Q&A with Arizona State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett

Arizona State coordinator Phil Bennett has 39 years of coaching experience under his belt, and he's tasked with revamping the Sun Devils' defensive unit this fall.

SunDevilSource: Can you kind of summarize how you felt spring ball went? It's a big undertaking trying to get the team where you want it to be as quickly as possible, how would you sum up your overall thoughts?

Phil Bennett: "Well, the first thing I know without question is that we made dramatic improvement. I thought that everything is about fit in the run, distribution with the pass, I think we have a front seven that's physical. I was excited that Kareem Orr basically went, after being injured last year, went through the whole spring. I thought Chad Adams really stepped up and we changed some things. We did some things that I thought helped them in the secondary. I think Chase Lucas has a future without question, just got to get some depth. I think Das (Tautalatasi) is a guy that came on late in the spring. I think we were able to develop some guys, and one of the things right now, besides getting better and getting more people involved, is just getting everybody healthy when we start the season."

SunDevilSource: So when you say that you changed things that should help the secondary, what would you say really enabled that?

Bennett: "You know, I just think, I don't think you have to make a ton of tweaks. But you've got to play to your ability and we do some things better than we do other things. I think at the end of the spring, or as the spring went on, between myself and Todd (Graham), we concurred that we could do what we were doing and we could do it very effectively and be able to get off the field."

SunDevilSource: He's (Graham) a very strong, alpha-male type of a coach and has always run the defense, what was that dynamic like giving that you mentored him and you guys were trying to get on the same page there?

Bennett: "Well you know, it's funny, he's been through it, we've been sharing things for a long time. So it was shocking how similar we are. It's a lot of stuff and I fine-tuned some stuff, I took some of his stuff, some of the stuff that I've done, but one of the things I did do is I changed the names. I just wanted a fresh start for those kids. The last couple of years have been sort of frustrating and like I said, I think the kids feel good about it which is the most important thing. I think Todd and myself feel good about it, and I think we made strides without question."

SunDevilSource: Do you think that we'll see more zone coverages just in general? Todd plays so much Cover 0 and was so ultra-aggressive with the blitz and maybe he dialed it back a little bit at times, and I know you're still very aggressive, but what philosophically do you think ASU fans will sort of identify from you this year?

Bennett: "We're still going to be aggressive, without question. I mean, you can look, last year at Baylor we were 17th in tackles for loss. We were yards per snap, we were top 40. I think we were top 30 in sacks. But we were also the No. 1 pass efficiency defense in the Big 12. I think I would use the word, calculated. You can still zero blitz without always putting them in do or die situations."

SunDevilSource: So a little bit more where you have a little bit of redundancy or help in certain places when you pressure?

Bennett: "Right, and we do a mixture of things. There's a lot of ways to pressure without just being a zero blitz team."

SunDevilSource: Do you think that you have the type of personnel or enough weapons that you can keep opponents really off balance with who you're bringing, when and how?

Bennett: "Well I think that's got to be, yeah I do. I thought the last six years at Baylor, we played more possessions than any defense in the country. And if you looked at our yards per snap and our points per possession, we were a top 25 defense every year. With the exception of maybe one. And I just think that Todd likes some of the things we're doing, it complements path."

SunDevilSource: You have some veteran guys, you look at Christian Sam, D.J. Calhoun, Tashon Smallwood, JoJo Wicker has now been a two-year starter, do you think that you have the type of leadership and veteran presence and communication ability out there on the field that's going to kind of help stabilize things?

Bennett: "I do, and I think they like what we're doing. I think they understand that in today's football, the players have got to take ownership. Our package is built with a lot of automatics. They have to make the call, which is very much like NFL stuff. I think they like that. It puts a little pressure on us as coaches to get them to learn the right checks by blitz, by formations and those things. It gives them ownership in it. I think they like it and I like it."

SunDevilSource: So a lot more of letting them be identified and then know what they're supposed to be in as opposed to trying to look to the sidelines with Todd as he gets better clarity about what the opponent is likely to do on a given play?

