Secondary depth chart in flux as ASU searches for playmakers

With just three scholarship cornerbacks on the roster this spring, ASU is searching for the right combination of players to solidify its depth in the defensive backfield.

With his arrival in Tempe slated for the month of June, four-star cornerback signee Alex Perry took an early peak at his new team last week when he ventured down to Arizona State and watched one of the Sun Devils' spring practices.

Donning a red zip-up jacket and sweat pants, Perry stood on the side of the field chatting up ASU head coach Todd Graham and graduate assistant Jarred Holley as the Sun Devils trotted their first and second-team defenses onto the field for an angle pursuit drill.

Though Perry took in practice in sneakers while ASU's players wore cleats, had he wanted to cross the sideline and venture onto the grass for a rep, Perry likely would have been one of the most capable defenders on the field.

That's the harsh reality for an ASU secondary that has spent the duration of the spring with just three scholarship cornerbacks on the practice field. 

Though the Sun Devils are counting down the days to when Perry, two-star signee Langston Frederick and junior college transfer Darien Cornay arrive to bolster the team's depth, secondary coach T.J. Rushing said he's been encouraged by the spirit of competition that has emerged from his unit this spring.

“I like it, it’s a lot of competition," Rushing said. "Even Kareem’s (Orr) spot, every spot, there’s tons of competition, there’s not a guy that can walk out here every day and say, hey I’m that dude. Because it goes back and forth every day between who’s playing well. And those guys know it.”

When Perry, Frederick and Cornay arrive this fall, they'll all have the opportunity to challenge for a spot in ASU's two-deep -- regardless of whether the trio is ready for the spotlight or not. 

Despite the relative lack of depth, Kareem Orr, the team's top corner, echoed Rushing's sentiments and said that he feels the Sun Devils' defensive backs already have a better feel for ASU's defense than it did last fall. 

With the addition of new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, ASU has attempted to streamline its communication and ease the difficulty of assignments for its defensive backs, and Orr said it's working.

“We’re getting better, I feel like we’re better than last year already, we’ve still got a long ways to go, we’re a work in progress, but I feel like we’re a lot better though," Orr said.

Entering his junior season at ASU, Orr is the Sun Devils' top returning coverage asset at cornerback, and an emerging leader in a secondary that needs players to take ownership of their responsibilities this fall.

Opposite Orr, the Sun Devils have entertained a two-man competition this spring, with senior Maurice Chandler and redshirt freshman Chase Lucas trading first and second-team repetitions.

Lucas, a former four-star recruit, arrived at ASU last fall weighing 155 pounds and in desperate need of adding bulk to an underdeveloped frame. Nevertheless, Graham admitted he nearly burned Lucas' redshirt last season as the Sun Devils were in dire search of help in the secondary, but elected to preserve Lucas' extra year of eligibility.

Less than a year after arriving on campus, Lucas has already gained over 25 pounds, and figures to be in the mix for extensive playing time in ASU's secondary regardless of whether he starts or not.

"He's (Lucas) done a good job, you know, he's got a lot of work to do," Graham said. "Obviously he's grown up, he's had a year to mature and I think how I would describe where he's at right now is he's starting to mature and he's got a chance to be a really good player."

Chandler, meanwhile, was expected to provide an immediate jolt to ASU's secondary after arriving as a mid-year transfer from the junior college level last season, but injuries slowed his progress.

Chandler dealt with separate hamstring and shoulder problems, and said that being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch his teammates play without him made for a challenging transition. 

“It was tough, just not out there playing and stuff, not out there playing all the time, but you’ve got to get over that transition and keep a clear mind, keep a positive mindset," Chandler said.

After two seasons at the junior college level and one year at ASU, Chandler is now preparing to enter the final season of his college career. The Northwest Oklahoma State product said the reality that his college career is winding down has set in, and it has inspired him to dedicate himself to putting forth more effort so he can go out on a high note.

“Just in my second year, man, that’s why I’ve been working in the film room more," Chandler said. "Especially after last year, I was going through the motions a lot and not putting my whole effort in to be the best that I can be. This year I just have that mindset, especially my senior year, coming in, you’ve got to buckle down and make sacrifices.”

Though neither Lucas or Chandler have established a stronghold on the starting spot opposite Orr, every member of ASU's secondary knows they'll have targets on their back after the program's catastrophic struggles against the pass over the last two seasons.

As a coach, Rushing said he's prepared to embrace the challenges ahead, and that he's constantly reminding his cornerbacks that the opportunity to play in the Pac-12 is one that will provide some of the stiffest tests college football has to offer.

“It’s why you come out to the Pac-12," Rushing said. "You know what I mean. You don’t come out here unless you want to face highly talented quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, receivers, that’s why coming out of high school, I wanted to play in the Pac-12. That’s why coaching, I want to stay in the Pac-12. You want the spotlight on you, I tell my guys every time, if you don’t want the bullseye on your back, you came to the wrong place. Wrong conference to play DB. I embrace it, look forward to it and I love the challenge of it.”

