TEMPE, Ariz. – The answer drew laughter from reporters.
Head coach Todd Graham, though, was merely speaking the truth.
“Probably not a bad thing,” he said, smiling about a revamped secondary in 2016. “I can tell you we’re not going to get any worse.”
Arizona State must replace three starters plus a key reserve in the defensive backfield, a unit that helped to allow a Pac-12 worst 337.5 passing yards per game. Much of that had to do with the defensive’s tendency to give up the big play.
Last season ASU gave up 24 plays of 40-plus yards, the most of any FBS school.
“Obviously, the number-one thing on defense is eliminating the big play. That means keep everything in front of us,” Graham said. “Eliminate the big play is our number-one focus on defense.”
Of course not all of that falls on the secondary, but improvement there would go a long way.
To begin with, redshirt sophomore Armand Perry is healthy.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound free safety played only two games in 2015.
Perry sprained his left ankle and suffered ligament damage Week 2 against Cal Poly.
“It’s something I couldn’t even describe,” he said of missing much of last season, which earned him a medical redshirt. “When you have a game that I love so much, that I take pride in and I’ve played my whole life taken away from me, it’s like, man, it really hit me hard. Rehab was tough. Just everything was tough. My mom really helped me get through it, sending me messages everyday, just staying positive because when something like that happens you can really think negative. Just staying positive, just attacking the day to try to get back out there.”
In Perry’s absence, true freshman Kareem Orr stepped into the lineup and started nine of the last 11 games of the season, setting an ASU freshman record with five interceptions, including a pick-6 against rival Arizona.
Orr landed on both ESPN’s and USA Today’s Freshman All-American teams.
Add junior college transfers Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes plus junior Chad Adams, sophomore Dasmond Tautalatasi and De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes, who is also seeing time this spring at running back, and Graham likes the effort thus far.
“I like the talent level,” he said. “I think we might be faster in the backend, obviously when Armand is in there. Having him back has been a positive. He’s got tremendous potential. He’s looked really good.”
Who starts is still being determined but the on-going evaluation process includes players receiving reps at both cornerback and safety.
Graham calls it dual-training.
“Remember what happened last year with Solomon (Means), I had to move him late (from safety to corner) and then he didn’t know (the position),” Graham said. “You have that learning curve, so we want to dual-train them. That’s part of kind of our analysis that we wanted to improve upon so the next-best DB goes in instead of the next-best safety or corner. We’ll go field and boundary (specific position training) in the fall but in the spring that’s how we’re doing it — dual-training.”
Another change this spring is the coaching.
Gone is Chris Ball, who joined former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell at Memphis. That opened the door for Graham to hire T.J. Rushing as new defensive backs coach.
Rushing spent last season as a defensive assistant at Stanford, his alma mater, and now returns to ASU, where he worked as a graduate assistant in 2012 and 2013.
“Coach Rushing has the worst job here because he has to work with me,” Graham said, smiling.
Rushing, 32, played three years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and two AFC Championships with the Indianapolis Colts.
“As soon as Coach Graham said they were hiring T.J. Rushing,” Orr said, “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, the one that played for the Colts?’ He was like, ‘Yes sir.’ OK, I know who you’re talking about.”
Added Perry: “Any time when you got a coach who’s actually been there and done that, it’s kind of a newfound respect for him because he made it to the level I want to go to. Just having him, just having that spirit; he’s a real cool coach.”
Rushing, along with graduate assistant Jarred Holley, are putting a lot of their attention on technique.
Yes, there’s a new scheme but also a “different mentality,” according to Perry.
“We had some guys go down last year. We had some kind of inexperienced guys step in. We’re going to get all that taken care of,” he said. “I feel like me and Kareem, we’re going to be real leaders on this defense to minimize those big plays and just play with a whole different mentality.”
Orr pointed to communication as the issue last season leading to blown coverages and big plays allowed.
“We’re a lot more communicative (in practice now),” he said, before bringing up the season opener Sept. 3 against Northern Arizona. “We itching bad. We ready. We want greatness this year.”
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