ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson discusses spring ball's highs, lows

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- A new year, a new look, and a new coordinator. This year's Arizona State defense is indeed turning over a new leaf.

With the loss of nine starters, the Sun Devil defense has been rebuilding and retooling throughout the spring, aiming to continue the dominance the unit has shown over the past two years.

Overseeing this reconstruction in Keith Patterson, who joined the program over the offseason not only as defensive coordinator, but as the head of the team's defensive special teams.

I caught up with Patterson following Tuesday's practice to get his thoughts on how his defense is coming along, some players that have surprised him, and how ASU's special teams are improving after a disastrous 2013.

With more than four weeks of spring ball in the books, what have been your overall impressions of the defense?

Keith Patterson: I think we’ve made a lot of progress. There is still a long way to go. We have a lot of inexperience, and at times once you get into that fourth week you lose a bit of that mental focus and the defense grows on you from a quantity standpoint. For the most part, I think we laid out a strong foundation and will continue to get better as we close out spring with the spring game.

Where have you seen the most progress from the defense over the last four weeks?

KP: It’s maybe been a little inconsistent. Maybe at linebacker. We do some things well, then we kind of phase in and out of it. A lot of it is mental focus. I would say up front we’ve made strides. The secondary is the strength of our defense right now. I like where we are. I think we have kids that understand things. I think we’ve become more physical. That’s the biggest improvement we’ve made: being a physical, tough, hard-nosed defense.

With the defense losing so many key veteran players from last year, where do you feel the group is at from a leadership standpoint?

KP: That’s part of it and it’s a process. We’ve been encouraging guys to step up and take it, and a lot of times that is just natural. The leadership is eventually going to rise to the top, and we have to have guys step up and be more vocal. It’s also not just about being a vocal leader, but leading by your actions and your intensity and your passion and how you play the game. 

Recently, Coach Graham took issue with some of the weight and conditioning of the players up front. What’s your take on that assessment, and how do you feel the players have responded since those comments?

KP: I think it’s been good. Obviously, it’s each player’s responsibility to be as physically fit as possible. Griz (strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold) plays a large part in that and he’s always done a tremendous job getting our guys in physical condition. I think our kids have responded well to it. I think they understand it, and they understand that the better condition and the more physically fit they are, the better they are going to perform.

What are some of the positives and negatives you have seen from the defensive line thus far?

KP: We have great size. It’s a different kind of defensive line. Last year, there was a lot of athleticism. This year we have a lot of size. A lot of the newcomers will bring that athleticism to the table that we had a year ago. Just the physical size and strength presents problems for opposing offenses because we’re hard to move. These guys are big. That’s going to play an important part in stopping the run. 

What have been the key takeaways you’ve seen from your linebackers?

KP: The main thing is being able to sustain a focus over a long period of time. By the time you get out here, you get to meetings at 8 o’clock, and by the time practice is over it’s nearly noon. So over a nearly four-hour period, you have to be able to sustain a focus and a concentration. That’s probably been the thing that I’ve challenged them the most. The more defense they get put in, the harder it is to sustain that focus because there is so much coming at your all the time in such a short period of time. 

You mentioned the secondary being the team’s strength. What have you been seeing from them that gives you such confidence? 

KP: They’ve been good. Number one, you haven’t seen a lot of cheap touchdown passes. They are keeping the ball inside and in front. Our corners have done a nice job in challenging the perimeter receivers. Our safeties have been doing a nice job in supporting the run and staying sound vertically. It’s been a solid spring in the back end. We haven’t seen a lot of critical errors. It’s been pretty solid most of the time.

Who are some of the players that have impressed you most?

KP: I would have to say Damarious Randall. He’s had the most consistent spring. Lloyd Carrington has had a great spring. Salamo, the biggest challenge with him is getting him to understand that he’s no longer the pup. He’s got to step up and take that leadership role. He’s the one linebacker that has experience. Up front, we’ve really tried to push Marcus Hardison into that role. It’s getting guys to become more consistent in the way they approach every single day, up front and at linebacker. They’ve seen that from the secondary.

With one practice left and then the spring game, what things are you hoping to see over these final two sessions?

KP: The whole thing with the spring game is you try to create an environment where the guys have to focus and prepare themselves mentally. It’s a lot of mental preparation. The coaches kind of back up and try to simulate more of a game-type environment, as well as competition. Coaches have some good ideas of some things we’re going to do in the spring game, some competition early. Once we get into the game, we want to see guys that prepare themselves and can go into game-like conditions and perform.

ASU was among the worst punting teams in the nation a year ago. After reviewing the tapes, what do you feel were the primary causes for that failure?

The one thing that I first picked up on was the inconsistency in the snap, which led to the inconsistency in the footwork of the punter. It’s like a golf swing. It’s all about kicking on rhythm. If you look at Haack this spring, he’s had a tremendous spring kicking the football on rhythm. The snaps have been more consistent, and it all works hand-in-hand. You get good, solid protection, a good snap, and Haack kicks the ball on time, and you’ll see big things. I think you’ll see a drastic improvement in that area.

Overall, what have you seen from the special teams over the last four weeks, and what would you still like to see heading into fall camp?

KP: It’s good. I think that the one thing that we’ve done is sold it to our players that it impacts offense and defense. We’ve got more people on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball who have bought in to wanting to contribute.  That’s what good teams do. You can’t have an explosive offense, attacking defense, and then be inconsistent in your special teams play. It assists both those with the field position we create. The more opportunities we set up for easy scores. That all can help build momentum throughout the course of a game. That’s the one thing, the buy in of our players, and all of our coaches are doing a great job of selling their players on the importance of special teams.