Bennett: "I think that's correct."

SunDevilSource: That's kind of what the players talked a lot about, it seemed like guys in the secondary like Kareem Orr, he said that you guys were giving up a lot fewer big plays and getting guys tackled more quickly overall. Did they kind of share that feedback with you or what kind of feedback did you get on that?

Bennett: "Well when I met with the players, I asked them, do you like what they're doing? Are you confident? And my job as a coach is to put them in position to be successful and I think we can do that. And not ask them to do something they're not capable of. That's not my job. Still be able to be unpredictable and aggressive and I think that this spring, without question, in our big scrimmages, we gave up very few big plays. If the offense did score, they earned it, it was work. That's the thing that you've got to understand is that you've got to make people earn anything they get."

SunDevilSource: Todd said the defense generated quite a few takeaways throughout the spring, or especially at the beginning of the spring. Was there anything sort of thematically that you noticed about how you guys were able to do that against the offense?

Bennett: "We do some things different. Who we drop, who we rush and we're constantly trying to make the quarterback think about pre-snap and post-snap. Now, you want to do that without screwing yourself. The way you teach it and the way you present it is critical. You've got to be simple yet sound. I think that our package is just that. I think we can be multiple but without being stupid."

SunDevilSource: You've been doing this a really long time, you're an expert at this, where is this defense at right now and what things do you really have to accomplish with a sense of urgency between now and the end of camp to put your best foot forward?

Bennett: "Here's where I think we are. I think without question, we made improvements. I think we're a work in progress that can become a very good defense. I told the kids this and I believe this: That we can become anything we want to be. We've got to develop, we've got to become a better tackling team in space, we've got to fit better, we've got to be stronger at the reception point which we're capable of. You can do everything right, but if you're not a booger at the reception point, it's worthless. I want us to develop, I gave them sort of a nickname, an identity, "Desert dogs." I want them to be a bunch of dogs. Dogs are really strong when they're in a pack. I want us to develop depth. I want to play guys. I think when you play guys that deserve to play, what happens is you get better practice habits and they get more involved in what you're trying to do. We're going to have five new guys in the secondary. I want competition. I want these guys to come in and and compete."

SunDevilSource: What about gap fitting it up, rallying to the football, and guys re-setting the line of scrimmage, the whole physicality and intensity component. Are those things progressing like you hoped?

Bennett: "Yeah, and I think we complemented that this spring. When you've got three backs like Kalen (Ballage) and (Demario) Richard and Nick (Ralston), and our big receivers, I thought it was a very physical spring. I like what Todd did. We had what we call physical drills early in practice and I think the way we tackled this spring. We were physical. It wasn't any touch and we were able to get a better mentality. We all know this, hey, you're only as strong as your mindset. If you're worried abut other things, you're going to be a half-assed player. I think this too. I think they didn't know what to think about me, and Keith Patterson and I, Shawn Slocum and Slater and T.J., we're all on the same page. I think we've got a united front and they saw that Todd was comfortable with me. And let me say this, I've been a head coach, I've been in Todd's shoes, I know how important it is to be able to trust somebody. When he wants something and he doesn't like something, I'm listening. Because I know everything that comes out of this program has got his name on it. But he also trusts me, and when we talk, it's very beneficial. We always get something better than it was and I like that." 

SunDevilSource: Armand wasn't out there in the spring but he's a two-year starter, Kareem is a two-year starter; but your Spur and down safety spots have to get stabilized and filled. Did you feel like with maybe J'Marcus Rhodes or with Das Tautalatasi, who came on, do you think those positions are kind of inching toward competence.

Bennett: "I do, I do. I thought J'Marcus really had a nice spring. Got to get him in better shape but I think he can be a guy who can be an impact player. I want him to play smarter and like I said, we signed Kobe Williams, Cornay, DeMonte King and we also have got Frederick (Langtson) and Armand's brother. So we've got some guys, one of the guys we're excited about it Joey Bryant, our high jumper, is coming back out. I looked at him when I was at Baylor and he was at junior college in California. I think he's going to be a guy who is going to compete for us."

