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Arizona State’s defensive growth has helped with team identity

An interesting thing happened at Arizona State after quarterback Taylor Kelly got hurt a little over a month ago.

Headless and possibly a little shaken, Arizona State was embarrassed by UCLA in Kelly’s first game out, especially defensively. They missed tackles time and again — heck, they even tackled each other accidentally to become one of college football’s weekly punch lines. The Bruins’ 62 points were the most that ASU had surrendered in a single game since 1995. And the Sun Devil offense, led by firecracker of a starter Mike Bercovici, accumulated over 500 yards and yet still couldn’t even come close to winning.

But then, instead of settling into a learning curve of mediocrity, instead of floundering without Kelly’s consistency, the Sun Devil defense created a curve of its own.

And when Kelly came back against Washington last week, he was the one who made mistakes. He threw for only 180 yards — only the fourth time he’s thrown for that amount or less in 18 games. He threw his first interception of the season. He was very clearly just trying to get through the game; get the juices flowing again.

With such a shaky offensive performance, it could have very easily been a game the Sun Devils lost.

But then the defense stepped up and proved that at this point in the schedule, Kelly and his offense can depend on it to win football games instead of the other way around.

Former Arizona State star Jake Plummer predicted it on Arizona Sports 98.7 after the UCLA loss, comparing it to ASU’s 77-28 defeat at the hands of Nebraska in 1995.

“Our defense took (that loss) hard, that’s when they sort of took the leap,” he said. “All across the board every one of them started playing better from that moment on.”

Dang right, they did.

Todd Graham has noticed a change in his defense too.

“We’ve developed. I think if you’d have asked me who the leaders were at the beginning of the year, that’s changed quite a bit,” he said. “Honestly, they all are (now).

“Salamo (Fiso) is the communicator, he’s the quarterback. (Mo) Latu is the stabilizer. He’s made the adjustments he’s needed to make. Jordan Simone has played out of this world, an improvement from where he was to where he is now. Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington have been just steady, dependable, you know you don’t hear much from them but they just have been solid. Obviously Damarious (Randall) is a playmaker. Marcus Hardison I think is a great leader up front.

“It’s not like there’s one guy. It’s kind of collective; they’ve developed an identity as a group that has been pretty solid.”

According to Graham, it’s a special identity — that of a family, even.

“I watch them, too,” he said. “They all eat together; they walk into meetings together — they’re really a tight group.”

Fiso especially is providing a bonus for the defense that Graham has missed in the past couple years.

“(He) makes almost every check. He basically calls the defenses,” said Graham. “My first two years here, we didn’t have anybody here that could do that.”

Arizona State is heading into its final few tests and has little room to slip up. But with Kelly healthy, the team can finally complement each other on both sides of the ball — and at the same level.

Perfect timing, since ASU’s upcoming opponent, Utah, has recently become its most formidable yet.

“Our guys are smart,” said Graham. “And I think we’re finally sliding into what our identity is.”