Fixing the backend of the Sun Devils' defense starts up front

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Hey, did you know that Arizona State’s pass defense has been pretty bad lately? Especially last year? (Also, did you hear that Brock Osweiler is 6-foot-8?)

Of course you did. It’s impossible to follow the Sun Devils—or even to have been within shouting distance of an ASU fan last fall—and not know that. 

After all, it wasn’t just bad. It wasn’t just awful. It was historic.

In 2016, ASU gave up a FBS-worst and school-record 357.4 passing yards-per-game (26 FBS teams gave up fewer total yards-per-game). That figure was somehow nearly 20 yards-per-game higher than their nation-worst mark from 2015.

That’s not a title you want to have, and yet the Sun Devils just went back-to-back.

“In all my years, it was the most miserable year,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham.

So in formulating plans to turn around the program’s fortunes, one task was obvious.

“We have to get back to playing less snaps on defense and having less opportunities for big plays,” Graham said. “We need to eliminate the big plays.”

For many fans, the center of those struggles—and the target of their ire—has been the secondary. Busted coverages, missed tackles, and bad angles have been all too common over the last few years. Add in a few key veteran departures to an already inexperienced group, and their outlook in 2017 remains...worrisome. (But that’s the subject of a different article and some upcoming Speak of the Devils segments)

The Problem

While much of the focus is on the backend of the defense, an arguably more concerning failing in the Sun Devils’ ability to defend the pass was their lack of a consistent pass rush.

Over Graham’s first four seasons in Tempe, ASU ranked second, sixth, 13th, and third in the FBS (among 128 teams) in total sacks. Last year? Just 56th with 28. In six of the 12 games last season, the Sun Devils either tallied just single sack or failed to register one altogether. Over the final three games of the year, ASU totaled just a single sack.

Quarterbacks were way too comfortable when they faced ASU, and they picked the Sun Devils apart.

Graham’s defenses have never been engineered to be suffocating, stingy units. Instead, they’ve been built to bring pressure from different angles in order to force the offense into making mistakes. When ASU has been most successful over the last five years, it has been when their defense has been able to generate consistent pressure, and ultimately, force turnovers.

During Graham’s four bowl seasons at ASU, the Sun Devils’ average FBS rank in turnovers generated was 26th. Last year, ASU plummeted to 88th in the nation.

It’s not hard to see the connection: Knock around the quarterback, force him into mistakes, win games. Repeat.

After the success of Graham’s first three seasons at ASU, opposing teams started to catch on to the Devil defense’s tricks. Over time. they adapted. ASU did not.

“When you win the way you win, people study you,” Graham said. "Not that we had bad personnel, but our personnel couldn’t execute what we were doing. It’s hard to vacate something that has made you extremely successful.”

Facing the gauntlet that is a Pac-12 schedule, the Sun Devils were in dire need of greater production from their pass rush, let alone a defensive overhaul. So Graham made a change at defensive coordinator.

“I knew I had to hire an experienced guy to develop those guys,” Graham said. “It’s not just calling the defense, but adapting, evolving."

The New Guy

Enter Phil Bennett, a 39-year coaching veteran who was most recently the defensive coordinator at Baylor. His first order of business in Tempe focused not on what the players struggled with in the past, but what they did well.

“We had to find out what they were capable of doing, and what they were capable of doing good,” Bennett said. “I’m here for a reason, and we have to give ourselves a chance.”

Bennett saw that he had a roster filled with athleticism and potential. However, it was a group that was not a great fit for what they had been doing, and it was a system that was often overly complicated.

So he changed that.

“We’re simple, but we’re sound," Bennett said. "The verbiage is shorter. Playing in the Big-12 helped me. You can’t have a bunch of verbiage, a bunch of signs. Our signals are easy. It’s automatic. It could change. If you have 5-wide, we have this. Our package simplicity helps us.”

It's also helped to have a more unified defensive voice. 

