What a difference a year makes.
With the sting of "3rd and 29" and a historic collapse still fresh on the minds of Arizona State fans everywhere, the Sun Devil secondary entered the 2012 season as one of the team's top question marks.
As ASU fans found out over the next 13 games, nothing puts an end of such doubt like posting the nation's third-stingiest passing defense and intercepting 21 passes, the fourth-highest total in the country.
Now a new round of questions are posed as the 2013 installment of spring practice nears: How well can an already thin unit replace two highly productive starters?
Gone are safety Keelan Johnson and cornerback Deveron Carr, and the secondary will try to find some the next wave of playmakers among a largely inexperienced group. The 2013 recruiting class has a few players who could see early playing time, including Damarious Randall and Marcus Ball, but none will be with the team for spring practice. With the pass happy Pac-12 ahead of them, ASU will need to find some answers soon.
Thankfully, the group returns two excellent starters in safety Alden Darby and cornerback Osahon Irabor. Darby has blossomed into a team leader and dynamic playmaker, having earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Irabor led the Sun Devils with 14 passes defended, and is one of the top—and most underrated—cover men in the conference. Nickelback Robert Nelson is a talented cover corner in his own right, and his interception against Arizona was one of the season's defining moments.
The team will lean on Darby and Irabor to anchor the group, but with a brutal early schedule, ASU will need to give them some help. That process begins on March 19th when spring football opens.
- S Alden Darby: 80 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks, seven passes defended
- CB Osahon Irabor: 37 tackles, one interception, 14 passes defended
- CB Robert Nelson: 16 tackles, three interceptions, six passes defended
- S Ezekiel Bishop: 10 tackles
- S Shane McCullen: Nine tackles
- S Laiu Moeakiola: 4 tackles, one interception
- CB Rashad Wadood
- S Luke Williams
- Lloyd Carrington (Pitt transfer, sat out 2012) - Eligible for spring practice
- Marlon Pollard (EMU transfer, sat out 2012) - Eligible for spring practice
- Damarious Randall - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- Solomon Means - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- Marcus Ball - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- Will Early - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- Jayme Otomewo - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- James Johnson - Class of 2013 recruit, coming in fall
- S Keelan Johnson
- CB Deveron Carr
- S Kevin Ayers
- CB Jarrid Bryant
- CB Joe Eason
- CB Devan Spann (injury)
Keep an Eye On: Laiu Moeakiola
Seeing time as a true freshman in 2012, Moeakiola wasted little time in making his presence felt, making an interception in the season opener against NAU. Unfortunately, injuries dogged him throughout the year, and he saw action in just four games.
This season, Moeakiola has a chance to earn a larger role in the defense. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, he brings a hard-hitting presence to the backline, and is continuing to develop as a pass defender. That physicality and nose for the ball will be on display this spring, where he can make a strong case to be in the rotation this fall.
Biggest Strength: Leadership
With Darby and Irabor, the secondary will boast two of the better secondary players in the Pac-12. With the defense losing Brandon Magee, Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson, ASU's defense will be looking for leaders as well as playmakers, and this is a role that Darby and Irabor fit well. Add in fellow senior Robert Nelson, and the Sun Devils have a trio of veterans to hold the line.
Their stature in the secondary also bodes well for the younger members of the unit. Players like Moeakiola, Randall and Ball will have excellent mentors as they look to become contributors to the 2013 team.
Biggest Concern: Depth
Last season, injuries ravaged the team's depth chart to the point that a few players switched over from the offensive side of the ball to help. While the team now has brought in or returns several talented players, none beyond the trio of Darby, Irabor and Nelson brings much in the way of experience.
Wadood had his 2012 season derailed by injury, but saw action as a true freshman in 2011 and could be a two-deep member if healthy. Likewise, Bishop returned last year after an ACL tear in 2011 to see some action, and brings some good hitting power to the unit. Williams ended the 2012 season behind Bishop as Johnson's backup at free safety.
Carrington comes over from Pitt after playing for Graham in 2011. He remains raw and has just two NCAA tackles on his resume, but has very good tools and has a great frame at 6-feet and 200 pounds.
What It All Means
Like many positions for the Sun Devils, the secondary has a few very good pieces followed by a lot of unknown elements.
Darby and Irabor should be very much in the mix for All-Pac-12 honors by season's end, and Nelson should provide a reliable presence at a cornerback spot, but after that, a few players must emerge.
Randall figures to have the inside track at replacing Johnson at field safety, and Ball could charge for time as a true freshman, but both won't be available until the fall. That leaves a group of players, led by Moeakiola, Wadood, Bishop and Carrington, who have a tremendous opportunity this spring to catch the coaching staff's eye and head into fall camp with a prominent role.
2013 Spring Football Primer Series