A historically bad Arizona State passing defense was demonstrably worse last season when Armand Perry wasn't on the field.
Perry started 10 games for the 5-7 Sun Devils at field safety, a team beset by injuries and losers of seven of its final eight games including a five game streak to end the season.
Perry didn't play in two of those final five games due to injuries he detailed on Wednesday in a twitter post in which he announced his retirement from football.
In the two games Armand Perry didn't play last season due to injury, losses to Washington State and Oregon, Arizona State gave up 91 points and a combined 887 passing yards. There were coverage busts and missed tackles all over the field in each of the two games by ASU, and Perry's absence only exacerbated the problems of an already broken secondary.
Clearly, Perry was one of the team's better players on the back end of a porous ASU defense. His play wasn't stellar, though how could it have been when he was taking the field with a torn shoulder labrum, torn hip labrum, and turf toe, for much of the season?
As the Sun Devils turned the page to 2017 under the direction of new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, Perry was anticipated to be one of three returning players with good odds of being reasonably capable in their roles. The others, junior cornerback Kareem Orr and senior safety Marcus Ball, are now going to have even more pressure on them to perform at a high level for the Sun Devils in the year ahead.
One of Perry's best attributes was his ability to handle different roles. He started his career at cornerback for the Sun Devils, saw the field early on at nickel in sub-package situations, and ultimately moved to safety prior to last season. A strong asset at safety against the run and pressuring the quarterback, Perry had the technique and personality of a player who could have moved over to play down (Bandit) safety for the Sun Devils, or even Spur as a possible replacement for Laiu Moeakiola.
The flexibility of Perry would have give Bennett more options, a greater number of combinations by which he could get a functional group of five defensive backs on the field together. That's no longer going to be the case, and now that he's retired, it takes one of the better options off the field entirely.
Perry missed spring ball following surgery and had senior Chad Adams playing in his stead. Adams has played quite a bit in his career, including being give the opportunity to start last season in the opener against Northern Arizona, and two games during the season (Washington State and Washington). But he never was able to solidify that role, and even at times practiced outside of the two-deep in each of the last two seasons.
Bennett and other coaches said that Adams made a big impression during the spring, and a lot of their praise was unprompted. That's a good sign for the Sun Devils, but one that begs the question of how much wishful thinking is taking place right now in Tempe with regard to the personnel on hand. Adams is going to have to show significant improvement as a senior considering he had difficulty staying in the lineup for a porous secondary, and ASU offered little resistance to Pac-12 opponents when he was on the field.
As it stands now, it looks like Adams is going to be on the field with Ball and Orr with the first-team as camp gets underway in late July. Bennett has said he's implementing schemes that play to the strengths of his personnel. That's probably going to include a fair amount of Cover 4 zone mixed in with some man across in certain blitzing situations. Adams has the mobility to play the position, but it's not translated to the field with any consistency. Situational awareness and being able to read and react on the fly are the areas in which Adams has the most room to develop as a player, and the ways in which he'll likely need to for the Sun Devils to take a big step forward this season.
It's conceivable that Orr could move back to field safety, a position he started at as a true freshman in 2015 and led the Pac-12 with six interceptions -- though a number of those were the fortunate byproducts of being in the right place at the right time more than particularly good coverage. A potential impediment to this happening? The Sun Devils have no other established cornerback and very little in the way of returning depth at the position.
Senior Maurice Chandler and redshirt freshman Chase Lucas were battling throughout the spring for the first-team spot opposite Orr. It's still not a given that either will be ready to play at a moderate Pac-12 level in 2017, so the idea of both doing so as starters while Orr shifts to safety is dubious. Potentially, the Sun Devils could be bolstered in this regard by freshman four-star cornerback prospect Alex Perry -- Armand's brother -- or fellow incoming freshman corner Langston Frederick.
There's also junior college transfers Darien Cornay and Kobe Williams joining the program this summer, both of whom are four for three players, so they could be earlier in their development. Cornay is perhaps a little ahead of Williams from a physical standpoint, but Williams has the quickness to handle playing the position. None of the four cornerback newcomers have the benefit of spring ball under their belt, and the mental transition is usually even tougher than the physical one.
