One of Arizona State's major failings last season came on defense, where the passive and overly complicated approach contributed to the team's ultimate undoing.
Along with Todd Graham's new regime came defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, who promised to bring an aggressive and attacking scheme. So far, he has delivered and then some.
Through the first two games, ASU ranks third in the nation in tackles-for-loss (10.5 per game), seventh in sacks (eight), eight in passing defense (125 yards-per-game) and most importantly, 12th in scoring defense while allowing just 10 points-per-game. Overall, the unit is ranked 24th among the 124 FBS teams, giving up just over 284 yards-per-game.
House of Sparky's Ben Haber caught up with Coach Randolph after Wednesday's practice to get his thoughts on the first two weeks, the defense's key injuries, and how he plans to stop the dangerous Missouri Tigers.
House of Sparky: Through your first two games as ASU's defensive coordinator, how would your rate the job your guys have done?
Paul Randolph: They've worked and played extremely hard. Those are the things we talk about, that they have to work and prepare. They have to have the will to prepare to win, and then naturally on game day, you play well. The guys have done an outstanding job from day one of camp to now of preparing, working hard and playing even harder. I'm really pleased with their growth in that manner. Their conditioning has been really well. Now, the main thing we're trying to improve upon each and every day is to get better fundamentally. All year long, every day, every week, all season long is to get a little bit better in our fundamental techniques.
HoS: After getting just a pair of sacks in the opener, ASU registered six against Illinois. What was the key to the turning around the pass rush?
PR: For us, it's guys understanding their fit. We had six this game and missed probably four or five. So for us, it's just a matter of understanding the pass situation. When are we pass rushing and when are we stopping the run? I think the guys have done a great job of preparing mentally for the knowledge part of the game. Secondly, it's guys understanding how they fit in the rush. Am I push? Am I contain? What am I? Everybody rushing as a unit instead of individuals.
HoS: Will Sutton is off to a fast start. How important is him playing to his potential going to be towards the overall success of the defense?
PR: The guys expect Will to play well. From last year, he played better and progressed as the season went along a year ago. He's already improving each week this year. I think them knowing they have a mainstay up front, someone who is battling every snap, someone who is a playmaker up front. There's no question it helps the guys, it energizes the guys, I know that. Naturally, with Will right now, he's getting a lot of one-on-one work, which is great for us, but what that means is the other three guys up front are doing their job or getting double teams and things like that. We talk to our guys all the time; if you're single on, you must win. Right now, Will is winning.
HoS: Mike Pennel is not having the impact many envisioned thus far, especially considering the suspension. How is he progressing and what impact do you think he can make this season?
PR: Mike has had the best week of preparation so far this year. Two really good days of work. Naturally, our belief and his belief now is that "If I prepare well, I play well". There's no question about it. I think he'll play extremely well this week, based on his week of preparation.
HoS: The depth behind the starters in the secondary has been a major concern, resulting in three offensive players switching over. How has this affected your game planning?
PR: Not much, really. We have the guys we have and we're training every single one of them. The guys are doing a great job, and naturally Coach Graham is extremely astute in paying attention to who or what on this team can help us personnel wise. We have a couple guys from offense we've moved to defense to see if they can play defensive back, and quite a few of them are. Naturally, we're excited about that, the players are excited about the opportunity to play and it's creating depth for us on the defensive side of the ball. Our guys can play hard and we can get some rotation going if we need it. We're really excited about guys being willing to work on each side of the football.
HoS: One of the biggest play makers thus far has been Chris Young. How do you evaluate his play over the first two weeks?
PR: I think Chris is progressing like he needs to. Chris has been here about a month and has worked his tail off since stepping foot on campus. He's done a really good job of getting in shape and learning the system and being the explosive player that we expect him to be. His progression has really been on point and he'll only get better as the season goes along. I just want him to keep working in practice like he has every day, and he'll play that way on Saturday.
PR: Not very. I think our guys are healthy. It was a misfortune that Carlos went down. He was having a spectacular game for anybody, much less being a freshman. We hate that Carlos got hurt. He's going to work really hard to get back. We're really excited about him. Brandon is back at full speed, so were excited there. We create depth by the way we work. Guys learn each position. Our depth is fine. We're excited to go, and we're really excited about having No. 8 back in the game.
HoS: The defense has been great within the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium. Do you think they will be able to maintain their intensity and success in a hostile SEC environment?
PR: I think it's in any road environment. It's a challenge for us, our guys see it that way, and we're going to go play hard, fast, disciplined football, which is the way we play Sun Devil football.
HoS: In preparing for this spread offense of Missouri, what have been the main points of emphasis so far during practice?
PR: Just getting off the football and getting contain on the quarterback. That's the biggest thing. They have a really great receiving corps and they got speed running backs. They are extremely talented in their skill positions. We've been working really hard in doing what we do. Just being disciplined in our execution in our system and scheme this week.
HoS: James Franklin is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation. How are you preparing the defense to contain him?
PR: Getting in shape [laughs]. Guys are just going to be more conscientious of where he is and his skillset. He can pull the ball down and run. But he's more than a capable passer. I think he can handle his own just sitting in the pocket throwing the ball around in the pocket. So for us, we have to treat him like he's a pocket quarterback and is going to drop back and throw the football. We've got to be able to pressure him and impact him.
HoS: The Tigers have a lot of speed at the skill positions, so what are the keys to limiting their big plays downfield?
PR: Just executing our defense. Being focused on doing our job and our responsibilities.