Defending the pass has been the most glaring weakness of the Sun Devil defense in recent seasons. Under Todd Graham, ASU allowed 268.1 yards per-game through the air in 2017, the second-most in the Pac-12 just ahead of Arizona. This has been a trend. In 2016, the Devils allowed an NCAA-worst 357.4 yards per-game. 2013 was the last time ASU didn’t rank amongst the bottom 25 out of 130 teams in passing defense.
Despite being away from the game for a number of years, defense is in new head coach Herm Edwards’ comfort zone. Not only did Edwards play in the secondary during his 10-year NFL career (he intercepted the second-most passes in the league in 1982), but he was an NFL defensive backs coach for nine seasons before getting hired as a head coach.
As a secondary coach, his teams ranked in the top 10 in the NFL for fewest passing yards allowed in seven of his nine years. As a head coach, he led his teams into the top 10 four times in eight years. Granted, that was a decade ago, with modern college-style offenses differing majorly from the pros circa 2007. This is why the hiring new defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales was a great call.
Over the past seven seasons, Gonzales was the safeties’ coach at San Diego State. He was promoted to defensive coordinator last year (he kept his safeties coaching duties as well) and he was very successful in that role for the Aztecs. SDSU gave up just the tenth-most yards in the NCAA for 2017 out of 129 teams. Meanwhile, they only gave up the 15th most points per game at 18.4. ASU gave up 31.3 points per-game, good for the 88th best in the country.
Gonzales will certainly change the look of the defense. At San Diego State, he used a third safety in a lot of schemes that was a safety/linebacker hybrid. This “Pat Tillman” position could help load the box against runs, blitz or drop back in pass protection. Among the players who can fill this role could be physical senior Dasmond Tautalatasi, sophomore Evan Fields, senior Demonte King (who played well before missing the last six games due to injury in 2017) or, oddly enough, former wide out Jalen Harvey.
Harvey, a senior, caught 58 passes for 961 yards in his three seasons at ASU. But this year he will be on the other side of the ball as a defensive back for the first time in his college career, where he was most likely switched due to Arizona State’s lack of depth at the safety position — both of the Sun Devils’ starters from a year ago, Chad Adams (third most solo tackles on ASU) and J’Marcus Rhodes (third on the team in total tackles) have graduated. Plus, on three-safety sets, Gonzales needed another guy to plug in with Tautalatasi, Fields or King.
The continuity for the Devils’ secondary comes from their cornerbacks. Both 2017 starters are back, including redshirt sophomore Chase Lucas, who earned All-Pac-12 second-team honors last season. He was tied for the team lead in interceptions with two, led ASU in pass breakups and was the fifth-leading tackler. Junior Kobe Williams also returns. He is quick enough to keep up with the fastest receivers but, at 5’10” has had trouble on deep balls against bigger opponents.
The best aspect of ASU’s pass defense last season was getting to the quarterback. They racked up 44 sacks in 2017, good for 17thin the country. Unfortunately, the defensive front lost a lot of fire power.
ASU’s four leading sackers and tacklers have all left. The defensive line will be close to brand new. Senior tackle Renell Wren will be the only player up front with a lot of experience.
As for the linebackers, seniors Koron Crump, who had nine sacks in 2016 before he injured his knee, and Jay Jay Wilson have the most experience and should provide good instruction to the younger defenders who will be on the field with them. As long as Crump stays healthy this year, he should be the best player on the defense with his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. Among the newer linebackers is Nick Ralston, who has switched positions after spending the past three years as a running back for the Devils.
There are several possible Heisman candidates on ASU’s schedule, including last year’s runner-up running back Bryce Love (Stanford), former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Jake Browning (Washington) and quarterback Khalil Tate, who won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week four times last year (Arizona). In order to stop some of the best in the country, ASU’s defense will need to play better than 88th-best. For this to happen, they’ll need the younger starters to make plays and buy into a new coaching staff’s defensive philosophy.