If by chance -- and again, it's not something to be especially confident about as yet -- ASU can find two competent corners other than Orr, it could allow him to play field safety and give ASU the option of playing Adams at down (Bandit) safety. Ball didn't practice much in the spring due to precautions related to a preexisting medical condition, but when reporters did see him on the field, it was at Spur.
Last season, Ball played his best ball of the season in the second half of the schedule, when the Sun Devils shifted him to Bandit (down) safety. He led the team in tackles after the midway point, and was benefited by having that additional half second or so to read and react to plays provided by the additional distance from the line of scrimmage. Ball has some limitations that have been evidenced at each of the two positions -- not as mobile in coverage at Bandit, which can be limiting from a play-calling standpoint -- but he's clearly one of the team's best returning players in the secondary.
Four other returning players are key figures to watch in the secondary as ASU moves into the summer, and even more so now that Perry's decision has been registered: Senior J'Marcus Rhodes; juniors Das Tautalatasi and Tyler Whiley; redshirt freshman Jeremy Smith.
Rhodes arrived as a junior college transfer last season, initially played cornerback but was moved to safety. He started three games and played in the other nine, but had a rough assimilation in part because he didn't get much practice under his belt in the spring and in camp due to injuries.
Rhodes missed the beginning of spring ball to attend to personal issues. When he returned he was placed at Spur, a position he didn't play at last season. Rhodes has gained some weight and needs a good summer to lean out and get better conditioned, but ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said he believes Rhodes is a natural football player who will be able to handle the transition. At 6-foot-0 and 210-plus pounds, it is clear that Rhodes is a Bandit/Spur type player now and will have to make it work at one of the positions.
Tautalatasi has been a special teams standout who hasn't been able to translate it to the defensive side of the ball through his first three years in Tempe. Noted for his burgeoning career as a video gamer, Tautalatasi is getting a shot with the first-team defense at Bandit and that could carry over into preseason camp. He is a fearless player who fires downhill, but has been inconsistent with breaking down to the tackle and executing coverages.
Whiley is a former four-star recruit out of Scottsdale Chaparral who has struggled to find a home from a position standpoint. He's been given a number of chances in the last year or so with the first-team at Spur, and even started last year against Texas Tech. But assignment soundness issues persisted and he fell out of favor. There's no way he'll ever get a better opportunity to earn his way onto the field than the one he has this season.
Smith practiced at wide receiver last year and redshirted, before being moved to safety in the spring. He primarily worked at Bandit with the third unit.
Rhodes and Tautalatasi ended the spring atop the depth chart at Spur and Bandit, respectively, and coaches said they were pleased by their progress and potential. Whiley was often second-team at Spur. True freshman Ty Thomas arrived at ASU for the spring semester and was immediately placed with the first unit at Bandit. Eventually, though, Tautalatasi moved up and Thomas was with the second unit.
At minimum, it appears there's potential for Thomas to be in the two deep and get some opportunities to wrestle his way into a starting spot. He's a bit undersized but strong for a freshman at the position, and a sneaky-good athlete. ASU's hoping he can in time become the next Jordan Simone.
Three other newcomers are going to get ample chances to make an impression and earn their way onto the field this season starting in August. Evan Fields, a physical safety out of Oklahoma who coaches have raved about, may have the best odds. He can play Bandit or Spur. Four-star Saguaro senior K.J. Jarrell is a versatile safety who may need additional weight and stretch to be an immediate factor. Junior college transfer DeMonte King is an older, more seasoned player who started at Montana State as a redshirt freshman before dropping down to Long Beach Community College. He's an in-the-box type safety who could be a factor at Bandit or Spur given the softness of the depth chart.
ASU coaches have repeatedly said that as many as five newcomers would join the program in the summer and immediately compete for playing time. One or more could end up starting, but how that plays out is anyone's guess.
Another possibility is the Sun Devils revisit playing redshirt freshman Frank Darby on defense. Like Smith, Darby redshirted last season while working at wide receiver and then played on defense in the spring. But it didn't stick. By early April Darby was back at wide receiver. The depth chart is more talented and crowded there, however, with playing time seemingly more difficult to come by. Darby has an easier pathway to playing on defense at Spur, but prefers offense.
While there are myriad options and it's unclear what ASU will do, Perry's decision to retire creates even more of a challenge than already existed in the team's secondary. That challenge was already quite substantial.