In the early days of Arizona State's spring practices, new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has been spotted doing something only a small number of the Sun Devils' assistant coaches have done in recent years.
During skill development drills, Bennett has actively offered coaching points and tips to ASU's walk-on players, instructing them and attempting to help them improve their skill sets. Whether Bennett will continue to provide guidance for walk-ons --a responsibility that rarely falls on the shoulders of a full-time assistant coach-- remains to be seen. But at this point, the 39-year coaching veteran doesn't have a choice.
Without the requisite number of healthy scholarship players to fill out a two-deep in ASU's defensive backfield this spring, Bennett is coaching walk-ons harder than any other member of the Sun Devils' staff because with a shocking lack of depth, Bennett is forced to rely on them.
When ASU's second-team defense took the field on Monday, the Sun Devils' secondary featured three walk-ons and redshirt freshman Jeremy Smith, who began his career at wide receiver before Bennett approached him prior to spring practices about playing safety.
"Bennett he asked me," Smith said. "When we were lifting like before spring started he asked me if I had ever played defense and I told him, 'No' and he said, 'We're going to try you out this spring."
Though Smith had never taken a rep on the defensive side of the ball until ASU's spring practice slate began last Tuesday, he was the only scholarship player aligned in the secondary when the Sun Devils' second unit stepped on the field on Monday.
With junior Armand Perry sitting out the spring due to a recent surgery and senior Marcus Ball not participating in certain practice periods due to a medical issue, the Sun Devils needed to find a healthy body to play safety, and Smith is one of the few scholarship players on the roster who has the build and athleticism to play at the back end of ASU's defense.
Though Smith said he would prefer to play wide receiver, Bennett and head coach Todd Graham plugged him in on the defensive side of the ball, and he's become a pleasant surprise to the coaching staff through the first four practices of the spring.
Smith saw extensive action as ASU's cover safety --formerly known as its field safety-- during Monday's practice, because aside from the absences of Perry and Ball, the Sun Devils were dealing with other complications.
After missing the first two practices of the spring for undisclosed reasons, Monday marked the second practice for senior safety J'Marcus Rhodes, who was not in pads because of an NCAA rule stipulating players must participate in two helmets-only practices before they're able to wear pads.
Additionally, redshirt freshman cornerback Chase Lucas, who seemingly has the positional flexibility to play both cornerback and cover safety, was not a full participant during Monday's session and worked off to the side of the rest of ASU's defensive unit.
Down four potential options in the defensive backfield, ASU was left with senior Chad Adams, mid-year enrollee and freshman Ty Thomas, and Smith, a converted wide receiver, to serve as the last line of defense on Monday.
Though Smith was recruited to ASU as a wide receiver, he played quarterback in high school and said he's comfortable making the checks and calls required of a safety in Bennett's defensive scheme. While he's still getting used to lining up on the other side of the ball, Smith thinks his offensive background could aid his assimilation process.
"Playing quarterback and going to defense, switching it over, I can see the same thing but from a different perspective so like the receivers, I know what the receivers are doing, I know how the quarterback throws the ball so when I break on it, it's easier for me to get to it," Smith said.
While he's only practiced at safety for four days, Smith said he's nabbed five interceptions thus far and Graham said the Sun Devils are inclined to keep him on the defensive side of the ball moving forward.
"Was a quarterback in high school, again I like his (Smith) attitude going over and being a team player," Graham said. "He’s gone over and done a really good job for us so he’s really been a natural fit there at safety so I feel really good about him, that’s where he’ll probably stay. He’s done a good job.”
Darby trying Spur
Smith isn't the only receiver the Sun Devils are attempting to convert to the defensive side of the ball this spring, as fellow redshirt freshman Frank Darby has practiced at ASU's Spur linebacker position.
Smith and Darby were part of ASU's 2016 signing class that featured five wide receivers, four of whom have now worked at different positions. Last season, due to injuries at the quarterback position, sophomore Jack Smith was forced into a backup role as a signal-caller, while sophomore Kyle Williams transitioned to safety from receiver at the end of fall camp before clearly expressing his desire to return to the offensive side of the ball.
The lone member of the quintet ASU has kept exclusively at receiver is N'Keal Harry, who took home Freshman All-American honors and doesn't appear to be a candidate to switch to the defensive side of the ball...yet.
