ASU streamlining defensive scheme to aid secondary

With junior Armand Perry recovering from surgery and senior Marcus Ball limited in practices, Arizona State is still confident it made significant strides in the secondary this spring.

As a slew of former Pac-12 receivers prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft later this month, the post office servicing Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe should see an uptick in the amount of mail filing through on a daily basis.

While the draft-eligible receivers have plenty of different folks to express gratitude toward, perhaps no group is more deserving of thank-you notes than Arizona State's secondary, which contributed to dozens of highlight-reel plays for its conference foes over the last two seasons.

In 2015 and 2016, ASU finished with the worst passing defense in the country, ranking 127th out of 127 FBS teams in back-to-back seasons as the Sun Devils struggled to defend any and all aerial attacks.

Coming off of a pair of catastrophic seasons defensively, neither of the Sun Devils' returning starters at the safety positions have practiced meaningful snaps this spring while the program has had just three healthy scholarship cornerbacks on the field each day.

Yet even with the adversity the Sun Devils' secondary faces, junior cornerback Kareem Orr said he expects the unit to make significant strides this fall.

“Me personally and the team, we’ve got a huge chip on our shoulder," Orr said. "We don’t, we’re tired of being the laughing stock of the Pac, we’re tired of that so we’re just coming out here and we’re ready to play.”

There's no question ASU needed a serious overhaul on the defensive side of the ball, and Orr and his fellow cornerbacks have worked closely this spring with new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to help ignite positive change.

A 39-year coaching veteran and a mentor to ASU head coach Todd Graham dating to 1995, Bennett taking the reins of ASU's defense is the equivalent of a married couple nearing retirement, and deciding it wants to start fresh and buy a new house. The only problem? The house they purchased recently burned to the ground.

The structural damage within ASU's secondary was practically toxic, but Bennett and second-year defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing are attempting to start the renovation process from the ground up.

Since taking over ASU's defense, Bennett has attempted to simplify the Sun Devils' communication and streamline assignments for defensive players, which are concepts Rushing said have paid dividends this spring.

“Our guys are doing a great job buying into the new system and I think it’s a great mesh between what we have been doing and coach Bennett’s style," Rushing said. "Those guys have known each other for ever, like cliniced together for a long time, coach Graham and coach Bennett, so I think it’s a mesh of both worlds and our guys love it.”

Entering his 12th season as an FBS head coach -- and his sixth season at ASU -- Graham is preparing to surrender play-calling duties for the first time in his career. Though Graham found immediate success at ASU thanks to a hyper-aggressive scheme he orchestrated like a maestro, the Sun Devils' coach lost his touch as he realized other areas of the program commanded and demanded his attention.

The issues facing ASU's defense reached a boiling point in 2016, as Graham's determination to make pre-snap adjustments in the closing moments leading up to an offensive play caused critical communication breakdowns and a seemingly unending list of missed assignments for ASU's defensive backs.

As a result, a unit that was far and away the worst pass defense in the country in 2015 regressed in 2016, and allowed over 357 yards per game through the air, the second worst mark in FBS history (Cal, 2014). 

Bennett's task is to rectify the mistakes that have compounded over the last two seasons, and he's started to do so by helping ASU's players work to identify offensive formations and shift and adjust accordingly. Instead of waiting for Graham's last-second pre-snap instructions, ASU's defenders are now working with Bennett to recognize an offensive set and put all 11 players on the same page in a shorter amount of time.

“It’s more now on us, we’re more calling the scheme now, he’s (Bennett) just tuning it up for the play," Orr said. "We already know what we’re running, when they come out and they adjust, we already know what we’re doing. He’s tuning it up, throwing in a little bit of stuff here and there.”

In the past, Graham's tendency to gamble with five and six-man pressures often left his defensive backs on an island. And in a conference loaded with capable talent at the receiver position, offenses turned into matchsticks, preparing to burn up the Sun Devils' secondary at a moment's notice.

Though Graham and Bennett insist the Sun Devils will remain aggressive defensively, senior cornerback Maurice Chandler said the adjustments ASU has made to its coverages are more favorable for defensive backs.

“The biggest changes he’s brought are just coverages and matchups, making sure we’re good on matchups," Chandler said. "Making sure the defense is always better in a matchup instead of just one-on-ones all the time.”

A season ago, opponents had no trouble taking a torch to ASU's defense and lighting up everything in sight, but this spring, the Sun Devils say those days are in the past.

Orr said ASU's defensive backs are becoming more comfortable as each practice progresses, but he knows he and his teammates still have to work on skills like eye discipline and defending against double moves. Nevertheless, Orr said the Sun Devils' first-team offense, a unit loaded with talented playmakers, has had trouble turning big-play opportunities into touchdowns this spring, and he said that's a direct result of the changes Bennett has brought to ASU's scheme.

After overseeing an outmatched secondary last season, Rushing said he's been encouraged by the progress ASU has made this spring. Though junior Armand Perry has sat out all spring following surgery and senior Marcus Ball has been limited due to a medical issue, Rushing said the players who have had extensive opportunities to prove themselves in place of ASU's returning starters at safety have been dialed in from the start.

The greatest difference Rushing said he's seen out of his unit is the sense of ownership his defensive backs have taken in Bennett's defense. For a unit that struggled with communications and assignments last season, Rushing said he's been encouraged by the manner in which all of his defenders have taken it upon themselves to learn the changes and put them into action on the practice field.

“Our guys are getting a lot better at seeing formations and tendencies for themselves and getting in the right call and playing it," Rushing said. "Doing their job and their responsibility. Not depending on so much, they’re taking ownership of it which is great.”

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