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ASU’s Todd Graham giving Bennett autonomy on defensive substitutions

New Mexico State coach Doug Martin, left, and Arizona State coach Todd Graham talk before an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz.. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona State’s decision to play the same 11 defenders for essentially the entire game until the last series led to a lot of questioning of the strategy, which head coach Todd Graham said is entirely under new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s purview.

A former mentor to Graham dating to 1995 when he was the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Bennett has a lot of autonomy to put his 40 years of coaching experience to use with the Sun Devils this season.

“He runs the personnel over there,” Graham said of Bennett. “He runs the defense. I’ve instilled and entrusted him in doing that and he can do it how he wants to. One of the things I think we’ve established is a toughness and a discipline, and an accountability about things. Our standards are different than other peoples’ standards. You have to earn the right to speak for the team, you have to earn the right to represent the team, you have to earn the right to step on the field and get across the white lines. I think that might be a little part of the thinking.”

While fans and media members may have second-guessed the decision to play the starters so many snaps without a breather, at least one of the team’s star players, junior defensive lineman JoJo Wicker, felt it was the right decision.

“The only thing that really gets you in shape for games is games,” Wicker said. “What I believe, that was one of the smartest things we ever did. That gets us ready for the big games coming up.”

Bennett was intent on trying to leave his best players in the game and see how they responded to the conditions of playing on a hot night with little rest.

“We played 50-some snaps in the first half, it reminded me of my old Baylor days, and I wanted to see how they handled it,” Bennett said. “I thought when we needed to, when the game was sort of in balance I thought we played well. I thought when the game was in the balance we played hard and made some plays.”

Graham thought that the lack of substitution might actually be a good way to motivate some of the non-starters to push for time.

“We want to get guys that can play 10 and 15 (plays in a series),” Graham said. “We’ve got guys that can do that for sure. It’s not that we don’t believe in anybody or anything like that. Coach wanted to make a statement with his guys, and that’s what he did. What was impressive was I didn’t see a lot of fatigue.

“We’re going to rotate and play people and all that stuff,” Graham said. “Part of that is we want to have a mindset too without how we play. Will (Sutton) and Carl (Bradford) and Jaxon (Hood) and Davon (Coleman), those four guys played just about every snap in 2012 and 2013. I think Will Sutton played 97 snaps (at Arizona). Not many people can do that. One of the things you’ve got to be able to do because of the no huddle, you’ve got to be able to play.”

While there figures to be more substitutions going forward at some point, don’t expect to see starting members of the defensive line to be on the sideline for long.

“What you ideally want to have is three tackles and three ends,” Graham said. “That doesn’t mean they all play equal time. I don’t see us taking and subbing out and standing [JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood] on the sideline and having two other guys run in there. I think it’ll be more of a rotation. I’ve got a great belief in Renell (Wren), I’ve got a great belief in George (Lea) and I think those guys will start rotating in there.”

NOTES

— Graham liked how the defensive front hung around in the run game and thought the team did a good job limiting big plays. “We fit and did some really nice things,” Graham said. “I thought we dominated the line of scrimmage. We had some mistakes and mental mistakes. We (gave up) that one long run, I think it was 30 yards but that was late. I thought that the first and third quarters were really fitted well, we’re capable of doing a good job.”

— The Texas A&M and UCLA game definitely caught the eye of Graham and how he approaches having a game “in hand.” While ASU lead at one point 37-13, Graham never really felt like the game was over. “I never really felt like the game was in hand,” Graham said. “I’d like to have a bigger lead going at halftime but I thought after the third quarter the game was pretty much at hand, after last night I think I’m going to come away with a different feeling about that.”

— The receiving corps looked solid in the Sun Devils’ season-opener, but the full arsenal wasn’t on display. Graham explained that sophomore wide receiver Ryan Newsome couldn’t play and there were guys banged up that also couldn’t go. While sophomore N’Keal Harry and sophomore John Humphrey more than held their own, Graham said that going forward the team would like to have more rotation in an effort to keep guys fresh.

— Graham has mentioned the importance of winning the turnover battle consistently throughout his tenure, and was pleased his team’s ability to win the turnover battle and keep penalties to a minimum. “Our objectives, No. 1, is to be a disciplined team and a team that plays with great discipline,” Graham said. “That starts with owning the ball. We really were plus-three if you take the interception on the two-point play (attempt). So we accomplished one of our most important goals. Secondly, we were 50 percent on TFLs, sacks and negatives, but also we had no penalties on defense, no penalties on special teams. We had one penalty on offense that cost us 30 yards. That was a big penalty.”

— Coach Graham liked the way new offensive coordinator Billy Napier took control of the offense as he called the 60-yard strike to John Humphrey in the third quarter. Napier made adjustments during halftime after his offense only put up 14 points on an Aggies team that a year ago, gave up the most yards from scrimmage of any team in the Sun Belt Conference. Napier was coaching on the field on Thursday, when he has actually spent more time in the press box in his coaching career. Coach Graham noted that it’s a little harder to be down on the field. “I thought [Napier] did a really good job at halftime and coming back in,” Graham said. “He’s been in the box most of the time. On the field it’s a little harder to see. Obviously you can tell in the third quarter he came out and made some adjustments.”

“We’d had three or four times where we’d been second and 10 I think. Four previous series we’d been second and 10 or something like that. He came out and took a shot. Even when he did, he said, ‘hey I’m going to take a shot right here.’ I said, ‘boy you’ve been second and 10 here.’ He said, ‘right here I need to take a shot.’ So I said, ‘go with your gut.’ He’s a very hard worker, very intelligent, he played quarterback. For his first time calling plays in a while — I know he’s been very involved in play calling, but the first time doing it yourself, I think he did a good job.”

— Graham wanted to allow his captains to participate in the Tillman Tunnel experience, so he chose sophomore quarterback Brady White and senior long snapper Mitchell Fraboni to represent ASU in the coin toss. He thought that choosing two of the more intelligent guys on the team would help the team start off right. “Being honest, for the first game with the Tillman Statue, I wanted the captains to be in with the team and get the opportunity to do that,” Graham said. “Then Brady is obviously extremely smart, intelligent guy, sharp. I don’t like to have a lot of different guys doing the coin toss so I sort of selected him to do that for me. And Fraboni is a guy, same regard. Two of our smarter guys out there who can’t mess up the coin toss, so that’s how we’re doing it.”

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