Communication is key for Arizona State’s new defense early on in spring ball

Mar 16, 2023, 5:00 PM

Arizona State defensive back Chris Edmonds, celebrates his pass interception with linebacker Will S...

Arizona State defensive back Chris Edmonds, celebrates his pass interception with linebacker Will Shaffer in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Colorado, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

TEMPE — Spring ball will be more paramount for the Arizona State Sun Devils than most schools in 2023.

That’s because head coach Kenny Dillingham and defensive coordinator Brian Ward have to install a new defense in their first year at the helm in Tempe.

Communication is key in defense, especially in the modern era of college football where teams are running quick-tempo, hurry-up offenses in order to exhaust defenders and not let them get set or even substitute. Therefore, linebackers now more than ever have to be able both read and tackle ballcarriers while also being able to defend pass catchers in man and zone coverages.

“I think they’re getting better communicating,” Dillingham said Thursday. “Our defense is simple and complex at the same time, which means not a lot of calls but a lot of adjustments. So when you have a lot of adjustments, you have to get on the same call, which means you have to communicate.

“It’s really hard to communicate when you’re tired and we’re putting them in positions to be tired. When you’re tired, it’s hard to speak, it’s hard to yell. You got to train yourself to communicate through fatigue.”

Ward will have a proverbial coach on the field in linebacker Travion Brown, who followed the DC from Washington State to ASU this offseason. In their only year together in Pullman, Brown racked up career highs in tackles (49), sacks (1.5) and tackles for loss (5). He also recovered a fumble in 11 games played, as the Cougars ranked No. 35 in the country in both scoring defense and rushing yards allowed.

“He’s done a great job coming in and kind of being the guy who knows it already,” Dillingham said of Brown. “He knows 85% of it, so he can come in and help get guys lined up and be that communication piece [like] a coach on the field is out there.”

Brown, a graduate transfer, and returning redshirt junior LB Will Shaffer will most likely be replacing Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson at the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions this upcoming season after the ASU duo exercised all of their college eligibility in a Sun Devil uniform.

Shaffer, like Soelle, is a product of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, with former Sabercats head coach Jason Mohns now the tight ends coach at ASU.

“He’s really good,” Brown said of Shaffer. “We picked up this scheme pretty fast as well. Another guy that has really good skill set as far as reading in between the Box in between the line.”

Brown has taken on a leadership role in stride and has already put it upon himself to lead both vocally and by example due to his familiarity with Ward’s defensive system.

The graduate transfer linebacker is impressed by how quickly his defensive teammates are building chemistry with one another and hopes that spring ball will allow them to get reps in by having to communicate on the fly, as Dillingham continues to put both sides of the football in chaotic situations.

“As a leader, it’s not really an obligation — it’s something that you feel comes natural, being able to have that voice on the field,” Brown said. “That sets a tone for all the guys around us to also start speaking and communicating because communication is big on defense.

“So as long as we’re all out there communicating, even if I have to set the tone, that gets another guy talking, that gets one guy talking and it puts all of us in place to make plays.”

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