regroup in the secondary this spring.

Spring primer: Cornerback/Field Safety

Returners (6)

Maurice Chandler: 16 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, two pass breakups in 2016

Chad Adams: 19 tackles, one pass breakup, one forced fumble in 2016

Armand Perry: 59 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, one pass breakup in 2016

Kareem Orr: 53 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, one interception, five pass breakups in 2016

Robbie Robinson: Five tackles, one interception in 2016

Chase Lucas: Redshirted in 2016

Spring additions (0)

Anticipated fall arrivals (3)

Alex Perry: Four-star recruit, No. 16 cornerback nationally, No. 4 cornerback in the West region.

Langston Frederick: Two-star recruit out of League City, Texas

Darien Cornay: Junior college transfer from Cerritos College with four years to play three 

What to expect: Last weekend, Michael Jordan made headlines for a halftime speech at a North Carolina Tar Heels' basketball game when he told the crowd, "The ceiling is the roof." 

If Jordan was speaking at an Arizona State football game, instead, the NBA legend might have told the crowd, "the ground is the floor," in reference to the Sun Devils' defensive backfield. 

After finishing last in the country in passing defense in 2015, allowing over 337 yards per game through the air, Arizona State entered the 2016 season believing there was nowhere to go but up.

Though ASU graduated three of its starting defensive backs from its 2015 squad, the Sun Devils hoped to regroup with younger, more talented personnel that could propel the program back to an acceptable standard on the defensive side of the ball.

After finishing 128th out of 128 FBS teams in passing defense in 2015, all the Sun Devils had to do was best one other team in college football to consider the 2016 season an "improvement." But that didn't happen.

Instead, the Sun Devils managed to regress against the pass, allowing an average of nearly 20 yards per game more through the air than they did in 2015, and in the process, threatening the national record of average passing yards allowed per game set by the Cal Bears in 2014.

Entering the 2017 spring, the Sun Devils have just as much reason to believe they'll improve as they did a year ago, but now, they have a few experienced assets who can make that improvement --however slight it might be-- a reality.

According to second-year defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing, the returners in ASU's secondary are eager to wipe the slate clean this spring and prove that they're capable of putting together performances they can be proud of for the first time in a couple of years.

“The group is hungry, and like you said, a couple of bad years of pass defense made them that way," Rushing said recently. "Nobody likes being bad, especially if you’re highly competitive, which all of our guys in our room are, and so they’re hungry and ready to go out there and work. They’ve been working like crazy the last couple of days since we’ve been back off the road, finished with recruiting, back around them and they’ve been getting after it, trying to establish themselves as a solid secondary. A great secondary. Something they can go out there and be proud of what they can put on tape.”

Much like the situation the Sun Devils face with evaluating their Bandit/Spur positions this spring, how ASU ends up orienting its personnel at its cornerback and field safety positions remains an uncertainty because of a staggering lack of depth. 

The program returns just six scholarship players at cornerback and field safety, barely enough to form a two-deep, and anticipates just three newcomers to arrive this fall. However, unlike last spring, the Sun Devils do have a handful of the team's most experienced defensive backs returning for another season, which should help ASU find some semblance of stability at the back end of its defense.

With six returners available to man the two starting cornerback and the starting field safety positions, juniors Armand Perry and Kareem Orr are the leading candidates to fill two slots in ASU's defensive backfield.

Perry began his career at ASU as a nickel cornerback and boundary corner, but started the 2016 season at field safety. The Las Vegas, Nevada native missed almost the entire 2015 season with a devastating foot injury, but figured to be a key piece in ASU's defensive backfield last season as long as he returned with a clean bill of health.

Even though Perry has grown into a 6-foot, 195-pound frame that now looks capable of holding up physically at the Bandit or Spur positions, Perry started at field safety almost out of necessity last season. While he battled a turf toe injury for much of the latter half of last season, Perry showed the physical tools needed to succeed at the field safety position and demonstrated when he's healthy, he's fully capable of holding down a starting spot. 

"Last year he (Perry) did a really good job at the field safety, whenever he was in there he played well and now we just got to get luck on his side," Rushing said. "For whatever reason, not to get these freak accidents, freak injuries, cause his future could be bright. He’s putting in the work, so if he puts in the work, he’ll reap the benefits.”

Though he'll never have the fluid change of direction skills and raw range at the field safety position that former ASU starter Damarious Randall possessed, it's unlikely anyone on ASU's roster (perhaps outside of wide receiver Kyle Williams) does.

If ASU had more depth in this unit, the Sun Devils may be best served to slide Perry to the Bandit safety position to allow a more athletic coverage defender, perhaps redshirt freshman Chase Lucas, to handle the field safety role. But for now, Perry will probably start the spring at field safety, where he should serve as an anchor in the secondary.

The other player ASU is relying on to lay claim to a starting role is Orr, who started during his freshman season at field safety before transitioning to a role as the Sun Devils' primary boundary cornerback last year. 

Orr might be ASU's most versatile player in the secondary, with the capability to start and play well as a boundary corner, a field side cornerback, or at field safety. At times last season, the Sun Devils used Orr to shadow an opponent's best receiver, and flipped him from the boundary side cornerback position to the field side when necessary. 

Though Orr suffered some growing pains defending against the Pac-12's elite receivers, he impressed ASU's coaching staff during his first full season as a true cover corner at the college level and demonstrated impressive raw potential. Things should continue to click for Orr in 2017, and by 2018, it wouldn't surprise us if he developed into an All-Pac-12 caliber cover corner. 