SunDevilSource: In the spring game, Trevon Smith was pretty good but he has to sit out.

Bennett: "Yeah he's got to sit out. He was in because of injury. I feel like that we can make giant...you know, think about this, Chris, we've got twice as many practices (left) as we had in spring. I'm looking forward to camp, which is going to be crucial, like you said, to not only get our starters but our depth filled in and guys like Evan Fields, where is he going to fit in at, where is K.J. Jarrell going to fit in at. I told all of them, don't come in with the idea of thinking, 'oh, I'm going to redshirt.' Come in to prove that you know what, I'm going to help ASU win this year."

SunDevilSource: So were there any guys that you felt like really improved from when you started working with them to the end of the spring. Anyone jump out in that way?

Bennett: "I thought George Lea improved quite a bit."

SunDevilSource: He seemed like he lost some weight and enhanced his athleticism.

Bennett: "He lost 22 pounds and he's got to. I don't want to play fat guys. He's 275 pounds (now) and he's quick and fast, looks like he did in high school. I was proud of him. Now he's got to keep it up."

SunDevilSource: What about Renell Wren because he obviously has a world of talent but not been consistent throughout his career at all.

Bennett: "I thought he made some headway. Renell is one of them. I thought A.J. Latu, at end and Devil, did some good things."

SunDevilSource: He's got a good motor and plays hard.

Bennett: "He's one of those guys who doesn't have all of the physical things but yet he's a football player. One of the thing that I'm looking forward to is we've got to develop our backup inside backers. Deion (Guignard), and Khaylan (Thomas). They're not where we want to be yet but they can get there. We saw enough of them that we know they can get there."

SunDevilSource: What about Malik (Lawal0 because he's kind of a swiss army knife type of guy?

Bennett: "Yeah he can do a lot of things. He can be a Devil, he can be an inside backer, he can do a lot of things. He had a little issue, I think a slight concussion. It took some time to get him going but I like him."

SunDevilSource: You've coached so many guys over the years. JoJo Wicker has got his feet wet now and can play all three positions. What do you think of him moving forward.

Bennett: "It's like I told him, JoJo can be as good as he wants to be. Now the question is, does he want to be good or does he want to be great. To be great he's got to elevate his practice habits, he's got to elevate his film watching. I've got a saying with my players and I think they truly believe it. I tell them every day, knowledge is power. Pre-snap, having knowledge, and then as a coach, I want to teach them how to play fast. If you have a great pre-snap read, you will play fast."

SunDevilSource: Chad Adams is someone you said to me several times this spring was impressive. It's his senior year and he's bounced around, started some, been down to the third team some on a defense that hasn't done as well as hoped in the last couple years. Do you think a sense of urgency happened there or what?

Bennett: "Well, number one, I think he's a smart kid. Some of the things I did with him, I thought, are things he's capable of. You've got to sort of build your package to what the results are that we want. We want do that without giving up points and I think we did some things that fit him and I thought that his experience, that he said, 'you know what, this is it for me. I'm going to play attention to detail.' I thought Kareem (Orr) did the same thing. I told them, be coachable. I made them all sign a vow. I don't know how much you've watched me coach, but I'm really into it."

SunDevilSource: Yes, you're intense, very into it.

Bennett: "I told them, guys, I'm going to coach you to make you the best that you can possibly be. I told them, if I'm not jumping on you, you better come see me. And you know one of the things, and I think I do this. I think I'm emphatic, just as emphatic when they do well as when they screw up. It's a players' game. I tell them every day, 'it's your game.' We're just lucky enough to be involved in coaching it. I truly believe that. I want our guys to know, and I mean this, it's easier to have a 40 hour week job and go to college than it is to play football and go to school. There's no freebies in this scholarship. There's just not. I'm a big fan of what they do, I'm a believer in Todd (Graham's) discipline. I think he's done a remarkable job with the accountability of these players, and I like that."

Sun Devil Source Top Stories