TEMPE, Ariz. — For Arizona State football, the introduction of new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett may be the catalyst for rallying from a 5-7 record last season.
Entering his sixth season at the helm of Sun Devil football, coach Todd Graham is working with a lot of new faces, including his third defense coordinator. Despite the unfamiliar faces, the prevailing mood of spring mini-media day was professional and optimistic.
“There’s constant change in college football,” Graham said at the media event on Wednesday. “Guys graduate every year. So you have to have a system in place. We have a culture established here. You can meet our guys, walk around and talk to them. Pretty strong culture.”
In searching for a replacement for former defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, Graham sought someone who was “philosophically in line” with the scheme of the team.
To fill the role on defense, Graham brought in Bennett, a former Baylor defensive coordinator and longtime colleague. Bennett’s lengthy résumé features eight other stops as defensive coordinator. He also served as head coach of SMU from 2002-2007.
A Deep-Rooted Partnership
Bennett and Graham never worked for the same school and only played against each other as head coaches once, but the two have a lasting football connection spanning more than two decades.
“Being with Todd and knowing his passion for it,” Bennett said of his choice to take the job at ASU. “We talked about everything. I told him what I wanted to do. I said ‘This is the thing. You’ve got to like this.'”
Bennett and Graham are a pair long in the making. The latter called the professional relationship the two have “a 25-year interview” for the job.
The trust between the two is apparent in the responsibility Graham is placing to his new defensive specialist. Graham called the plays on defense his first four seasons. Last year, he ceded that job to Patterson, but took it back once Patterson decided he’d rather be in the box than the sidelines.
Graham made the extent of Bennett’s role clear, saying “he’ll run the defense.”
Graham did place a boundary on his coordinators though, noting that both Bennett and new offensive coordinator Billy Napier will operate within the parameters of the scheme and its players.
“Our players were recruited to run a certain skill set, and we’re going to be adaptive,” Graham said.
Bennett has shown his ability to change his style in the past. After running a 4-3 for several years at Baylor and before, Bennett began to run a 3-4 Under scheme with the Bears, taking one player off the line of scrimmage.
Among the reasons for this shift was the need to stop the spread offenses of the Big 12, taking one player off the line and replacing him with a linebacker or nickel corner who could cover four- or five-receiver sets.
That system has the potential to fit well at ASU, too. Redshirt senior Marcus Ball spent a lot of time as the fifth or spur linebacker in pass coverage. Graham mentioned that senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood was specifically recruited for his ability to play three technique.
While the history between Graham and Bennett is long, the 61-year-old Bennett has other ties to the Devils. His son Sam is an offensive graduate assistant. He also mentioned his relationship with Patterson, who remains on the staff as linebacker coach.
Rebuilding a Rough Secondary
In a short time, it seems like Bennett’s proverbs constructed over 39 years of coaching have caught on with players. While most likely not a saying of his own invention, Ball said Bennett repeats “Knowledge is power.”
“It gives me great confidence that he’s gonna be a guy that separates himself from all the other coaches in the country,” Ball said. “He’s one of those guys who has a 9-to-5 job, but he’s up here at seven or eight because knowledge is power. He wants more knowledge.”
Knowledge from a skilled secondary coach like Bennett could be the perfect remedy for Arizona State. The Devils gave up 357.4 passing yards per game to opposing teams in 2016, the worst of any FBS team for the second consecutive year.
Bennett and Graham agree on the cause: too many big plays. Bennett cited the need to focus more on the fundamentals of tackling in space and the ability to get in formation against spread, no-huddle offenses.
“You can’t be dumb and play the game,” Bennett said. “I don’t want them looking at the sidelines. I want them to make the call, get lined up and go.”
Bennett and Graham have several new tools at their disposal to jumpstart the pass defense. ASU snagged five secondary players in its 2017 recruiting class, headlined by four-star cornerback Alex Perry.
With five new recruits joining Ball, Armand Perry, Kareem Orr and several others, playing time is going to be a scarce commodity.
“A good thing is that with a new coaching staff and with some new guys, there’s a lot of competition,” Ball said. “Coach Bennett doesn’t know everybody here and he’s gonna give an honest look to everybody.”
Bennett’s method of sorting through the pool of defensive backs is relatively elementary: He’s going to play the best four players, or five when ASU uses a spur linebacker.
Behind his forthright approach to deciding who laces up on Saturdays lies an understanding of the personal element. Bennett said part of it is stimulating players to feel that they can do what they’re asked.
“I told each and everyone one of them that we had ‘Let’s don’t talk about redshirting,'” Bennett said. “I’ve always thought that to tell a kid that he’s gonna redshirt is cheating a little bit. It sort of puts him in neutral instead of trying to get better.”
Ball sees that love from his new coach, both for the players and for the game. The linebacker-turned-safety said Bennett loves twice as hard as he coaches.
For Graham, Bennett and Ball, the goal is simple: ASU finished in the top 25 and won 10 games in 2013 and 2014. Getting the Sun Devils back to that level is the aim of all three, and fixing the problems on defense will be crucial.
“I’m just in the process of saying ‘You know what? What can we do with the ability we have to get back to championship football?” Bennett said.