TEMPE — The inexperienced Arizona State defensive backs will face their first real test Saturday when they take on the high-flying Texas Tech Red Raiders.
ASU, who comes into the matchup with a 1-1 record after a 30-20 loss to San Diego State, came into the season with its defensive backs being a huge question mark.
The starters weren’t announced until the end of a training camp that was defined by competition at the safety and cornerback positions. Junior college products Kobe Williams and Joey Bryant secured the jobs at corner, with Dasmond Tautalatasi and Chad Adams rounding out the safety positions.
Adams was the only one of the four with a Division I start, with Williams and Bryant not even having a single snap playing at this level.
“It’s extremely big,” Williams said of the jump from junior college to Division I. “In juco, people are just athletes out there. In D-I everyone is an athlete, but it comes down to the IQ and the preparation, and trusting your training and your coaches and the scheme.”
This inexperience has been evident in multiple situations in the first two games of the season, none more so than the 95-yard touchdown run by Rashaad Penny in the first quarter. The run was the longest of Penny’s career, and longer than any play the Sun Devils’ defense allowed last year when they ranked among the very bottom of college football defensively.
By the time Penny got past the front seven, he had an open path to the end zone due to bad positioning by the safeties, ASU coach Todd Graham said in the post-game press conference.
“They broke the long one, which on that play, both our safeties just buried down into it,” Graham said. “You can’t do that, you have to work level, and so we got that corrected. I think that was kind of inexperience there, after that they started doing better.”
Inconsistency has been an early theme for this secondary. Joey Bryant started with a bang, picking off Aggies quarterback Tyler Rogers on his very first Division I drive in the season opener, and Williams intercepted Rogers returning it for a touchdown to begin the fourth.
As the fourth quarter unfolded, they allowed 18 points, with two touchdowns coming through the air, resulting in an unsatisfying 37-31 victory.
These inconsistencies and mistakes will need to be straightened out for the Sun Devils to have any hope of slowing down a passing offense that torched them for 540 yards and five touchdowns when the two teams met last season. ASU was still able to get the win, powered by running back Kalen Ballage’s record-setting eight touchdown performance, but odds are that doesn’t happen again.
The Red Raiders lost Patrick Mahomes when he was drafted 10th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Nic Shimonek has shown to be more than capable as a replacement. Shimonek completed 26 of 30 attempts for 384 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, leading his team to a 56-10 blowout of Eastern Washington.
“(He’s a) very good quarterback,” Graham said of Shimonek. “Obviously Mahomes is pretty special, the guy they got right now is very, very capable. He does a very good job at extending plays, big strong arm, (can) make all the throws.”
“We know that he’s a good player, he can sling the ball,” Tautalatasi said. “We know that we are going to have to study, read their keys, read their key routes and their tendencies. That’s what you have to do with any good quarterback and receiving core that you go against.”
The main focus for the defensive backs is keeping plays in front of them and limiting the big plays.
“We will take a short pass instead of the deep over-the-top guys,” Kobe Williams said. “Just keeping everything in front of us and coming down and making tackles, which we always do instead of giving up the big plays.”
This will be the first team with the talent to effectively target the young secondary, but it will not be the last, given this week three game has profound implications for the rest of the season.
If ASU is unable to stop or at least contain the passing attack, teams will focus in on that weakness. And with quarterbacks like USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington’s Jake Browning on the schedule, it might get ugly.
Last season those players had success against the Sun Devils’ defense, accumulating 1,090 yards and throwing seven touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. We might end up seeing all three quarterbacks being picked in the early rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, and may see Darnold going No. 1 overall.
What is ASU doing to make sure that doesn’t happen again?
“Just trusting our scheme,” Williams said. “We know our coaches. Coach Bennett and coach Rushing are going to prepare us for anything that’s coming up.
“We don’t really focus on who the quarterback is, we just know that they are all good and all talented, and we are going to face one every week. We need to go out there and trust our training. It will be no problem. We will be ready for it.”
The team faces all three quarterbacks in a six-week stretch that also includes No. 14 Stanford, and many see the Sun Devils losing all six games, with optimistic predictions giving ASU just six wins on the season.
For now though, Texas Tech will remain the focus.
“I think it’s a big challenge,” Graham said, “but our deal and our focus is going and figuring out somehow, some way to get a win and then get ready for conference play.”
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