Last year, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson would make the defensive call from the booth, and in turn, Graham would signal it to the defense. Sometimes, he made changes, and often times, players got confused. Then the breakdowns would occur. 

Under Bennett, Graham still has plenty of input, but Bennett maintains the defense will be his.

“Todd and I go back 30 years. I’m running it. I’m going to call it," he said. "We love talking football. I’m not intimidated by him, and he’s not intimidated by me. I doubt there’s anybody out there that’s called as many defenses as I have. Does that make me good? No, but I’ve had some success. We discuss things. If Todd says he likes things, we build around. During game day, I’m going to run it.”

His players have appreciated the streamlined and more direct approach thus far.

"He's really straightforward with us," said junior defensive end JoJo Wicker. "Everybody is on board with what he wants to do."

Or, to put it another way...

"He's not going to bull---- you," said senior linebacker D.J. Calhoun.

The System

So the Sun Devils have a new defensive coordinator, a new scheme, a new communication system, but the same old problems. How to slow down opposing passing attacks? How to find the right balance between being aggressive with the pass rush while not being exposed on the backend?

"You create positive matchups," Bennett said. "There’s techniques things. You don’t have to press all the time. You’ve got to be a calculated guy when you are blitzing. You have to be calculated on where you’re coming, that you got the numbers, and you can beat the protection. Throughout my career, I’ve understood that, and I think we can get that."

Bottom line: "We’re capable of attacking without being crazy.”

Bennett will have some potent weapons to deploy in that attack.

On the line, Wicker and senior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood have each shown the ability, if not consistency, to get into the backfield. At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, defensive end Renell Wren is a physical freak who has a tantalizing combination of strength and quickness. If he can find a way to translate that into on-field production, it would provide a significant boost. The coaching staff is also high on tackle George Lea, who they've compared to Will Sutton.

At linebacker, Calhoun has shown flashes of pass rushing ability, and his 4.5 sacks ranked second on the team in 2016. Christian Sam, who missed most of last year due to injury, displayed his ability to get to the quarterback during the 2015 season.

But the centerpiece of ASU's pass rush will be senior Devilbacker Koron Crump. He came to Tempe a year ago as a junior college transfer and led the team in sacks (nine), forced fumbles (three), and fumbles recovers (three). A second-team All-Pac-12 selection, Crump proved to be an explosive playmaker off the edge, and he's now had a year to build his strength and speed in the team's conditioning program. On the latest Speak of the Devils podcast that he's up to 225 pounds and recently ran 22.7 mph in a team testing session. 

Crump knows that his efforts and the efforts of his fellow pass rushers could be a major—and necessary—help to the inexperienced secondary.

"The best way to help the newcomers is to get to the quarterback faster," Crump said. "Making sure we get our keys right, run, play action. When we get that right, it gives the receivers less time to make their moves and break on the ball. It makes the quarterback have to throw the ball faster."

With those players and a focus on fundamentals, Bennett feels that he can improve ASU's pressure and get back to the ballhawking turnover-generating style of 2012-2014. Get the pressure, get more wins. 

"We’re an automatic defense," Bennett said. "It’s dependent on how you line up, in front and coverage. The players have to take ownership in them. You have to be calculated in your pressure without being stupid.

“We’re gonna have to coach them and get the right technique, and put them in a position to be successful. The pass rush always helps. There’s no doubt that when you got a quick clock, routes are limited."

So is ASU's margin for error in 2017.

The sour taste of defensive failures remains in Sparky's mouth. Two straight losing seasons have exhausted patience. Things need to turn around in a hurry.

While there are certainly more questions than answers as the 2017 season draws near, ASU's new defensive coordinator thinks that better days are ahead.

"I just feel that we will make dramatic improvement," Bennett said. "We will become a better alignment defense. I think we’ll become a better tackling defense. I think we’ll become a better pass coverage defense. We totally redid the secondary. I think we’re more athletic. I think we’re more bought in. I think we have guys who think they are better than they are, and I like that.

"We have guys trying to prove something.”

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