As the Sun Devils finish off of what Todd Graham refers to it as an “extra week” on his program’s schedule, we have broken down each and every position group on the football team giving a recap of performance with an GIF to match.
While the “final chapter has not been written” on the 2015 season according to Graham, the defense has been one of the shining lights making up for an offense that has struggled mightily through the first seven games of the season.
With a defense returning nine of its eleven starters in 2015, the ASU defense was thought to be one of the best on paper in the Pac-12 in the pre-season. However, if there was one area of uncertainty, it would be centered around a defensive secondary that possessed three seniors but would have to replace the 30th overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, safety Damarious Randall.
With veteran starting cornerbacks and a seasoned former walk-on manning the safety position in the boundary, head coach Todd Graham and his defensive passing game coordinator Chris Ball seemingly just had to nail down the field safety position to feel more comfortable with this veteran defense. The results through seven games have been inconsistent.
Before talking about the personnel from an individual standpoint, you as a fan and reader must first come to the realization that big plays will be given up by Todd Graham’s defense. When you run as aggressive of a defensive scheme as the Sun Devils do, sending five players or more on the majority of downs, there will be more stress on second level defenders in the passing game. So you have to take that into context when looking over defensive statistics. Because they are in their opponent’s backfield so much, you should expect them to be among the leaders in tackles for loss and sacks. Consequently, because they are in the backfield so much it means there are less defenders in pass defense and that means a higher risk of big plays down field.
Statistically speaking, this team is on par with the likes of the 2012-2014 defenses with one exception, turnovers forced. On standard downs, the 2015 Sun Devil defense has been on par with its predecessors under Graham, currently ranked 22nd in Standard Downs S&P+ (40th in ‘14, 12th in ‘13, 24th in ‘12). And while the defense doesn’t rank well in explosive plays allowed per drive (87th in the FBS), it still sits at a better position than the Will Sutton/Carl Bradford lead 2013 defense under Graham (94th in the FBS).
Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown have held up their end of the bargain for the most part at corner so far. Carrington has a chance to land within the first two rungs of the all-conference team and has made a monumental leap from his first days as a Sun Devil after following Graham from Pitt.
Brown has been beaten on a few deep balls against the likes of Utah and USC, both corners are ranked within the Pac-12 top-10 for passes broken up among Pac-12 defenders. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the bottom may fall out on this Sun Devils pass defense when both move on after the season.
Jordan Simone, who was recently named as a Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist, has had his peaks and valleys while playing the enforcer role in the secondary. Currently leading the Pac-12 with 50 solo tackles, he sets the tone emotionally for this defense and understands his role very well as the last line of defense in terms of run support and open field tackles. Through three quarters in Salt Lake City he was playing one of the best games of his career, finishing with nine solo tackles and two sacks. He was one of the key figures in an ASU defense that held one of the best running backs in the country to under 20 yards rushing at that point. But then Utah was able to capitalize on some big plays, Devonte Booker popped two big runs, and all the success seen in the previous three quarters was for nought.
Unfortunately, Simone has been exploited at times as a pass defender in man coverage where teams have exploited his lack of top-end speed. In 2014 he could rely on Randall being the center fielder while he free-lanced looking to make a big play. This inability to replace the skill set of Randall has been the achilles heel in the plans of the ASU pass defense in 2015.
When sophomore Armand Perry went down after just two games, it meant replacing him with another underclassmen, this time a true freshman, Kareem Orr. And while Orr has certainly made some big plays throughout the season, he’s also been inconsistent either by committing penalties or making the mental errors you’d expect by someone his age thrown into the hyper-aggressive passing league that is the Pac-12.
The good news is that Orr plays under a position coach that is also the architect of the defense, Todd Graham. If he can learn from getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman, it should benefit him long-term with this team be it as a safety or at corner. But in the immediate future, we learned last week that there was a 50/50 chance that Perry would be back for Thursday’s game against Oregon according to Graham.
However this unit progresses down the stretch, it’s imperative that the staff addresses its shortcomings in terms of depth at the four secondary positions. Playing in a passing conference and being lead by a head coach whose scheme stresses the importance of having good pass defenders asked to do their job without much support, you wonder why there isn’t an abundance of players brought in to address the task at hand. In terms of the current recruiting class, just two of the twelve verbal commits are potential cornerback prospects, and while there’s still a lot of time left in the cycle, this has to be considered an urgent priority.