While he struggled at times to compete for the ball in the air last season, Orr has a natural feel for playing in man coverage that many of ASU's other cornerbacks simply don't possess. If he can continue to make improvements to his technique and prove himself as ASU's most complete cornerback, Rushing believes Orr can push toward his ceiling sooner rather than later.

"He’s (Orr) been doing a great job so far, but I’m pushing him to go where he’s never been, to step it up," Rushing said. "Like you said, he’s had a lot of success here, he’s been a great ball player, and now as a ball coach, you’re always trying to push him to be better at something, and so that’s the challenge for him. He’s going to keep plugging away in the secondary, keep doing us a great job and now that’s it.”

Which player emerges alongside Perry and Orr as ASU's most reliable, consistent cornerback or field safety option figures to be one of the most important storylines to monitor for the Sun Devils this spring.

The two most likely candidates are senior Maurice Chandler, a rangy junior college cornerback who could play on the field side at cornerback, and Lucas, who might have the versatility to play either field cornerback or field safety.

Chandler entered ASU as a mid-year enrollee last spring, but struggled with various injury issues that caused setbacks in his assimilation to the FBS level and forced him into a reserve role at the beginning of last season.

Because he was sidelined and couldn't practice for much of the spring and fall camp, Chandler fell behind converted running back De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes in ASU's cornerback rotation and didn't earn consistent playing time until midway through the regular season.

In short spurts, Chandler showcased strong enough athleticism to make himself a candidate for a starting cornerback job, but didn't provide ASU with enough consistency to merit a more extensive look last fall.

Chandler played tentatively last season, but he's a natural athlete with fluid hips and quick enough feet to get in phase against receivers in man coverage, so ASU is hoping Chandler can stay injury free and assert himself as one of the team's top defensive backs this spring when he should receive an ample amount of reps to prove himself. 

“With Maurice, he’s excited," Rushing said. "He’s excited, like you said, that first year, you’ve got to get acclimated, I don’t care how good your tape looks, it’s a learning curve. He came out and he realized that and now he’s putting in the work to establish himself just like he has at every point in his career. In high school, in junior college, now everywhere he’s been, he’s established himself as the guy or a guy that can play well so that’s where he’s working towards."

Though he's much younger than Chandler and hasn't played a down of football at the college level, Lucas is as intriguing of a prospect as any the Sun Devils will evaluate in their defensive backfield this spring. 

A four-star recruit out of Chandler High, Lucas nearly had his redshirt burned last season by ASU head coach Todd Graham despite starting the year weighing just 155 pounds. Now, the 6-foot tall athlete says he's up to 182 pounds, and should have the physical maturity to compete for a starting role at either cornerback or field safety this spring.

Where Lucas fits into the picture for ASU is still a bit of a mystery, and likely hinges on how ASU feels about its depth at each position. If the Sun Devils have serious concerns about the Bandit safety position, the program could slide Perry to Bandit and use Lucas as a field side safety. If ASU has more concerns about its field side cornerback spot, perhaps Lucas gets a longer look at cornerback where he would likely compete with Chandler. 

At ASU's spring football media day, new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said he and Graham have to focus on identifying ASU's five best football players in the defensive backfield, and finding a way to put all five of those players on the field at once. Whether Lucas emerges as a member of that starting five remains to be seen, but his athleticism, improved physique, competitive desire and ASU's lack of depth make him a strong candidate to emerge.

"He’s (Lucas) a guy that will go out there and compete at corner," Rushing said. "But like you said, he has flexibility, you name-dropped the positions so it’s either going to be at corner or at field safety but he has a chance to go out there and compete in the spring and looking forward to watching him work. He’s been doing a great job in the offseason, put on a lot of good weight, staying fast and he’s looking good.”

The other two returnees to ASU's secondary, senior Chad Adams and sophomore Robbie Robinson, are less likely to compete for starting roles, but because of the Sun Devils' depth issues, could wind up seeing the field anyway. At the very least, because of the Sun Devils' massive struggles during the last two seasons, each player should receive the opportunity to be thoroughly evaluated in position and team drills by Bennett this spring.

Entering his fourth and final year with the program, Adams is a candidate to play either safety position, but likely won't begin the season as more than a backup on ASU's depth chart Ball shifts to Spur. If that happens, Adams will be in the mix for the first team spot at Bandit. Though Adams is an above average athlete, he doesn't dissect plays well, is late to react and as a result, plays slower than his speed suggests he can. 

As for Robinson, he began last season as one of ASU's top options at nickel corner, but Graham's concerns about his height (he's listed at 5-foot-8) led to other players receiving more of an opportunity ahead of him. In limited reps, Robinson displayed sound technique and solid man coverage skills, while boasting a highly competitive demeanor on the field.

Whether Bennett and Rushing view Robinson's height as a limiting factor this spring should largely dictate Robinson's future within the program, because it's unlikely a player who possesses above average cover skills but isn't viewed as capable by a coaching staff will want to stick it out for three more seasons. 

With just six true cornerback/field safety prospects to evaluate and take reps this spring, ASU is in a challenging position because the Sun Devils don't have the freedom to experiment as much with moving players into different roles.

While Bennett and Graham are hoping to find the best combination of five players to handle the Bandit, Spur, field corner, field safety and boundary corner positions, ASU only has so many options to look at without sacrificing depth at various spots on the field. 

The primary goal for ASU this spring is to determine which players are capable of thriving at each position, and working to build depth behind those players so that the Sun Devils are not compromised in the defensive backfield heading into fall camp. 

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