In spring practice drills earlier this year, Kareem Orr was Arizona State's best performing cornerback. It wasn't close.
Now, Orr will apparently play his remaining college football at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, in his hometown. He announced on Tuesday that he is transferring to the program due to what he referred to as "issues that have occurred over the past weeks."
Regardless, Orr departure's is a severe blow for an ASU program already reeling from news last week that starting safety Armand Perry is retiring from the game due to an assortment of injuries.
Orr and Perry are arguably the best returning defensive backs from a Sun Devil defense that finished last nationally in 2015 and 2016 in passing yards allowed. ASU's 2016 defense was the second-worst in FBS history against the pass (Cal, 2014).
The last week has been a disaster for the Sun Devils. A dam that was severely leaking -- to be generous -- all over the place now appears to have suffered a potentially catastrophic failure.
Even before the Perry and Orr news, there were legitimate questions about whether the Sun Devils had enough talent in the secondary to be markedly improved against the pass this season. Now it seems highly doubtful they do.
After Orr, there was a clear drop to the team's next two cornerbacks in spring ball, senior Maurice Chandler and redshirt freshman Chase Lucas. At safety, senior Chad Adams worked with the first-team as Perry sat out due to his injuries. Adams wasn't able to stick in the two-deep with any consistency the last two years even after getting multiple chances as a starter.
At ASU's other two secondary positions -- Bandit and Spur -- there's just one player who has solid experience to draw from: senior Marcus Ball. It was expected that Ball would be one of three players, along with Orr and Perry, to buoy the Sun Devils in their defensive backfield.
Now, Ball's the only returning player in the secondary who has demonstrated some clear competency in real game settings. There are four other positions that are reasonably unsettled.
It would have been enough of a challenge for ASU to have to fill two of the five spots around Orr, Perry and Ball and get a much improved product. Without Orr and Perry? It's impossible to not be skeptical.
Earlier this year, ASU head coach Todd Graham brought in former mentor Phil Bennett to coordinate the defense. At this point, given everything we know, it has to be one of the toughest assignments for any first-year FBS coordinator in the country, and will require all of Bennett's four decades of experience to navigate.
Bennett has less than a year to take a historically bad defense and generate noticeable improvement, and do so without the services of two of the best three anticipated returning players, and ASU will be going up against a murder's row of opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks. There's no guarantee Graham and Bennett will get more than 2017 to demonstrate this defensive improvement.
Other than just making an irrational leap of faith, there's really no reason to have confidence that such an improvement is forthcoming.
Bennet has no choice other than to throw a bunch of players on the field who haven't played much before; and the ones who have played were a part of one of the worst defenses in FBS history over a two-year span against the pass.
Orr and Perry were clearly better that whatever else ASU returns from its most incompetent secondary in many years. They were also among the most versatile pieces, as Orr has started at both cornerback and field safety and a healthy Perry is capable of playing all three safety spots.
At this point, Ball will likely be on the field at one safety spot with Adams at another. The third safety spot could be filled by a variety of players including returners J'Marcus Rhodes, Das Tautalatasi, Tyler Whiley and Jeremy Smith; and newcomers DeMonte King, Evan Fields, K.J. Jarrell and Ty Thomas. Only Thomas, an early enrollee freshman, practiced with the Sun Devils in the fall among the newcomers. Rhodes, a senior, and Tautalatasi, a junior, worked with the first-team late in the spring at Spur and Bandit, respectively.
At cornerback, Chandler and Lucas become the favorites to start among returners. Newcomers Darien Cornay and Kobe Williams are junior college additions with four years to play three seasons. High school signees Langston Frederick and Alex Perry, the brother of Armand and a four-star prospect, are other candidates.
No matter where the Sun Devils turn, they'll find themselves looking at players who haven't played successfully to this point in their careers, or players who haven't played at all previously at this level.
It's not a recipe for success.
Graham said last season on multiple occasions that the Sun Devils didn't have much margin for error defensively. They may have even less this season unless several newcomers are ready to play earlier than would normally be expected.
The most likely scenario at this point would be Chandler, Lucas, Cornay and Alex Perry in the two-deep at cornerback, with Frederick and Williams also pushing for action. At safety, Ball and Adams are likely to play a lot if not start, and Rhodes, Tautalatasi, Whiley, King, Thomas and Fields are all going to have a good shot at earning first-team reps in preseason practices.
Predicting who emerges from this morass is a near impossibility at this point considering half or more of the players ASU will try out haven't even practiced with the program yet.
The worst part of the news of Orr and Perry's departures for the ASU coaching staff is that it removes any remaining veneer that may have existed as cover for the inadequacies of their recruiting efforts in the secondary prior to the 2017 class, and at a time when they can least afford to not have competent backup options at the positions which have now been vacated.