Building depth at the back end 

Perry's arrival at an ASU practice last week marked the first time a Perry brother has spent time at the Kajikawa Practice Facility this spring -- which is concerning for the Sun Devils considering Alex's older brother, Armand, is the program's returning starter at the field safety position.

After beginning his ASU career as a cornerback, Armand Perry transitioned to field safety last fall, and though he brought impressive physicality to the position, Perry dealt with a handful of injuries that kept him off of the field at various points last season. 

Perry underwent surgery this offseason and hasn't been cleared to practice yet, so the Sun Devils have counted on senior Chad Adams to fill Perry's void this spring.

A career reserve during his time at ASU, Adams has developed and progressed this spring according to Rushing, who rarely focuses on praising individual effort.

"One guy whose name just pops up in my head immediately, I hate calling out individuals, Chad Adams," Rushing said. "He’s been consistent throughout the whole spring. He’s learning, he’s taking on the leadership role as a senior, I know what I do, I know what I have to get done, and you can tell that his sense of eagerness is rubbing off on everybody.”

The leadership Adams has displayed this spring has rubbed off on freshman safety Ty Thomas, a mid-year enrollee out of Lubbock, Texas, who said Adams and a handful of other defensive backs have taken him under his wing and helped him transition to the college level.

“Chad Adams, really all of the older DBs, Kareem (Orr), Marcus Ball, Mo (Maurice) Chandler, they’ve really taken me in," Thomas said. "I’m the freshman so I have a lot of work to do but they’re keeping me in line for sure.”

Like Adams, Thomas has also worked his way onto the field with the first-team defense at various points this spring despite being a new arrival on campus. Last season, Marcus Ball took over the starting Bandit safety job early in conference play, but this spring, Ball's participation has been limited due to a medical issue.

As a result, Thomas and junior Das Tautalatasi, another player who battled injury last season, have both repped with the first-team defense at Bandit safety.

“I did not, honestly, I did not," Thomas said, when asked if he expected to earn first-team reps immediately upon arriving in Tempe. "But that’s good for me, I definitely need the work and it’s a huge head start that I need.”

In the fall, Thomas is expected to be joined by four-star signees Evan Fields and K.J. Jarrell, both of whom have said they will start their career at safety in ASU's scheme. But right now, the three-star signee said the head start he's getting by skipping out on his last semester of high school is well worth it.

“I definitely need to be here," Thomas said. "There’s a lot I have to work on. I’m still adjusting to the speed, I made too many mistakes today, so I just have to keep on working.”

The final position in ASU's secondary up for grabs this spring is the Spur position, which is expected to be occupied by a hybrid player who has the skill set to play in the slot as a coverage asset while also providing support from the linebacker level against the run.

For the better part of the last three seasons, Laiu Moeakiola started at Spur for ASU, but following his graduation, the Sun Devils are looking for a new option at one of the most important positions on the team's defense.

At the outset of the spring, ASU attempted to move redshirt freshman wide receiver Frank Darby to the defensive side of the ball to play Spur, and though Darby is physically mature enough to handle the job, the Sun Devils elected to move Darby back to offense last Wednesday. Darby told us subsequently that he prefers playing on offense, one of the major factors in the decision. 

Though he didn't start the spring with the first-team defense, senior J'Marcus Rhodes has emerged as the team's top option at Spur over the past two weeks -- though perhaps that wouldn't be the case if Ball was a full participant. Rhodes and junior Tyler Whiley are battling for reps, and Rushing said he's comfortable using Rhodes, a former junior college cornerback, at the Spur position because of his natural feel for the game.

“J’Marcus is a football player, you know what I mean?" Rushing said. "Everybody is like, of course he’s a football player, but no, he’s one of those guys, he can move a couple of different spots and fit in. He’s played the game a long time, it comes natural to him, so I think wherever he earns a spot, if he earns a spot, I think he will play there well. I honestly do because he’s just a football player.”

Though it's unlikely ASU will ever finish tinkering with and adjusting its personnel in the secondary this season, one possibility the Sun Devils may look to explore is shifting Ball down from the Bandit safety position to Spur.

Ball began the 2016 season as ASU's starting Spur while Moeakiola played Bandit, but the pair flip-flopped prior to the Sun Devils' victory over UCLA. Though Ball hasn't participated in full contact drills this spring, in recent weeks, he's aligned with the third-team defense at Spur in angle pursuit drills.

The ultimate key for ASU this fall is finding the best combination of five defensive backs who can provide stability for the program and help the defense cut down on the amount of big plays it surrenders. Over the last two seasons, structural deficiencies in the Sun Devils' scheme have hindered any opportunities for improvement, but Rushing said that so far this spring -- even without Ball and Perry -- ASU is on the right track. 

“I do and we’ve put a big emphasis on it," Rushing said on cutting down on big plays. "I think the guys, they like what we’re doing schematically, structurally, they’ve got confidence in it, they’ve bought into and it’s going to be a good deal.”

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