At 6-feet and 197 pounds, Darby drew rave reviews from his performance as a scout team receiver last season, and Graham said Monday that if he wasn't on defense, Darby would be in the rotation at receiver this spring.
However, following the graduation of multi-year starter Laiu Moeakiola, Bennett said ASU needs a talented athlete to handle all the demands of the Spur position, and the Sun Devils approached Darby about trying to fit that need prior to the spring.
“It’s (Spur) a critical position, I mean at some point we have to have somebody that really understands what we’re trying to do," Bennett said. They’re getting better and you try to simplify some things for them, but we’re not there yet.
“You have to be a jack of all trades, cover, blitz, the whole thing. But we’ve got some guys that have potential.”
Unlike Smith, Darby did have experience on the defensive side of the ball in high school, playing safety during his senior year. Still, Darby was hesitant to flip positions, but said a conversation with his high school coach helped convince him to "come to the Dark Side."
"I actually played a little Spur my senior year, we didn't call it a Spur, we called it a little strong safety, but I actually played that my senior year," Darby said. "I did pretty well at it, but it was high school though. Now this is college. Everyone is grown men now. Probably because of my body appearance they think I can do very well at the position."
The graduation of Moeakiola looms as one of the biggest losses ASU's defense has suffered under Graham, even though Moeakiola never received the accolades or attention players like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Damarious Randall earned. Nevertheless, Moeakiola held down a starting spot for the better part of three seasons at one of the most physically demanding positions in ASU's scheme, and he now leaves a significant void.
Darby isn't the first receiver ASU has attempted to convert to the Spur position before, as the Sun Devils tried out junior receiver Jalen Harvey on the defensive side of the ball during bowl practices earlier in his career.
Even though Darby and Harvey were both recruited to ASU as receivers and have now both practiced at Spur, Graham said there's an important contrast between the styles of each player, which reveals one of the key changes Bennett could be making to ASU's scheme.
Graham said Harvey was a true Spur, while Darby is more of a nickel cornerback playing the position, which suggests ASU wants to find a player more capable as a coverage asset to make the Sun Devils' scheme more friendly for defensive backs.
“I think Darby is a really, really good athlete, Jalen and him are really different type players," Graham said. "Darby is a very athletic, speed guy that has great athleticism. Harvey is just an intense competitor and a bigger body or plays bigger type of guy. Harvey is a true Spur, whereas Darby is kind of a nickel. A nickel is a third corner, that’s what that is. I appreciate him being such a team guy because the guy would be in the rotation on offense at receiver but we’re just trying to look and see if there’s a possibility there."
While Graham said Smith will likely stick on the defensive side of the ball, it's unclear how much longer the Sun Devils plan to experiment with Darby at Spur.
Much like Williams, who looked like a valuable asset with a bright future when ASU switched him from receiver to field safety last season, Darby certainly looks like he can play the part and become an effective piece. However, Williams prefers playing on offense, and ASU believes Darby has the potential to help that unit as a playmaker too.
Darby said he was initially surprised and uncertain about being approached by Bennett to play defense, but now that he's taken reps with the first and second team units this spring, he's growing more comfortable. For now, Darby said he doesn't think about a potential return to offense, because he's focused on executing in whatever capacity ASU elects to use him in.
"Me and Graham spoke," Darby said. "He was saying that, 'Don't worry.' When falls come and stuff and if I'm not starting they are going to move me back to offense. So I was like, 'Alright, cool, cool, cool.' They said I will be playing my share so I was like, 'Alright this is what I've been waiting for so I'm just ready for whatever comes my way."
At this point in the spring, both Smith and Darby are playing their fair share, because ASU is short on depth at nearly every position in the back seven of its defense. On Monday, Graham said as many as five of the Sun Devils' 2017 signees who have yet to arrive on campus are expected to be key contributors this fall, and it's likely the arrivals of players like four-star cornerback recruit Alex Perry and four-star safety Evan Fields shake up the program's depth chart.
But for now, both Smith and Darby are hitting the opportunity they have in front of them hard, knowing the next step in their transition is going to help determine if they have what it takes to stick on defense.
"No I haven't hit anyone yet, but I know if the time comes I'll hit somebody," Smith said. "I'm willing to hit."